Monday, October 31, 2011

Good Gourd! This Halloween I'm Finally "Getting" These Gnarly Garden Oddities

Are you one of those people who thinks that even though gnarly, twisted gourds can make colorful Halloween centerpieces and cutesy bird houses, they are basically pretty weird?  I always dismissed these peculiar bulbous fruits (yup, botanically they are fruits) as fairly useless garden oddities.

In fact they seemed a little creepy, a perfect example of nature gone wrong. Since they are hollow and have little edible pulp compared to their pumpkin and squash cousins, they struck me as a huge waste of garden space. I’d read that early humans cultivated them widely and thought this was very strange. (Pumpkins, on the other hand, can be wonderful eating, such as in this delightful pumpkin bread pudding.)

Now I realize I totally missed the point. Althouth some varieties, like Asian snake gourds, are actually fleshy and grown to be eaten, most gourds were valued precisely because of their large, empty, bowl-like cavities. With the tools and skills to readily create ceramic, glass, metal or even wooden vessels still in the distant future, clever ancient peoples just lopped off gourd tops, removed the seeds and turned the remaining roomy concave portions into cups, bowls, bottles, canteens, jars and many other simple containers.

 Sometimes, they carved, painted, and polished whole gourds and prized them as art or ritual objects or as musical instruments such as rattles and drums and even guitars. In one New Guinea tribal society, long pipe-like gourds were used as sheaths for, um, male appendages. Even now in parts of South America a traditional tea-like beverage called yerba maté is still drunk from calabash goblets, and some Native American tribes still fashion gourds into ceremonial rattles, shakers and clubs like those above right. (Native Americans also made great use of cranberries; details are here.)
I finally “get” gourds  and this Halloween and am seeing them in a whole new light. Maybe replacing these sustainably produced, biodegradable, naturally lightweight and sturdy containers with the vast array of environmentally unfriendly plastic-ware, bottles, and jugs that litter our landscape really wasn't progress?  Maybe we should get back to gourds again?  At least, it’s time to give them a little more respect. What do you think?

Happy Halloween!

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Time Is Running Out to Harvest Fresh Basil--Celebrate It with Oven-Dried Tomato & Pasta Salad

Time is running out! Ready or not, frost is soon going to zap all the tender plants in local gardens, including mine. If I put off harvesting much longer, the last of my basil and nasturtiums will lie limp and lifeless, as will the last tomato plants in my friend’s yard.  

For me, this is always a pitiful, guilt-producing sight, a vivid visual reminder that here in Maryland gardeners who procrastinate will be punished for it. If the tender herbs and produce in your yard aren’t already frizzled from the cold, perhaps you’ll want to take heed, too. Wouldn't it be a shame for such goodies to go to waste?

I already took a few precautions and oven-dried a generous batch of sweet, vine-ripened tomatoes several weeks ago. Today, I snipped most of the last sprigs of green and purple basil in the yard and paired them with some of my stash of dried tomatoes, plus a squiggly-looking pasta brought back from Italy, a few kalamata olives, and a little fresh mozzarella to create a quick lunch. Since the weather is on the chilly side for salads now, I tossed everything together as soon as the pasta was well drained. The heat of it began to melt the bits of cheese and caused the herbs to exude their fragrance—what a spectacular if quick and humble lunch! 

The thin, eggless twists of trophie pasta have been turning up more often in the U.S. the past few years, usually dressed with basil pesto. My Italian cookbook author friend Domenica Marchetti says in The Glorious Pastas of Italy (a beautiful, well-written and useful book, by the way) that it is normally hand-rolled and is a specialty of Liguria. (I bought my bag from a shop in Sorrento that was crammed with every conceivable shape, size, and color. Choosing only a few kinds from the seductive eye-catching assortment tempting me was painful!)

I’ve promised myself that this afternoon, I’ll run out and snip the last of the basil and either tuck the sprigs into bottles of wine vinegar or white rice vinegar, or cover the chopped leaves with water in ice cube trays and freeze them. (The nasturtiums will all go into bottles of vinegar; see the recipe here.) Once the herb cubes are sealed in baggies, they’ll be ready to pop into soups and stews for an instant hit of (almost) fresh basil all winter long. Well, this is the plan for later today anyway!

Warm Pasta Salad with Oven-Dried Tomatoes
The impromptu dressing for this salad is unusual in featuring a secret ingredient—the brine drained from the kalamata olives called for in the dish. Normally the brine from bottled olives is salty enough that little or no additional salt is needed. More important, the brine has—we shouldn’t be surprised!—a pleasing olive flavor that marries perfectly with the oil.

Not only tasty but thrifty and convenient, olive brine makes a fabulous substitute for vinegar when there’s none on hand. Which is how I came to try it in a dressing in the first place! Now, I tend to use up all the brine before finishing the olives and always wish they came packed with more.

3 cups freshly cooked (al dente) and drained trophie or other thin, short pasta lengths
2 or 3 medium-sized oven-dried tomatoes, chopped (or substitute 1/3 cup chopped bottled sun-dried tomatoes)
1/4 cup cubed fresh mozzarella
3 to 4 tablespoons coarsely chopped pitted black kalamata olives
1/2 cup chopped green or purple basil leaves (or a combination), divided, plus several whole leaves for garnish if desired 
3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 4 tablespoons kalamata olive brine
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, or more to taste
1/8 teaspoon sea salt, optional, for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or parsley (or a combination) for garnish

In a medium-sized serving bowl, toss together the still warm drained pasta, the tomatoes, mozzarella, olives and half the basil until just mixed.

In a small deep bowl, whisk together the oil, olive brine, half the basil, and the pepper until blended. Pour over the pasta mixture, and toss until the pasta is coated. Sprinkle over the chives (or parsley), then toss lightly to partially mix. If desired, garnish with coarse salt, a few grinds of pepper, and several whole basil leaves

Makes 2 main dish servings.
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Monday, October 17, 2011

Apples, Squash, Pumpkins, Corn, & Gourds: Five Beautiful Reasons to Buy America's Local Produce This Autumn

Autumn is a beautiful, sherry-wine kind of season in America. The air smells nutty-sweet, and both the bounty and the light are burnished with bronze. Right now bins and baskets are brimming, as farmers across our vast land harvest and display their wares. Where I live the celebration of a fruitful season is in full swing.
If you haven't yet ventured out to take advantage of what our local growers and orchards are now offering, I hope these images will tempt you. I'm sure their produce is every bit as seductive as what's here in Maryland. Please go forth and enjoy!

In case you live in central Maryland and are curious, all these pics were taken yesterday at Frank's Produce (410- 799-4566), near Columbia, on 6686 Old Waterloo Rd. in Elkridge. It's open seven days a week through fall and also sells plants and flowers. The selection of local and regional apples is particularly impressive--usually between 12 and 15 kinds.

For a delicious pumpkin quick bread, click here. For my favorite apple crisp, go here.
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Fun Road Trip--King Arthur Flour, Norwich, VT

If you go to New England and love to bake, do consider a side trip to King Arthur Flour. It's conveniently located off  both I 89 and I 91 in eastern Vermont and is so much fun I make a point of stopping every time I'm anywhere near it.  I visited there just last week after attending a baking conference in Stowe and thought you might enjoy seeing these pics.

As usual, I had a great time browsing around and filling my basket with nifty baking ingredients and supplies: ready-to-use peppermint candy bits, peppermint-colored baker's twine and muffin cups, a bag of fine cocoa rouge, a set of Christmas mini-cutters and some odd size measuring spoons are just some of the treasures I found. In the pic below right I'm the one in the purple jacket chatting with another customer.

(Please note that I have no affiliation or commercial arrangement whatsoever with King Arthur, though I have taught a couple of classes there and have known several members of the staff a long while. I'm posting this just because they're a great resource for any baking enthusiast.)

Besides attracting hordes of customers to its friendly retail store, King Aurthur has a baking catalog and fills order both on-line and via phone. This is a very good thing if you fall in love with their products but can't drop in often (she says knowingly)!

King Arthur also offers an array of hands-on baking classes in its well-outfitted education center, and while I was there, Susan Miller and Robyn Sargent were teaching a pizza class to a group that had attended the baking conference in Stowe.

When you scroll down, notice the gorgeous stone bake oven in the background of the shot at the bottom. It bakes pizza at a blazing 700 degrees F.

The folks smiling were the team whose pizzas took first place. The judges said theirs showed the best evidence of yeast activity, as well as good balance of crust and toppings, and pleasing appearance.  Frankly though, after sampling I have to say that even the non-winners would have made most home bakers very proud.

For more culinary goodies from Vermont, check out my visit to a maple "sugar shack" here.
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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Apples to Bake, Axes to Grind

A while back I tested a lot of different kinds of apples and then posted the results on which ones were best for preparing baked apples. (They don’t all bake up the same, as the pics here prove!) Among those I rated most highly: Honeycrisp, pictured below at right, Rome, Jonathan and  Empire (shown left, above). The ones I cited as the biggest duds were an old stand-by, the McIntosh (shown right above) and Granny Smith. The Mac tasted good but just didn’t stand up, literally, to the heat; the Granny tasted tart but not much else. (You can read all the details of my great apple bake-off here.)

 Another apple that baked up very attractively and tasted good was the Braeburn, pictured at left. Incidentally, the super-easy  recipe for them calls for only two ingredients (apples and brown sugar), and because you "bake" them individually in the microwave, an apple can be ready in about 5 minutes.  Really!  Here's the quick, microwave-baked recipe.

As anybody who has ever expressed any opinion about anything on-line knows, even a statement supported by facts and thoughtful consideration will get blasted by somebody. The Internet is full of folks with axes they are always eagerly waiting to grind. And as it turns out, apples are as touchy a topic as whether or not an outfit makes the wearer look fat. 

Several folks—all hailing from New England, interestingly—immediately responded that I was, let’s just say, um, misinformed.  They felt that McIntosh apples were absolutely, positively the best ones for baking whole. That baked apples were supposed to slump down and lose their color during baking. That they liked their baked apples mushy and applesaucy.

Two peeps mentioned that this was how they remembered their mothers’ baked apples. Which explains why it was utterly fruitless (sorry!) for me to argue further.  Our food preferences are profoundly shaped by what we ate as children—items served then often become our touchstones for how certain dishes should taste forever. Even if they actually weren’t very good.  (It’s probably best not to say more on that.)

Anyway, in the belief that pictures really can sometimes be worth a thousand words, here are some undoctored shots of several microwave “baked” apples to compare. Would you really rather tuck into the Empire baked apple on the left above, or the McIntosh on the right?  Besides looking more appealing, IMHO the Empire, as well as the Honeycrisp shown right above, have a fuller, more satisfying apple flavor.  On the other hand, the yellow Ginger Gold, below, held its shape during baking, but in fact, tasted a little bland.  (Here's the quick, 2-ingredient microwave-baked quick, 2-ingredient microwave-baked apple recipepple recipe I used to ready it.)

So, I’m still sticking with my original picks. But feel free to grind your ax and offer your alternatives to change my mind. I baked apples all the time, so will gladly try whatever apples you strongly recommend. Tip: Telling me your Mom always prepared a certain variety won’t help your cause!
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Friday, October 7, 2011

Cranberry, Pear, and Crystallized Ginger Muffins--Fall Baking at It's Best

I just had to make this recipe again!  Fresh, succulent cranberries are back in my local markets and practically begging to be used. So are a bountiful array of pears. And I returned last night from a baking convention that inspired me to rush home and crank up the oven. Now, light, fragrant muffins are ready for serving with soup for lunch.

If you've only baked with dried cranberries, this recipe may surprise you--the chopped fresh berries add bold accents of tartness and beautiful color. Don't try to substitute dried, sweetened cranberries (not enough zing), although if they're on hand, it's fine to toss in some for a little added chew. The pears in the recipe contribute very subtle flavor and help keep the muffins exceptionally moist. 

Another important ingredient is crystallized ginger, which heightens flavor in both cranberries and pears. Crystallized ginger is available prepackaged in jars or cellophane bags in spice racks and gourmet sections, and sometimes loose in baskets or bins near fresh ginger root in the Asian or Indian ingredients section of supermarkets, gourmet shops, and health food stores. If you can find it, crystallized ginger is usually much more economical purchased loose. It keeps well on pantry shelves, and enhances many spiced baked good, so I often buy a half-pound at a time, then transfer it to an airtight plastic bag or glass jar. 

  The harvesting of ripe cranberries usually takes place in early October along the east coast, and today only a small percentage are picked dry by hand and sold fresh and whole in stores. To reduce labor costs, most are wet harvested, after the bogs are flooded. Large wheels rotate through the water, loosening the berries, which then float to the surface. The pic show a flooded cranberry bog I visited in Whitesbog, New Jersey, several years ago. The floating berries are actually guided up a conveyor and into a truck, and because the wet fruits are highly perishable they are rushed to a local Ocean Spray processing plant and turned into juice and canned sauce. To see more pics/info on cranberries being harvested, click here.

These muffins are excellent served with soups and stews, at breakfast, as snacks, and, of course, with any Thanksgiving meal. For other cranberry options, check out my Cranberry-White Chocolate Cookies or try my Cranberry-Cherry Crumb Bars.

2 cups all-purpose white flour 
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon each ground allspice and ground ginger
Scant 1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 large egg
1/3 cup corn oil or canola oil
1/4 cup plain nonfat or low-fat yogurt
3/4 cup low-fat or whole milk
2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 teaspoons finely grated orange or lemon zest (colored part of peel)
1 cup peeled and chopped ripe Bosc or Bartlett pear (1 large)
1/2 to 2/3 cup chopped fresh cranberries
1/3 cup dried sweetened cranberries, optional

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Coat 12 standard-sized muffin tin cups with nonstick spray. Thoroughly stir together flour, baking powder, salt, soda, allspice, ginger, and all except 1 tablespoon sugar in a large bowl. (Set 1 tablespoon sugar aside for garnishing muffin tops.)

In a medium bowl, using a fork thoroughly beat together the egg, oil, and yogurt. When well blended and smooth, stir in the milk, ginger, and zest.

 Stir the milk mixture and pears into flour mixture just until dry ingredients are moistened and fruits evenly incorporated; for tender muffins don't overmix. Gently fold in the cranberries. Using a heaping 1/4-cup measure, or large spoon, immediately divide batter among 12 muffin cups. (Cups will be full.) Sprinkle tops with reserved tablespoon sugar, dividing it among them.

Bake for 14 to 17 minutes or until golden brown on top and springy to the touch. Cool on wire rack 5 minutes; remove from pan. Serve warm or at room temperature. Best when fresh, but will stay moist for several days.

Makes12 standard-sized muffins.
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