Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Two Favorite Things About This Christmas

Merry Christmas to us!

1) After years of waiting, we finally got a dog for Christmas. A friend gave us a 4-year-old female chihuahua, very sweet and mild mannered. She is just starting to come out of her crate and follow us around the house, tail wagging. Her favorite thing is to curl up in a ball, nuzzle her face into a blanket, and fall asleep. What a great Christmas present!

2) I found a recipe for Praline Sweet Potato Casserole in the Sacramento Bee and made it to accompany my family’s traditional Christmas dinner of prime rib. Even the avowed sweet potato haters at the table allowed that it "wasn’t bad"; the sweet potato lovers gobbled it up. This dish tastes like pumpkin pie meet pecan pie - more dessert than vegetable or side dish. Not that that’s a bad thing! You might not even need dessert after this one.

Notes: I baked the sweet potatoes the night before and stored them in an air tight container until I needed them. I reduced some of the sugar and butter in the sweet potato layer, but you’ll want to kept the proportions accurate in the praline topping to achieve the proper consistency.

Praline Sweet Potato Casserole
Serves 8 - 10


6 large sweet potatoes, scrubbed
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

Praline topping
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups pecans, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons vanilla


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pierce each potato and place in a baking pan or dish. Bake until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

In a sauce pan, heat the milk and butter until the butter has melted and the mixture is hot but not boiling. Cut (or to taste) potatoes in half and scoop out the flesh into a large bowl. Use a potato masher to mash the potatoes.

Stir in the milk-and-butter mixture. Whisk in the eggs, and continue whisking until blended well. Add the brown sugar and stir until thoroughly blended. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or pan, and spread the sweet potato mixture evenly in it. Set aside while making the topping.

Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Making the praline topping

Melt the butter in a 2-quart sauce pan over low heat. Stir in the brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cream and pecans. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is thick, about five minutes. Do not let the mixture come to a boil. Maintain a steady simmer until thick.

Remove the mixture from the heat in stir in the vanilla. Pour the topping evenly over the sweet potatoes and spread it with a rubber spatula.

Bake the casserole until the topping is slightly crusty and set, approximately 30 minutes. Serve while hot.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What I've Learned About Kale (and Beets)

Italian Lacinto Kale, aka Tuscan Kale, aka delicious kale I'm growing now

I may not have planted much by way of fall garden, but I was eager to try my hand at a few crops. Here is what I learned:

1. Baby beets tast way, WAY better than the ones from the grocery store. I plucked mine when they were about the size of golf balls and I was blown away by the silky smooth texture and sweet flavor of them.

2. The beet greens really do taste just like Swiss chard when cooked. Eat them!

3. Not all kale is created equal. I had a major kale fail earlier in the year when I tried using some almost-bad curly kale from the grocery store in a raw kale salad. It was pretty bad. But freshly picked Tuscan kale from my garden is a whole different animal. Love it! (P.S. Caldo verde is a wonderful homey soup that also uses kale!)

4. Kale tastes good on pizza, particularly this one, adapted from The Kitchn. To top our typical tomato sauce/mozzarella pizza, we cooked up some bacon instead of sausage, drained off the grease, then sauteed our kale in the same pan with a dash of red pepper flakes. Sprinkled on some fresh garlic, baked, and voila - that's one tasty way to eat leafy greens!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Planning Next Year's Garden

My mind is spinning with plans for growing two gardens next year - one at home and one at my parent's property again, for the larger, rambling viney plants like squashes and pumpkins.

My goal for 2012 is to start all of my plants from seeds, which adds quite a bit more complexity than I have previously dealt with when growing a garden. Now I must take into account frost, germination rates, soil temperature, and making sure the seedlings get enough light and heat so they don't become "leggy" and weak.

So far, I am planning on growing nearly 40 different varieties of plants next year. Some I will order online from various companies, and later this month I will pay a visit to Baker's Seed Company in Petaluma, CA.

One of the seeds I am most excited to grow is the Yellow Taxi Tomato. When we went to the Ferry Pier Farmer's Market in San Francisco this summer, I couldn't resist this array of heirloom tomatoes:

I bought a sampling of several types of tomatoes, and when I got home, laid them out for a taste test. My favorite, hands down, was a yellow tomato called Taxi (second tomato up from the bottom left in the picture). It's not one that is commonly carried by seed companies, so I had to do a bit of hunting on the internet, but today I ordered my seeds from Reimer Seeds. This vibrant yellow tomato is sweet and almost acid-free, and produces tomatoes early, after just 65 days! I can almost taste them now.

Here are the other tomatoes I've got a hankering to try my hand at:

Seeds I Saved From 2011:

Black Krim Tomato: My absolute favorite tomato I have grown this year, this was the first to start producing and gave me wonderful rich, slightly salty fruit all summer long. This one is prone to cracking at first, but it was such a good producer that I didn’t care.

San Marzano tomato: This Italian heirloom paste tomato is supposed to be the best for making tomato sauces, and also great to dice and use in a salad or salsa. Yields were good last year, so I saved some seeds for this year.

Seeds I Got for Free:

Riesentraube tomato: I got this cherry type from Baker’s Seeds for free with my last order. Description: “The sweet red 1-oz fruit grow in large clusters and the name means "Giant Bunch of Grapes" in German. It is probably the most popular small tomato with seed collectors, as many enjoy the rich, full tomato flavor that is missing in today's cherry types. Large plants produce massive yields.” Massive yields are good, free is even better!

Seeds to Buy from Baker’s:

Green Zebra Tomato: I sampled this one at Farmer Dan’s table at the West Sac Farmer’s Market and it was sublime; I knew I had to try growing it at home. “Beautiful chartreuse
with deep lime-green stripes, very attractive. Flesh is bright green and very rich tasting, sweet with a sharp bite to it (just too good to describe!). A favorite tomato of many high class chefs, specialty markets, and home gardeners. Yield is excellent. The most striking tomato in our catalog, a real beauty.”

Cour di Bue Tomato: Of course, gotta have your standard red slicing tomato, and I chose this heart-shaped beauty. “This Oxheart type Italian heirloom has been a favorite in Italy for many years. Beautiful 12-oz. fruit have a delicious sweet taste; similar to the shape of a heart; great for fresh eating or cooking. Large vigorous vines. Hard to find.”

Black Krim and San Marzano Tomatoes from 2011 garden

Monday, December 12, 2011

Signs of Life

To my amazement, even in the middle of winter there are signs of life in my yard. Not many, but just enough to keep my spirits up. Observe:

Alpine Strawberries. They actually fruit in cooler weather. So tiny, so sweet!

Lemon balm (right- it loves the cold!) and Cuban Oregano (left-a real trooper, this guy is hardy and neither cold nor heat seem to phase it).

Elephant Garlic - I bought this at the Sacramento Food Co-Op with dreams of plucking large, mild cloves of garlic from the ground next year. For a while it just lay in the ground, no signs of life. Now that the cold hit, it finally sprouted; I am amazed!

I know these don't look like much, but I had to share that I finally got my shipment of Blueberry bushes. I have one Misty and one O’Neal variety, both southern types that enjoy heat more than the kind that grow in places like, say, Alaska. They're just twigs now as they are in their dormant stage, but I hope in a few years they will be enjoying our climate and give me all sorts of berries. (The soil in Sacramento is too alkaline to grow them in the ground, so I have them in boxes filled with a special potting mix suitable for acid-loving plants.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vegetable Korma

I follow the Meatless Monday campaign on Facebook, and this week they posted a question that got me thinking. "What's your favorite meatless comfort food?" My first thought was homemade macaroni and cheese... and then I couldn't think of another one!

Later, it struck me that a good Indian vegetable curry is right up there for me. The whole experience is pleasurable, from the sizzling onion/ginger/garlic triumvirate at the start, then roasting the spices until they reach the peak of their fragrance, and at last sitting down to a steaming bowl of creamy, spicy sauced vegetables over basmati rice.

I altered this great recipe for Vegetable Korma (originally from allrecipes.com) by adding chickpeas, substituting half-and-half for the cream, and omitting the ground cashews. (Where am I going to get ground cashews? I don't have a spice grinder or food processor, so I can't really grind them myself. ) Also, I'm a big fan of blooming the spices before adding the liquid ingredients; I think it really brings out those flavors.

So here it is, my meatless comfort food for these cold nights we're having. Who says food can't be comforting and good for you at the same time?

Vegetable Korma
Adapted from Allrecipes.com

1 T. olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 tsp. minced fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic
minced2 potatoes, cut into small cubes
4 carrots, cubed
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 (8 oz) can tomato sauce
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 T. curry powder
1 c. frozen green peas
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 red AND green bell pepper, cubed
1 c. half-and-half
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook until tender. Add the ginger, garlic, curry powder and salt, and cook about 1 minute. Now add your potatoes, carrots, red pepper flakes and tomato sauce. Cook and stir for 10 minutes, or until potatoes are tender.
Stir in your frozen peas, chickpeas, bell peppers, half and half, and a handful of chopped cilantro. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 10-20 minutes, or until all vegetables are tender. Garnish with more cilantro and serve over brown basmati rice. Makes 6-8 servings.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

SacMoFo: The Mini Burger Truck

The last time Sacramento held a mobile food festival, I completely underestimated the popularity and demand of the people. I wasn't the only one to walk away empty-handed after hours of standing in line, but I determined not to let it happen again when the trucks converged today for another "SacMoFo".

My husband and I arrived early having already studied the list of vendors and decided that darn it, we were going for the mini-burgers again! We weren't the only ones.
While my husband waited in line, I snagged us some "hors d'ouevres" - BBQ sliders from Big John's truck, with pulled pork and tri tip. They were really tasty and at $5, didn't break the bank.

The whole experience at SacMoFo was fun and boisterous. The festival was held under the freeway. Now, I must mention that this is a very poor place to find yourself if you have any paranoid tendencies. Personally, I had to keep my eyes from looking up to avoid envisioning the freeway collapsing on oblivious festival goers. But lively music and holiday donation tables kept spirits up during long waits, and more than a few people were dancing while they waited.

When at last our order came up, we split 3 mini-burgers and an order of sweet potato tots. The sweet potato tots were out of this world, served with perfectly complimentary a honey ancho sauce. We couldn't even finish them all, so there weren't even any Napoleon Dynamite moments. ("Gimme some of your tots!" "No, get your own!")

We each enjoyed the Cowbell burgers (of which we ordered 2). They came with provolone, bacon, onion strings, and house BBQ sauce. We like a saucier burger and wish there had been more BBQ sauce, but this was a fine burger.

Our favorite, however, was surely the Ninja, a burger with supernatural flavors that blew our minds. This burger consisted of Korean short ribs, topped with pea shoots, sriracha aioli, and "Asian slaw". This flavor combination melded like magic in our mouths - this is one must-try for all Sacramento folk! If you like Korean tacos, try this Korean burger for a real treat.

When we left, the lines were starting to wind around to eternity, especially for the trucks that came up from San Francisco, like Bacon Bacon and Chairman Bao. I'm not sure if those folks at the end ever got the food they wanted, but I hope this isn't our last chance to have a festival like this. All of the trucks looked great and I hope to try them all eventually. And yes, I will be early every time from now on! It worked like a charm.