May 30, 2012

Gardening Doesn't Produce Free Food.

I showed some friends a picture I took last Saturday of Grace holding a long braid of garlic that we had recently harvested from our garden.

"That'll be all the garlic you'll need all winter!" commented one friend, "And it's free!"

Maybe I was just having a rough day, but boy, did that get under my skin!  No, food from a home garden is nowhere near "free!" 

The braid in question contained somewhere between three and four dozen bulbs, and it accounted for about two-thirds of our garlic harvest.  If you can buy two or three bulbs at the farmers market for a $1, that long braid is about $15 to $20 worth of garlic, for "free."  Except that I paid for the garlic that was planted.  I think we planted about 80 cloves.  Figuring an average of 10 cloves per head and a cost of 50 cents per head, that was a $4 initial expense.  My friend might say that the initial cost is insignificant compared to the outcome.  And I'd agree.  In the case of garlic, I'll even say that the money spent on water and on maintaining the soil is insignificant (but that certainly isn't insignificant for my summer crops).  What is not factored in is the time and the physical energy that goes into gardening.

Garlic, planted in late fall and harvested in late spring, is a relatively low-maintenance crop.  No watering is necessary for most of it's growing period, but as the weather got warmer and the winter storms were fewer, I found myself watering the garlic bed at least once a week.  And then there was the watching, checking and waiting for the greens to fall over and brown, showing signs that the bulbs below the ground had fully formed and were ready for harvest.  (Some of our garlic matured before the rest of it, so I was checking and waiting a few times a week for almost a month.)  Then there was the harvesting. (This took about half an hour.)  And the trouble of finding a "cool, dark, dry" spot to dry the garlic.  (Impossible in my house, so it sat on a patio table out of direct sunlight for a few days and then on the kitchen counter for another few days, waiting for me to find time to braid it for storage.)  Finally there was the cleaning, trimming of the roots and braiding.  (Another half an hour or so.)

Maybe I feel like I am saving money when I harvest fresh vegetables and herbs from my garden, but I certainly don't feel like I am saving money when I prepare and plant the beds. 

This weekend, in clearing space in the beds for summer crops, I harvested about about 10 pounds of red onions (20 nice-sized specimens), a couple dozen smaller white onions with the green tops still attached, about a pound of walnut-sized or smaller garlic and onions that were missed in my first onion and garlic harvesting, two handfuls of baby carrots, 6 small beets, a bunch of parsley, a couple handfuls of baby mustard greens, the greens from a cauliflower plant that never managed to form a head, some dill seeds, a teaspoon of poppy seeds and a half-pint of baby yukon gold potatoes.  My rough estimate of the retail value of my harvest: $16.  (I have a variety of white onion that is still maturing and will be harvested in a few weeks.  The seeds from the rest of the poppies should also be ready to harvest in a few weeks.)
Poppies drying, onions, zucchini, melons

This weekend I spent $35 on fresh compost to replant those beds--we compost religiously, but still didn't produce enough finished compost to refresh the three raised beds--and $69 on materials to build better trellises for this summer's cucumbers and green beans.  I spent a good six or seven hours in garden.  Half of this time was hauling compost from my pickup to the garden and digging the compost into the beds.  The rest of the work was less back-breaking:  Harvesting the vegetables, weeding the melon patch, transplanting volunteer tomato plants that had sprouted up in the melon patch to their new home in Bed #3 (sadly, it does not appear that they survived the move), transplanting thyme to a flower border near the melon patch (it appears to be doing well), re-potting the herbs that I grow in pots and cleaning and braiding garlic and onions.  Jason spent more than one afternoon building trellises.  I also spent an hour picking cherries with Grace and Abby at my mom's house.  That's a significant investment of time.

So why do I garden if it costs me so much time, physical energy and--yes--money?

  • Because I love the convenience of having fresh herbs so close to my kitchen.  
  • Because I prefer this type of exercise to something more competitive or aerobic.  
  • Because I like to cook, and gardening is interconnected with cooking.  Sometimes, when I'm having difficulty finding the motivation to cook dinner, a fresh head of lettuce from the garden or some chard that needs to harvested before it gets too big is just the inspiration I need.  
  • Because producing my own food gives me a deeper appreciation for food in general and for the workers who produce my food.  Four dollars for a basket of cherries at the farmer's market doesn't seem so expensive when you've experienced the time and energy involved in picking your own.  
  • Because sometimes gardening is the "alone time" that I need and sometimes gardening means quality time with my kids.  
  • Because gardening teaches us patience and gives us a sense of place in the world.  
  • Because there is genuine hope and faith to be found in the simple act of planting a seed.

May 24, 2012

White Sourdough Bread

My experience with sourdough is admittedly limited, but my family likes this particular sourdough bread so much, that I wanted to share it with you.  It is from the cookbook Jason brought me from Ireland, The Ballymaloe Bread Book by Tim Allen.

Do you like Amazon?  I do.  As much as I believe in supporting the local guy, I really appreciate Amazon's "Look Inside" Feature.  I can spend hours flipping through all sorts of books to see if I like the author's writing style.  And if I'm considering buying a cookbook, I certainly try a recipe from the Look Inside portion that's available on Amazon before I actually buy the book.  A few months ago, I'd heard about a particular "make staples from scratch" cookbook.  I fell in love when I read the author's introduction to the book.  I really enjoyed her writing style and I was disappointed when I got to the end of the preview available online.  I considered ordering it, or calling our local bookstore to see if they had it in stock (or were able to order it for me).  But then I tried the recipe the author wrote for an Everyday Bread.  And it was a flop.  I wholeheartedly acknowledge that I may have made a mistake, but I do bake yeast breads quite a bit, so to foul up a recipe for a basic white bread didn't seem very likely.  I decided not to get the book.  Am I "cutting my nose off to spite my face?"  Is it possible that there are dozens of wonderful recipes in that book that I am missing out on?  Absolutely, but that's my personal policy about buying cookbooks.  I'll keep an eye out for the book at the library.

I was so pleased when I found a book with a similar theme this week on Amazon, The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods you Can Stop Buying and Start Making by Alana Chernilla.  Look Inside here or check out Alana's blog here. I was so sucked in by the excerpt I read--and so in need of a trusty lunch box treat--that I made her Car Snack #2 (granola bars) as soon as I read the recipe.  I've made granola bars before.  I've made a good version and a version so dull that it ended up getting really frost-bitten in the back of the freezer.  But these were so simple and quick to throw together (Seriously--five minutes of work plus half an hour in the oven), and they taste to me like what the color golden would taste like if it had a flavor.  And how could it not? Butter and honey (I substituted honey for the Lyle's syrup) with oats and slivered almonds?  This cookbook is on my wish list!

Sadly, an excerpt of The Ballymaloe Bread Book is not available on Amazon.  But another way I like to whittle away time on Amazon is by reading the reviews of books I already own.  I am intrigued by what other people eat and how they cook (and what grows in their vegetable garden).  I like to read what other people say about the book, recipes they wholeheartedly recommend, recipes that didn't work out, features they feel are so important that they want to encourage total strangers to buy the book, things that people didn't like about the book.  I feel a bit defensive when someone writes a negative review about a book that I thoroughly enjoy.

One reviewer complained that the ingredients in Tim's recipes are measured by weight, and that she had to convert them to volume to be able to bake from the book.  I scoffed at that a bit.  C'mon, lady.  This book was written for a European audience.  *Most* bakers know that in other parts of the world, bakers measure with weights, not volumes.  Most serious bakers in the States are switching to weights too.  Honestly I was still using measuring cups for most recipes, until I started baking with this book.  I pulled out my cheap little scale (it's plastic, not-digital, and only weighs up to a pound at a time) and I am a convert. You see, when you measure flour using a weight, you know you've measured the same amount that the recipe-writer measured.  Sure, you may need to add a dash more here or there, but experience will tell you when to add flour or liquid, and you don't have the awkward variable that a measurement of  "6-7 cups of flour" can be.  That said, I agree with the reviewer, if you have no interest in baking using weights, then I wouldn't recommend this cookbook.

I've baked four or five recipes from this cookbook.  The one oddity I've noticed is that the ingredients aren't always listed in the order in which they are used. This can a bit confusing.  Normally (maybe this is an American thing?) recipes list the ingredients in the order in which they are used.  Another thing that's a bit frustrating-slash-confusing are instructions such as these, "Preheat the oven to..." followed by, "Combine water, flour and sourdough starter... Let rest 12-24 hours."  Again, not something a cook can't work around, but the kind of thing that causes me to reread the recipe a more times than I normally would during the procedure.

So, though I haven't altered any of the ingredients, I've rewritten Tim's wonderful sourdough bread recipe here.

White Sour Dough
This is not a crusty, chewy, ultra-sour bread akin to what one would find served alongside a bowl of fish chowder.  No, this is what I call an Everyday Bread, a crisp crust with a soft interior, and a mild, but pleasing sour flavor.  It is suitable for a variety of uses: sandwiches, french toast, toasted and served with butter or jam, dried and made into croutons. 
Makes 2 loaves.

(5 minutes, 12-24 hour rest)

250grams / 9 oz sourdough starter
6 fl oz warm water
250 grams / 9 oz all purpose or bread flour
1 teaspoon sugar

Stir together the warm water and starter in a large mixing bowl or other vessel.  Stir in flour and sugar.  The mixture doesn't have to be smooth; the fermentation will work out the lumps.  Cover with a tea towel and let rest 12-24 hours.  (All three times that I have made this I have let the sponge sit close to 24 hours, making the sponge one evening, and continuing with the recipe the following evening.)

(10-15 minutes mixing and shaping, 3-8 hours rising, 35-40  minutes baking)

all of the sponge
5 fl oz warm water
2 tablespoons olive oil
500 grams /1 lb 2 oz all purpose or bread flour
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
50g / 2 oz / 4 tablespoons butter at room temperature

Transfer the dough into the bowl of an electric mixer (if it isn't there already).  Add warm water and olive oil and blend on low speed one minute.  Add flour, sugar, salt and butter.  Beat on low, then medium speed to until a shaggy dough is formed.

Switch to a dough hook (or turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and work by hand) and knead for a few minutes until light and pliable.  This is a moist dough and it comes together fairly quickly.  Don't succumb to the temptation to add more flour.  The oil and butter should keep it from being too sticky to work with.

Split the ball of dough into two portions.  Shape each portion into a free-form loaf.  I use my hands to flatten the ball on the counter top, then roll it up, tucking the seam underneath.  Place both loaves on a large oiled baking sheet, cover with a clean tea towel and let rise.  The original recipe calls for a rising time of 5-6 hours in a warm location or overnight in a cool spot.  When it is 90 degrees outside, my kitchen is very warm, resulting in a shorter rise time, closer to three hours.  The dough will puff up, but not necessarily double in size.  If your loaf seems a little squat, don't be nervous, this loaf tends to have a good "oven spring," much more pronounced than any of the other sourdough recipes I've tried.

Toward the end of the rising time, preheat your over to 450F (230C).  Slash the tops of the loaves in three places with a sharp knife and bake 35-40 minutes, until the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.  (I throw a handful of ice cubes into the bottom of the oven when I put the bread in.  The steam created by the melting ice is said to help with oven spring and browning.)

Cool loaves on a wire rack.  I generally slice and freeze my breads after they have cooled completely, but this bread should keep just fine at room temperature for 3-5 days.

May 20, 2012

I Want to Bake Cakes in Mason Jars

We celebrated my father's birthday this weekend with an overnight stay at a quaint Bed and Breakfast in El Dorado County.  Me, being me, I offered to bake the birthday cake. My dad, being my dad, wanted Boston Cream Pie. I assumed the rest of the group wanted Boston Cream Pie as well, because a celebration honoring my father wouldn't be complete without Boston Cream Pie. Boston Cream Pie, a yellow cake with a custard filling and a chocolate frosting, requires refrigeration. So I planned to make a triple layer cake, store it all day in styrofoam with dry ice in a big cardboard box that I happened to have, and serve it after dinner.

I made the cake layers last weekend using Smitten Kitchen's recipe for a 1-2-3-4 Cake, wrapping them in plastic and freezing until Friday's late night cake assembly.  This cake recipe, by the way, is as close to a "perfect yellow cake" as I have ever come.  Buttery and sweet, without being devoid of real flavor, moist and springy to the touch, it was tremendously difficult to stop carving off "tasting scraps."

Friday night Jason went to the store to pick up dry ice while I made the custard filling and the ganache frosting. For some reason I chose the Vanilla Custard Filling for Cakes recipe in Joy of Cooking. I recall using the recipe years ago as a filling for Cream Puffs. Next time I would choose a different custard, one that is thickened with cornstarch, not all-purpose flour. The custard cooked on the top of a double boiler for the better part of an hour, but still had an uncooked flour taste to it. I was grateful that that flavor didn't come through too much in the finished cake, but still, I'll find a different recipe next time.

For the ganache I used another Smitten Kitchen recipe. A winner. (Incidentally, I've made the cake pictured in that post before: rich chocolate cake, marshmallow frosting and ganache filling; it's a big hit.  It's also the chocolate cake recipe that I prefer for another big hit, Chocolate Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting.)

Something about the physics of stacking two layers of cake on a custard didn't work; as soon as I finished spreading the ganache the darn thing split in half. I yelled for Jason to grab me some drinking straws and I stuck them through the cake to try to preserve its shape and prevent further sliding, but it was no use. We were scheduled to leave for the party in 12 hours and the cake was fairly ruined.

"You could make a new cake tomorrow morning." Jason suggested.

I agreed I could make cupcakes in the morning, but that seemed like a lot of work. And a lot of wasted cake.

I went off the my room to mope about it. But then a thought came to me. All those hours spent perusing random food blogs pay off in emergencies such as this. Mason jars! Individual trifles served in half-pint mason jars. I could cube up to cake--really just hack it into bite-size pieces--divide the pieces into mason jars, put the lids on for storage, and then at service time spray the tops with whipped cream, garnish with raspberries and call it trendy. Awesome!

And that's just what we did. Farmers Market fresh raspberries and whipped cream from a spray bottle cover a multitude of sins. The trifles were well-received, but next time why not just bake individual cakes in mason jars, then fill with custard sauce and top with chocolate? It's certainly not an original idea. Google "cakes in mason jars." There are a great deal of blog posts and recipes. And I think they just might be my next kitchen adventure.

May 16, 2012

My Latest Adventure: Sourdough Bread

I've been wanting to tell you about my Sourdough Bread Adventure for a couple weeks, but life is busy and I haven't had a chance to work on my sourdough much, let alone perfect any recipes or type them up.  Since I made my sourdough starter a few weeks ago, I've baked bread four times.  That's a start, right? All the loaves have had different characteristics and they have all been pleasing in their own way.

First, the Starter

I've been reading about sourdough starter for, well, years.  I've read  various blogs and websites and one of my current favorite cookbooks, DIY Delicious by Vanessa Barrington, has a nice chapter on sourdough bread making.  Most recently I turned to the blog of the good bakers at King Arthur Flour.  They've got to know their stuff, right?  Plus, I appreciate that in a blogosphere saturated with both stylized food photography and photography so horrible that the bloggers should be ashamed to post it, King Arthur Flour's blog is full of utilitarian, well-lit, genuinely useful photos.  Did I count right? Sixteen photos of a sourdough starter at various stages in this post alone?

I made my sourdough starter using just flour and water, four ounces of each at room temperature.  I mixed them up in a 1 quart plastic yogurt container, covered it with a cloth napkin and let it sit outside in the shade for a couple days, bringing it in at night.  Within three days it was bubbly and had a pleasant alcoholic smell.  Its difficult to describe, but it's the kind of smell that fills your nostrils and begs you to bake... or relax and have a glass of wine.  Hence, I found myself baking four different breads in the span of a couple weeks.
 Second, the Breads
My First Attempt: Good flavor, but a little flat

I started with a recipe from King Arthur Flour for Extra Tangy Sourdough Bread.  It wasn't the "Extra Tangy" that drew me in; I've never been a fan of sour sourdough breads.  It was the fact that the recipe did not call for additional yeast, which I am almost completely out of, which is what finally motivated me to make a sourdough starter after a couple years of reading about it.

I made the recipe just as written, except that I did not add "sour salt" (citric acid), which I really should have on hand for cheese making, but...  And that my rise times were a little longer than the recipe suggests, simply so that I could fit the rising and baking into my schedule. I fed my starter Friday evening, mixed the dough some time on Saturday, shaped the loaves Sunday morning and baked them after church. 

My first batch (2 loaves) turned out flatter than the loaf pictured on their website.  It was delicious bread, with a pleasing, but not overwhelming, sour taste.  We liked it a lot, but we agreed that my next batch needed to be more than two inches high in order to be a suitable shape for sandwiches.

 My Second Attempt:  A stronger sour flavor, a moist interior, a chewy crust

So I used the same recipe again, just starter, flour, water, sugar and salt, but this time instead of dividing the dough into two loaves and baking on a sheet, I preheated my dutch oven in the oven, and when it was time to bake, I 'carefully' transferred the whole ball of dough, which took it's second rise on a piece of parchment, into the dutch oven.  I baked it with the lid on for 25 minutes, then I took the lid off and baked it another 15 minutes.  The sides of the dutch oven kept the bread a reasonable size for sandwiches and having the whole thing enclosed resulted in a really chewy, crisp crust.  The interior of the bread was moist, almost as if it could have baked another five minutes or so.  (Some kind of kitchen thermometer would be handy, wouldn't it?) Again we liked it.  I sliced it and froze it, and we're still using it for garlic toast and that type of thing.

My Third Attempt: Something with the texture of a Classic Sandwich Loaf

Next I wanted to try a different recipe, maybe something less chewy, more tender.  Jason brought me The Ballymaloe Bread Book by Tim Allen, when he returned from his recent trip to Ireland.  There's an excellent recipe for a thin, almost cracker-like pizza dough in that book.  I think I've made the recipe (which makes 8 rounds of dough) three times since Jason gave me the book a month and a half ago.  Yes, we like it that much! So I naturally turned to the sourdough chapter in that book next. I made the White Sourdough Bread.  (I'll post the recipe soon, but I want to make it a couple more times first,so that I'llhave more to say about it.)  Like the pizza recipe that we've enjoyed so much, it contains a few tablespoons of butter, which yields a more tender crumb than my previous two virtually fat-free loaves.  This bread is the closest I've come to a classic white sandwich bread.  It's tender, soft enough that it doesn't clog the works when you try to swallow bites of a sandwich, but strong enough to hold up against the filling in a sandwich.  This is probably our favorite of the sourdough breads.

My Fourth Attempt: Sourdough meets whole grain

I wanted to make a loaf with some whole grain goodness.  I'm one of those moms who sneaks whole grains into most of my baking, much to the chagrin of my husband, so it seemed out of character to be baking with so much all-purpose flour in the last few loaves. Luckily, Tim has a recipe for Brown Bread just opposite his perfect recipe for White Sourdough Bread.  This one lacks butter and olive oil.  It's just starter, a mixture of white flour and whole wheat flour, a little sugar and salt.  The recipe refers to the flours as "strong white flour" and "strong brown flour."  I assume the American equivalents might be bread flour and whole wheat flour, or maybe a high-gluten whole wheat flour, but I used all purpose flour and a mix I ground myself: about 4 parts Massa Organics wheat berries with two parts millet and 1/4 part flax seed.  This bread is baked in two loaf pans, making it the perfect size and shape for toast.  I like the flavor of whole grains and I like the virtuous feeling of serving them to my children, so we went through these loaves quickly.  They are a little too dense for sandwiches though; it is more of a toasting bread.

Next time I bake whole grain bread, I'd like to use Tim's recipe for White Sourdough--the tender one with the butter--and just substitute in some whole wheat flour and some high-gluten flour for part of the "strong white flour."  Don't worry though, Jason, the dough for my next batch of the White Sourdough Bread is already rising on the counter, so the freezer will be stocked with both "your" bread and "mine" soon.

May 4, 2012

May Garden Inventory

We've gotten a good harvest of cilantro, parsley and dill from Bed #1.  All of which are starting to bolt.  It's probably time to pull them out and plant some summer crops.  But I see so many insects enjoying the blossoms on the broccoli and cilantro plants, that I'm leaving them in until the poppies at the other end of the bed bloom (any day now). There are still some beets, carrots and green onions ready for harvest in this bed.  Not a lot, but some.

From Bed #2 we've been harvesting garlic chives, regular chives and spring onions.

From Bed #3 we've harvested thyme.  The rest of the bed is planted with garlic, which should be ready for harvest in the next month.  

We recently had some trees removed from our backyard, which should mean more sun for summer gardening.  Next to Bed #3, Abby and I created three long mounds for planting.  A week or so ago we planted some seeds:

Mound #1: Cantaloupe, Luffa Sponges*, Sugar Snap Peas

Mound #2: Bidwell Casaba Melon* (similar to cantaloupe) and West Indian Burr Gherkins* (a small cucumber that should make good pickles), and more Sugar Snap Peas

Mound #3: Crimson Sweet Watermelon* (a small variety), Okra and Purple Peas*

I still have more seeds to plant, but they must wait until the poppies bloom and the onions and garlic are harvested from the beds.

*Seeds were purchased from Redwood Organic Farm.  Check them out online, at the farmers market or at local retailers. Other seeds were purchased at the hardware store.

What's growing in your garden?

May 1, 2012

Shaved Carrot Salad with Indian Spices

Three 'super sweet' carrots, cleaned and peeled, then shaved with a vegetable peeler into pasta-like strips. One green onion cut into one-inch segments.

Dressing: Olive oil, about two ounces, warmed over low heat with a pinch each fennel seeds, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and one crushed cardamom pod.  After five minutes or so strain out the seeds and whisk in the juice of one lemon or lime and a generous pinch of sea salt. 

Toss carrots and onions with dressing.  Top salad with crumbled cojita cheese and a few leaves of chopped cilantro, parsley and lemon balm.

 Different.  Colorful.  Light.