Monday, April 27, 2015

For Peat's Sake

The desperate truth is, I'm a lazy gardener. I like to direct sow all my seeds at the appropriate times, and let water and soil take care of the rest. After all, it's a seed's one purpose in life to sprout and grow into a plant, and it certainly doesn't need any help from me. But this year, I had some seeds that I had painstakingly gathered and collected on my own, and didn't want to leave them to the vagaries of wind, weather, and marauding critters. As such, it was time I tried starting seeds indoors.

I'd read about using empty plastic salad containers as mini greenhouses, and saved a few of these in addition to some cardboard egg cartons to make individual "pots" for my seedlings. The only thing I needed now was the seed-starting medium. As I perused the options available at the garden center, my eye fell upon a small box of peat pellets for starting seeds. To be exact, it was a box of replacement peat pellets, intended for use with a coordinating system of trays and lids. But I was still curious, and furtively opened a box to examine its contents. And you know what? Those pellets were a good enough match to use with my egg-carton cups and salad mix boxes:

peat pellets

I noted that each pellet seemed to have a "top" and a "bottom", wherein the top had concentric circles and a divot impressed upon its surface, while the bottom was completely smooth. I set up my trays and cups, and plunked a pellet into each receptacle:

I added water per the instructions, and after just a few minutes, they all plumped up like sea monkeys, ready to receive my precious cargo. Using a toothpick to help me open up the divots and tuck in my seeds, I sowed away. Once done, I put the lids back on my "greenhouses" and placed them in the sunny kitchen window:

I know I'll be anxiously checking on them as the days and weeks go by, watering as needed and hoping they're all warm enough inside their little ecosystems. I also started a small container with peat pellets and no encapsulating egg cups, just to see if it made any difference, or if it will be any easier/harder when it comes time to transplant. But on the whole, I'm very excited, and looking forward to seeing the results of this little adventure :-)


Friday, April 24, 2015

Opposites Attract: Individual Flourless Chocolate Cakes

Although I ultimately decided on this recipe to bring to cookbook club, the smitten kitchen cookbook's "tiny but intense chocolate cake" was a very close runner-up. It was everything the white chocolate pudding was not—deep, dark, rich, and unapologetically sinful. During the course of the cookbook club meeting, however, I learned that one of the other members had made that recipe to try at home. Not having the six-inch baking pan required, she very sensibly divided the batter into individual servings using a muffin tin, adjusting the baking time for the smaller size. She said it worked like a charm—and since I don't have that size pan, either, it definitely worked for me!

Grain-Free Individual Chocolate Cake

Individual Flourless Chocolate Cakes

6 Tablespoons butter
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
3 large eggs, separated
1/4 cup vanilla sugar (or use regular sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Berries for garnish, if desired

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a standard muffin tin with eight muffin liners, and fill each of the empty cavities with about 1/2 an inch of water. Set aside.

In a small pan, melt butter gently over low heat. Once melted, turn off heat and stir in chips until they are also melted and the mixture is smooth. Let cool slightly. In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar together until very creamy and pale. Add the cooled chocolate mixture carefully, stirring to combine. In a large bowl, beat egg whites and salt together until firm peaks form (I used a hand-crank beater, but feel free to use an electric mixer!). Stir in 1/3 of the whites into the chocolate batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining whites until just combined. Divide the batter evenly among the eight liners (about 3/4 full each) and bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out fairly clean (there might be a few crumbs). Let cool for 10-15 minutes, or cool to room temperature and chill before serving.

Notes: Adapted from the smitten kitchen cookbook. The amount of sugar is reduced, and chocolate chips (instead of chopping a bar of chocolate) were used since that's what I had on hand. In the original recipe, the butter was not only melted, but browned as well. Even with my digressions, these are lovely little cakes, and pair perfectly with fresh berries—although I wouldn't say no to a scoop of ice cream :-)


Monday, April 20, 2015

Join the Club: White Chocolate Pudding

I'd heard of cookbook clubs before, but had never seen one in my area. It also never occurred to me to initiate one myself! But, as very good fortune would have it, my own local library started one recently, and I was thrilled. The first book on the list: the smitten kitchen cookbook. I signed up to bring a dessert, brought my copy home, and started reading.

Although I was certainly interested in Deb Perelman's personal story, and the reasons why she cooks and blogs, I confess I mostly had eyes for the recipes themselves. The book was nicely broken down into seven main sections, with other smaller sections offering tips, techniques, and suggestions. Each recipe was accompanied by a story of what prompted their creation, and all were mouth-watering while being extremely easy to follow. The book club meeting itself was incredibly festive and fun. There was a good cross-section of recipes represented, including a mixed beverage which definitely helped add to the holiday feel :-) Best of all, everything was delicious.

Although there had been several desserts that caught my eye, the one I kept returning to and finally decided to bring was the White Chocolate Pudding. But I was nervous—I'd never made pudding from scratch before, and couldn't remember ever having used white chocolate in the kitchen. I was also willfully adapting the recipe from the original (which I happily found out most of my fellow participants had done with their recipes as well). There were a few lumps in the end product, but it tasted just fine, and was much easier to make than I thought it would be. I was happy to learn a new technique, engage with like-minded home cooks, left feeling wonderfully full and very excited for our next meeting!

White Chocolate Pudding

White Chocolate Pudding

3 Tablespoons tapioca flour (also sold as tapioca starch)
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar (I used vanilla sugar)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 1/4 cups whole milk
4 1/2 ounces white chocolate, broken into small pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whisk tapioca flour, sugar, salt and milk together in large, heat-proof bowl. Place in a pan over gently simmering water and cook for about 15-20 minutes, whisking to avoid lumps, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Add chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth, another 2-4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla; let cool 5 minutes, then spoon into serving dishes. Cool to room temperature, then chill in the fridge for at least one hour before serving. Garnish with fresh fruit or other toppings, if desired.

Notes: As mentioned, this is adapted from the original recipe in the cookbook, which used cornstarch instead of tapioca flour for thickening. I also used a bit more vanilla in my version. The original had a quick blackberry curd as a topping; although the two contrasting layers were visually striking (and I'm sure would taste fabulous), I wanted to be able to isolate the flavor of just the pudding this first time around.


Friday, April 17, 2015

Held in Reserve

As you've probably guessed, I'm a huge fan of public spaces that cater to human aesthetics while providing a habitat for plants and wildlife at the same time. Recent excursions have included Central Park and The High Line, both of which I loved immensely. Last month, I visited the Manasquan Reservoir, and it was just as inspiring:

Manasquan Reservoir

This vast, open space was equal parts invigorating and calming - you can't look at all that water and be anything but relaxed! The thing that attracted me the most was how well human access was integrated into the natural setting. You can stay on the paverstone deck and walkway near the docks and boat launches, or you can continue around the entire perimeter along the rougher gravel trail.

In addition to its natural beauty and all the available activities, the reservoir does also function as a water supply for the surrounding area. However, it's so lovely, you'd never even know it:

Oh, and that wildlife I mentioned earlier? It's there, too :-)


Monday, April 13, 2015

There's an App for That: Salami and Cream Cheese Appetizers

When I was little, my mother used to take slices of cream cheese and swaddle them lovingly in blankets of salami, arranging them neatly on a plate as she went. The resulting tidbits made a fantastic snack, and I know I enjoyed quite a few myself in the process! Unfortunately, when something is so simple, it's often easily forgotten—certainly, I don't think I've ever made them in the ensuing (ahem) decades. Thankfully, I was reminded of this fantastic combination very recently, and knew they would be just as welcome in this digital age as they were all those years ago:

Salami and Cream Cheese Appetizers

Salami and Cream Cheese Appetizers

Sliced salami, preferably nitrate/nitrite-free (local, if available!)
Cream cheese, softened

Dollop a small amount of cream cheese in the center of each slice of salami (my slices were only two inches across, so a 1/2 teaspoonful was enough). Fold salami over cream cheese and repeat until you have as many as you need!

Notes: My store happened to have cream cheese mixed with scallions, and this worked very well. Other good additions to the cream cheese would be finely chopped chives, olives, or cornichons. For more contrast with the rich, salty salami, add some finely chopped dried figs, walnuts, and a pinch of cinnamon to your cream cheese.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Wonders Never Cease

If you follow the garden-related categories on Pinterest like I do, you've seen all those pins proclaiming you can regrow various kitchen scraps back into edible food. Sounds a bit too good to be true, doesn't it? You might get something to sprout or root, but a whole plant regrown from a nubbin typically destined for the compost? Hmmm.

Well, here's the thing: it just might actually work. In a fit of mild curiosity, I took a celery stump and plunked it in a container with a bit of water, along with some pebbles on the bottom to help keep it in place. I left it on the windowsill and, after just a few days, it had sprouted new leaves! So far, so good. I had bought another bunch of celery in the meantime, took its stump and started it the same way:

Regrowing Celery from Scraps

It also sprouted! I left them both there for a few weeks, adding water and rotating them for even sun exposure. In what seemed like no time, the second stump had caught up in size to the first one, and the leaves on both were looking lovely and dark green. The only issue? I still had yet to read any instructions on how to regrow celery. I scanned the internet and realized my little sproutlings were long overdo for being potted up in soil. I remedied this immediately, hoping it would also encourage them to send out roots:

This is by far a work in progress, but they are still going strong. If all goes well, I may eventually plant one or both outside, which would give them more room to grow. If nothing else, this has been a fun experiment in waste not/want not gardening :-) It's cost me nothing but a little time combined with a minimum of effort, and in return given me the pleasure of growing something during these chilly weeks of no-longer-Winter but not-quite-Spring. So, the next time you have the end of something lying around...


Monday, April 06, 2015

Easy Being Green: Catalan Spinach

My favorite way to eat greens is simply sauteed in a bit of olive oil or butter, seasoned lightly with salt and pepper. In recent years, I've enjoyed the classic Mediterranean greens often described as Catalan Spinach at various eateries, but for some reason never thought to make it at home. I could see there were only a few ingredients needed, resulting in those wonderful sweet-savory flavors for which this dish is known. However, I felt sure there was some underlying technique or finesse which I wouldn't be able to replicate in my kitchen. I pictured myself being disappointed and discouraged, with nothing but some wilted greens to ease my troubled mind. Thankfully, I finally did try it—not only was it extremely easy to make, it was extremely fast as well!

Catalan Spinach with Dried Currants and Garlic

Catalan Spinach

2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, sliced
3-4 Tablespoons dried currants
11 oz. baby spinach
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large, wide saucepan over medium-low heat, gently simmer olive oil and garlic, stirring frequently, for 3-5 minutes. Add currants and continue to simmer for another few minutes, until all the currants are soft and coated with the garlicky oil. Add spinach and wilt, covered, turning the leaves over as needed (you may need to add the spinach in batches depending on the size and depth of your pan). Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot or warm.

Notes: Substitute baby Swiss chard or baby kale for the baby spinach, or use regular spinach (removing any tough stems and veins). In place of the currants, use regular or golden raisins. For added flavor and crunch, sprinkle with toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds before serving. Adjust quantities of oil, garlic and currants to taste, or as needed for larger/smaller quantities of greens. Adapted from the always helpful Joy of Cooking.


Friday, April 03, 2015

Recipe Roundup: Let's Do Brunch

As the days grow longer, it's natural to be out and about more, enjoying the sun and fresh air. Of course, you'll still want to sleep in on the weekends! Eventually, you'll also need to eat, and that means indulging in the best meal ever invented: brunch. Here's a selection of both sweet and savory items, perfect for Saturdays and Sundays - or any day you want something comforting :-)

Ham and Cheese Strata: My go-to, one-dish meal that's as easy as it is forgiving. A great way to reinvent those odds and ends hanging out in the fridge as well.

Salmon and White Bean Salad: Simple and satisfying, with lots of protein to keep you going for the day - even if you're just lazing on the couch ;-)

Heirloom Tomato Cobbler: A savory twist on a classic. If tomatoes aren't in season, use your favorite cooked/grilled vegetables in their place.

Brown Sugar-Cinnamon Scones: The name says it all - and what could be better?

Maple-Pecan Breakfast Muffins: Easy, sweet, and full of flavor. Like a pancake you can hold in your hand!