Basil-Kale Pesto

summer garden

Mid September – the height of harvest season – and there’s a frost warning, a good two weeks earlier than usual.  We, and the garden, may wake up to 32 degrees tomorrow morning, which means I have a lot to do!  One of the vulnerable crops which will not survive a frigid night is basil.  So, pesto production it is.

fresh basil

One that will actually become tastier with a frost is kale.  With more than plenty of it to take us into early winter, I harvested some now as well to partner with the basil in the pesto.

kale

Basil-Kale Pesto (or substitute other fresh green leaves)

  • 2 cups fresh basil and kale leaves, washed, dried and torn into small pieces
  • 3 medium garlic cloves (or garlic scapes, earlier in the season)
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, or a combination)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and process until you have a beautiful green paste.  You can adjust the flavor with salt and pepper, and the consistency with a bit more olive oil, if needed.

Fill small glass jars with pesto.  They’ll do well in the refrigerator for a week or so, and they’ll keep throughout the winter in the freezer.  Just be sure to give the pesto enough space in the jar to expand when it freezes. If you are a minimal pesto eater, you can freeze it in ice cube trays. Once frozen, transfer the pesto cubes into plastic bags, and return to the freezer for use in soups and sauces when you need a shot of summery green.

Looking for a brighter, longer-lasting green? Then blanch* your basil leaves for a quick moment – no more than 5-6 seconds – before putting them into the food processor.

pesto toast

 

pesto toast close-up

 

* How to blanch? Put a large pot of water on the stove to boil (salted or not, as you wish) and fill a large bowl or a plugged-up sink with ice water. Once at a full boil, drop the basil leaves into the water, count to 5 seconds and remove them with a slotted spoon.  Drop them immediately into the ice water.  Continue on with pesto making instructions using this basil.  You’ll be treated to a brighter and lasting colored pesto.

 

 

Long Live Grilled Cheese!

A panini, a quesadilla, a tosti, a croque-monsieur, a Welsh rarebit…. it has been thoroughly tested the world over, and has been unequivocally determined: a grilled cheese is a good thing.  In conjunction with Wilson Farm’s Grilled Cheese Weekend (my childhood neighborhood farm and farm stand hosting their First-Ever Grilled Cheese Weekend, March 1 & 2, 2014), I’m having what has become my favorite way to enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich.

kimchi grilled cheese

Thanks to a thematic overhaul and a particularly lively addition, the grilled cheese recently jumped up in the ranks of my favorite sandwiches. The new theme is probiotics – those BFF bacteria we can’t live without and live much better with. Filling my sandwich with as much life as possible, I’ve been opting for a true sour dough bread (which is naturally fermented), layered with sliced raw milk hard cheese (naturally cultured Cheddar being the favorite choice in my area), topped with a generous scoop of sauerkraut or kimchi (lacto-fermented cabbage teaming with probiotics), all melted together to the point of perfection.

kimchi

kimchi grilled cheese

Add even more life to your meal, by washing it down with a tall glass of kombucha (a naturally fermented tea), ginger bug, kefir or a lassi and you are in good bacterial hands!

Meatless Monday: Fresh Corn Chowder

corn chowder - diagonal bowl

This is the kind of soup, which, ideally you start making a day (or two) before you plan to eat it (true, actually, for most soups, but if you’re curious enough to confirm the theory, this would be a good one to do that with).  For the richest corn flavor, shuck and de-kernel the cobs to make a stock on day one, then make and eat the soup on day two. On day three, you will be happy if you made a large pot full.

Day one, you will need:

  • 6-8 ears (or more) of just picked sweet corn (organic if possible, GM sweet corn is genetically engineered to be herbicide resistant (“roundup ready”) and to produce its own insecticide. Like all GMOs, genetically modified sweet corn has not been thoroughly tested to ensure that it is safe to eat, and is also not labeled, so the best way to avoid it is to purchase organic corn or buy directly from a local grower who can confirm the use of natural seeds.
  • 6-8 cups of water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • fresh thyme
  • several large pinches of salt
  1. In a large soup pot, heat the same number of cups of water as number of cobs.
  2. Shuck corn, then remove all the kernels from the cobs. Stand cobs upright on a cutting board, and cut down the length of the cobs, or lay them down and cut off enough to make a flat surface. Then roll the cob so that it lies on the flat side and cut off kernels (this method tends to result in fewer kernels skipping over the cutting board and landing elsewhere). Save kernels in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for tomorrow.
  3. Submerge de-kerneled cobs in heating water, add bay leaves, thyme and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and allow to simmer for 1-2 hours. Remove from heat, and let sit until tomorrow.

Day two, you’ll want to have:

  • 1-2 tablespoons butter
  • 1-2 onions, minced
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2-3 potatoes, cut into small cubes (again, ideally organically grown, which allows you to skip peeling them and include the peel which is full of fiber and nutrients otherwise lost)
  • small handful of fresh herbs: oregano, basil, thyme (or substitute with smaller amounts of dried, if fresh is not available)
  • 1 cup half & half
  • salt and pepper
  • fresh parsley
  1. Heat butter in large skillet and sauté onions. Add garlic when onions are soft, translucent and thoroughly limp, and cook for another 2-3 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, remove cobs and bay leaves from the corn stock.  Add contents of skillet, potatoes and herbs to stock.  Bring to a boil, turn down heat and allow to simmer for 15-20 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat, add half & half, and fresh corn kernels. Adjust flavor with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Serve with a garnish of snipped parsley.

corn chowder - top view

Corn is ubiquitous in our modern world with all the corn oil, cornmeal, corn starch, and high fructose corn syrup in processed foods, and the vast quantities we grow for animal feed and ethanol, and yet the very satisfying, sweet-savory, juice-spraying, floss-requiring, face-and-hands eating experience of gnawing the kernels off the cob is, for most, only a special short season treat.  This is when we get to savor zea mays at its best, and as a vegetable.  Corn is a food which wears many hats (grass, grain, flour, oil, sweetener, gasoline, even compostable forms of plastic) but it is the plant’s vegetable hat (making up less than one percent of all the corn grown in the US) that is saluted in this chowder.

Nutritionally, corn is a good source of antioxidants, fiber, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin B3, vitamin B5, magnesium, iron and plant protein. Organically grown corn will generally offer more nutrients than non-organic.

Once you locate a good source for fresh, sweet and juicy corn, and get in the rhythm of shucking and cutting off the kernels, you may want to earmark a full day to do only this, make large pots of corn stock and freeze corn kernels. Corn can be frozen either on or off the cob. Amount of available time in late summer/early fall, and/or amount of available freezer space may make the decision easier.  The Pick Your Own website gives clear directions (with pictures) for both methods. With your own frozen corn in the freezer, you can recreate this soup throughout the year and bring back one of the quintessential flavors of summer whenever you need to be warmed by it.

Lettuce Have Soup

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, the saying advises, but what if life gives you (too much) lettuce?  A problem of the “embarrassment of riches” variety for sure, with an elegant solution to remedy it: cream of lettuce soup.

Lettuce Soup (July 4th)

Starting with the lettuce, whether raw or cooked, there’s quite a range of nutritional value. Here’s a comparison chart from the World’s Healthiest Foods website, which may help direct your next purchase.

Nutrition Comparison of Salad Greens – Based on a 1 cup serving

Salad Greens Calories Vitamin A (IU) Vitamin C (mg) Calcium (mg) Potassium (mg)
Romaine 8 1456 13 20 65
Leaf Lettuce 10 1064 10 38 148
Butterhead (Bibb and Boston 7 534 4 18 141
Arugula 5 480 3 32 74
*Iceberg 7 182 2 10 87

Nutritionally speaking, it’s unfortunate that iceberg remains the top seller in the US, however romaine and other darker greens are seeing a comparative rise in consumption rates.  And, with the popularity of salad bars and the introduction of packaged salads, all lettuce types are enjoying increased sales.

Lettuce has also gained ground with the growing interest in gardening and local foods. It’s a great choice for home growing (even does well in a container), where you can make sure it is grown organically.  Lettuce ranks 11th out of 53 on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Shoppers’ Guide to Pesticides in Produce, placing it in the “buy organic whenever possible” category due to the high pesticide use in conventional growing practices. Food poisoning is an additional concern with mass market lettuce, after several recent cases of Salmonella, E. Coli and Listeria are alleged to have come from “bagged lettuces” from large scale producers.  Selecting organically grown dark leaf varieties from small scale and/or trusted local growers offers the highest quality produce.

In the US, we tend to think of lettuce only as a raw food. However, in China, where far more of it is grown, cooking varieties are favored.  Last summer during the height of lettuce overload season, I cooked some up in a soup, but didn’t write it down. This year, with thanks to Emeril Lagasse and Local Kitchen Blog for publishing confidence-boosting recipes, I made this version.

Cream of Lettuce Soup

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1-2 onions, chopped
  • 6 garlic scapes (or 2-3 garlic cloves, if scapes are not available), chopped
  • 2 medium-sized potatoes, washed, unpeeled and diced
  • 2 tablespoon chives, chopped, plus more cut into several inch long “stripes”
  • large pinch of fresh or dried thyme
  • large pinch of fresh or dried oregano
  • 4 cups water or vegetable stock
  • 2 heads green lettuce (any variety), washed and roughly cut
  • 3/4 cup half ‘n’ half or cream (possibly more to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (or more to taste)
  • several grinds of nutmeg
  • pasta stars (optional)

Method:

  1. Warm Dutch oven or large soup pot over medium high heat, and melt butter. Add chopped onions and garlic scapes, reduce heat and allow to caramelize.
  2. Add potatoes, chives, herbs and cover with water or stock. Simmer until potatoes are soft.
  3. Add lettuce and give the soup another few minutes to simmer until lettuce wilts.
  4. Turn heat off and add half ‘n’ half, salt, pepper and nutmeg. In the soup pot using an immersion blender or in batches in a counter-top blender or Vitamix, blend the soup until smooth.  Adjust consistency with additional water or stock if needed.
  5. Reheat, if necessary, and serve with garnishes such as fresh herbs, croutons, toasted bread with melted cheese, grated Parmesan, pine nuts and/or a drizzle of additional cream (if your soup tastes too bitter, additional cream will help).

On the occasion of Independence Day weekend, I served this soup with pasta stars and chive stripes. For a second serving, I went with chive fireworks.

Lettuce celebrate the stars and stripes!

P1020433 P1020434 P1020436

Meatless Monday: Maple-Squash Soup

maple-squash soup side

Early spring is when the harvest seasons meet. The cycle of the year is tangible when last summer’s hardy keepers extend through to this year’s sugaring season, and the two years are combined in the kitchen.  Winter squash and pumpkins store well, (as do the onions needed for this recipe) and they are so compatible with maple syrup, it seems almost unimaginable that they would be harvested at opposite ends of the year.

maple-squash soup top

Maple-Squash Soup

  • 1 winter squash such as butternut, red kuri, acorn or buttercup
  • 1 pie pumpkin
  • whole spices such as cinnamon stick, star anise, cloves
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1-2 onions, chopped
  • 1/4 inch slice fresh ginger root, minced
  • 6 cups water, stock or sap (should you be tapping maples and have sap to spare)
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup (if not cooking in sap)
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • milk, cream or coconut milk
  • any combination of ground spices you like such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, curry, allspice, etc.
  • salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • a drizzle of hot sauce or a sprinkling of chili flakes (if you like a little spice)
  • garnish with creme fraîche or yogurt and freshly ground nutmeg (optional)

Method:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400˚.
  2. Half the squash and pumpkin, remove the seeds (save for roasting or planting), and place cut side down in a shallow baking dish.  Fill dish with about 1 inch of water and add whole spices to the water. Roast in oven until soft (about 40-50 minutes, depending on size). Remove from oven and allow to cool.
  3. Melt butter in a skillet, and sauté onions until translucent.  Add minced ginger, cover and lower heat to caramelize for another 20 minutes.
  4. Scoop the cooked pumpkin and squash out of the skin (should come out easily) into a large soup pot, add the onion-ginger mixture, and stock, water or sap. Bring to a soft boil for 5-10 minutes.
  5. Turn off heat, add maple syrup, vinegar, milk and ground spices to taste.
  6. In a blender or food processor, puree all until smooth.  Adjust consistency with additional milk, stock or water as needed, and adjust flavor with salt, pepper and/or additional spices. Serve immediately, or return to soup pot and reheat. Serve with creme fraîche or yogurt, hot sauce, ground nutmeg and/or roasted pumpkin seeds.

Bringing it Home: Growing a Farm-to-School Program

In the hour before the rain, we met at Stony Loam Farm, an organic vegetable farm two miles down the road from our school. It was our first harvest & process day in what we hope will become a series, and develop into a full-sized farm-to-school program.  But like all crops, growing a new food program, starts with a sprout: a small group of families, an accommodating farmer, committed teachers and administrators and a passionate food service director. On day one, we picked green beans and cherry tomatoes.

Given an opportunity to pick, to squat between the plants, and to allow a hand to detour away from the bucket and up to the mouth, kids eat vegetables.  They really do. So much so, that we had to cut them off, as painful as it is to tell kids to stop eating delicious, organic vegetables, our task was to bring fresh produce back to school for the lunch program.  Creating the opportunity for kids to be a part of the growing, harvesting, and preparing of their food, cultivates a greater appreciation of freshness, local producers, and the time, work and energy required to grow it.  From this stems a willingness to try new things, to waste less, to feel a stronger connection to place and local community – all while enjoying fresher, healthier, tastier lunches.

We proudly met our school food director with 36 pounds of green beans and another 20 of cherry tomatoes at the school kitchen.  With crates flipped upside down to help the smallest children reach the sink, the green bean washing team was immediately in full swing.  Meanwhile, parents sorted the cherry tomatoes: some for fresh eating the coming week, others for freezing for use in polka dot soup in the winter.

For more than a week, the school lunch salad bar featured freshly picked organic cherry tomatoes and green beans.  And my daughter came home one day reporting how much fun she had walking through the cafeteria offering her classmates roasted green beans as a taste test. Having enthusiastic children (instead of adults) market foods which might be new to others is just one of our cook’s many effective ideas.

Looking ahead, we have plans to pick apples and make applesauce; to gather potatoes, walking behind the farmer pulling up spuds with his tractor; and to puree and freeze pumpkins and winter squashes for use in wintertime soups, casseroles, and baked goods.

To share the experience, the locally harvested crops are offered as taste tests to all students, and to track our sourcing, we’re planning a food mapping project.  Starting with the local, in-season foods on the menu this fall, and photographs of the farmers who grew them, we’re looking forward to Food Day, October 24, to launch our farm-to-school map on the cafeteria wall.  These are some initial steps in enhancing a school lunch program (a daily part of a child’s experience), which can simply feed, or can be cooked up as an opportunity to expand palates and extend learning.

Simple Recipes:

1. Our cafeteria roasted green beans:

  • 1 1/2 pounds green beans, washed and ends removed
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (optional)

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 425˚.
  2. Toss green beans with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet.
  3. Roast, flipping beans once or twice, until lightly caramelized and starting to crisp, between 10-15 minutes.

2. For a main dish which uses both green beans and cherry tomatoes, try Beans, Toms and Tempeh for a colorful vegan meal or to participate in Meatless Monday, at home or at school.

When You Think You Can’t Escape the Scapes

It’s time to google “scape recipes”.  Other than making a fascinating looking bouquet, wearing them as bracelets (as my daughters have been known to do) and chopping one up instead of a garlic clove, I was still at a loss for how to use the artistic display of curlicuing shoots fall-planted garlic sends up this time of year.

To encourage the plant to focus its energy in the formation of the garlic bulbs forming under ground (as opposed to the seed pods contained in the scapes) I have been following gardening advice to cut off the scapes.  With a basket full, I found this simple recipe online, and adjusted it like this:

Simple Vegan Garlic Scape Pesto

  • Jar full of freshly cut garlic scapes (if you don’t grow garlic, you can find these at farmers markets in late spring and early summer)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1/4 cup hemp seeds (good source of magnesium, zinc, iron, vitamin E and a great source of omega 3 essential fatty acids)
  • 1 bunch of basil, leaves washed, removed and stems discarded
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • chili pepper flakes (optional)

Method:

  1. With seed pods trimmed off, wash the scapes. Cut into match-length pieces.
  2. Place scape pieces, basil leaves, walnuts and hemp seeds in food processor bowl, and run processor until a paste is formed.  Drizzle olive oil into bowl until desired consistency is reached.
  3. Adjust flavor with salt and pepper.  Maybe a few chili pepper flakes for a touch of heat?
  4. Use as you would traditional basil pesto and pack up any additional in small air tight containers for the freezer.

Looking forward to tomorrow already: scrambled eggs with scape pesto for breakfast; scape pesto, fresh mozzarella and tomato sandwich for lunch, and pesto pasta, salad with pesto dressing or salmon with pesto for dinner…. a perfect destination for all those scapes!

Planting a Protein Garden

Life Cycle of Bean Plant

For the past five years, I have expanded my vegetable garden by as much as my spade could turn over. I’m now bringing in a decent amount of fresh produce in the summer, with more ripening in early fall, giving me enough to put some away for the first few colder months.  There’s nothing quite as satisfying and nourishing as feeding your family what you’ve grown just steps from your kitchen table. But, I thought, I’m only making a dent in one food group. I wanted to be able to grow a complete meal.

I adopted a small flock of hens. Within no time, we had a lovely mutually beneficial relationship going: I fed them, and they fed us. Perfect farmhouse symbiosis: organic feed and kitchen scraps for them; incredibly rich, yellow yoked eggs for us.  But huevoes rancheros, one of my favorite breakfasts, also calls for beans.  So, I planted black turtle beans.

Copying a gardening technique practiced by Native Americans, I planted a “three sisters” garden. Beans went around the base of the developing corn stalks, which wound their way up as the stalks grew. The cornstalks offered a convenient trellis for the beans, while the beans provided nitrogen for the corn. Encircling the duo, I planted squash, whose course, prickly vines helped deter animals from snacking on the corn and beans.

Beans, best known for their notable fiber content (one cup provides between 9 to 13 grams), are also a great source of plant protein, complex carbohydrates, folate and iron, as well as at least eight different phytonutrients which contribute to their dark color (in the case of black beans), and indicate the presence of valuable antioxidants.

By the end of the summer, my bean plants were mature, the pods were full-grown and starting to dry, and I crawled in to harvest the beautiful, garden-grown black beans.  I had grown my own protein.

As thoroughly satisfying as that was, I was disappointed to see that my numerous rows of black bean plants amounted to merely a pint-sized jar of dried beans – hardly enough to feed a mostly vegetarian family of four until next year at this time.

I’ll have to grow many more next summer and look into growing grains, but for now we’re digging into a hot bowl of home-grown sweet potato and black bean soup.

“Green Dream” Creamy Cabbage Soup

Celebrating green?  Whether to mark the first signs of spring, appreciating the Irish, feeling eco-friendly and/or wanting to eat well, here’s an easy blender soup to feed your green.

It’s all about cabbage, an excellent source of vitamin C and K, fiber, folate, potassium and manganese.  Various types of cabbage have been studied for their cancer prevention properties, cholesterol-lowering support, anti-inflammatory action and all around health benefits.

Similar to the traditional Irish colcannon (with its pairing of potatoes and green cabbage), but with a bright surprise thrown in, this soup is a cheerful presentation on any dinner table. It is substantial enough to serve as a full meal, but can also be served in smaller portions as a starter.

Green Dream Cabbage Soup

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 white or yellow potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 green cabbage, chopped
  • 5 cups vegetable stock (or homemade)
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil and/or thyme
  • 4 ounces of cream cheese (1/2 a typically-sized package)
  • 1/2 – 1 cup milk (depending on desired consistency)
  • 1 bag frozen green peas
  • nutmeg, freshly ground
  • salt, to taste
  • pepper, to taste
  • handful of baby spinach, thinly sliced (as optional garnish)
  • 1 carrot, grated (as optional garnish)
  • croutons (as optional garnish)
Method:
  1. Warm butter in a Dutch oven or other soup pot.  Sauté onions until thoroughly soft (10-15 minutes).
  2. Add garlic, potatoes, cabbage and spices and stir to coat. Pour in stock, bring to boil, cover and reduce to simmer. Stir once or twice as vegetables cook until soft.
  3. Turn off heat, add cream cheese and gently mix in, blending in the cheese using a wooden spoon against the side of the soup pot.  Stir in 1/2 cup of milk, peas and nutmeg.
  4. In batches in a food processor/blender, purée the soup to a smooth bright green mixture.  Add salt and pepper to taste. Add additional milk if too thick.
  5. Serve with brightly colored garnishes such as spinach ribbons and grated carrots, and/or something crunchy such as croutons or roasted seeds.

To make it vegan: a creamy consistency can be created simply by cooking potatoes in stock, and puréeing them without adding any cream cheese or milk.  Sautéed leeks can add to the creamy texture.  You can substitute some of the onions with leeks. This soup can also be made vegan by substituting the dairy products with non-dairy versions.

To make it paleo/primal: Use coconut oil for sautéing, and skip the dairy products.  You can use a meat or vegetable stock, and add coconut milk for added creaminess if you like.

Making Maple-Ginger Soda

While this winter has been disappointing for cross-country skiers, plow guys and all manner of winter wonderland lovers, the arrival of sugaring season is still a welcome treat. Despite projections of possibly scant syrup yields (also due to a mild winter), we’ve hung buckets, and set the first pot of sap on the stove to simmer… patiently, anticipating syrup.

Thanks to the SodaStream, a fabulous hand-operated appliance, it is very easy to make your own seltzer.  Drinking sparkling tap water is fun, economical and refreshing all year round, but nothing quite compares to homemade maple sap soda during sugaring season.

A Simple How-To:

1. Tap a maple tree sometime in late winter/early spring when the daytime temperatures creep above freezing while the nighttime temps scoot back down below.

row of tapped maples

2. Patiently collect a bucket full of sap, drop by drop.

maple sap dropanother sap drop

3. Pour sap through a strainer into a large soup pot and place on (wood)stove with several slices of fresh ginger, and allow to gently simmer until the sap has become infused with ginger flavor.

4. Allow to cool and pour into SodaStream bottles.  Using a Sodastream soda maker, pump up to carbonate the sap, and you’ve got sap soda!

5. Add a slice of lemon, if you like, and raise a glass to the first signs of spring: Maple Sap Soda!

Or, make your own maple sap with a little reverse evaporation.  The commonly used ratio of sap to syrup is 40:1, meaning that 40 units of maple sap need to be boiled down to create 1 unit of maple syrup. If you don’t have access to a sugar maple tree to tap, go ahead and rehydrate some maple syrup with 30-40 parts water to 1 part syrup, blend in a large pot, place on stove with several slices of fresh ginger.  Allow to simmer until the sap becomes infused with ginger flavor, and/or until your home is infused with a warm, gingery maple aroma.