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Archive for March, 2011

My family is English, down to the core. My cousins & I are the first generation born off the island, so to speak, & the love of green rolling hills & a decent cup of tea courses through our veins.

While English food is, as a rule, not known for being particularly exciting, there’s a glory to its resourcefulness. The weather is not kind to heat-loving tomatoes & peppers, but root vegetables thrive – potatoes of all shapes & sizes, carrots, parsnips, swedes, onions…

These noble roots form the foundation of British culture & carry us through the long winter months, providing good ballast against the cold & a fine dose of vitamins (A, C, potassium,  B complex & more) & fiber. Mix them with the dark leafy greens that withstand cooler temperatures & you get lots of iron & calcium, too.

And they are, if you’ll excuse the pun, dirt cheap.

Hey, thrift is sexy!

What follows is a very loose template for a fine range of soups, endlessly tweakable according to what’s in the fridge or at the market. The amounts are vague, the method casual – if you feel better working with a proper recipe, let this be your first foray into the wild & tasty world of cooking by intuition. It’s really, really hard to mess this up. Start with vegetables that you know & love – once you’re comfortable with the basic method, start experimenting. Add a new veg, switch up the seasonings, leave it chunky, add some cream… see what happens.

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Root Vegetable Soup

Start with your favorite heavy-bottomed 4-5 quart pot – this size makes enough for 3-4 meals for 2-3 people.

Add 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil or butter to the pan, & set it over low heat while you chop the vegetables.

You’ll be pureeing the soup when it’s all said & done, so there’s no need to be overly fussy about chopping things neatly. Just make sure that everything’s roughly the same size, & remember that the bigger the pieces, the longer your soup will take to cook…

Peel & chop a large onion (yellow, white or red) OR 2 nice leeks. If you’re using leeks, slice them first, then put them in a sieve & wash them under cold running water to get rid of the inevitable grit.

Add the onions/leeks to the pot, along with 2-3 bay leaves, & nudge the heat up to the lower end of medium. Give them a good stir to coat with the butter/oil, & let them cook until soft & translucent. Don’t skimp on this part – a nice long cook brings out the sweetness – & stir frequently to ensure nothing gets overly brown.

Once the onions/leeks are well underway, attack the rest of your veggies. Start with about 6 medium potatoes (yellow are my favorite), diced & added to the pot. Peel, do not peel, it’s up to you – not peeling is faster, gets you all the vitamins from the potato skins, & you don’t throw anything away, so there’s my vote. Dice 2-3 carrots (again, peel ’em if you want to) & 2-3 stalks of celery if you have it & toss them in with the potatoes. Again, give it all a good stir & let the pot hang out over low-to-medium heat for a few minutes.

Now, what did you find at market this week? 2-3 turnips? A thumping great rutabega? A few parsnips? A gorgeous bulb of fennel? 2-3 sweet potatoes? A charming little butternut squash? 1-3 of these options is perfect – more than that & you’ll need a bigger pot. Peel the rutabega/sweet potatoes, or peel & de-seed the butternut, chop the lot & into the pot it goes.

Add your seasonings: 1 tablespoon of dried thyme, a few cloves of crushed garlic, maybe a teaspoon of celery seed or dry mustard powder depending on what you’ve got in house. This is not a heavily seasoned soup – the focus is on the vegetables themselves.

Stir to coat everything with the seasonings, then add enough hot water to cover everything by about half an inch.

Yes, I said water, dammit. With good quality ingredients & proper seasoning, you don’t need stock. If you have it on hand, go ahead & use it, but it’s in no way necessary. Buy some new herbs & spices with the money you save not buying pre-made stock…

Crank up the heat to high & stir the pot often until everything comes to a full boil. Then lower the heat til you’ve got a nice active simmer – you want an industrious simmer, not a rolling boil, so your veggies cook thoroughly without getting overdone on the outsides.

Simmer for about 20 minutes, at which point most of your veggies should be getting tender. Now’s the time to add your greens, if you want – a few nice handfuls of spinach, collards, kale, mustard or turnip greens, roughly chopped.

Stir & keep the pot simmering until the largest pieces of potato/carrot are very tender. Take the pot off the heat & let it cool for a few minutes. Grab your immersion blender & buzz away til your soup is nice & smooth, adding a splash of water or milk if it gets too thick to blend nicely.

I’m not one for gadgetry as a rule, but a decent immersion/stick blender is well worth the investment. It allows you to puree soups & sauces right in the pot, without the scalding hot mess of using a traditional blender or food processor. I’ve had mine for 15 years or so, & it has paid for itself a hundred times over. You don’t need anything fancy – the $20-30 versions are just fine for everyday use… If you don’t have one, use a blender/food processor, or even a potato masher to break up the vegetables into something of a puree.

Now, add salt & lots of black pepper, then see what else it needs – a bit more thyme? A splash of white wine? A dollop of sour cream? If you used sweet potatoes or butternut, try a few shakes of curry powder, ground ginger or cinnamon.

And that’s it! Serve nice & hot with crusty bread, a bit of cheese & a nice green salad. The leftovers freeze beautifully, too. I make a pot of this in one variation or another almost every week during the winter, including one based on pumpkin, with coconut milk, ginger & curry. Make a batch of your own & let me know how it turns out…

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Season Cycle

Oh Daylight Savings Time, you arcane & double-edged sword. While the extra light in the evenings will be lovely, I’d really started to enjoy getting up with the sun, instead of before it.

Springing forward does have its benefits, though, the most obvious being that it heralds the end of winter. I love winter, really I do, but this year I am more than a little pleased to see the arse end of it.

See, I had this notion back in the fall to really step up the local & seasonal produce in our diet. It made sense from both a financial perspective & an environmental one – why on earth was I shelling out for Chilean-grown red bell peppers in the middle of December? The quality was never fantastic, the price was at times horrific, & it embarrassed me more than a little to think of the food miles involved.

I made a few exceptions from the start: fresh salad greens (though we did favor spinach heavily, cooler-weather crop that it is), hot-house cucumbers (my weakness), tinned & frozen vegetables, & frozen fruit. The rest of our produce-buying was limited to the quintessential winter vegetables (roots, alliums, brassica, hardy greens, mushrooms). We went for organic, locally-grown, or both as was available. The bulk of our shopping was done at the local farmers’ market, & each week I asked what produce was local (not an idle question – a good bit of market produce is shipped in from warmer climes).

I might be a bit biased, but we ate exceptionally well this winter. Limiting the fresh ingredients I had to work with forced me to get far more creative than if I’d had peppers, squash, fresh berries & tomatoes to fall back on. At no point did I feel like we were sacrificing anything – we had lush curries, savory pies, all manner of Asian-inspired meals & easily a dozen different soups. The salad greens & cucumbers satisfied our cravings for cool, fresh things, & the occasional smoothie (with frozen berries, bananas & mangoes) provided a welcome fruity treat.

We also saved a fair amount of money – I’m not organized enough to be able to give an exact amount, but our grocery bills were definitely smaller this winter. Some of that is due to the deliciously economical root veggies I stocked up on every week, but not buying tomatoes at $4/pound definitely helped.

We’ve also lost weight. Jesse’s been hitting the gym more often this winter, but I’ve been just as meditative as ever (yes, that’s what we’re calling it) & have misplaced several pounds. I’m blaming the ridiculous amounts of orange & deep green veggies we’ve been eating, & the fact that we haven’t craved the usual stodgy winter classics (mac & cheese, mashed potatoes, half a loaf of bread) nearly as much this year.

But what I wouldn’t give for a bowl of fresh garden peas & a punnet of red raspberries right now. Clearly, the body is ready for a change of seasons.

Before the delicate spring vegetables start appearing at market, I’ll post a few of our favorite meals from this winter: The Cheapest Soup Ever; tofu & butternut curry; & fish not-pie. See what’s in season in your neck of the woods, & let me know what you’ve been making with it.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the bulbs come up, poring over seed catalogs & fantasizing about warmer weather & lunches of sun-warmed tomatoes fresh from the garden…

:sigh: All in good time.

 

All photos taken by me, at Central Market House.

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Here’s the thing: I adore eggs. They are versatile little ovals, lending themselves as much to last-minute dinners as to towering desserts. They are easy to find, keep for ages in the fridge, & are a great source of protein.

But, they are also beautiful.

We have the incredible fortune of living in a city surrounded by farmland, & my husband works with a man who tends a decent flock of laying hens. Just about every week from mid-March through October or so, Jesse comes home with a box of free-range eggs. Pictured here is our first dozen of 2011, & if their beauty is any indication, it’s going to be a wonderful year.

Raising chickens has become something of a trend in the past few years. Folks are rediscovering the satisfaction of feeding their families on the fruits of their own labors, & there’s been a lot of press given to the practicalities of keeping a flock of hens in your own back yard. Friends of ours moved to the Pacific Northwest last year & landed a rental house that came with its own brood. (They have since, alas, discovered the hazard of owning livestock – that there is always something more intent on eating your charges than you are on protecting them. First fact of owning hens: foxes never sleep.)

Jesse & I (well, me, mostly) have been thinking for some time about getting a few hens of our own. We live in city that, unfortunately, has ordinances against livestock, so we’d have to get creative. Pets are allowed, so if we name them (contenders include Pie, Dumpling,  Divan & Cacciatore)  & provide an attractive run (look here & here for some inspiration), we might have a case. The feral cats that have colonized our neighborhood might prove more than just a nuisance, & opossum that  currently resides under our front porch would no doubt enjoy a change in diet, so letting the hens run free would be a rare treat. Things to consider…

So, for now, we content ourselves with what eggs we are able to find locally. When there are no eggs to be had in the office fridge, we buy from Dietz Produce, one of our favorite vendors at Central Market House. Dave raises his own chickens & often has eggs available, but his hens sometime prove too tempting to the local foxes, so he also carries cage-free & free-range from Apple Valley Creamery. In a pinch, we’ll buy organic eggs at the grocery store. All are perfectly tasty & a vast improvement over the watery & anemic-yolked factory-farmed eggs. I won’t go into the misery inherent in mass-scale poultry farming in this post. Suffice to say, our eggs come from chickens who run free in their yards & houses & who might know the pleasure of a warm summer day, & for my money, happy hens lay delicious eggs.

These beauties will, for the most part, be fried up for breakfasts & make their way into pancake batter. I’m always tempted to keep the shells, especially the blue- & green-tinged ones. These come from Araucana hens, lovely docile birds & reliable layers. The nubbles are calcium deposits – these frequently appear from hens that are just starting to lay after a dormant period.

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It’s not much of a recipe, but one of my favorite breakfasts is a Bird’s Nest (also called Egg-in-the-Hole, Egg-in-a-Basket, Nest-Eggs, & One-Eyes):

1 large fresh egg

1 thick slice of bread

Appx 2 T butter

Set a medium non-stick pan over medium heat. Butter one side of the bread & use a circular cutter or a small serrated knife to cut out a 2.5-inch round from the center. Add the remaining butter to the pan, swirl to coat the pan, & wait til it just stops sizzling.

Add both pieces of bread, non-buttered side down, with the extra round of bread to one side of the pan, & crack the egg into the hole you’ve cut in the main slice. Give the yolk a poke or two with your spatula, if you don’t like your egg yolk oozey. Cook til the bottom of the bread has lightly browned & the egg has started to set – the top layer will still be a bit runny.

Carefully but quickly flip the bread-&-egg slice over, & flip the extra bread round, too. Cook til the bottom of the bread has just browned & the egg is mostly set. (Lower the heat & cook a bit longer if you want your egg cooked firm.) You’ve now got a browned, buttery slice of fried bread with an egg cooked perfectly into the middle, & a crispy extra round to dip into the yolk.

Slide your bird’s nest onto a plate & eat it while it’s hot. Our son likes his drowning in ketchup; I like mine with a sprinkling of dill & extra salt & pepper.

Not fancy food, no, but it’s quick & tasty, & it makes the most of fresh eggs & good bread.

You don’t have good bread in the house? I’ll share my secrets for making your own in the next few days… it’s easier than you think.

And yes, butter. I’ll get my rant against margarine in at some point, don’t you worry.

 

Random link: The University of California has a nice little PDF doc with some interesting egg FAQs.

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Well hey there.

Welcome to my shiny new outlet for the reverb from my 20+ year love affair with food. I’ve been a college cafeteria hash slinger, a short-order burger fryer, a barista, a caterer, a high-falootin’ pastry chef, a culinary tutor, a domestic engineer, & now I write about food as well as make it. At Butter & Eggs I’ll be posting from my arsenal of go-to recipes, sharing some of my more fantastic projects, showing you what we stock our pantry with & spotlighting the awesome local & independent businesses we support. Once the weather warms up, I’ll take you on a tour of our garden, too.

There will be macro photos of ingredients, a good bit of exposition on eating seasonally, & attempts to demystify a few challenging baking techniques. There will not be treatises on what hideously expensive Japanese knives to buy, how to host the perfect dinner party, or anything involving cupcake toppers. This is real food, made by me, eaten by my family & friends, & maybe cooked again by you, if you feel so inspired.

There’s more about my mission here.

Ready? Because I’ve got this amazing box of eggs to show you…

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Hello world!

Pardon the dust… I’ll be posting about food, baking techniques, local produce & grow-your-own in the weeks to come…

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