Friday, June 25, 2010

Mystery Food Week 4 and Library School Gymnastics

I’ve spent the week with my head in two very different worlds. My spring semester was challenging in a way I’d not expected. I took a course on managing prison libraries, which forced me to weigh access to information against public safety and take a very honest personal inventory of my thoughts and subconscious judgments about the incarcerated population. What I learned was that prison librarians have an incredibly important role. These are the men and women who lead the book group discussions that teach positive socialization, help prisoners locate and comprehend legal materials, and ultimately manage and circulate resources to prepare them for life post-incarceration. It takes a certain amount of determination and resiliency to face what is often a difficult population to serve, whether those difficulties arise from the imprisoned or the bureaucratic “hurry-up-and-wait” nature of prison administration.

When it came time to register for summer courses, I finally decided to stop procrastinating and got around to signing up for a required research methods course. The specific topic for the course is “action research.” While I’m still grasping the concept, it seems to deal a lot with how research acts as a continual, fluid learning process that has no fixed beginning or end. For my other course, I chose a class on selecting materials for children ages 0-4. So you can imagine that going from writing about the constructivist theory of learning to evaluating a copy of Clifford: The Big Red Dog might make some mental gymnastics a necessity.

Nonetheless, I remain determined to share the joy of local food with the world and so present to you Mystery Food Week 4. This was the best haul so far (in my humble opinion).

Here we have some arugula, garlic, spring onions, kale, a potted basil plant (Yay!), a summer squash, and some lovely yellow plums.

…And now a confession: I have never eaten a fresh yellow plum. But the delightful smell as I opened the little container was so sweet that I immediately chose and bit into one.

Oh. My. God. Juicy, fruity, and wonderful. Like a tiny, golden nectarine. Immediately visions of chutneys, preserves, sauces, and salsas danced through my brain. Yes, yes, yes to fresh, in-season yellow plums.

I baked a few of them with some peaches for dessert last night, but wanted to save a few for a spicy plum salsa to go with a grilled pork loin I plan to make for a late Father’s Day BBQ this weekend. (Hey, we do things at our own pace here in the “south.”) I just finished the menu plan and it’s chock-full of delicious goodies. I’ll try to take some pictures.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone. Mine will be spent at my favorite market and then celebrating with family. Oh, and maybe a little homework will sneak in there too…all in all, not a bad way to spend a few days.

Ciao for now!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mystery Food Week 3 and Doing the Can-Can

I took advantage of waking up incredibly early this past Saturday and decided to take a trip out to Bluemont, VA and visit Great Country Farms. That’s where I’ve purchased a CSA share from this year and their weekly newsletter noted that tart cherries were ripe for picking.

It took about an hour to drive to the farm from Arlington, but it was a peaceful, sunny morning and I spent the next hour or so in cherry trees looking for the chubbiest, dark red specimens. Well, 6lbs. of cherries later I finally decided that I had enough for jam and drying. The trees were so lovely and the landscape was incredibly serene. It was nice to be somewhere so quiet.

Sunday morning I at last christened the new canning rig…Now this is canning Tim Taylor/Jeremy Clarkson (“POWERRRRRRRR!”) style:

I whipped up a batch of fabulous tart cherry jam. No-sugar-added jam is actually quite easy to make. The canning process adds a few extra steps at the end, but the actual method for jam-making is very straightforward.

 I used 3lbs. of cherries, 1 1/4 cup of white grape juice, one box of no-sugar/low-sugar pectin, and a 1/2 tsp. of citric acid to preserve the vibrant red color. To get started, pit the cherries and put them in a big pot on the stove over high heat. Smash them up with a potato masher, sprinkle in the citric acid (you can also use a squirt of fresh lemon juice) and let it come to a simmer. Whisk the grape juice and pectin together and then add them to the cherries. Let the mixture come to a full, rolling boil (one that does not stop when stirred) and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat and skim the foam off of the top of the jam. Let it sit for 5 minutes and then stir before ladling into jars. This short rest period followed by stirring keeps the fruit from floating to the top and separating from the juices. Even though it’s very liquid-y when hot, the jam will set as it cools down.

If you’re interested in canning this recipe for long-term storage or gift-giving you will also need a big pot of boiling water, 5 or 6 pint jars with flat lids and rings, and something to lift the jars in and out of the boiling water. Jar grabbers are available online for less than $10. If you have mason jars hanging around, the actual jars and rings are certainly reusable, but it is important to always use brand-new flat lids as the adhesive on them will only form a tight seal once.

Sterilize the jars and rings by washing them with hot soapy water or running them through a dishwasher with a heated dry cycle. While you prepare the jam, place the flat lids into a small pan of simmering water to warm up the adhesive. Gently ladle the hot jam into the jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace at the top. Wipe the edges of the jars with a damp towel, place on the flat lids, and then screw on the rings. Place the closed jars into the pot of boiling water, making sure that they are completely submerged, and boil for 10 minutes. Carefully remove the hot jars and place them somewhere to cool undisturbed. Over the next several hours, you might hear tiny popping noises--it’s a good thing. It means that the air-tight vacuum has formed and that the jar has properly sealed. After 24 hours, check all of the jars by pressing down on the flat lid gently. If it doesn’t pop back, the jar is safely sealed. Store the jars in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Homemade jam will start to lose its firm set after about 8 months, but is still safe to eat (albeit a bit runny) as long as the jar remains sealed.

Here’s the final product, from farm to table in one weekend:

Not a bad way to spend the weekend, I must say. And of course, a mere two days later it was time for more goodies:

That’s Mystery Food Week 3 and included in the basket this week were collard greens, red leaf lettuce, beets, broccoli (my personal favorite), and cilantro. Cilantro and I don’t get along so well, so that plant will probably be given to a good home. I’m sorry cilantro, it’s not you, it’s me.

I’m still thinking up creative ways to use everything, but those collards look destined for my favorite application—sautéed in a bit of bacon fat with a whole lot of garlic and white beans. Food just doesn’t get more comforting than that.  Have a great week all!

Ciao for now!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Mystery Food Week 2

Here’s this week’s delivery of red chard, mixed salad greens, potted chives, spring onions, and strawberries:

My goodness, look at that chard! It’s beautiful. How beautiful do I think it is? It was beautiful enough that it got me out of bed 20 minutes early this morning so that I could think of something to make with it for lunch. Now that is some serious motivational power.

I still had a small bunch of (oddly not wilted) kale from last week’s delivery, so I chopped that up with several handfuls of the chard and sautéed them in olive oil with garlic, spring onions, and about 1 and a half cups of cooked garbanzo beans. Seasoned it all with a few heavy pinches of salt and some red pepper flakes and then took it off the heat and added about 2 tbsp. of grated parmesan cheese. The whole process took about 10 minutes, and if you can believe it, the chard got even more vibrant as it cooked. Normally, I’d just eat that as is, but I like to have a little bit more protein at lunch for a mid-day boost. I boiled a few eggs this morning and will likely chop one up and put it over the greens and beans.

The strawberries were exceedingly ripe and therefore needed to be eaten immediately (oh darn!). I baked a version of yesterday’s Goodbye Gluten Peach-Berry Crumble, changing out the blueberries for strawberries. It was every bit as incredible as I dreamed.

My own little garden is looking pretty fantastic this year. I attribute this mostly to good spring rainfalls and a few doses of bone meal and blood meal at the base of the plants. Here are some of the lovely cayenne peppers and zucchini that are growing:

I was surprised how much larger the peppers have grown this year. Those two are already the length of my hand!

The garden also has two watermelon plants (that seem to grow longer by the hour) and several Romanian sweet pepper plants that are starting to bear vegetables. The spinach plants have been harvesting big, beautiful leaves for the past month, but are about finished now. Finally, there’s the tomato plant. I’ve never had much luck with tomato plants in the past, but I bought a smaller variety this year and already have three little green tomatoes.

All of this makes me very excited to be receiving Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods by Eugenia Bone in the mail today.  I want to christen the new pressure canner with something fabulous.

Ciao for now!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Something Sweet for Sarah

My cousin Emily and her boyfriend Josh had their beautiful little girl Anna Marie baptized this weekend. She looked like a little angel in a christening gown made from the train of my grandmother’s (Anna’s namesake) wedding gown. The event was a great excuse to make a trip to Pittsburgh and see my family, most of whom I haven’t seen since the winter holidays.

And everyone looked great! At the reception I was sitting and chatting with my cousin Sarah. A while back, she learned that she has some kind of gluten intolerance and has been avoiding wheat. Unfortunately for her, this meant that she could only taste the (divine) frosting on the white almond cake from Oakmont Bakery. Boo. That’s no fun. Even our gluten-free friends should get to have some sweets.

Well Sarah, this one is for you. Not only is this a fairly clean dessert, but it is entirely free of wheat products and is pretty perfect for summer. Plus, it doesn’t require any babysitting—I made this during Stanley Cup Finals, and hey, I have priorities.

This recipe can be doubled if you’d like to bake it for a larger crowd, but I generally only cook for two so I make it in a loaf pan or small round casserole dish.

Goodbye Gluten Peach-Berry Crumble

-2 small peaches, pitted and diced
-2/3 cup of berries (I used blueberries this time, but strawberries or blackberries would be delicious, I'm sure.)
-1 1/2 tsp. cornstarch
-1 tsp. natural, unrefined cane sugar, sucanat, or palm sugar (It’s a small amount—you can get away with regular white sugar if that’s what you have on hand.)
-1/2 tsp. cinnamon

Crumb Topping:
-2 tbsp. stone-ground cornmeal
-2 tbsp. rolled or Scottish oats***
-2 tbsp. natural, unrefined cane sugar, sucanat, or palm sugar
-1 tbsp. walnuts
-1/2 tbsp. butter
-1 tsp. cinnamon

***If you are extremely wheat or gluten-sensitive, check the label and buy a variety that is made on equipment that does not also process wheat ingredients. Bob’s Red Mill, Glutino, and Glutenfreeda are some brands that offer a specific gluten-free variety of oats.


Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F.

In a small bowl, combine the ingredients for the filling and set them aside while you prepare the topping. (The fruit will get wonderfully juicy!)

In the bowl of a food processor or a regular mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients for the topping. If you’re not using a food processor, chop the walnuts before you add them.

Cut in the butter using short pulses (in the food processor) or the tines of two forks until the mixture resembles a coarse meal like this:

Lightly grease a small baking dish and add the fruit. Sprinkle the crumble topping over the fruit—no need to press it down—and bake for 50 minutes or until the fruit is softened and the juices are bubbling.

Heap a generous serving-spoonful onto your plate and enjoy! Share if you must.

Yep, I could eat that everyday. Hope you like it, Sarah. :-)

Mystery Food Week 2 to come later...

Ciao for now, folks!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mystery Food Week 1 and Twist on an Old Favorite

This is what was waiting for me when I got home from work today:

Onions, a potted dill plant, strawberries, a glorious amount of lush kale, and salad greens.

I ran outside and planted that dill in my garden, which has already supplied me with a generous amount of spinach this year. The other plants (zucchini, peppers, cherry tomatoes and watermelon) are all looking good as well. I'm crossing my fingers for a good harvest.

In the mood for simple comfort food, I decided to dress up one of my favorites with some of that gorgeous-looking kale.

Parmesan-Black Pepper Pasta with Crispy Olive Oil-Garlic Kale Chips

It's a pretty basic pasta dish: Whole-wheat rotini tossed with olive oil, coarse salt, lots of freshly ground black pepper, and a few handfuls of grated parmesan cheese.

To make the kale chips:

Pre-heat an oven to 300 degrees F. Simply remove the hard ribs and stems from a bunch of kale. Toss the leaves with a little bit of olive oil and then lay them in a single layer on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Sprinkle the leaves with coarse salt, pepper, and garlic powder and then bake for 20-25 minutes or until crispy. Cool on a rack.

I like to crumble the kale chips over the top of the pasta. Mmm, delicious. And Tuesday-night-easy.

Not a bad way to start off the CSA season. Now to go enjoy some of those strawberries...

Ciao for now!


Mystery Food: 2010 Edition

Last year, blogging my weekly CSA share really helped to keep me writing more regularly so I’ve decided to take on that project again this year. Not only does it encourage me to think more about creative ways to use my share, but it also shines a spotlight on some of the beautiful, locally grown fruits and vegetables here in Northern VA.

This year, I’ve purchased a half-share from Great Country Farms, located in Bluemont, VA. The weekly box will be delivered on Tuesdays (starting today!) for 20 weeks. I’m looking forward to a summer full of fresh, inspiring food and new recipes.

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to update Neen’s Notes. Spring was full of new challenges. As I come closer to completing my MLIS in December, I’m doing more and more research and writing a lot of papers. Sometimes after a day of writing and e-mailing at the office and then reading and writing for school, I just don’t have it in me to be a blogger too. I do think it’s important to “turn-off” for a little while before going to bed at night otherwise all of the day’s thoughts have no time to settle down.

One of the challenges I’ve also been dealing with lately is how to get back on the clean-eating wagon after taking a pretty nasty spill. When things got stressful and busy, it was much harder to avoid falling back on easy take-out or delivery solutions. As a consequence, I put on a bit of weight around the middle and haven’t been feeling like I’m at my best. So I thought that starting up my “mystery food” blogs again might help me win back some of my motivation.

You’ve got to start somewhere, right?

I just keep reminding myself that two steps forward and one step back is STILL progress.

Ciao for now. Look for Mystery Food 2010 Week 1 later!