Friday, November 12, 2010

Winter Gardening

I've just constructed these fabulous mini-hoop houses, so I can try to grow a few things over the winter! Last weekend I attended a winter gardening workshop at Los Poblanos Organics - I've been to one of their gardening workshops before, and I always learn something new. In the spring, I'll use these as a seed-starting nursery, because we don't have enough space or bright enough light in the house to really get seedlings started well.

I've got some radishes and fava beans started in there, along with the kale I've been growing all summer, and some little starts of broccoli and Brussels sprouts. My big goal is to grow Brussels sprouts - possibly my favorite vegetable. I've tried them in the spring and they got full of aphids, so I wanted to try them in the fall when there are far fewer pests, but this has been an odd fall! It was so hot all the way through September, I couldn't even get seeds to germinate, then no frost until October 30, and just last week the overnight low suddenly dropped into the 20s and hasn't risen since. So maybe, just maybe, the hoop house will keep my little plants happy enough through the winter that they can burst forth in all their brassica glory as soon as it starts to warm up in the spring. I'm also planning to start some salad greens.

For each hoop house, I used 3 ten-foot lengths of 1/2-inch PVC Schedule 40 pipe. I stuck the ends into the ground just inside the frame of each raised bed, which is 3 feet by 6 feet. I bet you could do this without a raised bed, but you might need some stakes to tie them to. I covered each set of hoops with a 10 by 10-foot sheet of 4-mil plastic, which is available at Lowe's or Home Depot - it's much heavier than a painter's dropcloth, and it's usually near the building supplies - just ask them where to find it. Then I folded the ends in from each side and rolled them together and clipped them with clothespins. It's noticeably warmer inside there already!

Apple Rosemary Chicken

I'm usually not too keen on crockpot recipes, but this one is really good! It's adapted from a recipe on the Food Network website, but since we just got a huge freezer pack from Keller's farm store, we only have whole chickens. I didn't feel like cutting it up so I put the whole thing in. It makes enough for plenty of leftovers, but you can cut the recipe in half if you like.

1 whole chicken
2 cans cream of chicken (or mushroom, or celery) soup
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup white wine
5 apples
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic (peeled)
4 good-size sprigs rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
1 package extra-wide egg noodles

Slice apples and onions 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick, and put in crockpot with the rosemary sprigs and garlic. Nestle the whole chicken amongst them. Pour the soup, broth and wine over everything and put on the lid. Cook on high 4-6 hours or low 8-10 hours. The chicken will be falling off the bone and the apples and onions release their juices to make a delicious sauce. Cook the egg noodles as directed on the package. Serve chicken pieces and sauce over noodles, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Caramelized Pear, Pecan and Parmesan Salad

I've been so busy enjoying all the other fruits of fall, I'd almost forgotten about the pears. I have two big paper sacks of pears from my backyard tree sitting in the bottom of my refrigerator, ready to be taken out and ripened a few at a time. Unlike most fruits, they are best picked when green and ripened off the tree, because they ripen from the inside out, and the centers can rot before the outside is ripe. So now is the perfect time to make a succulent fall salad with pears. 

I know I've published a pear salad before, but just I have to share this fantastic technique from Cooks' Illustrated for caramelizing the pears - it makes less-than-stellar pears taste magnificent. The simple combination of sugar, salt and pepper is surprisingly magical. I have a White Doyenne pear tree in my backyard, and I haven't quite gotten the hang of when to harvest the pears so that they ripen up nice and juicy... the fruit starts to get a blush and break off easily around mid-August, so this year I thought OK, now must be the time. So I picked maybe half of them, then I started thinking, maybe these are a bit too green. So I waited a couple more weeks, and picked the rest. Now I think they still might have benefited from another week or two, because they are pretty dry even when I let them ripen in a paper bag on the counter for several days. If anyone has advice on this topic, I'd love to hear it!

It's almost pecan season, and in case you didn't know, Dona Ana county is one of the top pecan-producing counties in the nation. The NM Pecan Festival was just a couple of weeks ago in Las Cruces, and they're expecting an especially large crop this year. This year's harvest won't actually start until after the first frost in the southern part of the state, which happens to be forecast for next week. The sweetness of pecans and pears with the buttery parmesan complement the slight bitterness of any salad greens, but especially sharp-flavored ones such as arugula or cress.

One large pear (or a few tiny ones like I have), quartered
1 t. olive oil
½ t. sugar
Pinch of salt
A few grinds of pepper
2 t. balsamic vinegar

3 T. balsamic vinegar
1 T. minced chives
1 T. olive or grapeseed oil
Pinch of salt

Two large handfuls of arugula leaves
Two handfuls of pecans, chopped
Several thin slices of parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler

Heat the oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. If your pears are juicy, you'll probably need to turn up the heat and don't cook them too long. Toss the pear quarters with sugar, salt and pepper. Lay each quarter on one cut side in the skillet. Cook until lightly browned, about 2-4 minutes, then tip each piece onto its other cut side to brown. Turn off the heat and drizzle balsamic vinegar over the pears, stirring gently until it forms a syrupy coating on the pears. Remove from the skillet and set aside to cool. Whisk balsamic vinegar with chives, oil and salt to make the dressing. Slice the pear quarters crosswise, if they are large, or just leave them whole if they are tiny. Arrange the pears, pecans and parmesan on a bed of arugula, and drizzle with dressing. Serves two.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Quince and Goat Cheese Tart

This is a fantastic, rich and tangy dessert - I don't think I've ever made anything quite like it before. It's kind of like a cheesecake or a cheese danish, but with lots of fruit flavor, all wrapped up in a flaky pie crust. I was inspired by a recipe in Deborah Madison's Local Flavors cookbook, but it called for creme fraiche (which I can never find) as well as ricotta (which I never have on hand), as well as making a crust with ground walnuts. I wanted something simpler, with less cheese and more quince and walnut goodness. Next time I think I might try even a bit less cheese (or maybe just leave out the cream), and fold the crust over the edges like a rustic tart.

1 pie crust
1 pint quince slices poached in syrup (see below)
4 oz. goat cheese
1/4 cup cream
1 egg
1 egg yolk (I'm not sure this is necessary)
2 Tbs brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup (or more) chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 400F. Lay the pie crust in the pan and cover with foil, then weight it with another pie pan (or pie weights, or beans) and bake 15-20 minutes until it is golden brown. Turn oven down to 350. Whip the goat cheese, cream and egg(s) with the brown sugar and cinnamon until smooth. Lay the quinces in the bottom of the crust and pour the cheese mixture over them. Scatter walnuts over the top. Bake 30 minutes more, until the cheese is mostly solidified and lightly browned at the edges.

To prepare the poached quince slices: Core and cut 2 pounds of quinces in 1/4-inch wedges, add to 2 cups sugar in 6 cups water. Bring to a boil and simmer until quinces are tender, about 45 minutes. It's super-easy to can them for later use... just put the quinces and syrup in clean canning jars, screw the lids on and set in boiling water bath for at least 10 minutes at sea level, 15-20 minutes at high altitude. After you remove them from the boiling water, you should hear the lids ping within a few hours, letting you know they are sealed - if they don't seal, just refrigerate them.

Tomatillo (or Green Tomato) Salsa

This is my all-time favorite salsa, from Cheryl and Bill Jamison's Border Cookbook. Chipotles give it a rich smoky flavor, caramelized onions give it a little sweetness, and the roasted tomatillos are tangy with a wonderful malty flavor. I didn't grow tomatillos in my garden this year, but I've got tons of green tomatoes, so I thought I'd try using them instead, and it turned out almost as good.

I've grown tomatillos in the past, and they are marvelous, sprawling, vigorous plants that thrive in poor soil and hot sun... the only problem is the pests that love them too (*see below for pest discussion - I don't want to ruin your appetite!)  Even with the pests, the tomatillo plants are so robust that I've still gotten a huge harvest every year I've grown them, so I highly recommend giving them a try. And then you can also make some delicious Verdolagas and Tomatillos Stewed with Pork.  If you don't have a garden, check the regular grocery store (where they may be expensive) or the Mexican grocery (where they're usually really cheap).

1 pound whole tomatillos (husks removed) or small green tomatoes
1 Tbs olive oil
1 small onion
1 Tbs vinegar
1 tsp chipotle powder or 1 canned chipotle in adobo (minced)
1 tsp dried oregano, preferably Mexican
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup fresh chopped cilantro

Heat the broiler. Broil tomatillos in a single layer, turning occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, until they are soft and brown in spots. Meanwhile, heat the oil and chop the onions - red or sweet onions are really nice. Fry them on medium heat until they are soft - I like to cook them until they are nice and golden brown for a rich, caramelized flavor. Cool the tomatillos, chop them coarsely, and add them to the onion. Add the vinegar - I like to use cider vinegar for its fruity flavor, but with the green tomatoes I tried malt vinegar to replace the malty flavor of the tomatillos. Stir in the rest of the ingredients and cook on low for a few more minutes to let the flavors mingle.

*Not many people grow tomatillos, so no one ever tells you what to watch out for. My major problem was the three-lined potato beetle, which most garden references call "not a significant pest" - ha! Their disgusting, slimy larvae ate most of the leaves off every one of my tomatillo plants. The good news is, they weren't remotely interested in anything else in my garden! If you're vigilant, you can control them with insecticidal soap. And then there are tiny worms that can infest the fruit - I haven't seen these myself, but the guys from Vida Verde Farm lost about 50% of their crop this year to them! On the other hand, their husks protect them from being eaten by grasshoppers, and they don't get those giant tomato hornworms.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Green Tomato Pie

This was Dave's grandfather's favorite pie. It's richly spiced, kind of like mincemeat. I love it with all tomatoes, but Dave's mom uses half apples. Some recipes call for raisins as well.

It's been a couple weeks since our first frost, but if you grew your own tomatoes this year, your kitchen counter is probably covered with green ones right now. I'm always a little sad to see my tomato vines killed by frost just when they are at their peak of glory, and it seems like a shame to let so much potential go to waste.

Some can ripen indoors over time – you can tell by the warm yellowish cast to their skin. If you carefully lay them in a single layer in a cardboard box and cover them with newspaper, you may be able to eat red tomatoes all the way up until Christmas. Others are still so immature that they will never ripen – these are a pale whitish-green color, and they are perfect for making green tomato pie! If you use the slightly more mature ones there's a more distinct tomato flavor, so it just depends on what you like.

2 pounds very green tomatoes (about 8 medium-size)
½ C. brown sugar
½ C. white sugar
1 T. flour
Zest of one lemon

½ t. cinnamon
¼ t. nutmeg
¼ t. ground ginger (optional)
¼ t. salt
2 crusts for 9” pie

Preheat oven to 375º F. Cut small tomatoes in half, or large tomatoes in quarters, and remove the seeds because they can make the pie too juicy. Slice about ¼ inch thick. Toss with sugar, flour, lemon zest and spices (my original recipe called for some lemon juice, but this can make the pie too juicy, so it's safest to leave it out). Pile filling into unbaked bottom crust, pressing down gently to settle the tomato slices. Seal top crust over and cut slits to let the steam escape. Bake 45 minutes or until the crust is golden-brown and the juices are thickened and bubbling. I tried this without the top crust, and I think the tomatoes didn't get cooked as evenly as they would with two crusts - but it was still tasty!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Buckwheat - Better Than Oatmeal!

This is one of our breakfast staples. Now that the weather's getting cold again, I love a hot bowl of toasty goodness.  I know it's not really a veggie, it's a grain, but I probably need to eat more whole grains. Buckwheat is high in iron and B vitamins, as well as being gluten-free! You can find whole buckwheat groats in the bulk bins at natural foods stores - sometimes you can buy them already roasted, otherwise dry-roast them in a skillet for a few minutes, until they start to smell good. The key to making buckwheat taste nutty and delicious, with a really nice texture, is to bake it. We usually do it in the toaster oven.

1/2 cup whole roasted buckwheat groats
1 cup boiling water
1 Tbs honey
Pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients in an ovenproof dish (or cast-iron skillet). Cover tightly and bake at 350F for 20 minutes, until all liquid is evaporated. Serve with a dollop of plain or vanilla yogurt.

Root Vegetable Pot Pie

As the weather gets colder, I'm in the mood for baking. Root vegetables are so hearty and packed with nutrition, they're the perfect fall meal.

You can mix and match any kind of root vegetables to fill this savory pie (or even kohlrabi, which is technically not a root, but has a similar texture). We just had our first frost, which makes parsnips all the sweeter. Carrots also keep beautifully stored in the ground throughout the winter. I've bought some gorgeous red turnips this year from Majestic Valley Farm - many people are afraid of turnips, including myself, but they lend a delicious earthy note to the mix. And of course, potatoes... not all potatoes are created equal! The potato varieties you can buy from local farmers have so much more flavor than the typical Russets we buy at the grocery store. Beets could be good too, but they tend to overpower the more delicate flavors of other root veggies. Meat is optional.

2 parsnips
2 carrots
2 medium-size potatoes
1 large turnip or rutabaga
1 small onion
4 cloves garlic
Olive oil
½ t. salt
¼ t. pepper
½ pound stew meat (optional)
¼ C. white wine or dry vermouth
2 C. vegetable or chicken stock
1 t. thyme
2 T. flour + 2 T. cold water
1 or 2 pie crusts

Preheat oven to 500º F. Cut vegetables into ½ inch pieces. Crush the garlic cloves and peel them. Toss everything with olive oil, salt and pepper in a large baking pan. Roast, turning occasionally, for 20-25 minutes or until all vegetables are tender. Turn the oven down to 375º F.

If using meat, brown in a skillet until cooked through, and set aside. When vegetables are done, remove them from the roasting pan and set them aside. Deglaze the roasting pan by pouring the wine or vermouth into it and scraping up all the little bits from the bottom. Pour this liquid into the skillet, add stock and thyme, and bring to a boil. Shake the flour with cold water in a jar (or just whisk in a bowl), and add to the stock, stirring vigorously. Simmer until the gravy is thickened and reduced by about half. Toss the meat and vegetables in the gravy.
If you like your pot pies to have a bottom crust, pour the filling into the bottom crust, otherwise just pour directly into the pie plate. Seal the top crust over everything, and bake 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown.