Archive for the ‘Season Cycle’ Category

With the first flush of warm weather comes my craving for interesting non-alcoholic drinks. I love a good beer after a long day, but I’m not always down with the alcohol, for a variety of reasons. Making funky, not-too-sugary drinks is an easy trick to keep in your pocket, or in this case, the back of the fridge for those days when you want something a little fresh & fancy. There are lots of commercially-made & small-batch products out there, but I have a hard time throwing down that much money on a regular basis. That said, definitely take a look at Bittermilk & 1821.Bitters for pre-made mixers, shrubs & syrups.

Soft Cocktail Syrup Master Recipe

Yields ~16 ounces

1 c sugar

1 c water

Bring to a full boil over high heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar.

1-2 ounces lemon juice, to taste

Remove syrup from heat & stir in lemon juice. Let cool completely before transferring to a bottle; store in fridge for up to 2 months.

Dilute to taste in plain or seltzer water, with plenty of ice.

Yep. That’s it.


OKAY BUT there’s more you can do here, I promise!

The master recipe is just the starting point; what makes this whole thing fun is what you add to the base mixture:

Infusing the Syrup

Before putting your sugar & water on to boil, add fresh or dried herbs, tea leaves, hops, wide strips of citrus zest, whole or powdered spices, vanilla beans, whatever you have on hand that sounds interesting! You can get super fly & throw in half a cup of fresh berries: strawberries, red raspberries, blueberries, blackberries… Smash them with a spoon as the syrup start to warm to extract all their flavor & gorgeous color. Vanilla is an easy, safe place to start, as is fresh mint, & lemon zest. Strain your syrup to remove the solids before storing (but stick that vanilla bean in the bottle, it’s too precious to throw away).

Adding Sweetness

You can replace some or all of the white sugar in the master recipe with honey or brown sugar, or even maple syrup. This is a great place for those fancy honeys to really shine; lavender, orange blossom, wildflower, acacia, go nuts.

Changing Up the Acid Stage

Lemon juice is an easy starting point; it’s cheap, fairly neutral, & most of us have a bottle in the fridge. But lime, orange, & grapefruit juices work just as well, if not better. If you want to go next-level, experiment with vinegars (go easy until you know how punchy you like your acid). White vinegar is strong & clean & won’t interfere with other flavors, but balsamic is insane with fresh berries in the syrup.

Flavored Seltzers

Experiment with all the bonkers varieties out there to add another layer of flavor to your soft cocktail. We usually have lime in the house, but some of my best drinks have come from using orange-vanilla or grapefruit flavors.

Iced Caffeine

Hell, skip the seltzer & jack up your iced tea/iced coffee. Mint & lime syrup in iced coffee is the JAM.

Bitter Face

Fancy bitters are fantastic to add a more grown-up feel to things; they cut the sugar a little & make your drink feel a little more like a familiar cocktail.

Garnish Game

I honestly don’t get too crazy with this end of things; I’m not Tom Cruise. But if I have some fresh mint or basil to smash up in the glass, or some fresh/frozen berries or fruit chunks that sound like they’d add something fun to the mix, I’ll throw them in.

Pick Your Vessel

I like my soft cocktails in straight sided mason jars; they’re the right mix of informality & charm, & the markings on the sides are great for measuring so my syrup-to-water ratios are consistent. But use whatever makes you happy. This would be an awesome time to break out the fancy tumblers/wedding crystal/super extra souvenir glasses hiding in the cabinets.

So at the end of the day, this is a really fun, endlessly adaptable thing to add to your repertoire. Go, try out some weird concoctions & find your new favorite.


YES OKAY I’ll give you some specific recipes, you miscreants.

Liquid Sunshine

To the Master Syrup recipe add:

A heaping teaspoon ground ginger

A heaping half teaspoon turmeric

2 T goldenrod or other wildflower honey

Use lemon juice for the acid stage

Cut with plain or lemon seltzer to taste


Hopped Lemonade

To the Master Syrup recipe add:

~1/2 c fresh hop flowers (I haven’t tried it with dried brewer’s hop pellets, but I bet it would work)

Use the full 2 ounces of lemon juice for the acid stage

Cut with plain water or plain/lemon/grapefruit seltzer


Pink Moon

To the Master Syrup recipe:

Substitute 1/2 c pink grapefruit juice for 1/2 c of the water

Add a split vanilla bean & 2 T dried lavender flowers

Skip acid stage

Cut with plain/grapefruit seltzer or iced black coffee (trust me on this one, it’s transcendent)


The Usual

To the Master Syrup recipe add:

A large handful of fresh mint leaves

A split vanilla bean

Use lime juice for the acid stage

Dilute in lime seltzer with a mint sprig smashed in the bottom of the glass


Black Tie Cherry

To the Master Syrup recipe add:

1 cinnamon stick

Clementine/orange zest strips

A handful of sour/black cherries

(This is effectively mimicking the flavors of an old fashioned mix)

Use the juice of the clementines or oranges as the acid stage, topping up with lime juice as needed

Dilute in orange vanilla seltzer, add another handful of cherries & a squirt of bitters




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Every summer, I get a handful of questions about how I’m preserving the glut of local tomatoes that end up on my counter, so here’s the process I use. I love oven roasting as opposed to the more traditional water bath peeling for two reasons: no boiling pots of water steaming up my kitchen, & roasting concentrates the juices a little, unlike the watery results from the traditional method. I do about 25 pounds of tomatoes in a session, & while it takes a few hours in total, there’s not much fussy attention that needs to be paid, so I can do other stuff while the tomatoes are roasting & cooling.

I get my tomatoes in bulk from our local produce vendor; I wait until we are well into the season, then put in a request for a case of seconds, usually coming in at about a dollar a pound. These vary in quality from barely scuffed to on the verge of liquefying, depending on the year & the recent weather. Judicious trimming & oven roasting makes the most of sub-par fruit, another reason I love it so much.

We snagged a small chest freezer a few years ago, so that’s how I store my finished tomatoes, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t pack these in mason jars & can them in a water bath in the traditional manner. (Ball has a good basic methodology, but TL;DR: hot pack, add extra acid, get all the air bubbles out, water process for freaking EVER.)


Oven Processed Tomatoes

Preheat oven to 400F, & have ready one or two rimmed baking sheets.

Fresh tomatoes, any size or variety (I find traditional, high acid reds work best – low acid yellows & black/purple varieties lose some of their charm when cooked)

Halve or quarter your tomatoes, depending on the size, cutting out any woody stem bits & funky spots, & arrange them cut side up on the baking sheet (no oil or parchment needed). Roast for 20-40 minutes, until the juices are flowing & the tomatoes are softened. You’re not looking for browning or complete collapse, just an overall slumping & relaxing.


Transfer your tomatoes to a large heatproof bowl/pot, big enough to hold the full amount of tomatoes you’re processing. Continue cutting & roasting tomatoes (no need to wash the sheet pans between batches).

As each batch you’ve transferred to the bowl cools enough to handle, use your fingers to slip off the skins – they’ll pull off nicely in one big piece if you’ve cooked your tomatoes long enough. Under ripe tomatoes might need a bit longer in the oven to peel nicely. By the time you’ve peeled one sheet pan of tomatoes, the next will probably be ready to come out of the oven. It’s a nice, low-key rhythm of cutting, roasting, cooling, peeling, & cutting some more.

When all your tomatoes are peeled, you can:

  • Pack them into containers or freezer bags as they are, for big chunky tomatoes
  • Crush them by hand for rustic crushed tomatoes
  • Puree them with an immersion blender for finely crushed tomato sauce
  • Or run them through a food mill/Squeez-O Strainer for a super fine puree with no seeds



My goal every summer is to process enough tomatoes that I don’t have to buy any canned for the entire year; sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t, but it’s a nice challenge. I’m doing fifty pounds this year, so we’ll see how that holds up.

Happy roasting!


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J works for the local college, at a suit & tie job involving lots of data & numbers & statistics & whatnot. He is a complex & highly entertaining man, however, & a few years ago commandeered a sunny patch of his building’s landscaping for a tiny vegetable garden to take the place of our now defunct neighborhood plot. Tucked in among the decorative shrubbery, he’s grown hot peppers, herbs, & lots & lots of tomatoes. This year’s Romas did particularly well, as did a lovely low acid yellow salad variety. It’s pretty great when your husband brings home gorgeous tomatoes all summer long.

Alas, it is mid October, & they’re forecasting our first real frost this weekend. This means certain death for the tomatoes, so J picked all the remaining green ones & brought them home for me to play with.

Fried green tomatoes are super, but with such small fruits, they would have been a pain in the butt to do with these particular tomatoes. I know there are green tomato jam recipes out there, but that’s just one hurdle I can’t get over. But what I can get behind is chutney.

I grew up on cheese & chutney the way most kids grow up on PB & J. Cold, or run under the broiler til the cheese bubbled merrily, a thick layer of Branston Pickle under sharp cheddar is still one of my favorite lunches. A few years ago, I started playing with micro batches of home made chutney, & while they’re no Branston, they certainly get the job done when you need that sweet, vinegary, spicy crunch to offset a tasty cheese.

A lot of green tomato chutney recipes call for apples & more sugar than vinegar – I’ve tried that, & the end result has been just too darn sweet for my taste. This year, I dialed back the sugar, left out the apples, & added some more savory accoutrements. I won’t know for a few weeks if I have a total winner, but fresh out of the pot, it’s pretty darn good.

Which is comforting, as I only used half of the green tomatoes I chopped. Oy.

Note: I use whole spices in my chutney, which soften significantly as they cook down, but still pack an entertaining punch when bitten into. If this isn’t your bag, feel free to put them in a muslin sachet or tea ball that can be fished out after your chutney has finished cooking.


Savory Green Tomato Chutney

Makes appx 7 8-ounce jars

12 c diced green/barely ripe tomatoes

2 large red onions, diced

8 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

2 c vinegar (I used half red wine, half standard white)

2 c light brown sugar

1 T brown mustard seeds

2 T yellow mustard powder

2 t ground ginger

1 T whole black peppercorns

1 T whole juniper berries

2 t whole allspice berries

1/2 t red pepper flakes

Appx 1 T salt, to taste

Combine all ingredients except the salt in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Bring to a boil & simmer lively for approximately two hours, stirring frequently as the liquid begins to evaporate. When volume has reduced by half & all the vegetables have turned completely translucent, add salt to taste. Simmer for another 5 minutes, then pack into sterilized jars & water process. Alternatively, let cool, pack into clean jars & refrigerate, using within 3 months. You can also freeze your chutney in smaller plastic containers if that’s more your style.

Serve cold with sharp cheese, charcuterie platters, pork dishes, or even as an accompaniment to Indian curries.

But mostly with cheese.

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Nyom. #chutney #jamonit #eatcheap #eatlocal #tomatoes

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Confession time: I really, REALLY like putting stuff in jars. Specifically, I love making jam.

Arty jam shelf

Every year, I pack the cupboard with micro batches of local fruit jam, my way of hanging onto the best parts of summer. Peach is the house favorite, but I’m partial to plum & cherry, as well. Home canning isn’t nearly as intimidating as I’d once thought, & discovering low-sugar pectin kind of rocked my world.

But. We’re not here to talk jam. Not this day.

It’s fall in south central PA, which means apples, apples, & more apples!

Yellow Delicious

A few weeks ago, Small Bear was invited to go apple picking with a friend, & came home with half a bushel of lovely local Yellow Delicious apples. Yellow Delicious aren’t my first choice of cooking apples – I tend to prefer the more tart varieties – but when life gives you an abundance apples, you go with it. Applesauce is the usual method of preserving pick-your-own apples, which is a fantastic project for a Sunday afternoon. This year, I wanted something different. Something silky & luxurious & undeniably APPLE. This called for making apple butter.

Apple butter is an ubiquitous part of fall in our part of the US. Thick, deep brown, & traditionally packed with spices, it gets cooked down for hours in open iron vats at apple festivals, scenting the air with clove & cinnamon & smoke. Here in Pennsylvania Dutch country, apple butter’s put on cottage cheese as a side vegetable (no, really), but it’s more commonly used in baking or as a spread. Personally, I love it with peanut butter on whole grain toast, or slathered over my pancakes.

My main complaint with most apple butters, though, is that in the end, they don’t really taste like APPLES. Traditional recipes call for spiced cider, as well as a healthy measure of cinnamon & cloves. Tasty, but a bit of a sledgehammer of spices, if you ask me. I wanted something a little more sophisticated, so I started with Marisa’s basic fruit butter recipe & improvised from there.

Peeling like my grandma used to

Vanilla Bourbon Apple Butter

Yields about 6-8 8-ounce jars

16 medium/large apples, peeled & coarsely chopped

1/2 c water

1/2-1 c dark brown sugar (adjust the amount based on the variety of apples you’re using, & your personal taste)

3 T lemon juice

1 vanilla bean, split

Half a whole nutmeg, grated finely

1/2 t ground cinnamon

Pinch salt

1/4-1/2 c bourbon or whiskey

Combine all ingredients in a large, heavy bottomed pot (if you have a Lodge, this is the perfect project for it; you can also do this in a slow cooker). Cook over medium to low heat, stirring frequently over the course of an hour or two, until the apples have broken down and you can smash them easily against the side of the pan with your spoon.



Turn off the heat, pick out your vanilla beans & stick blend your apples into silky unctuousness. (If you don’t have a stick blender, a food mill or food processor will do the job just as well, if a bit messily.) Continue to cook over low heat for another half hour or so, stirring more frequently than before as your butter will be more inclined to scorch as it thickens. Taste as you go, adding more sugar, lemon or spices as you feel necessary. Keep in mind that warm apple butter will taste sweeter/stronger than when it has chilled, but that the spices will continue to bloom as it sits in the jars on the shelf.

Cook until you have a thick, cohesive sauce that leaves a pretty clear trail when you scrape the spoon across the bottom of the pot, & that stands up in peaks when dropped from the spoon back into the pot. Do a final taste for sweetness, & voila! Apple butter that smells – & tastes – like heaven, not a cinnamon stick billy club.

Vanilla Bourbon Apple Butter

Ladle your hot butter into clean jars & either cool with the lids off & refrigerate/freeze, or process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. (I’ll cover hot water processing at some point soon, I promise. For now, check out Marisa’s amazing blog, Food in Jars, for an introduction.)

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We’re silly huge Pixar fans, & I worked in the restaurant industry for years, so it’s a mystery to me why it took us so long to see Ratatouille. It was a fantastic film, with lots of food porn & industry jokes & a minimum of my usual shouting at the TV about horrible kitchen practices.

More importantly, it got me thinking about ratatouille.

Specifically, Mum’s ratatouille.

Summer bounty

My folks are from England, but moved to Montreal when they got married in the late 60s. Mum has a lovely library of her old cookbooks from that era, deliciously “modern” guides to entertaining with photos of impossibly glossy architectural feats of Spam & asparagus. One of my favorite things to do as a child (and even now) was to leaf through the flour-filmed pages & plot exorbitant menus…

Mum’s sense of adventure & our time in francocentric Montreal meant that a lot of our routine meals were well beyond the standard family fare. I grew up eating warm crepes with lemon & sugar, salmon en croute, chicken & apricot curries, all sorts of fabulous stuff. But Mum’s mainstay was ratatouille.

Served over brown rice, ratatouille was Mum’s go-to, the dish that popped up with such regularity that when I think of the kitchen in our old house, it smells like tomatoes & peppers & herbs. I assumed everyone ate ratatouille, or something like it. It was veggie stew, really, just with a little pizzazz. No big deal, right?

Then in 3rd grade, I got the bright idea to invite The Popular Girl over for dinner. She didn’t usually give me much more than the time of day, so I don’t know what possessed her to accept, but the evening came & there she was, sitting at our table & trying to figure out what to do with a cloth napkin. Mum understood the need to play it cool – or else she didn’t feel like slaving in the kitchen all day – so she went with the house favorite. Ratatouille, piping hot, over a pile of fluffy, chewy brown rice.

I don’t remember exactly how things played out after Popular Girl got her plate, but it amounted to her declaring that she ONLY ate “chicken, hot dogs, and BASGETTI”. I think Mum dug a few hot dogs out of the freezer & ran them under the broiler to try & salvage the evening, but Popular Girl went home hungry & huffy and I went to bed thoroughly baffled as to how someone so popular could insist on eating like a 3-year-old. It was a bit of a pivotal moment for me, figuring out that popularity had nothing to do with actually being cool…

Crappy phone picture is crappy

So, fast forward thirty-some years, & my 8-year-old is growing up eating all kinds of crazy food just like his mum. I honestly hadn’t made ratatouille for years, but seeing the film made me crave it again, & got C excited to try something new. Ratatouille is perfect for this time of year, late summer/early autumn, when tomatoes & peppers & eggplant are still coming in from the garden, but the weather’s turning cool & inviting. It’s not a difficult dish to make at all, taking little more than chopping & tending for an hour or two, but it hinges on good fresh vegetables. For the love of Pete, don’t make this in February with out-of-season produce – it’ll be… fine. But ratatouille shouldn’t be fine. It should be a late summer symphony in a bowl, rich & bright & so tasty, you want a chunk of bread to sop up the traces left on your plate.

(A word on eggplant: if you don’t like eggplant, I’d argue that you’re cooking it wrong. Done properly, eggplant is smoky & flavorful, not bitter & chewy. Pick small eggplants, with nice tight, glossy skins. Salting the eggplant draws out a lot of moisture & potential bitterness, so don’t skip that step. Finally, make sure you add it early enough in the process that it gets fully cooked & absorbs all the gorgeous flavors of the sauce.)



As usual, this is a total make-it-up-as-I-go recipe, so all amounts are approximate… Yield: about 2 1/2 quarts

1 small/medium traditional eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 t sea salt

1/4 c olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, sliced thin (I like to cut mine end-to-end, instead of across the center, but it totally doesn’t matter)

6-8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

3-4 bell peppers, assorted colors, cut into rough 3/4-inch pieces

2 small/medium summer squash and/or zucchini, cut into 3/4 inch cubes

2 t dry thyme

1/2 c chopped fresh basil

1 t smoked paprika (yes, smoked, but regular will do in a pinch)

1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, crushed roughly by hand

1 c dry white wine (I use pinot grigio)

Salt & pepper to taste

Sprinkle the eggplant with 1 t of sea salt & pile it into a colander to drain for about 20 minutes while you start the rest of the veggies.

Warm the oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot (if you don’t own a Lodge, get on that – best money you’ll ever spend) over medium heat & add onions. Saute gently with a pinch of salt until soft & translucent. Add chopped garlic & saute for a few more minutes, until fragrant.

Add peppers, stir & let cook while you tend to the eggplant.

Rinse the salted eggplant under cold water & give it a really good shake to get rid of excess moisture. Add it to the pot, along with the summer squash/zucchini. Stir everything well & let it cook until the squash starts to get bright. Add the herbs, paprika, tomatoes & wine & stir well. Add a bit of water if things look too dry, but not too much – this is stew, not soup. Bring the pot up to a lively simmer, stirring frequently, then lower the heat so you have a nice gentle bubbling. Leave your spoon in the pot & add the lid so the pot’s mostly covered but not sealed tight.

Let your ratatouille simmer away for at least an hour, stirring on occasion to make sure nothing’s sticking to the bottom of the pot. Your kitchen will smell REALLY FREAKING GOOD at this point. After an hour, take of the lid & let it simmer another 15 minutes or so to reduce the sauce a little. Taste for salt & pepper.

Warm up some crusty bread, pour yourself a glass of wine, and devour. A few shakes of hot sauce (we like the chipotle Tabasco) would not be amiss, nor would some good goat cheese to spread on your bread.

Bon appetit!

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… you make Tomato Bread Salad.

I actually did make it to the farmers’ market this Saturday, & came home with a bag of dent-&-ding hot-house tomatoes from our favorite vegetable vendors. They were the tomatoes that got bruised or bumped along the way, & needed to be eaten quickly in this heat. The kids at Fitz Produce offered me a big bag at a fantastic price, so who was I to argue? Especially when I knew our basil plants were in desperate need of trimming…

Tomato Bread Salad is one of those beautifully simple dishes that screams SUMMER. Made in winter with mealy tomatoes & vapid basil, it’s thoroughly depressing. But use heirloom tomatoes & herbs cut fresh from the garden & you have something transcendent.

Traditionally, one uses day-old bread that’s gone a bit hard & stale. That… doesn’t happen much in our house, so I dice a fresh chunk of something crusty & par-bake it so it’s a bit crisp. This helps the bread hold its shape once immersed in the juicy tomato mixture.


Tomato Bread Salad

Makes one large bowl, enough for 3-4 as a main course or 6-8 as a side

1/2 loaf crusty white bread (French/sourdough/sal e olio)

3-4 large, perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes, any color

1 2-3″ ball fresh mozzarella OR 1 c baby bocconcini (plain, not marinated)

A large bunch of fresh basil

Appx 1/2 c extra virgin olive oil

Appx 1/4 c balsamic vinegar

1 clove garlic, crushed

Salt & pepper to taste

Cut or tear the bread into bite-sized cubes, spread on a sheet pan, & bake at 350F til just starting to color at the very edges. Let cool while you assemble the rest of the salad.

Cut the tomatoes into 3/4-inch cubes & transfer to a large bowl, including any & all juices that may have escaped. Slice the mozzarella 1/4-inch thick & cut into quarters (just quarter the bocconcini if using that) & add to the bowl. De-leaf the basil stems, stacking & thinly slicing the leaves into a fine chiffonade. Add to the tomatoes & cheese along with the remaining ingredients. Toss gently to combine. Let marinate at room temperature for about 10 minutes, then taste for seasonings. About 5 minutes before serving, fold in the crispy bread pieces & let the bowl sit so the bread starts to absorb the juices. Revel in the crispy, chewy, juicy, garlicky awesomeness.

Honestly, we eat huge bowls of Tomato Bread Salad as our main course, but it makes a lovely side dish, as well. When our multi-colored heirloom tomatoes are coming in hand over fist, we’ll make this nearly every week. Meanwhile, this first batch was a delightful preview of summer…

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You know you’re getting really old when you start meal planning, right? In my mind, that’s something old age pensioners did, a habit picked up during The War & never discarded. Fish on Fridays, lamb on Tuesdays, each meal carefully choreographed to make every last penny of groceries count. My mum did it, too, mapping out the week’s menu in her steno book in what seemed to 15-year-old me the ultimate expression of middle-age stodginess.

When I moved out on my own, I cooked what I felt like eating, when I felt like eating it. Meringues for supper at 9 o’clock at night? Sure! Pasta with butter & pepper for the third dinner in a row? What the hell! Daikon radishes & cheese for lunch, because that’s all that’s left in the fridge? Um, yay?…

Needless to say, 20 years later, with a son & husband relying on me for regular sustenance, I’ve come around to the whole idea of meal planning. For a long time, I’d take the whatever-looks-good approach when I went shopping, & figure out what to do with it when I got home. This was fine at the height of summer, when beautiful produce piles in hand over fist & there’s a veritable rainbow from which to choose.

But by the middle of winter, I’d find myself cooking the same few meals over & over again. Dinnertime would come & I’d have no idea what to make & we’d be so hungry, we’d just order out. And inevitably I’d find a bag of furry green beans/block of questionable tofu/semi-liquefied zucchini buried in the back of the fridge that I’d bought on a whim & totally forgotten. For our sanity & for the sake of our food budget, something had to change. With a shred of reluctance, I decided to start planning out our meals each week.

My goal was to make a list of 5-6 dinners that used as many ingredients that we already had in-house as possible, that took into account seasonal produce above nearly all else, & that got us a wide variety of tasty, healthy dishes we’d all eat. This meant finding something to do with that big bag of couscous in the back of the pantry, not making bell pepper-laden chili in the middle of November, & no more weekly fish stick dinners.

Did I feel like a doddering old lady when I first started? Oh yes. Did I feel like a bit of a prat at the grocery store, my shopping list in hand, passing over gorgeous but out-of-season strawberries for sensible cauliflower & sweet potatoes? You bet I did. Did we notice a difference in how well we were eating, & how much less it was costing us? Can I get a hell yes?!

My first step was to make a list of all the dinners that I knew I could make with my eyes closed, that fit the above criteria. Then I hauled out my favorite cookbooks & added things that I’d been meaning to make more often but that usually slipped under the radar. This became my Master List, & it lives on the fridge.

Each Friday evening, I grab a Post-It & rifle through the fridge & pantry & take stock of what we already have in the house. Then I see what I can make with it, drawing from The List & from my trusty cookbooks. Once I have my menu for the week planned out, I make my shopping lists – one for the farmers’ market, one for the grocery store. On a good day, the whole process takes 15-20 minutes.

I’m not so far gone as to plot the actual days we’ll eat certain things, but I make a point to arrange some fast dinners for soccer nights, longer-cooking dishes for when I know I’ll be able to get a head-start before the boys get home. I plan one fish-based meal & one tofu-based meal a week, & aim for something green every night. Home-made pizza is usually a given, & I try to make a soup or stew that can be frozen for emergency/lazy nights later in the month.

I can honestly say that we are eating much, much better than we were a year ago. We’re spending a lot less on groceries, with a lot less waste, & aren’t doing the desperation-dinner-out dance nearly as much as we used to. Yes, I still sometimes find wrinkly old carrots hiding in the back of the crisper drawer, & the Thai place round the corner still knows us by name. But I made vegetarian shepherd’s pie for the first time in ages the other week, with rough-mashed red potatoes. It was pretty damn tasty…

So, in the spirit of community & sharing the minutiae of our lives, I’ll be posting our What’s for Dinner list each week. Feel free to post your own lists, too – never too many good ideas…

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Pushing up

After a stupidly busy April, we finally found a free weekend & got our hands dirty, potting up seedlings & prepping the veg plot for another growing season.

While we do buy some vegetable plants from our local independent nursery, I’ve been trying to do more of our own from seed. For one, it’s ridiculously cost effective. But more importantly, starting from seed gets my hands in the soil for the full life cycle of our plants. The primeval magic of putting a tiny blackish brown speck in some dirt & having a huge yellow squash to show for it a few month later never ceases to amaze me. It helps me practice letting go of the blistering pace of modern life & brings a much deeper appreciation of the sweat, sun & rain that goes into what we consume.

To start our seeds, I’ve dinked around with peat pucks & grow-a-toriums & whatnot, but this year I went the seriously cheap & easy route. On occasion, we buy organic salad greens at the grocery store – they come in a rather stupid amount of plastic wrapping for something touted as “green”, including a large hinged clamshell container. I’ve been hoarding them in a pile in the kitchen all winter, & back in late March put them into service as mini greenhouses.

I used a special seed-starting mix this year, & while I don’t normally promote specialized/overpriced nonsense, I will say that in this case, the extra step was worth it. In previous years when I’ve used regular potting soil, I’ve had problems with the soil getting waterlogged & seedlings damping off. The seed starting mix is decidedly lighter & drains far better, making it much easier to keep delicately moist. It’s also a lovely fine texture, very easy for sprouting seedlings to push through.

My clamshell containers are about 4 inches deep, so after poking a few drainage holes in the bottom & corners with a steak knife (all class over here), I filled them with about 1.5 inches of starting mix, adding a bit of water at a time & mixing by hand to make sure it was evenly damp. C helped me position the seeds, a fun job for tiny fingers. Once the seeds were in, I dusted a thin layer of extra starting mix over the top, just to make sure everyone was covered nicely.

We had a ridiculously warm winter & a very temperate spring, so I was able to put our greenhouse boxes outside very early this year. I kept them inside at night for the first few weeks, but they were out on a table in the back yard during the day almost from the time we planted them. I monitored the exposure & vented the lids on sunny days to keep the heat from building up too much. I left the lids open completely when it rained, & the drainage holes performed admirably.  Keeping the lids closed or only partially open really helped to retain the moisture & hold in the heat, & we saw our first sprouts within a week of planting.

Nearly 2 months later, our babies were big enough to transplant into their own pots. By this time, all the local shops were out of my preferred peat pots, so I used paper coffee cups instead. (Again, with the application of a steak knife for drainage holes.) I used a mix of organic garden soil & potting soil, for a blend that drains easily but has lots of organic matter for the young plants to feast on.

It was a pretty nice way to spend a hot afternoon, parked under our cherry tree putting tiny plants into cups.

As usual, we overplanted with the tomatoes. It’s an affliction born of our love of heirlooms & tomato-bread salad. This year is particularly exciting, as we’ve managed to revive seed that we collected from our community garden in Chicago. That’s right, folks, we got 6-year old seed to sprout, & sprout happily. Specifically, we are trying to resurrect two varieties that we fell in love with but have been unable to replicate using stock from local nurseries – Old German & Black of Turin (a variety that I can’t find info on anywhere). Both are huge sprawling heirlooms that yielded big lumpy, luscious fruit well into the mid western fall, so we have high hopes for an even longer season here in PA.

I put in a packet of Black Krim seeds as well, as what has turned out to be an unnecessary safety measure. We’ve also got a few yellow squash seedlings going, & Rainbow Sherbet & Sugar Baby watermelons, both of which will go in the  ground once we’re a bit further past the last frost date of May 4th.

And what are we going to do with all these tomato seedlings? Assuming they all survive the transplanting & mature quickly, we’ll be looking for homes for them. Post a comment or find me on Facebook if you’re local & would like to add to your tomato garden.

It’s a lovely rainy day today, but I’ll try to get over to the main garden & take some photos once we’ve got the paper & straw down. Training green beans & peas up the wrought iron fence & experimenting with a trellis for the unruly yellow pear tomatoes this year… What’s in your garden?

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We eat a good bit of tofu in our house, at least one meal a week, & I’m always looking for new ways to serve it that don’t go too far into the make-it-taste-like-meat realm. If we wanted to eat meat… we’d eat it, you know? This is one of my favorite dinners for late winter, when the nights can still be raw & local spring veggies aren’t yet in the market. It’s quick to make, nice & filling, & a satisfying burst of color & flavor on a grey day. It’s adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, my be-all-end-all cookbook for many, many years.


Tofu & Butternut Squash Curry, Thai-Style

Serves 4-6

2 decent-sized leeks, about an inch in diameter

2 T oil (veg or olive)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 T minced fresh ginger OR 1 t ground ginger

1 T Oriental-style or sweet curry powder

1 t brown or turbinado sugar

3 T soy sauce

1 can coconut milk (we use light/lite style)

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded & cut into 1/2 inch cubes (see this post on how to manage it without taking off a thumb)

1 block firm/extra firm tofu, silken or traditional, drained & cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 c fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces, OR 1 c frozen peas, OR 1 c thinly sliced red/green bell peppers

Sriracha, lime juice, salt & chopped fresh cilantro to taste

1 c cooked basmati/jasmine rice per person

Start by prepping your vegetables & tofu… I handle leeks a bit differently than I was taught in culinary school, where we used only the white parts to add flavor & a delicate texture to a dish. Leeks can get spendy, & there’s no way I’m tossing what amounts to half the weight & most of the nutrients for the sake of a bit of snobbery. Look for leeks that are firm & reasonably clean – they’re grown in mounds of earth to get those long, pale legs, so expect at least a little dirt. Chop off the root end & the straggly ends of the leaves, then slice them in quarters lengthwise. Chop into small strips about 1/4 inch wide, toss them into a sieve & rinse really well under cold running water. This step washes out the inevitable sand pockets & dirt that lurk between the leek’s translucent layers. You can rinse the quarters whole before chopping, but I find I inevitably lose half of it into the sink when I do it that way.

Drain your tofu & slice it into 1/2 inch slabs. Press the slabs between several layers of paper towel with a cutting board on top while you get the curry started. This step helps force out some of the water, allowing the tofu to absorb more of the flavorful sauce once it gets added to the pot.

Dismember your butternut squash, as detailed here.

Get your rice fired up, if you don’t have any pre-cooked. I soak & free-boil my rice, a process I detail in this post.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, add your oil & the leeks, stirring often until they collapse & start to go slightly translucent. You can add a pinch of salt to the pot to help this stage go a bit faster, if you like. Add your garlic, ginger & curry powder, & stir for a minute or two til fragrant.

(On the topic of curry powder, look for a light, sweet curry for this recipe. If you have access to an Asian grocer, S&B is my favorite brand. If not, use a plain, sweet yellow curry powder, preferably not too heavy on the cumin if you can manage it.)

Add your prepared squash to the pot, & stir for a few minutes to coat it evenly with the spice & leek mixture. Add your coconut milk, sugar & soy sauce, plus enough water to just cover the squash (3-4 cups is usually about right). Stir well & bump the heat up a bit to bring the whole pot just to the boil. Back the heat off til you have a nice, gentle simmer, & let things bubble away for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the squash is quite tender, turn off the heat & give the pot a few pulses with your immersion blender – this helps emulsify the mixture into a rich, silky sauce. If you don’t have an immersion blender or like a more rustic texture, you can totally skip this step.

Turn the heat back to medium/low, & add your tofu, green beans/peas/peppers. Simmer away for a few minutes til the veggies are just done but still crisp, & taste for seasoning – you’ll probably want to add about 1/2 t salt at this stage. Stir in the optional lime juice & cilantro, & dinner’s ready.

Serve over hot rice with a few shakes of sriracha, & have a happy belly.

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It seems like we’re holding our breath right now, waiting for spring to properly arrive. The nights are still pretty cold, & it’s too soon for anything local in the way of delicate spring vegetables, so much of what we’re eating are the traditional winter holdovers: potatoes in every shape & form, dark leafy greens, mushrooms, broccoli, & of course, winter squash.

I think winter squashes as a whole get a really bad rap – everyone loves a pumpkin, but mention acorn, buttercup, kabocha & folks tend to recoil. I blame the health food movement of the 1970s, which made steamed & stuffed acorn squashes the ubiquitous (& often flavorless) vegetarian offering at many a Thanksgiving feast. Handled incorrectly, winter squash devolves easily into watery yellow mush which no amount of salt, soy sauce or nutritional yeast can salvage.

Roasted, baked, or simmered carefully, however, & winter squash condenses into a rich, blaze orange wallop of flavor & nutrients that marries beautifully with sweet & savory ingredients. It stores well, & is an inexpensive but deliciously healthy hybrid of vegetable & starch to get you through the long grey winter.

Handling & preparing winter squash can seem a challenge to the uninitiated; they are heavy. And hard. Flippant recipes that direct one to “simply peel & dice” a winter squash can reduce even the most enthusiastic cook to tears. My advice: start small, & carry a big knife.

As a rule, winter squash varieties can be easily substituted for one another, so if it’s your first time, look for a nice compact butternut squash, with a wide, straight neck & a smaller bulb at the base. The neck is solid flesh, with no seed cavity to mess with, & is very easy to peel & cut if you have the right blade.

(If you don’t have a nice, big, heavy chefs knife in your arsenal, do yourself a favor & pick one up. It doesn’t have to cost you a fortune – one of my favorite knives was an $8 utility number from the local restaurant supply store. Just look for a solid tang, where you can see the metal of the blade running through the handle itself, & a handle made of wood or hard composite. It should feel heavy & solid in your hand, & be long enough that you can use your non-working hand to apply pressure down on the tip when needed – 10-12 inches is ideal (Go on. I can hear you sniggering.) A plain, tapered blade is the most versatile, especially if you’re not investing in multiple knives; save the cleavers & serrateds for when you’re ready to branch out.)

Every cook has their own way of handling their ingredients; I’ll describe how I treat winter squash, but it’s by no means the only way to handle them. I know folks who swear by vegetable peelers & hammers, & more power to them if that’s what works.

To dice winter squash, first cut off the stem & blossom ends of the squash, just a 1/2 inch slice or so to get rid of the tough parts. Then, cut the whole squash in half; if it’s a round squash (acorn, buttercup, pumpkin, etc.), just hack it straight down the middle; if it’s a butternut, cut right where the straight neck starts to flare out into the bottom bulb, & then cut the bulb itself in half. Take your time, use steady, slow pressure, & use the heel of your other hand to help push down on the far tip of the knife. Needless to say, keep your fingers up & out of the way. If the knife sticks in the squash, gently pick the whole thing up by the knife handle & tap gently on your work surface to break the surface tension between the blade & the flesh. Once you have manageable halves, use a sharp-edged spoon or ice cream scoop to scrape out the seeds & fibrous netting.

Now the peeling bit. Set a chunk of squash flat-side down on your work surface & cut just under the skin, from top to bottom. Use a gentle sawing motion, & if your knife is reasonably sharp, it should cut through fairly easily. Repeat around the circumference of the squash til the whole thing is peeled. When in doubt, cut a little deeper – the pale layer of flesh just under the skin can be unpleasantly tough, so don’t be shy. Once peeled, you can whack the flesh into 1/2-1 inch chunks as your recipe dictates.

If your recipe calls for pureed squash, you’re in luck. Roasting winter squash is an easy way to get velvety smooth, dense puree. First, preheat the oven to 350F, &  find a baking sheet or shallow casserole big enough to fit your squash times two. Hack your squash in half & scrape out the seeds & fibers. Pour about half an inch of water into your baking dish, & set the cut sides of the squash down into it. Bake for 30-60 minutes, or as long as it takes for you to be able to easily insert a paring knife through the skin – the time will vary depending on how big/thick your squash is. Let the halves cool enough to handle, then use a large spoon (or that ice cream scoop again) to scrape out the cooked flesh. Give it a quick whirl in a food processor or run it through a ricer/smash it with a potato masher & voila! Tasty, fully cooked, non-watery squash.

Next, I’ll give you a few ideas as to what to do with your freshly diced/pureed squash…



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