Categories
Kitchen Garden

Deconstructing Tacos

Breakfast Taco July 26, 2020.

We own certain culinary dishes.

Learned from a recipe or experience, we repeat the cooking process and evolve it into something we enjoy. Such dishes become our signature home cuisine.

Grandmother had a signature dish: lemon chicken. I watched her make it several times in her apartment and saw how she added the lemon. She wrote the recipe on the back of an envelope for me and later I discovered the lemon went missing. It goes to show the importance of memory and experience in home cooking.

I love a delicious taco. In our household tacos vary from meal to meal. My favorite fillings are either similar to what Mother made, or greens and black beans in chili sauce. Tacos are easy to make yet the origins of the dish are complex. Taco ingredients adjust well to seasonal variation in a kitchen garden.

In 2018 I found a video by Rick Bayless in his Taco Tuesday series. I viewed the video multiple times then repeated every element of the process until learning it. Once learned, improvisations based upon on-hand ingredients and the imagination became possible. This is what cooking a personal cuisine is about. Black beans, kale, chili sauce, a cooking liquid, and toppings on a tortilla are foundational elements to making a delicious taco.

Tortillas

Almost everyone gets help with tortillas. By that I mean we don’t grow our own corn and grind it into masa. I make my own corn tortillas from masa and get uncooked flour tortillas from the wholesale club. There is nothing like a freshly made tortilla.

Black Beans

At some point I hope to grow enough black beans to use my own. In the meanwhile, I buy eight-packs of 15 ounce cans of USDA organic black beans from the wholesale club.

Kale

A person could use any type of greens in a taco: chard, collards, spinach, mustard greens, lambs quarters, arugula, broccoli leaves, beet leaves, kohlrabi leaves or turnip greens. I grow an abundance of kale, preferring Winterbor and Redbor, seeds which I get from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine. Kale really makes the dish so that’s my go-to ingredient. Fresh is great yet frozen leaves serve equally well. Tacos provide another outlet for the bushels of kale I produce each year.

Chili Sauce

I’m new to making my own chili sauce. I’ve been using Guajillo and New Mexican dried chilies and have been happy with both. I’ve been growing my own Guajillo chilies yet haven’t mastered the agriculture to produce a dried chili with the consistency of what can be purchased. I hope to master the skill although I’m only in my second year. I made a batch of Guajillo chili sauce on Wednesday with the last of the chilies purchased from Mexico, fresh garlic from the garden, Mexican oregano, black pepper, salt and a pinch of sugar. This sauce holds the dish together.

Cooking Liquid

Our kitchen produces a number of culinary liquids as a byproduct of making something else. I don’t just dump it down the drain. Every time I open a jar of canned tomatoes I strain them to give a head start in preparing tomato sauce. When I make salsa, I also strain excess liquid to prevent it from being too watery. These liquids get mixed into a one liter bottle in the ice box. During preparation, chili sauce is diluted with enough liquid to cook the kale. In the cooking process most of the moisture evaporates leaving another layer of flavor by using my culinary liquids instead of water.

Toppings

I use Mexican-style cheese from the wholesale club to finish making a taco. Tacos get topped with freshly made salsa, green onions, fresh onions, fresh tomatoes, pickled jalapeno peppers, prepared chilies, pickled garlic, finely sliced lettuce, shredded radishes or Hakurei turnips. The tomatillo harvest is coming in so salsa using them is in season. Fresh cilantro is also a go-to ingredient.

Preparation

Beans and greens taco filling is easy to make. Heat a cup of chili sauce in a large frying pan (Recipe for mine is here). Add a cup of water or other cooking liquid that goes with Mexican cuisine and incorporate. Add a bunch of kale that has been de-stemmed and torn into small bits. When the kale wilts, add a drained 15 ounce can of black beans. (Optional: Use a potato masher or the back of a spoon to break up some of the beans and give the taco filling a smooth consistency and texture). Once the kale is thoroughly cooked and incorporated it’s time to assemble tacos!

I’ll make these suggestions: begin with a hot tortilla on a heated serving plate. Put some salsa or hot sauce down first. Add the filling, generous but not too much. We want to be able to hold and eat the taco without everything spilling out. Cheese goes next so it will melt. Add toppings according to what’s in season or available and serve.

Cooking is an experience more than an explanation. We relish choices we make producing each plate of food yet it is not about consumption and the process that created ingredients on hand. Cooking, as much as anything we do, is about living in those moments. When the pandemic is over and we return to our new lives it is important to know who we are. Part of me is making these signature tacos.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Weeds in the House

Wildflowers, July 11, 2020

I like my lawn. It is a great source of mulch for the garden, although it seems like there is never enough.

What is there transitions throughout the growing season. We are currently in clover and around the edges native plants come up like the ones in the photograph.

These are weeds, but they look nice on the counter.

When basil comes in I make pasta sauce of last year’s canned tomatoes, onions, garlic and basil. I’m trying to use up the old tomatoes to make room for new. Pasta sauce varies from preparation to preparation. Near as I remember, this is what I did yesterday.

Summer Pasta Sauce

Drain six pints of canned, diced tomatoes in a funnel. Once thoroughly drained, put them in a slow-cooker, reserving the liquid for another dish. Whizz them with a stick blender until somewhat smooth yet with a few chunks of tomato.

Ribbon all the basil you have (about a cup and a half of chiffonade). Put the basil in the slow cooker and incorporate with the tomatoes.

Dice two cups of onions and mince three or four large cloves of garlic.

Heat two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan. Once shimmering add the onions and stir gently until they begin to turn translucent. Salt to taste. Next add the garlic and cook until the aroma of garlic rises from the pan. After a couple more minutes transfer the mixture into the slow cooker and incorporate.

Turn the cooker on high heat and let it go throughout the morning. Around lunch time stir and turn the heat down to medium. Once it’s dinner time, cook pasta noodles, put the drained noodles in a mixing bowl and ladle a couple of generous servings of pasta sauce on top and mix gently with tongs. It’s ready to serve topped with Parmesan cheese, pepper and maybe thinly sliced green onions.

We served the pasta with steamed green beans picked that morning and simple cucumber salad. We’re in the cucumber season so we eat them constantly. There’s no room for more pickles in the ice box or pantry.

New potatoes are in so I tried a new recipe for potato salad. I cut it back to make less for two people, so it could be doubled or tripled for a dish for potluck. In the time of the coronavirus, there won’t be any potlucks soon.

Summer Potato Salad

Boil a pound of peeled, cubed new potatoes. Don’t boil them to mush. Hard cook an egg and put both in the ice box overnight.

Dice the potatoes into a bowl. Grate the egg into the same bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste, a quarter cup prepared mayonnaise, a tablespoon Dijon mustard, and a generous tablespoon of chopped sweet pickles. Stir gently with a spatula until incorporated. Put the mixture in a refrigerator dish, level it out, and sprinkle paprika on top for decoration. Leave it refrigerated a couple of hours before serving if you can resist eating it at once.

Potato salad has many variations and this is most like what Mother made for us when we were graders.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Collards on Cornbread

Collards on Cornbread

Collard greens are easy to grow and the plants produce for a long season. Once one decides to include them in a garden there had better be a plan to use them.

The first picking, before little hungry insects arrive, is the best. Sorting leaves near the composter is a way to cull the best of the best. Yesterday I harvested two pounds of leaves and decided to make collards on cornbread for dinner.

The vegetarian recipe was a collaboration with people I know combined with a few internet searches. Traditionally the dish is made with pork so the issue of how to replace lard and the meat was a primary issue. This dish came out tasty tender.

Collard Greens

One pound stemmed collard leaves
One cup diced onions
One head finely minced garlic (5-6 cloves)
Tablespoon each butter and extra virgin olive oil.
Salt and pepper to taste
One teaspoon hot pepper flakes or fresh chilies if available (optional)
Three cups vegetable broth
One pint canned tomatoes or fresh if available

Measure one pound of stemmed collard greens and cut into half inch ribbons. Set aside.

In a Dutch oven heat one tablespoon each of extra virgin olive oil and salted butter. Once foaming subsides, add one cup diced onions and a finely minced head of garlic (5-6 cloves). Season with salt and pepper to taste and sautee until softened. Add a teaspoon of red pepper flakes (optional).

Once the onions become translucent, add the collards and three cups of prepared vegetable broth. Also drain the liquid from a pint of diced tomatoes into the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil and cover. Stir the greens every so often. Once the volume of the greens is reduced, reduce the heat to a simmer.

Cook until the leaves are tender, about two hours. Add diced tomatoes and continue cooking until they have warmed.

Spoon onto cornbread, including a generous amount of the cooking liquid.

We found the recipe to be quite satisfying and a welcome way to use produce from the garden.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Volley of Lightning Strikes

Lake Macbride State Park, June 2, 2020

The day began with a loud volley of lightning strikes west of the house. I don’t recall hearing so many at once. When hail pelleted the windows it felt like were in for the worst.

It didn’t last long and there was no damage to the garden or anything else I inspected after the clouds moved on.

Thus began another warm, wet day in Big Grove Township.

The morning work project was to organize the garage so both vehicles could be parked inside. Mission accomplished.

I found a cooking preparation for Fordhook chard that can be applied to other leafy green vegetables with great results:

Bring half a cup of vegetable broth to a boil in a Dutch oven. Clean the leaves from the stem of the chard. Finely slice the stems, three spring onions, three cloves of garlic, and add to the Dutch oven. Cook 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add roughly chopped leaves and cover. Cook for 2-3 minutes in the steam then stir to get the other side cooked, a couple more minutes. When the chard decreases in volume mix the leaves and bits and pieces and serve. Makes two servings.

When the garden has many varieties of leafy green vegetables a basic kitchen preparation like this is important.

We are not out of the impact of video footage depicting the murder of George Floyd being released in social media. While there are no demonstrations here, the crowd of protesters in the county seat grew to about a thousand on Wednesday. The president’s amateurish way of handling the crisis will prolong more than end the violence. We can all feel the vacuum of leadership sucking.

The coronavirus rages. 106,198 people died of COVID-19 in the United States as of yesterday. No end to the pandemic is in sight, although there is hope for a vaccine. The plan after a successful vaccine is unclear. The president’s failed leadership is evident: he should set expectations and take bold action to assist with the response. He has done neither. Meanwhile, society is deteriorating into chaos with one state legislator saying yesterday to a group that opposes mandatory vaccination laws, “COVID-19 isn’t even killing anybody.”

On the state park trail near where I live most people don’t wear protective equipment. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources does not require it although they request people otherwise maintain social distancing. Joggers, hikers and bicyclists haven’t been wearing facial masks, although I spotted a family group wearing them while taking a hike.

My activities outside home are restricted to grocery shopping, drug store visits, gasoline purchases, medical visits, and a shift per week at the farm. The farm crew moved on site at the beginning of the pandemic and has been self-isolating since then. I work alone in the greenhouse when I’m there. Other than at the farm, I wear one of my homemade face masks whenever I’m with people anywhere else.

I have been participating in TestIowa, the statewide COVID-19 response application. The app suggested I was eligible to be tested so I went to a drive-up clinic at nearby Kirkwood Community College. The result was negative. After visiting clinics for a diabetes follow up I made a list of conditions I’m experiencing. There were a dozen. I’m at a loss to say when all that happened but I feel pretty good. Feeling good likely hinders the effort to address these conditions as well as I otherwise might.

As spring turns to summer I’m ready for change. It’s a time when the morning thunderstorm is both familiar and frightening — a time to persist in doing what’s right for our family and for the broader society.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Rhubarb Crisp

Rhubarb Crisp

Someone asked for the recipe when I posted this photo in social media. I was taken aback.

There was no recipe, I just made it out of the rhubarb and my experience. In a kitchen garden we don’t open a lot of cookbooks.

Ingredients arrive from multiple sources and we consider them, make dishes and meals, using what is available in the ice box, garden, pantry, and our imagination. Experience comes into play. It is a way to source food, cook and eat that isn’t emphasized as much as its value warrants.

Living with a kitchen garden is as good a way to produce meals as I know. It takes some experience but rather than ask, “what is the recipe?” an alternative is “How would this product be made palatable, nutritious and tasty?”

Here’s how I responded to the question:

I saved and diced all the rhubarb that was in my CSA share. It filled this dish. In a mixing bowl I put the rhubarb, one scant cup of granulated sugar, a tablespoon of ground cinnamon, sprinklings of ground cloves and ground allspice, a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of all purpose flour and mixed until incorporated. I returned the mixture to the clean baking dish and sprinkled about one to two tablespoons of water on top. (If I was making apple crisp I would use lemon juice here. Rhubarb is already plenty tart).

For the topping, just use any that you like. This one has a stick of chilled, cubed salted butter, a cup of rolled oats, two thirds cup packed brown sugar and a pinch of salt. I use a pastry cutter to blend everything together, leaving it in chunks. Sprinkle the topping evenly and baked 35 minutes in a 375 degree oven.

That’s a recipe of sorts. If a person eats ice cream, a scoop on the side of a warm, just out of the oven serving of rhubarb crisp would be divine. Or as close to that as we humans can get.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Bow Tie Pasta with Garlic and Arugula

Bow tie pasta with garlic and arugula

The arugula is top quality this year and I’m in a use it up mode. I spent more time preparing for this dish of bow tie pasta with garlic and arugula than usual. I researched recipes and thought a lot about it during the past two days. I used Parmesan cheese from a green can because of the coronavirus pandemic. It came out well but would be better with higher quality cheese. Here goes:

Ingredients:

Big bunch of arugula, half a pound, washed and roughly chopped
2 cups dried bow tie pasta
12-14 cloves of garlic
Quarter cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tablespoons salted butter
1 cup grated hard cheese (Parmesan, Pecorino Romano)
Salt and pepper to taste

Process

Set a pan of water on the stove to boil for the pasta.

Peel and trim the garlic. Then slice finely (1/8 inch).

Once the water reaches a rolling boil, add the pasta and cook according to directions.

Once the pasta is down, bring the olive oil just to the smoke point. Add the garlic, stirring constantly. As the garlic begins to brown, add the pine nuts and cook for a couple of minutes.

Add the knob of butter and stir. Before the foam begins to subside, transfer everything to a mixing bowl. Drain the pasta and dump it in the bowl. Combine until they are incorporated.

Salt and pepper to taste.

Add the arugula and cheese and mix gently until the arugula wilts.

Makes two generous servings.

Categories
Environment Kitchen Garden

Insects in a Garden with Arugula

Pear blossoms ready for pollination.

Pollinators came in abundance and did their work. Now it’s snowing flower petals.

The collapse of insect populations is a well-documented phenomenon. 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction, due mostly to habitat loss by conversion to intensive agriculture. Agricultural chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change are additional causes, according to Biological Conservation.

In our yard insect populations find a home, begin doing their work, and cause trouble in the garden almost as soon as freezing temperatures abate. They are relentless. Humans should be so relentless.

Insect damaged Pak Choy.

Because of insects our yard has a bird population. They nest in the fruit trees and lilac bushes. They perch everywhere there is something upon which to stand. It’s easy to find them chasing insects through the air. It’s for the birds and insects I use no weed killers or lawn fertilizers and let the grass go to seed.

We are an island in a sea of agriculture. When wheat is harvested Japanese beetles head to property like ours where they feed on certain types of vegetation. Corn and soybean harvests result in visits of additional species of displaced insects. It is important to consider the world outside our property lines as insects know few boundaries and what farmers do a section of two over impacts us.

The first white butterfly flew around the cruciferous vegetables yesterday. They lay eggs on foliage which hatch and produce green worms that eat said foliage. It didn’t take long after planting for the butterfly to show up.

I observed a number of bee species during the pear tree pollination. Dandelions are an excellent source of early pollen for bees so I let them go. A large bumble bee lumbered through the air, laden with pollen, and flew through an opening in the chicken wire mesh around a garden plot.

The pear tree is being pollinated as I type this post. If pears form this year there will be another struggle with Japanese beetles over the fruit. Last year we lost the whole crop to the pests.

I went out to the garden before sunrise to see if I could catch the culprit eating my Pak Choy. In order to defend against bugs they need to be identified. I shone the light on my mobile phone but couldn’t find it today.

I turned to the arugula which reaching maturity. I returned to the garage, got a colander, a pair of scissors, and a knee pad, and pulled back the fencing to harvest a big bunch. I removed an insect, cleaned it and put it away in the ice box.

When I returned from a shift at the farm I made a lunch using this process:

Add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to a large bowl. Add a teaspoon of lemon juice, tablespoon of home made apple cider vinegar and finely minced spring garlic. Salt and pepper to taste. Whisk until incorporated. Fill a serving bowl with arugula and dump it into the larger bowl. Toss gently until the leaves are coated. Return the salas to the serving bowl. Sprinkle feta cheese on top and serve.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Planning A Vegetable Garden

Pear Blossoms

Since retiring on Tuesday there has been one good day to work outside.

Tuesday and Wednesday were cool and dark with scattered showers. I read two books, reworked the family budget, and spent most of my time indoors.

Thursday was a glorious spring day when I measured and cleared the remaining three garden plots and planned the sequence of events and layouts. Today looks equally nice and an opportunity to start direct seeding and planting from the greenhouse.

This year may be the best yet start to the garden. I’m hopeful even though a lot of weeding and combating pests lies ahead.

There will be spring garlic from the volunteer patch and arugula planted March 2 is ready to harvest. I’m reviewing cook books for ideas, seeking a spring pasta dish as a chance to combine fresh arugula and last season’s garlic. Repetition is anathema to having a kitchen garden so a key ingredient will be spontaneity.

Mario Batali has a recipe using fresh mushrooms cooked in sweet vermouth with ten cloves of garlic. It sounds good. I have the garlic, but no vermouth and only canned mushrooms from the wholesale club. A recipe I remember from television is Jaime Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo making pasta using wild rocket they found growing in London. The spontaneity of their process is more what I’m after. Deborah Madison has a recipe called spaghetti with overgrown arugula and sheep’s milk ricotta. It’s closest to the ingredients on hand. Where our ice box is lacking and could improve is by having some pecorino or any kind of ricotta cheese. I make this once a year, so I’m in no hurry to get into the kitchen. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ll use whatever ingredients are on hand.

Another spring-use-it-up recipe is a quick version of eggplant Parmesan. When the eggplant harvest comes in, I cut large ones into half-inch disks, roast and freeze them. Every so often I get fresh mozzarella pre-cut in disks from the wholesale club. Canned tomatoes are always in abundance and these three things together make a dish.

Make a simple tomato sauce using canned tomatoes (reserving the juice for soup), basil, dried onions and dried garlic. Whatever you like is fine, even a prepared pasta sauce. Place a few tablespoons of tomato sauce to coat the bottom of the baking dish. Seat frozen eggplant disks in the sauce and cover them with more sauce. Next, a disk of fresh mozzarella on each piece of eggplant. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the top and bake in a 400 degree oven on the low-middle shelf. It’s ready as soon as the mozzarella begins to brown. I usually make individual servings in small baking dishes.

A last spring tradition for today is vegetable soup using fresh greens and whatever is in the freezer that needs using up. I always begin with onions, carrots, celery and bay leaves. Key ingredients were a bunch of fresh greens roughly chopped, a quart of canned tomatoes, two quarts of vegetable broth, frozen sweet corn, frozen grated zucchini, and a quarter cup each of dried lentils and barley. There are few rules other than starting with mirepoix and whatever diners like and needs to be used up. It made about a gallon of soup.

Living with a kitchen garden is the center of so much. When arugula, garlic and spring onions start to come in we are ready to break the long winter absence of fresh vegetables.

Categories
Home Life Kitchen Garden

Nostalgic Breakfast Tacos

Fresh Cilantro Tacos

There is a 25 percent chance of rain beginning at 9 a.m., according to the weather application. I pulled the cars out of the garage so that space can be used for other projects if the forecast proves to be true. Despite the coronavirus epidemic the waste hauler is working today so I put the trash and recycling bins at the end of the driveway.

I made a taco for breakfast this morning and one of my go-to recipes is easy.

Nostalgic Breakfast Taco

When Mother began cooking tacos at home it was revolutionary. We hadn’t had that at home until the 1960s. The change was partly due to the rise of mass-produced, Mexican-style options at the grocery store. It was also a result of her work at the grade school cafeteria where they made dishes different from what we grew up with. Cafeteria work broadened our home food repertory. While we don’t eat beef in our home now, commercial soybean crumbles create a texture and flavor that reminds me of those early days when she made tacos for the first times. Here’s how it went this morning.

Two frying pans go on high heat. In one cook a pre-made organic flour tortilla. In the other heat a scant tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil.

Dice half a medium-sized onion and part of a frozen bell pepper. They go into the hot oil. You’ll hear the sizzle. Stirring constantly, season with salt, dried cilantro and powdered chilies. Cook until the onions and peppers are soft. Stir in a clove or two of minced garlic and cook until a garlic aroma rises from the pan. Stir for a minute or so and add one half cup of commercial frozen soybean crumbles. Stir until thawed and set aside.

Place the cooked tortilla on a dinner plate and garnish from the bottom up: a layer of Mexican cheese to taste, pickled sliced jalapeno peppers, salsa or hot sauce to taste. Put the fry up on top of the garnishes and serve with a beverage of choice.

I look forward to when garden cilantro and tomatoes are available. Tacos are a way to explore your palate and discover who you are. For me it’s a chance to remember standing around the kitchen in that American foursquare home with family while reflecting on how our lives have changed. Even on a rainy day that is positive experience.

Categories
Home Life Kitchen Garden

Cavendish Banana Bread

Banana bread made with Cavendish bananas

Three bananas were going bad on the counter so I decided to make banana bread. That’s what people do, or at least did when I was still at home.

These were Cavendish bananas as most commercially available ones are. They were also organic although I’m not sure how cultivation is different.

Like its predecessor, the Gros Michel banana, the Cavendish is susceptible to  a fungus that could wipe out the variety. If that happens as expected, diets will change.

For a recipe I got out my copy of the Holy Family School PTA cookbook. I like this book for the familiar names of the recipe authors, some of whom I knew. Monsignor T.V. Lawlor served as the church’s second pastor from 1943 until 1961 and his photograph is printed inside the front cover of the book. This dates the cookbook in the 1950s most likely, after the school moved to the location I attended a couple of blocks south of the church on Fillmore Street.

I chose a banana bread recipe contributed by Mrs. H.A. Tholen. It called for shortening, although I substituted butter and kept everything else the same. Here are the ingredients as written:

1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup shortening, 2 eggs, 3 bananas mashed, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon soda, 1-3/4 cup flour, and a pinch of salt.

Instructions are, “Mix in the order given and bake in a slow oven.”

Well that won’t do. Looking at other sweet breads in the book I decided on a 350 degree oven for 50 minutes. It turned out great as you can see in the image.

Making banana bread from overly ripe bananas is a cultural inheritance not only from my mother and maternal grandmother, but from a broader society where fruit like the Cavendish banana is readily and cheaply available. However, like most mass marketed fruit and vegetables it is subject to change from climate and from other pressures, forcing old habits and patterns to change.

There was something positive in yesterday’s bakery. It was a warning too, that life is fragile and ever changing. We seek comfort in what we know, delaying the embrace of what is coming. I don’t just mean what’s coming for Cavendish bananas.