Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On the first day of cleaning, my true love...

...was in his study, working on research. I, on the other hand, took advantage of the beautiful, windless and dust-storm-less day to clean the outside of all the downstairs windows, save two.

This is the tool I used:

It beats all to hell the way I used to clean windows, which involved a spray bottle of Windex and a lot of paper towels. This goes much faster: dip the tool in a bucket of water cut with a cleaning solution, scrub the window panes with the mop side, flip it and squeegee the panes clean. Move to the next window. At the end of the day, throw the mop part in the washing machine.

Easy. as. pie.

For the cleaning solution, I used some capfuls of a professional window washing soap in a bucket of hot water. I know, I know, vinegar works just as well, but I can't stand the smell. I also know that dishwashing soap works just as well, but what the hey, I had this bottle of cleaning solution on hand, so I thought I'd use it up instead of throwing it down the drain.

It took me most of the day to clean the windows, not because this method is slow (it is faster than fast!), but because I had to repair a hose (see, in re, "squirrels"), and then remove some storm windows and clean them, too. Plus, I also cleaned some blinds. And I kept taking breaks and going inside to watch an Hercule Poirot movie from a  boxed set my sister Amy loaned me.

On the docket for today: File, purge, and deep clean in my study. This could actually take a couple of days, even without needing to remove storm windows.

You will notice that I've posted my list on the sidebar, and have used my clever knowledge of HTML code to check off the window washing. The list is there to keep me honest in my quest, because as we all know, it is easy deceive ourselves about quests (see, "windmill tilting").

I love putting my house in order. It smells like victory.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Twelve Days of Cleaning are coming! The Twelve Days of Cleaning are coming!

The end of the semester is nye, and it is once again time for my much anticipated, now-annual-tradition, An Extraordinary House Purge and Cleaning. This year, I am calling it "The Twelve Days of Cleaning," after, well, you know.

Here is my tentative list (which seems to feature a lot of closets) for each day, beginning with December 16th, the day after commencement ceremonies:

1. Study (file, purge, deep clean)
2. Bedroom closet (purge, organize)
3. Front hall closet (purge, organize)
4. Library closet one (purge, organize)
5. Library closet two (purge, organize)
6. Attic (purge, organize)
7. Storage shed (purge and organize)
8. Workshop (purge, organize, clean)
9. Paint and install French doors in library
10. Install door in living room hallway
11. Paint hallway trim
12. Paint living room/kitchen door

UPDATE: Plus, wash all the downstairs windows.

Here are the ground rules:

1. Each item on the list may or may not take more than one day, especially since I am keeping half a day free for working on a book collaboration;
2. Each day may or may not be consecutive;
3. The goal is to finish the list before the start of the spring semester;
4. If I finish early with my grading, I may allow myself a head start.

Let the games begin.

I am so excited.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Spicy Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Back in the day, boys in junior high school were shuffled off to shop class to learn to make wooden plaques and mantle clock housings, while girls were sent to home economics so that we could learn to sew aprons and bake cookies. Leaving aside for another time the issue of pigeonholing children, today I was thinking, with humor and more than a little fondness, about that long-ago home ec class. 

I was terrible at it. By this, I don't mean to say just that the seams on my apron were a little crooked, or that my cookies were occasionally a tad burned. I mean I stunk. I was so bad that I once overheard my teacher (we'll just call her, "Mrs. X") say to my mother during a conference, "I know she's trying. I can tell she is. It's just that, well, she seems totally incapable of learning these skills. I have no idea what to do. I've never encountered a child this...this...this..."

My mother had a lot of these sort of parent/teacher conferences about me.

I felt kind of sorry for the teacher, who was actually a very caring, gentle, and exceptionally patient woman. She retired at the end of that year, along with several other of my teachers. I've always worried a little about the timing of that.

Anyway, I was thinking about home ec, and in particular, remembering one meal we were tasked with making. I was partnered up with my best friends, Rebecca M and Pam A, and we were all three excited because we were going to make Mini Pizzas. Cookies were OK, but they weren't really all that interesting. Pizzas, on the other hand, out in the late 1960's hinterlands of small-town New Mexico, were exotic. (If this seems strange, you must realize that the now-ubiquitous Pizza Hut opened its first store in 1958, and had fewer than 500 restaurants in the late '60s. Roswell was too small and too out of the way to warrant one.)

As exotic as pizzas were, Mrs. X felt they were well within our culinary reach, and so she prepared mimeographed recipes for each team to use.

Now, for those of you who have never heard of mimeographed print, suffice it to say that it was a smelly, inky, smudgy precursor of today's copier machines. Each sheet was created from a single inky master that was stretched over a drum, which was in turn cranked by hand to print on sheets of paper that fed into the machine. It was a handy, relatively inexpensive way of making multiple copies, and for efficiency, it was a step above copying multiples by feather quill and an ink well. The results were adequate, though there could often be some trouble reading the print if you happened to get one of the sheets toward the end of the run.

Which we did. 

One of the things we learned in our home economics class were abbreviations for standard measurements. You probably know these, too, right? For example, a lower case "c" mean "cup," and "qt" means "quart," and so on. Well, you might also remember that an upper case "T" stands for "tablespoon," and this distinguishes it from a lower case "t," which means "teaspoon," and you would never, ever want to get those two mixed up.

I know what you are thinking! You have jumped ahead of me and have guessed that our team mistook a lower "t" to mean "tablespoon," thereby wrecking our measurements and putting either too much or too little of a key ingredient into our exotic pizzas.

And you would be wrong. Do you think I'd learned nothing at all in home ec? It is true that I was generally incompetent at the skills, but I could remember simple abbreviations, for goodness sake.

However, it happens that if a mimeograph is a little less than clear, and the top hat of a lower case "t" failed to print, it looks an awful lot like a lower case "c." Which could be a problem, if the measurement in question concerns garlic powder.

Rebecca and Pam suspected immediately that there was a mistake on the recipe sheet. After all, Mrs. X, ever efficient and never wasteful, had always provided each team with just enough ingredients to require us to practice measuring, but never so much that there was a lot left over. And as it happened, we had only about a tablespoon or so of garlic powder at hand. 

I, on the other hand, convinced of the infallibility of the printed word, insisted that we were supposed to put in a whole cup of garlic powder in the tomato sauce, and if there had been some sort of slip up as far as the amount of garlic powder we'd been given, well, then, we were just going to have to improvise. And so we went to each of the other cooking teams and asked them to give us any garlic powder they had left over.

Why it never occurred to me that we were the only team putting a whole cup in, I'll never know. I do remember Pam and Rebecca looking at me skeptically and with no small amount of alarm as I insisted I was right about this.

I also don't know why we didn't ask Mrs. X about the snafu, but I have a vague memory of her being out of the room, and since we were on a tight schedule, there was some pressure to go ahead and not wait for her return to clarify things.

The first indication we had that things had gone awry came when, upon her return to the classroom, Mrs. X said, "What's that smell?"

I never got to taste the Mini Pizzas, since they disappeared sometime during the evacuation of the classroom. I'm sure Mrs. X had to throw them out, though I don't remember her doing so. I do remember her, some time later, holding her head and looking strangely weepy.

Since that day, I've had something of an aversion to following recipes exactly. I'm also a little afraid of garlic salt.

The aversion to recipes is one of the reasons I like Tamra E. Adler's book, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, which was first recommended to me by my friend Sarai Brinker. Adler seems not to follow recipes at all--instead throwing some of this, or that, or whatever is leftover in the refrigerator into the oven and letting the roasting, or stewing, or whatever do all the work of figuring out how much is too much or too little. And as far as I can tell, she never uses garlic salt, since she never mentions it. My friends, that is my kind of cooking. 

When I first read this book back in the summer, I felt like I'd finally found a manifesto for how I feel about cooking. At the time, of course, I was cooking on the grill almost exclusively, since we were waiting on our kitchen remodel to finish. In a brilliant bit of cosmic irony, I was cooking mostly pizzas.

It was hard to read Adler's section on roasting vegetables, though, since I didn't have an oven. The grill was a life-saver, but I was lonely for what only an oven can do.

This butternut squash soup is in honor of both the book and those days of waiting. It not only involves roasting vegetables, it is very much an anti-recipe recipe. Basically, it goes something like this: take a bunch of root vegetables, roast them, puree them with stock, add a little cream, and voila!

If you insist on a recipe, however, here is a quasi-one that is not very complicated, dedicated to the long-suffering Mrs. X, to whom I owe gratitude for not giving up on me (note that I do not risk using abbreviations on measurements):

Cut up the following into ~1" cubes:

1 butternut squash, peeled and de-seeded
1/4-1/2 small onion
1/2 cup leek
2 red potatoes

Add 2 cloves garlic

Toss these in olive oil, salt (~1/2 teaspoon), and fresh pepper to taste)

Roast at 375 F until tender.

Blend with 1 quart vegetable or chicken stock. (I use an immersion blender directly in a stock pot, but a regular blender or food processor will work if done in small batches.)

Add 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder

Add 1/2 cup heavy cream

Bring to low rolling boil; immediately reduce heat to simmer

Salt to taste (I add a two-finger pinch at a time, tasting until I get what I want)

Serve it up.

The potatoes, cream, and chipotle powder all work to offset the sweetness of the butternut squash, so I would call this more a savory dish than a sweet one. The best part about it is that, like Adler, you can add this, or that, or whatever to it and it will still probably come out great.

And you won't need to worry about a "t" looking like a "c."

Friday, November 2, 2012

The girls are back, and thinking about life

My big worry is that by the time I've lived long enough to have it all figured out,
I'll have forgotten what "it" is.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A savory vegetarian pot pie

My husband and I have been married for over twenty years and for all of that time, he has been a vegetarian and I have not. It has worked out well enough; we cook and eat vegetarian at home, since it is easier for a meat eater to compromise than the other way around, but I generally take every chance I get outside the home to be a carnivore.

I've grown to enjoy vegetarian cooking. Far from being restricted to plates of broccoli and salad, there are actually endless varieties of satisfying, hearty dishes one can make. Fortunately, Walu is an ova-lacto vegetarian (meaning he eats eggs and dairy), so that makes it easier. And in a pre-marriage compromise, I got him to agree to let me cook fish and shellfish once in a while. (Before any of you rise up and start quibbling about this, let me say in his defense that he wouldn't do it if I hadn't asked. Compromise is what marriage is all about, baby, and I won't let anyone give him grief over this. Lord knows, vegetarians get enough hostility masked as "teasing" about their principles. And by the way, Walu is gracious and unassuming about his vegetarianism.)

Still, there has always been something missing in the savory vegetarian dishes I make, something like the so-called "umami" found in meat. Umami is an indescribable "fifth taste"--something beyond salty, bitter, sweet, or sour. It is savory and complex, and it is this that I miss, now matter how hearty the dish.

I've been making vegetarian pot pies for many years now, but there was always something lacking, and the first time I ever heard about umami, I knew that this is what it was. So how to get it? I couldn't believe that I couldn't create something that wouldn't offer the same pleasurable, savory complexity.

Then, over the weekend, I thought I might have stumbled onto a possible solution. I was making a dish of shrimp and pasta, and happened to throw in a splash of Pernod and some saffron threads. There's nothing too original about that--these are classic ingredients for some shellfish dishes--but the resulting flavors were...yes, complex. There was just enough Pernod to taste if I knew to look for it, but not enough to make me say, "Ah yes, licorice." The saffron? Well, I honestly couldn't really say whether I tasted it or not, so perhaps, thinking about its dear cost, I was too mean with it and did not use enough. A case of penny-wise and pound-foolish if ever there was one.

This got me thinking about a vegetable hot pot recipe I've always enjoyed, one that, given the choice between that and the pot roast, I'd eat the hot pot dish every time--it is that good, and that satisfying. And at the base of the many, many, many chopped veggies are leeks--yes, that's right, a licorice taste.

So, "Duh," I thought, "Why not add leeks to my vegetarian pot pie?"

It's such an obvious thing, I don't know why I'd never thought of it before. So off I ran to the grocery store, only to discover--quelle horror!--that they were out of leeks.

Now, the thing about leeks is that they are member of the same family, Amaryllidaceae, as the ubiquitous onion, with which I have an unhappy and distressing relationship. Uncooked onion, or even too much cooked onion produces gastric misery in me that is not insignificant. Consequently, I seldom cook with it. It is not inconceivable that it is the onion-y essence that I am missing from these vegetarian dishes, but too many hours spent doubled over from onion indulgence will keep me from ever experimenting enough to find out.

Other members of the Amaryllidaceae family, however, like garlic, green onions, and yes, leeks, do not seem to have the same effect. Though I wouldn't say that I use them with abandon, I do occasionally add them to a dish. I can also get away with using onion itself, if I don't use too much, and if it is cooked thoroughly. And while any of these do add complexity to the flavors, there is still that last thing missing, the fifth taste. The grace note.

And while leeks in their full body goodness would be ideal, maybe all I needed to turn my standard vegetarian pot pie into an umami pot pie was...Pernod.

And indeed, that is what happened.

I am a fly-by-the-seat-of my-pants cook, so I don't measure things. But except for the Pernod, there is nothing fancy, foodie, or difficult about this, and it can be adapted to fit whatever vegetables are in season or favored. I also used Pillsbury's refrigerator pie crust, simply because I was tired and didn't feel like making my own. The pot pie could no doubt benefit from a homemade crust, but it isn't necessary.

If you can find leeks, I'd definitely opt for those instead of the Pernod, which is pricey. A bottle will go a very long way, though, and can be a great addition to many other dishes (especially shrimp). I think the key is using it with a light touch, so that you are aware that there is something there, but you don't necessarily get a licorice hit unless you know to look for it. I used about 1 teaspoon for the pie filling.

Some time ago, when I had posted on the Bike Garden's Facebook page that I was making vegetarian pot pie for supper, my sister-in-law Susan asked for the recipe, since she too is married to a vegetarian. It seems to run in Walu's family. But at the time, I didn't feel like I'd figured it out completely. Now I think I have, so Susan, this is for you:

Preheat the oven to 400.
Boil two red potatoes until they are cooked about half-through.
In a large pan, saute 1/4 sweet yellow onion and two chopped carrots in about two tablespoons of olive oil.
Add one clove of minced garlic and salt to taste.
Add 1/2 teaspoon red chile powder and cook for one minute.
Add 1 tablespoon of flour and cook for one minute.
Add: 1 can of red kidney beans, rinsed and drained, 1 can of chopped red tomatoes, and 1 cup of vegetable broth.
Add the drained potatoes.
Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Add 1 teaspoon of Pernod (you can leave this out if you've added leeks and sauteed them with the carrots and onion).

Simmer until about half the liquid is gone. Spoon into a pie pan lined with unbaked crust. Top with pie crust and bake until golden brown. Let sit for ten minutes before serving. Makes four large servings.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A conference in the garden with Sydney

My friend Sydney Plum and I are collaborating on a book together, and every Friday we are supposed to get together via our cell phones for a conference. Actually, we are supposed to be Skyping, but I just haven't had the time to sit down and figure out how to do it, so we talk to each other the old-fashioned way.

I begged off last Friday, though, because I simply had too many other pressing deadlines, and so Sydney and I agreed to postpone the meeting until this morning. Well, it's a beautiful autumn day, and while I was out in the back garden doing my usual morning clean up (we have dogs--need I say more about this?), I thought, "I need to have my conference out here." After all, didn't I create this space for the express purpose of visiting with my friends?

So Sydney, in lieu of Skyping, here is what you would see while we chat about our book:

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tech Terrace Holiday Wreath Sale

I recently received this announcement from our neighborhood Holiday Home Tour committee. I think this is a terrific idea; it will give the whole neighborhood a festive look and help raise money for some special projects, so I thought I'd pass the information along to my neighbors.

Wreath Sale to Usher in a New Tradition
This year the Tech Terrace Neighborhood Association, in conjunction with the Holiday Home Tour, will be selling fresh greenery wreaths as a fundraiser to support neighborhood projects.
The 24” fresh wreaths will be on sale December 1st during Home Tour hours for $30. Preorders (along with payment) will be taken until October 30th.
A large red bow will be included with each purchase.

We hope you will include these lovely wreaths in your holiday decorating and join us in unifying the holiday look of the neighborhood.
There will be a limited number of these wreaths ordered.
(We will be taking pre-orders at the meeting on Thursday, October 25th.)
(If you can't make it to the meeting, let me know in the comments below and I'll tell you how you can place your pre-order.)

Checks payable to:
T.T.U.N.I.T Neighborhood Association. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Scenes from Tucson

Earlier this week I was in Tucson, Arizona for the annual Garden Writers Association Symposium. As always, the opportunity to meet up with my friends and colleagues left me both reflective and inspired. I'm still processing some of the things I learned, and when I've worked them out, I may do a more thorough post on the trip. In the meantime, here are some of my favorite images from a very productive few days.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A pretty good biscuit

My friend Nancy complained not too long ago that she feels like a failure as a Southern woman because she can't make a proper biscuit. When she said that, I thought, "Well, golly, I'm not sure I can either, having never tried."

I remember proper Southern biscuits, though, since my grandmother would make them when she came for her yearly visits. I have a vague memory of my mother making them, too, before she discovered the Pillsbury Doughboy. In fact, somehow I wound up with her biscuit cutter when she passed away, and I found it the other day while moving things back into the now-completed kitchen.

Seeing the cutter reminded me of those childhood biscuits, and remembering Nancy's comment, I decided that it was high time I tried my hand at making some.

For a recipe, I turned to the Joy of Cooking and used the "basic rolled biscuit," but found the results less than satisfactory. For one thing, I used my mother's cutter, and though you can't tell in the photo, it is pretty small. Also, the recipe called for rolling out the dough to half an inch thick.

I ended up with a biscuit that tasted fine, if not exciting, but the texture seemed more disc-like than airy and light. Here they are slathered in honey and butter, both of which will hide nearly any baking sin:

I figured a little research was in order. I turned first to Michael Ruhlman's book Ratio. As Ruhlman points out, the ingredients for quick breads are not complicated: flour, water, butter, salt, and a chemical leavening, such as baking powder. When I compared his ingredients for biscuits to JoC's, there didn't seem to be much difference. Ruhlman's technique, however, differed radically. Where JoC simply recommended rolling the dough out and cutting it, Ruhlman treats his biscuits more like a puff pastry, with multiple steps before baking.

The idea in a puff pastry (or any dough in which the final product is supposed to have light, flaky layers) is that very cold butter, trapped in layers of dough, will steam while baking and, well, puff up. In true puff pastry, the dough is rolled out, folded on itself, refrigerated for a while, then rolled and folded again, then refrigerated again--and so on up to seven or eight times, creating exceptionally thin layers of dough and butter. (I remember watching Julia Child make puff pastry on her television show years ago and thought it a very fancy thing indeed--little did I imagine the relationship it had to plain old biscuits.) I could suppose that a biscuit made this way would indeed be pretty close to the iconic Southern biscuit we all know and love. Ruhlman rolls and folds his dough twice, then refrigerates it for an hour and repeats the process. Once I tallied up the amount of time that it would take to make a batch using this technique, I found myself considering the possiblity that icons are generally overrated.

Plus, it just isn't what I remember my grandmother or mother doing. They simply didn't have the time to make something that required that much fussing. They mixed the dough, rolled it out, cut the biscuits, and the batch went into the oven. That's what I remember, and since the biscuit I'm looking for is as much about memory as it is about flakiness, I wanted something with a technique I could recognize.

So I did a little more research and found Alton Brown's recipe online. Again, the ingredients were more or less the same, but Brown's technique was something between JoC's bare bones and Ruhlman's time-consuming version. Brown does recommend folding the dough, though only three or four times, and without refrigeration between the folds.

It took me two or three more tries to get a biscuit I liked, but I finally did. It isn't as light and fluffy as one you might get in a restaurant, but then again I'm not rising at 3 in the morning to start them either. (Does the extra step of refrigeration between folding make that much difference? I'll have to try it sometime to find out.)

I used JoC's ingredients for buttermilk biscuits, but divided in half (Walu doesn't eat anything but cereal for breakfast). I made the dough in a food processor, mixing just until the dough holds together (this holds true for all quick breads, since over-beating or kneading them yields a biscuit/pancake/cornbread/scone/etc. that is tough and chewy). Then I turned it out onto a lightly floured surface, rolled it out to 3/4" thickness, gently folded it on itself, and repeated three more times.

I also put away my mother's biscuit cutter and used one that was 2.5" in diameter. Finally, for a little extra "flavor zing," I brushed the tops with buttermilk and sprinkled them with a little Kosher salt before baking. The result was a reasonably flaky, very serviceable, no-fuss biscuit that took no time at all to make. So I'll say to my friend Nancy: This biscuit probably isn't an icon, but it's a pretty good one, easy to make, and perfect for a Saturday morning and a favorite jar of blackberry jam.

And if there are any of you out there who have secrets for biscuit-making that you'd like to pass along, please do! I'm still a relative neophyte at this baking business, and I could use all the help I can get.

A Pretty Good Biscuit for One
(Makes four 2.5" biscuits)

Preheat the oven to 450F

1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

3 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter (cut into small cubes)

Pulse in a food processor until the butter is mixed in and has the consistency of peas or smaller.

3 ounces of buttermilk

MIX until the dough just comes together.

Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured surface until it is about 3/4" thick, then fold it gently in half. Repeat three to four times, taking care not to "work" the dough. (Also, don't let the dough sit around and get warm; cold temperatures are key to the flakiness.) Cut it with any size biscuit cutter you like, but I prefer 2.5-3" biscuits. Place on baking sheet and brush with buttermilk and sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Bake 10-12 minutes until browned on top.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A bread encounter

I find baking intimidating, mostly because I've never done much of it. (Baking makes a lot of dishes to wash, and in our old kitchen, with its cramped sink and no dishwasher, I gave up on it). I got so good at whipping out pizza dough this summer, though, that it seemed almost second nature. So I decided to try to get into the habit of baking bread on the weekends, in part to demystify it.

But when I started out this morning, I found I was low on both yeast and bread flour. I hopped on my bike and rode to the corner market. When I was checking out, the young girl at the cash register--she was maybe eighteen or nineteen--said to me, "What are you making?"

"Bread," I replied.

"Really?" she said. "I've never had homemade bread."

"Never?" I asked.

"Nope. I've never had it." She smiled and rang me up.

I find this astonishing--maybe even a little troubling. I'm going to have to think about it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

My kitchen adventure begins: Part One: basic bread

My siblings might remember it differently, but I don't think my mother much cared for cooking. She was decent enough at it, and had several dishes she could make that were tasty, but if she could find a shortcut at the expense of flavor, then she was all over it. She was part of the first generation of women that experienced the cooking conveniences of canned soup, ready made spaghetti and taco seasonings in foil packets, frozen vegetables, margarine (it was synthetic back when that meant "better" and putatively healthier for you; this was a big selling point for my mother). There was even garlic cheese in a plastic sleeve that could be mixed with canned mushroom soup and melted over broccoli for a quick and easy vegetable side dish (I don't think she ever kidded herself that cheese in a plastic sleeve was better for you, but it was easier*). And yes, I think she found it liberating. She was bright, well-educated, and loved to work outside the home--cooking and cleaning were chores that needed doing to keep the household running and seldom much more than that; anything that made them easier were welcomed in our home. But if she cooked to live (as opposed to living to cook), then she probably had even less interest in baking. Oh, she made the occasional cake (from a boxed mix) and pie (from ready made pie crust once became available in supermarkets), but it is symbolic, perhaps, that the only family recipe that she passed down to me was called "Unbaked Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies" (emphasis mine).

I do remember her baking a few things from scratch, however. Three of them in particular stand out in my mind: fresh bread, an apple pie with a lattice crust, and biscuits.

Actually, what I remember is that the bread was made by someone else while my mother assisted. About once a year, my paternal grandmother would make the long bus trip from Alabama to New Mexico for an extended visit, and while she was there, she liked to bake fresh bread. My mother loved her mother-in-law, and I think she enjoyed the sessions in the kitchen when she was there because it allowed them to spend time together in an entertaining way. Once the visits were over, however, the bread baking usually trickled to a halt.

What we ate on a daily basis was sliced bread, usually white, that you bought at the grocery store for less than a quarter a loaf. Even the local bakery, where my mother went on occasion to get a bargain in day-old bread, was merely the place where they baked the sliced loaf bread that later went to the store. There was no such thing as an "artisanal" bread back then. (I remember when WonderBread began showing up in our somewhat geographically isolated New Mexico town and it was hailed as a breakthrough in taste and nutrition.)

I was thinking about all this the other day because I'd participated in a bread baking workshop organized by my friend Julie Hodges. The people who attended were all friends of Julie's, and the age demographic was wide-ranging. All the older people (and by that I mean the ones around my age) kept reminiscing about the homemade bread their mothers made when they were growing up. Naturally, per my explanation above, I had nothing to contribute to this conversation. But I did start remembering my grandmother's bread and how good it tasted, straight from the oven and slathered in butter (this was before my mother discovered the "health benefits" of margarine and never looked back).

The bread we baked at Julie's was probably far superior to my grandmother's. It had to be, since it took two days to make it and the instructions in the recipe were full of all sorts of complications, and I don't remember my grandmother doing anything especially fussy like that. For one thing, she was not a fussy woman--she didn't have time to be, since she'd been a single mom for years and years, with busy careers as a teacher and later as a county welfare agent. (The latter was how my mom met my dad, since my grandmother was her supervisor in the welfare office in the late 1940's, when my mother also worked there as an agent. Now all you welfare haters out there, don't get all riled up at this news and go disrespecting my mama and my nana to my face, 'cuz I'll have to hurt you.)

The bread my grandmother made went like this: flour, plus something something something; she kneaded it a few minutes; she put it in the oven; a little while later she took it out and everyone immediately began liberally administering butter. And that was it.

The workshop bread, though it was more multi-stepped than my grandmother's and had a list of ingredients as long as a Christmas Eve, was indeed good. It was moist, light, and multi-grained--I dare say it was even better than any of the so-called artisanal breads I've ever had. Gene Bals, a neighbor of Julie's, has been fine-tuning this recipe for years, and he generously shared it and his insider's knowledge about the craft with us. If you are interested in the recipe, you can find it here, on Julie's blog, Local Llano.

The workshop inspired me, but a couple of weeks later, when I decided to try my hand at baking another loaf all by my lonesome, it was my grandmother's bread I wanted to make. Gene's bread, while fabulous, rather intimidates me with its trouble. It is, in my estimation, an advanced bread, and I am not an advanced kind of gal. My grandmother's bread, on the other hand, so characteristic of her no-nonsense, can-do attitude, seemed much more approachable for a beginning baker.  It was a simple, basic white bread, and I remember her whipping it out fairly quickly and efficiently. The trouble was, I didn't have her recipe (see "Unbaked Chocolate Cookies," above, in re family recipes I own). So I did what any person might do when reaching back into the warm, cozy annals of family history for a recipe: I googled it.

And I got about what you might expect--gazillions of recipes, many of them requiring steps that resembled nothing I ever remembered my grandmother doing. There were recipes for "basic" white bread that involved weighing the ingredients instead of measuring them out with cups and spoons (Weighing? With, like, a scale? The only scales I remember my family owning were the usual bathroom scales and one for weighing letters so we would know how much postage to apply. That's the way we rolled back in the 60's when we wanted to message someone.). There were others that required proofing the dough (still not sure what that means, but I'm pretty sure she didn't do it; she would have thought eating the bread was proof enough.). Finally, there were others still that just looked plain implausible for the number of ingredients they required (anything that calls for more than five ingredients isn't permitted to be called "basic" in my cooking and baking rulebook. Oh yes, that's right. I have one.).

So I sat down with a glass of iced tea and thought about it--and remembered something my grandmother is purported to have said to my mother, which she in turn used to quote to me all the time: "If you can read," my grandmother said, "You can cook."

And what cookbook might my grandmother have been reading, had she needed to look up a recipe for basic bread? Why, most likely it was The Joy of Cooking, which, as we all know, has been the go-to culinary bible since the time of the Roman emperors, and probably a little before that. So I went to the bookshelf and got down my own copy of JoC, looked up yeast bread, and there it was: My childhood memory disguised as a brief list of ingredients and some simple instructions.

I'm not going to reprint the recipe here because I'm a big believer in copyright, but if you have the JoC, then you can look it up under "Yeast breads" in the index. If you don't have a copy of JoC, what is wrong with you?

Basically, the recipe consists of dissolving some active dry yeast in warm water (not Rapid Rise, which is what I use for my pizza dough), adding bread flour, butter, salt, sugar, and water. All of that is mixed straight away, and can be kneaded in a stand mixer. (I know, I know, my grandmother kneaded it by hand, but I am my mother's daughter in that if I can find an easier way to do it without sacrificing too much flavor, then I too am all over it). It has been a long time, however, since any of us thought WonderBread was the answer to our nutritional prayers, so I decided to follow JoC's suggestions on the next page and add a little whole wheat to the dough. After that, it isn't all that different from making pizza dough (though the second rise takes longer): let it rise for an hour or two, punch it down, put it in bread pans and let it rise again for another hour or two before baking.

And you know what? It turned out just exactly the way I remembered it, except maybe a little healthier since it had some whole wheat in it. In fact, it tasted so healthy, I thought I needed to tamp it down a little bit, so I whipped up some homemade butter out of heavy cream, added a pinch of salt to it, and in the time-honored tradition, administered it as it if were a balm on a lonely heart.

The butter is easy--you don't even need to consult JoC for it: pour some heavy whipping cream into your stand mixer (about half a cup, unless you are a glutton), whip it until it starts to form peaks, just as if you were making a whipped cream for a dessert topping, and then...keep going. After a while, voila!, it becomes whipped butter. Add some salt to taste toward the end.

It isn't even necessary to use a butter churner by hand, the way my mother did when she was a little girl. Can you blame her for loving margarine that came in little plastic tubs?

This was such a successful experiment that it has me thinking about that apple pie and the biscuits, so those are going to be parts two and three in my new kitchen adventure. Stay tuned.

*My mother sent me off to college with cans of Cheese Whiz, reasoning, correctly, that it was the sort of thing a college freshman would like to eat.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A tour of the new kitchen while waiting to cook supper

Yes, there is a missing drawer. The spec sheet for the stove was not quite as helpful as it could have been, so the drawer is being re-made so that it will clear the oven handle.

My favorite view.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Stuff I have made in my new kitchen since it opened for business

 Vegetarian Pot Pie. So-so. Needs tweaking. Crust was too dry and not enough au jus filling.

 Rustic pear tart. Winner! Crust was perfect.

Shrimp sauteed in cream sauce with a dash of Pernod, tossed with pasta and roasted asparagus spears. Pretty good, but the Pernod needs to be half a dash (maybe a half a tablespoon?)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

And we have a winner!

I prevailed upon my contractor, Morris, to take a break from kitchen reno long enough to draw a name for the Troy Bilt cultivator. I am pleased to announce that Rachel, from Hounds in the Kitchen, is the lucky winner! I've already managed to contact Rachel, and so I know that this time we'll have a successful give-away. Congratulations to our winner! And as for the rest of you, I wish I'd had cultivators for each and every one...

Thanks again to Troy-Bilt for making this possible.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Update on the kitchen and another drawing for that Troy-Bilt cultivator!

I keep thinking the end is just around the corner, but the corner moves ever so gently farther away every time it comes into view. I have come to accept this. I will be grilling and washing dishes on my back patio from now until Christmas. Maybe longer.

Truthfully, it does look like we'll be moving appliances in next week, but I have thought that before, so who knows? The work is beautiful, the product of real craftsmen. It just takes forever, which I guess is why they are craftsmen and I am merely a do-it-yourselfer. I know I will love it when they are finished. I would love it now, except that it is all masked off for painting.

Anyway, on to another bit of news: I never heard from the winner of the Troy-Bilt cultivator. So I'm going to have another drawing from the original entrants. I'd like to help Troy-Bilt give away that cultivator, so y'all check back here tomorrow to see if you've won. If you are from out-of-town, you'll need to message me with your email and snail mail address so that I can send that along to Troy Bilt. You can go over to the sidebar and click on the Facebook icon, "like" the Bike Garden FB page and message me that way. If that doesn't work for you, leave a comment at the bottom of the post and we'll try to figure something else out.

I'll give the winner a couple of days to respond--let's say until Friday--and then if I don't hear from you, I'll draw another name. Let's give this thing away!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our Kitchenless Adventure: The blue of distance

I grew up in a small town nestled in the Hondo Valley in New Mexico. Far away on the western horizon stood El Capitan, in the range of Sierra Blanca, blue, majestic, and serene. Because my family often loaded up the station wagon after church on Sunday and headed up to the mountains for an afternoon of picnicking, I knew at an early age that the mountains were not really blue--it was only the distance that separated us that made them so. But that blue was a very inviting color: "Come to me," it seemed to say each morning.

Rebecca Solnit writes very eloquently about this effect in her essay, "The Blue of Distance." The color, caused by the scattering of light through the atmosphere, creates a longing in us that we can never fully satisfy because it disappears by the time we reach our destination. What Solnit argues, however, is that the desire to reach it--to be in those blue mountains--is as important as the thing itself, and indeed the value of the final experience is lessened without it. I find this notion very compelling. Think of it: Would Christmas morning hold the same thrill for a child were she not impatient for its arrival?

I think about this essay often (and indeed have mentioned it before on this blog) and never more so than in the past couple of weeks or so. For here is what I can tell you my friends: I have been on this road to a functional, efficient kitchen--a cook's kitchen--for eighteen years, and I am ready to reach the destination. I think I have had enough "desire." I am ready for some casseroles.

I am trying to keep all this in perspective, of course. The kitchen we had was adequate. It had a small gas stove, on which three out of four burners worked. It had a double sink that was almost big enough to hold a drainer. It had a space for a refrigerator.

It also had drawers that were difficult to open and close, cupboard shelves that were just this side of too small for today's shelf organizers, and very limited counter space. And did I mention that it was tiny? There was just enough room for one person to fit comfortably--any more than that, say, for example, during a party, and things could get claustrophobic in a hurry.

And the formica counter tops that would stain if you merely thought about pouring a glass of wine. Oy.

But the real reason I wanted a new kitchen was that there simply wasn't anyplace to put a dishwasher in a kitchen that was built in 1942. And this, my friends, was a deal-breaker for me. Now it may seem to some of you that this is not such a big problem. After all, we are only two, and how many dishes can two people generate? The answer is not many, if you confine yourselves to making only one-pot meals. And no parties.

Here is how not having a dishwasher affected my cooking life: I'd read a recipe and get to the part about using a food processor...and that would be the end of that particular recipe. The food processor was, you see, an extra thing to wash. Or I'd consider that the onions, peppers, and garlic didn't really need to be sauteed first...because it created another dirty pan. And don't get me started on the terror I felt at the mountain of dishes created by a dinner party.

(I should mention here that Walu, my hero, washes 75% of the dishes. Whereas I like neatness and cleanliness in general in the household, when it comes to dishes, I hate washing them so much that I will allow them to sit for days on the counter before I'll address them. Into the breach steps Walu...)

So while over the past eighteen years I've gotten very good at creating minimalist fare (at least where the number of cooking vessels used is concerned), I am ready to branch out. I am ready for roux! I am ready for making my own bread crumbs! I am ready for, uh, fancy stuff!

There is some advantage for putting off a kitchen remodel for so many years. I've spent much of that time thinking about exactly what I'd like, so that now that it is underway, there have been very few hesitations about design. It will be open to the dining room, so guests can visit with me (or Walu) while we are in the kitchen without all of us having to crowd in there. It will have a pull-out pantry, so we can see exactly what is stored. It will have shelves that swing out from blind corners so that things don't get hidden from view and forgotten. It will have extra counter space in the form of a peninsula, devoted to meal preparation. And of course, a dishwasher. As I said, this is going to be a cook's kitchen.

This week they are painting and tiling. Next week is plumbing, electrical, and appliance installation. Then one more coat on the floor. And then...I think we are finished.

Oh, and the color of the walls? They will be blue, so that I can always remember what it felt like to wait for this kitchen.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

And the winner is...

As promised, my neighbor Julie came over today and drew a name out of one of my favorite gardening hats to determine the winner of a free Troy-Bilt lithium ion battery-powered cultivator.

I am pleased to say that Heather Swindall is the lucky winner! Heather, please go to the Bicycle Garden's Facebook page (click on the image in the right sidebar and it will take you there automatically), "like" the page, and then send me a message with your email address. If that doesn't work for you, leave me a comment at the end of this post and we'll figure something out. Once I get your address, I'll pass it along to Troy-Bilt and they will send you your cultivator. I hope you enjoy yours as much as I have enjoyed mine.

Thank you all for participating--I wish I had dozens and dozens of cultivators to give away. Thanks especially to Troy-Bilt for making this happen.

As for my LBB peeps, sorry you didn't win, but you are always welcome to borrow my cultivator if you need one.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

School daze: A repurposed herb stand

These are the bitter days of the kitchen reno as things have been delayed while we wait on the granite counter tops. The first delay came when the fabricator found a crack in one of the slabs and had to send it back. Then his ogee bit broke and he had to send to Dallas for a replacement. Then they sent the wrong size. Morris, the contractor, calls me on the phone each time there's a delay to let me know. It feels like the date for Christmas morning keeps getting moved back.

Without the counter tops, we can't paint. Without the paint, we can't move the appliances in from where they are waiting in the wings...

I'm trying to keep things in perspective, but I'm ready to start making use of my new kitchen. My skills have been stretched by being limited to a gas grill, but living without a good, baked casserole is harder than I would have thought. I may try something using a dutch oven if this goes on much longer.

Ah well. I sit in the unfinished kitchen at night and try to imagine how I'm going to maximize the use of it. One thing I've decided I'm going to do is move some fresh herbs inside. I watch these cooking shows and they've always got a pot of basil or rosemary sitting on the counter, all fresh and bright. I'm suspicious of these, though, and wonder if they've just been potted up for the set. My fresh-from-the-garden herbs have brightened my cooking so much this summer, however, that I can't imagine going a whole winter without them.

There is a bright corner of the kitchen where I think  I could grow them, and I was thinking about putting a corner butler's pantry there. Everything I looked at, however, seemed too flimsy or overly large. Then I remembered an old school desk I bought at an auction on campus some dozen years ago. I dragged it out of the living room, where it was hidden from view under an overgrown potted plant. I took it into the unfinished kitchen and tried it in the corner, where it seemed just right, peaceful and serene in the light from the windows:

I snipped some cuttings from my favorite basil and rosemary plants and put them in a glass of water to see if I could get them to root (I know basil is an annual, but what the hell--it doesn't hurt to dream. Plus, it smells good.):

If the cuttings are successful, I'll put them in yellow and blue pots. I have no idea if this will work, but it gives me something to focus on while I wait.

Today is the last day to enter the drawing for a chance to win a battery powered Troy-Bilt cultivator! Go to this post for more information and leave a comment to get your name in the hat. I'll announce the winner on the blog tomorrow, and leave instructions for getting in touch to arrange delivery of the cultivator.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Little Red Wagon and I go a-neighboring

As I mentioned in a previous post, Troy-Bilt is anxious to give away a battery-powered cultivator to some lucky reader of The Bike Garden, and as part of that deal, they asked me if there was anything I could use out of their catalog. Well, in fact, there was, and it involves the care of this flower bed in one of our neighborhood parks:

It is one of three legacy "color spots" originally installed and cared for by three different neighbors many years ago, all of whom for various reasons are unable to care for them now. The neighborhood association has been paying for a local landscaping firm to take care of the one shown above, with spotty results (as you can see, it was a tad overgrown, and filled with rescue grass and nutsedge), so at a recent board meeting, when we were all sitting around scratching our heads about the budget and lamenting how much the flower beds were costing us, a voice piped up and said, "I'll believe I'll take this task on myself."

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the voice was mine.

I love this flower bed, though, as do many in the neighborhood. It was planted by Marjorie, a much-beloved figure in the 'hood, and it has given us pleasure for many years. Its placement at the most prominent corner of the park also means that it, in effect, represents the neighborhood, and so it behooves us to see that it stays spruced up. However, because it is a city park, many people are under the impression that it is the city's responsibility to take care of it. This is not the case, though, and thus it has fallen on hard times.

The Sunday morning after our board meeting, I loaded up a small bucket-on-wheels with tools and walked the two blocks to the park. I could have driven, but it was only two blocks, you know? Even so, the little wheelie-bucket was inadequate to the task.

All the tools made it unstable and wobbly, and while it is sufficient to haul away the weeds in my own yard, it didn't begin to hold the volume that I was pulling out of Marjorie's flower bed. The latter meant that I'd fill up the bucket quickly, then have to stop my work, pick up all my tools, take them with me as I dumped the waste, then return for another round of weeding. With a small bucket, this meant many trips. I could have used my big wheelbarrow for a bigger load, but pushing that thing two blocks hardly seemed like a good idea, either.

Nevertheless, I managed to make pretty good progress that first morning, and removed most of the weeds:

But what it really needed was some thinning out of the "good" stuff as well. I mentioned this at our neighborhood association meeting and up popped two volunteers, Landon and Laura. The following Sunday morning, they added their capable hands to the task:

And now it looks like this:

But still all we had to work with was my little wheelie-bucket. Fortunately, this was just about the time the Troy-Bilt came along with their generous offer, and there in the catalog was a solution to my problem: a garden cart, big enough for a load of tools and an even bigger load of garden waste. To top it off, it also had large wheels, which would make it easy to roll the two blocks to the park.

And Troy-Bilt made it so:
The cart is nearly perfect for my needs. It holds a lot of tools and is stable when I wheel it down the road:

And more importantly, I can get a lot of garden waste in one load:

The cart came needing assembly, but this was fairly easy. It took me a couple of hours at most, and I only skinned two knuckles in the process. Some of the pieces required a little "persuasion" to fit together, but nothing that was too alarming. The finish on the wooden sides and base is rather dubious, and will not hold up to the weather if left outside. Indeed, after only one light rain, the plywood has already begun to crack and peel. To be fair, The instructions mention this, and recommends that it be stored inside in "extreme" weather, and applying a coat of varnish once a year. Frankly, I think a garden cart ought to be able to take a bit of the great outdoors, but I understand that in order to keep costs down, the sides are made of cheap plywood. Fortunately, I just had some work done on the house and happen to have some more durable material lying around that I will probably use to replace the less suitable wood.

I think I'm going to paint it red when I do so, however, since I am tickled by the sauciness of the cart as it is. Doesn't it stand out well against the flower bed?

I think the bright red color of the cart has had another, unexpected side effect. The park is a very busy place, with lots of joggers and walkers, but the first couple of times I worked on the bed, hardly anyone said anything to me at all as they passed by. There were a few more comments when Landon and Laura were with me, but still not as many as you might expect. But when I showed up with the cart, many more not only commented, some even came over to visit. One even volunteered to help. It might be a coincidence , it might be that the regulars are getting used to me, it might even be that with the red cart, it is obvious that I am not a city employee and therefore "one of them." I think, however, that it is because the cart is just so darned cheerful-looking. Who knows? It could even be having a bit of Tom Sawyer effect on people: "Weeding is fun!"

And the truth, of course, is that it is.

Anyway, except for the dicey finish, I'm really pleased with the cart, and grateful to Troy-Bilt for sending it to me (and to Landon and Laura for their help!). Don't forget to enter the contest for the free cultivator that started this! All you have to do is go to the post about it, found here, and leave a comment telling me how you would use it. That will automatically enter your name in a drawing I'll have on August 16th. Be sure to check the blog to see if you've won!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Update on the redwood counters

I've been working a few hours this past week on tidying up a flower bed in one of our neighborhood parks, so I haven't been spending very many mornings in the shop (and afternoons are out of the question, since it gets hot enough to bake bread in there). But I've made a little progress, which I thought I'd share in a quick update.

After milling all the components and gluing together the top, I made templates:

and routed all the mortises needed (shown here on the caps and feet that will be attached to the legs):

I laminated two boards together and made the stretcher and cut the tenons. I wanted to cut the top in a graceful arch, so I took a page from boat building and used a thin piece of wood as a batten to draw the curve, which I then cut on the bandsaw:

Here is the stretcher, dry fit into the mortises of the two legs:

Next up is to cut and fit the tenons of the legs into the mortises of the caps and feet. I should be able to get that done tomorrow, after which it is simply a matter of attaching the top to the legs, et al. Hopefully, I can get that done tomorrow morning before it gets too hot. I think it's going to look pretty good when it is put together.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Something good this way comes: A Troy Bilt giveaway for me and you

Troy Bilt contacted me about a month ago and offered me a cordless, battery-powered cultivator for free if I'd a) review it, and b) give away another to some lucky reader of the blog.

Unfortunately for me, I already have Troy Bilt cultivator--a fairly new one, in fact, that I got for my birthday this summer. As tempting as free stuff is, and as much I like the cultivator I do have, I just couldn't justify having another. I explained this to the Troy Bilt rep, who said, "No worries! We'll give you something else to review! But you've still got to give away a brand-spanking new lithium ion battery cultivator to one of your readers."

My friends, there are no flies on me when it comes to seeing a bona fide opportunity when it presents itself.

So here's the deal: I'm getting this garden cart:

which I plan to use and review as part of a project involving the flower beds in our neighborhood parks (more on this in a future post), and one of you will get this cultivator shipped to you directly from Troy-Bilt:

You can read the details about it here.

This is a really good deal, y'all. I haven't used the battery version of the Troy Bilt cultivator, but I love my electric version. I put off getting one of these for years, thinking (erroneously, as it turned out) that there wasn't anything a cultivator could do that I couldn't do just as easily with a shovel or spading fork. Then Troy Bilt offered the battery version as a door prize at the Garden Blogger Fling that I attended in Asheville this past spring. And dang it! I found myself disappointed that I didn't win that thing.

So when Walu asked me what I wanted for my birthday, a cultivator seemed like as good a gift as any, figuring I'd use it to amend my flower beds this summer. Before I got a chance to do that, however, I got the idea to use it to put in some additional stones in a flagstone path, and a project that I figured would take me two or three days was accomplished in a couple of hours. If I had only known...

Don't be like me. Don't pass up this opportunity. All you have to do is leave me a comment on the blog telling me what you plan to do with the cultivator. It doesn't have to be anything special--I'm not going to pick out the "best" cultivator idea or anything like that. I just want to know how you'll use it because I'm a curious girl and would like to know something about you and your garden.

I'll take the comments until August 15, at which time I'll put all of your names in a hat and have my neighbor Julie pull one out.* I'll announce the winner on August 16th, and we can take it from there.

*Julie doesn't know this yet, but I'm sure she'll be game. I'd ask Walu, but since he's my paramour, that doesn't feel as impartial.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Redwood counters for the outdoor kitchen

Well, it wouldn't be summer without a woodworking project, would it?

A complete renovation of our kitchen has driven us outside this summer, and so I've created a temporary kitchen on the patio that has turned out to be very pleasant and functional:

I've enjoyed the experience of cooking and cleaning up outside so much, in fact, that I've decided to make it a little less makeshift. I also have this pile of redwood, left over from a deck we had removed this spring, and I'm looking for projects for it:

I don't want anything that looks heavy or massive, so I've decided to make two trestle counters, one for food preparation and one which will hold a stainless steel sink. Yesterday I milled some boards to freshen the surface and square them up, and glued them together for the top of the prep counter:

When it was dry, I squared the edges and screwed battens to the underside, making sure that I elongated the drill holes for the end screws, to accommodate wood movement:

Today I'll mill the wood for the rest of it, and if all goes well, start on the mortises for the legs. Stay tuned.