Friday, July 27, 2007

Dog Days of Summer

July is usually one of the hotter months of the year. Most years, cool temperatures turn sullen and soggy, making everything wilt and everyone flee to cooler places. This July has been a welcome difference from previous years. Very few heat spikes and lots of refreshing breezes. Ask me how welcome this will be during the winter when there is a corresponding "coolness" to the deep freeze temperatures in January. I'll be looking back at July quite wistfully.

July is one of the busiest months of our year. With holidays, birthdays, summer events, and outings, it's been a blur. The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity. Layering VBS with a day wading in the river and a bowling spree along side of a combined birthday party makes for some crazy busy days. We're all ready to kick back, relax, and enjoy the rest of summer.

When we first moved out here, Dog--born into metropolitan overpopulation--would ask when we were going to go to the park again. He was accustomed to a very small patch of green to run around mandatory, since there were grass spurs. The only places for a child with that much energy to explode safely was an already overcrowded city park. After a few times of hearing this question, I led him to his back door, pointed to the sandbox, swing set, play house, and patch of woods that shade the back portion of our acreage and informed him that he lives at the park. I'm reminded of a billboard down the road a ways from us: "I'm not on vacation....I live here!" Yep. That's us!

July is the month for camping out. I grew up camping out, so I suppose the camping gene is in the pool. Dog loves to camp out. Actually, all of the Hobbits do. The shine has worn off for me--Princess informs me that I'm too old...among other things--but Tool Guy remains diligent to indulge. He has lingering memories of wanting to camp out with his father while growing up and can never fail to accommodate them when weather permits. So he pulls out the tent, which stays up until camping season is over. Yeah, it kills all of the grass underneath it, but we're raising kids, not a lawn. The memories will linger much longer than the bare patch where they were made.

Snacks during camping out are mandatory. There's always the fries to fall back on, but--would you believe it?--even a Hobbit gets tired of fries. Popcorn is always a great camp out food. Pity it is off the menu. Still, I kicked around some possible substitutions. A few suggestions floated around the Internet, like popped amaranth. A little coconut oil heated in a skillet and let 'er pop. I tried this with sorghum, but it soaked up the oil significantly and left a lot of unpopped kernels. Then someone gifted me with a used hot air popcorn popper. I did delude myself into thinking that I could rid it of all of the cross-contamination from the corn. Yes, this was complete self-delusion. But what I did learn was that a hot air popper makes superior and outstanding popped sorghum. It's well worth the investment in a new and uncontaminated popper.

"Popcorn" Popped Sorghum

Presto (or similar model) hot air popcorn popper, preferably new and just out of the box
3/4 cup sorghum

The instructions say to fill with no more than 1/2 cup popcorn, but since sorghum is a smaller and lighter grain than corn, a little more is necessary to hold the kernels down long enough to heat and pop. Pour into plugged popper and cover. Wait patiently. It always feels like it is taking longer than necessary, but it will happen. As it pops, the finished grain may need a little encouragement with a spoon to come into the bowl.

Popped sorghum, to our palates, tastes just like popcorn and can accordingly be flavored according to tastes and tolerances. Just the sort of packable treat that makes a wonderful mess inside of a tent, while listening to the deer migrate by and wondering if the bear will visit this time. Who needs ghost stories?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Good Things From the Garden

One thing that I've discovered about gardening is that it isn't a summer event. For those of us who have moved from "hobby" into "obsession" find that it is a year round activity. As soon as the garden is put to bed in the fall, the next bucket of kitchen scraps starts the compost pile that will feed next year's garden. And then there are all of those gardening catalogs. Somehow they seem to hunt us down and find us. You'd know me by the flock of fluttering catalogs trailing behind me, rippling in the breeze. I can't seem to get away from them. So, of course, endless hours are spent poring over the endless choices that somehow must be crammed into a very limited space. It doesn't matter that I've doubled my garden size every year for the past three years. It's still a very limited space. When Tool Guy came home with that tiller, he thought he was buying me a piece of equipment. He didn't know he was buying me a license to kill....uh....till.

My local soul sister in food, who also is responsible for creating this typing gardening monster, laments along with me about the "so many seeds, so little space" dilemma and we agree with each other how difficult it is to resist the temptation to over plant. When there are yards and yards of dirt spread before you and gaping feet of space between each little dot of green, it is impossible to forebear from stuffing "just a little lettuce" or "a root crop that won't compete upwards for space" in there somewhere. And if I trellis my cucumbers upward, then I'll be able to put six plants in that space where I might otherwise only be able to fit two, right? Now, during the warmest part of the summer, my greenhouse looks like something from "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" and I only venture in with machete and pith helmet. The bees are so thick that a keeper's suit wouldn't be an illogical leap. I'm hoping this augurs well for a bumper year.

One of the things that keeps gardening interesting is that there are an infinite combination of variables every year. Weather, soil quality, and bugs are just some of the vaguarities. There's also seed quality and seed choices. This year I opted for a combination of heirloom and hybrid. The heirloom lettuce and radishes are definitely outperforming previous years of hybrids. My crunchy-granola alter ego is taking a bit of a punch, though, since the hybrid tomatoes are having a hard time supporting all of the fruit they are producing. My tenacious heirlooms are hanging in there, fighting the good fight against leaf fungus, and pluckily putting out some fruit. It's still early in the game, so they may catch up. I'm keeping careful tally to help my seed choices for next year. See? I'm already planning for next year. It's an obsession, I tell you.

And the cucumbers. Well, heirloom or hybrid, cukes are cukes and they are proliferate. It's a good thing because Bug and Tool Guy adore pickles. The very last of last year's harvest bob along the bottom of a mason jar in the refrigerator, carefully rationed out until this year's crop started coming in. Tool Guy asks nervously when the next batch of pickles will be ready.

And these pickles aren't just crunchy, tangy treats. They're medicine. Because lacto-fermented vegetables contain probiotic value. Like the probiotics that they charge $60 a bottle for. In digging around and reading, it seems that every culture and cuisine has their fermented foods, some sort of probiotic food that is eaten daily. Shortcuts, like marinating veggies in distilled or pasteurized vinegar, aren't going to get you there and canning them would kill all of the good guys anyway. The good news is that fermentation is how we used to preserve food before refrigeration and canning technology developed, so that kind of processing is redundant and unnecessary. Any dish that calls for vinegar used to be a probiotic food back before vinegar became the highly processed ingredient it is today.

Sandor Katz has a very user-friendly and excellent work on this subject called Wild Fermentation. His recipes succeed for me when others have flopped miserably and so I've drawn on his expertise for this pickle recipe. One of the reasons that his recipe is so successful is that he uses traditional methods and ingredients. Some people have suggested using kefir whey or commercial kefir powders to jump start the ferment "for insurance," but I find these yield a mushy pickle. Ew. Salt is really all that you need to hold the bad guys at bay until the good guys have had time to take hold. Bacteria can be eliminated by changing the pH of the environment, which is why vinegar is such a good cleaner and why many raw egg recipes also call for vinegar. Salt also keeps the pH hospitable to good flora, while killing off the bad.

This is one of those recipes that take time. The pickles need to ferment for 1-4 weeks before being ready. He calls for a crock with a plate that fits inside, a gallon jug of water for a weight, and cloth cover. I use a glass gallon jar and a very clean, thoroughly boiled rock. I'm in New England. We have lots of rocks. Ask my tiller.

Live Pickles

3-4 pounds unwaxed cucumbers
3/8 cup sea salt (iodized salt will inhibit all bacterial growth, including good stuff)
3-4 heads fresh flowering dill
2-3 heads garlic, peeled
1 pinch peppercorns
1 handful fresh grape, cherry, oak, and/or horseradish leaves (if available)

I took the shortcut and used McCormick pickling spices. An obliging oak tree in my backyard supplied the leaves. These leaves have tannins in them which help keep the pickles crunchy.

1. Rinse cukes and remove blossom ends. Scrape off any remaining blossom end. The blossoms contain enzymes that will interfere with fermentation.
2. Dissolve salt in 1/2 gallon of water to create brine solution. Stir until thoroughly dissolved.
3. In a clean crock, measure out spices, garlic, and leaves.
4. Place cucumbers in crock. I slice mine, but these can be pickled whole.
5. Pour brine over cucumbers, cover with plate and weight. If the brine doesn't cover the weighed-down plate, add more brine mixed at the same ratio of just under 1 tablespoon salt to each cup of water.
6. Cover with cloth to keep out dust and flies and store in a cool place.
7. Check the crock daily, skimming any mold from the surface, but don't worry about not getting it all. Rinse the plate and weight if there is mold. Taste the pickles after a few days.
8. Checking the crock daily, between 1-4 weeks (depending on temperature), the pickles will be ready. Moving them to a cooler environment, such as the fridge will slow down the fermentation.

Friday, July 13, 2007

This Pampered Chef

Some weeks you get the bear and some weeks the bear gets you. It was one of those weeks. I had plenty of fodder for meditation while mowing, except the mower is in the shop. There'll be plenty to mow when it gets back, so I'll have ample supply to meditate on all of the things that happened during this bearish week.

Mostly the stuff going wrong was inside of me. One of the dynamics that has developed in me during all of these food issues is a need for things to stay put after I have a solution worked out. After I've found a source, a vendor, a supplier, a food, a product, I need them to STAY PUT. Every time a label changes, I get cold sweats, because that usually heralds an ingredient change. We lost Applegate Hotdogs to corn-based lactic acid starter culture in just this way. I try to remind myself that I have to remain flexible. After all, that's how we found The Buffalo Guys buffalo hotdogs that are even better.

I had to disassemble the stove again. It wasn't my fault this time. Truly. Well, it might have been an artifact from the boil over, but at least it wasn't any fresh stupidity on my part. My blow torch burner began to lose its power and it took me rather a while to realize what was going on. When the flame was a tiny puff of blue instead of a two inch tongue, I caught a clue. Sleuthing around under the cover, I learned that the gas comes out of little jets underneath. After scrubbing around the jet, I discovered that the hole in the jet was clogged. A quick session with a straightened paper clip and Bob's your uncle! I can't tell you how heartening this is, especially since I've got a week's worth of daily frying fries coming up and was exceedingly discouraged by the stove's failing performance. The doctor says that my sling will come off by then, as well.....all that back patting, you know....

Lots of other upheavals inside, too, which are typical of a woman my age, as well as seeming to follow the Hobbits down this path of food intolerances myself. This means bye-bye to my favorite foods. Isn't this always the way it works? Feh.

Tool Guy has been a real trooper through all of this. Neck rubs and sympathetic hugs. Meals that I don't have to cook. Tool Guy, being internet handy, started surfing and found some absolutely divine recipes that he can cook without having me hover in the kitchen. After I got over the idea of having my space invaded (that being flexible thing again), I found that this can get addictive. After he made this recipe, all of the Hobbits and I agreed that it needs to be in our weekly repertoire.

Cajun Pork Roast

3 T paprika
2 t dried crushed oregano
1/2 t cayenne pepper
1/2 t ground pepper
1/4 t ground nutmeg
1 T garlic powder
2 t dried crushed thyme
1/2 t salt
1/2 t ground cumin
2 lb. boneless pork loin roast

Preheat oven to 350* or as Tool Guy did it on the grill with a temp running between 350*-400*ish.

Combine paprika, garlic powder, oregano, thyme, cayenne pepper, salt, white pepper, cumin and nutmeg in a small bowl; rub over all sides of roast. Place roast in shallow baking pan or, as Tool Guy did, wrap in foil, seal and place on grill.

In the oven, bake for 1 hour or until no longer pink in center and internal temperature of 155*-160* is reached, or as Tool Guy did, for 20-30 minutes.

Slice and serve.

He serves this with a side dish of mashed sweet potatoes, garlic, and ghee, which is truly delicious. Especially when I don't have to make it. The hobbits have unilaterally announced that they prefer this rendered with Potato Buds instead of sweet potatoes. I told you they're Philistines. I've tried my hand at it once, but the Hobbits have caucused and agreed that this wasn't my dish and informed me that I needed to leave it to the expert. Oh. Well. Punish me.

Friday, July 6, 2007


It was our country's birthday this past week. Dog's birthday was in there somewhere. I'm reminded of Jimmy Cagney's portrayal of George M. Cohen, who was born on the 4th of July. "I always thought the fireworks were for me." I suppose it must auger well for Dog that he thought so, too, for the first four years of his life.

For the first few years, we spent the holiday weekend at my parents' place with a neighborhood parade and home town fireworks and always waited to celebrate Dog's birthday there. When we moved up to Small Town, USA, we relocated our traditions. Before going everything-free, we did the fire works and small town parade stuff...lots of noise, floats, and candy flung at cerubic Hobbits on the curb. The first year of everything-free, we still went to the parade. Dog and I had a discussion ahead of time that there would be no candy from the parade floats. When he's not infracting, Dog has a very rational and sometimes disconcertingly adult way of viewing things. I cautiously informed him that all of the candy had corn in it and suggested that if that spoiled the fun for him and he didn't want to go to the parade, then that would be okay. With a very conciliatory expression on his face, he assured me, "That's okay, Mom. I won't be sad." He and Bug had a grand time collecting the candy and giving it away to all of the surrounding observers. I have to tell you that this gesture from such younglings created quite a few expressions of surprise.

But once the sensitivities had escalated to even contact reactions, we stopped attending the parade altogether. The fireworks has become the high point of the whole day. The volunteer fire department in a neighboring village uses the opportunity as their big fund raiser of the year and they put on a display that would make some big towns ashamed. Well worth the entrance fee. We've made it the focal point of our celebration for several years now and the Hobbits have come to depend on it. They talk about it all of the rest of the year. Only birthdays and Christmas get more air time. Well, Princess didn't like it for the first couple of years, but she's come around. Something to be said for sitting out on the chairs on the fairgrounds, chasing fireflies and waiting for the show to start. It makes one feel connected to all of the generations who have done the same thing every year for the past 200+ years.

Special occasions like birthdays and parties and high days are always fraught with difficulties because all celebrations are centered around food. I remember attending the fireworks display last year and being parked next to a pick up truck that pulled up with a full sized bbq grill in the back. Added a whole 'nuther level to the definition of tail-gating. I've made everything-free birthday cakes....with pink icing yet for Princess, of course....but simple and easy stuff appeals to me these days and I'm glad that sometimes the Hobbits opt for the simple and easy stuff.

This year for his birthday, Dog requested rice crispy treats. Dr. Peter D'Adamo, in Cooking Right 4 Your Type, has a recipe for just such a confection that required very little tweaking for our type: the everything-free type. The original recipe calls for honey or brown rice syrup as the sweetener and he recommends refrigerating the final product to avoid the pieces falling apart. I found that including maple syrup and boiling the combined sweeteners to the string stage yielded a treat that didn't need to be refrigerated to hold together. It's even more delicious than the commercial corn-laden version. Since my Hobbits are children of my heart, they love chocolate as much as I do, so I tossed in some safe chocolate chips as an added fillip.

Rice Crispy

4 T ghee
1/4 cup Lundberg brown rice syrup
1/4 cup maple syrup
4 T maple sugar
6 cups puffed cereal of choice--I used Erewhon crispy rice
1/2 c Enjoy Life Chocolate chips (optional)

In sauce pan, melt ghee, syrups, and sugar together. Bring to a boil and allow to bubble until the liquid creates a string when spoon is dipped in and removed. Pour into bowl with cereal and stir until incorporated. Add chips and stir. Expect the chips to melt somewhat. Press into flat rectangular pan. Allow to cool and cut into squares. These will hold together at room temperature, but refrigeration will keep them fresher longer....if any remain to be stored.

Happy Birthday, Dog!