Monthly Archives: November 2012

Nurtured by Food – Fall Favorites, Part II

Joining our fruit CSA was an easy decision for me. I’d tasted enough of the orchard’s fruit to know each piece was the best piece I’d ever experienced in my life. It wasn’t hard envisioning our family noshing our way through it all. Joining a vegetable CSA, though, took some courage. For those of you unfamiliar with why a veggie CSA used to make me shudder, here’s the deal: the farmers decide what goes into your box every week. You are at their mercy. No meal planning, no pre-selecting. I heard the stories of boxes filled with kale week after week for months on end. It grows really well here in the soggy Pacific Northwest. And while my husband and I like kale in certain dishes or as chips, I did not get particularly excited about dealing with it regularly. Besides, I have several varieties growing in my own garden. It grows well here! Also, I was hesitant to join a CSA that didn’t allow substitutions since I grow some of my own vegetables and was hopeful for an abundance of at least some of them. There are a few produce deliveries in Seattle that allow this and using one of them seemed preferable to grocery shopping. I tried one for a month and wasn’t thrilled with the quality of the produce nor the value. It quickly became obvious it wasn’t a true CSA. My garden wasn’t winning me over with its fruits, either. Adequate motivation in hand, I cancelled my account and emailed favorite vegetable farmers  known to me from markets. We snuck in at their halfway point.

This was one of my best food decisions ever.

The world's ugliest root. But quite tasty!

Celeriac: The world’s ugliest root. Don’t judge.


Romanesco: beautiful fractals










Each week we retrieved a huge box filled with incredible variety of produce. One week included a bunch of Chioggia beets, butternut squash, red Russian kale, a head of romaine lettuce, a bunch of bok choi, two heads of broccoli, a head of Romanesco cauliflower, parsnips, and a small head of cabbage. Another week we got a pound of tomatoes, half pound of cucumbers, a bunch of beets, a bunch of Pink Beauty radishes, one bunch of mustard greens, one beautiful red cabbage, five sweet peppers, two pounds Yellow Finn potatoes, a half pound of leeks and one little sprig green coriander. These are not boring boxes.

Now, if you don’t know how to cook or don’t have a juicer, consuming this amount of produce is an enormous challenge. I don’t care how much you like crudite and dip, you’re not going to get through it. This was the first year I was mentally ready. I can cook on the fly or fall back on various tried-and-true methods (like high heat roasting). Plus, the boys are more independent. I can spend a little more time in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, reading recipes and researching techniques. The farm made life easier by providing weekly recipes, too.

I considered us pretty veggie-centric prior, but we definitely amped up our vegetable intake. I often cooked for both lunch and dinner if we didn’t have leftovers on hand. We were exposed to a lot of produce I might not have purchased, like celeriac, parsnips, turnips and Romanesco. I made homemade pickles for the first time, turning me onto pickling for life. (Pickled garlic is amazing; so are grapes and fennel.) I could eat roasted parsnip chips like popcorn. Between this and the fruit, the variety of food in our house was amazing. Abundance.

The world's cutest pepper-eating toddler!

Peppers are hilarious!

Below is a favorite fall recipe recommended by our farmers. They adapted it from The Splendid Table recipe. Their changes, plus mine, make it more vegetable dense and less rich. This version is delicious without the extra added cup of cheese. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not fat phobic. I think vegetables should be served with some fat and salt. If a recipe recommends low-fat anything, I stop reading.

I’ve made this three times in the past few weeks. Each time I used different veggies, but from the same families. While they were all delicious, my favorite combination was with butternut squash, onion and red Russian kale.


Pasta with Roasted Squash and Greens

  • 4-5 cups winter squash (1 medium butternut, 2 delicata or 2 acorn)- peeled, seeded and cut into bite-sized chunks. Delicata squash need not be peeled.
  • 1 medium onion, cut into 1-inch chunks (leeks and shallots work well, too)
  • 1 bunch of kale, chopped (~16 leaves, removed from their stems)
  • 1/3 cup tightly packed fresh basil leaves or 1 teaspoon dry basil
  • 16 large fresh sage leaves, torn
  • 3-5 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4+ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar, packed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup whole milk (or half-and-half)
  • 1/2 cup parmesan (Grate fresh, if possible. It tastes better and doesn’t have stabilizers added to it. Microplanes make for quick grating and zesting.)
  • 1 lb short pasta (rotini, penne, shells, orecchiette, bow-tie)

Preheat oven 450℉. Put two rimmed baking sheets or roasting pans in the oven as it heats. Toss together all the roasting ingredients (this includes everything except the milk, cheese and pasta) in a big bowl. Generously season with salt and pepper. (I use 1 tablespoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper prior to roasting. Once it’s assembled, I’ll add more as needed.)

Using potholders, carefully pull out the extremely hot pans. (This can’t be stressed enough. They are screaming hot at this point.) Carefully place the squash mixture on the pans. Spread it out evenly so it has space to caramelize. Bake 20-25 minutes or until the squash is tender. Stir at least once at the ten minute mark and rotate pans if cooking is uneven. Check again at the 20-minute mark. The kale can quickly move from crispy to burnt.

Cook your pasta in salted water. Drain once al dente. If your pasta is done prior to the vegetables, toss it with the milk and cheese while you wait.

Optional: Once the squash is tender, flip on the broiler to further caramelize the squash. Watch closely and turn the pieces often. Do not leave the food under the broiler unattended. My oven only allows for 1-2 minutes of this before the kale screams in fury. After making this multiple times, I skip this step because I am perfectly content with the recipe prior to it, but it does add a little more depth and pizazz if the squash has those beautiful, caramelized, crusty brown edges.

Scrape everything into a serving bowl. Add the hot pasta, milk and parmesan cheese. Toss to blend, tasting for salt and pepper. Serves 4-6 adults.


A Growing Heart

Thanksgiving’s timing comes perfectly for me this year. I am feeling keenly aware of how easily things can come crashing down, changing everything. Maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. This is without a major crisis in my life, just the recent experiences I’ve had with feeling depressed and overwhelmed. I think it’s been a humbling experience, letting me know I’m not immune from those things.

Of course, like most of you, I could fill pages with things I’m thankful for. Most are pretty predictable and you could probably write at least one of my pages for me. There are a few things I’m thankful for this year that surprise me, though. That show me how my heart has grown. That show me where I need to grow. That give me hope. That make me grieve and yearn for healing.

I’m a member of a gym that has multiple buildings we can use. The one closest to our house is slightly run down, not in the best part of town, and attracts a pretty diverse group of people. There is nothing flashy about this place. In fact, the nicest spot is probably the childcare room. Some people just come to shower, many of whom are homeless. Some people come purely for conversation. Most come to exercise. Lots of parents drop off little ones in the fantastic kids room complete with big playmats for tumbling, tons of toys, no televisions, and interactive, engaged staff. It is water for my soul to go to this gym. Not solely because I get to exercise while my boys play contentedly and the rain pours outside. It’s the spirit of the place. It’s a micro community, supporting people in whatever their needs are. I don’t feel any sense of competition at this gym.

There’s a man I see there regularly. He is quite overweight, always sweating profusely while he rides a stationary bike. Soaked clothes, dripping on the floor. Most of the people surrounding him weigh less than him, look more fit than him, and certainly everyone is drier than him. But there he is, clearly giving it his best. I’m not sure I’d be so brave. It takes a lot of courage to enter a scene as the most vulnerable. He is impressive, so very strong. I am thankful for him.

I’m thankful that I’m being kinder to myself. Loving and forgiving myself a bit more- quirks, bad mood / depressed / sharp tongue days, neurologic deficits (we all have ’em, folks), new wrinkles and all. Not giving up on things I hope to change, but giving myself more grace for the journey. I am entering the weight room on a regular basis, something that always makes me uncomfortable at first. I hate that it’s frequently a male-dominated scene. But I go. I lift free weights in front of the mirror, looking at my body because it’s either that, close my eyes while I lift, or not face the mirror at all, both of which would be quite odd. So, I’m using this time to try to really see myself. To let my eyes be evermore accepting of what they see.

There’s a woman at the gym that I first met in a small weight-lifting class. She was quiet and kept to herself. I’m persistent in wearing people down with kind greetings, so by the end of the class session, we were having brief conversations. While passing her in the locker room yesterday I said hi and casually asked how she was. She told me she was feeling pretty anxious, she hadn’t heard from friends about Thanksgiving and wasn’t sure what she was going to do. Maybe she’d go to a movie, she added. At least the cheap theaters let you watch as many as you want. I ached for her.

She continued on with her bigger story. I went from quickly packing up my stuff to get the boys to sitting quietly on a stool in the locker room, listening to her. After losing her job a year and a half ago, she’s been homeless for a year, in and out of friends’ homes and various transitional housing units. That’s when I realized why there were four big bags at her feet. She was just moving into a new place and had to carry everything with her, but first she needed to get to a temp job. I was honored she shared all this with me after such a simple question. She also accepted my offer to drive her to the job so she could avoid walking in the rain with her bags. I’m thinking of her today, hoping those friends called and she has a warm meal and feels loved. She is so strong, allowing me to know these broken pieces and help carry the load, even if just for a few minutes.

Nurtured by Food – Fall Favorites, Part 1

In a welcome contrast to how I was feeling, our summer and fall were filled with beauty I couldn’t previously imagine. Beginning in early July, a weekly fruit CSA delivery from my favorite orchard covered our counter with the most gorgeous hues. Lapin cherries. Nectarcots. Donut peaches. Dinosaur egg pluots. Our kitchen frequently smelled like peaches. I made my first jam, first tart and several delicious crisps. I ordered extra cherries thinking I’d dry some for the winter but because I didn’t dry them long enough and they needed to be consumed, I made some uncommon recipes. (The best: cherry ketchup. Unbelievably delicious on a hamburger with roasted red onion and blue cheese.) But most of the fruit was eaten in pure form because it was truly stunning that way. Sometimes I just didn’t want to take the risk that it wouldn’t taste quite as delectable. Several weeks into the deliveries, we were joking that our boys were going to become stonefruit connoisseurs  Miles was saying things like, “No want apricot. Want aprium!”

The rental house we’re in has an unusually large and flat lot for the city. It was part of the original orchard of our neighborhood and we have a very old, stately Italian prune plum tree and two well-established Asian pear trees. We figure they were neglected for a decade or so, given how the overall landscape looked when we moved in. Shortly after moving in, my husband took a tree pruning class and has spent hours since carefully grooming the trees of our yard. This year the plum tree burst at the seams, providing nearly 200lbs of fruit for our family, friends, neighbors and neighborhood food bank. One of my closest friends, who is responsible for at least half of the preferred recipes in my repertoire, made this upside down polenta cake with our plums and insisted that I try it after her husband swore it was the best cake he’d ever had. She makes really delicious cakes, so I knew we needed to try it. Plus, it a Melissa Clark recipe. If you’re a food writer for the New York Times, you’re pretty reliable.

So, I baked it. Twice. The first time I followed Melissa’s recipe apart from decreasing the sugar a bit. (From tasting our plums, I knew they were sweet enough to handle less.) I shared it with my family, a visiting friend and her two year old son. We were very quiet for a few minutes. It’s a smooth, creamy, slightly tangy and just perfectly sweet cake. That night it was paired with a homemade lightly sweetened vanilla whipped cream.

I wanted to make it again when we were already done processing our tree’s plums but newly inundated with Giant Italian prune plums from our CSA. I invited my wonderful group of graduate school SLP friends for an impromptu Wednesday night cake night. What I didn’t do was check my refrigerator for cornmeal. I had made cornbread the week before. Twice. So, left with quite a bit less than a cup of cornmeal and no time for a trip to the store, I contemplated my options. There, alongside my random bags of flours and grains in the fridge, sat millet. (I’ve used it to make muffins from Heidi Swanson’s latest cookbook.) Worth a shot!

You know what? My husband and I both liked it better. The millet added a little bit of texture, a tiny crunch here and there, that made it more interesting. Same incredible flavors, slightly more intriguing experience. It also didn’t hurt that we had some Molly Moon’s salted caramel ice cream in the freezer as an accompaniment.

Here’s my happy surprise version of Melissa Clark’s cake. Her recipe or my adapted version, you can’t go wrong. If you’re still lucky enough to have plums or if you have some stored in the freezer, hop to it! (We’re on our last week with plums from our CSA and I’m guessing our farmer’s markets won’t have them beyond this weekend, if it all. I think I’d be disappointed with a grocery store plum. Better to wait until they’re in season again.) If not, come visit me. We’ll try it out a version using the plums in my freezer. I would love another reason to make the cake.

Upside Down Plum Polenta Cake

20-24 Italian prune plums or 10-12 Giant Italian prune plums, sliced 1/2-inch thick  (If you have another variety of plums, you can estimate the number or go by a weight of ~1 3/4 lbs plums. I don’t think this part of the recipe is so picky that a little variation will hurt.)

1 1/3 cups to 1 1/2 cups sugar

2/3 cup cornmeal (I used Bob’s Red Mill fine grind cornmeal.)

1/3 cup millet (You can find this in the bulk foods aisle of a health(ier) food store or through Bob’s Red Mill. If not, omit the millet and use 1 cup cornmeal.)

1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1/4 cup all-purpose flour (or 1/2 cup all-purpose. If you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour, don’t use it. A pastry flour’s grind is thinner, making it a suitable substitute up to 50%. Other whole wheat grinds might be too gritty and dense.)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (I prefer Diamond brand.)

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature

4 large eggs

1/4 cup sour cream (Whole fat. Always tastes better.)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Whipped cream or ice cream for serving. Optional, but very nice.

Preheat your oven to 350° F. Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper and grease the paper and pan well. You can also use a 9-inch round greased cake pan if you don’t care about the presentation- it’s less likely to exit the pan with grace if it’s not springform. But, I wouldn’t go buy a springform just for this occasion unless you’re expecting royalty. Either way, put a raised rim cookie sheet underneath your pan to catch any plum juice that might boil up and drip out while it bakes. This is especially important with the springform pan.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the plums and 1/3 to 1/2 cup of sugar (depending on your plums’ sweetness) until the plums are tender. Stir occasionally, watching for their liquids to release, reduce, and begin to look syrupy-thick. This takes about 15-20 minutes. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan.

In a bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, millet, flour, baking powder, and salt.

Cream the room temperature butter and remaining cup of sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one a time, letting each one mix in completely before adding the next. Beat to combine. Beat in the sour cream and vanilla.

Remove the bowl from your mixer and gently fold in the dry ingredients with a spatula until just combined. Plop the batter on top of the plums and smooth with a spatula. Bake until the cake is golden and springs back when gently touched, approximately 45 to 50 minutes.

Allow the cake to cool for 10 minutes, then unmold the springform side and invert it onto a plate. Or pray and dance and hope that your crazy flipping actions with the cake round will not lead to a sloppy mess on the plate. (This may or may not have happened when I used a round cake pan the second time. The dancing part. No one cared that it wasn’t perfect because it was going into our mouths. And it tasted really, really good. And they’re the type of friends that don’t care about perfection. The best.) Serve warm.

If you choose to serve it with whipped cream or ice cream, good choice. Homemade whipped cream is really easy to make and definitely worth a few extra minutes. You can add vanilla, liquor, or other extracts of choice. The salted caramel ice cream was really nice as a side, but vanilla might be a better choice to highlight the cake. My talented former neighbor just posted a recipe for salted caramel ice cream if you make your own. Make any of these and you’re guaranteed a very good night for you, your friends and family!

Yields one delicious cake. Serves 8 hungry adults or 12-16 well-fed children. Not both.