Sunday, March 28, 2010

All The Time

I haven't been in the kitchen much in the past few weeks. Work has kept me spinning, and the time that I have that is spin-free has been spent mostly in the garden. I've been eating very well, mostly simply prepared, very fresh veggies and stuff I put in away in the summer, but I haven't been terribly inventive. My meals have been four or five ingredient slips of carefree cooking, nothing worth writing about, but good nonetheless.

This is a very exciting time of the year to be outside. So much blooms in March and April: citrus, pink jasmine, camphor trees, things I can't even identify but smell all sorts of good. The sweetpeas start to tumble over trellises and reveal their feminine charms.

But what I love best about this time of year is the promise of meals to come.


This winter's cole crop bed is about to become this summer's bean bed.

The Italian Prune scionwood I grafted onto the Bavay's Green Gage has taken. I can't get over the magic of grafting; it has opened a lot of doors in my imagination and is widening my idea of an orchard.

The apples are just beginning to bud. This is Golden Russet; I should get a few apples from it this year, enough for me to understand its flavor and character, enough for me to start imagining how best to use it in the oven. In a few years, just watch, it will star in a homemade cider.

This is not the familiar Nigella damascena (Love in a Mist) that I grow as a cut flower. Nope, this is Nigella sativa, the spice nigella, aka black cumin. I've tried to grow it for a couple of years, but between the stingy offerings from the two suppliers from whom I ordered it and my lack of knowledge about when best to plant it in my climate, I was unsuccessful. I think I finally figured it out. I planted the seeds in late October and they had a wet winter. They were slow all winter long, low to the ground and wimpy looking, but now that it is warming up they've sprung up to flower and don't seem to need much water. I can't wait to use the seeds to flavor curries, crackers, and other such delights.

Here, a long row of Egyptian Walking onions marches in front of a stand of fennel. I have tons and tons of EW onions this year, so there are plenty of greens to use, and I hope there will be lots of bulbils to pickle in little jars for cocktails and snacks. The fennel is a fantastic addition. Yes, I love the thick stems and bases of the larger ones, but I also love the textural contrast and the colors of the misty foliage. The seeds will flavor my tomato sauces. Right now, I'm working out some kind of risotto in my head, flavored with fennelseed and saffron, topped with seared scallops.

Some grocery store russet potatoes busted out greenery, so I planted them in the bottom of large pots using coconut coir mixed with partially composted leaves and a just a little native soil. As they've grown, I've added successive layers of the soil mix. Curious am I to see the results. I wonder how they'll taste best, set in coals to roast, mashed, cut into wedges and roasted with oil, garlic, and salt?

The crimson flowered fava are in a mad riot of blossoms. To ensure better bean set, I've cut off the growing tips (and used them in quick sautees). They now have beans in various stages of maturity up and down the sides of their stems. As soon as I've had enough of these babies, I'll cut them down and turn them back into the soil, then plant the remainder of my tomatoes. But before then, I'll thow the pods on the grill, I'll just barely boil the beans and eat them like edamame with a sprinkle of sea salt, I'll puree the beans with green garlic and olive oil.

The fuyu persimmon (it may be a giant fuyu, I don't know because it was on the property when I got here) is shooting out its waxy limegreen leaves. Soon, the strange flowers will appear. I hope I got more than the measly, albeit delicious, six fruit of last year. Last summer, I sampled a friend's dried fuyu persimmon slices, and they tasted like fruity caramel. Maybe this year.

Here's half of the garlic and shallot bed. The breadseed poppies in the back are beginning to send up flower spikes, promising loads and loads of seeds for all kinds of baked goodies. And the garlic, well, you know how I feel about garlic. I've got twelve heirloom varieties this year, and I can't wait for the taste-testing to begin. The shallots stems are fat and beginning to send up flowers, which I've dutifully broken off to help the plant focus on giving me lots and lots of shallot deliciousness.

The first half of the tomato plants are in where the field of arugula used to be. Before planting, I turned the arugula into the soil to work as green compost. I let the field sit for a could of weeks before planting, and now the tomatoes are settling happily in to their new home. The six in so far are Guernsey Island Pink Blush, Linnie's Oxheart, Brad's Black Heart, Goose Island, Not Wes, and Kosovo. Who is going to be my favored child this year? Who will be the best for sauces, the best in caprese, the best in bruschetta?


I may not be in the kitchen, but I'm inventing recipes, tasting combinations of flavors, putting meals together in my head all the time.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Sting and the Burn

I am too exhausted for words, but relief is in sight.

Lemon Jelly with Honey and Cinnamon

From Christine Ferber's Mes Confitures

Although I was suspicious of this combination of flavors in a jelly at first, my fears were unfounded. The combination of flavors is reminiscent of the cold-soothing honey lemon tea we drink around here when we don't feel good, but it is amped up with cinnamon and turned into an elegant, barely set, crystalline jelly with freshly rendered apple pectin. It is perfect to spread on a toasted, buttered English muffin or on nubby, nutty wheat toast. I made mine with Meyer lemons, because that is what I had available, but I think Eurekas or other lemons will work well here as well, and may give you a brighter color.

Ferber's book, from which the recipe came, is notoriously poorly translated from French, but if you have made jam before it is worth a read, if only to be inspired to play with flavors. While the book offers both metric and English measurements, I listed only the metric here because too many numbers on a pages sets my mind areelin'. Also, I rearranged the ingredient list to the order of use, and tried my best to clarify the instructions.

You will need on the first day:

750 grams Granny Smith or other tart green apples

750 grams water

You will need on the second day:

3 lemons scrubbed very clean

200 grams water

200 grams and 800 grams of sugar, separated

500 grams freshly squeezed lemon juice, seeds reserved from squeezing the juice and tied up in a little cheesecloth bag

200 grams honey

1 cinnamon stick

To make the jelly:

Wash the apples well and quarter them. Place them, peel, seeds, and all, in a large pot and pour 750 grams of water over them. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and simmer for a half an hour. Let the apple mixture cool enough to handle, then strain and collect the liquid in a bowl. Press gently on the fruit as you collect the liquid so you get as much juice as possible. Next, strain the collected juice through cheesecloth to get the clearest liquid possible. When I did this, I ended up with a milky colored juice that was free of sediment. Cover the juice and place it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, thinly slice the lemons, removing their seeds as you go along, and place them in a heavy, large pan. Add 200 grams of sugar and 200 grams of water, bring to a boil then reduce to medium heat. Allow the lemon slices to cook in the syrup until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add all the reserved apple juice, the remaining sugar, the lemon seeds, the honey, and the cinnamon stick, and cook at medium-high heat. Skim mucky bright yellow foam off if any forms. Cook until the temperature reaches 105 degrees Celsius or 222 degrees Fahrenheit.

Carefully ladle into sterilized jars, doling the lemon rounds out evenly among the jars and reserving the cinnamon stick. Once all the jars are filled, split the cinnamon stick into the number of pieces of jars that you are using, and seal the jars according to USDA's guidelines for food preservation.

This recipe makes about 5 pints of jelly.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010


Meyer Lemon Muffins

After I read this recipe from the Los Angeles Times, I couldn't believe I had never thought of trying its recipe trick before:  pureeing the lemons whole, using them as a fruit base the way one would use bananas in banana bread.  I knew it would guarantee a moist muffin packed with real lemony flavor.  What I didn't know is how delicious it would be, how it would last for days without turning into a sweetened greasy hockey puck, and how the Ceylon cinnamon would dance with the lemon.  I didn't know that the edges of the muffin would turn be browned, crunchy, and caramelly good; nor did I know that the spot under the lemon smile would stay pudding-y.

The recipe needed no futzing or fiddling to make it perfect, so I won't republish it below.  Instead, follow the link, follow the directions, and enjoy a perfect muffin.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Here, It Snows the Way I Like It: Visible, but not Shovelable

Spring comes early in my 'hood. Luckily, it also lasts a while.

I know, I know. Most of this country is frustrated with the unending snow and freak storms of the year. These pictures of the mild Southern California March might seem a little too sweet for you.

Here's something to balance that.

Grapefruit Bitters
I go through drink trends. I've been in the Very Dirty Gin Martini phase, the Flavored Vodka or Gin and Tonic phase, the Old Fashioned phase, and the Gimlet phase, but right now I'm in a Manhattan phase. After sitting on the river this summer and watching the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline while sipping the drink by the same name, I've been ordering these occasionally to remember the slow beauty of that warm evening. Because of this, I've been exploring what makes a Manhattan a Manhattan, and playing with the simple ingredients. Essential to keeping the drink complex and interesting is the slight drip of bitters.

Once upon a time, bitters served as a health tonic, and every medical quack had his own version or two. Now, there are only a few brands available to the home bartender. After an afternoon of research, I learned that bitters were accomplish-able at home, and with the mountains of grapefruit available around here this time of year, I decided to start with grapefruit bitters. This recipe is very slightly adapted from an exploration of bitters in an LA Times article a few years back. This is very, very bitter, very clean, and incredibly aromatic. The coriander emphasizes the fragrance of the grapefruit, adding a complex winey-ness. A little of this goes a long way, which is exactly how it should be.

You will need:

2 cups clean tasting, high proof vodka

2 large grapefruit, scrubbed clean

1 tablespoon coriander seed

4 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons water

To make the bitters:

Peel the grapefruit, and dice the peel, white pith and all, into small chunks. Toss the diced peel in a quart mason jar, then add the vodka and coriander. (Juice the remaining fruit or use it in another application.) Place the jar in a cool, dark place for one week.

After one week, strain the liquid into a clean mason jar then discard the diced peel and coriander. In a small saucepan, heat the sugar until it is medium brown. Remove from heat, carefully add the water, and stir until the water dissolves the sugar. Let the mixture come to room temperature.

Once cooled, pour the sugar mixture into the mason jar. Lid the jar and set it aside for an hour or so as the flavors meld and settle. Carefully funnel the bitters into a bottle and label.

This makes approximately two cups.

I'll sip this in a homemade Manhattan; no, the skyline won't be shooting up in front of me this time. Instead, I'll be in my flipflops in the backyard, the lemon and orange blossoms will be blooming, the wild parrots will be squawking, and I'll be perfectly content.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Hell Yes

Today, I drove home under a bruised sky listening to Beck's Guero. It's been a long time since I've listened to Guero and it electrified me. It made me wish I had a hydraulic kit for my little car; it made me want to roll the windows down and jut my elbow in coolness, even though it was cold and spitting rain. It made me feel like it was summer and sunshine lasted almost all day.

I think I appreciated the music so much because work is rolling right now. Last semester left me beaten up and frustrated. My freshmen were not working and my juniors hadn't built the skills they needed to at this point of the year. Whether it is a shift in my attitude in the first four weeks of the second semester or the fact that spring is around corner and my students, like me, feel good, I don't know, but something wonderful is happening in my classroom right now.

Learning is humming along the way that it should. Each day is a frenetic jumble of enthusiasm, laughter, and real work. I'm busy busy busy, and I can't even complain about that busy-ness because it's paying off so well. The freshman have turned a corner and, for the most part, learned how to be high school students, and the juniors are blossoming beautifully. Today, one student, after receiving the highest score she had yet received on an essay, let out an ear piercing happy scream, jumped out of her seat, and ran to hug me. She picked me up.

And so, I am lifted.

The shift in the class atmosphere is augmented by the lengthening days, and I can almost feel feel summer's pleasant disorientation of having both enough rest and enough exercise, an impossible state of being during the school year.

In August, I'll enjoy the marmalade I made this week while soaking in the bubbly luxury of time. I'll appreciate winter in the middle of summer and think happily about the chaotic humor of classroom life, the huge struggles and bigger forces of will, the work making real change.

Meyer Lemon and Vanilla Bean Marmalade
I read all my canning cookbook recipes for marmalade ideas to use some of my glut of Meyer lemons, but the two most influential sources for this particular recipe, I found here on Epicurious and here on One Green Generation. I liked the idea from the Epicurious site and the method from One Green Generation, and this recipe is the result of combining them. I recommend reading the detailed description Melinda gives at One Green Generation as it is very helpful, and it will supplement the skimpy details I give below.

But, what I'm not skimpy on is praise for this marmalade. The vanilla makes the Meyer lemon taste almost tropical, and the bright clean lemons get a hippy funky edge that changes their character in pleasing ways. It's like seeing your grandmother drink for the first time, especially if she drinks something with a slightly naughty name. That's exactly it. It's like going to an elegant dinner with your grandmother, and when the server asks for drink orders, she settles one hand on the other, tilts her small chin up and asks for "a Classy Bitch, please."

You will need:

2 1/2 lbs Meyer lemons
8 cups water
7 cups sugar
2 vanilla beans

To make the marmalade:

Scrub the lemons clean and split them lengthwise in half. Using a sharp knife, cut out the very center (the "core") of the lemons. Hold a lemon half in one hand over a bowl, and using the other hand, slip out the seeds into the bowl. Do this with each half, reserving the seeds and juice in the collecting bowl.

Slice each lemon half crosswise into very thin smiles. Toss the lemon smiles in a large pot and add 8 cups of water. Pour the bowl of seeds and juice through a strainer into the pot of lemon slices. Place the reserved lemon seeds in a cheesecloth or muslin bag, and drop the bag of seeds (rich in pectin) into the pot of water and lemon slices. Set the pot aside in a cool place overnight.

The next day, bring the water and lemons to a boil and boil for 15 or 20 minutes, or until the lemon slices are very tender. While the mixture is boiling, split the vanilla beans lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, reserving both on the cutting board. When the lemon slices are tender, remove the bag of seeds, slide the vanilla beans and scraped out seeds into the pot, and add the sugar.

Boil the mixture until it reaches approximately 222 degrees Fahrenheit, or until the bubbles begin to "snap" and the mixture, when dropped on a cool surface, gently congeals.

Jar and refrigerate or freeze, or follow USDA's guidelines for hot water canning to preserve your marmalade.

This recipe makes approximate 5 1/2 pints of marmalade.

Please enjoy.