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Figs and blue cheese: A winning combination? March 31, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I was very cheered to read in this morning’s local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, that a local woman has made it to the finals in the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the world’s most lucrative cooking competition. Nadine Clark of Quakertown, PA, won a place in the finals with a recipe for her Fig and Blue Cheese Appetizer Tarts.

What especially cheered me up was the spontaneity of the whole thing: Nadine, who loves to cook but has never been a competitive cook, only submitted an entry at the last minute because her mother egged her on to do so. Unlike seasoned competitors, who often spend months or even years perfecting their recipes for cooking competitions, Nadine went to the grocery, looked around for a combination she thought would taste great, and basically threw it together in a single evening. (Of course, she refined it a bit before submitting it to the judges.)

Like yours truly, Nadine is a creative cook who prefers innovation to following recipes and rules and isn’t afraid to try anything, at least once. She thought the Fig and Blue Cheese Appetizer Tarts she created were a success, and from the sound of the recipe, I’d certainly agree. (As did the panel of 75 cooks who tested the recipe for the contest and awarded it a 4.5-star rating.)

Nadine faces tough competition on April 12th, since there are 100 finalists competing for the grand prize. But she’ll get a free trip to Orlando for the event and doubtless a lot of cooking equipment for her trouble, even if she doesn’t win a prize. (If memory serves, for example, the finalists all get to keep the stoves they cook on during the Bake-Off.) And if she should happen to win the grand prize, she’ll come home with all that good gear and—are you sitting down?—a million dollars. That would be $1,000,000 in cool cash. Enough to sit back and enjoy your recipe innovations for the rest of your life.

Of course I’ll share Nadine’s recipe with you, and you can read the whole story, “Pillsbury Bake-Off Finalist: ‘They belong together’,” by Diane Stoneback, online at www.themorningcall.com. (And see photos of the tarts themselves.) You can also check out all the finalists’ recipes at www.bakeoff.com. But good, original, and easy as the recipe is, do I think she’ll win? No.

Why?! Simple, as you’ll see if you go online and check out the photos: The tarts may be delicious, but they’re not colorful. And I think that brown presentation will ultimately cost Nadine precious points. Thinking further about this, I wondered if the tarts could be brightened visually by substituting dried cranberries or dried sour cherries, perhaps mixed with golden raisins, for the figs. I think the red-and-gold would add just the color boost that’s needed, and I think the tarts would still taste delicious. Read the original recipe below and see if you agree!

      Nadine Clark’s Fig and Blue Cheese Appetizer Tarts

3 ounces Neufchatel cheese (cream cheese with 1/3 less fat), softened to room temperature

3 ounces (3/4 cup) blue cheese, crumbled and at room temperature (Nadine recommends Maytag blue cheese for the best flavor)

1/4 cup Smucker’s Sweet Orange Marmalade

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

16 dried Mission figs, coarsely chopped (1 cup)

1 can (10.1 ounces) Pillsbury Big & Flaky Refrigerated Crescent Dinner Rolls

1 cup Fischer Chef’s Naturals Chopped Pecans

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. In a small bowl, mix Neufchatel (cream) cheese and blue cheese with a fork until well blended; set aside. In a 1-quart saucepan, stir marmalade and balsamic vinegar over low heat until mixed; stir in chopped figs. Cook over low heat 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until figs are softened. Remove from heat.

Remove crescent dough from package, but do not unroll. Cut roll of dough into 16 slices. Place slices 2 inches apart on two ungreased cookie sheets. Press the center of each slice to make a half-inch-wide indentation. Place 1 heaping teaspoon of the cheese mixture into each depression. Top the cheese with about a tablespoon of the fig mixture, then with about 1 1/2 teaspoons of chopped pecans.

Bake 15 to 19 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from cookie sheets to cooling racks; cool 10 minutes. Serve warm. Makes 16 tarts. 

That such serendipity propelled Nadine to the finals is heartwarming. I hope she takes the appetizer category by storm, and have fingers crossed for the grand prize. Meanwhile, she says that her mother wants her to make a batch of Fig and Blue Cheese Appetizer Tarts for Easter dinner. You might want to do the same.

          ‘Til next time,



Spring fling. March 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Checking out all the “healthy Easter side dishes” and “fresh spring dishes” via MSN.com this morning, I thought about what was available now in the veggie beds here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home and garden our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA.

If I really wanted to make something highlighting our fresh produce, we’d be pretty limited: chives, garlic chives, garlic, “walking” onions, scallions/green onions, sage, peppermint, and lemongrass (from the greenhouse). Arugula, cilantro, mixed lettuces and other greens, radishes, mesclun, and ‘Sugar Snap’ peas are on their way. But they’re not here yet. Our rhubarb and horseradish are coming on, but still in the bud stage; our asparagus hasn’t yet made an appearance, but we know it will any day now.

Our chickens have begun laying again, and adding fresh organic eggs to our meal plan has been as always a huge pleasure. Omelettes, fritattas, heuvos rancheros, hard-boiled eggs to slice into tossed salads, egg salad for sandwiches, pickled beet eggs, essential ingredients for cornbread, banana bread, and the like… yum. Thanks, chickens!!!

I could of course add fresh sprouts, aka microgreens, to the mix: sprouted radish, alfalfa, fenugreek, mustard, mung bean, broccoli, hemp, and so on. They’d unquestionably add texture, flavor, and nutrition to early spring salads, stir-fries, omelettes, soups, spring rolls, and much more. But could I really create a delicious spring dish that highlights our fresh produce now?

Never let it be said that Silence Dogood is not prepared to rise to a challenge. But, given the limitations of the season here, I might have to cheat just a little. How to create a dish, or even a meal, that celebrates Easter, spring, Passover, and the rising of the year, while focusing on the bounty of early spring?

Eggs are obviously a great place to start. Symbolizing birth and the circle of life, eggs promise that life and the cycle of nature will go on. Dyeing hard-boiled eggs in food coloring or in boiled onionskins, then slicing them into salads or turning them into egg salad, is a time-honored way of enjoying both the eggs and the joy of the season. We love both, but we also love eating our eggs in hot, hearty, spicy fare, especially when it’s still cold outside. Huevos rancheros and curried egg salad are great ways to enjoy your eggs and warm up at the same time.

To make an ultimate spring salad, I like to use mesclun, aka “spring mix”—colorful mixed baby lettuces, mustard greens, and other spring greens—and mix them with substantial, crunchy greens like romaine, radicchio, and endive, plus super-flavorful greens like arugula and cress. I’ll add green onions (scallions, walking onions, even tops of newly spouted garlic, garlic chives, and chives), some diced red onion, sliced radishes, baby carrots, diced bell pepper (red, orange, and/or yellow), sliced white salad turnips, and chopped Sugar Snap or snow peas.

I’ll also toss in any fresh herbs I can get my hands on—peppermint leaves are great in salads, and so is cilantro—and those sliced hard-boiled eggs. Throwing in cheese (shredded sharp white Cheddar, Parmesan, Swiss, or Asiago, or crumbled Gorgonzola or feta) is so good. Add some pepitas or sunflower seeds, toasted almond bits, or crumbled pecans or hickory nuts or black walnuts, for flavor, nutrition, and crunch. Top your salad with sprouts for extra crunch and nutrition, add salt, dried oregano, and fresh-ground pepper to taste, and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and you have the best salad known to man. (Just ask our friend Ben.)

But what about a yummy, easy-to-make, filling main course? Here’s a favorite of ours that’s easy to adapt to any season’s available produce. For spring, we like to do it this way:

               Silence’s Spring Fling

Per person, grill or roast 6 asparagus spears, 6 pesto-filled mushroom caps, 1 yellow bell pepper, cored and quartered, with quarters then cut in half, 1 small red onion, peeled and quartered, or 1/2 sweet onion, peeled and cut in chunks, 8 baby carrots, 10 Sugar Snap pea pods, ends removed, and 2 frozen* or canned artichoke hearts. I lay all these veggies on my LeCreuset heavy enameled cast-iron grill pan in the oven, drizzle or brush them with extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkle on herbs such as dried oregano and thyme, add a generous sprinkling of Trocomare, Herbamare, or RealSalt, and cook at 350 degrees F. until the veggies are tender and starting to crisp up.

You have three options for an accompaniment to your grilled/roasted veggie medley. First, you can halve red-skinned new potatoes and baby yellow-fleshed ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes, slather them with olive oil, salt, and herbs, and roast or grill them with the other veggies. Voila, a vagetable platter. Or you can cook up some penne pasta or fettucine or rice and serve the grilled/roasted veggies on a bed of pasta or rice. In any case, cut the asparagus and baby carrots into manageable forkfuls before serving, and add grated cheese of your choice after assembling the dish and immediately before serving: Asiago, Parmesan, sharp white Cheddar, mixed Italian, Swiss. Or crumbled feta or Gorgonzola or blue cheese. I like to add black olives as well for additional richness (canned black olives) or flavor punch (kalamata olives). And if you like heat, sprinkle on some crushed red pepper just before serving.

Serving up a Spring Fling with a hearty salad and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or your favorite red wine makes such a good spring meal. Prefer a white like Pinot Grigio or a dry Riesling? Go for it!

What about dessert? At this time of year, I’d say a simple flan or rhubarb custard is hard to beat. A trifle or custard cream pie with jams, jellies, fruit preserves, or even fruit butters would be a good way to enjoy the garden’s bounty while anticipating the coming season of fresh fruits and berries. (Our friend Ben has been pathetically hinting for pecan pie, but that’s not seasonal, so let’s ignore him.)

From fiddlehead ferns to cress, ramps, and spring onions, the bounty spring offers us veggie gardeners is nothing short of amazing. Wherever we live, let’s make the most of it!

                      ‘Til next time,


Best of the week at PRA, March 22-28. March 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders pick our favorite posts from the past week here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. If you’ve missed any, here’s a chance to catch up. Just search for the title in the search bar at upper right or scroll down to find the post you’re looking for. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we’ve enjoyed writing them!

Will killing coral kill us, too? Our friend Ben sheds some light on a major global problem.

The spoon wars: Dish it up! Silence takes on the folks at Cook’s Illustrated to defend her favorite stirring spoon.

Restoring the monarchy. After a couple of years of disastrous population drops, the beloved monarch butterfly is in danger. You can help. 

Eating elephant’s ears?!! Silence introduces a delicious new dish made from the leaves of a favorite ornamental plant.

Bombs away! The world’s hottest pepper’s not just for eating anymore.

Blessed are the poor. Our friend Ben blunders—we mean, plunges—into a blog controversy that’s set many garden bloggers on edge. OFB has (shock surprise) a somewhat different perspective on the issue.

Will killing coral kill us, too? March 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was horrified to read this week of the decline of the coral reefs worldwide. Scientists estimate that at least 19% of the world’s coral reefs have already been killed, with an additional 15% due to die out in the next 20 years. They predict that all the oceans’ coral reefs will be dead in 100 years.

The cause? Us. Global warming, pollution, fishing boats that drag the ocean floor, coastal development: All are implicated in the mass extermination.

Well, gee, you might be thinking, that’s too bad. Coral reefs are beautiful, and I’d really like to take the family snorkeling around one some day. But really, what’s the big deal?

How about this, for starters: Coral reefs aren’t just about the coral, but about all the fish and other creatures who make their homes in the reefs. If coral dies, it will take out almost half the fish humans eat along with it. It will destroy the livelihoods of billions of people, causing “hunger, poverty, and political instability” worldwide, according to an AP article by Brian Skoloff.

The scientists interviewed in the article were clearly appalled by the prospect of coral extinction. “Unimaginable,” “enormous economic damage,” “scary,” and “complete collapse” are just some of the views expressed. But the enormity of the crisis seemed to leave scientists at a loss to draw an appropriate analogy, a comparison that would help people who might never have a chance to even see a coral reef in their lifetimes imagine what their extinction could mean.

Our friend Ben, by contrast, is never at a loss for words. The analogy that immediately sprang to my mind was this: Imagine if all the trees on earth suddenly died. Trees are certainly one of the most beautiful things God ever put on earth. But the loss of their beauty would pale by comparison to the loss of their value.

Imagine no forests, no shade trees, no fruit trees. Imagine billions of species deprived of their homes and food sources. Imagine humans, deprived of important sources of medicine, of fruits and nuts, of fuel for warmth and cooking, of building materials, of paper (including toilet paper, tissues, napkins, paper towels, and on and on), of shade, of a source of livelihood for billions.

Imagine the earth itself, no longer contained by tree roots, washing away through erosion and silting up rivers, lakes, and other water sources. Imagine a huge loss of the oxygen we need for life because there were no trees to breathe in nitrogen and breathe out oxygen. Imagine the loss of spices like cinnamon, materials like cork, olive oil. Imagine a landscape grown silent, as birds die off with no place to nest and raise their young.

Even so, could we survive the extermination of the trees? Probably, though the loss would be incalculable. But could we survive the loss of the coral reefs?

Our friend Ben doesn’t think so. Life originated in the oceans, and our friend Ben thinks there’s still a link that binds all life on earth to the primordial waters from which we came. By creating a thousand-mile-wide island of plastic trash floating in the Pacific, by dumping tankers full of oil into the water, not just killing ocean life but flagrantly wasting a precious and dwindling resource, by insisting on eating whales and dolphins and tuna and so many other aquatic species, even if it leads to their extinction, by pretending that our heedless behavior doesn’t lead to global warming and carbon emissions, that mindless greed doesn’t drive us, we bring ourselves and all life ever closer to extinction.

It comes down to this: If we kill our oceans, all life on earth will die. Are we truly so selfish and lost that we don’t even care, as long as it doesn’t happen in our lifetime? What about our children and their children? What about all life? What about our responsibility to the Creator who made earth a paradise and gave humans the job to preserve it for the benefit of all life and the glory of God Who made it?!

Our friend Ben is sadly no more prescient or omniscient than the average bear. I have no idea what we can do to turn this oceanic tide of immanent disaster and save our beautiful, wonderful, unimaginably glorious world. I can’t say what we could do to save the coral reefs. But I can say this: Without a vital ocean, our first home, we will be lost. Then, with all life, we will die. And unlike other creatures, who live in the day-to-day, we alone will know what we have done, as we fail the great Creator and let our world fade to black.

Let us hope that someone better and smarter than our friend Ben proposes a solution, and that we as a responsible species, as part of the whole glory of creation, set aside our differences and limitations and pettiness and adopt it, before it’s too late.

God save the coral. God save us.

Bombs away! March 27, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood read with delight earlier this week that the Indian government had devised the ultimate anti-terrorist weapon, made from a garden crop we know quite well: the ‘Bhut Jalokia’*, the world’s hottest pepper. Not only do we ourselves grow ‘Bhut Jalokia’, which as the name implies originated in India, but our friend Rob can actually eat a ‘Bhut Jalokia’.

Big deal, you may be thinking, but actually, it is a pretty big deal. That’s because, in terms of hotness, ‘Bhut Jalokia’ blows every other hot pepper off the map. The heat of hot peppers is measured in something called Scoville units. Think of a thermometer, with degrees rising as the temperature gets hotter.

In the case of Scoville units, pepper heat is measured on a calibrated scale, with bell peppers at 0 Scoville units (no heat) and jalapenos at 5,000 to 8,000 Scoville units. By comparison, ‘Scotch Bonnet’ habaneros, the previous record holder, tip the hotness scales at 500,000 Scoville units. If, like us, you think jalapenos are plenty hot, you’d want to keep far, far away from even one ‘Scotch Bonnet’ (so called because the somewhat squashed appearance of the pepper reminded some imaginative soul of the traditional Scottish headgear of the same name).

So okay, a ‘Scotch Bonnet’ is about 100 times hotter than a jalapeno. Yow. The previous record holder, the ‘Red Savina Habanero’, weighs in at 577,000 Scoville units. If your mouth is on fire just contemplating this, imagine the heat of a ‘Bhut Jalokia’, at over a million Scoville units. No wonder hot sauces containing them have names like “Annihilation.”

‘Bhut Jalokia’ is enjoyed in its native province of Assam for its flavor as well as its heat, but how people whose tongues had been burned off could even determine flavor is beyond our friend Ben. I know I wouldn’t have one tastebud left if I tried one. Yet there’s Rob, popping them like candy.

Anyway, it appears that the government of India has recognized the potential of ‘Bhut Jalokia’ as a not-so-secret weapon in the war against terror. It’s devised a ‘Bhut Jalokia’-laced grenade to drive terrorists from their lairs. ‘Bhut Jalokia’ tear gas and ultimate pepper spray for self-defense are apparently also in the works. Silence says she’ll get in line for a canister, which is making OFB kinda nervous.

Anyway, the mere thought of garden produce being used for self-defense really appeals to our friend Ben and Silence, especially given our long acquaintance with overripe produce. Not being fans of soft, slimy, foul-smelling objects, OFB and Silence can easily imagine holding off attacking forces with any of the following: rotting onions, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, pumpkins, zucchini… eeeewwwww. Add some ‘Bhut Jalokia’ and a little Limburger to the mix and forget about guns and bunkers. From our POV, personal defense has just taken a great leap forward.

Gardeners, grab your weapons of mass offense! Ready… set… stink bombs away!!! 

* Also known as ‘Naga’, ‘Naga Jalokia’, and “ghost pepper,” presumably because one bite will give you a foretaste of the afterlife.

The spoon wars: Dish it up! March 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Longtime readers know that my favorite cooking magazine—the only one I’d actually be willing to pay for—is Cook’s Country. (Fortunately, I receive a subscription every year for Christmas. But I would pay for it. Really.) Cook’s Country is a spinoff of Cook’s Illustrated, which I also enjoy when I have the chance to see it. And both magazines contribute content to an e-mail of cooking tips and recipes that I receive (free) on a regular basis. Which brings me at last to the point of this post.

I expect that every serious (read: interested and enthusiastic, not humorless and clinical) cook has a favorite style of stirring spoon. These are the spoons you use to cook with when creating a dish, be it a pasta sauce or a curry, a stir-fry or refried beans. As seasoned cooks know, a good spoon can make or break a dish as easily as good ingredients can. The spoon is your partner, your assistant, your sous-chef, as it were, in perfect preparation, keeping ingredients moving, blending, and not burning or sticking as you prepare each dish.

A bad spoon can mean burned food, and if you cook from scratch and spend lots of time and money getting your ingredients just right and combining them just so, this is a culinary tragedy of, if not epic, at least depressing to enraging proportions, depending on your basic personality. I don’t know about you, but mine tends towards the enraged end of the spectrum; just ask our friend Ben. But I digress.

My own stirring spoons tend to fall into four basic categories:

* Historic. I own some truly gorgeous wooden spoons that have come down through five generations of my family. I love to look at them, but I wouldn’t dare use them. Somehow they’ve survived thus far, but God help them if I cooked with them.

* Wooden. My beloved Mama always used long-handled wooden spoons for stirring, be it batter or spaghetti sauce. I grew up assuming that wooden spoons were the way to go, and have bought many, from store models to gorgeous artisanal hand-crafted spoons. But now I don’t use them. Why? Because I’ve found that they crack, splinter, shred, and take on off-flavors. Eeeewww, I’d rather not eat wood shavings in my food, thank you, and I certainly don’t want my anise-mushroom pasta to reek of spaghetti sauce or curry.

* Silicone. I have a couple of big, deep silicone spoons. They’re great for serving, but not, in my view, for stirring. The bowls are simply too big. I’ll often use another spoon for stirring, then switch to a silicone spoon for serving.

And the winner is…

* Bamboo. Having stumbled on Joyce Chen bamboo spoons in a department store at a time when I desperately needed a new stirring spoon, I took a deep breath, paid the $3.99, and have never looked back. Bamboo spoons are just the right size and weight for stirring. Unlike wood, they don’t crack or pick up stains or off-flavors. (Though, as a precaution, I always keep my baking spoons separate from the ones used for savory dishes.) They wash up in a heartbeat. Mind you, nothing’s perfect. I used my original bamboo spoon every single day for about six years. I finally consigned it to the burn pile last week, since the edges had begun to fray a bit. But unfailing service for 365 days a year for six years for $3.99 still sounds like a bargain to me.

Anyway, I was just scrolling through my latest e-mail from Cook’s Illustrated when I saw that they’d done one of their famous tests comparing wooden spoons. Too bad they didn’t compare wooden to bamboo spoons, I thought, but clicked on the link to see what they’d found out.

Turns out, they did include one bamboo spoon in their test—the very Joyce Chen model I’d been using all these years. And guess what? It scored dead last in their ratings. What?! This is war!!!

Mind you, I’m not about to diss the winner, a Mario Batali-branded wooden spoon. Not only have I never had an opportunity to try it, but it’s so affordable, at $5.95, that I certainly think anyone with access to it should give it a try. The testers had lowered the ratings on many other wooden spoons for the same reason I’ve stopped using them—they cracked after a single use and (hand) washing. And they found, as I have, that wooden spoons tend to take up flavors and refuse to ever let them go.

So why did poor Joyce Chen’s spoon land in last place? The handle apparently snapped when the tester applied pressure. Based on my experience, I respectfully beg to take exception to this. As noted, I had used a single Joyce Chen bamboo spoon every single day for six years. From frittatas to apple butters, from chutneys to chilaquiles, from black bean soup to mushroom-cashew Stroganoff, this spoon accompanied me in my culinary endeavors, without complaint or cracking. I was far more likely to snap on any given day than my trusty bamboo spoon.

I stand by my spoon. I defy anyone to produce a better spoon. Dammit, show me that spoon! Let’s see how it holds up after 2190 continuous days of use. As our current president said of a recent challenge to his health-care program, bring it on! I double-dog dare you. (And our black German shepherd Shiloh is prepared to back me up on this.) Let the spoon wars commence!

Eating elephant’s ears?!! March 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, and no, I’m not talking about ripping the ears off elephants and grilling them, or smoking them and giving them to your dog. Instead, I’m talking about the water-loving tropical plant, Colocasia esculenta, popularly known as “elephant ears” because some moron apparently thought the big leaves resembled the triangular ears of the beloved pachyderm. As if.

“Esculenta” does imply edible, though, and it turns out that this particular elephant’s ear produces the tubers revered in the tropics as taro, which is believed to be the world’s oldest cultivated crop.

Taro tubers are used to make poi, a tropical staple that, as I understand it, looks, tastes, and feels like paste. Eeeewww. (But to be fair, as far as I can tell, the same could be said of cream of wheat, which people apparently also eat with pleasure. I suppose that poi-lovers, confronted with my own beloved Southern specialty, grits, might pronounce the same judgment on it. Naturally, we grits-lovers, cream-of-wheat-lovers, and poi-lovers would doubtless all defend our favorites to the death.)

But I digress. I bring this up because I was recently in my favorite Indian grocery, Rice & Spice in scenic Emmaus, PA, looking for fenugreek leaves so I could make a few recipes from the cookbook Modern Spice by Monica Bhide. Until encountering Monica’s book, I’d never heard of fenugreek leaves as a culinary ingredient, though I’d enjoyed fenugreek seeds for years. Sure enough, Rice & Spice came through; I left the store with a large bunch of fresh fenugreek leaves.

But of course I couldn’t resist wandering around while I was in there, breathing in the fantastic aromas of spices and incense. I stopped to admire the bin of fresh ginger “roots” (actually rhizomes, think iris), which are always huge, plump, and fresh. And next to them, I saw a bin full of dirty, hairy tubers that were starting to sprout. Mind you, “dirty and hairy” isn’t about to stop me on the road to culinary discovery. Things can always be washed and peeled. Perhaps this was a delicious, aromatic cousin of ginger. Picking up one of the tubers, I held it to my nose, expecting that hot, lemony, gingery smell to explode through my sinuses. Instead, I smelled… dirt.

Mercifully, the proprietor appeared just then and asked if I was looking for anything in particular. “Do you have fenugreek leaves?” I asked, immediately confusing the issue by brandishing the offending tuber and asking, “Oh, and what’s this?”

“It’s elephant’s ear,” she replied.

“Uh.” All I could think of were the ornamental elephant ears beloved of water gardeners such as yours truly. “Uh.” (Stunned by this revelation, I was not at my most astute.) I hate having to resort to the “Oh, duh!!” question, but in this case, it was ask the question or never know, so, oh, duh: “What do you use it for?”

“We use it to make patra.” Seeing my continuing burnt-out-bulb expression, she went to the freezer case, grabbed a box, and said “Here. Try this. It’s really good.”

The box cost a whopping $1.99. I was game. Once home, I saw that it’s the elephant ear leaves, not the tuber, that are used to make patra, aka “patra leaf roulade.” (The ingredients list calls them “alvi leaves.”) The brand is Bhagwati’s Recipes of Gujarat, named for the founder of Deep Foods, which you’ll doubtless be familiar with if you patronize the Indian section of your grocery’s shelves or frozen foods areas. The dish is described as “Spiced leafy roulade sauteed to a soft texture then garnished with shredded coconut and fresh coriander.” The half-inch-thick, 1 1/2-inch-wide wheels of patra looked like cross-sections of a really elaborate wrap.

I already had leftover dal and palaak paneer at home that I’d made a bit earlier in the week, and I’d bought some house-made samosas while at Rice & Spice, so I figured it would be easy enough to make some basmati rice, heat up the leftovers, and serve a delicious Indian meal with yogurt, mint chutney, tamarind-date chutney, hot tamarind sauce, and homemade peach-apricot chutney as sides, heating up the samosas and patra rounds to serve as appetizers. But I hit a snag: The only directions on the patra box were for microwaving, and we don’t have a microwave.

Not to be daunted by mere directions, I put the patra rounds in the toaster oven with the samosas. And once everything was hot, I served them up with the tamarind sauce and mint chutney.

Yum!!!!! Who’d have thought elephant ears were even edible, much less good? Not me. But these patra leaf roulades were delicious. I can’t wait ’til the next time I’m in Emmaus and can stop by for another box (or two).

Meanwhile, if you garden and grow elephant ears, and are now contemplating trying to make your own dishes with the leaves and/or tubers, a warning: I don’t know about the leaves, but the tubers are apparently poisonous until they’ve been cooked or soaked. And poi fans, please: If you have any good poi recipes, let me hear from you!

                ‘Til next time,


Blessed are the poor. March 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has been belatedly and somewhat bemusedly following a dust-up in the garden blogging community. From what I can gather, it began when a blogger wrote a post saying, in effect, that if you couldn’t afford the services of a landscape architect to design and install your vegetable garden and a professional gardener to maintain it, you shouldn’t bother gardening at all, because your garden was going to be ugly. Rather than offending the sensibilities of those who could afford said services, you should find some other, quote, “hobby,” preferably one that could be done indoors where others wouldn’t be offended by your shabbiness and presumed lapse of taste. Needless to say, a veritable firestorm of protest erupted in the gardening blogosphere.

Our friend Ben didn’t find this at all distressing. Though I somehow missed the original post, having read a number of follow-up posts and comments, I think on the whole that the entire episode was a very healthy thing. I say that because it caused a lot of gardeners to think deeply about the reasons why they garden. And, thank God, most of them—at least the ones I read—concluded that they gardened for themselves, because they loved gardening, and that ultimately, whatever it looked like, they really loved their own garden. I didn’t see one person saying that their goal in gardening was to cause car crashes in front of their house because the drivers were frantically taking photos with their cell phones while texting their gardener to “Get this pergola and this fountain and install a border that looks exactly like this by the time I get home!”

There was, however, something I found terribly distressing about the whole incident. And that was the number of bloggers and commenters who felt obligated to apologize for being poor. This made me depressed and sad. Apologize to the well-to-do for failing to achieve their level of opulence?! Mercy. What could have brought about such a state of affairs? Our friend Ben thinks I have the answer, and it lies with the extreme camps in our politically and culturally divisive times. Let’s take a look at them.

Residing comfortably in Camp #1 are the self-righteous wealthy, typified by folks who profess to justify their affluence through their religion. These types claim that the reason they have so much money is that God has smiled on them personally for their great virtue, and that people who are poor are poor because they’re being punished by God for some undisclosed sin. This attitude not only spares these people from having to actually do anything to alleviate the suffering of the less fortunate, it even prevents them from having to feel sorry for the poor, since after all, their problems are their fault.

Such appalling hypocrisy is not just despicable, it’s unChristian. It was Christ Himself who said “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” A clearer distinction could hardly be made. Jesus also instructed His disciples that, if they had two cloaks, they should give one to him who had none. He most pointedly did not say “If you have two cloaks, you’d better grab the cloaks off everyone you meet and stockpile them, since hey, you can never have too many cloaks, and besides, if that guy deserved to have a cloak, you wouldn’t have been able to take it.”

Now, let’s stroll over to Camp #2. This one is occupied by folks who preach the gospel of the “Law of Attraction,” exemplified by—though by no means exclusive to—The Secret. The Law of Attraction boils down to this: If you want it badly enough, you’ll get it. Basically, all you have to do is close your eyes, click the heels of your battered sandals together three times, and chant “I want money. Lots of money!” and gold will rain down from the skies.

If it doesn’t? Bad karma, dude. You just didn’t want it badly enough. Your job’s been outsourced after 25 years? Yo, you never really wanted that job. Your factory, bank branch, pharmacy has closed, dumping you and hundreds of others in the street? You just didn’t want that paycheck badly enough. It’s, once again, your fault.

Our friend Ben can think of lots of reasons why people should apologize, such as bad behavior, whether it’s greed and conspicuous overconsumption or shamelessly taking advantage of people’s hopes and fears. But the simple fact of being poor isn’t one of them. Hold your head up and wear those battered sandals with pride. You’ll be following in footsteps that are much larger than your own.

This week’s wacky blog searches. March 24, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Once again, Poor Richard’s Almanac has been inundated with, shall we say, unusual blog searches. Here are some of the latest to pass over the virtual transom, with, of course, our comments. (Searches in bold, comments following.)

does Ben Franklin want appreciation from: Old Ben got plenty of appreciation during his long and celebrated life; he became the most famous man of his age. Our friend Ben feels sure that Dr. Franklin would appreciate some belated recognition from the British Parliament and Royal Family, and of course he’s probably still lobbying up in Heaven for the turkey to replace the bald eagle as our national symbol, but otherwise, I think he’s quite happy with his status as best-loved Founding Father.

why does ginger give you a rash: Well, it doesn’t give any of us a rash, and we’ve never heard of it giving anybody a rash, but readers, if you have answers, we’d love to hear them.

pumpkin seed almanac: Um, that’s a bit too specialized for us. We’re enthusiastic fans of pumpkin seeds (aka pepitas) for many reasons: They taste great, a heaping tablespoonful makes a satisfying snack, they add crunch to salads, and they’re reputed to whittle one’s waistline and help combat metabolic syndrome, that fearful precursor of Type 2 diabetes. Silence Dogood and OFB try to include them as mid-morning snacks and salad toppings every day. Our dog Shiloh and parrot Plutarch love them even more than we do. But an entire pumpkin-seed almanac? We think not. However, it would make a great title for a novel: The Pumpkin Seed Almanac. Hmmm… 

test iq einstein gardens: Uh, say what?! Einstein and IQ, okay. Einstein and gardens, not so much. At least, as far as we know. If anybody knows that Einstein was a gardener, we definitely want to hear about it! (Hey, if Vito Corleone could lurch around in his tomato garden, surely Einstein might have grown world champion-size cabbages, beets, and onions down in Princeton.)

silence is not always quotes yellow: Silence was not at all amused by this search phrase (“Is someone implying that my opinions and outlook are jaundiced?!!”) until she realized that it must refer to that old axiom, “Silence is golden.” We presume that the searcher is a believer in speaking out, a course we advise against even while doing it far too often for our own good.

raccoon gardening: Hmmm, an innovative approach. In general, none of us here at PRA welcomes the arrival of raccoons, which eat the fish and plants in our water gardens and generally make nuisances of themselves. But if they offered to garden, we’d be happy to have them, as long as they agreed to keep their paws off our fish.

what is the best gazing ball to keep haw: Er. Don’t you just hate it when the query gets cut off at the critical point? Let’s assume that this particular search was for “what is the best gazing ball to keep away the Evil Eye,” which was, believe it or not, the original purpose of gazing balls. The answer is a silver gazing ball. Just in case you were wondering.

almanac kill onions: Please refrain from blaming your gardening failures on us.

garlic clove mortal and pestel: Like all flesh, garlic cloves are indeed mortal, an appropriate reflection for the Easter season. But should you wish to consume your garlic rather than lamenting its mortality, we suggest that you look into a mortar and pestle instead.

Rounding up recipes. March 23, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. With spring sprung, seeds sown, and herbs and veggies beginning to make an appearance in our garden beds, my thoughts are turning to the recipes of spring.

One of our friend Ben’s and my favorite spring lunches is ‘French Breakfast’ radishes sliced and spread on slices of buttered crusty baguette, then salted and served with sharp white Cheddar, scallions (green onions), and kalamata olives on the side, often with a simple salad of spring greens, such as arugula and mesclun, with grapefruit segments, dressed simply with balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, and salt (we like RealSalt). Yum!!!

Spring favorites like ‘Sugar Snap’ and snow peas begin to make regular and much-appreciated appearances at our dinner table, both as sides and in stir-fries. New potatoes suddenly seem more suitable dinner fare than baked potatoes. As more of our herbs appear, I begin thinking of harvesting peppermint for tea and salad (fresh peppermint can really wake up a salad!), sage for ravioli with a brown butter-sage sauce, garlic chives for salads and stir-fries, chives for those potatoes and carrots, and cilantro for all our favorite Mexican and Indian dishes.

Now that our chickens are laying eggs again, I’ve even started contemplating making egg salad and potato salad, in addition to hardboiling those delicious eggs for slicing in salads. And as the time draws closer for moving all our tender container plants out of the greenhouse and onto the deck for the growing season, I can’t help but plan to plant some ginger root in our in-ground bed in the greenhouse and see if I can’t grow my own ginger this year. (I already have lemon grass, cardamom, purple artichokes, Aloe barbadensis/vera, and a dwarf banana growing in there; why not ginger?)

Our friend Ben and I are huge fans of greens, herbs, alliums, and radishes, and grow as many of all of the above as we can manage to squeeze into our garden beds. In addition to topping baguettes with them, we enjoy radishes in salads, eaten whole with a little salt as a snack, and in a delicious dip. I’ll give you that recipe in a second, but first, let me get to the point of this post. Which is, that people are always asking me for recipes, since they know I love cooking and have an extensive recipe and cookbook collection.

Needless to say, I’m happy to oblige. Whether it’s my brother asking how to prepare the venison a well-meaning colleague bestowed on his family for Christmas, blog readers requesting the recipe for the famous and irresistible fruitcake prepared by Mma Potokwane in Alexander McCall Smith’s beloved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, or my dear friend Huma regretting that her mother’s fabulous recipe for curried lambs’ brains had been lost, I consider it a challenge to see what I can find. (Yes, I did find recipes for venison and curried lambs’ brains. And yes, I did e-mail Mr. McCall Smith and suggest that he add The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Cookbook, including of course the famous fruitcake recipe, to his celebrated series, and was told that his publisher had also suggested this, but that the author was rather busy writing the many novels in his many series and hadn’t had time to get to it yet. Alas.)

In case you recall that I’m a dedicated vegetarian who’d as soon eat nails as meat-related anything, including the gelatin that seems to pervade the most unlikely foods, including many brands of yogurt, you might wonder why I’d spend time checking on recipes for venison, lambs’ brains, and the like.

But I refuse to stand in judgment on folks who eat meat, including my own beloved OFB as well as my family. That’s their decision. I have no doubt that they engage in practices that benefit the planet, from tithing in church to visiting the elderly incarcerated in nursing homes to cooking meals for the homeless in soup kitchens or delivering Meals on Wheels for the homebound to donating money to preserve the rainforest or buying organic food, supporting their local CSA and/or food co-op, or buying sustainably grown coffee from a village cooperative. We all must make the decision about what we can do and then do it. I like to think that, by being vegetarian, I spare animals from slaughter and promote local vegetable and fruit producers. But I also think that folks who support local, organic, sustainably raised meat animals are doing their share to give those animals a good life, a life they would never have had if everyone was vegetarian like me. As the saying goes, to each his own way of earning fame.

So if you’re looking for a recipe and having trouble finding it, I’ll be happy to help out, or share my own version. And meanwhile, here’s that radish dip recipe. Welcome spring!

            Spring Radish Dip

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 tablespoon chopped chives or scallions (green onions)

1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill leaves (not seeds)

1-2 tablespoons prepared horseradish, drained

1 cup finely chopped or grated radishes

shredded or crumbled cheese (sharp white Cheddar, feta, or gorgonzola), if desired

salt to taste (we like RealSalt)

Mix all ingredients, cover, and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Stir well before serving. Serve on slices of baguette, rye, or pumpernickel, with crackers, or as a dip with carrot or celery sticks, red, yellow, or orange bell pepper strips, broccoli florets, Romaine, endive, or radicchio leaves, or cherry tomatoes.

               ‘Til next time,