We have plenty of recipes in our household. When I’m cooking, I rarely follow any of them. No worries. The end product has always been edible.
Every cook understands following a recipe exactly can be a disaster. A recipe functions like a tool in the kitchen, not a computer algorithm. Recipes are also the starting point for developing one’s own cuisine, not the end result. Cuisine is about actual dishes created and eaten from a kitchen, not some abstraction of design.
An example is the recipe for lemon chicken my maternal grandmother prepared from time to time. I asked her to write it down. Somewhat reluctantly, she did: on the back of an envelope, in front of me, from memory. There was an omission. Lemon was not listed in the ingredients. I had watched her prepare the dish and saw her squeeze the lemon. The interplay of memory with cooking is an underappreciated aspect, and little to do with written or printed recipes.
When baking, I follow ingredient amounts in a recipe carefully because the science is more specific. Even so, actual temperature in the oven, what kind of baking dish is used, humidity, and elevation above sea level all play a role and can create variations in the end product. Learning how to cope with variations is part of being a cook.
Variation on a recipe is expected and usually welcome. Chef Jacques Pépin explains it better than I in this short video. As he might say, “Happy cooking.”
During one of our vacations in Stratford, Ontario I bought this bound blank book for reasons then unknown. Eventually, beginning in 2000, I wrote down recipes in it and today the pages are more than half filled.
They are the kind of recipes that are more than improvisational knife and spoon work with me standing in the kitchen, checking the refrigerator and pantry, and whipping up a couple of things for supper.
I return to the cookbook regularly.
It is apple time in Iowa and someone asked for apple butter. The first pick of Red Delicious apples will go toward that. I have older jars stored on the shelf but when I gift apple butter, I want it to be this year’s batch.
In 2010 I entered my recipe for apple butter in the cookbook. Back then I made something out of every apple harvested. It was a lot of apple butter, apple sauce and dried apples. There are still a couple old jars hanging around. (They need to be pitched).
Today I give away apples I won’t use. One year I gave 350 pounds to a community supported agriculture project for their members. Another I donated to the food bank. I also offer them to neighbors if interested. The idea is to bring enough into the house to make sure the apple products will last for two years until the next big harvest is expected. I’m done with overshooting that goal, except for apple cider vinegar which keeps a long time.
I have hundreds of printed cookbooks and likely a recipe for every growing, crawling, running, flying, slithering, and swimming thing in the ecosphere. I keep my faves nearby: Rick Bayless, Mario Batali, Julia Child, Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. I always return to the red-covered bound book I wrote myself for the good things in our life.
As we turn toward autumn tomatoes are finishing and peppers are coming on strong. I put up a lot of tomato product and am well-prepared to make it until next August. There is always a question of what to do with peppers. This year there are some new ideas.
Pickled jalapenos and hot sauce are traditional. I’ll also grind up what remains of hot peppers and mix it with salt and apple cider vinegar to use in lieu of fresh peppers in cooking. This worked last year so a repeat is in order.
I am backlogged with dehydrated hot peppers so no more this year. The main use is to grind for red pepper flakes. I have plenty on hand. I will re-hydrate the old ones next spring and use them to deter pests in the garden.
I grew Guajillo chili plants. The yield wasn’t what I hoped but will roast what there is, skin and coarsely chop them, and mix with apple cider vinegar, salt and garlic to use in Mexican-style cooking. I buy a commercially prepared version of this, so the idea has been in the works for a while.
Bell peppers will be cleaned, sliced in half and frozen in zip top bags. I don’t need many of these as there are some remaining from last year. The main use for bell peppers is for an afternoon snack. At two per day I could make it well into September with fresh ones for out of hand eating and cooking.
Arrival of pepper time also means the end of the garden is near. It’s hard to believe we’re already at that point in the growing cycle.
I could eat fresh from the garden pasta dishes all summer and hopefully will. At the same time, summer is turning toward fall so we’d best enjoy them while we can.
There have been crates and crates of garden tomatoes this season. I sorted a crate of yellow and orange, cut ripe ones into a dutch oven, and turned on the heat. My process for making tomato sauce is easy.
Cook the cut tomato pieces on the stove top until the skins begin to loosen. Depending on the variety I add a little liquid to the pan so they don’t burn. Carefully put the tomatoes into a perforated funnel to drain. Mine is an old-style farm funnel with a wooden masher. Once they drain, save the liquid if there is an immediate use for it, otherwise discard. (A kitchen can only use so much of it). Finally, process the drained tomatoes with the wooden masher, pushing the pulp through the funnel. This thickens the sauce without cooking it to death on the stove, making a fresher-tasting pasta sauce.
When the day began all I knew was to use some tomatoes for a meal. I found a bag of Gemelli dried pasta in the storage rack and decided that would be dinner.
There are countless variations to making pasta. In addition to pasta noodles prepared according to instructions on the bag, I used orange and yellow tomatoes, onion, garlic, basil and eggplant. Garnishes were cherry tomatoes and fresh parsley. Parmesan cheese is optional, which if left out makes this a vegan dish.
Here is my current process.
In a large skillet sautee onions and diced eggplant in extra virgin olive oil. When the onions begin to turn translucent, add two cloves of minced garlic. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir constantly until everything is cooked.
Add the fresh tomato sauce and incorporate. Add a generous amount of fresh or dried basil and re-season. There is variation in the moisture level of tomato sauce made this way. Cook it to the desired thickness.
When the pasta is done, reserve a third cup of pasta water and drain it. Add the noodles to the sauce along with the pasta water. Mix gently until the pasta is thoroughly coated. Add halved cherry tomatoes and freshly chopped parsley and toss until the tomatoes warm.
Serve with a vegetable side dish like steamed green beans, broccoli or cauliflower.
This was my dinner. I hope readers are also enjoying fresh from the garden pasta this summer!
I searched this website for arugula and found I’ve written about farfalle with arugula several times. It is my go-to spring dish, and now that one of us is vegan, I moved it to the breakfast rotation instead of supper. Properly made it is a taste sensation.
I haven’t written about the dish the same way over the years. That is, the “recipe” keeps changing. This iteration was pretty good, so at the risk of being repetitive, here goes:
Put water on the stove to boil. Measure one and a half cups dried farfalle and put it in the water once it is at a rolling boil. Set the timer for 12 minutes.
On the cutting board, tear up a good handful of arugula and remove the thick stems. De-vein 10-12 sugar snap peas and cut them in half across the length. Measure half a cup of grated Parmesan cheese.
Put a generous tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl. Add a teaspoon of ground, black pepper and a couple of grinds of sea salt.
When the timer goes off, add the sugar snap peas to the boiling pasta and let it go for another 60 seconds or so. Collect a quarter cup of pasta water and drain the pasta and peas.
Pour the pasta and peas into the mixing bowl and begin gently mixing. Add the pasta water and continue to mix. Finally, add the arugula and mix until incorporated. While I used the word “mix” a couple of times in a row, don’t mix it to death. You want the arugula leaves to look like what they are.
Serve immediately. If a person is going to garden, they have to have recipes to use up the produce. This is one of my ever-changing favorites and a Spring classic.
We use a lot of vegetable broth in our household. Making and canning it ourselves is inexpensive and we control what goes into it.
It began years ago, when I planted a big patch of turnips. There were literal bushels of turnip greens too good to compost. I made a simple broth which proved to be tasty. Making and canning vegetable broth has become a spring tradition. We used everything I made last season, so I’m at it again.
Simple is better when making broth for the pantry. A mirepoix, bay leaves, and water form the base of it. I use frozen celery and onions when I have them.
Next I search for leafy green vegetables, usually in the ice box. Today’s batch has turnip greens picked while weeding, collards from trimming seedlings in the greenhouse, Swiss chard that was getting old, and a bag of greens from last week’s share from the farm (Koji and bok choy). I washed, trimmed, and roughly chopped them and soon there were enough to fill the Dutch oven.
That’s it. Put everything in the pot, fill with water, bring to a boil, and then turn it down to simmer all day. After a few hours it will be broth.
I don’t add salt. Broth can be used as an ingredient in many dishes and I do not want an established salinity. It creates flexibility and works out well.
After straining the broth, I fill quart Mason jars in the ice box to be used, or to wait until I have seven jars for water bath canning.
When there is leftover rice I seek a quick meal to use it up. Add some canned red beans and a sofrito and off we go: Quick red beans and rice.
The sofrito begins with the trinity: sautee bell pepper, onion and celery in extra virgin olive oil. Salt to taste and put a pinch of red pepper flakes in the mix. Purists say sautee the red pepper flakes in the oil before adding vegetables to bring out the flavor.
Next add diced spring garlic and the diced stems of whatever leafy green vegetable you have from the garden. Add a medium-sized tomato (canned or fresh) and a cup of frozen okra. If there’s not enough liquid, add a tablespoon or two of water.
Once the vegetables are soft, slice and add the leafy greens from which you took the stems. Mix and sautee until everything is cooked.
Add a can of drained and washed red beans and a cup of leftover rice. Stir constantly until everything is thoroughly heated. Garnish with coarsely chopped cilantro, sliced spring onions, and a dash of Louisiana-style hot sauce.
Makes two servings for diners that enjoy spicy food. If the other diner doesn’t, save the second portion for yourself to reheat later.
Canned beans are a time-saver in the kitchen, especially for weekday meals. I made this recipe from both dried and canned black beans. Flavor-wise, the canned bean preparation was better. There are three parts to the recipe: beans, sofrito and rice.
Drain and wash two 15-ounce cans of organic, prepared black beans and put them into a cooking pan. Add a half cup diced bell pepper, half cup diced onions, two crushed cloves of garlic, and a bay leaf. Cover the beans with broth, tomato juice or water and bring to a simmer.
In a frying pan sautee one large, diced onion, one bell pepper, and three or four cloves of minced garlic. Add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and dried spices: cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Also add 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Sautee until the onions are translucent, stirring constantly.
In a blender, puree half of the sofrito and one cup of the beans. Use enough bean liquid to cover the beans and sofrito in the blender. At this point if there is more than enough liquid to barely cover the beans remaining in the pan, spoon it off.
Pour the puree back into the bean pot along with the remaining sofrito. Add two tablespoons brown sugar and balsamic vinegar to taste (about two tablespoons). Stir constantly on medium heat for about ten minutes.
Evening meals are our main ones, especially during the pandemic. I wrote a list of simple meals to get us through this time of contagion. Last night I spent a couple of hours preparing enchiladas for the first time.
Based on the amount of prep work, enchiladas are less than simple. Tortillas need cooking, a sauce must accommodate differing tastes, and issues of fillings and side dishes remain to be resolved. Enchiladas are a from the pantry meal this time of year.
I buy uncooked flour tortillas at the wholesale club. Cook them first and store on the counter in a tortilla warmer.
Next, I opened a 15-ounce can of prepared organic tomato sauce. Emptying the can into a sauce pan, I mixed a couple tablespoons of water with a tablespoon of arrowroot in the can. Once thoroughly mixed, I added it to the tomato sauce and incorporated. Seasoning: chili powder, onion powder, garlic powder and dried cilantro leaves. I brought the mixture to just boiling and turned it down to a slow simmer. There are two glass bread pans in the cupboard to separate plain from spicy. This base sauce will make both.
A filling is easy. We buy prepared vegetarian refried beans in 16-ounce cans at the grocery store. They come with onion powder, chili pepper and garlic powder already mixed in. They can be used as is, or with added seasoning. I added salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and dried cilantro leaves. Once seasoned, mix thoroughly.
Prepare the baking dishes with a light coating of cooking spray or lecithin. I prepared the less spicy batch first. Put a layer of sauce on the bottom of the baking dish. Roll the bean mixture in tortillas and place them in the sauce, seam side down. Our dishes hold three. Cover with additional tomato sauce, then wrap the pan with aluminum foil to retain moisture while cooking.
For my batch, I added prepared hot sauce to the remaining tomato sauce and lined the bottom of the baking dish with it. I used the bean mixture as a base filling and added prepared peppers from the ice box and a Mexican-style cheese. Once three enchiladas were lined up, I covered them with the remaining sauce, sprinkled some cheese on top and wrapped with foil. Both dishes went on a baking sheet and into a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. At that point, remove the aluminum foil and cook another ten minutes. If you want the cheese to brown, put that one under the broiler.
It is important to pay attention to how much tomato sauce is used. This recipe makes enough for two bread-pan sized baking dishes and no more. Don’t run out!
I made a batch of Spanish rice to go along with the enchiladas. Enchiladas will be a nice addition to our pandemic rotation of evening meals.
Forgetting to turn off the grow light before retiring to bed is a new bad habit. Seedlings need a daily rest from light, at least for 4-5 hours. I end up turning the light off around 3:30 a.m. when I return to my writing space for the day.
Learning to garden is a never ending process if one is any good at it.
This year the garden is in for big changes. The Aug. 10, 2020 derecho blew over the Locust tree and tilted one of the three Bur Oaks enough it should be taken down. I plan to cut two of the Bur Oaks to provide space for the remaining one to grow normally.
The derecho damaged a lot of fencing I use to discourage deer from jumping into the plots. There will be new stakes and new chicken wire fencing. If we had the resources, I’d install an eight-foot fence all around the garden with a locking gate. There are other projects begging for the money, so that plan is deferred.
The garlic patch is in, but the other plots are an open book. I will rotate cruciferous vegetables and beans. I need a whole plot for tomatoes and a small one for leafy greens. I ran out of garden onions this month, so I want to grow more this year and that will require a bigger space. No final decisions to be made until I plant Belgian lettuce on March 2, two weeks from now, if the snow melts.
The goal of having a kitchen garden is to produce food aligned with our culinary habits that helps meet a basic human need. We have to eat, no matter where, no matter how. It may as well be enjoyable. We’ve all eaten our share of food that doesn’t please our palate. A kitchen garden should address that.
There are inputs to address, other than the garden part of a kitchen garden. Perhaps the most significant is intellectual. Most people don’t frame such a construct although they should.
A kitchen garden is a reaction to the culture of consumerism. An important distinction is reaction, not rejection. I will continue to buy black peppercorns, nutmeg, vanilla bean extract, refined sugar, and all-purpose flour milled elsewhere. How else will we get such necessary ingredients?
For the time being, I’m ovo-lacto-vegetarian (most of the time), which means consumption of dairy products and the good and bad that goes with them. I’m not of one mind on this. For example, I’ll buy a gallon of skim milk from the local dairy 6.2 miles from my house, yet I’ll also stock up at the wholesale club for half the price. I take local eggs from the farm when offered, yet I also buy them at the club. Maybe it’s best to become vegan and eschew dairy altogether. I’m not there yet.
While I am a local foods enthusiast, and my diet centers around being that, I am not doctrinaire. Other people have to consume the results of my kitchen work, although during the pandemic that’s only one other person who I’ve known for going on 40 years. Despite several issues with his behavior and written output — including bigotry, racism and patriarchy — I like the Joel Salatin idea of a food shed. That is, secure everything one can that is produced within a four hour drive of home. I am also not doctrinaire about “food miles.” I’ve written often on the topic and if we work at it, we can secure most of our food produced within less than an hour drive from home.
During the pandemic we haven’t eaten restaurant food even once. If we get out of this thing alive, I see a return to restaurants as a social endeavor. I like our cooking better than any restaurant fare I’ve had the past many years. I expect the habit of cooking and eating at home will persist. How would restaurant dining fit into a kitchen garden? It would be an infrequent adventure in expanding our menu and spending time with good friends.
Another part of a kitchen garden is providing proper nutrition. That means research to understand nutrition enough to combat common diseases — diabetes and cardiovascular disease particularly. Portion control is also part of nutrition, related to maintaining a healthy weight. My research into nutrition was mostly a reaction to medical clinic visits. I sought to change the results of my blood tests regarding cholesterol and glucose through dietary adjustment. The approach has been to discover techniques and processes, then adopt them by habit to weekly meal preparation. Every so often I will consider nutrition in my diet. Mostly, once a new pattern is set, I follow it.
The influence of television and so-called celebrity chefs is part of the intellectual development I bring to the kitchen garden. Before I left my home town for university I spent almost no time in the kitchen learning how to cook. The first meals I prepared for guests were tuna and noodle casseroles made with condensed cream of mushroom soup from a can, once for Mother before leaving for military service, and once for friends at my apartment in Mainz, Germany. My early cooking years — in the 1970s — were trial and error and a lot of marginal, home-prepared meals. I recall at least one loaf of “bread” I used as a doorstop. It was baked while I was an undergraduate, interested in macrobiotic cooking, and didn’t understand how yeast worked.
I learned cooking mostly from television. In 2014 I wrote this about my experience on a work assignment in Georgia during the 1990s:
TV Food Network, as it was known, occupied my non-working time, and I developed an insatiable curiosity about food and its preparation. Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Julia Child and others prepared food on screen, and I was captivated, watching episode after episode on Georgia weekends. Food is a common denominator for humanity, and I couldn’t get enough. My involvement in the local food movement today has its origins in the contrast between that uninviting place in South Georgia and my food escape.
There is a broader point to be made than one person’s transient addiction to a television network while away from home. It is that American food pursuits, and the economy around them, continue to be based partly upon curiosity.
Curiosity About Food, Blog Post, April 17, 2014.
Over time, Food Network became more formulaic and less interesting. It also moved to a form of cookery competition that diverged from recipe preparation. I don’t tune in today. It opened my mind to the possibilities of food preparation and for that I am grateful.
The last part of intellectual development affecting the kitchen garden has to do with studying recipes. In my ongoing document mining I expect to purge my collection of hundreds of cookbooks. Partly because there are too many for reasonable use, and partly because I have learned the lessons from many of them. Which cookbooks have mattered most?
Like it is for many people, The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker is a go-to book when I’m learning to cook a specific dish or vegetable. I continue to use it a lot. I frequently use Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. I keep copies of other reference books, but those are my main two.
For variety, I have cookbooks by Mario Batali, Giada De Lautentiis, Rick Bayless, Jeff Smith, and Anthony Bourdain, all of whom appeared on television during the period I watched cooking shows. These recipes produce food we like. I also use a few baking cook books, Bo Friberg’s The Professional Pastry Chef, and The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. I’m currently working my way through some cook books used by local chef, the late Kurt Michael Friese.
I studied church and organizational cook books extensively. I adopted very few recipes from them so most are going to go. I’ll keep those that have some sentimental value, ones in which recipes by friends appear, and a set of a dozen or so from my old neighborhood in Northwest Davenport. The purpose of acquiring these cookbooks has been to understand the development of kitchen cookery beginning in the 1950s and ’60s. People used a lot of gelatin and lard back in the day, that’s for sure.
Whatever I learned from studying cookery reduces itself into repeatable main dishes made using understandable preparation techniques. A family only needs so many recipes. As I progress, the kitchen garden becomes more related to cuisine, one recognizable and uniquely our own. It is a cuisine tied to soil I made, the flavors that emerge from it, and the methods used to make it into dishes. The garden has already changed to better match what is going on in the nearby kitchen. That relationship will continue to evolve.
The journey home begins with an understanding of where we’ve been and ends, if we are lucky, with a pleasant reunion with family and friends. A kitchen garden works toward that end.
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