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When Stuck, Make Something

When Stuck, Make Something

Scallion Pancakes
Scallion Pancakes

Ugh — it was one of those days when I Could Not Get Anything Done. I mean, I got some stuff done — the chickens were mucked out — poor babies. It snowed a foot yesterday, then went into the 50s today, so my backyard is a lake. I got the chicken coop cleaned out and nice new shavings put inside, then bought them some new straw for bedding in their run, which seems to have put them high enough to be out of the wet — but my backyard was a lake, and the wind blew gusts into the 40mph range all day, and it was grey and wet and miserable.

So, I gave up on writing, and on the several writing projects on my list, and played with making scallion pancakes. I’m reviewing Carolyn Phillips magnificent All Under Heaven which means I *must* cook from it for a couple of weeks. Really, it’s my job … at any rate, I played around with these this afternoon. I don’t have them quite down yet — I’m not great at modulating the heat in my cast iron pan for flatbreads, but darn if that doesn’t mean I’ll have to try again.

And it got me out of my head, and out of the clickhole of Facebook/Twitter Garbage-Fire-of-the-Republic for a while.

So — scallion pancakes.

Garlicky Dinner Rolls

Garlicky Dinner Rolls


Garlicky dinner rolls in a square pan
Garlicky Dinner Rolls

Our nation might be in the middle of a political garbage fire, but we all still have to eat. One of the best ways I know to take care of oneself, and keep from going batshit crazy, is to cook. And especially to cook for other people. Our friend Shefije came over last weekend to take a break before tackling her Master’s thesis, and I made a batch of these for her with za’atar, the Middle Eastern spice blend.

These are a riff off a recipe I found on the Guardian UK site for a Za’atar bun and since za’atar supposed to be good for the memory, I thought of Shefije when I saw the recipe. She loved them, and she’s a very satisfying person to cook for, because when she loves something, she really loves it.

Earlier this week I got a hankering to do a version with green onions, parsley, garlic and olive oil. I’ve written before about my annual spring mania for green sauce, and this was much the same, but better, since it was green sauce wrapped in bread.

thin rectangle of bread dough spread with green onion, parsley, garlic and olive oil
Dough spread with green sauce

While the original recipe uses a dough enriched with butter, milk and egg, I wanted a very olive-oil-based flavor, and so I just used my standard sourdough bread recipe. Three cups of bread flour, three tablespoons wheat germ, one tablespoon salt, a cup and a half of sourdough starter and enough water to make a shaggy wet dough. I don’t really knead it, but rather use the stretching method described in the Tartine Country Bread recipe. I like the way this aerates the bread, and seems to activate the gluten — especially in really wet doughs like this one.

While it was rising, I made a green sauce with a bunch of green onions and a head of parsley I had in the fridge. I chopped them roughly along with a clove of garlic, then put them in my mini-chop with some Meyer lemon juice, lots of olive oil, an about half a teaspoon of Aleppo pepper. You want it still a little chunky.

Cylinder of dough after it's been rolled around the filling
Dough rolled with flavorings

When the dough was ready, I cut it into two equal sections for ease, since I don’t have a ginormous rolling board. I rolled it into a big rectangle and smeared the green sauce on it, then used my dough scraper to roll it lengthwise into a cylinder. I cut each cylinder into eight slices, then put them into a square baking pan.

Slices cut from the cylinder go face up into the baking pan
Cut slices in baking pan

When the pan was full, I covered it with a plastic bag, and set it aside to rise for about an hour. Preheat the oven to 425, and when the rolls have risen, sprinkle them with more olive oil, sesame seeds, and some coarse salt. Bake for about half an hour, until they are golden on top and are separating one from the next.

These are really yummy, and have the added attraction that you can pick apart the layers as you eat them. And I think you could do almost anything for a filling — black olives and some tomato sauce would be good, parmesan and garlic and olive oil, green sauces of any type from the Indian ones that have all that nice cumin in them to a straight basil pesto, or the original, with lots of za’atar and sesame seed and some coarse crunchy salt. And they cook up really quickly, which is nice.

So there you go — a little project to distract or give a little respite from the national emergency.

When the Fruit Comes to Town, We Make Jam

When the Fruit Comes to Town, We Make Jam


I’ve been waiting and waiting for “the Utah Fruit Guys”  to come to town, and Wednesday evening, there they were at the Farmer’s Market. I did my graduate work at UC Davis, and the University of Utah, both of which are located in the midst of serious orchard country — and it ruined me for grocery-store stone fruit. So I wait. Every year, I wait and wait for the Utah guys, or sometimes we really luck out and get a truckload up from Colorado’s western slope — but we wait for real fruit.

And then we make jam. I was out of raspberry jam so I was thrilled to find beautiful flats at the market on Wednesday. In general, I don’t really believe in buying fruit to make jam — for me, it’s always been about being creative, and using up the excess from my yard, but I make a runny raspberry jam that I particularly like, and I was out of it, and so I spent what seemed to me a small fortune on a flat of nice raspberries.

So here’s the the other thing about the fruit coming to town, raspberries don’t last. It was Wednesday, right in the middle of the week, and the job-I-haven’t-quite-stopped-working-at-yet has been really busy. So I washed and weighed the raspberries (after a gentle spin in the salad spinner), and put them in a container with about 1/3 the sugar I was planning to use for jam. I like a runny jam, one that can be used as a topping for ice cream, or as a filling for cake, so I use 3/4 of the weight of the fruit instead of a 1:1 ratio. I gently shook the sugar into the fruit, and left it to macerate overnight — it’s a trick I picked up from Marisa McClellan at Food in Jars. It bought me some time, since I didn’t want to refrigerate the fruit, which spoils the flavor, but raspberries will go moldy in a flat second so I didn’t want to leave them out overnight.


It wasn’t until late the following afternoon that I had a free minute to cook them up, and as it was my first batch of jam for the year, I had to give my Beautiful French Jam Pot a little scrub, as well as wash up a flat of brand-new half-pint wide-mouth jars. I threw the jars in the oven at 225 to sterilize, added the rest of the sugar to the berries, and set them over a low flame to start cooking down. A couple of podcasts later, the fruit had gone shiny and thick, and it was ready to jar up.

Here’s the thing about making stuff, when you’ve been doing it a while, it’s not such a big deal. You get better at it. I’m still amazed when I run into people who think it’s magic, this ordinary preservation of delicious ingredients in season. I put up 11 half-pints and one leftover pint (in the fridge) during an afternoon when I was also fielding emails, and handing off files, and it wasn’t a big deal. Except for the waiting part, the waiting for good fruit.

Ever since we lost our cherry trees two years ago, I’ve got one eye cocked for the End of Fruit. For years I took that grove of cherry trees down the block for granted, and even after the guys who owned the lot built a big building there, they told me of course I could still pick cherries, and that no, of COURSE they weren’t going to bulldoze that grove, their mother would kill them if they messed with her pie cherries. And then we had a killing frost — it went from 65F to -10F in less than 12 hours, and we didn’t know it until spring, but it killed every cherry tree in town. My beloved grove is gone, and I’m hoarding my last few jars of precious sour cherries. I know the East Coast lost their peach crop this year, and when it seemed our Fruit Guys were late, I started googling to see if there was any problem with the Colorado and Utah crops. Perhaps it’s the other reason I can, to preserve what we have, to shore up our stores against an uncertain future. At any rate, I’ve got enough raspberry jam for a year, and more peaches than I can eat fresh this week, so there will be more noodling around with fruit.


Making Stuff: Dilly Beans

Making Stuff: Dilly Beans


Enough talking about making, let’s get to work — it’s summer, and our Hutterite neighbors are filling the local grocery with their lovely green beans — so today it’s dilly beans. They’re so easy, and they’re a huge improvement on the sludgy canned green beans I grew up on (if you want to preserve plain beans for winter, I’d go with the blanch-and-freeze method. They stay much nicer than the pressure canned ones.)

So, I use Michael Symon’s pickling brine recipe from his Live to Cook. It’s dead simple — half and half vinegar to water, 2 tablespoons each salt and sugar for each 3 cups of liquid. Then aromatics. I’ve been doing a bunch of pickles lately, so I splurged on the half gallon jug of organic apple cider vinegar, but you can use any vinegar, including the plain white vinegar that you might also use for cleaning. It’s perfectly fine. Mix the water and vinegar in a pot, add the salt and sugar, and bring to a boil — these are cold-packed pickles, meaning you pack the vegetables in raw (cold) then cover with hot brine, and process in a water bath.

I’m fairly loose with my pickles — for dilly beans I sliced about a clove of garlic per jar into thin slices, added about half a teaspoon of dill seed, and a little bit of dried red pepper (off my ristra from last year’s garden peppers). I like a little heat in my dilly beans, but if that’s not your thing, leave it out.


I did have one exciting moment – when I put this jar in the hot water bath, I heard it crack. This happens sometimes, and it’s nothing to panic about, but it can be a pain. I used my big flat Chinese spider strainer and a pair of tongs to scoop the broken jar out and into a bowl, then dumped the beans and aromatics into a new jar, added more brine, a new lid and ring, and back it went. Good as new.

Fifteen minutes in a water bath, cooled on the counter, and then into the pantry with the Persian Tarragon pickles and the Pickled Carrots I made last week. Because the light has changed, and even though we’re suffering in the bright heat of a Montana summer, when the wind blows and the humidity drops to less than the percentage that lumber yards use to kiln dry wood, that time of year when it feels like the whole world is going to burst into flame out here — but the light has changed, and we got a little rain last night, and you can tell that winter is coming. So time to put up the pickles …



Thanks to Michael Ruhlman and his bread baking app for the iPhone, I have nearly mastered the baguette.

Out here in the sticks, we don’t have access to the kinds of artisan breads that I could get even at my not-swanky supermarket in California. I live with a man for whom good carbs are really crucial — and who loves loves loves good bread.

I’ve been making the no-knead bread for ages (as my many posts on that subject attest), but it needs a long lead time and an overnight fermentation. There have been a few times recently when I’ve been out of bread but didn’t want to pony up four bucks for a mediocre loaf of bread at my local market. Ruhlman’s bread baking app is great — you can put in what you want to make, white or wheat, boule or baguette, and up comes a recipe. Yesterday I started the dough at about 3pm and we had bread for dinner at 8 (this is where working at home comes in handy).

The first one I made last night was too long for my oven, so it wound up as a sort of s-shaped baguette, but it tasted great. This morning, I mixed up a new batch, and split it into two loaves. Voilà! Baguettes.

The second batch I tinkered with a little bit — added some sourdough starter for flavor (which required a little math, the starter is 50/50 flour water, so I had to calculate how much flour and water I was replacing from the original recipe), and wheat germ for crunch and depth of flavor. They came out really well (although I haven’t tasted them yet).

There is one minor issue I’m having … scorching. The recipe says to preheat the oven to 450 — I actually cut that to 425 because I’ve found that the no-knead works best at that temp. But both last night and today, I wound up with scorched bottoms when I baked them on the baking stone. The stone is on the bottom of the oven, and this afternoon, I put the loaves on parchment paper (makes it much easier to slide them into the oven that way). Still, wound up with scorched bread. When I smelled the scorching I moved the loaves up onto a rack, where the rest of the crust got nice and brown, but this is an issue. I’m going to have to play around with it.

I have to say, I love the iPhone app for this use. It’s easy to access, the instructions were simple and straightforward, and for the first time I understood how to roll/shape the baguettes so they didn’t go flabby all over the oven. It would be nice if there was a way to make a note on your own copy of the app. But overall, I’m a fan so far.

Green Soup

Green Soup

Last spring when I had backyard greens to spare, I put up several quarts of “green soup.” And boy, am I glad now. It’s winter. It’s not that cold, but it’s grey and windy and grey — and nothing is growing in my garden and yet, down in the basement freezer, there are quarts of this lovely soup, made with my very own greens. A saving grace.

Green soup is very easy. Wash and chop greens of any variety — most of last springs’ soups were made with a mix of broccoli rabe, komatsuna, spinach, and mustard greens. In a big pot, sauté some chopped onion, and maybe a little garlic and red pepper flakes if you like. Then I like to add some peeled and chopped carrot (for sweetness). Sauté for a few minutes to start them cooking, then add all the greens and sprinkle with salt to taste. Throw in a few peeled and chopped potatoes (for a dutch oven full of soup, I’ll put in 2-3 peeled baking potatoes. You want them for the starch, to thicken the soup up.) Wilt the greens and add either stock or water to cover. Simmer until the potatoes and carrots are very soft, and the greens have cooked through. Then puree with an immersion blender. You can add a little cream if you like, or a dollop of sour cream or yogurt to the soup bowl.

I froze this in quart jars, which made me feel guilty for not eating them all summer, but are now rewarding me with late-winter green goodness. With a slice of toast, this is a perfect lunch.

Christmas Cultural Dissonance …

Christmas Cultural Dissonance …

Ray asks: Christmas consumerism? What's a body to do?

For some reason, the annual consumerist frenzy of “Christmas” seems even more dissonant to me than usual. It’s clear there’s a class thing with the Christmas frenzy — there are people for whom the once-a-year pile of stuff under the tree is really really important, and there are people for whom it’s not. I have to admit, I grew up in a family who mostly believed in keeping it simple at Christmas. And although as a kid I was bummed by my parents’ knee-jerk rejection of anything like the “toy of the year” as consumerist claptrap (well, there was also an element of snobbery involved), in the long run, I’m glad to have been raised by people who almost always questioned the validity of marketing and taught us to be suspicious of its claims.

At any rate, the Christmas thing. If I was the kind of person who understood lining up all night outside some big-box store to buy cheap electronics or the “must have” toy of the year, I wouldn’t be the kind of person who moved to Montana where there isn’t really any shopping. By temperament, I’m not much of a shopper, but this year, the media-driven frenzy seems even more weird than usual. Like there’s some huge cultural disconnect between the media/powers-that-be who want to insist that everything is fine! that we’re all going shopping! that it’s Christmas! and the rest of us who have been growing gardens and canning and learning to bike commute because who can afford gas and car insurance anymore? Between the television advertisers and the Occupy movement folks — really? lining up for the entirely manufactured non-event that is “Black Thursday” when our young people are camping in city parks demonstrating against the stacked deck that is our current financial system? To whom do they think they’re advertising? There’s 10% official unemployment out there — which means unofficial unemployment is at least double that — especially in minority communities.

My beloved sometimes accuses the entire sustainability/urban homesteading thing of being a “lifestyle” issue — that is, not something one does to really save money or change the way you live but because chicken coops are hip, and canning and DIY are cool. I think he’s right to a certain extent, but on the other hand, there are a lot of people learning to get by with less. While I’d like to see people have jobs again, I don’t think we need to return to the rampant consumer excess that drove the housing bubble. We all bought a lot of junk, and went into debt to do it (I’m not innocent of this). On the one hand, we’re being bombarded with consumerist Christmas junk on tv and in the newspaper and in the “straight” media, and on the other hand I’m reading things like this  terrific article over at Yes! Magazine about a couple who discovered that life on the “wrong side” of town opened their family up to community in a way that enriched their lives, and the inimitable Harriet Fastenfest’s piece over at Culinate on “the University of Grandmothers” who worry because “people don’t know how to be poor” anymore.

As aways, my peeps will be receiving food boxes of stuff I’ve made, perhaps some lovely items of clothing re-purposed from thrift stores, and if you’re a kid, art supplies. So readers — what are you doing about the Christmas issue? Shopping? Not shopping? Making things? What about those of you with little kids — how are you doing the “magic of Christmas” without getting sucked into the consumerist frenzy?

Battening Down the Hatches

Battening Down the Hatches

A bushel of black kale, ready for the freezer

My first post-deadline, post-travel weekend and although I was woefully short on new fiction pages produced, I did get some long-neglected house-and-garden tasks done.

First of all, I’m feeling sanguine about winter because, at long last, we got our whole pig! It took a long time this  year because, well, the small packer/butcher operation we buy from sold more post-fair pig specials than they had pigs. So we had to wait for them to get more local pigs (they promised me it wasn’t a CAFO pig), and then for them to make the delicious hams and bacon. There’s nothing like going into a winter with a freezer full of pork. Also, if you get used to buying meat by the share (or if you have nice friends who give you hunks of elk, or venison, or antelope, or their own homegrown beef), and you are a person who works at home, you get really really used to not having to go to the store. It was just weird not having enough in the freezer that dinner is a choice of what to thaw. I found it unsettling. Now we’re fat on pig, the new chickens are laying, I’ve got a pantry full of pickles and fruit, there’s homemade sauerkraut in the fridge, and as you can see above, kale for the freezer.

Putting up greens is a tiny bit time consuming, but worth it. Again — there’s nothing like being able to “shop the freezer” and I like knowing that I’m really the only one who has been handling my veggies. This is black kale, also known as Dino Kale and Laccinato Kale. It’s the long skinny-leafed kale, and I love it for soups, and in the morning sauteed with onion, garlic and hot pepper with a fried egg on top (a little bacon is also welcome in the mix). This was a bushel of kale. I filled the sink with cool water while my biggest pot was coming to a boil, then used garden scissors to clip the leaves into semi-bite-sized pieces. I swished them around, then put them in the boiling water to blanch. The cookbooks say to boil them for 3 minutes, but I just leave them in the hot water, even if it hasn’t come all the way back to a boil, until they turn a deep, electric green. In the meantime, drain the rinse water and re-fill the sink with cold water and ice. The blanched greens go in the ice water to cool off. A bushel was two sinks and two batches in my biggest stockpot. I drained them in collanders, then used the salad spinner to prep them for the vaccuum sealer. Two serious spins in the salad spinner I found, got enough water out that I didn’t overwhelm the vaccuum sealer. I wound up with nine fairly solid bags of kale. There’s probably just as much curly kale out there, which I’m nursing along as fresh playing chicken with the weather. I’ve found I can keep eating kale out of the garden until we get a multi-day spate of below-zero weather — with any luck, I can get through most of December, but really, one never knows.

I also put up some pears this morning — I stole some pears out of a neighbor’s yard. A neglected tree in a rental house. They were small and hard, but after a couple of weeks in a bowl on the kitchen counter they took on a beautiful rosy hue, and smelled divine. I did them before the kale, using the stockpot of water I was bringing to a boil to sterilize a few jars and lids, and then to process them. I made a simple syrup from equal parts red wine (Bota Box malbec) and sugar. Half a vanilla bean, the zest and juice of a lemon, a piece of cinnamon stick and a couple of cloves also went in. I peeled, cored and sliced the little pears, then poached them and packed them in the simple syrup. Twenty minutes in a hot water bath and either I have an instant-dessert (over ice cream?) or a present for someone’s Christmas box.

My last chore was modifying the chicken house door. The chicken house has a much more beautiful door than a chicken house really deserves — but it came out of the Sweetheart’s immense store of salvaged, recycled, bought on sale contractor supplies, and it was just the right size to lean in, collect eggs, and clean out the bedding. The problem is, that in the winter, it was too big to keep much heat inside, even with a light bulb. So today, I took it off and cut a chicken-sized hole in the door, and put it back on it’s hinges. Now they’ll stay warm, and I can still get in when I need to (knock wood, because I’m in the middle of town, so far I haven’t had varmint problems, but it is a risk. I kept the piece of wood figuring I can put it on a hinge if need be).

I also lucked out and the Sweetheart fixed the broken dog door while I type up a bid for him, so the wind is no longer blowing directly into the kitchen. All in all, a very satisfying weekend of house and backyard farming tasks. Winter is upon us, and I do have to admit, I’m looking forward to holing up and carrying the deadline energy back over into my own work, but there’s also something so pleasant about an afternoon in the kitchen, listening to back podcasts of Fresh Air, and putting up food for the winter.

First good bread of the fall …

First good bread of the fall …

With apologies to my blog readers who have seen this bread before, but after several years, what I find interesting is how the weather affects my bread baking. I can’t get a decent loaf to work for me in the summer when it’s hot, but when my kitchen goes back to it’s usual 65-70 degrees, I can make a bomber loaf of bread.

This is the no-knead bread I’ve been making for years now. Three cups flour (this is one cup each of King Arthur bread, all-purpose and whole-wheat flours, with a nice sprinkling of Bob’s Red Mill Dark Rye for flavor), 1 tbsp salt, 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast, 1.5 cups sourdough starter and about a cup of water. Mix until you have a “shaggy dough” as the original recipe noted, cover with plastic wrap and let rise overnight. In the morning, dump onto a board, knead a few times and shape into a boule (here’s a link to an instructive video with a slightly dopey voice over: I don’t have one of those fancy baskets, but I use a collander lined with a floured dishtowel.

So, I don’t bake when it’s 90 degrees out — and after languishing in the back of the fridge for a while, the sourdough starter takes a few batches to get it’s mojo back. But beyond that, the bread just doesn’t work when it’s warm out. It winds up weirdly flaccid, or it rises too fast, or something. I’ve made probably three or four loaves since the worst of the heat broke, and this is the first one that worked. You could feel it in the dough this morning when I went to shape it. The bad loaves, you couldn’t really get a “skin” on it like you wanted. The dough just felt “dead” in some weird way … this dough, it rose overnight but didn’t seem overly foamy. When I dumped it out on the board, it kept some shape, and it had a little pushback when I went to knead/shape it. How to explain? It just felt like bread.

My kitchen stayed in the high 60s/low 70s all day, and by about one, the bread had risen to the point where when you poked it with a finger, a slight dimple was left. So I cranked up the oven to 425 (which is the temp I like — it springs, but the crust doesn’t get overly caramelized) with the dutch oven inside. When everything came to temp, the bread went in the pot, I scored it a couple of times with a sharp knife, and put the lid back on. It cooks for 30 minutes with the lid on, 20-25 with it off.

And voila! My first fully-sprung, fully-risen lovely bread of the season. Yet another reason to be glad the dog days of summer are over.

Homemade Cheese with Backyard Apple Chutney

Homemade Cheese with Backyard Apple Chutney

Here’s the fresh cheese I made out of Home Made, a cookbook I’ll be reviewing for Bookslut later this week. It’s a good simple cheese that doesn’t require any special equipment.

It is even better topped with the Apple Chutney I made (sort of a mashup between the recipes in Put ’em Up! by Sherri Brooks Vinton and in Tart and Sweet by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler). I put up 10 half-pints of this one, and had a tiny bit leftover for an afternoon snack, which was delicious.