Archive for September, 2011

All Purpose Tex-Mex Spice Blend

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Today is my day off and I’m using the time for some kitchen prep work which will make the next week run smoothly. I was planning to send my son to school with a homemade taco salad in his lunchbox tomorrow.  I was out of the seasoning mix I use for any of my Tex-Mex dishes (chili, fajitas, tacos, etc).  I’ll have to remember to write a little about our adventures in packed lunches at some later time. For those of you struggling to keep  your children’s lunch menu interesting, I should share some of our packed lunch menus.

Unlike many of the taco seasoning recipes floating around on the web, you will notice that my recipe lacks onion and garlic powder.  I like to use fresh garlic and onion when I cook up my chili or taco meat, so it’s not necessary in my spice blend.  Once I’ve cooked up my ground beef and added my spice mix, I add two or three tablespoons of flour to the meat and cook it for another minute.  I then add a little water and simmer to create slightly saucy meat mixture.  I finish the whole thing off with a few squeezes of fresh lime juice to brighten up the flavor and give it a little extra zing.

I try to use as many whole spices, and herbs that I grow myself in my kitchen. The flavor of freshly toasted and crushed herbs and spices is far superior to the stale pre-ground seasonings found in the grocery store aisles.  In this particular spice blend I use oregano from my herb garden, and whole cumin seed that I toast in a cast iron skillet (until the seeds start to pop and  smoke slightly) and grind with a mortar and pestle.  If you haven’t figured it out by now, I like to do everything the hard way. The chili powder used is a matter of personal taste.  I use a mild chili powder because my husband can’t handle spicy food.  If I had my way I’d be using a wonderful rich, smoky chipotle powder that lurks in the back of my spice cupboard.

All Purpose Tex-Mex Spice Blend
8 Tablespoons chili powder
4 Tablespoons toasted cumin seed powder
1 Tablespoon good quality Hungarian paprika
1 Tablespoon crushed oregano leaves
1 Tablespoon kosher salt

Blend all spices together and store in a jar.  I recently began using Weck canning jars, which are so popular in Germany and Europe.  These 1/5 l deco jars stack perfectly in my spice cupboard.

Chocolate Cardamom Plum Jam

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

I found my inspiration for this jam earlier last week on the Grow It Cook It Can It blog. Of course I couldn’t leave it alone, and had to play around with the idea until I created something that was mine. I like to make old-fashioned cooked jams, so I almost always remove the pectin from a recipe.  I also prefer to use honey in place of sugar. Also, last year’s experiment with Salted Butterscotch Peach jam taught me that a bit of salt has it’s place in jam.

There’s no way I can top my inspiring blogger’s post on her jam, and the wonderful poem by William Carlos Williams , so I’m not even going to try.

When I give some of the measurements, notice that I indicate amounts “up to”.  The amount of honey, lemon juice, and spices will depend on the ripeness, sweetness, and acidity of the plums.  These factors can vary quite a bit, so I always taste as I go. My plums were perfectly ripe and very sweet.  I used only 1 cup of honey and the juice of 1/2 a lemon.  Also, I found that only 1/2 ounce of the chocolate gave me  what I wanted without overwhelming the flavor of the plums.  If you’ve never cooked with cardamom, let me warn you that a little can go a very long way.  If you’re using store-bought ground cardamom, you’ll probably end up using a whole 1/4 teaspoon.  If you split the pods and grind the seeds like I do, then you’ll need less. One last note, because this is a cooked jam, the volume will reduce by almost half … another reason it’s important to go easy on the spices, taste as you go, and adjust at the end of the cooking (if needed).

Chocolate Cardamom Plum Jam
3 pounds skinned, chopped plums (approximately 6 cups)
1 to 1 1/2 cup local raw honey
Up to 1/4 cup lemon juice
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 to 1 ounce grated, good quality 100% cacao baking chocolate
Salt to taste (optional)

To make skinning plums easy, drop them in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds, and then remove to ice water.

Place plums in a wide shallow pan over medium heat.  Add honey, lemon juice, and cardamom. Once the mixture reaches a boil, turn the heat down and simmer for 30 minutes to an hour, or until the plums reach the desired jam like consistency. Add grated chocolate and stir to incorporate.  Add salt to taste.

If you would like to can the jam, prepare jars and lids according to standard canning practices. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner.

Sock Siren

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

The siren’s call of my knitting needles finally managed to drown out the call of my kitchen.  So many things are calling me these days, it’s a wonder I can hear myself think!

I will finish this pair of socks before I start anything new! This is the very first pair of socks I started to knit … almost two years ago!  The project is on itsy bitsy, teensy, tiny, dinky little size 1 needles.  Anyone who knits on size 0 needles is insane.  I learned what I needed when I first started them, got bored, switched to a different pair of socks using thicker yarn and larger needles.  Then … last winter I decided to unravel the original sock, and start over.  My knitting had improved ten fold, and I saw mistakes I didn’t like.  I managed to get this far (see picture above) before my spring garden started screaming at me to come play.

I spent a good part of my day completing dozens of little tasks that have been piling up around the house. Things like finishing sweeping up the empty jar I broke in the basement two weeks ago, balancing my checkbook, folding the sheets I washed three days ago, putting away the pile that’s been accumulating on the kitchen table, emptying the fridge of a couple of noxious containers, digging a hairball out of the shower drain, and other such nonsense.  My plan was to make and can a batch of chunky applesauce this afternoon, as well as another batch of plum jam.  However, my knitting needles were complaining so loudly I could no longer ignore them.


Winterizing the Chicken Coop

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

It’s been a great weekend for getting some things done around our place.  I finally got caught up on my canning, and have been able to attend to some other projects.  I’ve been meaning to get the chicken coop cleaned out, and this morning was perfect for the job.

Once I got the old straw and chicken poop shoveled out, I sprinkled a layer of diatomaceous earth on the floor before putting down a new layer of straw.  Diatomaceous earth is a natural method of controlling fleas, mites, ticks, digestive parasites, and any other insect pests.  Diatomaceaous earth is the fossilized remains of Diatoms, microscopic one celled algae, which acts like little razors on the exoskeleton of insects, slicing and drying them out. A perfect, natural means of keeping your flock healthy.

My husband completed some finishing touches to the coop to get it ready for winter.  The electrical wiring in the coop was pretty old, so he rewired it to be sure it would be safe to run the heated base for the chicken waterer. With the wiring completed, he was able to finish insulating the walls and ceiling.  He also hung a light fixture.  I put full spectrum bulbs in the fixture, and it’s on a timer set to turn on early in the morning and then turn off a few hours later when the sun is finally up.  Giving the girls 14-16 hours of light a day will ensure regular egg production during the winter months.   It’s important to have the timer set to be on in the morning hours, rather than evening, so the chickens won’t find themselves stranded on the ground at night when the lights go off.  As the light fades in the evening, it’s a chicken’s natural instinct to find a roost up off the ground, safe from predators, before it gets dark.

The girls seem content with their digs.

Jackstraw Eggplant (Aubergine)

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

I have no clue why this recipe is called jackstraw.  It’s what I always heard it called while I was growing up.  Jackstraw is actually an old-fashioned name for a game of pick-up-sticks.  My mom never made this enough to please me when I was a kid, and I would always angle to be the one who got the last piece.

Another piece of trivia from my childhood is that I was a voracious reader, and read every kind of mythology I could get my hands on.   I can’t look at eggplant (also known as aubergine) without remembering the Turkish myth about a famous Turkish dish called Imam Bayildi.  It goes like this:

“A long time ago there lived a Turkish imam, well known for his appetite and love of good food. One day he surprised his friends by announcing his engagement to the beautiful young daughter of a rich olive oil merchant.  Part of her dowry was a consignment of the very finest olive oil. The wealthy merchant gave the groom twelve great jars of the prized oil, each one as big as a man.

Following the wedding, the young daughter quickly revealed her talents as a Turkish cook and every day prepared a special dish for her new food-loving husband. Stuffed aubergine in olive oil was his absolute favorite, and so he asked his wife to make it for him every night as the centrepiece of his dinner. Being a good wife, she did as she was told, and made the delicious dish for twelve days in a row. On the thirteenth day, however, when the imam sat down to dinner, his favourite aubergine dish was starkly absent. The imam demanded to know the reason for its disappearance. The bride replied, “My dear husband, I cannot make your favourite dish anymore, for we have no more olive oil. You will have to buy some more.” The lmam was so shocked by the news that he fainted. And so ever since that day, his favorite dish has become known as ‘Imam Bayildi’,(the imam fainted).”

I’ve had a bumper crop of these beautiful Italian heirloom eggplant this year.

If you’ve ever cooked eggplant, you know how much oil it will soak up during cooking. If you make the following recipe, be sure your oil is well heated before you add the eggplant, and it won’t absorb quite as much oil.

Jackstraw Eggplant
Panko Crumbs
Oil for frying

Peel eggplant and cut into 1/4″ slices.  First flour the slices.

Then give the slices an egg bath.

Finally, coat the slices in Panko crumbs.  My mom always used corn flake crumbs, but once I discovered Panko a few years ago, they became my preference.  Nothing crisps up quite like Panko crumbs.

I like to have all my eggplant coated and on my cutting board before I begin frying.

Heat oil over medium high heat. Fry a few slices at a time.  You’ll get the best crispy results if you don’t crowd the pan. OK, a little bunny trail about oil.  I use lard, but feel free to use olive oil.  I won’t go into a lengthy explanation of my views on oils and saturated fats, but I will tell you that I eat real fats.  Real raw butter from cows raised on grass, real lard from pigs allowed to roam pasture. Real beef fat from cows raised on grass, not grain.  Real chicken fat from happy, roaming chickens.  You get the picture.  I wouldn’t touch those highly processed tubs of lard they sell in the grocery store with a 10 foot pole. Back to business.

Once the eggplant is browned on both sides and tender, place on draining rack or paper towels.  I like to eat my Jackstraw eggplant sprinkled with a little salt and Parmesan cheese, and served with a simple salad of fresh garden tomatoes with a little basil, salt, and pepper.  I’m ashamed to say I ate two whole medium sized eggplants for dinner this evening. See what happens, Mom, for not feeding me enough eggplant when I was a kid.

Pickled Nasturtium Capers

Friday, September 9th, 2011

I love that something so pretty can also be so useful.  I plant nasturtiums in my vegetable garden as a companion plant to help deter cucumber and squash beetles, as well as several other garden pests. In addition to being helpful in the garden, all parts of the plant are edible.  The leaves and flowers can be used in salads, and earlier this summer I showed you how I make nasturtium vinegar.  I also read some information indicating nasturtium has a place in herbal medicine with antibiotic, antifungal, antibacterial and possibly antiviral properties.  I have yet to confirm if this information is true, and plan to do some digging around.

Yesterday I picked nasturtium seeds and pickled them.  They grow in little clusters of three, and should be picked green for pickling.

Pickled nasturtium seeds are also called nasturtium capers, poor man’s capers, and California capers.  I made a very small batch consisting of 2 small jars.  I’ll probably make a couple more jars before the first frost.

Nasturtium Capers
1 cup green nasturtium seeds
2/3 cup white wine or rice wine vinegar
1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
12 peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 small bay leaves

Rinse seeds thoroughly.  I placed mine in a bowl with a little salt and had to rub them a little bit to get them clean.  It’s been raining, and the dead blossoms were stuck to the seeds.

Follow standard practices for getting your canning jars ready.  Place 6 peppercorns, half the fennel seeds, and one bay leaf in the bottom of each jar.  Add seeds to jars.  Combine vinegar and salt in a pan and bring up to a boil.  Pour vinegar over seeds.

Place lids on jars and water bath process the seeds for 10 minutes.  It’s best to allow the “capers” to rest in the jars for a few weeks to fully develop their pickled flavor.

Fire Roasted Tomatoes

Monday, September 5th, 2011

The last few weeks have been a blur of canning, preserving, and getting our household ready for winter.  In the last two weeks  I’ve frozen fire roasted tomatoes and canned dilly beans, roasted red peppers, pickled eggplant, zucchini relish, tomatoes, and elderberry juice. I’m going to show you the roasted tomatoes now, but after that which would you like to see next?  I winged the zucchini relish recipe and forgot to write it down, but I think I can remember what I did.

Last weekend my husband and I hosted a wood splitting party in the woods. We invited lots of friends and family to come help us cut and split our winter wood supply, and I cooked breakfast and lunch over a campfire. We also a threw a little fun into the mix with some skeet shooting.  This winter when the snow is blowing and the wind howling, we’ll remember our friends as we toss another log into the wood burner. As you can see, we still have a lot of stacking to do.

Fire Roasted Tomatoes
Plum style tomatoes

These are the real deal. Not oven roasted. Not the canned tomatoes from the grocery labeled “fire-roasted” (which taste nothing like what I make on my grill).  This is painfully easy, but requires a little time and patience. I think it’s worth the effort. Although any tomato could be roasted,  I highly recommend firm, ripe (but not overly ripe) plum style tomatoes which will hold up better on the grill.  I grow San Marzanos and think they’re the best cooking tomato on the planet.

Wash and dry the tomatoes before roasting.  Instead of dunking the tomatoes in scalding water to remove the skins, the tomatoes are going to be roasted to char and loosen the  skins.

Preheat your grill, making sure it’s good and hot.  This works best using screaming hot temperatures. Plop those tomatoes right onto your grill, and close the lid for a couple of minutes.  Don’t be surprised if you hear some snapping and popping noises as the skins dry out and char.

I check the tomatoes frequently, and turn with a pair of tongs as the tomato skins split and blacken.  The tomatoes will gradually soften as they roast, cooking them just enough to freeze well.  I suppose they could also be canned, but I tend to use the roasting/freezing method when I have smaller quantities on hand that I want to deal with quickly.  I save canning for a day when I have a lot of produce, and lugging out all of my canning equipment will be worth the effort.

Remove the tomatoes to a shallow pan to cool when the skins are loosened and charred.

Once the tomatoes are cool enough to handle comfortably, start peeling the skins off. Do not try to rinse them, or you’ll lose the flavor you’ve work so hard to get.  It’s fine if there are little blackened specks on the tomatoes.  After peeling, pack the tomatoes into freezer containers, pressing down to push out air bubbles. Pour any juices left in the pan over the packed tomatoes. Freeze for use in your favorite winter recipes.  One of these days I’ll get around to sharing my Roasted Tomato and Wild Rice Soup.