03 March 2013

sugar shack

it started as a "what the heck-- why not give it a try?" sort of project.  after returning from a lovely afternoon workshop at hinkle farmstead with cosmo, learning how to tap maple trees and boil down
syrup, i began gazing at the giant maple tree in our front yard with renewed interest. 

turns out, she's a sugar maple! and, she is HUGE. so i picked up a food-grade, five-gallon bucket, plus a small (2.5 qt) metal bucket at a hardware store. i was relieved to find i had a drill bit big enough to make a hole in the metal bucket, large enough to fit over the tap i took home from the workshop (also called a spile). then we found a good spot to tap the tree (cosmo helped me select it) and we drilled our hole. cosmo and i hammered the tap into the hole, hung the bucket on the hook and waited for the sap to start dripping.


the ideal temperatures for sap flow are nights in the twenties, days in the forties. we started getting exactly that range, and the sap was flowing. for days, weeks, we emptied our little bucket into our big bucket 'til we had 5 gallons of sap. then we boiled that down to about 1.5 gallons. after we collected 5 more gallons, we boiled that bucket down to about a gallon. we stored the jars of concentrate in the root cellar portion of our basement until we were ready to finish it.

yesterday, we combined the two concentrates and finished the syrup. all day liquid simmered on the stove, steamed up our windows, moistened the walls and sweetened the air. after returning from our evening walk to dinner and back, we started the final stage. we transfered the reduced sap to a smaller pan, filtering it through some clean felted wool, then started boiling non stop, and taking the temperature every 5 minutes.

unless you have a hydrometer, which measures the sugar content of liquids, the only way you know your syrup is finished is the boiling temperature. as the water evaporates, the boiling temperature increases. you will have about a 66% sugar content when the syrup is boiling at 219F (7 degrees above the boiling temperature of water). after nearly days of uneventful boiling, this last phase moves rather quickly, and you have to be vigilant to prevent you syrup from scorching (can you imagine the devastation, after all that effort?!). the guy who taught our workshop suggested gluing your shoes to the floor in front of the stove. that is pretty much what carl and i did. i kept sticking my mitt-covered hand into the pot with the digital thermometer to check the temperature. we have a candy thermometer, but it is not precise enough. "somewhat over 200" is too vague for maple sugaring. when we finally hit 219, we quickly removed the syrup from the stove and poured it through the felt filter again, into clean jars.

we ended up with 1 quart plus 12oz from 10 gallons of raw sap. we only expected to get about a quart, so we were thrilled! the finished syrup is dark, rich and delicious, in fact, after trying some on a stack of pancakes this morning, cosmo declared it the "best syrup in the world." time to go hug a tree.


14 January 2013

winter jewels

the weekend was devoted yeast breads and pomegranates. saturday i made a crusty dutch-oven loaf and a bunch of mini pizzas for dinner, then sunday i woke up and started seeding pomegranates.

didn't stop until the afternoon. faced with the rare event of pomegranate surplus, i decided to make juice, then pomegranate molasses from the juice. i know of at least one recipe that calls for it-- a lovely roasted red pepper walnut dip i attempted to mimic from monica pope's restaurant in houston. it's one of those pricey, seldom-used ingredients that i knew would be fun to make from scratch.

here are a few things i learned:

1. the best tool for juicing the pomegranate seeds in my kitchen is the food mill, with the finest mesh disc. someone on the internet suggested an old fashioned, press-style citrus juicer, which i have, so i tried it. it didn't work. and i really wanted it to work, because i did not want to separate out all those seeds from all those pomegranates. but that is what i, in fact, ended up doing. i'll be dreaming pomegranate seeds.  then we tried the victorio strainer.

works great for applesauce. not so great on pomegranates. i think i might need a grape spiral insert or something, cuz the seeds ended up jamming the mechanism. then we tried the food mill. bam! worked like a charm. since a little of the pulp does get through, i strained it again through some cheese cloth. of course, if you have a juicer, that might be the best option. i don't.

2. it takes about 6 pomegranates to make 1 quart of juice.

3. once your child lays eyes on a bowl full of those sparkling red jewels, freed from their restrictive membranes, pomegranates will become his absolute favorite fruit, and he will want nothing else in the world but pomegranate seeds. thus, you will most likely need more that 6 pomegranates if you plan on making a quart of juice in the presence of a child. 

4. it takes about 3 hours to cook one quart of juice down to 1 cup of pomegranate molasses. not the measly 70 minutes Alton Brown suggests. but it's worth it. this tangy ruby red reduction is to-die-for. color me very pleased.  color my kitchen bright red and sticky.

15 April 2012

tea eggs

i got it into my head to make a batch of tea eggs. carl tried them a few years ago. the idea and the process appealed to me, but the result was underwhelming. i saw a stunning photo of some online, and decided to give it a try. as usual when i decide to make something, i look through my own collection of cookbooks, and then do an online search, pick the best looking recipe, and then tweak it to my own preferences. this one was a combination of madhur jaffrey's and this one. I had some chinese five spice, so i used that, but i skipped the star anise (not a favorite of mine) and did not cook the eggs for as long as recommended. also, i had no chinese black tea, so i just used what i could round up from my tea stash.

the process includes hard boiling the eggs, then cracking the shells all over, but keeping them on the egg. then you mix up this tea/soy sauce/spice brew, and steep the eggs in that for a number of hours, so that the dark sauce penetrates through the cracks, leaving a web like pattern on the egg.

this dish is a feast for the eyes. the most dramatic pattern appears on the inside of the shell, which, of course, gets peeled off before serving, but the peeled eggs also look lovely. the taste on the egg is rather subtle, but nice. i arranged them in a beautiful dish (made by my friend libby), took them to a neighborhood potluck, and everyone seemed to enjoy them. photographing them was my favorite part.

01 January 2012

peas in the new year

i've heard it's traditional to have peas on new year's day, for good luck and prosperity. black-eyed peas are what we have chosen in the past. but this year we went with chickpeas. the dish is called leblebi (took me about a week to pronounce it without getting tongue-tied). Deborah Madison says it's common tunisian breakfast food. we thought leblebi on new year's day would be a nice way to celebrate the arab spring of 2011, and to offer best wishes to all those struggling for a better life in 2012.

it starts with a simple preparation of chickpeas in a thin, garlicky broth (this can be made in advance). serve it over day old farm bread with the following condiments: chopped scallions, sliced hard-boiled egg, capers, pickled turnips and most importantly, harissa.

harissa is a beautiful thick sauce, deep red in color, and rich in flavor. the caraway seed sets it apart from other chili pastes. harissa is added to the chickpeas as they cook, but to make the peas more acceptable to kids or others who dislike spicy foods, you can go easy on it at that stage, and just serve plenty at the table for those who like it hot. our bread was homemade, as was the harissa (it is one of carl's specialties) and the pickles came from friends who farm turnips.

leblebi is fun to eat, a pleasure to look at, distinctive and memorable in flavor.
happy new year!

19 November 2011

beyond banana bread

i don't actually remember how i came across this, but the ingredient list and images of the the finished product appealed to me, so i printed it out and waited for some overripe bananas to show up in my life. about a week later, they came-- literally to my doorstep, from a neighbor-- so i knew it was time to try the recipe.

let me tell ya folks, it did NOT disappoint.


i am not even a big fan of banana bread. this is no ordinary banana bread. super moist, with a tender crumb, the chocolate makes it decadent, the lemon makes you forget it's banana bread, and the olive oil and whole wheat flour make it wholesome, arguably, possibly even good for you. bake it in a ring pan, and it feels like a fancy cake.
i urge you to try it the next time you have mushy bananas to deal with.
i used whole wheat pastry flour, and just used regular choc. chips, because that was what i had on hand. i also used orange zest instead of lemon, which was okay, but i bet it's better with lemon. you can find the recipe here.

10 October 2011

make another garden

we are renters, but we tend to act like we own the place. give us a yard, and we will make gardens! here are some shots of the latest:

we've enjoyed a great fall harvest from these bush beans, started in mid july. we've even had enough for pickling, and they are still coming.

the chard was transplanted from our old place, along with many perennial herbs and flowers. herbs are something i hate to purchase at the store. those little overpriced packets of aging leaves can't compare to taking a few steps out the door to snip a few sprigs from my own plant. i am happy to finally have successfully transplanted all of mine.

we've enjoyed fresh lettuce and arugula for a good month and a half now, the carrots are almost ready. they always taste sweetest after a frost.

i have done everything in my power to have a lush spinach bed in the spring. i got this one started in late august, it is now firmly established, and when the frost comes, i'll cover the bed with a heavy layer of straw. at the first glimmer of spring, i'll pull the straw off, and have early spring spinach. spinach is probably my favorite of the leafy greens. i have never grown an adequate amount to satisfy my craving. hopefully, this is the year!

next we'll plant the garlic, and start on terracing the rest of the side yard to build beds for next year.

26 August 2011

the end of the day

it’s late summer, near the end of the month, the end of the day on the last day of the week. a family comes in, just before closing-- a mom and her two small children. i hear them speaking french to one another, softly. the toddler boy is in his underwear and a t-shirt. he has ruddy cheeks, and a sweaty brow. he and his slightly older sister are at the kid’s cubby, near my desk, looking at books, doing puzzles. the mom has finished the shopping, and i look up from my work to see her squatting down, opening the wrapper on a granola bar-the most ready-to-eat food we have in the pantry at that time, breaking off bite size pieces, and offering them to her son. he studies the food in her hand, she reassures him, and pushes a bite into his mouth. then she opens a small can of kern's apricot nectar, and gives him a drink. the girl is distracted- her attention on a coloring book, when her mother offers her the juice. the mother practically pours the liquid into her child’s mouth.

maybe it is because her kids look kind of like my son…maybe it is because it’s the end of a long week, and a full moon—i’m emotional… but i look at that blonde, french woman in her early thirties, and i feel like i know her. i know what that feels like. and yet, i don’t know what that feels like. as a mother, that urge to nourish your child is nearly instinctual. the pressing need to get food into the body of the one who is dependent upon you—that need is so familiar to me. and yet, i don’t know what it feels like to not know that you have access to the food your child needs. i don’t know what it is like to not have enough, to run out and not have the means to go get more. to witness this woman- engaged in the everyday act of feeding her young, of nourishing her family, this ordinary gesture, in that moment was so touching, and so heart breaking.

lately, i have been putting myself through the ringer over my career situation, future prospects, ambitions, and lack thereof. here i am, with this post-graduate degree from a prestigious architecture school, where i devoted many years of study, and accumulated mountains of debt. and i find myself in an income bracket significantly lower than expected, in a field completely unrelated to architecture. i see my cohorts with high paying jobs as architects in big cities, or with successful design firms of their own, professors and winners of high-profile competitions, nationally recognized artists…and i ask myself…have i failed?

today though, on my walk home from the food pantry, where i help people nourish themselves and their loved ones, i’m thinking about that woman putting food in her child’s mouth. and i know i am right where i need to be, that my work is meaningful and fulfilling—that my talents are not wasted, and that i truly love my job. i love my job, i love my life, and there is nowhere else i’d rather be

19 June 2011

no excuses

oh, i had hoped to at least post once per month, but alas! two months have passed, with nothing.
that is all i have to say: we moved.
shortly before we moved, i worked on a draft of a garden update:

June 19, 2011
in just a couple of weeks we we will no longer live in the midst of the best garden in the world. i'm excited about our new place, and exploring a different neighborhood, but leaving this garden is a challenging adjustment for me. i have planted a mostly full garden here, even though i knew we'd be moving in the middle of the season. our landlord says we can still come by to tend and harvest our crops. i hope he means that.

it has been a great year for brassicas so far.

this cabbage is an early jersey wakefield, and has a conical rather than spherical shape. okra barely germinated, even after two plantings. couldn't get a basil seed to germinate to save my life. i have no idea why. sweet corn looks fabulous.

pea harvest has been spectacular, and some cucumbers are ready and waiting to take their place on the fence/trellis. carrots and beets look lovely, as do the onions.

bush beans and edamame everywhere, plus a lot more flowers than i usually plant. since the landlords plan to put the place on the market, i figure the prettier it looks out there, the more likely the garden will be left alone. we've been eating fresh lettuce since late february and still have some coming on. we enjoyed a few radishes before they bolted in the heat, and the garlic has been "scaped."

this year i made a garlic scape pesto, but found it to be a tiny bit too garlicy, even though i sauteed them first.

the tomatoes and ground cherries are off to an optimistic start, in spite of being super tiny when i put them into the ground. i ended up buying two larger plants from the farmer's market, just to be on the safe side. the exciting new thing i am trying this year is sweet potatoes! they are beautiful plants, and i'm curious to see how they do.

of course i have leeks again, and have tried some eggplant, currently under cover, to prevent flea beetle attack. the soil in the lasagna bed i started a year and a half ago is gorgeous--all dark and crumbly, and (unfortunately) full of tomato seed and violets.

in the new place i hope to do a bit of terracing, plant a small fall garden, get some garlic in, and prepare beds for the spring (using the lasagna method). the new neighborhood has plenty of experienced gardeners to consult and commiserate with. i will work on letting go, and moving on.

* * *

by now we have been in our new place for a full month. we've had to say good bye to excellent soil, wonderful neighbors and the croquet court.

but the new place has nice neighbors, too, plus it came with a cheese hanging hook (over the sink!), and nice colors on the walls.

i struggle to keep a couple of small seed beds moist enough to germinate the fall crops i planted. i have been harvesting from our old place, and attempting to keep up with weeds. we're experiencing a bit of a drought, and record high temperatures for days on end. surprisingly, the old garden is doing well with very little attention.

i've harvested tons of green beans, cabbages, beets, carrots, onions, kale, cucumbers, ground cherries, tomatoes, herbs...even flowers! last weekend we had the first of the sweet corn!

it is wonderful. the edamame is nearly ready, and the sweet potatoes are out of control! i am very curious to see what's under all that gorgeous foliage.

we love our new place, and have had a nice summer, in spite of the brutal relocation. cosmo has been busy with soccer camp, swim classes and montessori art camp.

we all rode our bikes in the july 4th parade, with our dear friends ann and alan. it was just what we needed after days of schlepping, and one of the reasons i so love bloomington. 5 people can hop on their bikes and become an official entry in the independence day parade! cosmo loved getting to ride around, in all directions, in the middle of the street downtown.

we are off to colorado to visit carl's parents, and cosmo will start kindergarten (at montessori) by the middle of the month! the summer has flown by, as usual. thanks to they might be giants (here comes science), cosmo's current passion revolves around the periodic table of the elements. our friend diane gave him a poster of it, which he has been studying carefully, and even chose it as a bed time story a few nights ago! he is also into optical illusions, and successfully pulled off his first magic trick (making a coin disappear).

carl and i have been busy canning, and preserving, and teaching others how to as well. through my job at mother hubbard's cupboard, carl has assisted me in 3 canning demonstrations at the farmer's market.

i discovered the best pickled carrots recipe--ever! i was looking for something that would closely mimic the spicy condiment i used to find in taquerias in houston. found it. these are probably the best thing i have ever pickled, and i can't stop eating them. they taste great with tortilla chips.

here's the recipe (it comes from the TexasBBQRub forum):

pickled carrots taqueria-style.

It sounds like a large recipe, and it is. trust me, though, you'll be glad you made the whole thing.


• 2 lbs large carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4 inch thick pieces
• 1/2 head of garlic peeled and smashed
• 1/2 large, sweet or yellow onion, roughly 1-inch dice
• 1 1/2 cups white vinegar
• 1 1/2 cups water
• 10 bay leaves, whole
• 1 tablespoon peppercorns (can vary to taste)
• 1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 6-8 oz. fresh jalapenos, sliced (and seeded to taste)

Add garlic and peppercorns to oil in a large saucepan, heat to medium heat, and saute until fragrant (just a couple or few minutes or so, depending on your stove). Add in carrots and saute for 2-3 minutes. Carefully add in vinegar, peppercorns, salt, and bay leaves. Bring to a simmer for 5 minutes and then add water and jalapenos and bring to a simmer again for another 10 minutes.

Transfer everything two quart-sized mason jars or other covered container(s) and refrigerate overnight. If you find you need more liquid to cover, boil more water and vinegar (equal amounts of each) to top off.

Keep refrigerated. Store the carrots in the liquid and use a fork or slotted spoon to serve them. You may leave the bay leaves in the liquid to add to the flavor, but do not eat them. Always remove the bay leaves before you eat the carrots. You can soften the carrots more with longer cooking times, but you want to keep them firm and with a bit of crunch, or it's just not right.

28 May 2011

oh, the places we go

cosmo has seen the world.

disney world, that is. and he will never be the same again. before his papa in texas generously planned a trip for the whole family (cosmo's aunts, uncles, cousins) i am not even sure that cosmo KNEW about disney world, or disney land. he's watched some disney shows, and a couple of movies...he has even played on the playhouse disney website.

but i don't think he really had a notion of what an amusement park might be like, let alone the happiest place on earth.
so, in the months preceding the trip, we did a little prepping, to make sure that he would get maximum enjoyment out of what will most likely be his only trip to disney world. julie helped us find a kid's guide to disney world at the library book sale.

though it was from 2004, it was still relevant, and allowed cosmo to read about the place, and plan for some of what he wanted to do while he was there. he read that book backwards and forwards, studied the maps and made lists of rides he wanted to go on, and attractions he wanted to see.

nothing can really prepare you though. that place is somethin' else!

though i know cosmo had a blast, and will never forget it, it was also simply exhausting for him. the late night at the magic kingdom, fighting the crowds to see the parade and the fireworks show was difficult for him to recover from, even though we let him sleep in the next day.

he fell asleep in the middle of the day almost every day we were there. he was lucky that justin was willing to carry him around because i could not pick him up due to back trouble, and he is just too big for a stroller (though he did at one point find his way into his little cousin's stroller, and attempted to nap at the epcot)

he also enjoyed occasional breaks engaged in familiar pastimes such as arcades time, and bonding with the littlest cousin over itouch games.

the "wild rides" we went on (splash mountain, mission space, astro blaster) were just right for him, and not too scary.

his favorite ride (depending on when you ask him) was either splash mountain or spaceship earth (the one inside that big ball at epcot). what he liked about that one was the part where it opens up into a sort of planetarium at the top of the bucky ball, and you can see an image of the earth, as if you are in outer space. he was blown away by that.

the one thing that he really had his heart set on, more than anything at the major parks, was the miniature golf course. cosmo is obsessed with mini golf, and the options around here are pretty pathetic. i think this one is called mickey's fantasia gardens, and it is located near one of the resorts, but there is no bus that goes right to it.

we had to take a cab (also pretty exiting for cosmo). no one else in our party wanted to join us for the mini golf, which is too bad because it was awesome. no lines, no crowds, peaceful. and, because it's disney, cool things happen on the course--

like an elephant shoots water when you make it in the 5th hole, and when you walk under the brooms with buckets, you might get a little splash. it is all perfectly maintained, and well designed to be both challenging, and doable.

free passes were included in our packets, so we didn't even have to pay to play. it's the one part of the trip that cosmo is still talking about. i overheard him telling a friend about the squirting elephant just the other day.

two weeks ago, we headed out to columbus for a spontaneous sunday day trip. we haven't been to the children's museum there for a couple of years, and it is a nice drive.

we stopped in nashville for lunch and a game of scrabble. the museum was fun, especially the bubble room.

but after that we ventured across the street to the newly constructed commons. wow.
it's basically an indoor public park. high ceilings, flooded with natural light, and all the latest in indoor safe-but-fun playground equipment. there was one of those netted high climbing structures (like they have at wonderlab), and the whole floor was padded. the place was mobbed with kids of all ages running around screaming and having a blast.

cosmo jumped right into the fray, and seemed to have a smile pasted onto his face the whole time we were there. it was amazing for lots of reasons: the acoustics were perfect-- somehow all that screaming was not unbearable, though it was really crowded, it never seemed unsafe, and, most surprising, it was free, and there was nothing for sale inside. weird.

we'll be moving in july, and will have a whole new neighborhood to explore. other than a possible camping trip to the indiana dunes, and a trip to colorado in august, we'll probably stay fairly close to home this summer (oh, but did i just catch wind of a possible holiday world adventure for cosmo with justin and shawna?)
what exciting travel adventures do you have in store?