Nearer, My Carrots, To Thee

Yes, I'm a huge Titanic buff; this is a replica mug from the White Star Line. Fun Fact: none of the dishes on the Titanic or other White Star ships had their own names on them, but were made to be interchanged

I love our CSA, of which we’ve been members for five years now. Each Thursday we get a bag or two of local, organic vegetables; we also get first crack at ordering organic berries, apples, eggs, honey and maple syrup. The CSA has thrown some unusual veggies in my path like a gauntlet, daring me to cook something delicious with them. We’ve found some new favorites (mizuna, rainbow chard, lacinato kale, Japanese eggplant), but there’s also a fair amount of headscratchers (pea shoots, pok choi, watercress) and some things that, if I’m the one picking up the vegetables that week, go right into the share bin (arugula, watercress, broccoli).

Until last year, fennel fell into the latter two categories. I’d either take it home to wither away in the crisper, or leave it to my fellow CSA members who are also fennel lovers. It’s confounding, fennel: the fronds, the bulb, the anise-y taste–and it always struck me as more of a novelty than a vegetable.

Last year, however, I stumbled upon Orangette’s recipe for Carrot-Fennel Soup. Made it, liked it, felt particularly accomplished for putting my fennel to good use.

Fast-forward to this year, about five weeks ago, when we started receiving weekly rations of carrots in our CSA share. Normally, this would be a welcome and useful vegetable, but the beginning of Carrotpalooza happened to coincide with my having won a Sam’s Club membership and $50 gift card from Lea Ann at the excellent blog Mommy’s Wish List, and having spent $3 of that windfall on a bag of organic baby carrots that can only be described as “ginormous.” So the rediscovery of carrot-fennel soup was fortuitous indeed.

This soup somehow manages to be creamy, comforting, light and refreshing all at once. None of its flavors predominate; the carrot, orange juice and fennel harmonize like a really pretty folk trio. You could tinker with the ratio to let one of them shine through in a solo, as it were, but I like it just the way it is.

Creamy Carrot and Fennel Soup

(adapted from Orangette)

Several bunches carrots, depending on the carrots’ size–approximately 1-2 pounds, chopped
1 fennel bulb, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 bay leaf
5 c. chicken or vegetable broth
juice of two oranges
2-4 oz. cream cheese, or crème fraiche if you have it on hand
salt and pepper to taste

Heat garlic in olive oil in a stock pot or large sauce pan until aromatic. Add carrots, fennel bulb, bay leaf and stock; simmer 20-40 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Remove the bay leaf. Add the cream cheese (if using crème fraiche, wait). Use a blender or immersion blender to puree the soup, adding additional broth if it is too thick for your liking. Add the orange juice, crème fraiche if using, and salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. If desired, garnish with reserved fennel fronds; either in a sprig as I’ve done in the picture, or chopped and sprinkled over the soup. I found that, even chopped, they added a texture to the soup that was a bit off-putting, and did not add flavor. Of course, it’s up to you.

Oh, and if you need any organic baby carrots, just holler.

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A Tale of Two Chickens

Their names are Bobby and Cissy, after the dancers on the Lawrence Welk show. Cissy is the one with the white patch on her head.

Technically, it’s four chickens–two live ones, and two chicken dishes. But “A Tale of Four Chickens” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, now, does it?

We got new chickens–chicks, really–last week. They are darling. When they cheep they sound like songbirds. They are palm-sized, so small that we don’t have anything to hold them except for a cardboard box.  At night we take them up to the attic (the only place they will be safe from the cats, one of whom has been eyeing them with obvious relish); during the day they get to roam around the backyard and eat bugs. Mmm, bugs.

It’s a little strange eating chicken dishes when we keep chickens as pets–pets with eggy benefits, as my friend Fernanda says–but we all love to eat chicken, especially when it’s coated in panko, fried, and dipped in ranch or blue cheese dressing. So we compartmentalize the meals and the backyard egg machines, and it all seems to work out fine.

We had just gotten a lovely bunch of Thai basil from the CSA (they also had purple basil, lemon basil and–get this–lime basil. Lime basil! What’s next, pomegranate basil? Chipotle basil? Cheddar basil?), so I decided to make some Thai Basil Chicken for the grownups. Of course, the grownups partook of the nuggets, too.

That place mat looks like it belongs in an ice cream parlor, doesn't it?

I make my children’s nuggets from scratch, because I find the packaged, processed ones only slightly less terrifying than the Michelin Man (who, obviously, terrifies me for reasons that I suspect have to do with my father, but that could be pure conjecture). Years ago the kids and I went to a playdate and were served a lunch of microwaved, dinosaur-shaped nuggets. It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut, let me tell you. Yes, homemade nuggets are a lot of work compared to ripping open a plastic bag, but they’re worth it. And I usually make a large batch and freeze some.

I mean, it’s not like I make my own hot dogs, for crying out loud.

Anyway, here’s how I make my nuggets:

  1. cut chicken breast into pieces
  2. coat in flour
  3. dip in egg wash–this is my one exception to my ironclad rule to never pair chicken and eggs in the same meal, which is just creepy
  4. coat in panko, which are special Japanese breadcrumbs that make things especially crispy. I don’t know how they do it, but from what I know of the Japanese, I imagine robots are involved
  5. Fry in vegetable oil until golden brown
  6. Enjoy.

I can wrap shit in lettuce just like P.F. Chang (who I suspect is fictional anyway). Where's my restaurant chain?

Thai Basil Chicken

½ pound ground chicken (I made my own, using my Vitamix. Not to brag or anything)
1 shallot or small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
3 T fish sauce
1 T soy sauce
1 T brown or raw sugar
minced Thai chilies*, Sriracha or hot pepper flakes, to taste
1 bunch Thai basil
cooked jasmine rice
large, wrap-like lettuce leaves

Heat coconut or olive oil in a large skillet or (preferably; ask me how I know) wok. Stir fry the onion and garlic until fragrant; add the chicken. Cook, breaking up the chicken into pieces, until the chicken is no longer pink. Add the sauces, sugar and source of hotness and stir-fry for a minute. Add the basil; stir and fry until the basil is wilted.

Serve with rice or in lettuce wraps.

*be careful with those little buggers. I mean it.

It’s Beginning To Taste A Lot Like Nickmas

If you like potato pancakes, and corn, and zucchini, and Tex-Mex flavors, and standing over a stove in August frying things, you'll love these!

Years ago, before I met the man who would eventually become Long-Suffering Husband, I briefly dated a man from Buffalo. We’ll call him “Briefly Suffering Boyfriend.” I remember only three things about him: he had a tattoo of an old grandfather-clock face, showing the time his son was born, on his arm; he had a room in his house called Jesus’ room because there was a Jesus statuette in there, and not much else; and he coined the term Nickmas, to describe the period of celebration, merriment and indulgence otherwise known as my birthday. He didn’t last long–it could have been the distance between us, or it could have been the Jesus whiff, although as I recall, the statuette was ironic–but “Nickmas” has entered my lexicon, and that of many others, I daresay. The Nickmas season lasts anywhere from a week or 12 days to several weeks, depending on what festivities are planned. This year, since there will be an auspicious, if alarming, number of candles on the cake, I plan on living it up from today right until Labor Day, but the high holy day is the 14th.

Last year, I hosted the First and Only Annual Girls-Only BaconFest, at which eight of us consumed approximately 10 pounds’ worth of bacon, wrapped-and-toothpicked around various small pieces of food (olives, Townhouse crackers, water chestnuts, dates, etc.). I had planned on making an entire bacon-themed menu, from goat-cheese-and-bacon lollipops to peanut-butter-bacon truffles to bacon-dulce-de-leche ice cream, but–due to some BaconFest Eve celebrations that got slightly out of hand, I was too whooped to do more than shove toothpicks in shit and call it a day. What can I say–people get carried away with the Nickmas spirit. Or spirits. Did I mention that we also had bacon-infused bourbon and vodka? Yeah.

This year things are going to be a little tamer and a little less artery-clogging–but no less delicious, I hope. Tonight we kicked off the season with the traditional Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters. After all, it’s right around this time of the year that local sweet corn and zukes tend to overflow the farmer’s market, and taste their most delicious. Since I love Tex-Mex flavors, I spice my fritters with cumin, chili powder and jalepeno, and serve them with a cilantro-lime sour cream. They’d be equally good with some freshly made pico de gallo, or even just plain sour cream.

Nickmas Fritters are both a half-year reminder of Hannukah–the deep-fried holiday–and a tasty way to make the most of seasonal produce. They freeze well (although they won’t be as crisp upon reheating, of course) and also make an excellent breakfast, topped with a fried egg, a spoonful of that pico, and perhaps some queso fresco or shredded jack cheese.

Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters

1 ½ c. masa harina or cornmeal
½ c. all-purpose flour
½ c. parmesan cheese
1 t. baking powder
1 t. garlic powder
½ t. salt
½ t. cumin
½ t. oregano
½ t. chili powder
2 c. fresh corn kernels
3 c. shredded zucchini
2 eggs, beaten
¼ c. minced onion
1-2 jalepenos, minced
1 c. milk
oil for frying

Place shredded zucchini in a colander; sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Let sit 15 minutes in a bowl or in the sink. Squeeze zucchini, removing as much water as possible; you may wish to place it in several layers of clean dish towels and wring. Combine corn kernels, zucchini shreds, eggs, onion and jalepeno.

Stir together dry ingredients. Add to wet ingredients. Begin adding milk, a splash at a time. Depending on how much you squoze your zucchini, you may need anywhere from ½ – 1 cup or even more. You want this about the consistency of pancake batter.

Heat a generous amount of oil in a skillet (hey, if you need more explicit instructions than that, go ask someone who gets money for writing recipes). Using a 1/3 c. measure or ice cream scoop, make pancakes with the batter, flattening slightly. When they brown around the edges, turn. When the bottom is brown, remove to a paper-towel-lined plate (I mean, c’mon, you know how to fry things, right?).

Serve with:

Cilantro-Lime Sour Cream

1 c. sour cream or Mexican crema
juice of 1 lime
½ c. cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

P.S. Why, yes, I do! Thanks for asking.

Back in the Saddle Again

My ego was recently punched in the nuts. It started with an article I wrote and published (for money, I might add–well, PayPal, but same diff) and which got some — how shall I say this? oh, gloves off, I suppose — sanctimonious, snippy, unkind and just plain wrong criticism. I made the large-marge mistake of Googling myself and found this post criticizing not just my writing, but me (again, same diff); I won’t recap the whole thing. Suffice it to say that one participant said I had no more grasp of satire than a duck.

Because, as everyone knows, ducks suck at satire. Wait, what?

Several glasses of wine later, my blood pressure’s nearly back to normal and I have almost ceased trying to think of clever retorts that have a creamy, well-reasoned center underneath a deliciously snarky shell. So I’ma get back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend, and do some preachin’ to the choir of the church of Nick.

Let’s talk about zucchini. Much loved, much maligned, far too often the subject of corny Garrison Keillor jokes (“Hahaha, we’re unemployed Lutheran English majors with too much local produce”), zucchini is nevertheless one of my favorite veg. I like to have it on hand at all times. It can be a snack (raw, with ranch), a side dish, a soup component (minestrone, anyone? Well, that will have to wait for fall), an entree (stay tuned for the Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters, which I promise are forthcoming), a quick bread or a dessert (throw some frosting on them thar zucchini muffins and children under the age of 8 call ’em cupcakes. Motherhood — it’s all in the marketing).

The first batch of zucchini from either our garden, the CSA or the local market, I like to do Gram’s Way. Or, if you’re feeling continental, Zucchini ala Gram. This is the way my Grandmother made it, and probably her mom before her. I don’t remember my mom making it this way, but maybe zucchini skips a generation, like twins?

So my stove's dirty. You wanna make something of it? I've knocked a woman to the floor before, and I'd do it again.

Anyway, so easy you would think I was patronizing you if I posted an actual recipe. All you do is put a general pat/chunk/stick (your choice!) of butter in a skillet. Iffen you’re feeling health-conscious, use half butter and half EVOO or regular OO. Let it melt a bit. Throw in some sliced sweet onion. Vidalias are nice. Throw in some sliced zucchini (here I used a mixture of zucchini and yellow zucchini. You could also use yellow squash. Same diff yet again? Maybe. I don’t know, I got my info from the Mennonite veggie stand) or pattpan squash or whatever crazily shaped summer squash your CSA throws at you. Throw in a cup or so of water. Sprinkle generously with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Let it bubble, stew and sing in your kitchen until most of the water’s gone and the squash is soft and lovely. Pour it into a dish and fork up some summer. Try not to eat the whole thing in one sitting.

Forgot to pepper after I plated. Use the Photoshop in your brain to add some flecks of black pepper, will you please? Thanks.

What recipes did you inherit from your Grandmother — or wish you had?

You Did What To Your Chicken?

The spatchcocked chicken in action.

Long-Suffering Husband is a chicken fanatic. He could eat it every day, I think–just plain, roasted or rotisseried, with some Sal’s Sauce and bleu cheese dressing–and in fact, he gets a little crabby if his Vitamin Ch levels get depleted. So we eat a lot of chicken. I have joked that I am the Bubba Gump of chicken.

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to spatchcock a chicken. Yes, I know how naughty and/or painful that sounds, and I’m sure there are entire Internet forums devoted to it, and probably even a pride flag and a particular color of hankie to wear in one’s back pocket if one is a spatchcocker or spatchcockee. But in terms of the chicken, it’s just a fancy, old-fangled, fun-to-say synonym for “butterfly.” You remove the backbone and the keel bone, give the poor spineless chicken a hearty whack on the back, and she’s laid-out flat and ready to cook. The idea is that the bird cooks more evenly, with fully-cooked dark meat and moist breast meat (you’re giggling like a 7th grader by now, aren’t you?).

We lost a limb in the grilling process. Poor Chicky looks like he's just come home from Iraq.

Well, I’m here to tell you, spatchcocking works. The white meat was delicious, juicy and tender. The dark meat was delicious, juicy and tender. This may be among the Top Five chickens I’ve ever cooked, and I am eager to try spatchcocking a chicken to roast, with some lemon and rosemary.

If you’d like to try spatchcocking yourself, have a look at the excellent tutorial at CookThink. I rubbed my chicken with some olive oil, garlic, fresh oregano, dried rosemary and smoked paprika, but you can use any spices that set your heart afire.

A meal fit for Henry IV

We kept things simple and had a salad of our CSA lettuce with a delicious maple mustard dressing that I promise to post soon. In the meantime, some cocktail party trivia for you. Did you know that Herbert Hoover never promised “a chicken in every pot” if he became President? The slogan was used by the Republicans in their campaign materials, so it’s linked to Hoover, but he didn’t actually say it. Henry IV, however, did wish that each of his peasants would have “a chicken in his pot, every Sunday.”

JFK still did say that he was a jelly doughnut, though. That one we have on film.

Kale Chips. Sing Hallelujah.

Spreadin' the Gospel Since 2009

Are you like me, kids? Do you sometimes have trouble figuring out what in tarnation to do with yet another one of those ginormous bundles of greens that your CSA unloads on you? If you answered yes, I have two words for you: Make kale chips. Whoops–that’s three words, isn’t it? Math was never my strong suit.

If you answered, “Hahahaha! Yeah, right” (as I know most of you probably did), my message is the same:

Make kale chips.

Seriously. Stop reading right now, put your trusty flip-flops on, go to the store, and buy some kale. Buy two bunches. That’s how confident I am that you will like these chips.

Back so soon, are you? OK. Start by stripping the leaves from the stems, and tearing the leaves into bigger-than-bite size pieces. About the size of, say, your iPhone. They’ll shrink.

Wash your kale by immersing it in a big vessel of water, like a stockpot or bathtub. Lift them out and spin them in a salad spinner or dry them on layers of paper towels.

Next, dash some olive oil into a big bowl. Add kosher salt, pepper, some garlic powder, maybe some red pepper flakes. Keep it simple, snacker. Throw the kale pieces in and toss with your hands. Yes, your hands. Dump the whole mess onto a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan. Put this into an oven that’s 400°-ish.

Now, and here’s the important part: don’t go far. These babies will burn.

After a few minutes, toss with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula. Repeat. When they seem about half crisp, what I do is turn off the oven and let them continue to dehydrate as the oven cools. It’s OK if a few of them get caramelized; you just don’t want to burn the whole lot.

It’s a fine line between caramelized and burned, you know.

When they are cool, dig in! Kale chips are salty and crunchy, and some greens-hating bairn (in my house, that would be Thing 2) have even been known not only to eat and enjoy them. You can do this with other greens, too, like collards. Or spinach, although I would use the crinkly mature spinach, not the delicate baby spinach–that would melt into nothing, I’m afraid. Plus, we have better uses for baby spinach, like smoothies.

Now, go forth and spread the gospel of the green chips, my children. Hallelujah.

Charred Meat and Swiss Chard

This is why I don't grill.

I love to entertain. In my secret Walter Mitty life, I’m a trophy wife with more money than God and a cadre of devoted and adoring friends who spend weekends at our lake home; I spend hours planning and preparing elaborate dinner parties and brunches and picnic lunches to take on the yacht. I make things like “reductions” and “coulis.” My butcher knows me by name. And of course I have a personal trainer and/or liposuctionist to help me fit into sleek Prada cocktail dresses, so I look fabulous while refilling everyone’s Prosecco (it’s the new champagne).

The reality, however, is that most of my entertaining is done in a backyard littered with brightly colored plastic toys, and the menu usually involves some form of processed meat. I do love me some Zweigle’s.

I burned the bread, too!

This weekend’s festivities were pretty impromptu; Long-Suffering Husband was out of town fetching some heirloom furniture from his folks, so I gathered a few good family friends to grill up some dogs and burgers. At the eleventh hour, I stumbled upon this delectable little number over at Sippity Sup: Chard Wrapped Grilled Mozzarella.

Unfortunately, I skimmed the recipe and missed the step in which you blanch the chard leaves, so they were a bitch to fold around the cheese. And I had no kalamatas, but I did have roasted red pepper. The end result was, as is so often the case with my cooking, not so very nice to look at, but pretty darn tasty nonetheless.

We plopped ’em atop the burned bread (or in the case of a gluten-free guest, atop a burned hamburger). They were the hit of the afternoon, not least because they weren’t charred to a cinder like the other foods. I’m excited to make them again, the proper way, and to experiment with other add-ins.

All in all, it was a good time. Much laughter, much shrieking from the children, and when it was all over (to quote an ex-roommate), my feets hurt. Both of them. Still, I’m glad that next time, I can turn the BBQ tongs over to my husband, and go back to swanning around with a bottle of Prosecco in my hand. Who knows, maybe I’ll even act like a trophy wife and share.

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