Be Brave Brownies

There are times when I forget how much bravery and faith it takes to step into the kitchen some days.

No one is born knowing how to cook. Everyone knows how to eat from day one, but producing the meals which get consumed over a lifetime is a learned skill. Some people master those skills early on and for them cooking becomes like a second language. Others acquired their culinary skills as needed – when they get their first apartment or in my Mom’s case, when she married and had a family to feed. I’ve noticed that for some of those late kitchen bloomers the joys of cooking are abundant while others simply tolerate their time in the kitchen because there is a need both to eat and feed people. For me being around food and cooking is akin to breathing. I do it unconsciously. There is a comfort level I’ve attained both from my love of food as well as from the hours and hours I’ve stood in front of a stove.

folding in chocolate to oatmeal batter

I don’t want to sound cocky because it wasn’t always this intuitive. I enjoyed learning to cook, but I also had to work at it. There were such spectacular failures along the way its amazing I ever took up a spatula again. For some people completely losing their eyebrows in a gas oven lighting fiasco might have turned them away from food, or at least from cooking on gas appliances, but not me (and it turns out eyebrows do grow back and you really shouldn’t wait three minutes to strike the match once the gas is on). There was a memorable visit to my parent’s kitchen from the Manlius Fire Department after I had accidentally set the stove top on fire using my new wok. The disasters have given me pause, but not frightened me out of the kitchen. There have also been some foods I’m not entirely comfortable around. Ok, I’ll say it – there are a few foods which have scared me because they were strange (offals) or dangerous (spun sugar) or had a reputation for being complicated and temperamental (chocolate). Yup, I said chocolate.

Chocolate and I go way back. I adore chocolate so much I think it should have its own line on the food pyramid. I consume some nearly every day. When we were first dating my husband noticed this obsession and asked what would happen if chocolate were illegal. I replied that he would be visiting me in jail with a file baked into a vanilla cake. Really, did he think if chocolate were illegal I would abstain from it??? Silly man. Life without chocolate? Unthinkable. I love chocolate. The thing is chocolate in some forms can be temperamental. It can seize if you add liquid at the wrong moment or turn grainy if not heated properly. There are so many ways it can misbehave. More to the point I just hadn’t tried to make many chocolate desserts beyond the classic Nestlé Toll House Chocolate Chip cookie. Even my Mom who doesn’t love being in the kitchen is able to whip up a chocolate mousse which is so velvety smooth and deliciously chocolatey you ask for seconds and then thirds. I was a chocolate wuss.

ghirardelli unsweetened chocolate

This hesitancy towards chocolate was quickly noted by my two bosses at the Leaf ‘n Bean Café after they hired me as their baker. Alan and John explained they expected me to have at least one chocolate item on the dessert menu every single day. “Sure, no problem,” I told them as I inwardly said to myself, “Shit, shit, shit what am I going to make?” One of the waitresses took pity on me and gave me the recipe for the best chocolate cake ever. A regular customer at the café heard about my conundrum and slipped me the recipe for her no fail brownies. What I quickly learned was you didn’t need to be afraid of chocolate – you just need a good recipe and a little faith.

It turns out that most chocolate desserts aren’t hard or scary. I’ll grant you making fancy chocolate that needs to be tempered is tricky, but there are so many chocolate dessert recipes which are “Easy Peasy” as Jamie Oliver says. If you are craving gourmet chocolate bonbons there are plenty of fabulous chocolatiers out there who can make them for you. I am particularly fond of L.A. Burdick. Beyond the fancy stuff I suggest you take a deep breath, find a good recipe, and head into the kitchen.

chocolate chip brownies

For everyday chocolate consumption it doesn’t get much simpler than brownies. Practically fail proof*, quick to make, as well as delicious, home-made brownies are as easy to whip up as their boxed Betty Crocker cousins. Brownies are the all American chocolate equivalent of apple pie, and like apple pie you can notch them up by serving them à la mode.

Here’s a tip from Maida Heatter on how to line your brownie pan with foil. Spread a sheet of foil over the outside of the pan and press the foil to follow the shape of the pan. Then slide the foil off and flip the baking pan over. Gently nudge the pre-formed foil into the inside of the pan and secure the ends by wrapping them over the edge of the pan.

forming the foil insert

Brave Brownies

I wish I remembered the customer’s name who gave me this recipe all those years ago. I’d like to thank her all over again for the kindness she showed to me when I was learning to navigate my way into a daily routine of chocolate desserts. Perhaps these should be called Thank You Brownies.

1 stick of unsalted butter (1/2 cup)

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2  - 2/3 cup flour (moist to cakey)

1/4 cup cocoa (optional)¹

pinch of salt

a handful or two of extra bits like chocolate chips, chopped walnuts or dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Flip over a 8″ x 8″ baking pan and smooth a sheet of foil over the outside – I have gotten very fond of non-stick foil recently. Gently lift the foil which is now shaped like your pan place it into the inside of the baking pan. Since the foil has the overall shape of the pan it should be easy to snug it in. The foil will make removal of your finished brownies, and clean up, a snap.

In a small saucepan heat the butter and unsweetened chocolate until melted over a low heat. Give it a stir every so often as they’re melting, then set aside to cool when both the chocolate and butter are melted.

In  medium bowl beat together the eggs, sugar and vanilla. Add the melted butter and chocolate. Finally stir in the flour, cocoa (if using) and salt. I beat it 50 times which is the number from the back of a box of brownie mix. Silly, but one of my quirks. You can simply beat until combined and then pour into the pan. If you want to add any “extra bits” you can either fold them in or sprinkle them on top.

Bake 22-27 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out with just a few crumbs on it. Cool for at least 20-30 minutes before trying to cut because warm brownies will cling to the knife.

oatmeal flour

Gluten Free Brownies 

Many years ago I worked with a food stylist who was starting to transition from food styling to writing cookbooks. I remember three things about Carol Gelles – her generosity to her assistants; her telling me about the deal she had with God when it came to dirty dishes – she washed and he dried; and lastly her recipe for oatmeal brownies. Back then I didn’t think of them as gluten-free, but they are made with oat flour so this is a perfect alternative for any of your friends who have an intolerance or sensitivity to gluten. If someone has a severe allergy make sure you get oats that say they are gluten free. This version is pretty much the same brownie recipe if you look at them side by side.

1 stick of unsalted butter (1/2 cup)

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup oat flour (made from 1 cup oatmeal)

1/4 cup cocoa (optional) ²

pinch of salt

a handful or two of extra bits like chocolate chips, chopped walnuts or dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Flip over a 8″ x 8″ baking pan and smooth a sheet of foil over it. Gently lift the foil off then gentle the foil into the inside of the pan to make getting them out of the pan easy.

In a small saucepan heat the butter and unsweetened chocolate until melted. Give it a stir every so often until both are melted, then set aside to cool while you put together the other ingredients.

In medium bowl beat together the eggs, sugar and vanilla for three minutes. To make the oat flour process the oatmeal in a food processor until you have flour 3-6 minutes depending on your machine. Add the oat flour and salt to the melted butter and chocolate. Stir that mixture into the beaten eggs and sugar. If you want to add any “extra bits” mix in a few handfuls into the batter or sprinkle them on top.

Bake 33-38 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out with just a few crumbs on it. Cool for at least 20-30 minutes before trying to cut because warm brownies will cling to the knife.

oatmeal gluten free brownies

* I will give someone out there the benefit of the doubt that they could somehow screw these up, if only to be perverse or because they tried to mess up.

¹ Having made these brownies for every school event since writing this post I have decided I really like a small amount of cocoa added in. Since cocoa is similar in texture to flour you may want to consider reducing your total amount of flour used so the brownies don’t get too cake-y. Also my preferred brand is Ghiradelli, which while more expensive than regular cocoa is well worth the extra cost when it comes to taste.

² I have been adding a small amount of cocoa to the oatmeal variation too since it is gluten free and similar in texture to flour. As I mentioned in the previous recipe my preferred a high end brand such as Ghiradelli. 

PS – These brownies have been so easy to make I’ve been making them (and tweaking them) twice a week for the last two months. One of my favorites was when I had some left over cocoa powder and chocolate truffle filling. I chilled the chocolate truffle filling then chopped it into little chunks and mixed that along with the Valrhona cocoa powder into the batter. Because I didn’t think to take some of the flour out to compensate for the cocoa I added these brownies were more on the cake-y side, but the chocolate flavor was amazing. Here is one of my variations –

M&M chocolate brownies ready to bake

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Raspberries, Napkin Rings and Crackers with Cream Cheese and Jelly

Mountain Day

Last Thursday was Mountain Day at Smith College. How do I know? Was I wandering the streets of Northampton when the bells began to ring? Did I happen to be in an apple orchard in a nearby farm which was suddenly overrun by Smithies? No, it was much more mundane. I received an email from the president informing all alumni she’d given student and faculty the day off. I didn’t give myself the day off, though I was tempted. Instead i took some time to enjoy a view of the hills from behind the town library. My own Mountain Day moment.

It’s funny the things you remember about college. With our eldest daughter in her freshman year at University of New Haven I’ve been thinking about my alma mater often. Especially the quirky little food memories which have stuck with me for more than a quarter of a century.

napkin ring

Every Thursday night Smith would serve us a family style dinner by candlelight, complete with linen napkins and tablecloths. I loved those cloth napkins and so did my mother. She was so entranced with the tradition she got me my very own cloisonné napkin holder. The cloth napkins took a little getting used to since unlike paper napkins where you use and dispose of them after every meal our linen napkins had to last us for a week. If it became too grubby you could put them in the napkin hamper, then use paper until the following Thursday when you got a fresh cloth napkin. We even had our own individual napkin cubbies in the dinning hall.

Smith’s food was what we referred to as “grade A institutional food”. Great food considering it was made in such large quantities, but by no means home cooking. Every so often I’d go on the hunt for something that wasn’t made for 100+ students or that was rare enough to be a considered an out-of-dining-hall treat. One fall, around this time of year, one of my best friends Jim Ferguson and I were wandering around the farmer’s market in Amherst, Massachusetts. As much as I loved Smith, it was nice to occasionally get off campus and cross the river to visit Ferg and his friends at Amherst College. One booth was selling small boxes of what were probably the last of the fall raspberries. We bought two. Half a pint of heavy cream, two bowls, and two spoons later we locked ourselves in Ferg’s room. No sharing. No talking. Just gobbling fresh raspberries swimming in heavy cream. One small box each. It was perfect.

Raspberries and heavy cream

I’m sure many of the meals we ate were amazing, after all with Julia Child and Charlotte Turgeon as two of our illustrious alums college dining services had something to aspire to. The funny thing is it isn’t the fancy food I recall (and still eat) but the simplest. It is the humblest of desserts. Probably something thrown together when the cooks were just so tired of feeding us they wanted to weep and throw their ladles in the soup. And we loved it. We acted like a bunch of hungry sharks circling around a hurt fish. It required no cooking and no prep. Are you ready? Cream cheese, Ritz Saltine crackers and jelly. If you think about it it’s almost like a deconstructed cheesecake. Don’t believe me about how good this is? I dare you to try it.

Crackers, cream cheese and jam

What are your favorite college food memories?

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Focaccia – A Love Story

I believe in Romance with a capital R. My Grammy Thompson was adored by her beloved Teed before and after they were secretly married. My parents met on a blind double date and walked down the aisle twelve months later. My husband Shawn and I were introduced by mutual friends (yep-another blind date). One week later a different set of mutual friends tried to get us together, only to realize we’d already been introduced. Then there is one of my favorite romantic stories involving my brother Jay, his (now) wife Leah, and a loaf of rosemary focaccia.

Jay and Leah

My brother, like a lot of guys, was pretty quiet about his romantic interests. After all I am his big sister and telling me about different girls he was interested in would have been weird in that sibling “ew cooties” kind of way. However what was a guy to do in the days before the internet and cooking channel if he needed food advice? His choices were at the time limited to A) buying a cookbook B) buying a cooking magazine or C) calling his big sister. Which is what lead to me giving my baby brother advice about dating food.

Truthfully I don’t remember the whole menu, but I do remember one food I strongly recommended he make because it was guaranteed to impress – focaccia. The tricky part was I had to teach him how to do it over the phone. He managed the proofing of the yeast and initial mixing of the flour just fine, but I could hear that he’d run into a problem when he started to knead the dough. Jay had me on speakerphone since his hands were sticky with dough (remember this was over twenty years ago when the closest thing to skype was the George Jetson’s phone). What I heard was a whole lot of nothing. Here’s how the conversation went –

“Why aren’t you grunting?”

“Why should I?”

“You’re supposed to be kneading the bread dough, not just rolling it around!”

“I am kneading it, you just can’t see me!”

“Well then I need to hear you huffing and puffing with the effort of kneading.”

I am (huff) putting effort (puff) into kneading (grunt) this dough!!!”

“Better. Do that for ten minutes. It should feel like a baby’s bum soon.”

“How the heck (grunt) am I supposed to know (huff) about baby’s butts (puff)!?!”

A few phone calls later he had the focaccia in the oven and something simmering on the stove. When I asked my brother how his date had liked the dinner (and especially the focaccia) he told me, “Great.” Why is it that brothers are so reluctant to give post date details?

dipping focaccia in extra virgin olive oil

It wasn’t until a few years after Jay and Leah were married that I finally got to hear the inside scoop of how the focaccia was actually received. My sister-in-law said the date was indeed fabulous (after all she married my little brother!!) and after dinner Jay had given her the rest of the focaccia to take home. She was going to visit her parents the next day and wanted to show them this amazing bread which this fabulous guy had made for her. She took the remains of the focaccia, balanced carefully across the palms of her two hands, and walked into her parent’s kitchen. Since it was Sunday morning, and Leah was gazing so reverently at this piece of bread, her mother thought she was bringing them some sort of large, misshapen communion wafer. She looked up at her mom and said, “Mom, he made this for me!

If you haven’t ever tried it focaccia is a flattish bread filled with herbs then drizzled liberally with olive oil before baking. Perfect for nibbling on before or with a meal. I often serve it with a shallow dish of extra virgin olive oil.

Rosemary Focaccia

1  1/2 cups warm water

1 package yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

1-2 teaspoons honey

3  1/2 – 4 cups flour (I do a 4:1 ratio of white to whole wheat but all white is fine)

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup olive oil plus 2-3 Tablespoons more

4 Tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, divided

1/2 cup sautéed onion slices (optional)

1/2 cup pitted olives (optional)

Proof the yeast by mixing the warm water with the honey and sprinkling the yeast over the top. When yeasts bubbles to the top of the water and “foams” it is good to go. Start with 3 cups of flour/s, salt, 1/4 cup olive oil, and 2 Tablespoons ripped up rosemary leaves. Mix together into a shaggy ball and plop out onto a flour covered counter to knead.

shaggy focaccia dough before kneading

Knead for ten minutes, adding enough flour to keep dough from sticking to your counter. Huffing and puffing show you’re putting some effort into this. The dough should be quite soft, though not sticky when you’re done. Place into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and let rise until double about 2-3 hours.

smooth as a baby's bum (focaccia after kneading)

Once dough has doubled punch it down and knead a few times to remove any air bubbles. Roll or pat it our to about 1/2″ thick rectangle and place on parchment covered or lightly oiled jelly roll pan. Cover with tea towel and let rise another 30-40 minutes. About half way through the second rising preheat oven to 400ºF. When dough has doubled again make several random indentations with the tips of your fingers. Then drizzle 2-3 Tablespoons of olive oil over the top (it will pool in the indentations) and sprinkle the remaining 2 Tablespoons of rosemary leaves over top. If you want you can sprinkle with a touch of coarse salt.

rosemary focaccia ready to go into the oven

If you want you can add sautéed onions and or olives. It starts to become a pizza without the cheese or sauce, but focaccia is flexible enough to handle a couple more ingredients.

Pop in the oven and bake 15-20 minutes or until the focaccia is nicely browned. Serve as is on a board so people can pull chunks off as they eat or with a small bowl of olive oil.

Leah and Jay twenty years later

Disclaimer: Just because this bread is so awesome doesn’t necessarily mean that whomever you make it for will want to marry you. But it could happen…

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Teeny Tiny Spoons – Favorite Tool #12

Spoons are an important kitchen tool. Stirring, scooping, ladling, serving – a spoon is often the first thing I reach for. On my kitchen counters, and in many drawers I’ve got wooden spoons, metal spoons, one funky yellow plastic spoon, as well as my blue and white enameled cup full of teeny tiny spoons which sits right next to the stove. Spoons are one of the habits I picked up from my Grammy Caldwell.  Taste as you cook, but only use a spoon once to taste with. Grammy was soooo ahead of the curve. She was against double dipping before the phrase double dipping existed! I am sure they drilled all the Home Economics students at Syracuse University about cleanliness and proper sanitation in the kitchen. Grammy did her best to pass some of those ideas along.
teeny tiny spoons

What I loved about the Gram’s tasting spoons was you could always tell how close the pot of food on the stove was to being done when you looked into her white enameled sink. The more tasting spoons there were scattered across the sink, the more likely the food would soon be heading to the table. Below is how many spoons it took to adjust the seasonings in the quinoa tabouli I made the other night.

small tasting spoons in sink

The cup of teeny tiny spoons in my kitchen is also a strange little three dimensional map of our lives. Baby food spoons from Isabelle and Russell’s first forays into solid food, porcelain spoons from a visit to China town in NYC, small espresso spoons from when my friend Eva introduced me to espresso with a twist of lemon peel and two cubes of sugar, bright plastic spoons from a photo shoot. It’s a cup full of history even though I’m probably the only one who remembers most of it.

boys with small spoonsThe other thing teeny tiny spoons are good for is eating little bowls of yummy. Like the last vestiges of peach cobbler which our friend’s sons Mateo and Lucas are doing above. Little spoons make little bits of food last just a little bit longer.

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Turn Up the Heat

We’ve been thinking a lot about driving lately. Isabelle takes her driving test today. Russell is studying for his permit test. Which means everyone is learning about stuff they didn’t know. Like how to parallel park (trickier than you might think), how tinted the windows of your car can be (35% who knew?), and what to do if your car starts to skid out of control (don’t break and steer into the skid). The last one got me to thinking that if you should turn your car into a skid does that mean when the weather gets nasty-hot outside should you turn up the heat in your food?

Last week the weather was brutal. One friend wrote on her Facebook wall –

“Even in this putrid, humid heat, I’m reading all kinds of status updates of people running 5 miles, biking, etc…and I’m just sitting here thinking how proud I was when I went and got the mail without fainting.”

That pretty much sums it up, surviving this most recent heat wave feels like an accomplishment. The question is how do you cook dinner when walking into the kitchen causes you to break a sweat? Do you serve popsicles and plates of uncooked food? In part that has been my default strategy – when the temperatures are close to 100° I stop actually cooking (which is ironic since many restaurant kitchens I’ve worked in were 101° + in the summers). But if you apply the skid rule to food then when the temperatures soar you should turn up the heat in your food rather than trying to make it colder. In counties where it is really hot the cuisines often have a spicy component to them. Think of Indian curries and tandoori or the hot jabanaro peppers used in Mexican cuisine. It’s not that everything from these cuisines will burn your tongue off, but taking a bite of something that makes you sweat seems to counteract the heat outside.

hot peppers

So I’ve been adding more zip and spice to our food. Extra raw garlic in the pesto, and hotter peppers in our Samosas. Samosas are savory Indian pasties meant to be served as an appetizer or snack. My gang likes them so much we make a meal of them. Our favorites are the Aloo Samosas which are filled with potatoes, peas, onions, and plenty of spices. In the winter I use jalapeno peppers and bake the samosas in the oven. The more traditional method is to fry them, which I do in the summer. I also use cayenne or Thai peppers (easy to grow or find them at most farmer’s markets) to bring up the spice level in the warmer months. Despite the main ingredient being potatoes these little pockets of yummy are full of flavor – coriander, garam masala, fresh ginger, and of course hot peppers. This recipe is a tweaked version of Julie Sahni‘s from her book Classic Indian Cooking.

Baked potato samosas

Potato Samosas

Dough

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening

1/2 – 3/4 cups cold water

Put the flour, salt and shortening in a medium bowl. You then want to rub the fat into the flour so you take some flour in your hand and a little shortening and smear them together. You keep doing this until all the fat has been smooshed between clumps of flour and all the flour has bits of shortening in it.  Then add around 1/3 cup of cold water and mix. Keep adding more water until the dough comes together. The amount of water depends on the weather/humidity so start slow and work up. You don’t want the dough oozing, nor do you want it crumbling. When you think you’ve got it right knead the dough for about 10 minutes. If it feels a bit dry dribble in more water. It should be as soft as a baby’s bottom when you’re done kneading. Wrap it in plastic wrap and let rest for 30-60 minutes.

stuffing samosas

Filling

1  1/2 pounds potatoes, cut into chunks (7-8 medium)

1 medium to large onion, chopped into small pieces

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

2 teaspoons ground coriander (or you can use the seeds)

2  1/2 – 3 teaspoons garam masala

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

2-3 fresh chilies (jalapeño or Thai), seeded and finely chopped

1-2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2  1/2 – 3 1/2  teaspoons salt

1 generous cup peas, or more if you like peas

Boil the potatoes until you can easily slide a fork or knife in them. Peeling (or not) is up to you. While the potatoes are cooking sauté the onion, ginger, coriander, and garam masala in vegetable oil. Your nose will go into hyperdrive at this point. When the onions are soft, add the chilies. Depending on which chilies you use your eyes may start to water. Once the potatoes are cooked, drain them and throw them into the sauté pan with the cooked onions, you may need to crumble them with your fingers to make them smaller – you don’t want mashed potatoes, nor do you want large chunks which can break through the dough. Add the salt and lemon juice to taste. When you’ve had two or three tastes stir in the peas and taste once more.

baking samosas instead of frying

If you’re baking the samosas turn the oven on to 400°F and line a jelly roll pan with parchment paper. If you’re frying them get out a cast iron fry pan and fill it with 1″ vegetable oil. To make the samosas you’ll need some flour for rolling out the dough and a bit of water to seal the pastries. Cut off large walnut size lumps of dough and roll into a 5″ circle. Cut in half and scoop a generous Tablespoon of filling into the half circle. Dab a little water along the cut edge and pinch the seam together. Then with a little more water dabbed on the curved edge fold it over and seal. You’ll have a lumpy little triangle-esque form.

frying samosas

Depending on your cooking method either place samosas on the jelly roll pan or into the hot vegetable oil. If you’re baking them drizzle with olive or vegetable oil and bake 30-40 minutes, flipping once and adding more oil if necessary. The look and texture of the dough is different from baking (they’re not fried after all), however they are still very yummy.  If you’re frying them have the oil at medium high and cook until all sides of the samosa are a golden brown. Drain on paper towels. We like to serve them with chutney.

potato samosas

This weather has been intense. Our Sumac Deforestation project is on hold because I’m worried we’d all suffer from heat stroke. I’ve been fantasizing about moving somewhere near the arctic circle. That sounds nice and cool. Also rereading this post and this one from last summer. What are you doing to stay cool?

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My Garlic Twists to the Right

I do not consider myself directionally challenged, however when I harvested our garlic over the weekend it appears I have trouble with up and down. Look at the photo and notice how all the heads of garlic swing to the right. When you plant garlic you separate a head into individual cloves then stick them in the ground late fall – pointy end up. After that you forget about it all winter, snap off the scapes in the early summer, and harvest the bulbs in July (one clove grows into one head). It’s really pretty easy. Or so I thought until I began pulling up heads which were somewhat stuck because of their right hooks.

garlic that swings to the right

In our house we go through fifty pounds of garlic a year. You’d think we were brushing our teeth with it or suffered from a vampire infestation in the basement. If someone ever forced me to get rid of all the herbs in my cupboard  I would rip up the floorboards and jam heads of garlic down where no one could see. I would become a garlic horder.

Fall Garlic Planting

Our family uses garlic granulated, frozen, but most of all fresh. We slip it into almost every dish. So this past fall I committed to growing a serious crop of garlic to try and minimize what we buy at the farmer’s markets and stores. We shall see how long it lasts.

Garlic hanging on fence

Not all of my garlic was twisted. Heck, I didn’t even plant everything I harvested. There was a surprise crop (above) which volunteered itself from an old garden in our yard. We must have garlic elves in our yard looking out for our extreme garlicy needs.

Straight garlic

As I’ve mentioned before I am not the world’s best gardener. If you want to know more about growing garlic check out Margaret Roach’s blog. My seed garlic was purchased from Dan, the garlic guy, at the Amherst Farmer’s Market. Directional disclaimer – Dan’s instructions do say plant the garlic cloves pointy end up. So it wasn’t his fault this year’s garlic crop was wacky.

Midsummer harvest - garlic and lilies

After the garlic harvest I make a huge batch of pesto. The basil is usually ready (if I didn’t dawdle in the spring getting it planted) so I just have to make sure there are plenty of pine nuts and olive oil on hand. This is not a classic pesto where I carefully grind everything together with a giant mortar and pestle. Nope, my mini food processor does the trick – zip, zap, zoop.

Basil plugs ready to plant in spring

I’m not going to give you portions because everyone’s tolerance for garlic varies. We use 15-24 cloves of garlic for a small batch of pesto (2 cups) which might be overwhelming to some. My rule of thumb is have a loaf of bread next to you and taste as you go, adjusting the garlic-basil-olive oil-nut ratio.

Basic Pesto

Basic Pesto

Fresh garlic, peeled

Basil leaves

Pine Nuts (or almonds or walnuts)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Shredded Parmesan cheese (optional)

I start by putting in what seems a “normal” amount of garlic – 2-4 heads worth, depending on their size. We like our pesto to have bite. Fast spin in the food processor to roughly chop the garlic. Then in goes some olive oil and as many basil leaves as I can jam into my mini processor. Whizz some more and taste. Usually it takes several go rounds to add enough basil. I taste little spoonfuls of the evolving pesto on bread or plain crackers as I go. When it gets close to perfect I add the pine nuts, since they are soft and can disappear if you add them sooner. I pulse until they are chopped but haven’t disappeared. Throughout this process I drizzle in olive oil to keep the mixture slightly loose. It’s not soup (though you can add pesto to soups), nor should it be paste unless you’re planning on using it as such. You are in charge and running this food processor after all.

When it tastes good to you, scoop out the finished pesto and cover with a thin layer of olive oil to keep it from oxidizing. Or freeze in small containers (I sometimes use an ice cube tray), again with a small layer of olive oil on top. We add cheese at the table since some of us don’t do well with dairy.

Garlic harvest 2013

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Treasure Among the Weeds

I think the all time scariest Dr. Who episode is Weeping Angels. Weeping Angels are stone statues who will kill you if you blink or look away. So don’t blink – don’t ever, ever blink. Sumac is the plant version of a weeping angel. Some people mistakenly think it is a decorative shrub, which is like saying weeping angels are just statues. While sumac may not kill you like a weeping angel would, you have to be careful because if ignored it will take over your yard. I’m not just talking a little bit, it will become the equivalent of a jungle. Plus it likes to invite its friends – other invasive species such as bittersweet and wild grapevine.

Sumac forest

Sure the birds love it. I will admit it does look pretty in the fall when its leaves turn a brilliant red. In certain cultures they cook with the dried sumac fruit. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright even used sumac as a design motif in one of his houses. Here’s the newsflash though – I am willing to bet cold, hard cash Mr. Wright never ever had to deal with a sumac invasion himself. Either he had a team of gardeners to prune and cut everything back or he left the sumac infected area to go design another house before the invasion became apparent.

wild rose bush

I vaguely remember my parents not liking the sumac in our neighbor’s yard. At that point though I was eighteen and didn’t understand their concern/disdain for the plant. Then twenty years ago my husband and I moved to our house and decided there was really too much lawn to mow. So we seeded a wildflower garden. That was pretty for a few years. While we were lulled into those first few years of flowery abundance the sumac saw its chance. It crept underground from the edges of our property to this open field we had created and started sprouting up. We ignored it because we were busy with other things. So the sumac grew and Grew and GREW. Suddenly we realized we could no longer see our garden or the beehives. In fact the garden itself was getting a lot less sun than it used to. Our wintertime sledding hill had become a dense maze of sumac trunks. We had done the long, slow blink, and the sumac had taken over.

wild black raspberries

So 2013 has become the summer of what I am calling The Sumac Deforestation Project. My kids and some of their friends have been hacking, chopping, digging, pulling, and uprooting all the invasive plants that have done their best to take over our yard. Along the way we’ve come across a few treasures among the weeds. These include clumps of blackberry vines, wild rose bushes, some really delicious black raspberries which we’ve been munching this last week, and an awesome blue stone which will eventually become a step into the playhouse. So deep in the forest of sumac there have been a few jewels, they just haven’t been spectacular enough to justify maintaining the invasive forest.

starting to cut back the sumac

sumac cut and ready to clear

almost cleared field

moving the blue stone

unloading the blue stone

So thanks Isabelle, Russell, Eamon, Addie, Milo, and Shawn. The deforestation project is coming along nicely.

Oh and those black raspberries I mentioned? They’re going on some buttermilk waffles with a drizzle of maple syrup – yum!

Buttermilk waffles with black raspberries

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