Meditation, a make-shift solution, and monkey bread

There are very few people over the age of five and under retirement age who don’t own a smartphone. I am one of them, and my husband is too. Nowadays there are increasingly instances when I must out myself that I only own a flip phone, for example when I am told at a store that instead of getting a hole punched in the frequent buyer paper card, I can just log my purchases with the app on my phone. I get funny looks, and often feel compelled to explain why I don’t have a smartphone. Continue reading

Garlic scapes: Chop now, use later

Garlic scapes for freezing

Yesterday I cut off all the scapes from the garlic plants in my garden. This is done so the plants put their entire energy into the bulbs.

Garlic scapes are delicious but I can use only that many at a time. No reason to discard the rest, though! The chopped scapes are a great addition to soups, stir fries and other dishes so I freeze them. Continue reading

Brining olives, bringing back memories

Pomegranates and olives are the two things that I associate the most with my Tunisian grandmother. Of course I cannot grow either in my Pennsylvania garden so when I saw fresh olives for sale the other day I could not resist buying some to try my hand on brining them.

Those olives brought back vivid memories of my grandmother. Most of them have to do with food, as I did not speak a word of Arabic as a child, and my grandmother did not know French. And, like most women of her generation, she was illiterate. She basically communicated with me through food. I remember her putting things on my plate, and when she realized I liked it, she nodded or chuckled, or both, and put more on my plate.

My grandmother’s cooking was as Mediterranean as they come – no dairy whatsoever. Before trips to Tunisia, I remember my mother buying gingersnaps for her at a spice store in downtown Frankfurt, a place where she usually never shopped. In the 1970s, gingersnaps were something very exotic for Germany, and certainly not cheap. I tried one and found it awful (today I love gingersnaps) but my mother told me that these were the only cookies my grandmother liked and was able to eat. It only occurred to me now that she had a milk allergy.

At my grandmother’s house in Ksar Hellal, a town in the Tunisian coastal area called the Sahel, the meals were taken in the large courtyard. We sat on straw mats, with the starry night sky as the ceiling. You could faintly hear voices and music from neighboring houses, and cooking smells wafting over, yet it felt ultimately private.

The middle of her courtyard had a small, rosette-shaped elevated garden with an orange tree, a pomegranate tree, and some turtles roaming around. My grandmother knew how much I loved pomegranates, so each time she came to visit us in Germany, usually in the winter, she brought me pomegranates from that tree.Storage roomOlives, especially olive oil, was omnipresent in her cooking. The greenish oil was so thick that a spoon could stand in it. Like all her other provisions, she kept the olive oil in earthenware amphora, neatly lined up in the long narrow storage room. The olive oil came from the family’s olive groves and she used it for everything, from frying thick wedges of potatoes to her delicious hot pepper sauce, which was much milder than harissa, and which I never managed to fully recreate. She did not distinguish between light olive oil for cooking and the thick cold-pressed grade.  I never use extra-virgin olive oil for cooking, I find its flavor too strong, but back then I did not mind. Then, of course, there is the price issue. Good extra-virgin olive oil is expensive. Early this summer I finally found a mail order source for Tunisian extra-virgin olive oil. I bought three liters thinking it would last us a whole year. We were out after a few months and I recently had to reorder.

My grandmother also made her own olive soap. I still have one of those irregularly shaped chunky bars, and I never thought of using it because it is one of the few objects that connect me to her. When I went to her house ten years after she died, I took as many photos as I could. The house was deserted and clearly falling apart. For a short while I hoped I would be able to save that gem, with its beautiful Moorish tiles, its wrought-iron windowpanes, and its sleeping alcoves with elaborate multi-colored woodwork frames. But renovating it was too big of a task for me at a time when I was just starting my career. Then, life took me elsewhere and, eventually, to the United States.

Brining olives takes time. Mine are still at the stage where I need to soak them in water and change it daily to remove the extreme bitterness. I hope it will work out and I will end up with tasty olives in a couple of months so I can post the recipe. (Update, January 2012: The cured olives failed, they were awfully bitter. I will rely on the pros for olives but it was fun to try).

In the meantime, all this thinking and reading about olives put me in such an olive mood that I concocted a quick salad with olives, using leftover chickpeas and sun-dried tomatoes from the garden. This is, like most salads in Arab and Middle Eastern cuisines, a compact affair, small and filling, like Tabouleh.Chickpea Salad with Green Olives

Chickpea Salad with Green Olives

2 cups cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped

2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes (packed in oil)

Finely chopped fresh chili to taste

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Lime juice to taste

Extra-virgin olive oil to taste

Mix all ingredients. Let sit a few hours before serving. Refrigerate if not serving the same day. Serve at room temperature.

Makes 6 servings

Scape sampler

While I have grown garlic for a number of years I did not realize until a couple of years ago that you can actually use the scapes, the undeveloped flower buds that should be cut off as soon as they appear of in order to strengthen the garlic bulbs. Then, last year, I unintentionally grew flowerless garlic.

So this year was the first time I could put my hands on scapes. I wanted to get the full scape flavor so I used them raw, in scape pesto and scape butter. Since this was a premiere, I made only small batches of each but the amounts can easily be doubled or tripled if you are lucky enough to have lots of scapes at your disposal – garlic scapes seem to be a hot commodity at farmer’s markets.

I removed the thin pointy tips of the scapes (these are the dark green blades that look like chives in the top photo), as they tend to be fibrous. The lemon juice adds a little acid to the pesto is so it keeps its color.

Garlic Scape Pesto

¼ cup coarsely chopped walnuts

¾ cup scapes

¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Juice of ½ lemon

½ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Lightly toast the walnuts in a non-greased pan. Set aside to cool.

2. Cut the scapes into ½-inch pieces. Put the scapes, cooled walnuts, Parmesan, olive oil, and lemon juice in the food processor. Using the pulse function, chop finely, scraping down the sides with a spatula every so often.

3. Season with salt and pepper and pulse again. The pesto should still be somewhat chunky. Fill in a jar and refrigerate.

Garlic Scape Butter

6 tablespoons soft butter

2 tablespoons chopped scapes

¼ cup packed Italian parsley

Salt

Pepper

Put all ingredients in the food processor and process to a creamy consistency. Fill in an airtight container and refrigerate.

A Minestrone full of memories

For the longest time I found Minestrone rather bland. That is, until almost  ten years ago I tasted Marge’s, my late and beloved sister-in-law’s. Hers was wonderfully tasty. Of course I came home with the recipe. I have made it often ever since, always the whole recipe, although it yields a huge amount.  The soup is great when you have people trickling in, as it is very good reheated. It also freezes well.

I wish I could ask my sister-in-law for the origin of the recipe. She used to mail me a large Manila envelope once in a while with copies of recipes. A post-it said something like “I have been cooking lately”, and many recipes carried her handwritten comments such as “outstanding”, “superb” or “try this”. Sometimes she added her substitutes and the date when she made it. All very neat, always citing the source, always the librarian, even after she retired. The Minestrone recipe is the only one that I jotted down myself. Shortly after she died in the summer of 2006, I started the Master Gardener program at Penn State University. It was a welcome new focus and distraction in those days, and it put together my haphazard knowledge about gardening.

This week it was time for Marge’s Minestrone again. For the tomatoes, spinach, string beans, garlic and basil I used last year’s from my garden. When it comes to chickpeas, I am a purist – I cannot get myself to use canned ones. Since I forgot to soak them last night, I quick-soaked them this morning, boiling them in plenty of water for 1 minute and then letting them sit for 1 hour – exactly the time it took me to line up all the ingredients, which is most of the work. Cooking the soup is a cinch.

Marge’s Minestrone

¾ cup dried chickpeas (or 1½ cups canned)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound ground beef

1 very large onion (¾ pound,), chopped

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1½ tablespoons salt

¾ cup finely chopped boiled ham

3 stalks celery including leaves, finely chopped

½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

1 small can (16 ounces) canned tomatoes, cut up with their juice

1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste

2 large carrots, peeled and sliced

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh or frozen basil

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ cup dry red wine

10 ounces chopped fresh spinach

2 medium potatoes (¾ pound), peeled and cubed

1 cup fresh or frozen string or filet beans

1½ cups elbow macaroni

1. If using dried chickpeas, soak them in cold water to cover for 8 hours or overnight.

2. Heat the oil in a large pot (stockpot). Add the ground beef and brown, stirring.

3. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent.

4. Add the garlic and all the ingredients up to the wine plus 4 quarts water.

5. If using fresh chickpeas, add the drained soaked chickpeas now.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour, covered.

6. Add the potatoes, the spinach and the beans. If using canned chickpeas, add them now. Cook over low-medium heat for 20 minutes.

7. Add the pasta and cook until just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Add salt to taste.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan and fresh country bread or baguette.

Makes 16 servings


Stock clarity (and a happy dog)

SwissChardWhile I consider myself a somewhat educated consumer and critical food buyer, for vegetable stock I succumbed to the delusion that because it’s organic it must be good. Until Cooks Illustrated found that the brand I usually bought tasted “like dirt” or “like musky socks in a patch of mushrooms”. Yikes. How could I have been so taste-blind? That was in 2008. Since then I either resorted to chicken broth for soup, or, on some rare occasions, made vegetable stock from scratch.

This past summer I finally got into the habit of making vegetable stock more often, usually a large amount, most of which went into the freezer. Maybe the trigger was that the new shiny stockpot I had bought last winter kept looking at me reproachfully for not being used. Or it was the mounds of fresh vegetable leftovers, scraps and peels that went into the compost bin all summer.

Depending on what’s available in the garden, I make vegetable stock in different combinations. For example, today I used, in addition to the staple ingredients onion, carrots, and parsley: Swiss chard stalks, the final eggplants of the season whose skins have toughened because of the cold nights but otherwise are perfectly fine, and a container of frozen tomato skins that accumulated when I made tomato soup a few weeks ago. I did not have any celery, scallions, and leeks but otherwise I would have added them too. Many different vegetables work well as long as they are not spoilt, don’t impart a strong flavor and color (no cabbage, turnips, beets etc.), and don’t fall apart so the stock remains clear. For a more intense flavor, I brown the vegetables and onion in olive oil first, then add the water and proceed as described.

The stockpot gets used, and someone else is happy, too. After straining the stock (salt-free until I add it to the soup I am making) I puree the vegetables. They make several days of veggie add-ons to Woody’s dinner – and he is crazy about it.Woody

Vegetable Stock

4 pounds (1.8 kg) mixed vegetables

2 large carrots

2 large onions

¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil (optional)

3 large bay leaves

1 big bunch of fresh parsley

6 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt (optional)

1. If you use organic vegetables no need to peel them, except for the onions. Cut the vegetables into chunks. Peel and quarter the onion. Heat the olive oil and brown all the vegetables and onion for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often so they don’t burn. For the fat-free version, put all the vegetables in a large stockpot right away. Add the bay leaves, parsley, peeled and smashed garlic cloves, and thyme.

2. Add 7½ quarts of water and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for 1 hour. Strain the stock through a fine sieve. Add salt if desired. Cool and refrigerate, or freeze.

Makes about 7 quarts (7 liters)

Garlic: Tell me where the flowers are

If I had listened to the lady from customer service at Burpee, the garlic I planted last October would still be sitting in the ground shriveling up in the summer heat. I’ve grown garlic successfully for the past years but something strange happened this year. The garlic did not develop any flower tops, aka scapes. So I called Burpee where I bought the planting garlic last fall to find out whether this variety, Early Italian Garlic, might be a non-blooming kind (just like the rhubarb I have in the garden). The lady at Burpee first didn’t know what scapes are, and when I told her “The garlic doesn’t bloom,” she said “Don’t worry, just wait until next year.” – as if garlic was a perennial, which usually starts to bloom only in its second year. That much for help from the pros. It was hilarious.

But the garlic was fine. We harvested about 50 nice, plump heads. Now that they have cured for a few weeks in the shed, I need to think about storage. I am debating with myself whether I should keep a small supply for a couple of months and freeze the rest as unpeeled cloves, like I’ve done in previous years. Frozen garlic is not good to use raw, but that’s not a problem for me because I use most of it for cooking anyway.

Hardneck garlic, the type that is the best to grow in this area, does not store very well. By Thanksgiving, it is light as air. Storing garlic in oil is not an option because it can produce botulism, a serious food poisoning that can paralyze or kill.

I think I will compromise. Half of the garlic will go in the freezer right away, and the other half I will hang up in bundles in the basement until I find that the garlic does dry out too quickly – or until someone complains about the strong garlic smell in the basement.