Vegetables, yarn, and yarns: all of my passions all in one place.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A spaghetti squash experiment

I have been to heaven, and it's full of vegtable stalls. It's location: the Westside Market in Cleveland. My dear friend Veronica, newly moved to the Shaker area for the second time in her life, took me, along with her little sister Miranda. Our first stop: the main market area, where Veronica purchased a half-pound of golden raisins and I bought a half-pound of Israeli Couscous (I'm sure a blog will soon be forthcoming).

Then, it was on to the veggie tent. Farmers greeted us in carnival bark fashion. Taste my melons! Romaine lettuce only 50 cents! Blood oranges here! The first stall had by far the best prices, including the romaine lettuce deal. I got a bag and so did Veronica. Also the $1 a pound vine tomatoes and the 50 cent red peppers and the 35 cent bag of organic carrots and a $1 a pound spaghetti squash. While, we did walk the length of the tent, I didn't buy anything else, though I admired the view of colors arranged up and down the sides, the oranges and mushrooms and melons and root veggies and leafy greens. Everyone was assembled to love and life vegetables. The third stop: a little coffee shop/bar that had irish coffee $5 for a rather large cup. By the time we were ready to leave, Veronica was fairly shnockered off her one cup o' bailey's-infused Joe.

With Veronica's finds, we feasted on Romaine salad with honey crisp apples (also purchased at the market) and golden raisins with a drizzle of olive oil. With my Spaghetti Squash buy, I made decided to make a casserole recipe I found on the net, oddly entitled Spaghetti Squash Casserole, begotten from the Moosewood Cookbook.

What you need:
1 8-inch spaghetti squash
1 cup chopped onion
2 medium cloves crushed garlic
2 fresh tomatoes (medium- sized)
1/2 lb. fresh, sliced mushrooms
1/2 tsp. oregano
Salt and pepper
1 cup cottage or ricotta cheese (I used cottage as I'm not a fan of the ricotta texture)
1 cup grated mozzarella
1/4 cup freshly-chopped parsley
1 tsp. basil
Dash of thyme
1 cup fine bread crumbs
Parmesan for the top
Butter for sauté

Art cut the squash in half for me, while I wiped olive oil margarine on a baking sheet. Then I took out the seeds and tangly string attachments with an ice cream scoop and plopped the halves insides-down on the pan, side by side like hard yellow butt cheeks, and put it in the oven, preheated to 375. Within moments, the butter began to hiss from the heat. I closed the oven door and went to the living room to watch Coraline, rented from the library, for the 45 minutes until the squash was tender enough for a fork to go through the outer shell with ease.

Midway through Coraline, I attended to my cooked squash, leaving it to cool, while I began prep on the rest of the ingredients. I got out everything I needed, but I was none too happy about missing the movie Garet was in no mood to pause. Happily, Art took over, Sauteing the mushrooms in olive oil instead of butter with the garlic and a can of Aldi's mushrooms (the fresh ones just weren't on sale), salt, pepper, and 1 tsp of Italian seasoning, which includes thyme and oregano. When the veggies were tender, I came in to dump a can of tomtatoes (next time I'd use more) into the skillet. When the liquid lessened adequately, Art put everything in a casserole dish (including the parsley), topping with the parmesan, and put it in the oven. By the 40 minute sounding of the timer, my mouth was watering from the Italian aroma wafting out of the oven.

It smelled like baked spaghetti, only sweeter, which is pretty much exactly what it tasted like. All the flavor of spaghetti without the extra carbs, so I enthusiastically added a buttered slice of pumpernickel to go with it. Even Art was delighted by this one, and Garet, well, that was a struggle, but not because he didn't want to try the squash. He was fooled enough that he thought it was just a different sort of noodle. He just doesn't like his pasta noodles outside of the regular shapes he's accustomed too. But once he did eat it, he seemed to like it, at least in comparison to say... something overtly veggie-filled.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A soup finally tried and tasted.

So, I have this recipe in my box. We all have one. It's that recipe you always mean to try but never quite have all the ingredients for all at the same time. I've had it long enough that I can't remember where it came from, whether it was from a cookbook or an online recipe search for Kale or winter soups. I really don't know, but I know that it's in my alphabetized box at the start of the K section: "Kale and Roasted Vegetable Soup."

It is this untried recipe for which I reserved many of the vegetables attained from that same Christmas share from which the Toasti was born. The kale, the butternut squash, the onions and carrots. I finally had it all at once and ready for soup.

What you need:
3 med carrots, peeled and quartered lengthwise
2 large tomatoes, quartered
1 large onion, cut in 8 wedges or 4-5 slices
1/2 small butternut squash
6 garlic cloves
1 T olive oil
6 c. or more veggie broth
4 c. finely chopped kale
3 large fresh thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 15 oz. can great northern beans (or dry bean equavalent, soaked)

The problem was I spend every other weekend in Michigan, I planned on making it in Michigan (for lack of veggies at the houses where I reside while stationed there), and at about the time we reached Sandusky I remembered that I left the onions and squash behind.

An emergency stop to Krogers was in order, where we picked up a new squash and a bag of frozen onions (Don't judge. Even a veggie/prefers local veggies has to make a shortcut now and again. And to be honest, I'm not that fond of onions.), as well as the tomato, the broth, and the can of beans, which killed me but I haven't learned how to can yet and also, have not been brave enough to try the soaking of bagged beans overnight. Babysteps. Then, we were off to my parent's house, where the blender was located, for a little needed puree.

What you are suppose to do:
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Brush rimmed baking sheet with oil. Add carrots, squash, tomato, onion, and garlic. Drizzle oil. Salt and pepper. Toss. Roast stirring occasionally, to tender (45 min.)

2. Cut squash and carrots in 1/2 pieces. Peel garlic cloves and place in food processor. Add tomato and onion. Puree to smooth. Pour 1/2 broth onto baking sheet. Scrape up browned bits. Transfer broth and puree to large pot.

What I did:
1. Preheat. Check. Baking Sheet. Check. Hell, we forgot the olive oil. I guess the cooking spray will have to do. Add vegetables. Check. Well, except for the onion. Remember, it's frozen. More cooking spray. Salt and pepper, silently thanking myself that I at least transitioned my parent's house from table salt to sea salt. Toss. Roast for the 45 min.

2. Cut squash and carrots in 1/2 pieces. Peel garlic and place all three in a blender. Add tomato and onion (defrosted). Blend. Have the blender stop working. Attack food with spoon. Blend, repeat until smooth. Do not, for any reason, open the cans of veggie broth. Put puree in a tupperware container and clean all used kitchen utensils and appliances before mom comes home from work and is greeted with a mess. It would not go well.

Now, the hard part is done and had to be done at my parent's instead of Art's mom's house, where I would be cooking the soup, as Art's mom has no use for and thus, no blender and/or food processor. So Art and I welcomed my mom home into her spotless kitchen, visited a bit, and got in the car with our puree. A forty-five minute drive later, we arrived at the cooking soup house, sans blender.

What you are supposed to do:

3. Add 5 1/2 c. broth, kale, thyme, and bay leaf to pot with puree. Bring to boil. Reduce heat. Simmer uncovered until kale is tender (30 min.)

4. Add carrots, beans, and squash. Simmer 8 min. to blend flavors, adding broth to thin. Season with salt and pepper. Discard thyme and bay leaf. Can be made one day ahead. Serves 6.

What I did:

3. Pour puree from tupperware to large pot and add broth, kale, and bay leaf. Realize you forgot the thyme and there is none in the house. Forgo the use of thyme. Bring to boil. Reduce heat. Simmer uncovered 30 min.

4. Realize you weren't supposed to puree the carrot and squash and that this is probably why the pureeing process had been so difficult. Add beans. Simmer 8 min. to blend flavors. Season with salt and pepper (table salt, black pepper...). Search in vain for bay leaf. Ladle into bowl. Find bay leaf in bowl halfway through eating it. Discard bay leaf. Serves only you because neither Art nor his mother is interested in eating soup with butternut in it, especially when it lacks the inclusion of beef, though they admit upon tasting it that it isn't half bad. Soup will last three days if eaten for lunch and dinner for the duration.

Despite all the mishaps, I was surprisingly pleased with the taste and consistency of this winter soup. Obviously, it was a little more watery than it should have been (about like a tomato soup but with beans and kale floating in it), but that didn't affect the flavor, and I didn't mind it. I like tomato soup. Having the squash in the base or in a soup at all worried me, as it was a new experience, but I found the taste sweeter than I expected, with a hint of nuttiness and a dash of tomato that was just enough to induce nostalgia. Tomato soup is my go-to comfort food, especially when I "don't feel good." You see, I've never much cared for chicken noodle.

The kale, while cooked, still had a bit of stiffness to it that was more enjoyable than a limp noodle and the beans took in the flavors of the puree, while the bay leaf added that tanginess that it always does. Despite the lack of thyme, the unintentional puree, the haphazard preparation, and the looks on the faces of the people in the kitchen with me as I shoveled the soup down my gullet (Why'd you have to use THOSE beans?), it was delightfully taste-textured, soothing, and most importantly, healthy.

I deem it worthy of the effort and maybe next time I have all the ingredients in my cupboard, I'll even try my hand with the dried beans instead of canned. And maybe I'll be able to make it in my own kitchen.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Cabbage Waltz

This is my first of three years in Cleveland, and I'm learning a lot about the lay of the land from one fellow MFA fiction-writer in particular, Megan. 
The first bit of advice: invest in snow boots. People never shovel sidewalks in Cleveland. 
Second bit of advice: join Cityfresh. It's a local food co-op type deal where if you pay the weekly fee, they give you a portion of their harvest for each given week. 

Of course, Cityfresh only has a weekly harvest in the summer. For the winter, however, they do one large Christmas share, one I partook in and collected in mid-December. The pick-up location was an old church called Trinity that stands sentinel right across the street from Cleveland State University's Main Classroom Building. The whole family came along, and my son Garet was rather enthralled with a particular water feature where the water cascades down the entire length of a wall like a waterfall. Down a hallway to the left, I found the vegetables. 

My share: 5 apples, 1 giant head of cabbage, 1 bag of onions, 1 bag of yams, 1 bunch kale, 1 bag of carrots, and 2 squash. I chose a spaghetti and a butternut. Now, I could think of uses for each and every bit of produce I carted home in a medium-sized box I usually reserve for Aldi groceries. Everything, that is, except the cabbage.

I've never been a cabbage person. Bok Choy is tasty in stir fries and Red Cabbage is good in a nice salad mix. I even gave Brussel Sprouts the ole college try a few months ago and pronounced them edible in moderation. But I'm not talking about that sort of cabbage. I'm talking green cabbage. I'm talking the sort of cabbage that smells like molding socks when it cooks and coats the air with its offending odor.

The mere presence of that massive mound of cabbage on my kitchen counter sent me into a wave of panic. I got visions of summers past when, every year without fail, my cabbage-loving Grandfather insisted the whole family feast upon hobo dinner for his birthday celebration. A hobo dinner is a boiled dinner cooked all together in a large metal barrel over an open fire. Usually, it includes sausage and potatoes and corn-on-the-cob and, of course, cabbage. Except, because everything was boiled together, none of it tasted like itself or even a combination of what was in there, like what happens in a stew. Instead, from the sausage to the corn, all the food came out of that cauldron smelling and tasting of over-boiled cabbage. Perhaps the Irish would have celebrated in their bountiful, delicious feast. I just thought it tasted a lot like the kitchen garbage bag smells right before dad takes it out to the trash can.

No, I never had learned to appreciate the old school version of cabbage. Likewise, Art only eats the stuff when it's cole slaw, and Garet still announces "I don't like vegetables" when anything green gets placed in from of him. Come to think of it, he also doesn't like fruit, beans, jelly, or any meat presented to him between to pieces of bread.

What to do with a cabbage head the shape and size of a regulation soccer ball? For a solution, I, as a woman of the technology age, turned to the interweb. I ran a google search for cabbage recipes. What I eventually stumbled upon was a South Korean (though it's Korean origin is questionable) veggie burger, or as the website stated "a light cole slaw fried egg sandwich,"  called a Toasti. I figured it was worth a try.

What you need: 1/2 c. shredded cabbage
1/2 c. shredded carrot
1 egg
1/2 tsp. soy sauce
between 1-2 T butter
2 slices of wheat bread, toasted

1. Mix cabbage and carrot in a bowl. Then, stir in egg and soy sauce, mix, and patty. It won't form a perfect patty in the bowl but get it close.

2. Heat butter in a skillet of med. heat. Dump patty onto skillet and form with spatula. Cook for 3 min. on both sides, adding a slice of cheese for the last minute if you are a fan of the cheeseburger. Add condiments to bread (I like a mix of ketchup, mustard, and BBQ sauce). Then plop the patty onto the bread and eat while hot.

The instant the ingredients hit that butter-soaked pan, I knew this would be no ordinary cabbage recipe. It didn't smell like cabbage. Instead, it gave of a vaguely sweet scent, part carrot, part scrabbled egg, part soy. As it sizzled in the pan, my carnivorous boyfriend wandered into the kitchen to ask me what smelled so good. The "patty," once nudged into place with the spatula, stayed in it's rounded burger shape with only the egg acting unruly in its usual tendency to pool outward as it solidifies. The entire package made for a pretty picture, the bright orange of the carrot, the yellow of the egg, the traces of brown soy, the flecks here and there of light green from the cabbage.

The flip after the first three minutes was particularly satisfying. It was much easier to accomplish than your run-of-the-mill fried egg, which I always manage to shred at the flip. It flipped like a burger with an angry hiss in the butter. It's sputter fading back to a constant sizzle. The top portion was now delicate brown with blackened tips, probably seconds away from over-cooked, that's how the Toasti turns out best. I added my cheese and slathered on my condiments. I am a sucker for ketchup in mass quantities. By the time my Toasti was good and browned on both sizes, I had a tomato ready for the top. And I was ready for the taste test.

The first bite I made sure was taken from a spot free of all the excess burger trappings, so I could just get a taste of the Toasti itself. It tastes like something unique, not all the things within it combined, but something that transcends all of them. It was sweet with a hint of salty and a background of egg richness. There was also a quiet, easily missed, taste of greenery. It was less of a cabbage as the Irish know it well cabbage and more like its subtler Asian cousins. 

The second bite was the huge veggie burger package. Let me say, in my own days of meat-eating, I ate many-a hamburger, but I really didn't enjoy the taste of the burger itself. I just over-slathered it in condiments, so all I tasted was the ketchup mixed with tomato, that fake tomato plus real tomato flavor combination that just works. I do the same with a Boca burger or a Morning Star, but this new Toasti veggie burger was a delight from every facet. More flavorful, more complex, sweeter, but with the same ability to supply me with much-needed protein. I don't need ketchup for these babies, but they are also a treat with a little squeeze of tomato. 

After a week of Toasti for dinner, I can still honestly say, I could have another. I no larger fear the cabbage in my ice box. More to the point, I can now have as many veggie burgers as my little heart yearns for, and with cabbage heads and carrots so cheap per pound at the market, I can eat them at a fraction of the cost but for five times the flavor. Oh, cabbage, I will never doubt you again.

Monday, January 4, 2010

An Introduction

I am not a food critic or a wine enthusiast or an expert of the gourmet. Frankly, as a graduate student surviving on a stipend of just shy of 7K, while also supporting a 6 year old and a boyfriend searching for work in a fairly unforgiving economy, I can't afford to be. What I am is a lover of food and the product of a working class background, descended from an electrician and homemaker turned hospital file room clerk, who were in turn descended from a Tarta bus driver and a GM autoworker, respectively.

I was raised on, along other things, macaroni and mayo, tuna and noodle casserole, Johnny Cake, and the cream beer, a concoction consisting of equal parts root beer and milk that my father lovingly refers to as the poor man's root beer float. I didn't realize it at the time, but I'm sure that these much-loved delicacies were served more for their dollar amount per serving rather than their general tastiness.

That aside, I was blessed with an unadventurous mother whose love of chicken and potatoes formed a fair amount of my dinner options growing up. Carrots, corn, and peas were occasionally served as side dishes. Broccoli, made once at the request of my father, never made it on the menu again. Ignorant of any other palate possibility, I went through life the chicken and potato way. I had chicken legs, chicken nuggets, loose-meat chicken sandwiches, BBQ chicken, cinnamon fried chicken, chicken covered in cheddar cheese and strips of bacon.That is, until befriending my significant other, Art, who, after witnessing me order chicken fingers and french fries one too many times, instructed me, "You can order anything but the chicken!" An adventure of gastronomic proportions began. I began to sample other options, discovering that lamb was succulent, calamari, delicious. Most undergraduates explore their sexuality in school. I explored my inner food connoisseur.

By the start of my MA in literature, I was an avid experimenter of the edible. There were many vegetables I'd still avoided, but I was willing to try. Which is why when I read Skinny Bitch, I was more than willing to give up on the meat. I had begun to feel tired and run down under the stress of my graduate education, so when I read about how unhealthy CAFOs make the majority of affordable meat options, I decided to experiment with my food on a different level, this time by eating a healthy and nutrient-rich diet free of corn-fed and antibiotic-infested meat, ie. all meat in my price-range. I, for all intents and purposes became a vegetarian. For a brief, shiny week, I even tried my hand at being vegan, but that was also a bank-breaking prospect. Within the first month, I increased my energy levels by leaps and bounds. I even stopped getting those pesky sore throat illnesses I had always been so prone to getting.

To my mother's horror, I began stinking up her kitchen with the aroma of cooking broccoli and bok choy. I hand-made soups that required a fair amount of her kitchen's cooking utensils and appliances. I ruined perfectly good cookie recipes with whole wheat flour and raw sugar. "You've always been my meat-eater," she said, confused. "I don't understand how someone could just stop eating everything they used to." But that's what I did. In fact, I hardly ever eat potatoes now, because there are so much more flavourful options in a yam or squash.

I'm in a good place now, working towards an MFA in fiction and culinary prowess in the kitchen. (You see, the other thing I never learned as a child was cooking.) Despite my limited budget, and sometimes because of it, I continue searching out and making interesting new foods. The good recipes make their way into the red 3x5 index card box sitting out on my kitchen counter. The bad get tossed, but good or bad each attempt is an adventure I enjoy making, right in the confines of my rather compact apartment kitchen. What I intend to do here is record them down, the winning recipes and the duds, for inquiring minds, along with the experience each recipe provides: the memories, the sensory details, the general tale of the preparatory process. For anyone who wants to share it with me, it should be an interesting ride.