HomeFries Cooking Class at the Durham Farmers’ Market

Summer Peach & Melon Salad at the Durham Farmers' Market with the HomeFries Cooking Team. Photo & copyright Casey Boone: www.caseyboonephotography.com

Summer Peach & Melon Salad at the Durham Farmers’ Market with the HomeFries Cooking Team. July 2014. Photo Copyright Casey Boone

 

 

 

Saturday’s HomeFries Class was all about staying cool using melons. Let’s face it, most people aren’t comfortable with the words “soup” and “chilled” pushed together as something to eat in the middle of a hot summer day. But if you mention “smoothie”, you’ll get an entirely different set of facial expressions when it’s above 90F. So teaching the “HomeFries” that chilled soups and smoothies are really only separated by a savory ingredient or two was a lot of fun. Even better was the knowledge that they could make these at home and go further making popsicles too. And, we had time to enjoy a seed spitting contest when we were finished!

 

Photography & Copyright:  Casey Boone www.caseyboonephoto.com

HomeFries Watermelon Seed Spitting at the Durham Farmers Market. July 2014. Photo Copyright: Casey Boone

 

The recipes for this class were simple because the main points we wanted to cover included:
1. how to think about & combine flavors
2. ratios of liquid to solid & frozen to fresh to get a smooth texture
3. swapping base liquids and melons for seasonal or regional availability

There were some hits to the class and some clear misses. The cucumber drink that I adore was a miss in my opinion, mainly because I could not find the lime that I thought was packed. It’s probably a science experiment somewhere at this point. The lime adds a bit of punch to cut through the cucumber and balances the honey and salt. This is one case where one ingredient does make a huge difference.

 

HomeFries Team cutting up the melon & peaches for Summer Salad & Skewers at the Durham Farmers' Market. Photo Copyright Casey Boone: caseyboonephotograpy.com

HomeFries Team cutting up the melon & peaches for Summer Salad & Skewers at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Photo Copyright Casey Boone

All the kids of the Durham Farmers' Market HomeFries class were able to customize their salads with some additional mint, basil and goat cheese. Photo Copyright Casey Boone.

All the kids of the Durham Farmers’ Market HomeFries class were able to customize their salads with some additional mint, basil and goat cheese. Photo Copyright Casey Boone.

 

The HomeFries team members had the opportunity to cut up fresh fruit provided by the local farmers for a salad. And, we even had a nice woman stop by and offer us a few fresh peaches for the salad that she had just purchased from the market. The kids didn’t take long to get those cleaned up, cut, and added to the salad. They tried adding a little mint to their individual bowls with the fruit; and then a little basil to compare. The recipe calls for some tender baby greens like baby arugula or micro-greens, but we couldn’t find exactly what we needed, (there’s a micro-greens vendor at the Durham Saturday market), so we adapted the recipe for what was available from the farmers on Saturday.

 

Individual Fruit Skewers prepared by the HomeFries Team at the Durham Farmers' Market. Photo Copyright Casey Boone: www.caseyboonephotography.com

Individual Fruit Skewers prepared by the HomeFries Team at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Photo Copyright Casey Boone

 

The salad was a big hit and the kids took the extra pieces of melon and blueberries and made fruit skewers that would be ideal for a party or picnic. We had a chance to talk about ways to adapt the skewers for the season changes with strawberries earlier in the season and apples and pears later in the season. And they were able to taste a couple different herbs with the fruit and decide which flavors worked best for each of the fruits. The beauty of these two ‘recipes’ is that the kids are able to customize their salads from a base if the salad is set up with ‘toppings’ like herb leaves, goat cheese or nuts.

 

 

 

 

The first two recipes don’t require sweeteners, so the group spent time talking about honey, sorghum, and maple syrup as natural sweeteners for the next batch of recipes and how the season might influence the choice of sweeteners. We also talked a lot about substitutes for dairy like almond milk, coconut milk, coconut water, and kefir (which is nearly lactose-free). Each of these creates subtle changes to each recipe and the HomeFries played with a couple during class. Almond milk is thin, but adds a bit of sweetness like coconut water. Coconut milk and kefir are a bit heavier and provide a creamy texture that many chilled soups and smoothies require. Coconut milk, coconut water and almond milk can be frozen into ice cubes if the other components are fresh, eliminating the need for ice that would melt faster and diminish the flavor.

The HomeFries Team tested two versions of the Chilled Strawberry & Watermelon Soup. One with and one without the goat cheese. This recipe can be frozen into popsicles. Photo Copyright Casey Boone: www.caseyboone.com

The HomeFries Team tested two versions of the Chilled Strawberry & Watermelon Soup. One with and one without the goat cheese. This recipe can be frozen into popsicles. Photo Copyright Casey Boone

 

The Strawberry Soup turned out to be a double-header hit. We decided as a team to make the recipe up without the goat cheese first and give it a try, and then add it on a second batch of soup for comparison. This turned out to be a great teaching opportunity to show the difference in a “smoothie” verses a savory “soup”. All of the kids loved the smoothie tasting of this recipe without the chèvre, even with a bit of raspberry vinegar (thanks to Olio2Go for that bottle!). And, as a bonus, all of the kids, except the young cook that didn’t like goat cheese, enjoyed the savory version with the fresh cheese blended in. We even had an opportunity to add a little additional cheese so they could taste what happens when the ratios are changed just a bit.

 

 

The other point to make on this recipe is that we used one of my “cooking hacks”. Each year I freeze quite a lot of fruit but there are times when I need a reduction of fruit for concentrated flavor in a recipe. The Strawberry Soup recipe offered a chance to show the kids that they could use some jam from the market or from home and add some raspberry vinegar to balance the sugar and come up with a quick smoothie even if they didn’t have all of the listed ingredients. Many of the farmers at the market make jam out of extra fruit that doesn’t get sold and there are a couple of vendors like Farmers Daughter and Fiddlehead Farm that make quite a bit of preserves if it’s not something you do in your home.

The HomeFries Team takes turns working with the blender to puree the fruit smoothie ingredients. Photo copyright Casey Boone: www.caseyboonephotography.com

The HomeFries Team takes turns working with the blender to puree the fruit smoothie ingredients. Photo copyright Casey Boone

The last smoothie we made was based on cantaloupe, Yellow Doll melon, peaches, and winter squash. The HomeFries Team made this recipe without the winter squash and pumpkin pie spices because there wasn’t any winter squash available yet at the market. We experimented with both coconut milk and fizzy water to make the smoothie rich and bubbly.

 

At home I roast quite a bit of winter squash with olive oil in the fall and use it frozen in this recipe along with sorghum syrup from the NC mountains, coconut milk or kefir and pumpkin pie spice and cinnamon to blend up a frozen smoothie that reminds me of Pumpkin or Sweet Potato Pie, but much less sweet.

Cantaloupe, Melon & Peach Smoothie with coconut milk & fresh herbs. Photo Copyright Casey Boone

Cantaloupe, Melon & Peach Smoothie with coconut milk & fresh herbs. Photo Copyright Casey Boone

 

Lastly, the HomeFries team took home a special “Pop Zipzicle” bag to make popsicles out of their own smoothie creations. The coconut milk makes up an especially creamy version of a popsicle where the coconut water makes for a more traditional fruit ice-popsicle. These are inexpensive fun products that kids of all ages can enjoy and it gives each ‘chef’ the opportunity to be really creative when loading in additional ingredients after the base is made like fresh herbs or bits of fruit for pops of color and flavor.

Here are the recipes. They are designed to feed just a couple of people and very flexible so you can change the ratios to make the smoothies more savory, sweet, thick or thin and the fruit salad can be adapted to the season. We had a couple of food allergies to work around on Saturday so you’ll see some optional changes below in the recipes that we worked with for the HomeFries class.

 

Cucumber Cooler

  • 1 – 1/2 cups chopped cucumber, partially peeled
  • ½ cup cold water (sparkling)
  • 3 cups ice cubes
  • ¼ cup Honey
  • ½ – 1 lime, juiced
  • Pinch of pink sea salt

Add everything into a blender with the liquid at the very bottom. Pulse at first to roughly combine all of the ingredients and then use a higher power to blend until the drink is completely smooth and frosty; free of ice chunks. Serve immediately. Makes enough for 2 people.

 

Watermelon & Strawberry Smoothie, Popsicles or Chilled Soup

  • 1 cup chopped frozen red watermelon (or combination of red & yellow with seeds removed)
  • 1 cup frozen strawberries (or 1.5 tablespoons strawberry preserves or fruit reduction)
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk, almond milk, or coconut water (for smoothie or popsicle only)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh goat cheese (for soup only)
  • 2 large fresh leaves from Pineapple Sage plant
  • 1/2 teaspoon Raspberry vinegar
  • Pinch of salt (Murray River pink or Himalayan pink)
  • Optional – drizzle with blueberry, blackberry, or raspberry reduction
  • Optional – fresh mint or basil leaf for garnish

Add the liquid, fruit and vinegar into the blender with the liquid at the bottom. Pulse until the combination is well mixed. Then add in the herbs and blend on high until the mixture is completely smooth. Add the goat cheese and pulse just until blended and turns lighter red/pink color. Serve immediately, or freeze in molds. Makes enough for 2 people.

 

Chilled Cantaloupe & Peach Soup or Smoothie

  • 1 cup chopped frozen or chilled cantaloupe
  • 1 cup chopped frozen or chilled peaches (treated with lemon to avoid browning)
  • 1/2 cup liquid (kefir, coconut milk, almond milk or fizzy water)
  • 1/4 cup dried apple slices (substitute 1/2 of fresh sweet apple, skin removed)
  • Pinch of salt (Murray River pink or Himalayan pink)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (the kids liked more)
  • Optional – drizzle with Blueberry, Blackberry or Mulberry reduction
  • Optional – 1/4 – 1/2 cup raw pecans & almonds will thicken this up
  • Optional – herbs like fresh lemon verbena or pineapple sage leaves work well
  • Fresh mint or basil leaf for garnish

Add the liquid, salt, fruit, vanilla extract, and dried apple slices into a blender and pulse until well combined. If you add nuts, add those initially as well. Once the mixture is well combined, add in any additional herb leaves and blend on high until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Garnish with blueberry, blackberry or mulberry reduction syrup and fresh mint or basil. This recipe can be frozen into popsicles

  • Optional Fall Pumpkin Pie Smoothie: add 1 cup roasted butternut squash, pumpkin puree or roasted sweet potato puree (puree can be frozen into ice cubes for long term storage), 1/4 cup raw chopped carrot, 1/4 cup raw pecans, 1 teaspoon sorghum syrup or honey, 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

 

 

Simple Melon & Greens Salad or Skewers

  • 1 cups fresh washed mild greens like baby arugula or 1/2 cup mixed micro-greens
  • 2 cups mixed melons (honeydew, watermelon, yellow doll, cantaloupe
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries or blackberries
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup fresh chèvre (feta would be more pronounced for adult version)
  • Optional:  1/8 cup fresh red onion sliced thin
  • Optional:  1 teaspoon fresh chopped chives
  • Optional:  cubed paneer or feta  and basil or mint leaves for skewers

Wash off the outsides of the melons and gently rinse and dry the fresh berries. Cut up the melons, throwing away the seeds (or save them for a seed spitting contest). Mix all of the fruit together with any of the optional herbs, cheese and onions. Add the blueberries last and toss gently. Serve

 

Catch the Buzz, Capturing & Moving a Honeybee Hive

Bumble Bee at Duke University Brody Discovery Garden

Bumble Bee at Duke University Brody Discovery Garden

 

Many of you know Marty Hanks at Just Bee Apiary from our local farmers markets, coffee shops displays, and school events. He’s been building awareness in the Triangle area about bee-keeping and sustainable practices for years now. It’s a slow process to reach out to hundreds of thousands of people and educate them about tiny creatures that fly around and pollinate our local food supply and make delicious nectar that lasts virtually forever. But as you begin to understand the seasonal impact of wild and harvested fields, crops, flowers, trees, rain and temperature ranges, you can see how every variable contributes to the honey and how important even small individual decisions you make in your life might affect these masters of creation.

Getting the smoker ready

Marty, getting the smoker ready

Disorienting the bees with smoke

Keeping the bees busy with smoke

Beginning to open the cavity.

Beginning to open the cavity.

Opening the hive

Opening the hive

Exposed Combs

Exposed Combs

Pollen in the comb

Pollen in the comb

Honey in the Comb

Honey in the Comb

The Contraption

The Contraption

Sucking in the hive

Gathering the hive

#iPhone #flashlight

#iPhone #flashlight to check for straggling bees

Straggling Bees in the structure

Straggling Bees in the structure

Bees in the Contraption Cage

Bees in the Contraption Cage

Spraying sugar water to attract & feed the hive

Spraying sugar water to attract & feed the hive

Moving the hive to new box

Moving the hive to new box

Moving the last of the hive

Moving the last of the hive

The original combs from the hive go in last in the center

The original combs from the hive go in last in the center

Which brings me to the point of this particular post. Bees are in serious decline. No matter what the reason you believe is causing this, there is reason to be concerned because most vegetables and fruits are pollinated by bees and other flying insects. Saving every honeybee hive is important before they go the road of extinction. So when a homeowner calls and says, I have a hive of honeybees that needs to be removed and there’s a time window or cost associated with this process, Marty, as do many of the bee-keepers around the country, spring into action to gather the hard-working hive up and move them to a better location.

His goal in the process is to create the least amount of stress for the hive, capture the queen so the hive stays together, move some of their comb to retain their scent, and get every last one of the little foraging creatures as they fly home in the setting sun. So please pardon some of the pictures as I still use an iPhone for my work! As a note, Marty uses one too to light up the inside of the house frame and take a picture or two when he’s extracting in addition to his head lamp. Technology at work. Ya’ gotta’ embrace technology some days!

So this story begins just around 6 pm as the sun begins to set. Not far from my house in a neighborhood where I walk my dogs is a lovely house with a lovely garden. The lemony scent of the magnolias waft through the breeze this particular evening and you can see why the bees have chosen this location with garden roses and gardenia to locate. This hive plans to enjoy the rewards of a good set of gardening neighbors with lots of flowering trees, shrubs and flower beds. Marty has already been here once earlier in the week to examine the location. The hive is very calm and it’s a cool summer night, so he has only brought along a small bit of head-gear, (mainly because he got “lit up” in the face earlier in the week with another hive). It’s easy for me to get close and set up my tri-pod and phone. Marty explains that I should consider myself a “tree” and the bees will tend to land on me, but remaining calm will keep them calm as well.

He’s planning to use just a bit of smoke to mask the pheromones chemical reaction that they will send out through the hive as an alarm that something is disturbing the hive. The smoke will trigger a genetic response, like that of a forest fire. Instead of stinging and protecting the hive from the intruder, the bees will go into the hive and cluster to feed on the nectar to take it to a new location and use the energy from their own nectar (think carbohydrates here) to rebuild new combs. That process is very energy intensive, so it’s important to move hives when they have time to rebuild their combs and to add to their own stores of honey to survive winter when there is little for them to forage and feed themselves. That’s why many bee-keepers that pull honey in the fall keep that honey to feed the bees should the winter be severe or drag on, like we had happen this year. Or they simply will not pull any honey near the end of the season.

The first ladder is set up against the home and left for a few minutes so the bees resettle. During that time, the smoker is lit and gets going on the ground. This process just takes a small amount of time. Marty has even built a tin holder so he doesn’t start any fires when he is out in the woods or field with a hot smoker. At this location, we have a concrete drive to work on, with the benefit of electrical outlets nearby, so getting into the hive will be relatively quick using power tools, albeit noisy for the hive. A simple set of tools is used to pry off an outer board and it’s pretty evident that failing pointing in the wall has created several gaps that made it easy for the bees to get underneath and find a cool location on a HVAC and water line to set the hive in place. Fortunately, this hive just arrived a couple of weeks ago and there are just a few combs in place, but the hive size is remarkable so it will be important to find the queen and isolate her if possible in her own little box to keep her safe and well. As the sun fades, it will become more difficult to spot her exceptional green colored dot. But other bees will naturally protect her so clustering is a second way to locate her.

Extracting bees by suction is not Marty’s preferred method, but since the hive has crawled up into the home’s structure, it’s the only option in this case for a speeding recovery of the workers. Out comes a unique creation box and vacuum that uses a very low horsepower shop vac attached to a box with screen mesh that will contain the bees. To the bees, this is the equivalent of a tornado so Marty moves as quickly as possible gathering up the clusters of bees on the combs before breaking off a couple of pieces of comb in the front of the opening. The two large pieces of combs are put into one of the frames for the hive box because they contain the scent that is unique for this hive. The other frames are for the hive to use and rebuild. A couple of the combs contain more than just pollen. There’s a bit of nectar-honey and some seed bee eggs that look like itsy-bitsy particles of rice. The honey in the hive is quite sweet as we taste from a broken comb piece.

As Marty is gathering up the bees with the now, rather loud, shop-vac, which, did I mention, is precariously attached to a second ladder next to him, he notices the bees have been chewing through the packed insulation of the house to get further up the water and HVAC line to a cooler location. The white dust that is left behind is the evidence of their destructive capability when building a home. Some of this gets into the honey comb, but most of it just falls down into the cavity of the home’s outer wall. The process continues for the better part of an hour. And this is just about the time, we notice that the bees are still climbing along a rafter and up in a spot Marty had not seen before. So he pulls down a little more insulation to get a better look. And out comes another large bunch of bees! This is when Marty is probably wishing he might have started just a tad earlier because it is evident, we’re going to be here a while longer.

The good news is that there are not many left and Marty has switched out his had and mesh for a simple head-lamp to help him see into the void of the wall as he continues to reach his arm up into the framing and pull down handfulls of bees. They are quite calm still and he’s been able to make quick work of it with just a few stings. But all in all, he seems pleased with the progress although it’s taken more than a couple of hours up on the ladder at this point to pull them out safely.

The neighbors look on at the process by the side fence and we are periodically taking breaks to show them a little of the comb and explain the process. During the breaks, the foraging bees can return and go back into the hive and settle down. A little smoke, a little more vacuum action and finally Marty spots what he thinks might be the queen surrounded by a mass ball of bees the size of his fist. He able to get the mass but not isolate the queen, which would be the best of circumstances. He won’t be able to look for the queen now until Sunday or Monday when he’ll move the hive again to a stable location.

Now the process of moving the bees from their captured box into the hive box begins, in the dark of night. The bees will be calmer moving without much light and with the old combs set in place. The new hive box has been sprayed with some sugar water for temporary food while they are stressed and using up lots of carbohydrates. Many will “fan” out their tails to tell other returning bees that this is now the new home. With the old combs and scent in place, the bees signal each other to come on inside and settle for the night! We are able to get quite close to the bees without any protection and witness them doing their little dance and moving on each frame as Marty spaces them out evenly. He’s getting the bees more evenly dispersed on each rack. The bees are more concerned with the effort of getting everyone home and safe, rather than bothering with us or Marty as he moves about them quite freely now. The cat at the neighbor’s cat is now mildly interested and gets a few feet closer, but somehow knows to stay on the log pile several feet away while observing us.

The frame is set up with an upper screen to allow air movement and then a hard frame to keep out the elements and allow stacking of frame boxes. At this point, Marty is carefully gathering up all of the leftover bees on the ground and pushing them gently into the hive with a very soft long-bristle brush that reminds me of an architect’s drawing brush. A few are harmed or killed in the process as we move around in the dark and accidentally step on one or two. Only a few have been harmed in the process considering the size of this hive. Marty is estimating 6-7 pounds based on his experience. Any that are left will either return to their original hive, which should be close by, or they will die without their queen. It’s important to get as many as possible with the decline that bees are currently experiencing world-wide. Every single one counts in this battle to save these gentle pollinators.

Once completed, Marty uses painters tape to seal up the hive while he transports them later in the evening. He still has to seal up the old hole and hive totally for the stragglers that might return. The goal is to send them back to their old hive if possible and not have them die in a location that is now without a queen. A few more minutes in the dark, up on the ladder to replace the board and seal the seams with painters tape again. Some permanent repairs need to be made along the entire perimeter to avoid this from happening again. In the meantime, with that work completed, we roll up the extension cords, put away all of the equipment and ladders and finally move the bee box into the back of the truck for transport. It’s just around 9 pm when I finally leave and Marty still has about another hour of work left before he can head home.

He comments that bee-keeping is a 24/7 job. I believe him. Honey is really a rare commodity. It takes thousands of miles of flying by each bee and endless hours of building a hive with countless perils from climate, chemicals, moving objects and predators to create a nectar that can last thousands of years safely. It is a golden gift from the smallest of creatures.

If you want to catch up with Marty or buy some of his delightful honey, check out the Carrboro Farmers Market on Wednesdays or the Southern Village Farmers Market on Thursdays.

Polenta Coconut Pudding with Seasonal Fruit

 

Whitted-Bowers Farm StrawberriesLast year I  had the opportunity to play around with a package of polenta. Now, as many of you know, I can eat some grits and I love cooking them with milk and cream, so I was up for the challenge of creating some new dishes with the finer cousin of the Southern Grit, Polenta.  I did a little reading on the differences in polenta and grits and found a couple of neat facts about the history of corn varieties and milling techniques that make each one different in flavor and texture.  The Anson Mills website had a huge amount of information and is still my favorite for understanding some critical differences as well as some insight into heirloom rice varieties. And while you are there, please take a couple of moments to read up on their sustainable farming practices.

While this recipe was made using imported polenta that was a gift from Olio2Go in one of my order boxes, I’m looking forward to receiving my order from Anson Mills of Southern-grown products shortly to use in recipes this summer. And since I have now picked my annual twenty-five pounds of strawberries, made jam, and put up some dehydrated slices that is what I’ve chosen to show you in this recipe. But blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are just around the corner!

The creamy texture and beautiful yellow color of the polenta I received had me thinking about pudding and after a little research with very few results, I decided to just try out a couple of combinations to get take the polenta from something savory to something sweet. After all, we use rice in both savory and sweet recipes, there’s no reason corn can’t be used interchangeably.

By default, this recipe ends up being vegan. It wasn’t that it was deliberate, but it just tastes light and lovely with coconut undertones using the coconut milk, coconut water and coconut oil. Each one imparts just a subtle flavor of its own to the finished dessert. I’ve served this chilled and slightly warm. My preference is slightly warm with cold fruit. The polenta sets up nicely as a pudding but the creamy texture and subtle corn flavor comes out more when it’s slightly warm. And who’s going to complain about a warm dessert once you start  drizzling local honey and adding the fresh fruit? I also think coconut ice cream with the fresh fruit, melting into the warm polenta would be just heavenly. Ok, now that I have your undivided attention, here’s how simple this is to make.

Basically, you are going to cook the polenta in about 15 minutes and at the end stir in your fruit, honey and top with toasted coconut and more fruit or ice cream. Don’t skip the salt in this recipe because corn needs salt and it balances the sweetness of the honey and the fruit. If you are adventuresome, add vanilla coconut ice cream to the pudding, or some finely chopped pineapple sages leaves as a garnish or use lavender infused sea salt with the strawberry version.  There is a strawberry & lavender jam recipe on this site that is just wonderful if you don’t believe me about that combination. You will note in the recipe that it calls for spring or early summer honey and here is why that is specified. Late summer-early fall honey has a lot of pollen from fall flowers and the flavor is much different from the lighter tones that you will find in honey during the first part of the year. It will make a difference when you combine those flavors with fruit that comes from a different season. If you try to make this with roasted pumpkin or sweet potatoes, it might be interesting to use the fall honey. Let me know if you do and how it turns out!  This recipe makes an ample serving for two.

Coconut Strawberry Polenta B

 

Polenta Pudding with Seasonal Fruit

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup polenta
  • 1 1/4 cups plain, unsweetened coconut water or coconut juice
  • 1 1/4 cups plain, unsweetened, full fat, coconut milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coconut oil
  • 1/8 teaspoon Himalayan sea salt
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen berries, sliced or rough chopped
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons local spring or summer honey
  • 2 teaspoon strawberry jam (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon toasted coconut (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely chopped pineapple sage (optional)

 

Preparation

  • Gently warm the coconut water, coconut milk, coconut oil and salt in a stainless steel pan until it is simmering.
  • While stirring, slowly add the polenta and incorporate it into the liquid.
  • Continue to stir with a stiff silicon spatula, scraping down the sides of the pan as it begins to simmer. Turn the heat to medium/low and continue to cook and stir to avoid burning or sticking to the pan for around 10-15 minutes. The liquid should all be absorbed and the polenta should be thick and creamy, without lumps. It should be fairly thick with plenty of body, but not dried out when it is finished. It will be easy to fold over and stir and will not stick to the pan.
  • Fold in the chopped fruit (you can add some dehydrated sliced fruit too but it will need to cook and absorb some liquid to become soft in the pudding) and one tablespoon of the honey
  • Serve with a bit of jam, more fresh berries, the remaining 2 teaspoons of honey and some toasted coconut or other chopped nuts.

Notes

 

 

Kids Cooking Classes at the Farmers’ Market

It’s baby goat season, but we’re not talking goats here! Kids love to learn to cook at the market! They love meeting the farmers and are adventuresome enough to try new foods and be willing to experiment with flavor combinations. So we want to give them more opportunities to learn this year.

We’ve grown up with a full generation or two of folks not cooking. Busy work schedules have many folks relying on restaurants and grocery store-bought finished foods to feed themselves with little regard for healthy or local options. Cooking classes at the market are short and sweet, and so are the recipes because they utilize whole foods that taste good and are really fresh.

I’ve enjoyed doing demonstrations and classes at local markets for more than three years now with other chefs in the area, and that’s why I’ve decided to help our local market managers put together more classes so we can all address the need in our community to feed the next generation with  the gift of  cooking knowledge. Knowing what’s in season and how to work with it will service them for a lifetime. And hopefully they will enjoy the kinds of experiences many of us had cooking with our grandmothers or gardening and fishing with our parents and grandparents.

To help establish some new cooking classes for kids at the markets in the Triangle area, I’ve decided to donate some large Japanese Maple trees that I have been growing organically as a hobby for the last dozen or so years to markets that either have established kids classes or are in the process of setting them up for this year. A couple of trees for each market doing these sorts of activities will help purchase equipment and food for the classes since most markets try to offer these as a public service for free or a nominal charge.

Each of the trees is between 6-8′ tall without the container and has been container grown for about a ten years. They normally grow about 1′ per year in the ground so you should see some real height within three years of settling them into your own garden. They are the Bloodgood Variety and will reach a height of 25′ over time with a spread of 15′. The original tree the seeds came from was well over 60 years old. They are long-lived trees with a spreading root system and they like well-drained sites that get water over the shallow feeding roots. They are $100 each, which is well below the wholesale value of these trees.  Your donation to an approved market (501C non-profit organization) that has contacted me with their information will be considered the “purchase”.  You will need to coordinate picking up your tree after your donation is complete.

Durham Farmers Market is participating in this program currently and other emails are out to market managers in the Triangle area regarding this support program.  If you have questions about the trees or how to get one, please email me at tarheelfoodie at gmail dot com. If you are a market manager and want to coordinate with me on this program, please send me a email.

Herb Roasted Parsnips & Rainbow Carrot Soup

Rainbow Carrots at the Farmers Market

It was warm and sunny yesterday. The perfect early spring day to work in the garden, clearing out weeds and overgrown plants; making room for new blueberry plants and additional herbs. It was time to see what survived one of our coldest winters, and what did not, namely all of the rosemary looks like toast. On a positive note, the raspberry patch seems to have thrived with the slow melting snow and ongoing rain. Which means there will be extra plants to share with local farmers and friends this year. The trash cans are filled with debris and ready for pick up this week. Today it’s chilly and rainy again with sleet expected by the early evening hours. Typical Southern weather. 70 one day, 20 the next. Ice tea with honeysuckle syrup for our afternoon break yesterday and warm sweet potato lattes this morning for breakfast dressed with local honey.

Here’s a simple winter soup recipe to make in your blender or food processor from roasted veggies you have put into your freezer. Or, if you choose, roast them for dinner tonight with some cabbage slices drizzled in olive oil and then puree them tomorrow into a rich deep orange-colored soup for lunch.  Two meals in the time it takes to make one. That’s my kind of deal!

Raw Unwashed Parsnips

 

I prefer to use the smallest parsnips and carrots I can get from local farms for this recipe. Being a tad lazy, and hating waste, I simply prefer scrub the veggies and do not bother to “skin” them. The smaller parsnips don’t have that inedible center core and the carrots are incredibly tender when they are little. The parsnips will be just a little spicy, but most importantly, they will caramelize really well from tip to root when they are small and still full of juice. Try to use a “grassy” olive oil to compliment the flavors of both veggies in the roasting process.

Herb Roasted Rainbow Carrots

 

Herb Roasted Parsnip & Rainbow Carrot Soup

Ingredients

  • 2 cups roasted carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup roasted parsnips, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup sautéed celery
  • 1/2 cup sautéed onion
  • 1/2 cup dry orange lentils – cook in liquid prior to adding to other vegetables
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried shallots (1 teaspoon fresh)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaf (1 teaspoon fresh)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk (whole or lite)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Himalayan fine salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon Chardonnay Oak Barrel Smoke Salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh peppercorns – Mesquite & Apple Wood Smoked Peppercorns
  • up to 4 cups stock (vegetable, rabbit, or chicken)

Preparation

  • Scrub the parsnips and carrots well with cool water. Dry them. Cut off just the very top and any extensively long root bottom as it will simply burn. Cut any large carrots in half or quarters, leaving them long. Aim for the size of a young woman’s finger. There is no need to be exact.
  • On a sheet pan covered with parchment paper, drizzle olive oil on the parsnips and carrots. Add salt, pepper and a blend of herbs that you enjoy. Taste the vegetables raw to check the seasonings. The salt and pepper will intensify in the roasting process. I typically use thyme, rosemary, marjoram, oregano, celery leaves. These can be dried or fresh. The amounts listed in the recipe are for the soup, so you will need more for roasting the vegetables. Whatever you have will work fine if they are blended into the oil.
  • Roast at 400-425F until they are tender and lightly browned. If you are in the kitchen and can watch the oven, higher heat works well. If you can’t watch the vegetables, turn down the heat and allow yourself more flexibility in the cooking time.
  • Saute the finely chopped celery and onions in olive oil until they are translucent and soft. Local celery is more tender and flavorful than store-bought celery because the farmers harvest it earlier to preserve the beautiful topping of leaves and keep it from being eaten or burning in the fields. Heirloom onion varieties can be more sweet than store-bought onions and caramelize faster. Use butter if you prefer, but the recipe is written as dairy-free and diabetic friendly.
  • Cook the lentils in water or stock with the bay leaf, shallots, thyme, cumin and coriander.
  • Blend the carrots, parsnips, celery, onion, lentils, coconut milk and 2 cups of broth together. Check for seasoning and continue to add broth to the mix until the desired thickness is achieved. Adding additional coconut milk will dilute the spices and vegetable flavors more than broth. The soup will freeze with the coconut milk. It will not freeze with dairy milk.
  • Serve with toasted pumpkin seeds. Bacon works well too for those of you that enjoy it.

 

Farmers’ Markets & CSA’s

 

tulips from the farmers market

 

During the last couple of months, many farms have sent out newsletters or posted to Facebook about their 2014 seasonal offerings, most readily called a CSA for Community Supported Agriculture.  Some farmers only offer a CSA Weekly Box option which contains a variety of goods from their farm that are harvested that very week of delivery without much choice in the box for the consumer. For some consumers that works just fine but other find their families are too small, too large, or they just want a choice about what is packed in the box each week. Some folks want larger quantities some weeks to make jams, dehydrate or can veggies. Some people need to skip weeks for vacation or order extra for guests. So farmers are answering these requests with more flexible CSA programs and each is a little different from the next. This makes accounting for the farmer a lot more difficult on top of working long hours to plant, harvest, cover, uncover, build fences, mend green houses, and still cook and put up food for their own families and interns for the winter months. But they are all trying to work with consumers to fit the needs of many without expanding the requirement for additional help if it’s not necessary.

plants at the market

 

Even with these challenges, local sustainable farmers have managed to stay creative. They are choosing to plant  heirloom varieties that we haven’t seen in years and push all of us to try them out whether they are pretty or not! They are looking for the next cool thing to send to a local restaurant and figure out if an older variety of seed will grow better and be resistant in our changing climate. They will figure out how to take a fresh ingredient like summer peppers, dry them and sell them mixed with salt for a seasoning, or dry the summer flowers that haven’t sold in one week to make a wreath for the winter months, or teach you how to freeze eggs when they are plentiful in the fall so you have some during the holiday season for baking when the chickens are taking a break from laying. And they will work out the details of a delivery program that gets you the food you want, where you want it, when you want it. To that end, we have seen a number of delivery companies spring up in the marketplace to bring together food from several farms combined with local food finished products, even mixing in fish from the mountains to the sea. I can’t keep up with them all. Most are not farmers themselves although there are a couple in the Triangle area and in Western NC that farm as well as act as retail outlets for other farms and local food purveyors.

raw heirloom garlic

 

There are smaller vendors like Johnny’s in Carrboro, NoFo’s in Raleigh, LoMo Market in the Triangle, and Angelina’s in Pittsboro, who all have a place in the delivery system. (I’m sorry if I left your shop off the list.) They all offer the convenience to pick up local products (and they use local products themselves) when you can’t make it to a market with some of them even offering a small window of time that farmers can come make deliveries or speak with customers. All I’m saying is that if you are creative, and willing to work with the local farmers, you can have extremely fresh food every week in your home. It’s easier than you think. Every market has a market manager and many have assistants that can help identify the vendors that will fit your needs. Just ask. You can even email them with questions if you can’t make it to the market right away.

heirloom cherry tomatoes

 

Get on mailing lists at the market, look up the farms, talk to other folks in line at a vendor stall (they won’t mind, I promise!), but shop with local farms if you possibly can starting this week! You’ll find my Tarheel Foodie Facebook page has posts from farmers nearly every day. And the Tarheel Foodie Pinterest page has links to healthy recipes, both mine and others, that can incorporate locally raised food.

peppers & saltstea & lavenderyarn

Creamy Tomato, Cauliflower & Pesto Soup

Heirloom Tomatoes from the Farmers Market

 

As the sun rises this morning, it hits the brick on the house behind mine perfectly to turn the color of the brick to a lovely shade resembling a summer peach. Can you tell I’m ready for warmer temperatures? My blood has thinned in the thirty-five years since I moved from Maryland. A dear friend in Seattle invited me for a visit yesterday. She loves cold weather. She loved living in Minneapolis. She hated the hot humid summers here in Raleigh. A summer trip, after the snow melts and the flowers are blooming in her garden is the plan.

Today, our temperatures are expected to be moderate for the end of February. I’ve been out on the porch a couple of times this morning surveying the sunrise.  Soup is the plan for lunch. The fall weather seemed to be just perfect for cauliflower this past year so I have quite a lot in the freezer still. Roasted in olive oil with different peppercorns and a variety of salts, it’s great for so many recipes over the winter months. The yellow is my favorite for Indian dishes, mixed with dried peppers from Fiddlehead Farm (Pittsboro NC) this year. The deep purple is fun because it turns lavender when it’s blended into any dish. And then there is the simple ivory, the color of antique tablecloths with lightly browned smudges here and there. It  turns the most lovely golden brown color when roasted in olive oil.  Cooking the pieces a second time in a non-stick pan with a mix of farm butter and olive oil after you pull them out of the freezer enhances the browning. Those are the pieces that are perfect to decorate soup or as a topping on roasted cabbage with bacon pieces.

After I made the Cauliflower & Pesto Soup I got to thinking that it might be pretty tasty to add some roasted and dehydrated tomatoes to the mix.  Blending both into the other soup along with a few additional herbs turned out incredibly creamy and light without so much of the acid flavor you find in traditional tomato soup recipes. So make a larger batch of the previous soup, and plan on a second meal with just a few adjustments.  Add a grilled cheese sandwich made on bakery bread with cheese and greens and maybe bacon, ham or roasted chicken. Of course, all of it should come from the farmers’ market! It won’t take more than thirty minutes to pull a family meal or picnic together.

One other note I want to make about this soup is in regards to the onions and celery I used. For the last three years, many more farmers have begun to grow celery. The first crops that came out of the fields had stringy tough stems and were difficult to use in anything other than stock. But last year there was a real turning point in all of the crops with celery that completely rivaled anything in any store around town. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you it was actually better than the stuff being shipped in from other states. The heads were full of magnificent leaves that could be made into the most wonderful raw salads and dehydrated for use in stock. The stems were broad and tender all the way from the tip to the root. Perfect for filling with goat cheese blended with fresh herbs and dehydrated tomatoes. I just can’t gush enough about our local farmers and the time they spend learning to grow new crops.

Onions were no exception either. For a couple of years now there has been a push to try heirloom varieties of onions and potatoes. This past year everything seemed to come up perfectly despite a really wet spring. While the onions had to be pulled early and sold quickly, they were amazing.  I think I have about a half-dozen varieties put up from different farms. Some browned more than others because the sugar content was greater, some of the reds turned out to make the most excellent sauces for meats I have ever tasted. But all in all, it has been exciting to use the different varieties to change the flavor of basic recipes. So I encourage you to talk with your local farmers and buy whatever they have decided to experiment growing in their fields. Give them feedback on how you used it and whether you liked it!

Creamy Tomato Cauliflower Pesto Soup

 

Creamy Tomato, Cauliflower & Pesto Soup

Ingredients

  • 16 – 20 oz broth (Rabbit, Chicken, Veggie)
  • 8-12 oz roasted cauliflower in olive oil (finished weight which is about 1/2 raw weight)
  • 16-20 oz roasted heirloom tomatoes (finished weight with juice which is about 1/2 raw weight)
  • 2 generous tablespoons pesto
  • 1/4 cup dehydrated sliced tomatoes, broken up or rough cut dehydrated cherry tomatoes
  • 1/8 cup roasted or sautéed onions
  • 1/4 cup sautéed celery
  • 1/2 – 1 teaspoon roasted garlic (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon fennel pollen (optional)
  • 1 teaspoons dried Italian Herb Blend
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary
  • Salt & Pepper to taste – will vary depending on stock and the way the cauliflower is roasted

Preparation

  • Roast the cauliflower by coating in olive oil, salt & pepper and any spices you like thyme, rosemary and garlic. Cook it at 400-425F until it is roughly half of its original size and nicely browned. Use parchment paper underneath to keep your sheet pans cleaner. (Freeze it after it is cooked if you want to use later in the year.) Basic Directions for Roasting Cauliflower
  • Roast the tomatoes in olive oil with green onions, fresh herbs, salt & pepper at 400-425F for about 20 minutes. (Freeze with the juice if you want to use these later in the year.) Basic Directions for Roasting Tomatoes
  • Basic Directions for Dehydrating Plum Tomatoes – same technique can be used for Cherry Tomatoes or Sliced Heirloom Tomatoes
  • Saute the celery and onions until they are translucent in olive oil. (Freeze the mixture in containers for use later in the year.)
  • Add the cauliflower, celery, onions, roasted and dehydrated tomatoes, along with the  fennel pollen to the broth and heat until it is simmering lightly. Cook about 10 minutes with a lid on just to soften up the vegetables a bit more, without loosing much of the broth to steam. You can  wait to add the pesto when you blend everything together.
  • Puree the batch of vegetables, stock and pesto in a blender, food processor or with an immersion stick until it is smooth. Add more broth (or water) if necessary to reach your desired consistency.
  • Adjust the seasonings.
  • Top with mild fresh herbs like chives, thyme, celery leaves, sliced dehydrated tomatoes, mushrooms or bacon.

Notes

  • The fresh and dried herbs will vary in amount depending on whether your tomatoes were dehydrated or roasted in herbs.
  • Different salts and peppercorns can change the flavor of the soup. Using mildly smoked salts like Chardonnay Oak Barrel Salt or Mesquite & Apple Wood Smoked Peppercorns can bring out more smokey flavors in the tomatoes. Brighter notes from the tomatoes can be accomplished by using Murray River Flake Salt or  Fumee de Sel  as a finishing salt.

 

 

 

 

 

Roasted Cauliflower & Pesto Soup

Raw Colored Cauliflower

 

I won’t lie, it’s been hard getting back to writing after taking so much time off to visit with family and friends through the holiday season. I’ve been slow to get started and frustrated with the limited exposure from Facebook when I post recipes or news now that the company has made so many changes to their posting algorithm. If I pay for advertising, then my posts go to random people, not to the folks that “liked” my page and somehow that seems incredibly stupid to me. I have written and tweeted the VP of Sales and Marketing offering up the suggestion of a subscription model that allows my followers to get all of my posts for an annual fee that I pay as a business. Not a huge annual fee, but something reasonable that a small business or non-profit can afford. There are so many of us on Facebook now. NO REPLY. After more than 20 years in sales and marketing myself, this just seems ridiculous. But enough whining. If they can’t reply and can’t put a program in place that works for a small business or non-profits that I work with and support, then I’m just going to make a few changes to my writing pattern to promote my website instead of theirs. Hopefully this change with the expansion to Pinterest and Twitter will work better to spread the word of farm to fork with sustainable local ingredients.

Some of the recipes this year are going to be terribly simple and the blog entries may border on very short when there’s a news feature. A day rarely passes that I don’t cook. Sometimes there are smoothies that only take five minutes, or sandwiches/pizza from leftovers that might take fifteen to assemble and warm. And, sometimes the meals are more elaborate, requiring up to three or four hours. But most of the time, meals are a combination of pre-cooked items from the freezer brought together into a simple recipe that takes a fraction of the time it normally would if you started all the way from raw ingredients. The hard work is done when the foods are harvested. Dehydrating, roasting, slow cooking, or lightly steaming bulk ingredients and putting them into containers with dates takes some time, I won’t lie about that. But when you are tired or want to teach your kids to cook, this method will give you options to pull together a nice meal pretty easily because the slicing and initial cooking is already complete. Once you get the hang of putting up a few key ingredients when they are in-season, you’ll see how easy it is to work in and out of season blending fresh market ingredients as they are harvested.

This is totally different from “throwing” things together from the fridge and pantry. This method takes a little planning to figure out what you normally eat and putting up your family’s basics so you can continue to enjoy the meals you like throughout the year, but with less effort when it counts. Cutting an hour or more off of your cook time during the week allows you to keep your meals healthy and satisfying. You will also have more time to try out new recipes. Entertaining becomes a breeze too. When the weather is not cooperating and there’s a shortage of one ingredient or another at the market, this strategy keeps great farm food on your table day after day. Please, feel free to send me emails or comment on the website if you need help with a recipe. That’s the only way I can learn what you would like to see or need to know.

On to the recipe for today. I started writing this on #MeatlessMonday, but I’ll confess that I have used rabbit broth in this recipe. I ran out of veggie broth a couple of weeks ago and I’m trying to use up some of the other stock in the freezer before I add more. At some point I have to defrost the freezers each year and the early spring when items dwindle a bit is a good time to shift food around and do the big defrost. To that end, I came some delicious pesto when I was consolidating two freezers.

But back to the pesto! This particular pesto was given to me by a client over the holiday. She remarked that it’s really hard to give a food gift to someone who cooks almost every day! But she picked out a couple of things that I don’t often make for myself, which was really lovely. One sweet and one savory. Of course the sweets did not last long. There’s a reason I don’t make a lot of sweet recipes. I have very little willpower when it comes to baked sweets. I am a kid in a bakery. They are my weakness. Handed down from my mother and father. I’ve probably talked about the bakery in Ellicott City called Leidig’s before. They are no longer in business, but I remember waiting in line on the weekends with my sisters to get special rolls for grilled hamburgers and a pastry to eat right away as a treat for behaving in the line. Today many would frown upon giving a child food as a reward, but it seemed to work just fine in our case. We each got one treat, no more, once a week. Both of my parents worked full-time so there we didn’t make a lot of sweet things at home. Although I will admit that my mother’s recipe for Apple Cake is still one of the very best I have ever eaten.

I love to taste new things and experiment putting items together, so the pesto presented an excellent opportunity to try a couple different recipes.  It’s been my experience that people either love or hate pesto. And there isn’t any rhyme or reason to it. I’ve made a few different types over the last couple of years for farmers’ market demonstrations including sorrel, arugula, broccoli and basil. Seasonally they are kind of fun to add to everything from chevre to swirls in a quiche. In my family, I’m the only one that likes pesto, unless it is hidden well in a dish. It can’t be the main show. Maybe it’s the color. They tend to all be a dull-brownish-green color with the broccoli pesto as an exception. It  is a lovely shade of bright green, in my opinion.

 

Roasted Cauliflower with fresh herbs and local cheese

 

A little research on the web brought up several recipes for roasted cauliflower and I love to roast it with herbs and top it with cheese when it’s fresh from the market. But I also found recipes for it roasted and topped with pesto sauce. Simple enough to make, especially if you already have the pesto on hand. Since cauliflower isn’t in-season at the moment, my frozen roasted stock from the fall came in handy. It isn’t as firm once it’s frozen, but the flavor is still lovely. Normally I would use it in an Indian curry dish or use it in  chickpea soup.  But this idea of simply blending the cauliflower and pesto together with a bit of broth took hold and that’s what I ran with last week.  Incredibly easy and creamy. Just perfect for the chilly weather we’ve been having lately.

I added my twist of flavor. There was a wonderful recipe for celery soup that I tested out and loved the week before last.  I thought that sautéed celery and slow roasted onions would enhance the base flavor of the soup and compliment the cauliflower. Since both ingredients were already cooked and stored in the freezer, it really didn’t take any time to add them to this soup. The sautéed celery and onions are combined with the roasted cauliflower in a pot with stock and cooked for around 10 minutes,  just to soften everything up a bit before it goes into the blender. The pesto gets added at the end and all of the ingredients are blended until smooth. Adjust the seasonings for salt & pepper and thin the soup as necessary with additional broth (whole milk or nut milk work too).   The first batch of soup turned out really well and adding some toasted nuts and additional roasted cauliflower to the top made it more presentable, but they are not required. The blended cauliflower has a silky texture similar to cream, without the extra calories. The cheese and nuts from the pesto add some protein and hold the body of the soup together without the use of flour or other thickening agents.

 

Roasted Cauliflower & Pesto Soup

 

Roasted Cauliflower & Pesto Soup

Ingredients

  • 16 – 20 oz broth (Rabbit, Chicken, Veggie)
  • 8-12 oz roasted cauliflower in olive oil (finished weight which is about 1/2 raw weight)
  • 2 generous tablespoons pesto
  • 1/8 cup roasted or sautéed onions
  • 1/4 cup sautéed celery
  • 1/2 teaspoon roasted garlic (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon fennel pollen (optional)
  • Salt & Pepper to taste – will vary depending on stock and the way the cauliflower is roasted

Preparation

  • Roast the cauliflower by coating in olive oil, salt & pepper and any spices you like thyme, rosemary and garlic. Cook it at 400-425F until it is roughly half of its original size and nicely browned. Use parchment paper underneath to keep your sheet pans cleaner.
  • Saute the celery and onions until they are translucent in olive oil.
  • Add the cauliflower, celery, onions, and fennel pollen to the broth and heat until it is simmering. Cook about 10 minutes with a lid on just to soften up the vegetables a bit more. You can add the pesto or wait and add it in when you blend everything together.
  • Puree the batch of vegetables, stock and pesto in a blender, food processor or with an immersion stick until it is smooth. Add more broth (or water) if necessary to reach your desired consistency.
  • Adjust the seasonings.
  • Top with mild fresh herbs like chives, thyme, celery leaves, and toasted nuts or roasted chickpeas for some crunch

 

 

 

Baked Polenta topped with Seasonal Vegetables

 

Baked Polenta with Roasted Vegetables

 

As it normally happens each year, I ran out of olive oil at the end of fall. I actually try to run out just around Thanksgiving so I’ll be ready to usher in the holiday cooking bonanza with freshly pressed olive oils from different regions. The wonderful staff at Olio2Go help me select oils throughout the year to test with different recipes for the best outcomes. In my last order, they put an extra package of imported Italian yellow polenta from Moretti Bramata.  In the past, I’ve worked with several brands of stone ground organic grits from NC and Virginia, but never an imported polenta, so I was excited to play with the bag of golden nuggets and decided to do a little research before starting.

While the package states this is  ”coarse ground” corn, it is quite finely ground and more uniform than stone ground grits that are available locally. The Moretti family has been growing corn since 1922. Their process includes drying the corn in open air barns and stone grinding it using a process called “reduction milling” where the corn is run through the mill several times. Each pass through the mill reduces the size of the grit and creates more uniform particles than what we find from our local mills. Cooking time appears to be reduced with the smaller size grits and the texture after it is cooked is more even so it’s easier to shape and cut.

During the course of my research, I came across Anson Mill’s website which had a great deal of information on corn. A couple of quick points that are worth mentioning. Polenta and grits are different in both in the variety of corn and in the milling techniques used in production. Polenta was initially used in Italy to feed the pigs. Most polenta from Italy is based on a variety of corn known as “flint” that came from the Caribbean around the 1500′s. Flint corn is harder to mill because the starch inside the corn is harder than “dent” corn, which is typically used for grits and corn meal here in the South.  It also has a different flavor profile than “dent” varieties that are typically grown in the South. Flint stores longer than dent corn once milled and holds the texture better once cooked, making it ideal for certain recipes that require cut shapes.

You can read more about the history and cultivation of both “flint” and “dent” corn varieties on the Anson Mills website.
Armed with some basic knowledge of corn you can talk to the local farmers at the market to find out what varieties they grow and how they decided on those seed selections.

For these recipes I cooked the polenta with a 4:1 ratio of liquid to polenta. I am fond of using 2 parts milk (whole or low-fat both work fine) and 2 parts filtered water in a heavy stainless pot. (For soft southern grits I use 5:1 ratio with 3 parts milk). It was pointed out to me recently during a demonstration that I stir my grits constantly, putting a lot of “love” into them. To be honest, I like the process of stirring them and I think it helps the corn cook evenly and avoids sticking on the bottom. If you are eating dairy-free, just use water and skip the milk. Once cooked,  you can choose to move forward with the recipe using warm polenta, or store it in the fridge to use in a day or two, allowing it time to come to room temperature before baking it so that it cooks evenly in the center. There are two choices on how to treat the bottom layer of polenta in this recipe.

First, for a heavy base that can be cut and pulled out with a spatula for serving, spread the polenta in a baking dish that has been well oiled with olive oil to help avoid sticking. Then top it with a couple of roasted veggies that are in season. Next top that with the cheese of your choice which will help to bind the mixture together as it bakes. Be careful not to add too much cheese as it will cover the other vegetable flavors. It’s also good to note many cheeses change flavors once heated, so in some cases you may want to add the cheese as you pull out the polenta and vegetables. Fresh goat cheese or fresh ricotta might be a couple of cheeses to consider adding at the end of baking. There should be some balance in each layer, especially if you have taken time to develop the flavors and textures in your roasted vegetables.

While testing this recipe, I found that using more than a couple of veggies at a time resulted in too many competing flavors in each bite and overpowered the underlying sweet corn flavor of the polenta. If you’re going to take the time to make good polenta and roast seasonal vegetables, then you should be able to taste all of that hard work in the resulting dish. So think about how much you want to put on top of your polenta base and which cheese will best compliment both the corn and veggies that you have chosen. The better choice might be to make several small dishes with different combinations to serve instead of one large dish with everything piled high.

You can create a lighter polenta base can by adding eggs and some additional milk to the cooked before re-baking dish with vegetables and cheese. The base becomes more like stiff spoon bread. With this technique, fewer vegetables and less cheese create a light and delicate side dish for any meal. More vegetables create something like a buckle where the veggies fall into the corn base.

All in all, there are several ways to make this dish throughout the year using both techniques and altering your choices on vegetables to fit the season and the weather. You can even make individual servings using small cast iron pans so everyone at the table has their favorite. And these can go out on the grill in cast iron pans if you are careful about the level of heat so you don’t burn the bottom. Using ramekins gives you more flexibility to prepare them ahead of time if you are having a party and create smaller portions with different toppings.

In my tests, roasted tomatoes were a natural pairing and their liquid seeped down into the polenta, blending nicely. Tomatoes paired with grilled or roasted eggplant, sautéed summer squash, or grilled mushrooms all worked well. The summer squash also paired well with slow cooked onions. Both have some liquid left in the cooking process that can be used with this recipe, being careful with the amount used. Mushrooms and eggplant paired well although this combination was a bit dry and might be better with a bit of cheese or tomato to moisten or bind them together. Peppers and onions paired well although peppers have a dominant flavor that I enjoy in soup with corn, but in this application, be sure not to use too many and let the corn and cheese offset the peppers. Baby spinach or young chard with onions or mushrooms was lovely but you have to enjoy your greens to enjoy this combination and choosing the lighter tasting green was important so it won’t overpower the sweet corn flavor.

For cheese selections I like to use fresh goat cheese paired with mushrooms, eggplant and peppers. I tend to move towards aged cow cheese like Chapel Hill Creamery Calvander for the tomatoes but I think their Farmers Cheese (or Smoked Farmers’ Cheese) might work really well with roasted peppers because it has a unique stringy quality when melted and the tang it offers as a compliment to the sweet Italian peppers.

Of course you can always add some meat or fish into this dish. There are so many varieties of local farm sausage made with everything from chicken to pork or venison along with bacon or seafood like shrimp. I think you could spend an entire season trying all sorts of combinations and never have the same dish twice.

I didn’t try eggs on the top of this dish. But here’s my take on that idea. I think if you poached or lightly fried an egg and left the yolk soft it would make a nice dish with the tomatoes, mushrooms or greens for brunch. Since I love eggs poached in roasted tomatoes or fresh greens, this combination seems natural to me and would easily round out this recipe.

Think about the polenta base as an alternative to pizza or a tart and you’ll get the hang of this recipe in no time at all. Have your kids or guests involved in making the combination choices and bake this in individual baking dishes for a personalized touch for the holiday season or a summer grilling party.

The recipe will easily make enough for four people as a side. You can make up all the separate ingredients a couple of days prior to the final dish so it’s great to use up leftovers in the fridge. Or use pre-cooked, frozen items that have been thawed if you want to eat a little out of season or cut down on your cooking time.

 

Roasted Vegetables

 

Baked Polenta with Seasonal Vegetables

Ingredients

  • 1 cup Polenta fine ground
  • 2 cups milk (low-fat or whole)
  • 2 cups filtered water
  • 1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon Himalayan salt – fine grind
  • 1 cup each of 2 roasted vegetables (peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, fennel, squash, mushrooms, zucchini)
  • 2 cups large-shred hard cheese or 1 cup fresh chevre or ricotta (optional)
  • 3 eggs, separated (optional – see Bake Method 2 below)
  • 1/3 cup whole milk (optional – see Bake Method 2 below)

 

Preparation

  • Begin by bringing the water, milk, butter (or olive oil) and salt up to a slow simmer and gently stir in the polenta to the simmering liquid, adjusting the heat slightly as needed to keep the liquid gently bubbling.
  • Continue to stir the mixture as needed to avoid sticking or burning on the bottom and adjust the heat so it continues to simmer while it cooks. This should take about 30 minutes. All the “tooth” should be out of the grits and the texture should be smooth and creamy.

Bake Method 1:

  • Spread the grits into a well-oiled (EVOO) shallow baking dish, individual ramekins or oven-proof skillet while warm, pressing down enough to eliminate air pockets and top with roasted vegetables and cheese.
  • Bake at 350F for 20-30 minutes so the vegetables are warmed all the way through and any liquid from them has had time to incorporate into the polenta. The time will vary depending on the size and kind of baking dish you are using. Cast iron takes a bit longer to come up to temperature compared to individual ceramic ramekins.

Bake Method 2:

  • Separate the 3 eggs and mix the yolks with 1/3 cup of whole milk. Mix into the warm or room temperature grits until well blended.
  • Beat the egg whites until stiff and gently fold in thirds into the grits. Place this mixture into individual or large casserole being careful not to deflate the volume.
  • Gently top with roasted veggies and cheese.
  • Bake at 350F for 25-45 minutes depending on the size of the baking dish. It might be necessary to use parchment paper to keep the vegetables and cheese from burning as the grits cook a second time.

 

Preserving Farm Fresh Shiitake Mushrooms

shiitakes sliced rawAfter my trip last year to Western Maryland, I posted some notes about cooking the Oyster Mushrooms I brought back from Savage River Farm in Garrett County. Oyster Mushrooms are delicate when first picked and have a mild flavor so gently cooking them in olive oil and then freezing them is a simple method for keeping them around. You could also dehydrate them, but it’s not my preference unless I’m using them for stock or a soup where they are not a big feature.

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The process of cooking Shiitake Mushrooms is different from Oyster mushrooms. You are going to use a higher heat level and take them to a crispy state, almost like chips. Oysters would simply fall apart under the same conditions. The skin on the Shiitake will hold up to the heat, even young mushrooms. But the ones you are most likely to find at the local Farmers’ Market do not resemble what you will find at the store by any stretch of the imagination. They are generally clean, bright, and beautiful with stems that you can thoughtfully put into a stock to simmer all day with herbs.  That’s because local farmers generally pick the mushrooms just a day in advance and sometimes less if you go pick them up from the farm yourself. These mushrooms are a joy to work with because your knife will gently push through them and cut a lovely clean thin line. (This is where you can just look away from my cuts. As my eyesight has progressed down the scale of moderate to poor, so have my cutting skills!)

In the Triangle area markets there are several vendors that grow mushrooms.  Raleigh, Cary and Durham vendors include unusual and colorful mushrooms from Old Milburnie Farm and traditional Shiitakes from Kellam-Wyatt Farm, Edible Earthscapes, Maple Spring Gardens and Pinhole Farm. Woodfruit Mushroom Farm services local restaurants with almost a dozen different varieties and has by far the most expansive production in the area. Spain Farm sells both fresh and dried Shiitake throughout the year and SEEDs, a non-profit in Durham also has a selection of Shiitake that local students help grow. Many other small farms are adding mushrooms and if you are interested in growing your own, several classes pop up in the spring and fall for you to learn the process.

Another great thing about incredibly fresh mushrooms is they don’t oxidize in the few minutes they are sitting on the counter waiting for their turn for the pan. The flavor and texture are light and earthy, and they are very easy to clean when they are fresh. Trust me when I tell you it will be hard to buy mushrooms in the store again after you get them from your local farms. Just remember to store them in a paper bag which will absorb excess moisture and work with them within the first day or two to minimize loss.

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I prefer to use a heavy stainless wide skillet to cook mushrooms in bulk. It will hold up to high heat and can be cleaned with steel wool when you are finished. Once your pan is heated on medium high, pour your favorite olive oil into the pan and be generous. Coat the entire bottom of the pan. While we’re not exactly frying here, we are working with high heat. Cooking them fast and hot in a fair amount of olive oil with some Alder Wood Smoked Salt and Mesquite & Apple Wood Smoked Peppercorns (Savory Spice Shop has all of these) really brings out the meaty flavor of the mushrooms.

When the pan is hot, add the oil and allow it to heat up to a slight sizzle. Add enough mushrooms to cover the bottom, but only a single layer so they are not crowded in the pan. Make sure you maintain the high heat and turn up the heat as needed when you add the mushrooms so the oil continues to sizzle as you add the mushrooms. Sprinkle around 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and a few turns of your pepper mill once the mushrooms are in the pan. Toss the mushrooms around to coat them in the oil and seasoning well so they do not stick to the pan as they cook. It will be difficult to add oil at this point because it will reduce the temperature of your pan too much and the mushrooms will become soggy.

Cook the mushroom slices at this high temperature without tossing too much after the initial time and take care not to burn them by adjusting the heat level. They will release from the pan as the water evaporates from the mushrooms and then most of them will become crispy. It is not necessary to clean the pan between batches provided you do not burn a batch. At the end you will have some bits and pieces in the bottom of the pan. If you want to have some fun, slow cook a batch of onions, beef or chicken in the pan when you complete the mushrooms. The flavor of the mushrooms will transfer to the food. The onions are delightful in soup with the undertone of mushrooms or as a topping for a burger. I’ve also cooked a stir fry in the pan after the mushrooms to add more flavor to the dish.

 

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Your Shiitake mushrooms will have a flavor similar to bacon with the Alder Wood Salt and Mesquite smoked peppercorns. I can see you shaking your heads thinking, “She’s lost her mind!”. But I haven’t. And, I’ve fooled quite a number of people by using these crispy mushrooms as a replacement for bacon in several vegetarian dishes. In fact, I’ve had people eat every slice of mushroom I can cook about as quickly as they come out of the pan. No kidding!

 

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Cooked up this way, the Shiitake mushrooms are amazing with asparagus in a Quiche during the early spring and combined with spinach or chard through late fall and winter. The smoky flavor and crisp texture of thinly sliced mushrooms easily replaces the bacon.  Add fresh green onions, parsley and thyme for more diversity in each bite.

 

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Consider using the sliced mushrooms on homemade pizza with smoked farmers cheese from Chapel Hill Creamery and your very own dehydrated cherry tomatoes. Top your pizza with winter greens like arugual or shredded Brussels sprouts and you will be amazed at the intense flavor they add.

 

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If you are looking for a way to improve winter soups, these mushrooms fit the bill. They are a leading ingredient for Beef & Broccoli Soup along with quinoa.

 

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Add them to Creamy Chicken & Roasted Vegetable Soup along with some wild rice or local brown rice..

 

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Pull together a complex meal with much less effort using the pre-cooked mushroom slices.  Consider an evening meal of Chicken, Mushrooms & Noodles served with grilled asparagus. Add a cream sauce to the entire dish or make a soup with homemade chicken stock.

 

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Creating a lovely winter side like Turnip & Mushroom Gratin is much simpler when the mushrooms are already prepared. This dish can be pulled together in less than thirty minutes.

Don’t be afraid to pick up a pound or two at a time. After cooking, your mushrooms will weigh roughly half the amount you started with because the cooking process gets rid of much of the liquid. Store them in small amounts because they thaw quickly and you’ll have some flexibility to pull just what you need for a recipe or two at a time. I prefer 4 or 8 oz containers depending on the recipe.