Monday, October 31, 2011

Foraging Walnuts

This weekend we enjoyed wonderful warm fall weather and took advantage of it by taking a trip to up Apple Hill. We drove away with fresh cider, a dried lavender bouquet, Pink Lady and Rome Beauty apples, and a bag full of walnuts we had foraged from a streetside tree. Then, a friend offered to let us gather walnuts from her tree as well.

The good news:

The bad news:

We still have a long ways to go, but just think - bags and bags of free walnuts to last a year! (That's how long they keep in the freezer.) I'm a big fan of adding nuts to all sorts of baked goods; cakes, cookies, and crisps are all better with some toasted nuts. Here's to free food!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pumpkin Lasagna

The garden yielded us a total of 13 pumpkins. I'm pretty sure the packet of seeds we planted said New England pie pumpkins, but these guys are way bigger than we expected them to be! We are going to have plenty of pumpkin for Thanksgiving next month and more than enough to share with friends.

Now I'm on the hunt for pumpkin recipes, especially those that take pumpkin beyond pie status to the dinner plate. I have read that any recipe calling for butternut squash can use pumpkin instead, so I have lots of room to experiment with that hypothesis. Here is my version of a recipe that I tried this week for Pumpkin Lasagna.

I was a little trepidatious when I first envisions a pumpkin lasagna, thinking of cutting into a square and finding a thick layer of pumpkin filling, but it wasn't how I imagined it - it was much prettier and tastier. The pumpkin puree is blended with soft ricotta and other cheeses for a creamy golden layer that sits besides your traditional layers of pasta sauce, noodles, meat and vegetables. I love the versatility of lasagna as a season dish that you can throw zucchini and eggplant into in summer, then pumpkin in the fall. This is definitely a recipe I would make again.

Pumpkin Lasagna

1 medium onion, chopped
4 to 6 garlic chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound lean ground beef or Italian sausage, casings removed
4 handfuls baby spinach
2 jars of prepared pasta sauce
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and spices, to taste
1 pound low-fat ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese + extra for topping
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups pumpkin puree
1 pound no-boil lasagna noodles

In a large heavy skillet, over medium heat, saute onion and garlic in the olive oil until translucent. Add meat and cook until brown, breaking it up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Add spinach and cook for 5 more minutes. Set aside.

In a large bowl mixing together the ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. Add eggs, pumpkin puree and salt and pepper, to taste. Mix very well.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Build your lasagna in a large (9 by 12-inch) starting with a layer of sauce, a layer of pasta, a layer of half the sausage and a layer of half the filling. Add another layer of pasta, sauce, the remaining sausage and the filling. Finish with a layer of pasta and a layer of sauce. Sprinkle some mozzarella cheese on top and bake for 25 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Health Food at the Dollar Store?

A while back, I went to the Dollar Store in search of "real" food. I generally think of the food sold there as horrible both in quality and nutrition - you know, Banquet pot pies and generic soda pop. Then my co-worker told me he sometimes finds actual healthy food there, randomly. Their selection isn't consistent, but will sometimes offer unexpected pleasant surprises. He advised me to go with an open mind and see what I could find.

I took his advice and the next time I went to the Dollar Store, I wandered the food aisles. I was pleased to find a bag of whole fax seeds, an fantastic source of Omega 3 fatty acids. But what to do with them? I added some to a fruit smoothie once, but today I may have found the best use ever: multi-seed bread.

This bread had an excellent flavor and texture. I loved the subtle little crunchy bits of seeds
tucked inside the slightly sweet, freshly baked bread. I have a feeling that my whole flax seeds are going to find their way into many more loaves of bread. And the best part is, they only set me back a dollar.

Seed Bread

2 cups of warm water
¼ c. honey
2 ¼ tsp (1 package) active dry yeast
¼ c. olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 ½ c. whole wheat flour
2 ½ c. bread flour
½ c. sunflower seeds
½ c. flax seeds

Dissolve honey in warm water in a large bowl, then sprinkle 2 1/4 tsp of yeast over the top and let proof for 10 minutes. Then add oil and salt. Next, stir in all flours and seeds with a wooden spoon until flour is dissolved. Turn onto a clean surface and knead until the dough is smooth. Place dough in an oiled bowl and let rise for 1 hour. Divide dough into 2 loaves and place in 2 oiled bread pans, then let rise again for 45 min. Bake at 375 for 30 minutes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jam Filled Oatmeal Bars

I am never without extra jam on hand. My pantry is currently stocked with strawberry raspberry, strawberry rhubarb, fig strawberry, apricot vanilla, and sugar plum jam, not to mention way too much orange marmalade that I really need to start using up... But that's an idea for another day's blog post.

Tonight I brought these utterly simple bars to a church activity and they were a big hit. With whole wheat flour and rolled oats, they aren't overly sweet, but pleasantly satisfying, chewy and moist. One could almost justify these bars as an acceptable breakfast food on the go. And they are an excellent way to use that extra jam you might have in the fridge or pantry. Enjoy!

Jam-Filled Oatmeal Bars

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup whole wheat

1 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup butter, softened

1/3 cup brown sugar firmly packed

1/4 t baking powder

1/8 t salt

3/4 cup jam (I used strawberry rhubarb)

Preheat oven 375 degrees, and in a large bowl mix everything together but the jam.

Measure two cups of the mixture and press into the bottom of an 8 inch square baking dish coated with cooking spray. Using a large spoon, distribute jam evenly over the mixture in the dish.

Take remaining mixture and sprinkle on top of the jam and press down lightly.

Bake 25 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool in dish for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pan-Fried Butternut Squash, Fried Sage and Pine Nuts

There's a slight chill in the morning air. Autumn has finally arrived in Northern California, bringing high temperatures of 70's to 80's. Suddenly I find myself craving kale and butternut squash, soups and stews.

I bought a butternut squash at a farmer's market this week, because it simply seemed like the thing to do. As I contemplated the possibilities, I decided I wanted something heartier than butternut squash soup, although I also have a good recipe for that classic autumn dish as well.
I thought of one of my favorite dishes at a certain Italian restaurant, a tender ravioli filled with butternut squash in a creamy sauce with fried sage.

Not being ambitious enough to hand roll my own pasta, I settled upon a recipe that used farfalle but the same classic flavors of squash and sage, along with pine nuts for a crunch. We used sage from our yard, which is happily thriving now that it can sink its roots into actual earth, and two small Walla Walla onions still hanging in there from the garden.

The final product was addictive - sweet, salty, herbaceous, it had all of my favorite elements from the more complicated ravioli dish, but with a fraction of the effort. I declare it the perfect hearty supper for a cool fall night.

Pasta Pan-Fried with Butternut Squash, Fried Sage, and Pine Nuts

From The Kitchn

1 medium butternut squash
1 small sweet onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves
1 pound farfalle pasta
3/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
4 ounces high quality Parmesan, shredded or shaved (about a cup total)

Heat the oven to 375°. Cut the butternut squash in half and scoop out the strings and seeds the middle cavity. Flip the squash halves upside down and peel them. (Note: The raw squash rind can irritate your hands. If they start to itch or tingle, wear gloves.) Cut the squash into 1-inch cubes. Toss with the onion, garlic, a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper. Mince about half of the fresh sage leaves and also toss with the squash.

Spread the squash mixture in a thin layer on a large baking sheet and roast for about 40 minutes or until the squash is soft.

Heat salted pasta water to boiling and cook the farfalle until al dente. Drain and set aside. As the squash finishes roasting, heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in a large high-sided sauté pan. The oil is ready when it pops and sputters. (Don't let it start smoking.) Drop in the rest of the sage leaves and fry for about a minute, or until they begin to just shrivel up.

Remove with a slotted spoon and salt lightly. Crush with the back of a spoon. Add half the pasta to the pan, along with half the roasted squash mixture. Crumble in half the sage. Cook, stirring frequently, for five minutes or until the pasta is heated through and getting crispy on some of the edges. Add the pine nuts and cook for another minute. Stir in half the cheese and serve. Serves 4 generously.

(Repeat the last step with the rest of the ingredients. We split it into two because none of our pans are big enough to accommodate the entire recipe. It's very important that you not crowd the pan too much - you want the pasta to really pan-fry, not just steam up.)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Raised Bed Gardening Class

This Saturday I had the pleasure of taking a class on raised bed gardening from the Sacramento Co-op. It was held at Soil Born Farm, where the co-op offers several of their more hands-on classes.
The farm is a striking place to be, with rich dark soil, flowers and vegetables everywhere you look.
Some of the fertility no doubt comes from the excellent compost they produce on site from chickens and garden scraps and add to their beds.
Some of the raised beds are simply raised mounds of dirt, formed by scooping up the topsoil to create a row to plant in; the lower ground becomes a path to walk along. Then, there is also the option of a more traditional raised bed, which may look something like this:

Note the drip line system, which is the method our instructor Antonio recommended for watering raised beds, for 30-45 minutes every other day. He also gave us a lot of information on:

- Different common weeds and the best way to eradicate them (digging/pulling them up - surprise!)
- Helpful gardening tools (including some neat Japanese ones like the hori hori)
- The right kind of dirt to add to a raised bed (topsoil, then dust the top with compost; kelp meal to add minerals)
- Where to put your raised bed (a place with receives 6-8 hours of sunlight a day; western or southern exposure are best. If you put it on grass, at least turn the sod over before you place the raised bed on top of it.)
- Best fall crops to plant locally: garlic, kale, radishes, chard, and broccoli
- Basics of how to build a raised bed (cedar or hardwood last longest; salvaged wood is cheapest. Use screws, not nails. Or use paving stones or nothing at all like I mentioned above!)

Antonio taught us that when you're gardening the right way, the earth will improve over time as you incorporate organic matter and continue to remove the weeds. Patience is certainly a virtue to be learned by growing your own food.