Sunday, March 29, 2009

And now for something completely different: Compost

OK, I realize that not everyone can compost, for various reasons. But it is so rewarding, and you might be able to do it in a small way. For example, coffee grounds. They don't attract rodents or bugs, so if you have even a little bit of land, you can at least compost coffee grounds. Keeps them out of the landfill and they become a real treat for your plants.

Many years ago, when I was still renting my house, I bought one of those black plastic compost bins, and mostly what I put into it was coffee grounds, with the occasional mushroom end and turning-brownish lettuce leaf. I was very worried about varmints, so I didn't put much else in there. I had it fairly close to my back door, because the yard where I was renting was literally a jungle. (Later, when I pulled up a lot of ivy, I discovered a patio!)

Every couple of years, I moved the compost bin back a couple of feet, further from the house. I eventually bought the house.

So it has been years, and the compost bin is now in what I call the wayback. But I still take out the coffee grounds and mushroom ends, add some shredded leaves and my shredded financial documents. I dare identity thieves to tackle that pile!

I can grow ANYTHING in the side of the garden where the compost bin used to be, well, anything that doesn't need tons of direct sunlight. You must understand, most of my yard is heavy clay soil. Not there. There, it is easy to dig, the soil is full of worms, and it's obviously still fairly rich in nutrients. Plants just thrive there. And when I harvest compost, I put a lot of it on areas that didn't get the same treatment, and honestly, I have roses blooming where I have no right to have them.

Over the winter, I noticed that things weren't really decomposing in the bin. Well, it was cold, and dry. Micro-organisms are apparently smarter in some ways than we are. They hibernated. But the other day, I took my coffee grounds out, and for fun, grabbed a stick and gave things a stir.

Compost. We had had a couple of warm days, a couple of showers, and, voila, I have a cubic yard of brown gold. My roses can't wait. I just have to wait for those shredded documents, that I just put in, to rot a little more.

Brussel Sprout Shout-Out

I originally planned to just cook Brussels sprouts as a side dish, which is easy: A little olive oil and/or butter in a stainless saute pan -- one thing I don't use my cast iron for -- and a little white wine. You can cut X's on the bottom or cut them in half. Salt, pepper, and if they happen to be old, maybe a sprinkle of sugar, although the wine usually takes care of that.

But I happened to have some Cremini mushrooms and some leeks that I wanted to use up. And I had just read, once again, that it is healthier to treat meat and cheese as condiments rather than as entrees. Well, I happened to have some prosciuitto, which I do regard as a condiment because it is so salty, and some pecorino cheese, which, ditto. And of course there is always pasta in the pantry.


Now, I will say that I made a big batch of this, but everything is scalable. You could use 2-3 mushrooms, 3-4 brussels sprouts, a little bit of pasta and etc. For this recipe, the quantaties will be described as "some."

Put water on to boil, adding salt. This is for dried pasta. If using fresh pasta, this can wait.

Rinse some mushrooms. Cut any nasty dry ends off and slice what is left. (All spare parts go into the compost bucket, of course.)

Chop some leek. (I had already cleaned it. If you are starting from scratch, see previous entries on the cleaning of leeks. I had some clean, wrapped in a moist towel, in my fridge.)

Wash the brussels sprouts. I don't care what the bag says. (Well, I am assuming fresh ones. If the bag is frozen, thaw them.) Cut any nasty dry ends off and cut them in half.

When the water is boiling, add the pasta. I used that corkscrew pasta -- rotellii?

Heat up the stainless saute pan and put in olive oil, butter or both. I use half of each. The bottom of the pan needs to be coated, but we are not deep frying here!

Put in the leeks, mushrooms and brussels sprouts. Stir occasionally. I took a moment to smash four cloves of garlic and add them. After about two minutes, pour in some wine -- just enough to get some steam going. Plus, with the olive oil/butter, it makes its own sauce. I put a lid on it for a couple of minutes to make sure the brussels sprouts get cooked, then take the lid off so the liquid can reduce. Most important to me is that the brussels sprouts do not overcook. They should be bright green. Not gray.

Shave some thin slices of cheese -- I used pecorino this time -- and slice some ribbons of prosciutto. (Vast opportunity for substitution here; fry up some bacon, use any cheese you have, skip entirely, boil an egg, vegans use beans.)

When the pasta is done, which it should be in 8-10 minutes, drain it. Put some on a plate. Put some of the sprout mixture on the plate. Garnish with the strips of prosciutto and pecorino. Let me say that the plate in the picture would serve about four people. Brussels sprouts are quite filling!

Now, if I were not trying to be healthy, I would do this differently, and it would be much richer and probably much more elegant. I would saute the leeks and mushrooms in one skillet and the brussels sprouts in another. To the skillet of leeks and mushrooms, I would, eventually, add a little cream. This would make a very, very rich and delicious sauce. I'm trying to not even think about it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

OK, nothing great about this recipe, but I have to brag: It's March 25, going on 26th, and that arugula in the upper half of the picture is FROM MY GARDEN!!!! I also have spinach growing that I can clip a few leaves from, and I've already had to thin the radishes. All are in containers -- big honkin' pots, actually -- and yes, a couple of nights I have put newspapers over them to protect from frost, although I think these three things would have been fine anyway.

Steak. Most people would grill it. I really like to cook steak in a searingly hot cast iron skillet because then I can add mushrooms and butter and wine. The steak comes out great, and I get a great sauce for free. Can't do that on a grill.

Just wait until I start getting beets from my garden. It'll be a few weeks. I will have more to share then.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Yogurt Pesto Salmon Egg Sandwich

OK, so I lied. I did take a picture. But I did have backup toast still in the toaster oven in case this got cold. Now the cold toast will be croutons. That's life.

This is smoked salmon on toast with hard-boiled eggs, arugula and the yogurt-pesto sauce. Delicious, by the way.

Gardening, Take One

Most people who really love cooking also have at least a little desire to garden -- at least to grow some herbs in a window sill. Partly to have fresh herbs, at least. I have finally gotten basil, which is supposed to be an annual that peters out quickly, to keep growing all winter inside. It needs light, water, and a MUCH bigger pot than I had been growing it in. In fact, it's in a huge pot with another plant, and has been thriving. In the past, I've tried to move it inside into a four-inch or so pot on the windowsill, good light and plenty of water -- but it just weakened and died. This year, one basil plant was randomly assigned to stay in a big pot that also has, of all things, a Norfolk Island Pine, and it has thrived all winter. The one I put in a smaller pot on the sunny kitchen windowsill, not so much. I don't know what that means, but I'm going to do it again next year. Maybe basil just gets lonely.

And then: I've already started gardening for this year. I know it's optimistic, but it is also an experiment. I always have good luck with pansies -- sometimes they still are in bloom at Christmas and almost always regenerate for spring -- and I saw shoots of pansies that I planted last fall poking up, so I decided to go for it. I did some research on cold-hardy plants, and decided to plant: 5 spinach plants, 5 arugulas, and 3 more pansies. My backup plan is seeds for spinach and arugula, which I will plant in a week or so, and every week or so thereafter.

We'll see. The good thing is that the plants are in containers, so if the weather turns really frigid, I can slap a cover over them. Or even haul them inside if it is drastically cold.

The odd thing is that, aside from the basil, which needs to be warm all the time, most of my houseplants thrive the best when I put them outside for "summer camp," then bring them back in for the winter only to my unheated, but sunny and enclosed, front entryway. I have never put a thermometer to it, but I'm guessing that on a sunny winter day, it gets up to 70 or so, and then maybe 40 at night. Only me going in and out, so not too many drafts. The Christmas cactus in particular thrives there, and hates being in the actual house. So, I'm thinking -- Brussels Sprouts? Kale? I have to try this next fall! Oh, for a greenhouse.

Pesto Yogurt, or Yogurt Pesto -- you choose

Hi! Sorry I've been away so long.

Much to catch up on, but first: Tonight's feature is Pesto Yogurt, or if you prefer, Yogurt Pesto.

It is made just like pesto, or just like I make pesto, but instead of adding olive oil and pine nuts, I just chopped basil, garlic and shallots in the food processor and added them to -- ta-da! -- my favorite Greek yogurt. See below. I feel bad for people who can't get Greek yogurt, but I did find it even in the Payless (Kroger) in Lafayette, Ind. Even had a nice chat with the cashier about how good it is on baked potatoes! So, if you can't get it where you are, talk to your store manager. Seriously, it's worth it.

My goal was a sandwich spread, which I plan to use with toast, smoked salmon and hard-boiled eggs. Don't count on a picture of the sandwich, as I plan to eat it while the toast is still hot. Not even a digital camera will capture the moment of hot toast. Believe me, I have tried. There are a lot of things I will do for you people, but eating cold toast isn't one of them.

But this yogurt pesto, or pesto yogurt, would be an awesome dip; would be great on baked potatoes, too. And I think it will even work as a salad dressing -- why not?

Oh, yes, I know, traditional pesto doesn't have shallots and does have parsley. I have always considered parsley optional. Maybe because it is supposed to "tone down" the basil, but I love the basil. When my garden is growing this summer, maybe I will add some arugula (Rocket!) to the pesto mix. I added the shallots because I like their flavor and, frankly, I was running low on garlic. I cook with what I have, although in this case, I guess "cook" is not the right word. I make food with what I have. I'm not making a special trip to the store to buy garlic when I have perfectly lovely shallots on hand. Also, with the salmon, I really like shallots, anyway.

If I were not planning to eat this with smoked salmon, I would add salt, unless of course it was going to be a dip for something already salty, like potato chips.

But: Speaking of pesto. I was talking to my dear friend Star tonight, who called while I was making the pesto and she was roasting garlic. (Roasted garlic: mmm, yum, yum, good, good.) She roasts a lot of garlic at a time, and as it takes about an hour, she had time to talk. But here's what kills me: Then, she puts it in little jars, adds olive oil, and freezes it. I had always read and been told -- even by Star! -- that if you are freezing pesto, don't add the garlic because it gets bitter. But tonight she says, Ah, that's if it isn't roasted garlic. (So basically, for freezer pesto, you grind whatever herbs you are using and olive oil, make patties, put them between waxed paper, and put them in a freezer bag. Then you get them out whenever, add the garlic and I would say the pine nuts or whatever, and you are good to go.)

But then she says, oh, and then, you take the roasted garlic out of the freezer, drain the oil off it, and use the garlic for whatever you want. And then you have garlic oil for -- oh, she's killing me now -- popcorn! Or whatever. I would probably brew up a batch of pasta and call it a day.

Needless to say, I will be buying a large quantity of garlic soon. Thank you, Star.

And Star, don't worry, I won't give away your secret recipe for dill pesto. Oh, wait, I will give a hint: It's pesto made with dill instead of basil. But Star grows dill, and I don't, at least not yet. Have to think about that. Don't think it would work with dried dill weed. Maybe as a yogurt dip, though. And If I made dill yogurt pesto, I would slap that on grilled salmon in a heartbeat!

By the way, the pesto yogurt is being shown in a glass refrigerator jar much like the ones I grew up with. But these I bought in an "antique" store in West Virginia a few years ago. There's this one, a rectangular one and a big square one. They are glass, not plastic, which I like. You can see what is in them. And they don't develop funny odors/stains. The lids just sit on them, though, so they are not really good for the freezer. And I don't think they are true Pyrex, so I haven't tried them in the microwave. But I really like them for the fridge. Any kind of glass jar is also good. So, thanks, Mom, for the Mason jars I just got from your basement. They will be put to good use. Both in the fridge and to store stuff "bug-proof" in the pantry.

I mostly use plastic containers now only for transporting food to work, and then am able to put it on an actual plate to heat in the microwave. If it weren't for the klutz factor, I might use glass even for transporting the food.

Speaking of basil, I'm happy to say I have kept a couple of plants alive all winter in my house, which is why I have fresh basil for making pesto. The basil doesn't always make it through the winter inside, so I consider myself lucky this year. On gardening, more to come.


About Me

My photo
This is me enjoying a limoncello in Rome on the last night of our trip to Italy. Funny thing is, I don't really like limoncello that much, but thought it would be great in a dessert. And wouldn't you know, The Barefoot Contessa just did a great fruit salad with limoncello. So now I can't. Oh, well.