Morning Score

This morning, as I walked up the cool dewy driveway to feed the horses, I noticed something in their pasture that hadn’t been there yesterday.  The pasture grows rocks;  I know because I pick them up and toss them over the fence regularly, yet there still seem to be plenty around.  This didn’t look quite like rocks though, or any of the other paraphernalia the horses lose in the pasture, so I walked down to investigate.

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Hooray!  It was what I was hoping they might be…some puffball mushrooms.  They must have blossomed in the field after the hard, much needed rain we had yesterday afternoon. The horse had stepped on some of them, but I managed to salvage some good mushrooms  “for the pot”.  I didn’t have my camera with me, so I can’t show you, but there was clear swath of darker color in the grass where the fungus was growing, like a big comma, and there was a sweep of puffballs, the fruit of the fungus, blooming right down the center.

As I walked back home with my loot I got to reflecting about mushrooms, for which I have a deep fondness.  They often grow in dead or dying material. In other words, they are a product of decay.  It amazes me that nature is structured in such a way  that life flows naturally from death.  Take compost, for instance.  I have a compost pile into which I tossed a rotting pumpkin last year, as well as all my other garden waste.  This year I can’t see my compost pile for the hybrid squash/pumpkin Audrey III growing there.  Abundance from decay.  And yet we still see death as a finality.

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Back in the kitchen putting away the mushrooms, I was chagrined to remember that I have two dozen jalapenos, 10 ripe tomatoes, 4 cabbages, 6 cucumbers, 2 giant zucchini the size of my arm, 3 peppers, a basket of green beans and a watermelon already stuffed in the fridge.  Why can’t I find a score of puffball mushrooms in February, when there is nary a fresh thing in sight?  So I’ll make some hot sauce, roast the tomatoes for the freezer (a yummy trick I learned from my mother-in-law)  whip up  some coleslaw for dinner, jar some pickles, freeze the green beans, and leave the zucchini in my neighbors car, but I am definitely having a mushroom omelet for breakfast.

 

MUSHROOM OMELET

2/3 cup mushrooms of any kind, diced

2 fresh local eggs (3 if you are hungry)

2 tsp. butter divided

1 oz. goat cheese

Salt and pepper

Heat a nonstick pan on medium low heat.   Crack the eggs in a bowl and scramble lightly with a fork.  Saute the mushrooms in 1/2 the butter until tender and most of the water has evaporated.  If the mushrooms dry out before they are cooked through, add a tablespoon of water to the pan and cook until it’s dry again.  Add the eggs and the rest of the butter and cover for 2-3 min.  When the eggs are mostly cooked, add the cheese to one side and gently fold the eggs onto the cheese. Turn off the heat. Cover again for a few more minutes until eggs are cooked through.

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Kitchen Essentials and Venison Sausage

Eating locally and seasonally in Connecticut is a hard task unless you plan ahead.  Making things and storing them for future times is essential to a happy cook and a well-stocked kitchen.  In order to put up produce and meat, sauces and fruits, I have some essentials in my kitchen that I could not live without.  Below you will find a list of must-haves for preparing for leaner times. 

Freezer

I can’t say enough about investing in a good chest freezer.  The simplest way to store meat, vegetables, and fruit is to freeze them as soon as possible after picking or harvesting.  It maintains the vitamins and nutrients far better than canning or other methods, and in most cases keeps the food safe for months or even years.  It is the easiest and fastest way to put up a harvest at its freshest, and to store produce for the winter months.  I have a deep chest freezer that I bought new from Sears for about 350.00, and I store thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh meat and vegetables in it every fall to last through the winter months.  If you don’t have one, don’t want to incur the cost of a new one, there are several online sites where you might shop for a used one for much less.  So much of the excess produce from my kitchen garden goes into the freezer right after picking, and it is such a delight to browse the shelves for a cooking idea knowing that my choices are ripe, delicious, healthful, and clean.    

                Canning pot or Pressure cooker.

A canning pot is a lovely thing to have, and very useful for storing jellies, sauces, broth, fish, and some veggies.  Not all veggies are suitable for canning fresh, so we can mainly prepared foods, like chili and tomato sauces, sweet butters and jellies and cooked vegetables like sauerkraut.  We use ours most often during the fall months when we make and can sweets and sauces to give as gifts during the holidays.  We also jar hot sauces and pickles of all sorts, chilies, beans, corn and tomatoes.  If you lack a proper canning pot, take some time to look for one at your local thrift or consignment store, where they can often be picked up for a few dollars.  Without one, you can still make many canning recipes in a regular sturdy pot.

                Juicer

I love my juicer.  It was given to me by a dear friend who lived off the grid.  He had a generator for electricity, but every time he tried to juice he would blow a fuse.  When he parted with the juicer, he made me promise to make him juice anytime he came to visit, and even though he still lives at about 10,000 feet, deep in the mountains of Colorado, with no phone,  I’m still waiting to make good on my promise.  The juicer is a Champion, and very old and outdated.  It is essentially a big motor connected to a shaft that drives a shredder and some plastic implements to strain the juice, but it will juice anything.  I could put a potato in and get potato juice.  I use it for fresh fruit and veggie juice during the summer months, (carrot beet apple is my favorite) and in the fall I juice leftover kale and spinach, freeze the juice and add it to soups and stews during the winter to add flavor and green nutrients. 

                Dehydrator

Anyone can use their oven for a dehydrator, but it’s just so quick and easy to use one made for the purpose that this is on my list as well.  With the dehydrator there is no need to turn the produce, as it gets evenly dry in a much shorter time than using the oven.   We use ours to dry fruit for snacks, beef jerky, dried fish to be used in soups, and most especially mushrooms.  Dried and then frozen, mushrooms can be stored for years in the freezer, but they never make it that long.  Wild mushrooms are a treasure and  we hoard them in season and use them sparingly for the rest of the year.  I’m learning more and more about the wild world of fungi and I’m excited for a season of mushrooming this summer and fall. 

                Grinder/sausage maker

When you hunt or gather the majority of your own protein, having a grinder is a blessing.  Meatloaf, hamburgers, hash, and meatballs all require the meat to be finely ground.  The added benefit is, with a small attachment, ground meat can be stuffed into casing to make delicious sausage!  I love venison sausage, and many of our friends and family have come to love it as well.  It’s one of the things we give as gifts during the holidays and it is always well received.  My husband makes a garlic cheddar sausage that is mouth-wateringly good.  The recipe follows.

                Cheddar Garlic Venison Sausage

4 Lbs. Venison, ground fine

1 ¼ Lb. Pork fat, ground fine

8-10 cloves garlic, chopped fine

½   Lb. Cheddar cheese

2+ Tbsp. Crushed red pepper, depending on your spice tolerance

½ cup white wine

2 Tsp. Sugar

1+ Tbsp. coarse ground Black pepper

1 Tbsp. salt

5 feet medium sausage casing (you can get this from a butcher).

 Mix the fat and meat together and then mix in the remaining ingredients.  Mix by hand until everything is uniform.  Stuff the casings with the mixture into 4 to 5 inch lengths.  Allow to settle in the fridge for a day or two, to allow the flavors to blend.   Cook in water or stock, on a grill or pan fry over medium low heat.  These can be used like any sausage, served alone or with pasta, in a salad, or on sandwiches.  They freeze remarkably well.   Try substituting any game meat.  We made them with caribou once and they were just as delicious.

Cookbooks: We need them.

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I love to read cookbooks.  I collect and read cookbooks like other people read novels.  Not just when I need a recipe, either.  Last fall my mom sent me three cookbooks from her collection that kept me entertained for the whole winter season.  One was called Mediterranean Harvest, one from Mystic, Connecticut, where I spent much of my childhood, and one was a collection of recipes from lighthouse families in and around the Boston area, where my mom spent much of her early life.  I learned the differences between soil compositions in olive growing regions in Europe, the history of Cod fishing in the Atlantic and, well, that lighthouse keepers don’t eat very well.  The point is that good cookbooks have more to offer us than interesting recipes.  They can change how we view our food and shape our relationship with that essential and intricate love affair going on between our mouths and our environment.  That is why it is important to buy actual cookbooks, not just look for recipes online.  While getting a quick idea for something to make for dinner is invaluable, the knowledge, experience and insight that went into that recipe are usually not included.  Without that, we only get half the experience.  Becoming a good cook, and a responsible eater, is more than learning how to make something a certain way.  It is a process we embark on and develop as we eat, as we read, and as we garden and grow.  Go pick out a new cookbook today, and see what you can learn.  Do you have a favorite?  What have you learned from it?  Happy eating!

Pig in a…Bucket?

ImageWhen I was just a girl, maybe ten years old, one spring evening my dad came home with three tiny pink piglets .  We had known they were coming; we had spent the previous weekend renovating our old play house for them to live in.  The playhouse, two stories with a rooftop deck and swing set, had to be essentially chopped in half with a chainsaw to house the little squirmers.   As per the “Law of Ed”,  wherein if one nail is good than two are better, ten being best, the thing had been built like a fortress.  We put the modified house on sledges so we could drag it around with the tractor if they made too much of a mess of it.   It turned out to be quite a nice setup for the piglets.  They had an old pile of blankets in a corner and a nice window, with a ramp up to the door for their tiny legs.  We named them sweet things like Daisy and Maisy and Sunshine.  We loved them.  They were so smart and cute and….pink!

My mother had protested the acquisition of three pigs, saying one pig would be plenty for a family of four.  My father claimed at the time, and I still believe this even if it isn’t true, that pigs need to be in groups of three.  He explained that one pig alone thinks it doesn’t exist  and will not thrive.  Two pigs together look at each other and, seeing one pig, think they are alone and will not thrive.  With three, a pig can look at the other two and say to himself  “that’s me, and I’m in good company”, and they happily go about the business of getting enormous.

And that is exactly what they do.  The tiny pink wigglers who we carried around in our arms and fed with bottles of warm milk grew and grew.  Their tiny pink mouths got teeth.  And they learned how to use them.  In just a few short months the baby pigs went from about 20 pounds to about 400.  No lie.  And in less time than that they became mean.  Mean, mean, mean.

At 10, there was a short time when I was able to hold my own with the pigs, but after a time they could out run and out bite me, not to mention out number me.  Of course I was the one in charge of feeding them.  I can hear my father’s chuckle as he mutters something about “character building” .  Well, those pigs got the best of me.  They were kept in a large area fenced in with a low strand of electric wire.  Pigs are very smart, but the one thing pigs can’t do is jump, so a wire about 18″ off the ground is enough to keep them in place.   They ate just about anything; I think we fed them eggshells, along with any other kitchen scraps we threw away.  It was all mixed in with a bucket of ground corn.  Truly it was slop, and my job was to hop over the wire, run to the trough, dump in the slop,  turn tail and make it back over the wire before they could try to knock me down and bite me.  And if luck was with me, I’d clear the wire without getting a zap! At least that’s how I remember it.  I hated the pigs!

Then one crisp fall afternoon I came home from school and heard a curious sound.  It was a beeping sound coming from the back yard.  Beep, Beep, Beep.  It went on and on and on.  Beep Beep Beep.  I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it was driving me crazy.  I wandered around the barn and the yard and the pond until I finally came to what was making that awful beeping sound.  It was behind the pig house, a backhoe, driving in reverse.  And the backhoe had a chain hanging from it’s scoop that was going down to a steaming 50 gallon bucket.  As I watched, the scoop lifted, and out of the bucket came…. Daisy?  Sunshine?  I couldn’t tell.  It was horrible.  The sight of that huge porcine body suspended over the bucket was absolutely shocking to me, and I will forever associate the sound of a backhoe in reverse with death.

As much as I hated those evil pigs, and had prayed for their immediate demise, I was truly astonished and saddened to see on of them actually dead.  I vowed never to consume even a mouthful of their flesh, even out of spite.

Until, of course, my father introduced me to thick cut home cured maple bacon.  Then I got my revenge.

Tonight we are having Roast Pork Loin with Potatoes.  The pork has been rubbed with a mixture of 1/2 cup agave, 3 tbs honey Dijon, 1 tbs thyme and 1 tbs black pepper.  Rub the pork with half the mixture and roast for 1 hour at 300 F.  Add 3 large cut potatoes dressed with salt, pepper and olive oil to the pan, flip the roast and rub with the rest of the mixture.  Roast about another 45 minutes, or until the internal temp is about 150 F.  Enjoy with a green salad, or steamed kale or spinach.

Cattails. Yum!

I wonder how many people have said or thought that in the last 50 or 100 years.  Not many, I’d bet, but perhaps I’m wrong.  I’d like to be pleasantly surprised and find that it’s more than I think.  I know there is a semi-secretive but emerging group of wild food specialists out there, but I thought they stayed mostly to mushrooms. 

Speaking of pleasantly surprised, I was after my recent cattail adventure. 

Our pond is overrun with cattails, and up to a few days ago I looked on them with disapproval mingled with despair.  Our pond wants to be a swamp again, and the cattails are the first determined step it is taking to revert to its natural state.  In the past we have used a backhoe to dig them out when they got to be too abundant, and on occasion my husband will don full waders and attack them with hoe and shovel, but it seems to be a futile attempt: they continue to populate at an alarming rate.  Well, yesterday I got my revenge.  I went out to the pond, sharp knife in hand, and cut all the new shoots just emerging from the shallows.  I peeled off the outer green stalk, took them home and ATE THEM!  HAHAHAHA!Image

The surprising thing was that they were actually good.  Really.  Good. 

Cattails can be great fun, especially for kids.  Bashing each other with the cigar-like heads and creating a haze of cattail spores is a treasured summer pastime for those with ponds nearby.  The heads can also be used as impromptu torches.  They smoke wildly and make a terrific mess, but it’s still fun.  Then recently I was killing time reading a book called Foraging New England by Tom Seymour and learned that cattails are edible.  I thought I’d give it a try. 

Eating something entirely new can be a daunting experience.  For a few minutes after I ate them, I thought I might get a stomach ache.  Not because I felt funny, but because they were so entirely different.  If someone had served them to me on china and called them something fancy, I might have relished them right off the bat, but plucking them out of the mud and scraping off the tough outer layer, then slicing them on a salad, made me a bit skeptical of their authenticity as food.  I tried to remember the first time I had had endives, or leeks, as they have a similar flavor, but I couldn’t come up with anything.  Then I remembered trying fiddlehead ferns for the first time.  Earthy, delicate and entirely delicious, fiddleheads are one of those strange spring delights that my children anticipate, harvest, cook and serve to us each year.  Finally, after not getting sick, and realizing they tasted pretty good,  I decided that they might have a place in my repertoire of “wild things I eat.”

First I tried them raw.  As I had been thinking about endive, I started there, and made a salad with celery, Bibb lettuce, endive, and sliced cattails.  For protein I added some chopped grilled salmon and some bacon, and topped it with a crumble of chevre and pine nits.  It was entirely delicious.Image

Then I decided to try them cooked.  Everything (in my opinion)  goes with eggs, so I decided on an onion and cattail scramble, served with salt, pepper, and a dash of hot sauce.  (My favorite is homemade, but Cholula is a good store-bought second).  That was a success. The cattails held up well, and didn’t get mushy as I feared.  Next time I’ll try sautéed fennel and cattails with garlic cream sauce as a side.  I even served them to a young friend of my son in a salad and he gobbled them up, not even noticing they were there. Image

 

If you have any nutrition information for cattails, or any tried and true recipes, I would love to hear about them! 

What’s for dinner in April?

It’s all well and good to say you eat locally in August, when the bounty of the harvest is just falling out of the garden, but when the cool winds blow through the months of spring, and nary a sprout is available at your local farmers market, if it is even open, what do you eat then?  Daffodils?  Grass?  Here I’ll give you some examples of what truly is available that fits the bill for Local, Seasonal, Sustainable, and you can feel good about what you put on the table.

Spring is the season for cod fishing, and if you live on the Atlantic shore, or anywhere in the North East, fish caught off the Connecticut Rhode Island and Massachusetts coasts are considered local, especially if you catch it yourself!  “What?!” You ask?  Relax.  It’s easier than you think.  Many charter boats go out regularly for cod, and provide you with the bait, tackle and knowledge to fish on your own.  A Google search will help you find one nearest you and the times and dates they fish.  The best part is you might come home with many pounds of cod for the freezer or dehydrator, and with luck you’ll have enough for many suppers to come.  Cod freezes remarkable well, and as it is a firm fish, holds its texture and flavor even through vigorous cooking techniques such as stews and casseroles. Try fresh sauteed cod with saffron risotto, or perhaps baked cod with cream, leeks (you might find leeks overwintered) and new spring green onions.  If you look for cod in the supermarket, ask if it is caught locally, and with rod and reel (line caught).

It’s also turkey season in Connecticut, and many a hunter is anxiously awaiting opening day.  This year my husband has to miss the beginning of the season, and my son, an avid pre-hunter, has asked me to take him out.  Having never turkey hunted before, this is somewhat of a daunting request.  We’ll see how it actually goes.  It would be a miracle if I actually got a spring turkey.  Other good protein sources would be chicken, venison, grass fed local beef and rabbit.  The chickens are starting to lay again with the warmer and longer days, so eggs are always a good choice.  A nice quiche is a perfect light spring meal, especially with sauteed garlic scapes.  Scrambled eggs with local goat cheese, roasted garlic and baby spinach would be delicious.

As for dry goods and staples, this morning I had polenta made from cornmeal purchased from Young Farm in East Granby Ct.  It is called Canada yellow flint cornmeal, and it is stone ground the traditional way.  The corn it comes from is New England open pollinated heirloom variety flint, an “antique” corn that has much higher nutritional value than corn harvested with conventional methods as per agri-business in the Midwest.  Young farm is an exceptional company that produces delicious and nutritious, not to mention sustainable and morally acceptable corn and wheat products, as well as vegetables.  Lean more about Young Farm here.  http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=2752#profile.  The polenta, with a spot of honey and some of last year’s frozen blueberries, was a fabulous start to the day. We eat it with salt, pepper and butter and a sprinkle of Parmesan when we want something savory instead of sweet.

“Vegetables?”, you ask. Not many, to be sure, but some.  I have started a variety of lettuce in my bathtub, so I can add some micro-greens to whatever organic lettuce I buy at the market.  I have had basil growing in pots since January and that always adds a bright spring flavor to any dish.   Kale seems to be always available, as it lasts throughout the winter.  Cabbage and sweet potatoes, carrots and onions are also over-winterers in the root cellar.  Garlic scapes are coming out of the ground now and it’s almost time for the luscious asparagus shoots, the star of spring.  I have frozen peas and spinach and tomatoes from last year’s harvest and even some acorn and butternut squash.  A lovely squash, kale or spinach soup with some flat bread makes a lovely spring meal. IMAG0262.jpg

As for fruit, we have our trusty freezer with its dwindling supplies of frozen blueberries, peaches and strawberries.  Not fresh, but still great for smoothies and the occasional pie.  I can’t say enough about investing in a good chest freezer.  The simplest way to store meat, vegetable, and fruits is to freeze them as soon as possible after picking or harvesting.  It maintains the vitamins and nutrients far more than canning or other methods, and in most cases keeps the food safe for months or even years.  It is the easiest and fastest way to put up a harvest at its freshest, and to store produce for the winter months.  I have a deep chest freezer that I bought new from Sears for about 350.00, and I store thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh meat and vegetables in it every fall to last through the winter and spring months.  If you don’t have one, or can’t afford a new one, there are several on-line sites where you might shop for a used one for much less.  So much of the excess produce from my kitchen garden goes into the freezer right after picking, and it is such a delight to browse the shelves for a cooking idea knowing that my choices are ripe, delicious, healthful, and clean.

Last night we had grilled marinated venison with sauteed onions.  It was simple, and simply delicious.   I used a shoulder roast and just sliced it into half inch steaks, mixed it with salt, pepper, olive oil and good balsamic vinegar, left it in the fridge of a few hours and grilled it over high heat.  Quick and easy.IMAG0260.jpg

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Contrary to popular myth, venison, if well treated and well prepared, is neither gamy nor tough.  While it has an unmistakable rich flavor altogether different than beef, it is a succulent and delicious addition to our menu.  Miss-treated it can be an awful chore to eat, and I am reluctant to eat venison unless I personally know the hunter and the manner in which it was killed and dressed. More about venison in particular and hunting in general later.  Happy spring!