Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The beauty of simple food

Since Sunday evening I’ve been staying at PenHouse Retreat Center in Frankfort, Kentucky for some peaceful time to reflect and write. The big, old house with porches on every side offers spacious rooms, generous light and the melody of birds and insects. Those charms do not surpass that of the warm host and hostess—David and Normandi—readily offering their garden meals along with lively conversation.

I’ve often thought I would like to have a place like this to offer to artists, but if I were cooking, I fear there would be little peace for me. I always feel a need to fill a table with options so if my guest doesn’t like one dish, another will suffice. It often means hours of preparation and lots of fussing to make the table look grand.

As I sit at some else’s table, I appreciate the simple goodness of a garden meal in which the natural flavors stand on their own. Cabbage slaw, Goose beans, corn on chicken, garden-fresh spaghetti sauce. Oh yes, I’ve been treated well. Rich flavors intertwine with funny stories and lessons from the journey others are taking in life.

The next time I welcome guests, I hope I can remember that the most enjoyable meal requires more than detailed preparation. It’s the simplest of foods and most genuine of conversations that create the best dining experiences.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Take a Danville restaurant tour

One of the benefits and curses of chain restaurants is that you can travel throughout the United States and find the same menu, the same taste, often even the same dining room set-up. It’s reliable but can be boring and anonymous.

Adventuresome travelers more often seek out the locally owned eating establishments that provide fresh, unique flavors. Danville, Kentucky is full of them.

Last night I joined eight other Kentucky food bloggers to tour six of Danville’s finest eating and drinking establishments. Since I live just down the road from this small, college city, I was thrilled to visit some of the locations I hadn’t yet made it to on my own. Here’s a rundown of places we went that you should try the next time you’re driving through central Kentucky.

V the Market – This specialty liquor and food store carries unique items you won’t find at the average big box retailer. The owner stays informed about the products and has the knowledge to helps anyone who walks in asking for specifics as they look at the rows of bottles. I especially enjoyed the unique cheeses that can be a creative accompaniment to a meal.

Mermaids—This is a restaurant I’ve been wanting to try and now I’m even more determined to make a reservation and spend an evening there. Situated in a house that provides seating in a nicely decorated interior, screened porch or patio, the menu here was my favorite. This restaurant recently earned its Kentucky Proud title because it buys meat and produce locally. Hurray! That combines with a unique ambiance and menu filled with variety to make it a good choice for Danville dining.

303W—I’ve had two meals at this classy restaurant and always enjoyed the atmosphere. Last night we walked into a table of appetizing food to try: crudit├ęs, pretzel breadsticks with warm pimento cheese (delicious), barbecued chicken, chicken tortilla pizza and one more meat item I couldn’t quite identify. The menu at 303W is varied so anyone in the family should be able to find something to put a smile on their face.

Bluegrass Pizza and Pub—Onward we trekked to the downtown pizza place that has become a habit for many people. I must admit that I’m extra critical of pizza places. I like to make creative pizzas myself. I also still carry with me the memory of the spinach pizzas I so loved when I lived in New York (I haven’t yet found one to compare in Kentucky) and the Italian take on pizza I fell in love with in Florence. But this place pulled through with a uniquely-flavored Mediterranean pizza that wasn’t run-of-the mill.

Beer Engine—Anyone who likes brew pubs would love this small place with its variety of beers. Located off the Main Street and through a parking lot, it’s a bit difficult to find but when I told my husband about it, he immediately asked for directions. He’ll be stopping there on his way home from work to give the beers a try.

The Hub—We ended up at the restaurant that started the food revival in Danville. This coffee shop has long offered great sandwiches, salads and soups along with coffees, teas and scrumptious desserts. Our hosts (the folks from the Danville Boyle Co. Convention & Visitors Bureau) had done such a great job of gathering items for us to try from throughout the downtown district that we sat at The Hub enjoying cupcakes from the Twisted Sifter. Since the cupcake craze began I’ve been into a cupcake shop or two but never had anything that tasted as good as the two varieties they served us – pumpkin and champagne. Both were totally worth the calories. We also went home with gift bags from Burke’s Bakery and Karamel Kreations.

Are you tempted to try one of Danville’s local restaurants? They have plenty of fun activities coming up that you can check out at www.danvillekentucky.com for information on that, as well about the restaurants listed here. If you visit, be sure to support the local food establishments and enjoy the hospitality.

In the meantime, I’m checking my calendar to see when I can make it over there again.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

De-bugging the garden

As an organic gardener, my eyes and hands are two of my most important tools.

When I began gardening, I would go into my rows of green plants inspecting for bugs. When I saw something I had identified as a pest, not a beneficial visitor, I would pull a tissue out of my pocket and squeeze it. Sometimes the invader would squirm out before I had fully executed my maneuver.

Next I tried wearing gardening gloves. Again, without the keen feeling in my fingertips, the bug had a tendency to escape.

Now, I just squish them between forefinger and thumb and let them stink and ooze right onto my skin. Yes, it’s a little gross. But, it’s quick effective and soap really does clean up the mess.

I’ve been doing lots of de-bugging in recent days as I’ve been paying special attention to bugs that like squash plants. After one friend warned her winter squash has been ruined, I noticed that while one my pumpkins looked great on its top side, the bottom side was rotted with a bug infestation. So my own sharp eyes and pinchers went to work. Some of my peppers and tomatoes have suffered because of the shade of climbing winter squash vines. I didn’t want that to be for naught.

When I searched online for pictures of squash bugs to learn more about what I was finding, I discovered there is a different between squash bugs and stink bugs, although they both are gray and smell when smashed. All summer I've been trying to check the undersides of the leaves for the eggs they lay to head off the problem before it fully developed. I also discovered that late in the season they aren’t supposed to be harmful, but I’m not taking a chance. When I see them, I exterminate.

I haven’t yet located pictures of the other bugs I’ve found that don’t seem to kill the plants but do eat on the leaves. Nonetheless, until I find out they aren’t harmful, I’ll be squishing them, too.

Sure, I could buy some chemical spray and give it a whirl. I’m sure there’s an organically-made treatment, too. But I like being with my plants and providing protection as the Guardian of the Garden.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sunday is garden feast day

I know Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest but it’s especially hard for me to do that during gardening season. I don’t feel a big Sunday obligation to weed and harvest (that was yesterday; more about that in tomorrow’s post) but I so love to cook that it’s hard for me to stay out of the kitchen, especially when my husband presents me with freshly dug carrots, a beautiful head of cabbage and apples to go with the tomatoes I picked the day before.

I began the day with the apples. I wanted to make chutney to can but still had a few apples left. Those I turned into applesauce, one of the easiest things you can make. Simply chop the apples, almost cover them with water, bring to a boil then turn down to simmer until they are soft. Keep an eye on them in case you need to add more water. When they are soft, I mash them then season with sugar and cinnamon. This simple method yields a chunky applesauce that you know is homemade and if you begin with flavorful apples, it will be much more satisfying than jarred apples sauce from the store. If you prefer it to be smoother, put it into your blender or food processor to finish.

With apple chutney and applesauce complete, I turned to the chicken I purchased from Marksbury Farm Market. Jim and I both took a gardening break on Saturday to watch Lidia’s Italy on public television and saw an easy and appealing preparation for Chicken Catanzaro-Style. I went to work on the stuffing while Jim removed the necessary bones. I do want to point out that when we watched her prepare it, Lidia appeared to use more herbs than the recipe called for. In addition, she used wine for cooking liquid after she had browned the chicken on both sides.

Another of our favorite Saturday cooking shows is America’s Test Kitchen. I had a recipe from them for Roasted Smashed Potatoes so I started on them while Jim made cabbage wedges wrapped in bacon. Next, I began the Maple Roasted Carrots (recipe below). While those three items roasted in the oven and the chicken continued to cook on the stove, I prepared bread, tomatoes and cheese for Baked Caprese Salad.

I love arranging the food on a platter when I have so many pieces to play with! I saved the beautifully green carrot tops for a vegetable bed. (They taste like carrots so make a nice addition to a meal.) With everything on the table I decided I should also put out the Concord grapes I bought at the farmer’s market to round out our meal.

When Jim walked in and saw all the food, he wanted to know who else was coming to dinner. Although I love to have friends and family here, this week it was just the two of us enjoying the Sunday garden feast—an apt reward for the sweat we put into growing most of the food on the table.

Maple Roasted Carrots
(With apologies for my vague instructions—it’s how I often cook!)

Fresh carrots
Olive oil
Maple syrup

Chop off carrot tops. Remove skin. Cut into whatever shape and size you prefer. I made our carrots into sticks about ¾” wide.

Put into pan with nearly ½” water (don’t cover them completely). Cover pan with foil and roast 15 minutes at 450 degrees. Check carrots for doneness. When they are nearly as soft as you want them, drain any remaining water, drizzle with olive oil and maple syrup. Toss. The carrots should be coated but not swimming in the oil and syrup. Sprinkle with salt. Return to oven 10 – 15 minutes until you can easily pierce them with a fork. Serve on a bed of carrot tops.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Canning season opens at the Brown house

The smells of warming apple pie filling and salsa mingled in my kitchen last night as I prepared for my first canning of the season. We have at least 12 pounds of apples from our church’s mini-orchard and as many tomatoes from our gardens so I was chopping, measuring, stirring, chopping some more. It’s quite a way to get in the good but hard sort of work that makes me sleep well!

I’m still using the salsa recipe I found a few years ago at www.cdkitchen.com. That’s one of the great sites where you can enter the numbers of servings you want to get from a recipe and it will re-calculate the amount of all the ingredients for you. Of course, some will come out with something like 2.491 cups, but I certainly don’t concern myself with being that precise.

Although our favorite preserved apple pie recipe calls for freezing in a plastic bag, you can also find recipes for canned apple pie filling. www.allrecipes.com is one site where you’ll locate a canned possibility. That site also has the scaling feature plus another option that changes the unit measurements to metric if you would like.

There are all sorts of tools online to help with your preservation efforts this season. If you find a good one to share, do post it in a comment so everyone can share.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Begin healthy in the morning

This past Saturday I went to a wonderful event with good food, fabulous music and a fun group of people. Yet, I sat next one of my friends and trying to convince him to go home. Work stress had gotten the better of him and he looked like if he didn’t relax, he would need serious medical attention soon.

Thankfully, the chorus of voices urging him to go home eventually won out. He later told me that home was only the first stop. He ended up in the emergency room until 3 a.m. His blood pressure had sky rocketed and his was dehydrated.

I’m grateful that when I talked with him on Monday he said he needed to change his habits and he asked me to help him. So when we chatted, we talked a little bit about food. He rarely cooks and doesn’t eat leftovers. I see challenges ahead, but let’s start with a simple breakfast.

One of my favorite breakfasts, and one of the most filling, has become a warm bowl of some sort of grain with fresh fruit and toasted nuts. Here’s an easy way to prepare it.

Breakfast Bowl

Choose your grain—steel-cut oats, quinoa, etc. I also like Bob’s Red Mill 10-Grain Hot Cereal. Follow cooking directions.
As the cereal cooks, prepare some in-season fruit. This week I peeled and chopped a juicy peach for mine.

Choose a raw, unsalted nut or seed (pumpkin is goo) to toast on the stovetop over medium-low heat. How long it takes depends on your nut. For example, slivered almonds cook quickly; chopped walnuts take longer.

Put grain in breakfast bowl and add as much or as little milk as you like. Sprinkle a tad of salt and as much cinnamon as you prefer. Add fruit and stir. Taste for sweetness. If it needs more, add honey or organic maple syrup. Top with nuts.

Enjoy! It will keep you satisfied with no problem until lunch as it also gives you a good start on your portion of fiber for the day.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Peach Streusel Coffee Cake

Over the weekend a friend of ours showed up at our door with a bowl-full of freshly picked peaches. The sign that they were truly ripe was quite obvious—they smelled heavenly!

It was good timing because we were supposed to provide coffee and donuts at church on Sunday morning. Although I do enjoy a good donut once in a while, my healthy eating style rarely allows me to provide “donuts” on Sundays. Instead I typically bake something with less sugar, more whole wheat flour and whatever fruit or vegetable is in season.

With the peaches on hand and one zucchini left in the refrigerator, I saw the challenge ahead of me. What could I make from both of those that would still leave us peaches to enjoy here at home? I decided on Zucchini Cake and Peach Streusel Coffee Cake. Here’s the easy recipe for the coffee cake that turned out to be moist and delicious.

Beth’s Peach Streusel Coffee Cake

Streusel Filling:
5 medium peaches, peeled and chopped
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp whole wheat flour
2 tbsp melted butter

Melt butter and mix all ingredients. Set aside.

Coffee Cake:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup sugar
¼ cup softened butter
½ cup yogurt
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla

Mix flours, baking powder and salt. Mix sugar and butter. Add egg and vanilla. Add yogurt and oil. Stir in flour mixture.

Pour half of mix into non-stick or oiled pan. Sprinkle on half of the streusel filling. Pour on the remainder of the coffee cake mix. Top with remainder of streusel. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until done.

Friday, August 5, 2011

When the winter squash is ready . . .

I tell people that squash vines are taking over my garden and their typical response is: my squash didn’t last this long. Then I clarify that I’m not talking about yellow squash and zucchini. Rather, I’m growing winter squashes.

I fell in love with winter squash, especially butternut, a few years ago when I realized how versatile it is. Roast it, bake it, puree it. Cube it and add it to soup. This week I went to a luncheon that included a mashed squash dish that was delicious.

So I’ve expanded my winter squash attempts this gardening season. I’m growing pumpkins and have two that are a great size right now. Then there are butternut, acorn and delicata squashes. I fear the butternuts and delicata might have cross-pollinated in a couple of places because I have giant butternut shaped squash with stripes like the delicatas. Oh well, it will still taste like some sort of squash.

To test the ripeness of winter squash, push your fingernail into the skin. If the indentation disappears quickly, it’s almost ripe. Leave winter squash (except for acorn) in the garden or elsewhere in the sun for two weeks so it will cure. Then you’ll be able to store it for months and use it in the winter.

Although I’m contemplating digging a storage hole in the backyard (there are various methods for this there were introduced by native Americans), I’ve had success the past couple of years with curing the squash then leaving it on a side table in the dining room until we use it, which sometimes is four or five months after harvest. The dining room is the least-used, dimmest and coolest room in our house and it works well.

Maybe we’ll have squash to eat tonight.