Saturday, December 18, 2010

Squash and Leek Stuffing

I haven't been much in the holiday spirit here, aside from enjoying the brisk December weather. I've been too preoccupied by more big life changes over the past month to be able to pay attention to Thanksgiving or Christmas. I failed in my goal to host Thanksgiving (as happens almost every year) and only contributed one side dish for my mother's Thanksgiving meal (this squash and bean casserole). I haven't procured any Christmas gifts yet (hopefully tomorrow...). There are no holiday decorations up in my apartment, since I should be packing up anyway for another move at the turn of the month. I've even been neglecting this blog, seeing now that it's been a month since I last wrote!

But last week I made a squash and leek stuffing, presented in a hollowed-out squash, which felt ever so seasonally appropriate. I was inspired by a stuffed pumpkin my roommate made this fall, as well as a delicious looking pumpkin with panade on Tea & Cookies. However, I've found that when you bake it all together, the squash remains too firm for my liking. To solve this, I roasted my squash first, and then scooped out the pureed flesh to mix into a stuffing with cubes of crusty bread, sauteed leeks, and cheese, and refilled the squash rinds for a final bake.

I'm taking several days off for the holidays and hoping I'll have time then to get excited about festive baking and cooking, including pumpkin snickerdoodles and almond biscotti. Now the question remains, should I make this stuffed squash, or maybe pizza with a side of swiss chard gratin, for my family's Christmas eve dinner?

Squash and Leek Stuffing

I used one delicata squash, but you could also use any other variety of squash or pumpkin. Slice squash in half, and place it in a pan, flesh side down with a few inches of water. Roast at 450 degrees for 30-60 minutes until easily mashable with a fork. Scoop out all the flesh out into a bowl, being careful not to tear the squash rind (unlike me).

While the squash is roasting, clean one large leek and slice into half moons. Sautee on low heat until softened.

Rip a day-old crusty baguette into small cubes.

Grate about a cup of cheese. Cheddar, gruyere, swiss, or any combination of these varieties would be nice.

Combine squash, leek, bread, and cheese in a bowl, with salt and pepper to taste. Fill empty squash rinds with stuffing and sprinkle additional grated cheese over the top. Return to the oven and bake at 450 for 10-15 minutes until the cheese and stuffing edges turn golden brown.

Makes two servings.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Knitting and Thinking Harder about Handmade

On average, I knit about one scarf each winter, using the most basic knit pattern, which is the limit of my knitting skills. This year I got a headstart and already completed one scarf for a birthday gift. In the past I have simply picked out yarn from a store based on cost, color, and feel. However, while making homemade gifts and buying handmade items has become a rallying cry and an important way to keep money out of corporation's pockets and support small businesses instead, sometimes simply handmade is not enough. In fact, one of the benefits of handmade is that you can exert more of a direct influence over the materials used.

So I started to think harder about the source of my scarf materials. If it's wool, what were the conditions of the animals raised for wool? Did the wool travel halfway around the globe to get to me, from Australia and New Zealand, which are the leading wool producers? If it's cotton yarn, what about pesticides? If it's acrylic, it's manufactured with polycrylonitriles, which may be carcinogenic. And then there are the dyes, probably laden with toxins rubbing up against your chin as you try to keep warm.

This batch of yarn came from happy sheep upstate, care of Catskill Merino, a farm that sells lamb meat and hand-dyed wool at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturdays. You may have noticed their gorgeously colored natural-dyed skeins while passing through the market. This fascinating Osage and Logwood color looks gray-green indoors with highlights of lime green in sunlight. The yarn is soft and I loved working with it. It wasn't that much more expensive than "nice" wool at a regular yarn store, so I felt it was worth it. There are many other eco-friendly yarn options out there, and alternatively, you could also check out your local thrift store for yarn or unravel an old sweater to reuse.

I like that kniting lets me relax and feel productive at the same time. It's a welcome way to slow down in this busy era of life when I feel I should always be accomplishing something with my time. The repetitive process is a meditative kind of multi-tasking, knitting while sitting around the living room watching TV with roommates or chatting on the subway.

I've got more yarn leftover from a lazy scarf fail last year, so I think a friend or family member might find a scarf under their tree this December. Who wants one? I'm considering expanding my repertoire to add some kind of pattern this time. This holiday season, I challenge you to also not only buy or make handmade gifts, but to think harder about handmade.

hanging yarn photo via flickr

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Canning Pickles and a Word about Skillshares

At the skillshare in September, we also made pickles and pizza, in addition to beer. We followed a recipe for canned garlic and dill pickles that Sarah learned at a pickling class at the Brooklyn Kitchen led by Bob McClure. I thought I didn't like fresh dill in my pickles, but I was wrong, because these were great and tasted simply as pickles should. In fact I liked them so much that I was willing to join a daring round of shots of pickle brine when we found ourselves snacking on the finished pickles a week later.

I'd only ever made lazy refrigerator pickles using storebought pickling spice mixes, which is easy and quick for making a jar at a time. Canning is a longer process, but worth it if you want to stockpile pickles. Afterward, we worried that the cans didn't sealed properly and decided to store them in the fridge, but it turns out they had indeed sealed. We put them in the fridge too early, but you should leave your cans out overnight to completely cool before testing the seal. Click here for more on how to know if your cans sealed.

As for skillshares, they have been popping up as a cheap alternative for learning new skills and trying new activities without having to pay for classes. Brooklyn is now home to its own annual Brooklyn Skillshare day each fall with classes ranging from composting to yoga to bike repairs. Skillshares can also be a great way to spend time with friends or get to know your community better. Ours was smallscale with just three people and three food-related skills, but even so, I have a few tips.

* Figure out ahead of time what you will need to bring with you. We got a late start because our host didn't have all the kitchen tools on hand (tongs, etc) we assumed he might, so there were some runs to pick up supplies.

*Plan complementary activities. For example, beer brewing and canning both require long periods of boiling in a giant pot, and there was only one giant pot, so it probably wasn't the best idea to do them in the same day. It all worked out okay, it was just a late night by the time everything was finished.

*You might also want to make plans for food or breaks. Originally I was going to bake bread as my skill, but I am really glad that I made pizza instead so that we were able to have a meal during the long day.

What skill would you teach if you organized a skillshare with your friends?

McClure's Garlic and Fresh Dill Canned Pickles

3 lbs small pickling cucumbers (Kirby)
6 cloves of garlic
1 bunch of dill
1 1/2 cups of water
1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar (5%)
little less than 1/2 cup picking or Kosher salt
crushed red pepper (optional)
6 canning jars

1) Wash cucumbers and place in a large deep bowl with ice. Cover and put in fridge.
2) Wash dill and chop off roots
3) Place minced garlic in a small bowl and pour hot vinegar over it. Let stand for 1 minute then pour vinegar out.
4) Fill a large pot with water. Place a jar in the pot and make sure the water is at least 1 inch above the top of the jar. Remove the test jar and bring water to a boil.
5) In another large pot, combine the vinegar, water, and salt. Bring the brine to a rapid boil. Stir the salt to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot
6) While pots are getting up to a boil take cucumbers out and quarter them. Make sure cucumber will stand 1/4 to1/2 inch below the rim of the jar.
7) After water is boiling, submerge mason jars and lids in pot and sterilize for about 90 seconds. Remove carefully with jar tongs.
8) In each jar, place garlic, dill and then enough cucumber spears to fill the jar, making sure cukes are below the “neck-line”.
9) Fill jars with hot brine and add an optional pinch of crushed red pepper.
10) Cap and seal jars. Turn them over to make sure you have an adequate seal. Repeat until all jars are complete
11) Place jars back in boiling water pot. Process sealed jars in boiling water for 10 minutes.
12) Let cool. Wait a week to two weeks before eating. Pickles will keep up to 1 year if stored in a cool, dry place.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Why Go Apple Picking?

Someone recently asked me "Why go apple picking? I don't understand the appeal/point." Here's my answer.

To support small farms that depend on income from apple-picking tourists. Because making a living profit from farming and resisting the pressure to sell off farmland to McMansion developers are hard to do these days. The cost of Pick Your Own is still about the same as already-picked apples for sale at farmers markets or stores, around $1/lb, but the farms deserve to make money for their labor of growing the apples. And it's about the experience.

For the pleasure of walking around beautiful orchard paths and fields in good company on a sunny fall afternoon.

For insanely good views of fall foliage

For climbing trees to snare hard-to-reach fruits, especially late in the season.

For snacking on juicy freshly picked apples.

For the exercise that comes with carrying around a twenty pound half bushel bag.

For the vinegary smell of fallen rotting apples that might inspire you to make your own hard cider or try some from the local wineries.

For saying hello to goats that live in barns.

For picking out a pumpkin to carve.

For the sound of children running around. And for rolling down hills like children.

For spying on honeybees and buying local honey from the farm store.

For rewarding yourself afterward with hot cider and freshly made donuts.

For bringing home tons of apples to eat, to freeze, to make crockpot applesauce, apple pie, apple muffins, apple cake, apple pancakes...

My place of choice for apple picking is Ochs Orchard in Warwick, NY, ninety minutes outside NYC, for its stunning views, charming farm store, and proximity to my childhood home. To find a Pick Your Own farm near you, take a look through this comprehensive list of farms in the US, Canada, Britain, and other countries.

photos 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, and 10 by Jamie Santamour. rest by me.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Homebrewed Pumpkin Ale

I got together with friends for a skillshare day a couple weeks ago. Among the various food and drinks we made, the highlight was pumpkin beer, led by our resident expert homebrewer who provided all the necessary equipment. As a craft beer snob, I have always been curious about homebrew, so I was psyched to get an inside look at the brewing process.

Fall is the perfect time to make pumpkin ale. Like Sixpoint Craft Ales did for their Pumpkin Brewster beer, we chose to use real pumpkin rather than canned. I roasted a three pound sugar pumpkin, which yielded approximately 3 cups of puree, or the size of a 30 ounce can of pumpkin. Why use canned when you can easily get fresh, local pumpkins this time of year? Make sure it is a sugar pumpkin, though - the same kind used for baking, and not a regular jack-o-lantern pumpkin for carving.

Roasting a pumpkin is easy: Slice the pumpkin in half, scoop out the guts, and place it on a deep baking tray, flesh side down, in an inch or so of water. Roast at 450 for about 40 minutes, until flesh is tender and easily mashed with a fork.

I also roasted pumpkin seeds to snack on during the skillshare: Separate and rinse the seeds from the goop in the center of the pumpkin, toss in olive oil, salt, and pepper, spread seeds out in an even layer on a baking sheet, and roast for about 10 minutes. Crispy pumpkin seeds are addictive.

You can now find brewing supplies in Brooklyn at places like The Brooklyn Kitchen and the Brooklyn Brew Shop, but this kit was ordered online from Midwest Supplies. It was handy how everything came included in the box, even various spices associated with pumpkin pie like cinnamon and nutmeg. The complete recipe we followed can be found here.

It is important to keep in mind throughout the process that everything needs to be cleaned and sanitized, including the stirrer spoon, fermenter jugs, and transfer tubes. The first step was to bring a giant pot of 3 gallons of water to 155 degrees, which took a long time - probably over half an hour. We then steeped a bag of crushed grains in the hot water for 30 minutes. Then we removed the pot from heat and let it sit for another 5 minutes before discarding the grains.

Next, we stirred in a whole container of malt syrup, which is similar in consistency to molasses, as well as brown sugar, although most beers do not typically require sugar at this stage.

After adding the malt and sugar, we brought the water to a boil, added half the hops, and let it boil for 60 minutes. At 55 minutes, we stirred in the pumpkin puree, and at 58 minutes, we added the remaining hops and spices. Here you can see the pumpkin swirling in the wort as it boiled. Note: during this first day of the brewing process, the beer is called "wort."

Afterward, we had to cool the wort to 80 degrees, which we did by putting the pot in a sink filled with ice and cool water. This also took a long time, another half hour or hour, as we swapped out the water every 10 minutes or so to continue the cooling. The sink nearly overflowed as the ice melted.

Once the temperature dipped below 80 degrees, it was time to transfer the wort from the pot into the primary fermenter, a large glass jug.

Normally, the wort should keep streaming on its own through the tube after a couple pumps. However, the pumpkin sediment prevented a steady stream, so it took some time to manually pump all the beer into the fermenter. Somehow, beer sprayed everywhere when the tube accidentally got off course. I think we had one too many (storebought) beers to drink during the course of the skillshare day.

The final step was to add proofed yeast (similar to baking bread) to the top of the jug. This airlock stopper was put in place to allow air to escape without letting air or bacteria enter as the beer bubbled away occasionally for a few days. After a week, it was transfered to the secondary fermenter, or a second glass jug, to help reduce sediment.

Another week later, it was time for bottling. At this time, the beer is done fermenting, and a little sugar was added just before bottling to activate the carbonation process. We rinsed, sterilized, and rinsed again about 40 beer bottles and caps. You can collect empty beer bottles and recycle them for this second life. Using a special tube, we transfered the beer into the bottles, and capped off each one.

Normally you can get up to 50 bottles from a five gallon batch, but again, the pumpkin sediment caused some problems. Toward the bottom of the batch, sediment blocked the beer from flowing into the bottles, so we had to scrap the last dregs. In total, we ended up with 39 bottles. Lesson learned: beer with pumpkin or other ingredients added are tricky to work with.

We poured a sip to try, and it definitely tasted like a pumpkin ale, with a little sweetness and bitterness, but unfortunately it did not seem very strong. For whatever reason, it didn't bubble or ferment for as many days as normal. Now that the beer is bottled, it will be ready to drink in two weeks, and hopefully the taste will improve with carbonation. I am excited to drink it!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Cocoa Zucchini Cupcakes

I had a little party this weekend, a housewarming of sorts, although I am living in a sublet, so I can't take credit for the beauty of the home, and I will be moving out again in just a few months. But does one ever really need a reason to gather friends together, old and new alike, and prepare a storm of snacks and drinks to offer them?

There was a spread of roasted red pepper hummus, white bean garlic herb dip, cheeses, crackers, and other sundries, and cupcakes per usual. I originally thought I would turn my recipe for cocoa applesauce muffins into cupcakes, but apples equal fall, and I'm not quite ready to accept the turn of seasons yet. I'm a big advocate of continuing to take advantage of summery produce until it disappears from the markets. With my schedule busier lately than I'm used to, I also didn't feel like taking the time to slowly cook apples down into sauce, so a simple grated zucchini from the greenmarket made sense.

I ended up adapting Heidi's recipe for chocolate zucchini cupcakes on 101 Cookbooks, but left out the chocolate chips because they actually aren't necessary. I've never before been able to achieve a rich chocolatey taste through cocoa powder alone. The key, I've now learned, is to use a full cup of cocoa, as a quarter or third of a cup won't cut it. My cupcakes tasted sharply of dark chocolate, with moist shredded zucchini hidden secretly and healthily inside. I paired them with bourbon cream cheese icing, but lemon or peanut butter icing might also be fun.

Cocoa Zucchini Cupcakes
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup honey
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
2/3 cup milk
1 zucchini, about 2 cups grated
2 cups flour
1 cup cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
bourbon cream cheese icing

Preheat oven to 350. Cream butter and sugar. Whisk in honey, eggs, vanilla, milk, and grated zucchini. Add flour, cocoa, baking soda and beat until batter is combined and smooth. Bake 20-25 minutes. Remove, let cool, and top with icing. Makes two dozen cupcakes.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to Eat at Summer's End

Somewhere along the way, I forgot to keep taking photos of my farmers market hauls, but I've still been bringing home bags of produce and finding time to cook despite my newly busy schedule. This time of year, I like to focus on tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, which in past summers, I would have grilled and turned into caponata. Lacking a grill has required me to get a little more creative this year. Below are some dishes I've enjoyed in the past couple weeks, showing how seasonal vegetable driven meals can be as lazy or as complex as you have the time and inclination for.

For a still hot summer night when you don't feel like cooking:
Deconstructed cheese and tomato sandwiches

Top one cube of Bread Alone organic baguette with one slice of Bobolink grass fed cheddar and one cherry tomato (preferably from a mother's garden) and pop in mouth. Chase with a sip of Troegs Sunshine Pils.

For a cooler late summer Sunday when you have time for a cooking project, so that you can eat quick meals with little prep later in the week:
Roasted red pepper hummus

Cook a large batch of dried chickpeas, let cool, drain, and apportion into jars in freezer for future meals. Also roast two or three red peppers until blackened on each side, remove skins, slice into strips, and marinate in olive oil and garlic in refrigerator. Either that day or sometime in the next week, prepare the hummus - thaw one jar of cooked chickpeas, and blend in food processor with 1/2 cup roasted red peppers, a generous stream of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of tahini, juice of 1/2 lemon, and a sprinkling of crushed hot pepper. Serve this special sweet and spicy hummus with warmed pita as an appetizer or as a dinner for one.

For a cool evening when you have time to make a more complicated dinner, company to help, and/or a desire for leftovers:
Eggplant parmesan sandwiches

Slice one large eggplant into thin rounds. Salt heavily and let drain in colander for 30-60 minutes, rinse, and dry with paper or cloth towels. Dredge eggplant in a bowl of beaten egg and then in a plate of homeground breadcrumbs. Fry in a shallow layer of hot oil until browned on each side. As you dredge and fry, have a helper remove the cooked eggplant from the pan and layer it in a baking dish with homemade tomato sauce and grated parmesan cheese. Warm in oven for 5-10 minutes until cheese is melted, alongside slices of Amy's rustic Italian bread drizzled with olive oil. Plate sandwiches, enjoy with a red wine, and remember to thank your helper for doing the dishes.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Scenes from a Bike Tour of NYC

I crossed off one of my 25 things last weekend when I rode the New York Century Bike Tour, organized by Transportation Alternatives, New York City's advocacy group for pedestrians and cyclists. I'd been wanting to do this bike ride for years, but was deterred by having to haul my bike an hour to Central Park at 7am on a weekend morning. This year they launched an alternate starting location in Prospect Park, a doable mile or so from my apartment, which meant I no longer had an excuse. I will admit it was hard to say no to all my friends party harding on Saturday night in order to get to bed early-ish, but I am still glad I did it.

TA offers varying distances from 15 miles to 100 (that's the "century") to accommodate beginners and families through experienced bikers. I chose to ride the 35 mile route, which was longer than I've ever biked in one day before. I actually rode about 31 miles, factoring in my trip to the starting line and my more direct route to finish at my apartment in Brooklyn rather than at the park. I wasn't sure how I would feel when I hit the halfway point at Central Park, but I was totally fine with continuing to pedal back to Brooklyn.

I was on my own, but the fellow riders and marshals were all friendly, and I was able to join another single rider along the way at my same pace so we could have company. My fear of getting lost alone in the backstreets of Queens was unrealized. It was a gray day, but the cool air was actually perfect for biking. Serendipitously, the only rain was a half hour drizzle that didn't bother me once I had my rain jacket on.

The route is designed for on-street cycling, to demonstrate that bikes have a real place on roads alongside cars, so no roads were blocked off, and that meant we took both protected bike lanes and scary busy streets (ie. what were they thinking with having us on West End/11th Avenue and all its fast traffic heading for the tunnels?)

My favorite part was getting to see so many different parts of New York City in one day, including some locations I'd never been before. From hipster Brooklyn, to the view at the top of the Triboro bridge, to swamps on Randalls Island, through Manhattan's quickly changing neighborhoods, and over the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

The 35 mile start time in Prospect Park was 8am, during offleash hours for dogs.

We headed north through Bed Stuy, quiet on a Sunday morning, and up the North Brooklyn waterfront. Loving the two-way bike lane on Kent Ave in Williamsburg, and capturing the strange juxtaposition of the neighborhood's artsy charm and its new towering condos.

Crossing Pulaski Bridge over the excessively polluted Newtown Creek from Brooklyn to Queens, with Manhattan in the distance.

We followed the Queens waterfront from Long Island City to a rest stop at Astoria Park, under the shadow of the Triboro and Hells Gate Bridge (awesome name). I was excited to cross the Triboro Bridge, a giant highway of a bridge I have traversed many times by car, for the unique opportunity to see views that you can only take in at this slower pace.

Looking west over the Triboro Bridge to Manhattan

Looking at Randalls Island and the industrial beyond from the Triboro

We meandered through Randalls Island's bizarre sports fields and swampy landscaped waterfront paths, which I'm now realizing were next to a psychiatric institution, before crossing this pedestrian bridge to Harlem.

Rest stop at the top of Central Park, at 110th street and Lenox Avenue. I don't think I'd been north of 85th street in the park before.

We rode down the west side, not on the Greenway, but on Riverside Drive then scary West End Avenue, and then to this protected bike lane on 9th avenue from 30th street to Bleecker street in Manhattan, complete with light signals for bikes!

After passing through the West Village, Soho, Chinatown, and City Hall, I headed over the Brooklyn Bridge, in the homestretch.

The Manhattan Bridge, as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge

I took a little shorcut through Downtown Brooklyn and Carroll Gardens to finally get home! 31 miles. 4 1/2 hours. 4 bridges. 3 boroughs. 2 wheels.