Julia's Child, newly published by Plume/Penguin, is a book about organic food, and growing food, and feeding food to small wiggly people who don't always appreciate it.  This blog celebrates those same things, but also green living. And coffee.  And sometimes wine with little bubbles in it.

 

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Wednesday
Aug312011

Yay, Parasites!

My view of parasites is largely informed by letters home from my children's school. "Health notice" in the subject line of an email from the school is the equivalent of unexploded ordinance, right? While I'll probably still dread any mention of lice even after today, I've discovered that there is such thing as a good parasite.

See this guy? This giant green Tomato Hornworm (cool people also know it as the Manduca quinquemaculata) was attempting to chow its way through our Big Girls and Brandywines. Now, see all those white things on it? I thought they were eggs.

They're not eggs, they're the larvae of my new best friend, the Braconid wasp. The wasp larvae are eating the hornworms, helping to guarantee a new phalanx of soldier's for next year's fight, too. Go, little white squirmy parasites!

 

Saturday
Aug202011

Dream Job Alert: King Arthur Flour

I recently had the pleasure to tour the King Arthur Flour mothership, in Norwich, Vermont.  This wonderful place is just a few miles from my home, but though I write professionally about food it had never occurred to me to knock on their door and ask for a tour.

Enter Erika Penzer Kerekes, food blogger from Southern California.  Not only does Erika write the scrumptious blog In Erika's Kitchen, but she is the warmest, most curious, ebulliant person I have met in months. It was Erika, on her annual trek through Vermont foodie sites, who had the good sense to call the PR people at King Arthur and ask for a tour.

I was more than happy to tag along.  And now I wish they'd adopt me. Where else would you be asked to please eat a brownie, because it's research?


King Arthur Flour makes the sort of high quality products that serious bakers request by name.  I can't call myself a serious baker (perhaps because I can't call myself serious) but I'm partial to several of their products.  Their 100% Organic All Purpose Flour, their Whole Wheat Pastry Flour and their White Whole Wheat Flour are always in my kitchen.  

The King Arthur mothership in Norwich, Vermont is many things to many people: a kick-ass bakery and coffee shop, a vendor of sandwiches and sweets, a world class baking education center and a catalog company for baking ingredients and gear. That special salt just the right grain for dusting hot pretzels? They have it. Lemon Juice Powder to make your lemon bars sing? Check. Professional dough rising buckets, tart pans, square ramekins? Check, check, check.

Our tour guide, the wonderful Terri Rosenstock, public relations coordinator, recently moved from 1000 miles away to take the job at King Arthur, and it's not hard to understand why.  What other workplace wants you to test brownies, and then brings pilates classes right into the company HQ in order to keep employees fit?

King Arthur is absolutely unique in that respect, and in so many others. I'm proud to live within waddling distance from their headquarters.

(P.S. This post was not compensated in any way, even if it sounds as though it was. I'm smitten. Can you tell?)

Saturday
Aug132011

Mixed Berry Pie

I used to dislike making pie crusts, because my all-butter crusts were difficult to roll out.  I thought that if I added additional flour while rolling, they would bake up hard and inflexible. So I would roll them between two sheets of plastic wrap. It works, but it's environmentally bad and makes frequent wrinkles in the crust, as if the crust had a bad case of pillow face.

So last year I learned to just throw a handful of flour on the crust. Et voila. It doesn't stick and it isn't tough. I also roll out the crust on a Sil-Pat, which I think is worth its weight in gold.

Mixed berry pie can be anything you have. Most summer berries are low in pectin, so you'll want to consider grating a peeled granny smith apple into the pie. The apple disappears, and the added pectin helps the pie gel up properly. (Unless you got started later than you thought and the kids are in their jammies already and you just have to serve dessert when its still warm. The pie will run everywhere, but you won't mind because it's warm berry pie.)

THE CRUST (Make Two)

1/2 Cup + 2 TBSPs All Purpose Flour

1/2 Cup Whole Wheat Pastry Flour

1 Stick Unsalted Butter cut into 10 pieces

Ice water standing ready

Put both flours and the butter pieces into the food processor and process until coarse like wet gravel. With processor running, drizzle 3 tablespoons of water into the processor and watch the dough. When it (soon) begins to ball together, stop processor.  Pinch the dough in one spot to make sure it comes together. If everything looks too dry, you could add a few drips of water and process again.

Dump dough onto the silpat and gather into a ball. Refrigerate for 1/2 hour. Repeat for second crust. Preheat the oven to 450.

THE BERRIES

5 cups berries, washed dried and stems removed

1 apple, peeled and grated

1/2 cup sugar, or more to taste

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Combine berries with apple, sugar and lemon juice.  Toss lightly with wooden spoon.

THE PIE

Remove dough from the refrigerator. Flour the sil-pat and your rolling pin liberally. Roll out the first crust, then drape it into the bottom of your pie dish. Pour the prepared fruit into the crust.

Roll out the second crust and drape it on top. Crimp edges, then cut six slits in the top crust which will allow the steam to escape as the fruit cooks.

Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 and continue to bake for 45 minutes or until the fruit juices can be heard to bubble rapidly and the pie has turned golden brown.

Cool completely. (Even if people beg.)

Friday
Aug122011

What's in an Ice Cream Cone?

I'm just the sort of nerd who wants to know who invented ice cream cones. A little research on the subject reveals that the first recognizeable ice cream cones were sold at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Several different fair vendors claim to have invented it. Whichever of them was first, the product took off immediately, with everyone suddenly in love with them. (Kind of like Twitter, but crispier.)

Cones were rolled only by hand until 1912 when a man named Frederick Bruckman patented a machine for rolling them. In 1928, he sold his business and rights to Nabisco.

Fast forward 85 years or so and step into a modern grocery store. The box of cones on the shelf you see in front of you is made by... Nabisco. (The box says "Comet" but that's a Nabisco brand.)

So I'd like to congratulate Nabisco on having the foresight to pony up for the 1928 rights.  Whatever you paid, Nabisco, it must have been worth it. Bruckman's heirs got the short straw on that one.

But don't get a swelled head, you mega food giant, because I have a question. Why on earth would you put transfats (partially hydrogenated oils) in an ice cream cone? Why? Surely the airy, slightly stale texture of a commercial wafer cone will not be irrevocably ruined by a healthier oil. You are really behind the curve on this one. Just fix it, will you? 

Pretty please?

Tuesday
Aug092011

Review: The River Cottage Preserves Handbook by Pam Corbin

As I admitted before, I've always been a little afraid of preserving things. But since my husband planted 50 fruit trees and shrubs last year, I'd better figure it out before we're buried in overripe fruit. (Many of his darlings are still infants, so at least I've got a couple of years to educate myself.)

I was seduced by The River Cottage Preserves Handbook because of its beauty. I tucked it under my arm in the bookstore like a lost kitten, and never quite put it down again until the checkout counter. The still life photography of preserves in simple jars is extraordinarily attractive. The book's design is also gorgeous.

But worried that I'd succumbed to a pretty face at the expense of substance. Would this full price hardcover beauty be a good worker too? Things looked up as the bookseller handed back my credit card. "I love this book. The mint syrup is to die for."

I had nothing to fear. The Making Perfect Jams instructions were concise and supportive, and taught me things that I haven't read in any other book about canning. Did you know that tougher fruit skins will not soften properly if you add the sugar immediately? I, for one, did not.  The science of jamming and jellying is laid out nicely here, and I appreciate the table showing the pectin content of different fruits.  I can't wait to try the fruit leathers.

The recipes are quite adventurous. Apple lemon curd? Roasted Sweet Beet Relish? Yes, please.  I especially appreciate the section on cordials. Elderflower cordial! Come to mama.

The only hesitation I had after a thorough read was that the book was first published in the UK, and then converted. So the amounts of fruits nearly always read: "2.25 pounds plums," for example.  That's a kilo, people. Caught you! But then I realized that this quick conversion is less troubling in a book on preserves than anyplace else. When we pick our own fruit, it surely doesn't come to us in even poundage.

I'm smitten. And my kitchen scale is happy to take up the slack.

Sunday
Aug072011

Strawberry Blueberry Jam

I have to admit that I've always been a little fearful of preserving things. My husband refers to me as Food Safety Girl. I've been known to stand in front of the refrigerator scrutinizing leftover breasts of chicken, as if they were suspected of terrorist activities. With food safety, there's a fine line between cautious and crazy, and it's anyone's guess which side I'm on.

So preserving fruit has always sounded a little scary, and reading about it is doubly so.  Most canning books make frequent use of the words "botulism" and "bacteria." They don't really put me in the happy experimental mood necessary to dive into a new recipe.

But I overcame my fear this past week and made Strawberry Blueberry jam from berries we'd picked. (The strawberries were picked in june, and I'd frozen two cups of berry halves.) And... wow! This is a recipe I'm sure to repeat next year.

2 cups halved strawberries (defrosted)
4 cups blueberries
3 cups white sugar
The juice of 1 lemon

 

I cooked the fruit, sugar and lemon juice for more than a half hour, while sterilizing the jars in boiling water. Because I don't like the way blueberries fail to spread in jam, I actually pulsed my stick blender into the simmering jam. I put a saucer in the freezer for a while, then dropped a teaspoon of my thickening jam onto it. When I saw that this gelled, I knew the jam was ready.

With a funnel, I filled the jars to 1/4 inch from the top and sealed them.  Et voila.  The leftover bit was allowed to cool in a stray jar, and we ate it the next day.  Wonderful!  Like heaven on toast.

Thursday
Aug042011

How to Pick Blackberries in Your Yard

First, buy a property that's been allowed to grow wild for some years.  Then, become overwhelmed with moving, writing, parenting and life for a year or so, and ignore the problem. In early spring, when you notice that the blackberry patch has encroached on your ability to reach the compost pile behind the barn, take a pair of snips and hack down a lot of the canes.  Cut anything that's dead, or in your way or leaning over. We'll call that pruning.

Ignore the blackberry patch further. Don't use any commercial fertilizer, don't bother with mulch, and don't stake up the plants.  This style of cultivation is called uber lazy hyper organic.

When the plants flower, take a few pretty pictures, wave to the bees and other little pollinators and step aside. It's okay to actually curse the blackberry plants a little bit.  You'll want to, because they spring up in your tomato garden, in your driveway, and even through the boards of your deck. They are weeds, and they have thorns.

When beautiful black purple fruit matures, put on old clothes. I literally used a tee shirt from my rag pile. Choose long sleeves even though it's hot outside, because it's better for those thorns to prick your shirt than your arm. Don't forget socks.

It's so quiet where I live that when I put my little cardboard quart container on the grass, I can hear the little blades bending underneath its weight.  Pick only the darkest berries (this photo is pretty but somehow makes my berries look underripe, which they are not.) And if a berry looks tight and skinny, leave that one until tomorrow too.

Pick every day.  Eat.  Enjoy.

Thursday
Jul282011

Squirrels & Woodpeckers & Spicy Food... Oh My!

This is a Downy Woodpecker.  (Photo by Wolfgang Wander.) Mr. & Mrs. Downy (and their cousins Mr. & Mrs. Hairy Woodpecker) love to eat suet cakes.

First, my husband made a homemade suet cake by pouring bacon fat over a tub full of sunflower seeds. When the fat hardened, we suspended this tasty concoction in a suet cage from the maple tree outside our kitchen window.  It was an instant success. The woodpeckers, who could never be enticed to visit our other window, showed up hungry.

This worked well until the first warm sunny day of spring, when the bacon fat melted, dumping suet in greasy globs onto the grass below.  But hey, I can spring for a $3 suet cake from the food coop. Because I'm big like that. I bought one of the peanut butter flavored cakes and hung it up.

This proved so attractive to the local wildlife that a raccoon climbed up there, unstrung the cage and carried the whole thing away. 

So, back to the store. Hubby bought a new cage, made of wrought iron! Unless the neighborhood raccoons are doing 'roids, they won't be able to budge it.  The commercial suet cakes were once again the talk of the town. But one very wiley little red squirrel heard about the party. He (or she?) would sit up there, stick his little nose between the bars and gobble down the food. Worse, the squirrel chased the birds away.

Then my husband discovered hot pepper suet cakes. The squirrel took a few bites, fell from the feeder as if stabbed, and ran away "never to be seen again" as they'd say in a fairy tale.

And it's worked for weeks: happy woodpeckers, no squirrels. But I do wonder... Either this is a miracle solution. Or we're sending a lot of woodpeckers to the gastroenterologist.  I do hope it's the former and not the latter.