Thursday, June 24, 2010

Garlic Terminator-Style

Let's talk garlic scapes. Our last farm share included a bag of them. Never heard of them? Neither had I. But a scape, according to Webster's New World dictionary is "a leafless flower stalk growing from the crown of the root, as that of the narcissus or dandelion."

My cookbooks were useless. Not a single one had so much as a mention of garlic or any other kind of scape. Google and you get nada.

My farmers recommended pesto. I used the recipe on their website. I served it, like I would any other kind of pesto, as a topping for chicken breast grilled with a tomato slice and Parmesan. The color was wonderful but whooo doggies even with walnuts, lemon, spinach and two cups of Parmesan, this stuff was garlic terminator-style.

Given my no-waste policies, I had to freeze most of it in a mini muffin tray while I figure out non-lethal ways to use it. I mixed a bit of what remained into some lack luster baba ghanouj I made and we've used it cautiously on sandwiches along with our abundance of radishes.

Treated like garlic on steroids--in small doses, mixed with other hearty ingredients--we may make it through the reserves in a year or so.....assuming, of course, next week's share is scape-free.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Chicken Soup

It’s not the usual season for soup but I love homemade chicken soup. When the useless chicken pieces (wings and backs and the bones of boneless breasts) reach critical mass in my freezer and I have an open-ended day and my zodiac signs are all aligned, I make chicken soup.

I feel so virtuous when I make soup. Canned soup is awful and awful for you (ever look at the sodium content?) and the good stuff (Whole Foods) is so pricey, they should offer a lay away option.

Soup making is the epitome of “from-scratch” cooking and in my extended family being a good “from-scratch” cook is a badge of honor. I took to it early and never looked back.

Over the years I’ve cooked in many ways and for a variety of reasons. I’ve cooked elaborately and obsessively, healthfully and frugally, decadently and with financial abandon. And, yes, at times I’ve cooked resentfully. I’ve cooked for family, friends, neighbors, and strangers. I’ve cooked to show off and to nurture, to feel creative and to remain sane. I’ve cooked for charity and, a few times, for pay.

Mostly I’ve cooked to avoid housework. Cooking and child rearing have been my cross–the garlic cloves around my neck warding off the vampire. Housework. Never-ending, soul-sucking, circle of hell. Cook well enough and maybe people won’t notice they’ve worn the last ratty pair of clean underwear, or that giant dust bunnies are now terrorizing the cats. What’s a mountain range of toothpaste in the sink or an afghan worth of cat hair on the couch when the smell of chicken and artichokes with morels and crème fraîche is in the air? Dirty windows? Nasty floors? Nothing a little crème brûlée or double-decker raspberry white chocolate cheesecake won’t make you forget. It has worked for years.

But this year, my kids are MIA even for the summer. Kid duty, sporadic at best for years, is now a wholly unconvincing excuse. Elaborate dinner parties are dying too. College tuition for two and the fact that the compensation for my day job is more like an honorarium than a real salary, means it helps to be frugal in the kitchen. So healthy, frugal cooking is my new housework avoidance strategy.

And that brings me back to chicken soup. Chicken wings used to be dirt cheap but apparently because we Americans so love our deep-fried, sauce-soaked, blue-cheese dipped wings, they’re now more expensive than other more edible chicken parts and often in short supply. Go figure. Whole chicken or cut-up chickens come with two wings, however. You can’t skin a chicken wing so I find them grotesquely fatty and inedible. I cook the real chicken and freeze the wings until a day I have to do some heavy avoidance. I freeze dying bananas for the same reason. Yes, when you thaw them they look like alien slime, but close your eyes and use them anyway. Trust me, nothing makes better banana bread. More on that later.

1) So the chicken wings go in a big pot with chunks of onion, celery, carrots and water to cover. Most chicken soup stinks because people skimp on the chicken so I make sure to add some meaty chicken parts to the wings. Chicken leg quarters are usually very cheap. Then I add seasonings and herbs to taste. Use what you have. I like parsley, salt, peppercorns, whole cloves (3 or so), and thyme–fresh if I have it.

2) I bring the chicken to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for about 2 hrs. Next, I fish the chicken out of the broth and after it is cool enough to handle, I pull the meat from the bones and set it aside.

3) Keep the “dregs”(the bones, skin etc.) and put it back in the pot and simmer for another 1-2 hrs. I know “serious” cooks will be screaming because I’m pretty sure this makes your stock cloudy rather than clear. I don’t care. I just want intense flavor without having to use canned chicken stock with or instead of the water as many cookbooks recommend. The whole point is to not spend money on canned chicken stock!

I also do not bother straining the stock in any serious way. I just fish out the solids with a slotted spoon and then put the stock in the fridge to let the fat rise to the surface for removal (or not). I will say those wings can produce an amazing amount of fat so while I am sometimes too impatient or pressed for time to let the stock sit in the fridge the requisite number of hours, I really try to do it for health’s sake. It will taste delicious either way and, if we’re honest here, probably even a little better with the extra fat. So skim or don’t skim or miss a little when you’s all good.

4) Once I have skimmed or not skimmed the stock, I re-heat it while I cut up more veggies. The ones you’ve cooked with the stock are now mush and should be discarded. I add cut up celery and carrots to the simmering stock and cook until just tender. I like to add frozen peas at this point for a splash of color. Pre-cook some wide noodles. I use the whole wheat ones because they are a little healthier. Don’t cook them too much or they’ll turn to mush.

5) Now I add the chicken I’ve set aside plus whatever leftover cooked chicken I may have in the fridge or freezer and adjust the seasoning. I often add a little more thyme (my favorite herb and absolutely made for chicken) and a little more salt.

6) Eat this for days or freeze in small containers. Yes, the noodles will mush some upon thawing and reheating but it’s homemade soup for God’s sake.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Little Commitments

Finally joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. Can I live in Madison, call myself a cook and not participate? Pishahhhh! Picked up my first share--a head of butter lettuce, baby mixed greens, spinach, potatoes (from last season), chives, radishes, salad turnips and rhubarb.

My pledge is to cook around my produce and use it all--down to the last green--every time. A no-brainer for many more enlightened Madisonians, I'm sure. Call me slow. I can deal with it. I have a grocery store addiction. I admit it. I love to go, list in hand, and load up my cart. When my children were babes and I left them home with their Dad, I'd cover every inch of the store slowly, luxuriously. Aisle by aisle, humming along to the Muzak, I'd read an entire label uninterrupted. Even before--in graduate school when money was non-existent--the grocery store was my temple. Purchasing a new spice meant celebration. How else do you attempt to make chicken liver (about all I could afford in the meat/poultry department) eatable? Experiment after experiment failed, however. Had I had a cat at the time, it would have been obese.

Anyway, as a CSA newbie, I vow to eat the most perishable produce first and to read and follow instructions meticulously.

Very perishable baby greens? Part of our first CSA supper. Leftovers stored with a dry paper towel in a plastic bag.

Spinach refrigerated as is in original plastic bag.

Butter lettuce bagged in plastic and refrigerated.

Radishes and turnips? Separated from their greens and stored separately. Didn't know radish greens were eatable. Sauteed them with turnip greens in a little olive oil with pine nuts and a splash of red wine vinegar and fresh ground pepper. Not bad.

Never had salad turnips, either. Ate those too with the baby greens with a mustard vinaigrette made with the chives. The chive blossoms went in a vase on the table as suggested.

The potatoes were easy--wedged and roasted with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and Italian seasoning. I don't usually store my potatoes in the fridge; however, I will from now on per my farmers' instructions.

Radishes. Not all that fond of radishes but I've been eating a lot of them--in salads, sandwiches, and yes, even stir-fried with other veggies.

The Rhubarb challenge is to use it in a way that doesn't instantly add 2 inches to each thigh and a third cheek to my backside. I'm thinking muffins or chutney.

I live a small, personal life--nothing large or influential about it. I find contentment in little commitments. So for right now it is healthy, tasty, local produce; less food waste; and support for "my" local farmers. Such a sacrifice....