Sunday, March 27, 2011

In the garden? Almost!

I had a peek back to my blog entries from around this time last year. Oddly enough I made oat pancakes about a year ago, I also made them this morning, and haven't made them once in between. Weird. I was also thinking that a whisky sour would be a nice way to finish the eve, and lo' and behold, I posted that the same day. Even weirder. (Although I admit, I have made a few of those since. Just sayin'.)

One thing I did not do this year was go dig in the garden. It's still frozen solid. Last year about this time I was planting spuds...'s what that spud patch looks like today. I did however get a little gardening in. The girls helped me get the tomatoes started. I do them the same way I do peppers -- i.e. I germinate them in a warm place first, and then pot them on. We started 18 varieties -- I have space for maybe 4, but that's the kind of guy I am (some might say stupid, but I prefer enthusiastic!)

Speaking of peppers, there is a little encouragement from the mite infestation zone. Some of the poor wee souls seem to be coming through alive (fingers crossed) -- the appearance of some true leaves on this one is a good sign.

Although the poor blighters are much farther behind the plants that didn't get munched.

I'll also be starting the cole crops this week (cabbage, kale, and that crowd), and in a couple of weeks some onions and maybe a little chard. This kind of encouragement is helpful this time of year while the icy wind outside howls and threatens to put your fires out. Now, where did I put those lemons...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The plot thickens.

You may recall that I'm planning to make this squash soup. I'm still about 5 weeks away from planting the squash seeds, but the controversy over which squash I'm going to grow continues to swirl. I got a question today from a kind gardener asking me to be sure to post the results of which squash is which, since they are keen to grow it too. The choice, in case you forgot (!), is between Potimarron and Red Kuri.

Now, I had put my money on the Seed Saver's Exchange Potimarron squash based on their description of its origin and flavour. I figured Red Kuri was out since some of the pictures I had seen of them looked a little different (the kuris were more squat and less pear shaped.) However, given that I still have 5 weeks before planting, I figured I'd investigate a little further and, lo' and behold, there is a Wiki on Red Kuri Squash. In the wiki, they say Red Kuri has a chestnut flavour, and that kuri even means chestnut in Japanese. Google translate wouldn't confirm this, since it just translated the Japanese characters into an English spelling of a Japanese word -- i.e. I got kuri back. But, if you do detect language, you discover that kuri means "who" in Latvian. So that doesn't get you very far either.

ANYWAY, the only way to work this out for sure is to grow the Red Kuri and the Potimarron seeds I have and see if they are different in appearance and/or taste. This won't settle anything though, since if they are different, I may have just gotten some bum seeds from a misinformed seed merchant.

This has happend to me on several occasions. The most classic example is my attempt to buy some anasazi bean seeds. I've received about 10 different "anasazi" beans (4 are shown in the picture -- the others are off in dusty corners somewhere). The point is, people may think they are selling you the right thing, but they may be out in left field too. (The one on the left is the right one.) All this to say, I'll grow my squash, see what happens, and may know a little more when all is said and done (and tasted!). Or, I may not.

Incidentally, if you want to get anasazi beans, the folks at  Purcell Mountain farms have them, but they sell them for cooking. They also have a "®" symbol stuck to the name, so I presume they don't want you to grow theirs. I thought this bean had been discovered in a cave and was a thousand years old or something, so I was surprised to see the "®". Clearly I must be out to lunch too. Mmmm... lunch.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is cooking art?

Fasten your seat belts for a non-standard post. No pictures! No recipe! Just a little rumination -- rumination without the cud, thank heavens (and if you think it's all cud, then please accept my apology).

I just made the perfect pizza.

This got me to thinking that cooking is the most ephemeral of all arts. Sometimes it's a utilitarian process -- we need to eat so we cook. Just like other art forms can be utilitarian. We need a house so we build it. We want some colour so we paint a wall. It is silent, so we hum.

But sometimes, something more sneaks into the utilitarian aspect. A building is made beautiful. Paint forms an image. A melody is set loose.

My pizza was like that today.

Food touches several senses: Sight, Sound, Touch, Smell, and Taste. Some of these are common to other art forms, but we get more dimensions from food -- namely smell, and taste. These things touch the very core of what it is to be human. Remember the M*A*S*H* episode when Charles (I think) became obsessed with death, and he thought he was about to discover the essence of it all, and the dying soldier he was speaking to said "I smell bread"?

My pizza today was beyond utilitarian. The crust had a perfect crunch (touch and sound). The smell was a combination of smoke, aromatics (oregano and rosemary), and something I can only call thickness (from the fats in the olive oil, bacon, and cheese). The taste had other dimensions of saltiness, warmth, and spice. It was hot from the oven. It looked wonderful. And it was gone.

So it was ephemeral. It was designed to stimulate, then disappear. I may never make such a perfect pizza. I may never hit that note again. It's like a song that could never be sung again. Like a painting set alight the moment it was finished. Like a firework (if I may borrow from Katy Perry).

Then again, I may make a better one someday.

So my friends, cook and revel in the now. Eat, drink, be merry, and enjoy this day.

(Yes, it's St. Patrick's Day, and yes I had a beer or two, but still!)

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go listen to some of my favourite tunes and look at some of my favourite paintings, and maybe ruminate a little more....

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Peppers from seed ... part 3

Well, there was a minor disaster in the pepper patch this week. I noticed something was strange several days ago when a pot of pepper seedlings started to decline. I figured it might be due to bad seed or a virus or something, but then the malady started to spread to other pots.

Here's a typical specimen. The seed leaves started to shrivel and then fall right off. Once it started moving to other pots, I figured it must be something in the soil or a bug that was hanging out it the other plants I have in the basement. My money is on spider mites, but who knows. I gave the seedlings I have a blast of insecticidal soap (not great for the poor things when they're this small, but there's not much choice at this point) and put the sickly ones in quarantine. I also got another batch of seeds on the go as backup (which I'll grow in another area if this problem continues). This is one good reason to start pepper seeds extra early so there's still time to deal with a disaster like this. It also underlines the old bit of garden wisdom: "never plant all your seeds." (Until you only have 1 left, I suppose.)

ANYWAY, this post is supposed to be about potting the seedlings on and some of them are still in fine shape, so I'll 'splain that process. The idea is to gently move the seedlings out of the nursery container and into a larger one where they can grow until it's time to plant them out (about 10 weeks from now). You don't want to start them out in the larger container because the soil is likely to get all compacted and gross before the roots can colonise it properly. So you start in a shallow container or flat, and then move up to the big leagues once you have some good roots. (See part 1 and part 2 of this saga for more info if you like.)

First, get some pots ready. It's good to get the soil watered outside since it is super messy. Use warm water so the pots are still nice and warm for your seedlings when you bring them back in.

Make a decent sized hole in each pot. A butter knife works great for this (as long as no one catches you) because you want to slice down into the pot rather than smush your way down -- I have some funky Japanese tweezers with a flat paddle on one end that keep me out of the cutlery drawer.

Next ease the seedlings out of the pot. Wedge your knife or whatever down one side and lift out as gently as you can. I like to do this operation while the seedlings are young, since there isn't a lot of leaf area, and a shock to the roots is not a huge ordeal. The disadvantage is that the seedlings don't have much in the way of engines (i.e. leaves) to get back on track so you need to be extra nice to them.

As you can see, the seedlings have been busy underground even though not much activity was visible above the soil. Keep as much of the soil attached as you can to minimise the shock to your little friends.

Ease the root ball into the hole you made. Be as gentle as possible. No shoving! If you need to hold the plant, hold it by a leaf rather than the stem (it's too easy to crush the stem and kill the poor thing). Hold the leaf while you water the roots into place.

Don't tamp the soil down or anything, just water the pot carefully and the soil will settle in around the roots. See?

Get your babies back under the lights, and wait for spring! (And watch out for those nasty mites!)

Happy gardening!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Meatloaf muffins, custom meatloaf, or genius slider brainwave (you call it!)

How's that for a non-commital title? This recipe is based on something I came across on the website of Canadian Living, or Chatelaine, or some other magazine's website that men aren't supposed to read. I check these things out now and then because it's good to know what the other side is thinking (or what they want you to think they are thinking) and there are cool recipes sometimes (or they just pop-up on Google -- I can't remember because I am a man).

ANYWAY, this idea is genius and I took it to a slightly higher level with some extra twists inspired by complaints/demands/I-mean-kind-suggestions from my daughters. The basic idea of the recipe is to make meatloaf in a muffin tin so that you get individual servings without having to try and slice the damn thing. The genius of this is that it means you can customise each of those servings so that everyone's (everyone minus any vegetarians, that is) preferences can be taken into account. So hang-on, and lets have some fun!

The basic recipe calls for: a pound of ground beef, an egg, 1/2 cup of crumbled crackers, 1/4 cup of ketchup (any recipe with ketchup in it is borderline in the ``real-recipe`` department, but trust me), 1 tablespoon of mustard, 1 teaspoon of Worchestershire sauce, some crumbled oregano (honest officer, it's oregano), some salt, some pepper, a carrot, half an onion, and a couple of cloves of garlic. It sounds like a lot of stuff (and it is) but the assembly is pretty easy (so please trust me a little more!).

The first thing to do is finely chop your onion, grate the carrot, mince the garlic, and get it all sauteing over medium heat in a splash of olive oil. The idea is to gently soften it all up.

While that's going on, put the ground beef, crackers, egg, oregano, pepper, salt, ketchup, Worstershire, and mustard in a bowl. This is the "base" that everyone (except the vegetarians) can agree on.

Mush that around for a bit, and then take out a palm sized piece and...

... pop it into a muffin tin and tamp it down a little. My youngest daughter can detect an onion at 50 paces, so I do two "muffins" before I put the onion/carrot/garlic mixture in with the beef.

After the first two no-onion versions are done, I add the carrot/onion/garlic saute and mix that in and make the rest of the meat muffins. I decided to make a couple of bacon-wrapped versions too.

This idea came from the latest Fine Cooking (number 109) which has bacon-wrapped meatloaf on the cover, and... unbelievably awesome meatloaf spread inside. Buy it for inspiration! It's genius!!

(If you bought your bacon in a slab from Piggy Market -- and you should! -- you`ll need to dig out your MAC razorblade-that-masquerades-as-a-kinfe to slice it thin enough.)

Now, my oldest daughter likes the onions and carrots, but doesn`t like the ketchup topping called for in the recipe, so here is another way to customise. Top some of the muffins with ketchup, some with nothing, put hot Russian mustard on some if you like, or Tobasco, or BBQ sauce, whatever. The options are endless!! See how great this is?! (I`ll leave it to you to figure out how to keep track of what`s what.)

I also decided to try and make a couple of small patties. I had this brainwave today while chatting with Little My at Loblaws. I thought it would be a great way to make little slider patties (like 24 of them all at once!). You could bake up some biscuits and make mini-burgers. If you tried this stunt in a frying pan, it would be Hell, but this way they all finish at the same time and don`t fall apart (and can be customised!!).

I should have asked you to heat the oven to 350 earlier, so do it now if you didn`t read the whole recipe before starting.

Pop the muffin tin into the oven for 35 minutes (or until each meat muffin registers 170 F in the centre -- classic disclaimer). It`s a good idea to put a baking try under the muffin tin if you`re not fond of grease fires. The recipe says to grease the muffin tin first, but seriously if you have any kind of decent beef I don`t think this is necessary.

Remove from the oven, marvel at your adaptable and delicious creations and gently take them out of the muffin tin. Tongs work great for the muffins, but a spoon is better for the more delicate sliders. (The only drag about this recipe is that you have to clean the damn muffin tin -- but trust me, it`s worth it!)

Serve with rice and steamed broccoli (or make those little burgers I am dreaming of) and enjoy!

Peace to y`all!