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It has been a tough year, winter over stayed its welcome by several months. In the past it would have been fine. I would have enjoyed the extended ski season and not fretted about my garden. This year was different – I am rehabbing from microfracture repair and in May at  the one year mark of my surgery I was just regaining full strength. But muscle strength was not the issue – I am still working on rebuilding sports confidence and I still have a long way to go before I am back. As a result of the confidence issues, alpine skiing and climbing  has just not been on the menu – yet. Instead of heading to the mountain I waited for spring to arrive so I could get back to one of my other loves – one that does not currently scare the crap out of me – gardening.

It was a cruel for spring to pass me by – the first set of seeds I planted in early spring were lost – to snow – in Portland – in March. WTF. The second set shivered in the ground and finally germinated – two months later. There is a silver lining – as small as it is – I did learn that containers help – they keep the soil warmer. Next year – more things in containers.

The farmers market appears to have suffered as much as me. Greens were really it until the last two weeks. June strawberries were late to the party, it is almost July and the strawberries are just arriving.

To make matters worse – it appears that asparagus opted not to stick around. The sign at the local farmer’s market noted – last weekend for asparagus. That just added insult to injury. With a heavy sigh – I grabbed four pounds and got to work . One of the reasons why I started canning – it extends the season.

Normally when I pickle asparagus I like a little thicker stalk – but given the grower’s “end of life” notice I could not be picky so the pictures here are all  skinny stalks. If you have never had pickled asparagus they pair well with thinly sliced ham – skinny stalks are not so good for that. However, these puppies look like they would be smashing in a bloody mary.

Recipe adapted from “Put ’em Up!” by Sheri Brooks Vinton- makes about 4 pints

4 # asparagus – washed and cut to fit jars

4 cups apple cider vinegar

1 cup water

2 TBS sugar (I used evaporated cane juice)

1/4 cup salt

4 garlic cloves

1 TBS each of mustard seed (I used brown mustard seed) and celery seed

1 tsp of peppercorns

Tightly pack the asparagus into pint (or pint equivalent) jars.* Bring the vinegar, water, salt and sugar to a boil and split the remaining ingredients among your jars. Pour boiling brine into the jars leaving 1/2 inch head space. Wipe rims clean, cap and process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath canner – turn off stove and leave jars in hot water for another 5 minutes.  Let cool completely and check for seal.

*Note: I ran out of brine and had to quickly make more to fill my jars – lesson learned there is always room for more asparagus in your jar.

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As this challenge progresses you will quickly learn that I have two styles of cooking – very simple or extremely fussy.  For me there is no middle ground – I either need to be fed quickly (and therefore the meal will take less than 20 minutes) or I have all day to muck around in the kitchen. 

For some odd reason I seem to be picking our mid-week meals to blog about for the early part of this challenge.  This means simple dinners that I come up with by looking at what is in our fridge (as my husband asks … so what’s for dinner – do you have a plan??).  My game plan in these situations is always the same:  meat + vegetables + something interesting  = the meal.

"braising greens"

This meal follows that game plan – meat and vegetables, with oil and nuts (which were the “something interesting” for this meal).  Personally, I was quite excited to find the “braising greens” mixture at New Seasons, which are a blend of locally sourced kale, chard and other unidentified greens.  Like the mustard greens of last week – they were cooked up with a small amount of bacon.  I use locally sourced nitrate free bacon because it is less processed than regular bacon.    I use the “fact” that the bacon is nitrate free to justify having it in my paleo eating plan – but in all honesty I have what is probably an unhealthy obsession with bacon, which brings to mind this video…

Enough already about my addiction favorite food and on to this meal.  We cooked some pork brats (made fresh) with onions from Hermiston, OR and farmhouse ale brewed by my husband.  The greens were cooked with bacon and garlic and topped with locally grown hazelnuts. 

Simmering brats, onions and beer

Recipe for the Brats (greens recipe is basically the same as week one):

Heat olive oil on med-low in a cast iron skillet, add brats and beer (covering the brats).  Top with sliced onions and turn the heat to low.  Cook until beer is evaporated and brats are cooked all the way through (15-20 minutes).

This year I signed up for Urban Hennery’s Dark Days Challenge where you commit to eat at least one meal a week from SOLE (Sustainable Organic Local Ethical) ingredients from December 1 – April 15.  For this challenge I am following the standard rules – using a 150 mile radius for the definition of local and not worrying about SOLE for items like spices and oils. 

The only “twist” I am adding is that I am doing this challenge Paleo.  Paleo isn’t difficult – basically you eat meat and vegetables with a little bit of fruit and nuts/seeds.  To get the full benefit you should focus on high quality foods; grass-fed beef, free range organic chickens and eggs, lots (and I mean lots) of organic vegetables.  Eating paleo also means no gluten and other grains, dairy, legumes and sugar (ok I am making a small exception for the chutney I put up this summer that has small amounts of sugar in it).  I know this may put me at odds with some of the vegetarians out there and while I appreciate the moral arguments for moving to a plant-based diet, a vegetarian diet does not work for my body.   After gall bladder disease caused by gluten intolerance and post knee surgery inflammation issues – I had to find a different way.    If you want more information about paleo eating I suggest checking out Robb Wolf and the folks over at Whole Nine

With my ground rules out-of-the-way …. here’s how I hope to manage this challenge – first resource New Seasons Markets, a Portland treasure, which lets you know where your food is from.  We also have a  freezer full of grass-fed beef from the folks at Bald Hill Farms.   Finally, we have some stuff preserved and in cold storage from the summer – but the summer of 2010 in Portland wasn’t much of a summer so I will be getting creative with locally grown greens and adding cold frames to our vegetable garden as this challenge progresses (just waiting until we get enough daylight to actually grow something).  I can guarantee you will see at least one (if not more than one) recipe involving green tomato chutney because well … my tomatoes never ripened so we have lots of it.

On to week one of the challenge…for dinner we grilled up some flat-iron steaks  and made a saute of mustard greens (locally grown) and shallots (from our garden) with local nitrate free bacon.  The meal was finished off with some Hood River pears.

Flat iron steak - grass fed

Not much to this recipe – season the steak with salt/pepper and grill until your desired doneness is reached.  While steak is resting – heat up some olive oil in the same skillet, add in chopped bacon slices and cook until almost done, add in chopped shallots, wait 30 seconds and then the chopped greens.  Be careful – I had some flames shooting as the water on the greens hit the oil.  Also – this part goes fast – it doesn’t take long until the greens are just wilted – you do not want your greens cooked to the point of being gooey.  Remove from the pan and plate with the steak.  For two of us I used two small steaks, a full bunch of mustard greens, two slices of bacon and one shallot.

Lots of greens with just a touch of bacon to go with the steak

We had a cold summer here in Portland – the coldest in 17 years.  Tomatoes, cold weather and rain are not a very good combination.  Unless you had your tomato plants in a warm microclimate spot (or wrapped in Saran Wrap most of the summer like one of my wise neighbors) you, like me, are now faced with a bumper crop of green tomatoes. Now I hear that fried green tomatoes are tasty – but this is a preserving blog and fried green tomatoes don’t keep well in the pantry over the winter so I needed another solution.

Once again Darina Allen came to my rescue.  Ireland (Darina’s home base) has many of the same weather issues as Portland – so her Forgotten Skills of Cooking book had several recipes for preserving green tomatoes.  I selected the green tomato chutney recipe.  Our household has a serious homemade chutney addiction (to the point that we cannot eat store-bought anymore).  Our go-to (we really don’t feel like cooking) meal is to brown organic ground turkey, add in loads of chopped vegetables (cabbage, mushrooms and peppers being our choice) and once close to done throw in a 1/2 pint of chutney and heat through until everything is cooked.  Homemade chutney makes this 10 minute meal amazing.

This chutney recipe is fairly standard – lots of chopping followed by a long simmer with good smells.  I made a few changes given what I had in my pantry; substituting a combination of apple cider/white vinegar for the white wine vinegar and brown sugar for turbinado sugar.

Recipe – adapted from Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking (made 5 1/2 pints)

2 1/4 pound chopped green tomatoes

2 1/4 pound peeled and chopped cooking apples

1 pound onions – chopped

1 1/2 cups white sugar

1 3/4 cup brown sugar

1 pound golden raisins

2 teaspoons ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground allspice

2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper

3 smashed garlic cloves

1 tablespoon salt

3 cups vinegar

Put all ingredients into a large non-reactive pot and bring to a boil over med heat.  Turn heat down and simmer for 45 minutes – stirring constantly.  Ladle into clean sterile jars.  Process in water-bath canner for 15 minutes.

Pickles are my new obsession.  It all started with Smitten Kitchen’s Bread and Butter Pickle post.  I wasn’t craving the pickles so much as the burgers they go on.  I was recovering from knee surgery and got  bored – I sought to entertain myself by trying something new.  I found some pickling cucumbers at the local market.  I made the pickles, I ate the pickles on my burger, I ate the pickles out of the jar and by the end of the meal – almost the entire batch of pickles was gone.  That moment I started down a pickling road from which I will not likely return.  

I decided to grow my own pickling cucumbers to feed this addiction.  At this point it was mid-June in Oregon.   I thought I was too late for planting but managed to find two starts at the local nursery.  I squeezed them in a bed with some onions (despite the protests of my husband – something about mixing metaphors or veggies) and waited.  The cool summer we had this year suited them (unlike my tomato plants – but I don’t want to talk about that).  The next thing I knew it was August and those two plants took over their box and high tailed it down the garden path.  In their wake they created pounds upon pounds of cucumbers. We are now into September and every couple of days I pick between 3-6 pounds and within 4 days I needed to harvest again.  

With this bounty I made more bread and butter pickles, I made traditional dill pickles… but now that I have made them, nothing (and I mean nothing) comes close to old school sour pickles.  Sour pickles are fermented in a brine with spices, dill and pepper.  As you reach your hand into the vat to retrieve the pickle – the brine’s aroma entices you, previewing the flavors that will soon be coming your way. 

Fermentation sounds mysterious – maybe even a little scary.  Things float and bubble – it gets a little murky – it is science in action.  If you start to get nervous keep in mind this little fact – fermentation as a food preservation technique has been used for thousands of years.  Practice good sanitation peppered with common sense and you will be fine. 

Here are a couple of recipe notes.  If you are not familiar with fermenting protocols – read the USDA guidelines.  Make sure that you use a food grade container for the fermentation process.  I used an extra-large glass canning jar which was just barely big enough for a halved recipe.  A traditional fermenting crock is now on my birthday/holiday wish list (hint hint).  Don’t alter the salt to water ratios of a trusted recipe.  Fermentation relies upon the salt to knock down the bad bacteria.  Do not use plastic if you can avoid it – bacteria likes to hide in plastic and it increases the risk of contamination.

Recipe (adapted from Joy of Pickling – Lower East Side Full-Sour Dills):

4 pounds pickling cucumbers

8 garlic cloves sliced

2 dill heads (original recipe called for 4)

2 dried peppers

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

2 tablespoons whole coriander

1 tablespoons whole allspice

Brine consisting of 1/2 cup pickling salt and 3 quarts water

Wash the cucumbers well and remove the blossom ends.*  Place cucumbers and remaining ingredients, except the brine, in a food safe container.  Combine salt and water to make your brine and pour into the container covering the pickles. Put excess brine in a food grade plastic bag and use that as a weight to seal the top.  Cover and leave in a cool dark space.  Fermentation should begin in 2-3 days.  Check daily and skim any white scum.  It should take about one to two weeks to complete the process (depending on temperature).  Pickles are done when they are an olive grey color throughout.  Once fermented, remove the brine bag and refrigerate.

*  I picked my cucumbers just before pickling so they did not need to be pre-chilled.  If yours are not fresh picked soak them in ice water to freshen them up.