Monday, May 31, 2010

Strawberry-braised chicken

The strawberries are still coming in so I experimented yesterday with a savory dish where they could add a unique flavor. I’ve discovered that one of the best-tasting and easiest ways to cook the locally-raised chickens that we enjoyed is through braising on top of the stove. It seems to add moisture to the chicken. So I created a strawberry braising liquid that I then turned into a gravy. As you read the directions below, keep in mind that I didn’t measure as I went, so these are guesses.

Here’s how I did it:
1. Heat olive oil in skillet.
2. Dredge chicken pieces (enough to fill one, covered skillet) in flour, salt and pepper. Sear chicken in hot skillet.
3. Remove the chicken and brown about ¼ cup chopped onions and a couple of garlic cloves.
4. Add onions, garlic and 1 cup freshly cut strawberries to food process and puree the mixture. Pour it into the skillet and add about ½ cup red wine, a splash of balsamic vinegar, a splash of organic grade B maple syrup, thyme, salt, pepper and enough water to give the liquid a loose consistency.
5. When the liquid is simmering, add the chicken pieces. Cover and simmer approximately 30 minutes, turning once or twice.
6. Add chopped broccoli and cook another 10 minutes.
7. Remove chicken and broccoli. Taste liquid to determine if you need to add anything to balance the flavor. Add corn starch to thicken for a gravy.

I served this over a bed of brown rice with lemon-butter asparagus on the side and a cheese spread (another edible I created yesterday with some garden goodness) on crackers.

It certainly looked good, but would it taste good? Jim and I sometimes have different tastes, so I waited to see what he thought. The result made me smile.

Jim’s rating: 10
Beth’s rating: 9

I’m not sure what I thought it still needed to earn a phenomenal 10, but the fact that Jim didn’t even suggest one change to the recipe told me it was a huge hit. So give it a try yourself, if not with strawberries then with whatever berry is in season around your house these days. Berries aren’t only for dessert!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Introducing the young to gardening on Strawberry Sunday

I so enjoy helping someone new to gardening learn about its joys. It’s especially fun when that person is a child. Whether working with an adult or child, however, I believe in mixing the “chore” with the pleasure.

Since she was able to overcome her fear of bees to go into garden with me, I’ve been gardening with our goddaughter, Anna. She’s a fourth-grader now who also helps her dad in his garden. When she asked if she could come over on Sunday, I told her yes, if she would work in the garden with me. Knowing we have ripe strawberries to pick, she readily agreed.

We started out with the most laborious task—weeding a couple rows of the garden. The weeds aren’t too bad yet (even though it has rained so much) so that didn’t take us long.

Next, we planted two rows of beans. I decided to experiment this year with kidney beans and pinto beans. I’ve never eaten either of them fresh so would like to try that. Plus, we can leave them on the vines to dry and use in the winter. Sounds like an easy plan to me.

Then, we came to the strawberries—so ripe that they’re almost purple,
 so juicy that you just have to accept you’ll have a few pink spots on your shirt if you nibble while picking. Anna kept exclaiming that she had hit the jackpot as she found cluster after cluster of strawberries just glowing as if shouting “pick me now!”

With Jim’s help, we gathered so many strawberries that we had more than enough for a good batch of jam. So we decided to start with chocolate-covered strawberries. We melted dark chocolate chips then dipped, dried, dipped, dried, sampled, dipped until the only chocolate left in the pan was what we could scrape up with a few more berries.

Then Jim took over for the jam-making lesson. They separated berries, removed the stems and leaves, added the ingredients to the pot, sterilized the jars and lids. “It smells like cotton candy in here,” Anna said. And so it did.

While the jam cooked, we went outside for some fresh air and to harvest asparagus. I showed Anna how to cut it under the surface and we carried in a good bunch that we could eat for supper. I cut it, tossed it with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper then put it in a foul pouch with some sliced onions.

After Jim finished the jam, he put the vegetables and Rainbow trout on the grill while I made us green salad. Neither Ann nor I had ever tried Rainbow trout and we both loved it. When Jim pulled the crunchy skin from the foil, Anna first turned up her nose at the idea of eating fish skin. Then she decided to try it, declaring, “I can’t believe I just ate fish scales.”

Of course, we had chocolate-covered strawberries for dessert.

Now if we can just get those weeds out of the raspberry patch, maybe we will have a raspberry Sunday sometime next month.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Red, red strawberry season

It’s that time of year when I taste a little bit of heaven every time I pluck another plump, juicy berry from our strawberry patch. Several years ago we planted three varieties of strawberries in two raised beds. Raised beds are wonderful to work in. As you pick, or weed, you can sit on the edge to do the work, which I find much more comfortable than kneeling or squatting in a row.

We started picking berries about two weeks ago, seemingly sooner than several friends. We must have a variety that produces early, or as Jim says, maybe we just love our strawberries a whole lot so they arrive more promptly. I do try to keep them weeded in the spring so the stray growth doesn't rob the strawberries of the nutrients they need.

The rain has blessed us by coming at the right time to make the berries big but still tasty. Garden berries are so much better than the bland containers of red fruits you buy in the grocery. When picked at the height of their ripeness, they don’t need any sugar because they are innately so sweet.

But speaking of those grocery containers, I save them for picking and storing berries. I gently pull mine from the plant and put them directly into the container as they will stay fresh longer without washing them. Save that until just before you want to eat them.

So far, our strawberries have found their way into:

Breakfast yogurt mix (strawberries, plain yogurt and nuts—when you mix it up yourself you avoid the high fructose corn syrup and additional calories)
Strawberry Muffins
Chocolate-covered strawberries
Strawberry shortcake
Strawberry jam

Jim made the first batch of jam last night. It’s a feast for the eyes with its beautiful color, and the way it scents the house is another bonus. Some of it turned out to be more like syrup than jam, but that’s not a problem. We’ll use it on ice cream and pancakes. I rarely eat pancakes without fruit to top them.

Later this week, I might try a breakfast pizza with strawberries for my writing students. Little did they know when they asked for pizza (first thing in the morning) what I might conjure up!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Finding joy on a Friday afternoon

I’m just in from planting tomatoes since I have some nice-sized ones that I grew from seed and the weather forecast looks tomato-friendly for the next week. When I dare to plant something even a few days earlier than my central Kentucky planting chart suggests, I look at the five day forecast to decide if I should take the gamble. Since it’s the end of the first week of May, I don’t think it’s much of a gamble anyway.

It was a joy to get into the garden and put my hands in the dirt after a week of meetings, driving to Lexington four days, deadlines and all the other accompaniments of an assignment-filled week. Being in the garden at 3:00 in the afternoon on a Friday reminded me of why I like working from home. No, I tend not to make as much money as I would if I worked full-time for someone else rather than freelancing, but it’s wonderful to be able to take a break and fill my lungs with fresh spring air. Working in the garden after a stressful week is a healing balm for my mind and body.

I think that’s what part of gardening is about. It puts us in touch with nature through the food on our plate as well as our awareness of seasonal cycles. There is a time to expect sunshine and rain that will nourish as well as months when we have to be enriched by something quieter, even darker because the sun doesn’t shine for as many hours. Living in harmony with nature rather than fighting against it can provide healing not only for us, but also for the world that sustains us.

The food we’re getting from the garden this spring is not only healing, but it also makes me look forward to mealtime. We’ve moved on from rhubarb to green salad, asparagus and strawberries. Two heads of broccoli are making stead progress for an upcoming harvest as are the new spring onions. I look forward to spending the weekend experimenting with how to reflect the harmony I strive for in my lifestyle in the food I prepare and eat..