Fall Cooking Experiments

Fall has arrived, and already I am in cooking mode. I’ve been exceptionally interested in the humble bean lately—kidney, pinto, garbanzo, and refried, along with lentils, black-eyed peas, and all manner of beans and legumes I’ve yet to discover. I’ve also found myself drawn to warming spices—cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, curry, cloves, coriander, cayenne, chili powder.

Since beans are so hearty, I often forgo meat with my bean meals. I think this is a good thing both for my health and the planet. I’m getting more and more concerned about climate change, and cutting down on meat (especially beef) is definitely a positive step. I’ve found using beans to be a really good way to not miss meat.

My first experiment was minestrone casserole in the slow cooker. This is exactly like what it sounds. Minestrone soup, except it’s thick with pasta, chickpeas, green beans, onions, and carrots, and instead of a ladle, you dish it out with a spoon. It was delicious. The singular mess-up: The recipe said add the green beans (fresh from my neighbor’s garden!) and pasta at the same time. Big mistake. The pasta was done long before the green beans. It worked out okay in reheating, but the initial version had very crunchy beans and pasta as cooked as I dared let it go. I will absolutely make this again, adjusting for the green beans. (Recipe from: The Mediterranean Slow Cooker Cookbook)

My second experiment was Black-Eyed Peas & Rice One-Pot, and doesn’t that sound easy? Doesn’t it make you think when you’re done, you’ll have one pot to clean up, plus maybe a cutting board, a knife, and a couple of utensils? Well, no. At the end of cooking, I knew if I was the picture-taking kind of person, I’d take a picture of my sink full of dishes from my one-pot meal (and that did not include the one pot, which was on the stove). Uh huh. Let that sink in.

That said, it was delicious; a bit time consuming (for those of us not as dexterous with the knife as we might wish) but not difficult. The one-pot refers to the pot where you bring the black-eyed peas to a boil, turn off the heat, and leave them sit for up to three hours. At that point, in a separate pan, you sauté onions for five minutes, then add carrots and green peppers (I substituted celery because I hate green peppers, and they worked perfectly) for three more. Then add minced ginger, garlic, and spices (cumin, turmeric, cayenne, curry powder). Cook for a minute. Add the contents to the one-pot. Add water to the sauté pan to deglaze (one cup)—bring to a boil, and add to one-pot. Then add rice and crushed tomatoes (the recipe calls for diced, but I prefer crushed; both the recipe and I concur that fire-roasted are best).

The mess-up: the black-eyed peas took much longer to cook than they should have. I figured out pretty quickly that I should have put a lid on the black-eyed peas as they were soaking. The recipe didn’t say one way or the other, so I opted for no lid. Mistake. Next time, bring the beans to a boil and let them sit, covered, for up to three hours.

But the rice (basic brown long grain) was very forgiving, and the meal was delicious. Here’s something interesting: This is one of those recipes where you don’t add salt until the very end. All the rest of the spices are in there at the beginning. Salt and pepper are last. At the end, I added plenty of pepper, but no salt was needed. So rare, not to add salt to a dish. (Perhaps the acidity of the tomatoes added that sparky edge of salt?)

Two experiments, two successes with minor mess-ups. I think this is shaping up to be an excellent autumn.

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The Heart of Winter

We’ve been having serious winter here lately. Polar vortex, freezing rain, snow on ice, black ice, snow and more snow, and the resulting snow emergencies (for those of you not in snow climes, this is about moving cars so streets can be plowed).

And I have hit my winter stride.

Last summer I lost interest in cooking and despaired it would ever come back. It has, and in spades. Or perhaps I should say teaspoons. All the old standbys—meatloaf, roasted vegetables, corn pudding, ham steak, baked potatoes, applesauce, etc. Plus a few new things—minestrone soup, kedgeree (a rice-lentil mix), and quesadillas (how in the world did I never try making these before? So easy!). But here is the fun part (or do I mean the frustrating part?): I cook so much that I have to stop because we have too many leftovers and we’re going to (a) waste food, plus (b) there’s no room in the fridge for anything else anyway.

Oh, the difference that six months can make.

Winter also always gives me a special appreciation for the birds. So many animals migrate or hibernate; I love the birds that stay (or arrive) for the winter. Staying closer to home in winter, I’m much more dependent on my backyard for birding entertainment. I have not been disappointed. Yesterday morning I saw my first pileated woodpecker of the year, in my neighbor’s tree. She was slowly sauntering up a limb. (Today I noticed some large fresh-made holes in a tree several houses away. I wonder if that might also have been my pileated woodpecker.)

But the stars of winter this year are the cardinals and juncos. They’ve been rather plentiful all season, but Wednesday in the snowstorm, even at its height (an inch of snow per hour) the birds were plentiful in the yard. (I went out and spread seed twice, and made sure they had water, and also put out a few peanuts for the blue jays.) I could not get a good count on the cardinals—I think maybe 12. There were a lot more juncos—40 or so? And they stayed all day. Usually the cardinals visit a few times a day. Same with the juncos—they come and go (emphasis on go). But not that day. And I couldn’t help myself. I think I spent half the afternoon watching them. (Also a few chickadees and two intrepid blue jays.)

And the other thing that winter brings me to, at its best, is going through stuff and culling. Being cooped up in a house can be very motivating that way. Most recently it was a small corner bookshelf, that must have been purchased at a clown shop. I went to empty the first shelf and there were just layers and stacks and piles of books—far more than should be allowed in such a small space. This made the culling a bit more challenging (I thought it would be a breeze to do the entire bookcase in an afternoon before I realized its clown-car aspect). On the bright side, I got a huge stack of unsightly hardcover mysteries tucked away on the bottom shelf (ungainly towers on top of the corner bookshelf—20 of them at least).

But it’s not just books. For some reason I develop this “eye” in the depth of winter: I look at everything in the house through a more critical lens. This is a great time to go through clothes, books, dishes, anything and everything. It’s like I have this roving “what can I get rid of” eye. And I find that getting rid of excess things is very refreshing.

This, to me, is the heart of winter: cooking, appreciating the nature in my own backyard, and getting the house in order.

I think this is what I love about winter. It is so close and simple.

In Praise of Winter Hibernation

On of my favorite things to do on a snowy day is sit in a chair by a window and watch the snow. Ideally, there’s a table with the chair, and I have a mug of hot tea and a book. So I will read, and at the end of every section I look out and watch the snow. Sometimes briefly, sometimes for minutes. It’s hypnotic and relaxing and magical all at once.

On a good snowy day (which to me means at least four inches of snow), I often don’t even leave the house except to put out food for the birds along with fresh water. When it gets way below zero (-15 and colder) I also put out peanuts in the shell. Generally, I don’t like to put out peanuts because almost always the squirrels find them first and bury them all; and there are squirrels in my roof, and I hate to reward these trespassers with one of their favorite foods. However, when it’s twenty below, even I take pity on the squirrels, although I was happy to see the blue jays got to the peanuts first both of the last two times I put them out.

The birds are a great part of my joy in winter hibernation. Just today I saw a house finch at the feeder—the first one I’ve seen this year, and so brightly colored I thought it might be a purple finch. But the female showed up and I was assured they were house finches. I have had tons of juncos this year! Far more than usual. And not nearly as many chickadees as in past years, so I was happy to hear several of them when I was outside earlier today.

Hibernation is also good for reading. One of the books I’ve been reading (a surprise theme find) is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson. Much like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (which I haven’t read), it is a book focused on decluttering. But it’s half the length and feels much more pragmatic (mind you I’m only one-third through). Magnusson suggests starting in the attic or the basement. She suggests starting with large things. She suggests starting with easy things.

So after 40 pages I’m looking around the house for big easy things. There’s that large cloth shopping basket I’ve never used. What about this air conditioner that doesn’t work? And I have entire categories of easy things to get to—linens and shoes, for sure. (Interestingly, not winter boots. I was shocked, looking through my death-cleaning eyes, to see I have four pair of winter boots. That’s nuts! What can go? I have two pair for serious winter snow, meaning over six inches. One pair is for shoveling and outdoor work. The other is for wearing in public. For the rest of winter, I primarily wear my little black snow boots for every day wear out of the house. But for quick runs into the yard—to the compost bin or the bird feeders, I like my old cheap step-in moon boots. I have one pair of tennis shoes and four pair of winter boots? Hmmm.)

And of course hibernation almost drives one to cook. I tried a dish I’d never heard of, called kedgeree, a mix of rice and lentils with cumin, cardamom, coriander, turmeric, and likely a few spices I’m forgetting. Next time I will use red lentils, as the brown lentils I used took much longer than the rice to cook (boo!). But the taste was sound, and it would serve as a good breakfast, a side dish, or on a tortilla.

I also made my first minestrone soup. I used the slow cooker and it tasted great. However, I have a piece of advice: Don’t use a pasta in a soup that you haven’t tried on its own. I used an “ancient grains” pasta. After the allotted time, it had fallen apart. Was it the pasta or the cooking method? I am not sure, but next time I think I will cook it stovetop. Sometimes I need a little more control than the slow cooker allows. Also made in hibernation: ham steak with corn pudding, and a big batch of applesauce.

We’ve finally been getting some serious winter here. I will tell you, I will take snow over a polar vortex any day. The up side of the vortex is that now a 10-degree day feels quite comfortable. We just yesterday shoveled out six inches of snow, and we might get six more inches overnight tonight. And then maybe another six inches Thursday. So there will be a whole lot of shoveling going on.

Happily, I love shoveling snow (along with raking leaves, one of my favorite household tasks). My absolute favorite is shoveling at night. It’s so quiet; snow muffles sound. Just me and a few neighbors, the sounds of shovels scraping snow. I cannot explain why I love this. It even smells good to me.

Mind you I love the light fluffy snow (which is what we’ve been getting) and not the heart attack snow, laden with moisture (that’s more in March/April). And of course by March/April, all of the glow has worn off the hibernation, but that’s okay because the days are longer and warm days are in reach.

For now, we’re in a winter cycle at least through the end of the month. You can hate it, or you can ride it, and I’ve decided to ride it. With a shovel, some books, birdseed, and a full pantry.

A Whimsical Year

A few years ago, my family adopted the tradition of no “new” gifts at Christmas. You could make something, provide a service, regift, or even buy something used, but buying new was forbidden. It has been a lovely tradition, and has migrated far beyond my family Christmas.

The best idea I have come up with so far is the Whimsy Box.

This grew out of an original idea of coupons to be redeemed over the year (e.g., homemade meal of choice, dinner at favorite restaurant, a day getting lost in Fort Snelling State Park). I originally thought big—a special meal out, a special meal in, a full day at the park), maybe 10-12 a year. A lot of them were fun, but we didn’t do them all. Mood, life, timing. Sigh.

This year, as Christmas rolled around, I didn’t want to do coupons. I wanted to do something a bit more fun, with a spark of spontaneity. Hence, the Whimsy Box.

Partly the idea stemmed from the box: a fine tie box (a Native Northwest design that we got in Victoria, British Columbia; it has hinges)—a box I had thought to use as a box for a gift (thinking the box half the gift), but I changed my mind (thinking 95% chance recipient will throw said box in trash).

Not a box I was ready to part with. Beautiful box. A box for ideas. A box of the imagination. A box for suggestions. Suggestions!

Hence the Whimsy Box: I took this tie box, and filled it with whimsical ideas—things I think we will both find fun, often at the drop of a hat. More than 10. A lot more than 10. More like 50. Some examples:

  • Happy Hour at Dixie’s (great catfish basket)como-tropical
  • Take a walk by the river
  • Spend a winter afternoon at the Como Conservatory
  • Go to the downtown library (Minneapolis)
  • Spend a day at a state park
  • Walk to the mailbox
  • Learn a yoga pose
  • Visit our friend in Hastings
  • Go for a walk in the snow at night
  • Take the bus to Uptown and go to the bookstores
  • Go to Minnehaha Falls

And, since Hal has taken an interest in learning to cook a bit (ever since reading Real Food, by Nina Plank), I included several kitchen basics: learn how to fry an egg, learn how to make French toast, learn how to make pea soup, for example. And also, I thought it might be fun for us to learn how to make something together (even in our small awkward kitchen) and so I threw that idea in the box as well. We have talked about possibly doing a frittata.

This is a super easy and very personal gift you can tailor to individual preferences, whether it be to spend more time together, explore new places, spend less time together (not as crazy as it sounds—example: “I will leave the house for an afternoon and you can have the entire house to yourself.”), get more exercise, try new restaurants, get more culture, etc.

We have already had a lot of fun with it (a walk to leave books at a Little Free Library, learning to make French toast), and this weekend, I think we may make the frittata.

May Reprise

May was mostly about establishing new patterns and routines with both of us home on a full-time basis. It is hard! I am a major lover of solitude and silence and will be forever grateful for these last two years. I found having full days to myself led to a desire to write. Ideas bubbled up based on books, conversations, current events; I would develop a framework in my mind.

The ideas aren’t bubbling up so much anymore, much less the framework to hang them on. I thought about taking the summer off from the blog, or even stopping. But I don’t want to quit writing (and I did keep up with the daily haiku project) and I think I’ve come up with a nice bridge/solution. That’s my next blog post.

Back to May: I read 12 books in May, and for the first time in a while, poetry ruled (5), followed by fiction (4) and nonfiction (3). My hands-down favorite book of the month (2 stars) was Farmacology, by Daphne Miller. This feels like an important, ground-breaking book, kind of along the lines of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. I’m not sure why it has fallen pretty much under the radar. If you are interested in health issues and/or our ‘write a prescription to take care of a problem’ medical culture, you should definitely take a look at this book.

The May reading theme was one-word titles. Super fun. Here are my titles:

  • Georgia
  • Farmacology
  • Pinhook
  • Exterior
  • Fidelity
  • Nurture
  • Fortune
  • Gravity
  • Nimona
  • unflux
  • Pure

Doesn’t it make you want to go to your bookshelves right now and look for one-word titles? I thought so.

I did not do as much birding in May as I should have or wanted to. Lots of rain, and then busy on the days good for birding. Ah well. Still, I added 23 birds to my year list, with highlights of Northern Harrier, House Wren (backyard), Sandhill Cranes (about 30 of them!), Common Loon, Hermit Thrush, Indigo Bunting, and Gray Catbird (also in the backyard, and nesting nearby—very loud!).

In the kitchen I made apple-rhubarb sauce (very good, includes a lot of cinnamon), ham steak (also good though a little dry), scalloped potatoes (first try, not so good), and braised turkey legs (excellent).

We got rid of 6 more bags of books. I can actually see most of the floor in the blue room. Progress.

Haiku for May:

rampant raspberries
want to march across the yard
cheers for the home team!
early morning dark
before getting out of bed
I smell the lilacs
the saucy catbird
ever bold and curious
poses for Kathleen
last night I dreamt that
god is a small blue corner
dusky seaside blue

On to June. In the meantime, good books, good birds, and lots of laughter.

April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?

January Reprise

How did it get to be February already? January sped by, possibly because I spent much of it with my nose in a book. The January reading theme was day/month/year (any book with one of those words in the title, or if you want to get a little stretchy, akin to one of the words; I read a couple of morning books, for example, and almost read a book with September in the title, but ran out of time). I finished 16 books in January, almost equally divided between fiction (5), poetry (5), and nonfiction (6).

In a rare occurrence, I had three 2-star books in January. (My rating system: Most books don’t get anything; if I like a book a lot it gets 1 star; if I love it, it gets 2 stars; and if I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, it gets 3 stars.) A Sense of the Morning, by David Brendan Hopes was a wonderful book about the natural world, and more specifically, Hopes’s observations of and interactions within the natural world. Beautiful writing, and a good reminder that if we don’t look, we won’t see anything.

Another nature-related book that got two stars was The Years of the Forest, by Helen Hoover. For many years Hoover and her spouse lived year round in a cabin in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. No electricity, no running water, and for a good part of the book, no car or telephone. They, too, were finely attuned to nature, most especially the animals (deer, birds, groundhogs, mice, spiders, pretty much the entire animal kingdom as they encountered it).

The third 2-star book was A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr. A short novel, the story of a man recently back from serving in World War 1 and his time in a small village restoring a mural in a church. I know, it really doesn’t sound that interesting, but it took me quite by surprise. It is very quietly powerful, and I appreciated it even more after discussing it with a friend.

January also brought some mighty cold weather (a few days where the temp didn’t go above zero) but a lot more mild days and very little snow. So far, for a winter, I am finding it a bit disappointing (I do like a good snowstorm) but there’s still plenty of time for snow.

In the cooking world, I braised a pork shoulder in apple cider and fresh-squeezed orange juice (also with celery, onion, garlic, and orange slices) and it was wonderful—my best success with braising yet. I also made a kind of cheesy wild rice casserole which turned out pretty good, and was even better reheated and topped with beans (a type I had never heard of before, called Jacob’s Cattle; who could resist getting a bean called Jacob’s Cattle? Not me!) and more cheese.

Also some typical winter fodder: chili, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, vegetable soup with lentils, spaghetti, etc.

I also started my new annual bird list, and so far I’ve seen 22 different kinds of birds (12 in my backyard) including one lifebird—the ivory gull up in the Duluth harbor.

I have continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, which gets mailed on a postcard to a friend in Montana)—it’s been more than two years now! I think I’ve only missed a day or two, and those at the beginning. It’s a very good way of staying grounded and it also makes me aware of how much I have to be grateful for. Here are a couple from January:

afternoon bookclub
Bully Pulpit and a beer
the magic of Skype

my car didn’t start
but four cardinals visited
balancing the scales

And I’ve started a new postcard project: I am sending both of my U.S. senators (Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar) daily postcards, urging them to vote against the Dark Act (which would make it illegal for states to require labeling of GMO foods). I am hugely against this dark act. Poll after poll has found that upwards of 90 percent of the population supports the labeling of GMO foods. To pass an act that would deny people the right to know what’s in their food, when there is such overwhelming support for labeling, is a stupifying example of the power corporations have in our government. On this both Republicans and Democrats agree—that GMOs should be labeled and that corporations have far too much power in Washington.

So, a postcard a day—each with a new fact that my good senators might not be aware of; on an entertaining postcard (I have quite a large variety now) that postal workers and clerks can read as well. I hope they vote on the Dark Act before I run out of facts (but not before I convince them to question it!). It’s an uphill fight in this neck of the woods because we have both Cargill and General Mills (not to mention Land O’Lakes and Hormel).

This may not be your issue, but whatever your issue is, let your representatives know! Corporations are very vocal about what they want, and have millions of dollars to spend getting it. Most of us don’t have millions of dollars, but we do have phones and pens. Pick one issue. Just one.

Okay, off my soapbox. Time to sign off and go read a book.