Getting a Little Nutty

So let me ask…..how many of you have vegetable gardens?  How many of you frequent farmer’s markets?  Until I lived and worked on a farm, I was pretty clueless about growing food.  So why should we be concerned?

Food gardens and orchards were once common in the western world, but have been replaced by manicured lawns and a few ornamentals.  How is this possible when surveys show gardening as our favorite pastime?  Yet when it comes to whole food, the closest most of us get is the local produce section of our grocery stores.  The enlightened might venture out to the farmer’s market and hopefully spend their food dollars with a genuine farmer.

Not long ago we were an agricultural rather than industrial society.  Most farms were family farms until the 1940’s.  These farms were not mono-cultures, but grew and raised a variety of vegetables, fruits and livestock.  These were largely self-sustaining farms that grew their own feed grains to feed their livestock, using field rotation and organic methods.  They would compost and return their manure to their fields to fertilize the soil.  Pests were controlled by having multiple crops in smaller fields.  Although it was labor intensive, the hoe and the plow were the weed control methods of the day.

Enter WWII.  Many left family farms to serve, creating an exodus to the cities by many who no longer valued agrarian life.  There was opportunity in the city.  With this change came the battle cry of bigger is better; mono-crops replaced the thoughtful and common sense approach to farming.  Cheap petroleum, along with new science, created the world of pesticides, to address the new push of agribusiness for mono-crops.  Commodities replaced food.  Herbicides were the preferred weed control method.  Free range animals were sequestered into feed lots, resulting in the need for preemptive antibiotics.  Chemicals were more cost-effective than manual labor.  The family farm was lost.

Rachel Carlson was before her time when she wisely commented: “Future historians may well be amazed at our distorted sense of proportion.  How could intelligent human beings  seeking to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

Our food system is more fragile than we realize.  Dr. Vandana Shiva stated, “Seeds controlled by Monsanto, agribusiness trade controlled by Cargill, processing controlled by Pepsi and Phillip Morris, retail controlled by Wal-Mart–is a recipe for food dictatorship.  We must occupy the food system to create food democracy.”

As these concerns play out, organic farming and the local food movement has tried to respond by educating the consumer about how to change our food system to become more sustainable.  Concerns about quantity over quality, profit over sustainability and the environment, will need to be seriously addressed in our lifetime.  Our current industrial practices are not sustainable.

I had never put up food before I came to the farm over 12 years ago.  I would simply purchase whatever I needed whenever I needed it.  I was not conscious of the connection between food and health.  When fresh became my motto, I learned that if I planted it, raised it and harvested it, it’s going to taste better than if I bought it.  Fresh herbs and whole foods became my passion.

These days I am driven to put up the food we grow.  You might ask, “How in the world do you find the time?”  My response to that is twofold; one, we are NOT television watchers, and two, it’s a labor of love.  The flavor of home-grown vegetables is so superior, I literally find the time.  Since doing this we have cut our grocery food budget by more than half, saving thousands of dollars annually.  But the monetary savings is only one form of wealth.  We are so much richer for the life on our farm.  The sound of birdsong, the physical labor, the smell of fresh earth, the excitement of watching seeds grow into mature plants, which produce vegetables so good that you close your eyes when you eat.  This is not a need for nostalgia, but a prayer of gratitude for seeing with new sight.  Knowing what is possible when food is home-grown or grown locally, makes me want to sing its praises and encourage others to dynamite their lawn and put in a food garden.

Family relationships become deeper when you work together and a family food garden is a great place to start.  When seeds are planted, there is a sense of purpose; a stewardship of your plot of land.  With attention to what’s needed your efforts will be rewarded with food grown with your own hands for your own table.  I know each spring when row after row of seeds are sown, there is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing rows of tiny green seedlings breaking ground and reaching for the sun.  It’s a birth and there you stand like a proud parent.

Then it starts.  You read, you experiment, and you want the best for those seedlings.  How much water is too much; how much too little?  Those little seedlings will inform you whether or not you are on the right track.  You will weed and weed again.  Each day you will observe.  Didn’t it grow twice as big after the last rain?  You will curse the cut-worm or slug that caused it to fail.  You will take it personally.  You will uncover your creativity and discover solutions for problems and challenges.  All the while, each of you will be invested in the outcome.  With shovel and hoes in hand, your investment will bare fruit as you slowly become closer to the earth and each other.  You will find that you do indeed reap what you sow.  If your space is limited, you might consider incorporating vegetables in your perennial garden as borders or backdrop.  Many vegetables offer both color and texture to the aesthetic eye.

So start now.  Whether it’s a few pots on your balcony or deck, or planning a small 10 x 10 plot; learn what it takes to grow food.  The learning curve is immense, but the reward will more than match your efforts.  What I have learned about farming and growing food is not planted in the soil, but in the heart.  In these fields of plenty, we are all asked to the table.

I’m sure there are as many pesto recipes as there are cooks; in this recipe almonds are front and center rather than herbs.  I love the texture difference, and this works great on any fresh bean.  This recipe makes enough for a crowd, but you can adjust the amount of beans for your family.  The pesto will easily keep in the refrigerator for a week or more to use as needed.

HARICOT VERTS WITH ALMOND PESTO

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 pounds haricot verts (or as we call them: Skinny French Girls)
  • 1 cup (5 ounces) whole almonds, toasted and cooled
  • 1 1/4 ounces Parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 3 teaspoons white wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil + extra for drizzling

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DIRECTIONS:

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Trim green beans and blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes.  Remove beans with tongs and plunge them into an ice water bath to stop the cooking process.  Allow to fully cool.  Drain and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel.
  2. In a food processor, place almonds, cheese, garlic, thyme, and and pepper in bowl and pulse 6-8 times or until they are a coarse paste.  Add vinegar, and pulse again.  Place contents in small mixing bowl and stir in olive oil.
  3. Toss cooled haricot verts with some of the pesto.  Place beans on a platter, and drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil.

Serves 6-8

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“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.”  –May Sarton

The Magic of Diversity

When I think about cooking, I can’t help but think about all the different cultures that bring excitement to the food in my kitchen.  When we sit around a table to break bread together, it follows that our differences as human beings flows into our food.  In this way we see how ethnic diversity adds richness not only to our society but to the food we eat.  Life would be so very boring left only to our own approaches to cooking.  As a country loaded with immigrants, we have all brought our recipes with us from our past.  Each culture adds so much to life’s pleasures, through color, texture and flavor.

I enjoy making eggs dishes that can be served for breakfast or dinner.   This Green Shakshuka is no exception.  Traditional Shakshuka (a North African and Israeli dish) is made with tomatoes and peppers.  This is a riff using any green of your choosing.  This morning I used kale, Swiss chard, green onions, green garlic and parsley.  I often make it with my favorite combo of spinach and arugula, but alas this is what I had available.  Experiment!  Flexibility and adventure is the key.  Use any combination of greens, from turnip, to beet to herbs.  You really can’t go wrong;  just make sure to place your firmer greens in first before your more tender greens.  This comes together quickly and can be made as easily for two as it can for six.  Don’t forget the feta!  If you want to really sing, dribble a little herb oil like chive or basil over eggs.

GREEN SHAKSHUKA

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound mixed greens of your choosing (chard, spinach, arugula, kale, etc.), chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, grated
  • 1 shallot or 2 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted
  • 2 teaspoons Zaatar
  • 1 bunch cilantro, parsley or chives (think tender herbs)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 4-6 farm fresh eggs
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta
  • 1/2 avocado, thinly sliced for garnish (optional)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

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DIRECTIONS:

  1. Put olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat; add firm greens first and wilt slightly.  Next add garlic, shallots, cumin, Zaatar and water, along with your more tender greens.  Toss to combine; cover and steam for 3 minutes.
  2. Remove cover and cook off any additional water in pan.  Add any herbs you are using.  Make wells for your eggs with a spatula.  Carefully crack an egg into each well.  Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Remove lid and sprinkle feta over greens.  Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Serve garnished with additional herbs and avocado.

Serves 4-6

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“I’m a fierce advocate for diversity in all it’s colorful forms, and I always will be.”

Zorba the Sheet….Pan

Ok.  We’re all pressed for time aren’t we?  Sheet pan dinners get it on the table not only quickly, but deliciously.  They come together in short order, you place them in a hot oven; it even gives you time for a cocktail while it’s cooking.  I say it’s a win, win.

Have any of you seen the movie Zorba the Greek (1964)?  It’s a classic in every sense.  An uptight British writer travels to Crete on business, and finds his life forever changed when he meets a gregarious Greek named Alexis Zorba.  I LOVE this movie.  It demonstrates how if you open your heart to the unfamiliar, you can be altered when you face it head on.  Stream it; you’ll love it.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen….each culture has distinct flavors.  Greek food has its roots in Mediterranean cuisine.  It makes wide use of olive oil, wine, meat (in this case chicken) vegetables, olives and cheese.  It’s savory, distinct, herbaceous, and authentic.  Personally, anything from the Mediterranean is fine with me.  And as the Greek’s would say: “Gia sas!” (cheers)

GREEK SHEET PAN DINNER

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 2 inch pieces
  • 1 1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 2 inch pieces
  • 1 red onion, cut in half lengthwise, then into sixths
  • 2 cups red cherry tomatoes
  • 1 can baby artichokes, drained and cut in half
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 lemon, cut in half lengthwise, then into sixths
  • 4-6 bone-in, skin on, chicken thighs
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, thinly sliced
  • 2/3 cups kalamata olives
  • 2 tablespoons capers, drained
  • 1/4 cup feta, crumbled

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DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Line a large rimmed baking sheet with foil.
  2. In a large bowl, add peppers, onion, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Toss, and then place on baking sheet, leaving space in the center for chicken.  Save the oil and vinegar that falls to the bottom of the bowl.
  3. Salt and pepper the chicken and place in center of sheet pan.  Brush with some of the oil and vinegar from bowl.
  4. Sprinkle the cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts, lemon sections and garlic over vegetables.  Place herb sprigs on top of chicken.
  5. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until chicken reaches 160 degrees when tested with instant read thermometer.
  6. Remove herb sprigs.  Place chicken on platter, and  surround with veggies; then sprinkle olives, capers, feta and basil over everything.  (I like to finish this with a little homemade basil oil; see page  )

Serves 4-6

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“You can knock on a deaf man’s door forever.”   —Nikos Kazantzakis

Eggs with Tomato-Pepper Sauce & Feta

As I practice alternate fasting days, I want the days when I do eat loaded with everything delicious.  This skillet egg concoction fills the bill perfectly.  Those of you who have followed my blogs for a while will notice this is yet another way to use the Roasted Tomato Sauce you put up last summer (if you have any left!).  This is also when I’m happy to have a well stocked pantry.  The roasted red bell peppers are a great marriage with the tomato sauce.  Add onions, garlic, za’atar, feta and eggs and you’re golden.  This works well in a 10-inch skillet for 2-4 eggs, or a 12-inch skillet as you increase the amount of eggs for a gathering.  The recipe below serves 2, but can easily be doubled or tripled.

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Eggs with Tomato Pepper Sauce and Feta

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 pint homemade Roasted Tomato Sauce or 15 ounce can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes, pureed in a blender
  • 2 jarred whole roasted red bell peppers, drained, patted dry and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3/4 teaspoon za’atar
  • 3 ounces (about 1/4 cup) feta cheese, crumbled
  • 2-4 farm fresh eggs (crack each of these into ramekins)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chives or parsley, minced

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DIRECTIONS:

  1.  Heat a 10 or 12 inch non-stick oven-proof skillet on medium-high.  Add olive oil and onion, saute until onion is soft and translucent about 3-4 minutes; add garlic saute for 1 minute more.
  2. Add tomato sauce and roasted bell peppers, and then sprinkle with za’atar.  Simmer until hot about 3-4 minutes more.  Meanwhile preheat broiler on high with oven rack about 4 inches below.
  3. With a silicone spatula, make wells in the sauce for your eggs.  Gently place an egg in each well.  Sprinkle with crumbled feta.  Place skillet under broiler for 2-3 minutes or until egg whites are set, but yolks are still loose.  Watch closely.
  4. Serve with minced fresh chives or parsley.

Serves 2

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“Hope makes a good breakfast.  Eat plenty of it.”  –Ian Fleming

 

 

Coconut Dreams

I consider myself a pretty good cook, but baking intimidates me.  I rarely venture into that territory; although I do enjoy making pies and tarts.  The main reason it’s a challenge is having to measure.  When I cook, all things are possible and I’m endlessly freelancing.  A little of this, a little of that; I instinctively know how to correct and adjust as I go along.  I’ve always cooked this way, and it allows for all sorts of possibility.   My wife Val on the other hand is an excellent baker.  It must follow her days as a licensed contractor; measure twice, cut once.  But me?  I hate being told what to do.

Last weekend we were invited for dinner and asked to bring something sweet.  I thought this was my opportunity to make macaroons for the first time (don’t ask me why).  So after breakfast on Sunday morning I got out the ingredients and went for it.  When they came out of the oven they, well, looked runny.  Little pools of goo had circled around each one and I wondered what I had done wrong.  This is when I reminded myself we are what we tell ourselves, and I went into this project thinking I’m not a baker.

After doing some investigating, I realized that I had inadvertently sent the oven at 300 degrees instead of 350.  I also realized that rather than getting out the Kitchen Aid for 2 egg whites I would use my stick blender inside a quart jar.  The egg whites never got stiff and I decided it wasn’t that important.  These two issues were obviously the culprits to my halos around the cookies.  Being slightly frugal, I trimmed eat cookie to eliminate the halo, mumbling under my breathe.  Val suggested I make another batch.  I clearly did not want to make another batch!  Val said, “Get back on the horse, and make another ducking  batch.  I don’t want to hear you say you can’t bake!”

More mumbling, as I once more assembled the ingredients.  This time I had the correct oven temperature, whipped beautiful stiff peaks with the Kitchen Aid, and wallah; wonderful looking (and tasting) macaroons.  I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Cappuccino Macaroons

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup sweetened condensed milk (from a 12 ounce container)
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 14 ounces sweetened shredded coconut
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

 

 

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DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and position oven racks in the top and bottom thirds of your oven.  Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Combine the condensed milk, vanilla, espresso powder and cinnamon in a large bowl.  Add the coconut and stir with a large silicone spatula until thoroughly mixed.
  3. Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer on medium speed until stiff peaks form, about 4-5 minutes.  Using the spatula, fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture.  Push the mixture together into a mound.
  4. With wet hands gently form rounded tablespoonfuls of batter into balls about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.  Arrange 2 inches apart on the baking sheets.
  5. Bake, rotating and swapping the positions of the pans about halfway through, until the macaroons are golden brown in the spots and their undersides are tanned, about 25 minutes.
  6. Cool briefly on the baking sheets on racks, then transfer to the racks to cool completely.  They will keep, uncovered at room temperature, for up to 3 days, or refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.  They can also be frozen for up to 6 months.

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Cookies are the sweetest little bit of comfort food. They are very bite sized and personal.”    —Sandra Lee

Zukes Not Nukes

Although you might think there are four seasons in the calendar year, I’m here to tell you there’s a fifth: mud season.  Most of the snow has melted, and the frost line is disappearing beneath the soil.  The sun is just beginning to have some warmth in it and the robins are back in full force.  We anxiously await evidence of  something, anything growing.  We are ready to till and get our first crops in the ground.  But the mud!  There is literally no safe place to walk that doesn’t present the challenge of having your Wellies sucked off your feet.

Our dogs Willow and Nante smell spring in the air and run wild around the yard like children at recess.  We love seeing them so joyful, until they bring their muddy legs and paws into the house making confusing circles of happiness over the slate kitchen floor.  It’s useless to mop; we would spend most of our waking hours cleaning up after them.

When we walk the farm this time of year, we are itching to get going and overwhelmed when we comprehend how much work there is to do.  You have to take the attitude that ‘slow and steady wins the race’; or you’re licked before you start.  We notice how the scent on the air has shifted.  There is a smell to the land after the snow pack has melted; it is the smell of possibility.  Our winter plans are anxious to be put into action.  Each new season holds promise; the promise of growth, the promise of hard work and the promise of humility.  After all, farming is an act of faith.

The following recipe is not difficult to make, yet the flavors contrast each other in such a way that you will find yourself putting it on frequent rotation.  The savory Ras el Hanout (recipe in the previous blog for Moroccan Almonds) combined with lamb and dried apricots works amazingly well.  See if you don’t agree.

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STUFFED ZUCCHINI WITH LAMB, DRIED APRICOTS AND PINE NUTS

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 zucchini (8 ounces each), halved lengthwise and seeded (I find a melon-baller works best for this)
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces ground lamb
  • 1 onion, chopped fine
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons ras el hanout
  • 2/3 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup cooked jasmine rice
  • 1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped fine
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

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DIRECTIONS:

  1. Adjust your oven racks to upper-middle and lowest possible positions.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Brush cut sides of zucchini with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Lay zucchini cut side down and roast for about 20-25 minutes or until they are slightly softened and the cut sides are slightly golden.  Remove from oven and flip cut side up on baking sheet; set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add ground lamb with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.  Break up meat as you cook, until browned, about 5-6 minutes.  Using slotted spoon, transfer lamb to a plate lined with paper towels.
  4. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from skillet.  Add onion and saute over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes.  Stir in garlic and ras el hanout and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Stir in broth, rice and apricots and bring to a simmer.  Cook until most of liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

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5.  Fill zucchini halves with mixture.  Place baking sheet on upper rack in oven and                 bake until heated through about 8-10 minutes.  Sprinkle with pine nuts and chopped         parsley.  Serve with Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce (recipes follows).

CUCUMBER- YOGURT SAUCE:

  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt (I use Fage)
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 half English cucumber, grated on large holes of box grater
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Whisk yogurt, oil, dill, and garlic, together in medium bowl until combined.  Stir in cucumber and season with salt and pepper.  Serve along side stuffed zucchini.

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“I am a weak, ephemeral creature made of mud and dream. But I feel all the powers of the universe whirling within me.”
― Nikos Kazantzakis

The Hummus Among Us

It the world of junk food, it’s comforting to know we can make something substantial, healthy and satisfying: hummus.  Typically this Lebanese dip or spread is made with chickpeas, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and salt.  But creative people have shaken up tradition but making it with additions of roasted root vegetables such as beets, carrots and red bell pepper.  It’s flexible.  It’s a great source of plant-based protein, decreases inflammation and is good for heart and bone health.  I however love it because it tastes so dam good!

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SPICY ROASTED CARROT HUMMUS

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 large carrots (about 6 ounces), peeled, ends trimmed
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 15.5 ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained*
  • 1/3 cup tahini, well mixed
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely grated
  • 1 tablespoon (or more) harissa, Sriracha or gochujang
  • 1 teaspoon (or more) kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • Roasted pistachios or toasted sunflower seeds, plus chopped parsley for serving

 

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DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Place carrots on a large baking sheet line with parchment paper and drizzle with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Roast until carrots are very tender, about 40-45 minutes.  Let cool.
  2. Process roasted carrots, chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, harissa, salt, and cumin in food processor until mixture is smooth, about 1 minute.
  3. With the motor running, stream in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then continue to process until hummus is very light and creamy, 1-2 minutes more.  Taste and season with more salt if needed.  Add more harissa to make hummus spicier if desired, then process to incorporate, a few more seconds.
  4. Transfer hummus to a small platter or plate.  Top with nuts and parsley; drizzle with additional olive oil.  Can be refrigerated for about 5 days.

Yield: 2 cups

Note:  If you would like an even creamier hummus, take the time to slide the skins off the chickpeas.  The skins will make the hummus slightly grainy.  If this is not an issue for you, consider it optional.

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“I can’t turn water into wine, but I can turn hummus into breakfast, lunch and dinner.”  –Rebecca Barum