Friday, November 27, 2015

Thanksgiving Dinner Afterthoughts

The big news in the indoor garden right now is the success of our saffron crocus. These bulbs are normally planted in spring and bloom in early fall. I purchased the bulbs at Stanley's Greenhouse in late October, and they were already beginning to show signs of sprouting. I took a chance and planted them in a pot that I moved into the garage when frost was predicted. I was rewarded with a bloom on Thanksgiving Day. Its three anthers provided a tiny pinch of the world's most valuable spice. I am encouraged, and will be growing more of these beautiful bulbs next year. They should go dormant in a couple of months, and I can move them outside next April. After a season of growth outdoors, they should bloom beautifully next October. Most people don't think of saffron as a backyard crop, but it is actually no more difficult to grow than our familiar spring-blooming crocuses.

Prior to Thanksgiving we are bombarded with recipes for all the traditional goodies. This year, I decided to save the recipe advice for after the holiday, because I wanted to try some new recipes and report on them. Our favorites were new takes on traditional dishes: dressing and green bean casserole. You can enjoy these for Christmas, or anytime.

(6 muffins)
                Among food lovers, there are two schools of thought about Thanksgiving dinner. One school holds that the turkey must contain stuffing, and the steamed savory bread pudding that results is always known as “stuffing.” Down South, however, the same savory pudding is cooked in a separate pan and is called “dressing.” Even though the available shortcuts are usually identified as “stuffing” mix, they perform equally well as “dressing,” hence, my use of “dressing” here. I created this recipe primarily because a whole bag of dressing mix makes too much for just the two of us.  After I made it, however, I realized the method results in lots of crunchy crust and a moist but firm center, exactly what I am looking for in Thanksgiving dressing. You can use this method with any dressing recipe, adjusting the quantities so you have about three cups of uncooked dressing. Or, if you are expecting a crowd, the recipe can be easily multiplied.

2 cups Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned dressing mix
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
½ teaspoon rubbed dried sage leaves
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 egg
1 cup chicken broth, preferably homemade

                Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 6-muffin tin. (Each muffin cup should hold about ½ cup.)  Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Stir to mix well. In a separate small bowl beat the egg with the stock until well mixed, then add to the dry ingredients. Stir until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the dressing is evenly moistened. Spoon the dressing into the prepared tin, dividing it equally. Take care not to “pack” the cups, as the stuffins will not be fluffy. Place in the oven and bake until the top is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.

Green Bean Casserole in a Vidalia Onion
(2 servings)
                The method for the onions comes from the late master chef, Charlie Trotter, in his cookbook “Vegetables.” The rest is the standard casserole, made better with home cooked goodness. Using the canned fried onions maintains the connection to the original dish.

2 whole Vidalia onions, approximately the same size
6 ounces white button mushrooms, chopped
3 tablespoons minced onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 ¼ cups milk, divided
½ cup canned green beans, drained
¼ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Canned fried onions, to garnish

Prepare the Vidalia onions. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Trim the root end of the onions so they will sit upright. Carefully remove the onion skin. Set the onions in a baking dish and add cold water sufficient to cover them halfway. Set the dish in the middle of the oven and bake for 1½ hours. Using tongs, carefully turn the onions upside-down and continue cooking another 1½ hours. Remove the dish from the oven. Using tongs, transfer the onions to a wire rack to cool completely. When the onions are cool, remove any blackened outer skin. Using a spoon, remove some of the onion flesh, leaving a cavity surrounded by two or three layers of onion. Refrigerate the onion flesh and use it for another purpose. Set the prepared onions aside while you complete the dish.

Place the mushrooms, minced onions and butter in a medium saucepan. Set the pan over low heat and warm it until the onions begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat, cover the pan, and cook on low for 5 minutes. Uncover the pan, add the flour, increase the heat and cook, stirring, until the fat is incorporated into the flour, about 2 minutes. Pour in one cup of the milk and cook, stirring. The mixture will become very thick. Remove the pan from the heat, and transfer all but about  ½ cup of the mixture to a heatproof container. (Use the reserved mushroom mixture just as you would condensed cream of mushroom soup.)

To the mushroom mixture remaining in the saucepan add the green beans, thyme, salt, pepper and remaining  milk. Place the pan over the heat and stir to combine the ingredients. Spoon the bean mixture into the reserved onions. Set the onions in an oiled baking dish, topping them with any of the bean mixture that remains. Sprinkle a few fried onions on top. Bake at 350°F until hot, about 15-20 minutes. Serve garnished with additional fried onions.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Try This Sensational Pear Bread

Most Tennessee Valley gardens are winding down, and the cold weather in the forecast for the next few days will likely put an end to crops that are not under plastic. If, like me, you have an abundance of fresh herbs at the end of the season, consider making flavored oil or butter. Either one is a great way to preserve fresh herb flavors for another month or more. This year, I have dill, cilantro, mint, parsley, and tarragon all flourishing, thanks to the mild fall weather.

As a rule, use about two tablespoons of minced fresh herb to season a stick of butter. Mix the softened butter with the herb and then form into a log. Wrap in plastic wrap, then in foil and freeze. Frozen, the log will keep for six months.

Herb oils are a little more trouble, but still simple to make. Place equal volumes of chopped fresh herb and the oil of your choice in the top of a double boiler. Place over barely simmering water and steep for 1 hour. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight. The following day, bring the oil to room temperature and filter it through a coffee filter. Store the herb oil in the refrigerator for a month.

I love making quick breads, and this week's featured recipe has quickly become one of my favorites. The recipe makes the right amount of batter for a disposable foil loaf pan. A standard loaf pan is larger. The recipe is easily multiplied, if you prefer. If you wish, you can increase the amounts of vanilla and cinnamon.

Serve the bread with fresh berries, or a poached or roasted pear half. Or enjoy it by itself. Either way, this is a delicious way to enjoy the seasonal flavor of pears.

John's Pear Bread
(1 loaf)

2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup oil
1 egg, well beaten
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract (or a little more)
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon cinnamon (or a little more)
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
One ripe yellow Bartlett pear, peeled, stemmed, cored and finely diced

                Preheat the oven to 300°F. Oil a foil loaf pan. In a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar, oil, egg and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients, mixing well with a wire whisk. Using a large spoon, stir the dry ingredients into the liquid, mixing to form a uniform batter. Fold in the diced pear. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, smooth down the top with the spoon, and place in the oven on the middle shelf. Bake for 1 ½ hours, or until a toothpick inserted into the bread comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Turn out on to a wire rack to cool completely, then return to the pan and store, covered, at room temperature for up to 3 days.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

An Under-Appreciated Fall Crop

We have known for a long time that certain flowers are edible. Violas, herb flowers of many kinds, and daylilies all have their uses in the kitchen. But our all-time favorite edible flower is the old-fashioned nasturtium. It tolerates poor soil, and actually performs best in low nitrogen soils. Its real value, however, lies in the fact that the leaves are edible as salad or cooked greens, and they are available from late spring through the first killing frost.

Nasturtium flowers look gorgeous on a salad plate or in soup. The leaves can substitute in a variety of dishes for kale, cabbage or cauliflower, either raw or cooked. We made nasturtium slaw recently by slicing the leaves into fine julienne and tossing them with a basic sweet-sour coleslaw dressing. When I make this again, I will use less sugar. This time of year, the nasturtiums are sweeter than fresh cabbage.

Nasturtium, botanically Tropaeolum majus, is a member of the cabbage family. No surprise, then, that the flavor is reminiscent of cauliflower or kale. All parts of the plant are edible. The flowers contain about as much vitamin C as an equal amount of parsley, and they have the highest lutein content of any edible plant. Presumably the leaves are similar in terms of vitamin C content. Lutein is a yellow pigment, so it is probably not as abundant in the leaves as in the flowers. In humans, lutein is thought to play a role in protecting the retina from damage by sunlight.

The large seed pods of nasturtium can also be harvested. Do this while they are still green. Drop them into a bottle of vinegar and let them sit a week or two, then use them like capers.

Nasturtium plants typically stop growing during the hottest days of summer, surging back again as soon as the weather cools down, and then growing luxuriantly until frost kills them. You can find the seeds on almost every seed rack in spring. Just scatter them where you want the plants to grow. In subsequent years, the plants should return from self sown seed. Look for seedlings around the first of May. Popular cultivars include 'Jewel,' 'Whirlybird,' 'Empress of India,' and 'Alaska.' The last one has variegated leaves, making an especially attractive display in the garden or on a salad.

Next spring, why not include a patch of nasturtiums in your edible garden? You'll enjoy them all season long.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Seasonal Eating: Easy Fall Pear Recipes

Luscious pears are in season right now. Bartlett, Comice, Bosc (pictured), and others are showing up in the produce section. Pears are a healthy and nutritious option for both sweet and savory dishes. Here are a few simple ways to prepare them.

For any of these recipes, begin by cutting the pear in half lengthwise. Using a melon baller, scoop out the core and seeds. Remove the stem and the blossom end. Add these trimmings to the compost bucket. The pears are now ready for cooking.

Pears Poached in Simple Syrup

1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 stick cinnamon
2 whole cloves
A strip of lemon peel about 1/2 by 3 inches
1 or 2 pears, unpeeled, prepared as described above

Combine all the ingredients except the pears in a large saucepan. Set the pan over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and immediately add the pear halves. Cover the pan and set aside to poach while the pan cools to room temperature. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Poached Pears with Fruit Preserves and Fake Cream Chantilly

Poached pear halves, from the above recipe
Fruit preserves, berry, cherry, or what you will
1/2 cup fat free Greek-style yogurt
1 tablespoon confectioner's sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Fresh mint (optional), shredded

Set one of the pear halves, skin side down, in a serving dish. Fill the core cavity with preserves.

In a mixing bowl combine the yogurt, sugar and vanilla extract. Stir until smooth and slightly stiffened. Top the pears with the yogurt mixture and serve at once. Garnish with a little fresh mint, if you have some.

Pears Roasted in Vinegar

Raw pear halves, unpeeled, prepared as described above
2 tablespoons vinegar, preferably Champagne or Sherry

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Pour the vinegar in the bottom of a shallow baking dish. Add the pears, skin side up. Place in the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 300 degrees. Roast until the skins begin to wrinkle on top, about 20 minutes. If the liquid in the dish threatens to evaporate completely before the pears are done, add a little water. Test for doneness with the point of a kitchen knife, which should meet little resistance when inserted into the neck of the pear. Remove the dish from the oven and keep warm.

Serve the pears as a side dish, dribbled with a little of the juices from the baking dish.