Learning curves

Last summer slugs decimated the strawberry harvest from my garden. This year I was prepared. Or so I thought. I had a bag of diatomaceous earth stand by, and an old salt shaker to spread it around the plants. But there were no slugs. Instead, chipmunks discovered the strawberry patch and took a bite out of every single ripe strawberry. Continue reading

An orange cake evoking olfactory memories

It’s intriguing how the scent of certain foods can transport you back in time and space. For me, oranges have that power, both the blossoms and the fruit. They bring back vivid memories of the little time I got to spend with my Tunisian grandmother as a child when I visited her in Ksar Hellal, a town in the Tunisian Sahel. Continue reading

Green Card Gardener

Flower feet“Green Card Gardener” is my story, a work in progress about how I came to America on a Diversity Visa that I won in the Green Card Lottery, how I became a passionate gardener on a remote rural hilltop in Pennsylvania, and how with every gardening season I feel more at home in America. Yet, there is not a day I forget where I come from, a family of diverse identities, traditions and heritage.

By renaming this blog “Green Card Gardener” I speak as an immigrant to this country. Continue reading

Apple Masala

Apple Masala Bread

A long and productive gardening season is winding down. After the first frost, the last peppers and tomatoes are ripening on trays indoors, the freezer is packed to the top, the basement shelves are filled with all kinds of canned goods, and the water-bath canner and all the other canning equipment has been put in storage. And I finally have time to get on my bike again.

Well not so fast…. From one of my bike rides I brought back a whole basket of windfall apples. Continue reading

The balance sheet of a pie

Today I made Ricotta Wheat Pie, a traditional Neapolitan recipe. I had earmarked it a long time ago but never got to it because it seemed quite involved. It was.

Not counting the components of each, I used 16 kitchen tools and gadgets: a pot to cook the wheat berries, a cooking spoon, a small food processor, a blender, two bowls, an egg separator, two spatulas, a small kitchen knife, a pastry roller, a plastic container to chill the dough, a cookie press, a scoop, a jelly roll pan, and a cake pan. Plus two disposables: a sheet each of wax paper and aluminum foil. If the citron and orange peel had not been so dried out, I would have been able to avoid using the blender but only its ice crush function could chop them up. And, if I had had more time, I could have cooled the wheat in the pot instead of spreading it on a jelly roll pan and set it over ice packs to speed up the process. Even discounting those two, it’s a lot of dirty dishes for one pie.Counting the time I spent on this, the gas for the stove, the electricity for the oven, the hot water to wash all those dishes, and… it would have been probably more economical and ecological to drive into town and buy a cake. But it would have certainly not been the type of cake I would want to eat! And, most importantly, I would not have had so much fun (despite the cleaning up). I also finally got the cookie press to work that I bought years ago and, it turned out, I had always screwed together the wrong way.

In 2010, the average American according to The New York Times watched 34 hours of TV every week. That’s baking 8.5 pies like this if you allocate a generous 4 hours active time from start to finish. I rarely watch TV and rather bake.

Seeing the pie cooling on the counter and smelling it all over the house gives me great satisfaction. If it tastes as good as expected and my family likes it, even better.

The recipe is adapted it from Anna Teresa Callen’s My love for Naples.Ricotta Wheat Pie (Pastiera Napoletana di Grano)

Crust:

2 cups flour

¼ cup sugar

1 stick chilled butter, or 4 ounces Land O Lakes butter with canola oil (first time I tried this)

1½ ounces chilled vegetable shortening

1 large egg

Filling:

4 cups wheat berries

1 tablespoon butter

1 untreated lemon

1½ cups milk

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1½ tablespoons + 1 cup sugar

1 pound low-fat ricotta

2 tablespoons orange flower water

2 tablespoons diced citron

1 tablespoon candied orange peel

6 eggs

1. For the crust, put the flour and sugar in a food processor and process to a coarse meal. Add diced butter, shortening and egg and process until the dough forms a ball around the blade. Transfer the dough to a container and refrigerate.

2. For the filling put the wheat berries in a small heavy pot with 4 cups water and the butter. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, covered, for about 2½ hours. Check for water and stir once in a while to make sure it does not cook dry.

3. Drain the wheat berries and return them to the pot. Zest half of the lemon in one large strip and add it to the pot with the milk, the cinnamon and 1½ tablespoons sugar. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes until the milk has been completely absorbed. Stir often to make sure it does not scorch, and reduce the heat even further as necessary.

4. Roll out three-quarters of the dough on a sheet of wax paper to fit a greased 10-inch cake pan plus dough to come up almost all the way up the edges. Fit it into the cake pan and even out the edges with a knife. Roll out the rest of the dough and cut narrow strips for a crisscross pattern, or use a cookie cutter / cookie press to cut out shapes to your liking. Place them on a plate lined with the wax paper and put everything in the freezer.5. Remove the lemon peel from the wheat berries and let cool.

6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

7. Finely zest the rest of the lemon. Put it in the food processor together with the orange flower water, diced citron, orange peel, 1 cup sugar and ricotta and process until the citron and orange peel are finely chopped.

8. Separate the eggs and add the egg yolks to the mix. Beat the egg whites until stiff.

9. Mix the cooled wheat berries with the ricotta mix. Fold in the stiff egg whites. Pour the filling into the prepared crust.

10. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. After this time, the filling should be set enough to the top crust won’t sink. Carefully remove the cake pan from the oven. Place the cutouts or dough strips on the surface in a decorative pattern and return the cake pan to the oven.

11. Bake for another 55 minutes, or until the filling is set and the top is golden brown. If the top darkens too much, loosely place a greased sheet of aluminum foil on top. Remove the pie from the oven and cool on a cake rack.

 

The party goes on

Taking red currants out of the freezer for Red Currant Meringue Pie on January 1 is one of the great pleasures of being a gardener. The moment when I poured the frozen pearl-like red currants out of the bag, all the hard work of getting them into that bag was forgotten, although last year was not a good season for currants. I had less than two pounds, which makes today’s pie even more precious. The recipe can be found in my cookbook Spoonfuls of Germany.

While I dread the long, cold winter on our mountaintop in northeast Pennsylvania, I do not wish to live in a place where gardening is possible year round. Each time I wash store-bought lettuce, I think how wonderful it will be to have our own tender greens again in the spring. I would not want to trade the physical and mental 5-month break from gardening, and my looking forward to the new gardening season, for a non-stop crop of lettuce.

Gardening is like a party, where the anticipation and the preparations are part of the fun. Deciding what to grow is like drawing up the guest list. Making a crop rotation plan is like determining the seating order; just like people, not all plants get along with each other. Selecting and ordering seeds is like planning the menu and going shopping. After all is set up and ready, waiting for the wondrous moment when the seedlings emerge is like waiting for the guests to arrive. When they do, all you can do is make sure they feel comfortable and stay as long as you want them to. Enjoying the harvest, fresh from the garden or months later in frozen or canned form, is an ongoing feast!

Empowering pear pie

After a major power outage, just grinding coffee in the morning feels fantastic. The freak snowstorm left us without power for a little under three days, about the same amount as after Hurricane Irene but the loads of heavy snow caused quite a bit of damage on our trees. On my way to the orchard to buy pears yesterday I had to make a detour, as some roads are still closed.

When the power is back, and the mess of candles, dirty dishes, laundry, candle wax, water buckets and other remnants of living without electricity is cleaned up, I usually tackle the fridge and the freezer, throwing out soggy frozen herbs (wondering each time why I even bother freezing them, those are the first to spoil), and cooking with whatever can be saved.

It always takes me a few days to switch from the rescue cooking mode to the fun cooking mode. Today was the day. The gorgeous fall weather simply called for a pear pie. It is hard to believe that a week ago I walked around in snow boots knocking off a foot of snow from trees and shrubs.

For the pear pie filling I used pre-cooked custard, which is common in German recipes. It makes the pie wonderfully moist without being too sweet. I used Dr. Oetker Cream Pudding, which is available in the United States. The brand’s Vanilla Pudding can be used instead, which is even more widely available.

Pear Pie with Custard

Crust:

2½ ounces shortening

1 cup flour

¼ teaspoon salt

Ice water as needed

Filling:

1 package Dr. Oetker Cream Pudding (or Vanilla Pudding)

2 cups low-fat milk

¼ cup sugar

Topping:

3 slightly underripe Bosc pears

½ cup dry white wine

½ cup + ¼ cup sugar

1 teaspoon grated organic lemon zest

2 tablespoons Amaretto

1. For the crust, put the shortening, flour and salt in a food processor. Pulse to a crumbly consistency. Add just enough ice water, one tablespoon at a time, to the dough so that it forms a ball.

2. Roll out the dough between to sheets of wax paper to fit a 9-inch greased springform pan plus a 1-inch edge all around. Remove the upper layer of the wax paper and flip the crust over into the pan. Even out the edge and place in the freezer.

3. For the filling, mix the custard powder with a few tablespoons of the cold milk and the sugar. Stir until smooth.

4. Bring the rest of the milk to a boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the custard mix. Put it back on the burner and cook for about 1 minute, stirring vigorously, until the custard thickens. Remove from the heat and let cool, whisking every so often.

5. For poaching the pears, bring 2 cups of water, the wine, ½ cup sugar and lemon zest to a boil in a wide pot or a deep skillet. Stir to dissolve all the sugar.

6. Peel the pears and cut them in half. Remove the cores and place the pears in the poaching liquid. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the pears are easily pierced with a knife. Turn them once or twice during poaching.

7. Drain the pears (you can refrigerate and re-use the poaching liquid). Place the pears cut side down on a cutting board and cut them into even slices but do not cut them all the way through so that you can place them on the pie like a fan.

8. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

9. Whisk the cooled custard. If it is lumpy, you can smoothen it by blending it with a stick blender for a few seconds. Pour the custard into the pan with the crust.

10. Place the cut pears on the custard in a circle, tips to the center. Fan them out as much as possible.

11. Mix the amaretto with ¼ cup sugar and drizzle over the pears.

12. Bake in the preheated oven for 35 minutes, then increase the heat to 375 degrees F and bake for another 30 to 35 minutes, until the crust and the top are golden. Let cool for 5 minutes, then pass a knife around the edge and carefully remove the rim. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Refrigerate until serving but take out of the fridge 30 minutes before serving.

Oy whey

Last week it was apricots, this week it’s yellow plums that are at their peak at the local orchard. Fruits and veggies don’t care about editorial diversity. Soon I shall be writing about homegrown tomatoes twice in a row.

I bought The Essential New York Times cookbook a couple of weeks ago and I know it will be my main reading for the rest of the summer. As for cooking from it, I wanted to begin with something really easy so I made ricotta – for the first time. It was easy, though I am not sure I will make it again, for two reasons.

When it was all over, I had almost a gallon of whey left over. Being the thrifty cook that I am, I could not possibly just dump it down the drain. So I froze it in 3-cup batches, enough to bake 10 loaves of bread. I only bake bread about every ten days, so I quickly realized I would soon have nothing in the freezer chest but whey. Also, I must have drained the ricotta for a bit too long, although I did not squeeze it as the recipe instructed.

To use up the ricotta, I remembered the Ricotta Cheese Pie from The Joy of Cooking as very good. I took my cues from that filling, but modified it to a crustless pie. Because the yellow plums were so juicy, it did not matter that the ricotta was a bit on the dry side.

Whether I make ricotta again or not, and whether you call this baked custard or crustless pie, I got myself a new recipe for a quick and light summer dessert.

Crustless Ricotta Pie with Yellow Plums

1 tablespoon butter + more for the pan

Breadcrumbs

1 pound well-drained ricotta

2 eggs

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

2/3 cup sugar

Light brown sugar

8 ripe yellow plums

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

2. Butter the bottom and sides a 9-inch pie pan and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Turn it upside down over the sink and knock off any excess crumbs.

3. Beat the ricotta, eggs, lemon zest and sugar with an electric mixer until well combined.

4 Pour it into the prepared pan and spread evenly with a spatula.

5. Halve the plums and remove the pits (this usually works best when twisting them slightly but sometimes the pit clings. In that case remove the pit with a small paring knife.

6. Arrange the plum quarters in circles on the filling. Dot with butter and sprinkle with brown sugar.

7. Bake 30 to 40 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the pie is set but still a bit wobbly, and lightly browned on top. Serve lukewarm or cold.