October 28, 2011

Rookie Farmers Seek Assistance

Warm Applesauce Sundaes with 5-Spice Shortbread Leaves 

Wanted: Rookie farmers seek assistance with pruning, organic pest control, weeding, harvesting, and most importantly turning all this stuff into something. No help required with planting and growing, as everything we stick into the dirt seems to thrive without much more from us. Hours flexible. Pay comes in the form of edible foodstuffs and a satisfying connection to the land.

This painting had been in My Baby's family since he was a boy. It captured his imagination, and as a pre-teen he promised himself that he would someday live in a beautiful place like that. The painting now hangs over a fireplace which is in a house nestled on property that is, indeed, a beautiful place like that.  

Our place.

After years of searching (his realtor had two babies during his property hunt) My Baby found this dream property only a year before we met 4 1/2 years ago.  (Lucky for him, I tease, because my house-hunting criteria includes being within one hour from an international airport, being within 10 minutes of a full-service grocery store, and lots of closets, which this property doesn't quite meet!) Nearly five acres of property; a mere postage stamp surrounded by hundreds of acres of fertile Southern Willamette Valley farm and ranch lands, tucked into the base of the Coburg foothills. Trouble is, while we possess myriad skills, abilities, talents and gifts, neither of us had any gardening experience, much less the charge of five whole workable acres.

 Our property came with:
  • Orchard
    • 3 apple trees
    • 2 pear trees
    • 1 Asian pear tree
    • 3 plum trees
      • yellow plums
      • red plums
      • Italian prune plums
    • 2 fig trees
    • 2 cherry trees (still babies, we planted those)
  • Berries
    • strawberries (too many plants to count)
      • early season
      • everbearing
    • 4 Marionberry canes
    • 18 blueberry bushes
  • Garden
    • conservatively 700 square feet
  • Pasture
    • 3 useable acres
The two of us can't begin to consume all this food alone or capitalize on the potential of this land. I'm sure there are formulas which exist that could calculate it precisely, but let's just say this property could feed a lot of people. The apple trees alone produced, in my best estimation, four times my weight in wonderful apples. Apart from coffee beans, sugar cane and cinnamon, we could be nearly self-sufficient. If only we knew how and had the time!

Here's What 30 Pounds of Tomatoes Look Like, and There's More Where They Came From

Like many of you, our time isn't laid out neatly and abundantly for us. I work full time, staying most of the week away from home, and have long commutes. My Baby has come out of his early retirement to a very busy consulting practice, and travels to see me during the week when he can. It is a challenge to gather up all the fruit when it decides it's ready, much less to use it or organize the sharing of it all.

This year we made a hero's attempt to preserve more of our harvest. We purchased a food dehydrator which was billed as having endless capacity and magical qualities, and we dried rack after rack of fresh figs. We dried rack after rack of Italian plums. I cooked up 30 pounds of San Marzano tomatoes in huge pots full of sauce. Etc., etc. To very dismal result.

 Only a Representational Smattering of the Load of 2011 Apples

I went to the pantry for the dried figs the other day, and my heart sunk. The entire sealed bag had molded. The prunes, same thing. The tomato sauce never even made it to the canning jars, because after a day's work over the stove, it just tasted terrible.

Before you grow too sad at this tale, friends and neighbors, near and far, I've thought of a solution!

Come get it!! Next year, I'll post what is ripe and available. Load your kids, your dogs, your horses, cows, (there's room!) sacks and boxes and drive on out for a Saturday. If you feel like grabbing a pruner, pulling a few weeds or spreading some compost, all the better, but not required. Collect up all the goodies you can, and take them away. Chances are there will be a pot of something good on the stove to share while you are here to keep you fortified.

This is one of my favorite autumn desserts. Don't let the humble nature fool you... this is a wonderful combination of flavors and textures. While I expect you to riff on the types of nuts you use, the spices in the shortbread, and your own choices for sweetening your applesauce, please try it just like this once! At the risk of sounding un-American, this is better than apple pie!
Warm Applesauce Sundaes with 5-Spice Shortbread Leaves 
Homemade Applesauce (recipe below)
Toasted whole almonds
5-Spice Shortbread (recipe below)
Your favorite vanilla ice cream
Homemade Applesauce
Peel, core and coarsely chop as many apples as you want and put them in a lidded saucepan. Add just a little water to get the steam going, about a Tablespoon for a small pan or 2 Tablespoons for a large pan. Set over medium-low heat. Stir every 5 minutes or so until the apple have broken down to your textural liking, about 15 minutes for a small pan of chunky sauce or 30 minutes for a large pan of smooth sauce. If you like a sweeter sauce, you may add honey, agave syrup, brown or white sugar or maple syrup to sweeten to you liking, depending on your apples. If you will be freezing the sauce in freezer bags, it is wise to add the juice of half a lemon to prevent browning, or 1/4 teaspoon powdered citric acid at the beginning. Set the applesauce aside until time to compose your sundae, then gently rewarm over low heat.

5-Spice Shortbread
1 stick butter, room temperature
1/3 cup +  Tablespoon white sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 1/4 teaspoons 5-spice powder

Preheat over to 325 degrees. Mix flour and 5-spice powder in small bowl. Set aside.

In stand mixer, beat butter until pliable. Add sugar and salt and mix in. Add yolk and vanilla extract, and mix with paddle just until thoroughly combined. Gradually add flour mixture, mixing on low speed until flour is thoroughly incorporated. Crumbs will be large and hold together well when pinched. The whole process takes only a matter of minutes.

On a sheet of wax paper, press the dough together in a 3/4" tall square, about 7 " x 7". Cover loosely and place in freezer for about 10 minutes to chill thoroughly.  Remove from freezer and cover with another sheet of wax paper. (Rolling chilled dough between wax paper eliminates the need to add more flour for rolling, resulting in more tender cookies.) Roll out until about 1/3" thick. Cut with cutters. Place entire sheet of cut cookies, without removing from the wax paper sheet, on a baking sheet and place in freezer again for about 10 minutes. Remove once again from the freezer, and peel well-chilled cut dough from wax paper. Place on parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes until just beginning to take on a light tan color and feel fairly firm to the touch. Cool completely on baking sheet.
If you turn 40 pounds of apples from our place into apple butter and wanted to share a pint or two, that would be nice, and would be about all the two of us could eat in a year. If your canned tomatoes taste better than mine, we'd love to try a jar! Or not. No strings are attached to this idea. This idea isn't meant as a commercial enterprise, but one of time and resource sharing. If there are certain vegetable varieties you'd like to see planted, we could probably even accommodate those garden requests. We just don't want to see what we've been given go to waste.

 Back Porch Swarm
August 30, 2011

And if any of you have the slightest idea how to harvest the honey that is currently being manufactured under my back porch by these busy bees, that would be fantastic!

What do you think of this idea? Could it work? Is it mutual? Is it fun? Is it useful? Would you come?

October 26, 2011

Home Alone, Part Two

Apple Sage Sausage
Spaghetti with Browned-Butter Sage Sauce, Mizithra Cheese and Winter Squash
Once I got over my little seed tantrum, the rest of my home alone day was so nurturing, so satisfying and so productive. The discipline of the seeds reminded me of my favorite job I ever had, which was being a stay-at-home mom to my three children. I had convinced myself then that I was doing it for them, but in retrospect, it was mostly for me. I adored taking special care of people I love, the sense of creating a home, and the sense of organization and order that exists when that is the job of one person in the house. As those happy recollections flooded my heart, can you guess what they inspired?
Bonus points to you if you guessed clean and organized kitchen drawers!

 And get ready for an aaaaahh moment...

I came across the silver baby spoon of my youngest child. Yes, twenty-three years ago my very little chubby-cheeked John enjoyed his sweet potatoes and smashed peas from this spoon. The happiest of memories poured over my soul as I thought of him and his older brother and sister, and my home alone day took on a new glow.
Latent efficiencies took over and on I moved to my dual-spiced sausage-making plans. I've been making Italian sausage at home this year to great result, and was ready to expand my horizons. In the past, I've used ground pork from the market. This time, I used pork shoulder and let the food processor do the grinding. I used the format from Martha Stewart Living, October 2011, but made a change or two. Rather than repeat the entire recipe which is quite simple, I'll just note those changes and recommendations here:
  • For apple sage sausage, divide the 4 lbs. of pork in half. With one half (2 lbs.), make the herbed pork in the Martha recipe, adding 1/2 of a chopped peeled apple to the food processor. You will only need 1/2 of the herbs and spices called for, because you will only be using half of the pork. We are lucky with this one, as I used sage, thyme and apple from our own garden and orchard.
  • For hot Italian sausage, with the other half (2 lbs.) of the pork, add twice as many herbs and spices as called for in my blog post about hot Italian sausages here. The original recipe is intended for only one pound of pork.
  • Be kind to yourself and follow the directions about giving the cut cubes of meat a gentle freeze before attempting to chop them in the food processor. Especially the fatty bits turn out with a much better texture when they are very cold first. I learned this the hard way so you don't have to! If you cut your meat chunks first and pop them into the freezer, they will be ready by the time you have the rest of your ingredients prepped.
For nearly the same amount of effort, I had given myself eight chubby 1/2 lb. packages of two varieties of sausage.  Seven of the packages went into the freezer. The remaining 1/2 pound went in to our evening's dinner, browned in patties, served alongside spaghetti in browned-butter sage sauce tossed with tangy Mizithra cheese and chunks of the roasted Kabocha squash I'd also worked on during the day.
I only wish my schedule allowed for more home alone days!

October 25, 2011

Home Alone, Part One

Pumpkin Seeds, right, and Kabocha Squash Seeds, left

I won't say never, but I hardly ever am home alone. Today was different. I kissed My Baby goodbye this morning, and had the whole day at home to myself. The day in the making started with the faint scent of woodsmoke in the crisp air, the kind of morning for which fuzzy warm slippers and a cup of hot coffee are made. This was going to be fun.

Designs for the adventure I'd literally cook up with my home alone day included:
  • four pounds of pork waiting to be made into two kinds of sausage
    • 2 pounds apple sage sausage
    • 2 pounds hot Italian sausage
  • one large Kabocha squash and a medium Cinderella pumpkin for a winter's worth of puree.
Ever since last summer when I had my leaf-to-root epiphany, I've been trying to do a better job of using all the edible bits one foodstuff offers, and it's been both fun and humbling.  My "using it all" intentions are twofold; to be in fraternity with my fellow citizens who have no choice but to use it all in this time of economic depression, and at least as importantly, to be a more responsible citizen by honoring the food that is available. Rather than to cut into several squashes for their succulent flesh alone, it makes sense to pick one and exploit all of its nutritional value before reaching for another.

As I split open the blue-skinned squash for its oven roasting debut, its big, puffy seeds nearly burst out. I hadn't planned this, but today, grateful that I have the luxury of time in the kitchen, I scooped the slimy seeds into a strainer to prepare them for roasting.

 My good intentions quickly went astray. I grew more and more anxious as I tried to clean the slippery squash seeds, most of which refused to release their fiberous hold from their mother ship. I had a lot to accomplish with my day alone, and I didn't want to spend it all on one scant cup of seeds. The morning's calm was turning to subtle irritation. My commitment to the seed project grew challenged as my breathing grew shallow and I grew increasingly antsy. Who knew that squash seeds could be so unraveling?
Not So Slippery, Easier to Clean Pumpkin Seeds

What happened next is a testament to my five-year yoga practice.

I began to notice the seeds. As I paid attention to their nature, it occurred to me that the seeds were quite like so many other things in life... Neither a hold too tight nor a hold too loose proved productive. A "Mama Bear" hold allowed the seeds to easily come free from their pulp. My favorite little calming phrase began to repeat itself over and over in my mind, "Quiet mind, peaceful heart." As my breathing once again deepened, an untroubled karma yoga "discipline of action" filled me.

After a few minutes, the silent phrase was unconsciously replaced by my usual barely audible hum, a sure sign that my inner joy had returned. And, as a bonus, piles of spicy squash and pumpkin seeds and a winter's worth of sweet puree resulted for us to enjoy.

Sweet, Smoky and Spicy Roasted Squash and Pumpkin Seeds
Preheat oven to 375. Cover a baking sheet with foil and set aside.

Fill a small saucepan 2/3 full with water and add 1 tablespoon salt. Add seeds from winter squash, thoroughly removed of fiber and rinsed, bring to a boil and simmer for ten minutes. Drain, and pat dry.

Per squash, combine in a small bowl:
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon smoked paprika

Add seeds to bowl and stir several minutes to combine and coat evenly. Drizzle baking sheet with olive oil. Spread seeds atop in one layer. Lay several thin slices of butter ( about 2 Tablespoons) on seeds. Place baking sheet in oven for five minutes. Remove and stir seeds to redistribute and mix in butter. Roast for another 10 minutes, stir again. At this point, roast in five minute increments until the seeds are as toasty as you prefer, another 5 minutes or so for smaller pumpkin seeds, another 10 minutes or so for larger squash seeds. Allow to cool completely before eating, as they crisp up as they cool.

Eat out of hand for a snack, or sprinkle on salads, breads or casseroles.

There was more to my home alone day...

October 22, 2011

Ten Things to Like About Europe

Europe was fantastic! It is difficult to summarize one of the most sensational times of my life, and I don't use the word sensational lightly. In Europe, all of my sensory faculties were exercised in new ways: Textures, colors, sights, sounds and scents-- there is really just no way to report the dynamism of this adventure in one blog post. I've grappled with how to share this great experience, and I've landed on this: Just to share a few of my most immediate and casual perceptions of Venice, Koper, Dubrovnik,  Korfu, Olympia and Myconos.

While we wined and dined delightfully throughout our trip, food and wine wasn't the focus. Since this is technically a food blog, though, I'll lead this list with that topic:

 1.  The fish along the Mediterranean is impeccable. Fishing is, of course, serious business there, and every bite is served at it's peak of freshness.  We had wonderful fish and seafood every day, and sometimes two or three times a day. In Oregon, we live about an hour's drive from the Pacific Ocean, but we rarely get fish as beautiful and tasting-of-the-sea as this. What a lovely treat.

2.  Graffiti happens. EVERYWHERE. Even on the 400-year-old  Ponte de Rialto, the oldest bridge spanning the Grand Canal in Venice. What you must remember is that 400 years is pretty young by European standards.

Graffiti happens in Koper, Slovenia, above and below:

And in Dubrovnic, Croatia.

I wonder if we globally embraced graffiti as the public art form it is most often intended to be, if it might not just go away. Maybe. Or not. Maybe we just have to get used to it as a part of every landscape.

3. The US Postal Service might not have to raise its rates if we took a tip form the Italians. The three people from right to left in the above photo...

...Il Postino. Yes, postal workers. No uniforms. They wear whatever they please, at no cost to the Italian government. Shrewd. And, they just hop onto the water-bus (vaporetto) to make their appointed rounds.

4. Men in Italy don't have haircuts, they have hair-dos,

and apparently, the more hair the better.

This young fellow is getting an early start at the man-do. This is something I really enjoyed about Italy!

5. Italians take good and beautiful footwear very seriously. Starting, again, at a very young age. These silver sneakers were on the feet of a little girl about a year old,

and these sliver sneakers were on a man about 60 years old!

I didn't want to appear too voyeuristic, so I didn't get all the photos I wanted of great footwear,

but these were my very most favorite of all the great shoes I saw. Metallic is "in" the whole world over, it seems. (As is a nice pedicure!)

6. If the grandeur and heft of buildings are a reflection of a people,

we in the US we should start to worry. It's not just the fortifications and cathedrals that are built to last, but houses, too.
I guess rooftop air conditioning units aren't necessary when your walls are stone two or three feet thick.
The ruins in Olympia make me wonder how much of any building in my town will be standing after nearly 4000 years.

7. I'm so glad I read the book City of the Falling Angels by John Berendt before going to Venice. It gave things like the Gran Teatro La Fenice,

and this Murano glass figurine blown before our eyes depth and interest, and linked Venice's rich and colorful history with the people of today.

8. Like interesting shoes...

... eye wear is pretty important to Italians.

I think these clear lucite frames in a shop window are wonderful,

and if you look closely to this shop window, bizarre and wildly creative frames will emerge.

I wish I had the presence to wear something like this (not to mention the bank account to support an eyeglass habit!)

All the eye wear I saw, both on faces and in windows, was anything but subtle.

9. Sunrises all around the globe are worth waking up early for.

10. People and their dogs...

...look alike...

...the world over!
A huge thank you, Nancy, for making this extraordinarily memorable time possible, 
and to Ebba Jo, Marti and Luc 
for providing such wonderful companionship.
And a big hug to you, My Baby, for providing me entree to these wonderful people and this delicious experience!

October 1, 2011

Wake up, Venice!

 Wake up! Wake up, everyone! Wake up, Venice!

We arrived in Venice last night just before sunset, in time to revel in the evening's pink sunset falling on the Grand Canal, to sip Chianti, and enjoy the end of the day bustle of people coming and going on the vaporetto.

We watched the piano nobile in the huge private mansion just across the canal from our hotel being prepared for the night's party, complete with gigantic crystal chandeliers glowing, candles lit on the steps of the dock to warm guests arriving by boat, and footmen. Stripe-shirted gondoliers stroked through the water in front of us, enchanting other Venecian guests in their slim shiny black vessels. Venice is so much more beautiful than I'd ever imagined and I had had pretty high expectations.
After dark we wound ourselves through unobtrusive cobble walkways lined with seemingly ancient shuttered buildings of variegated gold, ochre, rust and gray, intuitively finding an open square lined with canopied outdoor restaurants. Choosing one on the basis of its quaintness, we ate our first Italian great meal of black risotto made with cuttlefish, roasted whole branzino, salade misto and wine from Verona.

After lingering at our table to soak up the pealing church bells and attuning our ears to conversations in the most romantic of languages, we strolled our travel-weary selves back to our charming hotel to collapse.
Now, two hours later, like a child on Christmas morning I've woken myself up with giddy laughter-- I'm in Italy!! And I want it to wake up so we can play. I want to see the boats unloading the days worth of supplies to markets and restaurants, I want to watch shopkeepers sweep their walks and open their gates. I'm wondering how my first true Italian espresso will taste and want to smell the morning scent of a bakery. And I giggle some more.

My excitement wakes My Baby, who is apparently a little giddy himself. As if he's been reading my mind, he jokingly asks if I think the Italians can make coffee as good as Starbucks, and wonders what we'll have for breakfast.

Hurry Up, Venice! Wake up!

Sticks Forks Fingers is off seeing the world and will return all too soon.

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