Basil in Abundance

One of the things I enjoy about gardening is the ebb and flow. This year, my cucumbers are struggling. First it was a battle for germination. I think I had a storage issue over the winter, or for some reason, did not extract my seeds from last year’s fruits correctly. After I finally got sprouts, the plants didn’t mature long enough to develop true leaves – groundhogs bowled over the bunny-fencing, and all the critters were having a feast. And now, because everything got started so late, I am picking off cucumber beetles and squash beetles.

On the other side of the productivity scale, I have basil. My plants this year are about three foot high bushes. When I go out to pick off the tops to prevent them flowering, I come in with 2 or 3 cups packed with leaves. To use them fresh, I just add them to salads, or stack the leaves, roll them, and using kitchen shears, snip the leaves “chiffonade” over grilled vegetables, or sliced tomato, or sliced tomato and mozzarella, drizzle it all with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Basil is also wonderful in salad dressing:

Basil Vinaigrette

  • ½ C olive oil
  • ¼ Balsamic vinegar
  • 2 T sugar or honey
  • 1 t salt
  • ¼ C chopped basil

Combine all ingredients and process in a mini-processor, or blender. You can also just combine all of the ingredients in a jar and shake it up until the sugar/honey is dissolved. The oil won’t emulsify the same way, but it will still taste really great.

How does one preserve this bounty?

Dehydrating is one way. In my opinion, the Genovese Basil, most commonly grown in the garden, does not dry as well as other varieties. The variety I choose to dry is the Purple Basil that when dried has a flavor most similar to fresh Genovese Basil.

Another way is to make pesto, which can be frozen in ice-cube trays (for 2 tablespoon portions: 2 cubes = ¼ cup), or larger quantities in freezer bags. I like both methods. The cubes are handy to add to roasted potatoes for something a little different, and the bags are easy to store, and defrost quickly for a fast dinner. Measure 1 cup of pesto into a small freezer bag and press the air out. In the process you will flatten the bag. Put the bags onto a cookie sheet and place in the freezer overnight. The next morning, take them off the sheet and store them in your freezer. So here’s a quick, easy dinner:

  1. Defrost 1 bag of pesto.
  2. Cook 1 pound of pasta
  3. Beat three eggs in a large bowl
  4. Drain the pasta and combine with the eggs immediately and toss thoroughly. The heat in the pasta will cook the eggs and make them coat the pasta.
  5. Add the pesto and toss until the pesto is well incorporated.

I’ve done this recipe doubled, and frozen half of it. I reheated it in a casserole, topped with extra parmesan.

Zucchini and Summer Squash

Summer squash I found in my car upon arriving home from the CSA
Summer squash I found in my car upon arriving home from the CSA

Are they coming in like crazy, those zucchini and summer squash?  The farm manager at the CSA was sneaking extra squash into people’s bags.  I got home and found a Lil’ Slugger in my bag as well.  I don’t remember him putting it in there, so he must have had one of the apprentices distracting me!  Even the CSA manager has to revert to subversive measures to unload the zucchini!

The bottom line is that there is only so much zucchini bread we can eat, right?  And if we have grilled zucchini planks with dinner every night, what about all of the other great veggies (like the green beans!!)?

Here’s an easy preservation method for zucchini and summer squash:

I break out the food processor for this one, because I am generally talking about large quantities of summer squash!  If they are large, cut them lengthwise and scrape out the seeds.  I usually use a grapefruit spoon for this.  (I feed the seeds to the chickens, so I don’t end up with zucchini growing in my compost pile!) Cut the zucchini so it will fit in the processor’s feed tube and grate the squash.

Summer squash cut lengthwise
Summer squash cut lengthwise

Line a cookie sheet with a flour-sack towel, or a piece of old cotton sheet (I have cut several to fit for this purpose).  Spread the shredded zucchini onto the lined cookie sheet.  Lightly salt the squash and let it sit for about 15-20 minutes.  Roll it up in the cloth and squeeze out the excess water. Pack in zipper freezer bags, by 2 cups worth (Most of my recipes call for 2 C of grated zucchini).  Press the bags flat and lay flat in the freezer until they are frozen. When you want to make a delicious meal, like Faux Crab Cakes (below), just take out a bag of frozen zucchini shreds, and defrost them.

Faux Crab Cakes

  • 2 C shredded zucchini or summer squash
  • 2 C Bread crumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 1 T mayonnaise
  • 1 T of Seafood Seasoning Mix (see below)

Mix everything together and form into patties.  Fry in a pan, about 5 minutes a side, until golden.  Serve hot.  If you have any left, they are really great under a poached egg and covered in hollandaise sauce, or much simpler, on a bun with a lettuce leaf!

“Aged Inlet” Seafood Seasoning Mix

In a spice grinder (we have a dedicated old coffee grinder for this purpose), place the following:

  • 3 crushed bay leaves
  • 1 T celery seeds
  • 1 T dry mustard
  • 2 t ginger
  • 2 t smoked paprika (use regular if you don’t have smoked)
  • 10-15 scrapes of nutmeg (or 1/4 t ground)
  • 1 1/2 t whole allspice
  • 1 1/2 t whole cloves
  • 1/2 t mace
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 1/4 t cinnamon
  • 1 T salt
  • 2 t black pappercorns
  • 1 t white peppercorns

Grind it all up until it is a powder.  This may take a little tapping and stirring between grinds.  Store in a jar with a tight fitting lid.

Another Snow Day, Another Activity

DSC_6068This winter has been ridiculous.

I was joking with my students the other day that they might have fireworks at graduation, since it might not be until the 4th of July!  They weren’t amused.

Are you out of snow day activity ideas?  How about mixing up some granola.  It is an easy activity that my children can do with a little supervision from me (translation: I can sit at the kitchen table and grade papers while they take care of this one).

Fast Granola Recipe

  • 4 C rolled oats
  • 3 C chopped nuts of choice and/or seeds (we like a combination of almonds, sunflower and pecans)
  • 1/3 C honey
  • 1/3 C melted butter
  • 1 C chopped dried fruit
  1. Preheat oven to 275° F
  2. Combine honey with melted butter
  3. Combine oats and nuts/seeds and coat with the honey butter mixture
  4.  Spread in a 9 x 13 baking dish and put in the oven for 15 minutes
  5. Take out and stir the mixture.  Put back in the oven for 15 minutes. Repeat until mixture turns golden (not brown). 45 minutes to one hour total cooking time.
  6. Remove from oven.  Stir in dried fruit
  7. Let cool and enjoy.  Store in refrigerator.

I have a slow granola recipe as well.  We have found that soaking grains has made them more digestible for some members of the family.  If you have some trouble digesting grains, try soaking the oats overnight and then dry on screens in your dehydrator, or by spreading the oats on cookie sheets in a very low oven (150° F).  We also soak our nuts and seeds in a salt water solution and dry them in the dehydrator or low oven.  We like this because it makes a “salty-sweet” snack!

Stock Going up?

With all of the snow and damp, cold weather, this certainly has been soup-time.  We make soup for dinner at least once a week, and sometimes more.  I understand that most people’s idea of making soup is that if it doesn’t come from a can, it is just too much trouble.

So let’s cut the nonsense — homemade soup is actually very easy. However there are a couple of tricks:

Rule 1

You must use good stock.  The base of most soups is a good stock.  And good stock is so easy to make, and so inexpensive, I don’t know why people pay out the nose for canned or boxed stock that is watery and/or too salty.  I know that most people don’t buy whole chickens — unless the chicken is going to be roasted.  Usually people buy chicken already parted, which leaves you without the stock-making parts!  Don’t be intimidated by a whole chicken!  The per pound price on a whole chicken is generally less than the parts, and there is not a lot of waste if you are saving the parts you aren’t cooking immediately for stock.  There are plenty of good videos on the internet that will show you how to cut up your chicken.  In addition to the neck and back, we add the wing tips to the stock parts.  If we roast a whole chicken, we save the carcass, as well.  Another wonderful addition to chicken stock is chicken feet.  If you can get them, add them to the pot (and save a raw one for your dog!).

If you have a butcher shop near by, go in and ask for bones — knuckles, etc.  The butcher shop at the grocery store probably won’t have them because most grocery chains purchase the meat from distributors that send it cryo-vac packed with most of the bones already removed, but it is worth asking.  One local butcher shop sells bones for .25/lb.  We get our meat directly from the farmer, so we always ask for the bones.

Easy Chicken Stock

Put frozen back pieces, wing tips, etc, in a large pot with a carrot and an onion that has been spiked with 2 whole cloves.  Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil.  Turn down to a simmer and simmer gently for 10 hours.

More Complicated Chicken Stock

Heat your oven to 425F and roast the bones for 25 minutes, THEN dump everything into a stock pot with a carrot and an onion that has been spiked with two whole cloves. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil and turn it down to a simmer, and simmer gently for about 10 hours.

Beef stock

Roast the bones in a 400F oven for 45 minutes.  Put the roasted bones in a pot with some raw bones. Cover with water.  Bring to a boil.  Turn down and simmer gently for 10 – 12 hours.

OK, yes, time consuming, but well worth it.  Once the stock has cooked, let it cool down overnight, strain out the solids and put the stock in containers and put it in the freezer.  We make quarts, pints and cubes (from ice-cube trays).  The cubes are great for when a recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of stock, r a 1/4 cup of stock — one ice cube = 2 tablespoons!

Rule 2

Don’t overcook your soup.  Some people make the mistake of throwing a bunch of ingredients in a pot and then leaving it on the back of the stove for the day.  They are disappointed because the soup has a nondescript flavor and the stuff in the soup is all mushy and baby-food gross.

True, most of the soup we make we like better the next day, but that isn’t from cooking for long periods!  Read recipes and pay attention to the cooking times!  As an example, when I make chicken noodle soup. I cook the stock with a carrot and an onion and a stalk of celery.  When all of that gets mushy, I process it with a stick blender — it works as a natural thickener, and makes the soup taste great.  20 minutes before I am going to serve it, I bring it to a boil and add egg noodles.  I lower the soup back to a simmer and simmer it until the noodles are cooked.  Yes, the noodles are mushier the next day (if there are leftovers), but they don’t fall apart.

In making vegetable soup, even if the vegetables are cut to similar sizes, not all vegetables cook at the same rate, so we add the veggies in order of cooking time — potatoes first, then carrots.  A while later corn, peas and green beans.  And again, the veggies in the soup don’t cook all day, just for enough time for them to be done.

Here’s a really fast soup recipe:  Heat up some stock and add a few dollops of your favorite lacto-fermented vegetables!

There is more snow in the forecast, here on the east coast, so rather than stocking up on bread, milk, and toilet paper, get some soup making supplies.

Pickles, Pickles, Pickles

I didn’t always love pickles.

I do now.  But I didn’t always. And the first pickles I made were horrible.  The cucumbers got mushy in the processing.  I tried dills, garlic and bread-n-butters, but they all tasted terrible because the consistency was awful.  I will never forget opening the first jar of pickles that I made and biting into one.  It was the worst thing I ever put in my mouth.  And I was a little kid once.  A little kid who was a younger sister, who actually took a bite of the mud pies my sister made.  Trust me, the mud pie was better than the pickle.

I gave up on pickles for a long time, until I got married, actually, and received the Winch Family Pickle Recipe.  It’s a secret, so I can’t share that one.  However, I have figured out all kinds of pickles since my first successes with the Family Recipe.

I think the most intimidating thing about making pickles is batch size.  We tend to think in larger batches because it is such a pain in the neck to pull out all of the canning equipment. Who wants to do that for two quarts of pickles, right?  Well, you don’t need canning equipment for these pickles.  And they aren’t those refrigerator dills, either.  These are garlic pickles, like from the big barrel in the deli. My husband, a native Minnesotan, was dubious about a pickle that had no dill in the brine.  But he is a convert to the strange and mysterious ways of the east: lacto-fermentation (Probiotic Preservation) and a ton of garlic!

Garlic Pickles

  • a clean wide mouth canning jar with lid
  • enough cucumbers to fill the jar
  • horseradish or grape leaf (optional)
  • 1 small head of garlic peeled
  • 1 t peppercorns
  • 2 T salt dissolved in 2 C filtered water (or 1 T salt, 1/4 C whey, and 1 3/4 C filtered water)
  1. Push the horseradish or grape leaf into the bottom of the jar (this helps the cucumbers retain their crispness, but it is not necessary).
  2. Pierce the garlic cloves and add them to the jar.  Drop in the peppercorns.
  3. Push the cucumbers into the jar tightly, but try not to bruise them as they go in.  If they are too long for the jar, cut them to fit.
  4. Cover with the salt water (or salt-whey water), leaving about 1 inch of space at the top.  Be sure the cucumbers are completely under the solution.
  5. Put the lid on the jar and let is sit on a counter for 2 or 3 days, until you see bubbles forming.  You should also notice that the color of the cucumber skin has changed.
  6. Move the cukes to cold storage.  They are ready to eat at any time, but the longer they sit around, the more garlicky and sour they become. The consistency will change over time.  hey may get a little soft.  They are still ok to eat.