Friday, February 29, 2008

four things keeping me sane today...

 I've already been mocked for the random nature of this suppsed cooking and gardening blog.  I have great plans to change my banner tagline to a more inclusive statement that will let me write willy-nilly on whatever moves me.  As it is now, I will still write willy-nilly, but I will apologize for my wandering blog (but that apology is only good till the banner gets changed).

Tough week at work.  Tough tough tough.  The countdown to the Grand Canyon reminds me that it's all worth it, but I am going to need a vacation before I take a vacation at the rate I'm going.  Nevertheless, there have been some things I've particularly enjoyed this week as my stress-o-meter registered some pretty high readings...

First, my haflingers.  Even since I've known Erik, he's talked about getting a pair of boiled wool slippers.  I heard about it last Christmas, and had I been a good girlfriend, I would have gotten them for him this Christmas.  Alas, I am a great girlfriend (if i say so myself) and got him something even better.  Much to his luck, he also has a great sister who got him gift card to go get the slippers.  We went to Hide and Sole here in Missoula, and unfortunately, they didn't have anything he liked in his size.  He saw these, though, and loved them.  Not only were they marked all the way down to $20 (from $89) because all of their friends had been sold months prior, but they were also in my size.  Guess who got herself a pair of slippers?  I did feel a little guilty... we're still on the search for a pair for him.  This week, they've been keeping my toes warm.  Did I mention it was a tough week?  A good 
pair of slippers always helps.

My desk is littered with these cans.  I have tried SO hard to stop drinking soda - I think it's the most difficult thing I've ever tried to do (much, much harder than grad school).  I'm a little suspicious of natural sodas and how they claim, or at least imply, they're better for you.  Nevertheless, anytime I can avoid high fructose corn syrup, I go for it.  It's really creepy how much of that corn syrup ends up in our foods - sometimes I wish I didn't know how much bad stuff there was out in the world.  Like corn syrup.  And clowns.  And 55 hour work weeks.

Has anyone listened to Raising Sand?  Everything I read says Alison Krauss and Robert Plant are an unlikely duo, but when you listen to this album, it's hard to believe they haven't spent their whole careers singing together.  I heard "Please Read the Letter" on NPR and had to chase the rest of the album down - that song stuck with me and wouldn't let go.

Lastly, unlike with beer, I've never been much of a wine snob.  I refuse Budweiser and Missoula's favorite, Pabst Blue Ribbon, in favor of the microbrews, but I've always been more partial to the $5 bottle of wine than the $15. It started when I took a wine tasting class in college.  We sampled $5 a bottle wines, and we sampled $100 bottles.  I rarely found that my taste buds could tell the difference - I simply liked what I liked.  Fast forward nine years and one, year-long website project that I finished three weeks ago.  I felt I needed to celebrate and spent $14 one of Penfold's Shiraz.  I absolutely loved it.  Turns out, there are places to get Penfold's cheaper than $14.  If you see it in your grocery store, you should give it a try.  I've tried a bunch now, and they're all really good.  I've been thinking about it all day...  

With that, I say happy happy Friday.  I'm off to pour a glass of wine and start making cupcakes. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

a little remodeling...

Taking out shelves is hardly remodeling - nevertheless, those shelves in my bedroom have been bare since mid-January because I dreaded how much work I thought it would be to get them out. Turns out, not too bad (oh wait, I didn't do anything but help carry them out.  Yeah, not bad at all).   The exciting part of this is that some of the shelves are going into the mud room so I can have "greenhouse" space. The mud room/ greenhouse isn't anywhere near ready for the "after" photo, so these will have to do for now. They're not great, but my handyman was less than patient when I tried to capture the moment for posterity, and I just can't think that fast with the camera yet.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

more barefoot contessa - zuchinni cakes

This is actually what was for dinner Sunday night... I feel a little guilty for not staying on top of things, but that's life. After hanging out with a baby in the greenhouse and playing cribbage over coffee, dinner was late on Sunday and there hasn't been time until today to get this up!

I'm attempting to do the Dark Days Challenge, but I'm reluctant to sign up officially. I don't have all that much in the freezer, but I managed to get something relatively close this week. Which was....

Zucchini Pancakes!!! As soon as I saw these in barefoot contessa at home, I knew I had to start using my frozen zuchinni in them. I have to admit, they weren't as crispy and fried as I had hoped they would be (isn't everything better crispy and fried or am I just showing my southern colors?). Nevertheless, it is, as Ina says, a great tasting way to use veggies. I think she actually says it's a great way to get vegetables into your kids - I suppose that can be applied to adults as well.

Anyway, the batter is made of a couple of zucchini (I had a bag of 3 cups in the freezer so that's what I used), some grated red onion, 2 extra large eggs, 6-8 table spoons of flour, 1 tsp of baking powder, 1 tsp kosher salt, an 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper.

Our tomatoes did come from Mexico, but the potatoes in my half-mashed haphazard potatoes came from somewhere in good old Montana which I think made the 200 mile radious requirement. As did the little bit of flour in the batter which came from Wheat Montana. The eggs were from Leigh, and the zukes were from the backyard.

I don't think we made the 90% mark, but there's always something to aspire to... Especially as we plan the garden for this year.

Monday, February 25, 2008

a baby in the greenhouse

Greenhouses and babies. Two of my favorite things...

Yesterday, I was feeling pretty low. Anyone ever heard Kris Kristofferson's version of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down?" My dad sent it to me in college as a joke pick-me-up. He said, "Sundays are hard. I thought this might help get you through it." I'm not sure what about that melancholy tune made my dad think it would be helpful, but I guess I still smile at how ridiculous it was to snuggle up with that song on a dreary Sunday when I didn't want to think about class the next morning...

Yesterday was definitely one of those days. It was rainy and muddy and sleety and gross, and I really didn't want to have to start another week of work. I was moping around the house when I got the call. "There's a baby in the greenhouse." Whatever it was I was doing was immediately dropped, and off I went.

Boy, that baby sure can lift my mood!

At least someone was working...

And, the master greenskeeper in white, Myosotis.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

book-less book club

Well, I must say that the book-less book club was considered an overwhelming success for all involved. Crostini apps: delicious. Dinner: fabulous. Dessert: decadent. Movie: entertaining. Barefoot Contessa: a kitchen goddess.

You've seen the crostini apps before, and I won't bore you with those again. Moving on. I’ll mention the ingredients of Ina’s summer garden pasta (how weird to make in winter, but we try not to follow common logic ‘round these parts – it’s boring). I won’t mention everything as I have a deep sense of guilt when it comes to copyright, but I am also sure that if you try this, you will be compelled to run out to your local bookstore and purchase all her books… so there.

Four pints of cherry tomatoes. Lotsa basil and garlic and red pepper flakes and salt and olive oil and parmesan and black pepper and doesn’t this sound fantastic already? Add the angel hair pasta, and you’re good to go. (do let the other ingredients soak for a bit though… the flavor will be incredible.)

I don’t have the recipe for the fantastic dessert because that was all Kassidy. But, the raspberry chocolate torte was so tasty – the picture just doesn’t do it justice.

Here’s to book-less book clubs!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

the art of throwing a good party...

is having someone else throw the party for you.

Okay, that’s not entirely true, but I’m exhausted from having to work long hours again this week while fighting off a cold. Luckily the cold lost the fight, but I’m pretty spent.

Tonight is the first installment of the Jane Austen movie club. There was no book assigned, and I've got Pride and Prejudice in from Netflix. Since I’ve got more wiggle room here than at Kassidy's apartment, my house will be a repeat venue but with Kassidy as host.

And, since Kassidy won’t be here for a little while, I thought I’d put up a pic from last summer. I’m in my usual post-work attire: t-shirt, fire pants, and some birks (because the first thing I did at the end of the day was take those boots off my feet).

I like this picture because it reminds me of all the time I spent in someone else’s garden last year. I’d often get up at 5am, go help Erik weed his research plots, go to work for 8-10-or-12 hours, and then come home to weed or water or train morning glory vines or trim basil in either my yard or Erik’s. I guess I’m making it sound like a lot of work (and the truth is, getting out of bed at 5am really was), but crawling around in the dirt was just as fun as it was as a kid. And the rewards were fantastic! (I was a control-freak when it came to those morning glories…)

The morning glories are headed up the rails of the deck. There are two potato plants on the side of the bed closest to the bottom of the picture. Sunflowers line the back of the bed, and at the front are fifteen or twenty basil plants. Just today I was at the store, lamenting that I made all that basil into pesto. The stuff at the store just doesn't look all that great (especially for the price), and it'd be so nice to have some through the winter... I'm definitely freezing some whole this year.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

oh the horror!

My greenhouse access has been cut off!!!

Last year, I used some greenhouses on campus to start, among other flowers and veggies, two-hundred and fifty sunflowers. I brought some dirt but made ample use of the greenhouses containers and sunlight. Long tables and easy watering systems and temperature maintenance with the push of a button - I had no idea just how lucky I was. Two hundred and fifty sunflowers?!?! I was livin' the life...

Even though I have no intention of being as ambitious with the sunflowers this year, there is a lot that I want to start from seed. Not only do I have tons of veggies that I want to do well this year, there are some perennials that want to get started because it will be two or more seasons before they start to flower. I almost wish I hadn't bought my seeds already so I could shift gears and go with starts from the farmers' market, but here they are... already bought... sitting by the computer like soon-to-be orphans because other official experiments have crowded the greenhouses and there's no room for us in the inn. So, you can see I'm in quite the pickle.

Luckily, I've been taking care of a sick person all weekend and locked in the house, on the couch, with my computer. I searched high and low and found some pretty interesting blogs with answers to my dilemma. I think the best ones I saw utilized egg cartons and toilet paper rolls... I've got my stash started. Here a picture of what I found with a link to where you can see the whole blog:

And, here's a picture of my "mud" room at the backdoor. I switched from a cold humidifier to a warm humidifier in the bedroom... so between that and an extra space heater, I'm going to try to make my own greenhouse. The upside to all of this is that I can see my "babies" more often. The trick will be restraining myself from over-watering... I'm like a little kid with a fish in a fish bowl who sprinkles in too much food.

This is the "before" pic. The "after" will follow in a few weeks...

Saturday, February 16, 2008


The quest for a rototiller off of Craigslist was a bit of a wild goose chase today. Nevertheless, all that time in the car was good for something – I finally attacked my compost fears and have made some decisions. Thanks to Ken Thompson’s book, Erik’s explanations, and the internet's endless supply of information.

First, I took my fear and broke down the mystery that was causing me to abandon my composting efforts before I’d even gotten underway. My patience and willingness to entertain scientific discussions has grown since I started dating a scientist, but I still struggle with dense material (hence, the flip book, which despite being populated with a myriad of pictures, actually had TONS of information). I realized that rather than wade through a series of discussions on the science of composting, I had four questions I needed answering:  1)structure 2)ingredients 3) maintenance 4)distribution.

Though I know some people are successful with somewhat open composting stalls or bins, my house is on a corner and my alley is highly trafficked by myself and my two neighbors. Using an open composting pile has worked for some of my friends in Missoula, so it can definitely be done. But, I just don’t think it will work on this lot. Mr. Thompson had lots of compelling reasons why spending the $$ on a container is worth it. So, I have decided to go with a container.

The internet has a ton of options. I’ll post links with these pictures in case any of them strike your fancy. I think I’m going to go with the Sun-Mar. It seems to have the right combination of size and convenience, but it’s a little pricey for what I intended to buy. I’m not ordering tonight, so there’s time to ponder it a bit more...

Ingredients. Wowzers! There is a lot to learn about what makes good compost. This is really where the science comes in, but I’m going to make it pretty easy on myself:

What goes in? Coffee grounds; old cotton, silk, or wool clothing (torn up); eggshells; floor sweeipings; hair and nail clippings; paper and cardboard; tea bags; vacuum-cleaner dust; and vegetable waste.

What stays out? Cat or dog litter, dairy products, disposable diapers, fish and meat waste, oil or fats.

So, the above list is mostly specific to things that have ended up in my garbage before. There are other things on Ken Thompson’s list, but you can go check out the book from a library to find out what they are!

Also, I think I might end up putting meat scraps in there. I have them so infrequently that I don’t think it will be a problem. The only reason they’d be a problem is if we had rats/mice in the neighborhood – I’m surrounded by feline owners and not at all worried.

There are some specifics on cardboard that I could mention, but I’m beginning to bore myself… I’ll just say that I have plenty of shredded documents which will be helpful to keep the compost aerated and give the resulting soil some structure. Apparently waxed paper is fine, but that weirds me out a little bit.

Since I have no inkling of the names of diseases, molds, fungi, or insect damages, I’m not going to memorize Ken’s list of what’s acceptable in the composter and what’s unacceptable. If it doesn’t look happy and healthy or just plain dead, it’s not going in the composter.

Interesting thing: compost activators add or make up for a deficiency – usually in nitrogen. Cheapest and best of all activators? Human urine. Hmph. How ‘bout that?

There’s a certain balance to be achieved in nitrogen-content and texture, but I’ll muse on that later when I’m actually attempting the compost thing.

The next two questions I can answer in one sentence: turn once a day and spread like mulch when it looks good. Finally! The easy stuff!

(I just had to add that I finally found out what is in Eko Compost. Human waste from the waste treatment facility. After the microbes have had their turn with all of our waste products, eko compost gets ahold of it and, according to Erik, runs it through some wine pressers bought years ago somewhere in California. The pressers do to the poop exactly what they do to grapes. Instead of grape juice, eko compost gets oober-nutritious fluff that is folded into the tougher, more carbon-based material from green waste. Hmmm... that's food for thought, huh?)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

pumpkin bread

So, I continue to work nights, but tonight is Erik’s weekly hockey game. My mom’s pumpkin bread recipe has been on my to-do list to try out, so after my last meeting tonight, I thought I would get in some girl-time and have Kassidy come help me make pumpkin bread.

You might not be able to see it, I don’t really have enough loaf pans and had to rely on some muffin tins to take up the rest of the recipe I doubled. I doubled it in part because I have several pumpkin packages that have four cups instead of two – doubling creates extra goodies to be eaten and uses up four cups of pumpkin… And I do have a lot of pumpkin in the freezer.

I should have added a little more oil in the muffin tins, and since I didn’t, the muffin tops popped off like mushrooms leaving me to scrap the bottoms of the muffin tins to extract the rest of the separated muffin.

Mom’s Pumpkin Bread Recipe:




Wednesday, February 13, 2008

four things I'm liking today

Okay, I said I'd share more about eko compost. I can't really vouch for what's in it, although the website provides some amazing information about what constitutes good compost and how much is their product.

Last spring, Erik and I took a trailer full of green waste to the eko compost facility here, and purchased a cubic yard of eko compost for $24 that went right back into the empty trailer. (I'm going to have to double check that figure...) It took a little less than a cubic yard to fill my raised garden beds, and - Holy big produce, Batman! - my pumpkins and zukes were huge! Now, in case you haven't figured out that my haphazard way of doing things when I cook actually applies to gardening as well, I will mention that I know very little about gardening. Which means eko compost rules. I have no idea how expensive it is by the bag or where you'd go to get some, but a similar product is worth it. I'll let you know if it's just as good this year, but I'm kind of counting on getting a couple of years out of that dirt. Now I just need to get my own compost system working so I can keep that dirt rich...

Bennington Potters is a company out of Vermont that sells machine-pressed, hand-finished pottery. Meg and Ambrose deserve credit for finding these folks for me; they registered there when they got married. I have always loved the idea of having handmade pottery (this is close), and I waited and waited because I kept thinking that if I got married, I'd admittedly copy Meg and Ambrose and want to register for pottery dishes and bowls and such. Well, fellas, the pressure's off - I've gone and done it and I'm getting my dishes. I got a set of four dinner plates from my mom for Christmas, and I think they're the cat's pajamas. The nice thing about this company is that even though they do utilize a pressing machine to make their products, real people finish them. (as opposed to fake people, I know). Their stable business model means that their basic colors will be available for a long time (and I may need a long time before I'll actually be able to get that wedding registry!). So, I'm starting out with some dinner plates, and every once in a while, I'll add a little bit more to my collection. I can't get them all at once, but it sure beats waiting around and pining for a proposal just so I can have my dishes. Boy, I'm realizing I'm bordering on the ridiculous today... or am I past bordering and just downright ridiculous?

Moving on... I did finally get into Scott Kelby's 7-Point System for working with your photos. Erin posted an action on her website, and after trying hers out, I'm totally hooked. Sometimes the book feels painstakingly slow, but I feel like I'm beginning to understand how much more photoshop has to offer... it's a whole new world!

Lastly, I was craving cookies, and there are none in the house. I found an Attune bar in the fridge, and it totally satisfied my craving. My packaging looks different than theirs, but I honestly have no idea how long it's been in the fridge; I suppose they may have made a change. Anyway, their tagline says, "Keeps Your Body Humming." I think I'll leave it at that...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

busy life charges on... but there's peace at Bernice's

Busy is the only way to describe my life lately, and I don't expect things to change for a few weeks. Nevertheless, I really want to keep up an "every-other-day" blogging habit. So.... *deep breath*... here I go for today.

Erik and I went to Bernice's this morning. Bernice's is a weekend ritual for us (sometimes both days), but I've been working late nights and missing dinners so breakfast has become a favorite time to spend with him - I plan to sprinkle in as many Bernice mornings as I can.

Why Bernice's? I really don't know. There's no WiFi, which I hate. There's no microwave so you have to wait a long time while food gets heated in the oven. There's no espresso. It's often crowded, and you often have to share tables. So why Bernice's? Run through that last list again, and there's why. There's no internet so people really talk - or read the paper or book or some other such antiquated passtime... There's not really an upside to no microwave though excluding the inconvience, that's pretty quaint. You can end up sharing tables with really interesting people.

And, if all that weren't enough, the bakery is in an old brick building on a quiet, but not out-of-the-way street. Sometimes Erik and I can walk from my house. If it didn't feel homey and quaint already, we've been there so much that it certainly feels that way now.

My favorites are the cinnamon roll, but there is SO much sugar that I often go for the muffins - vegan blackberry peach, lemon blueberry buttermilk, or blackberry bran... Today I had a cinnamon nut croissant which was delicious!

Today I also had to read a book about composting. Yes, I said "had." I brought my new Scott Kelby Photoshop book, but Erik, in response to my deep desire to compost, brought a different book to look at and discuss. See, even though it's "catch-up and chat" time, it's also "catch-up and plan" time. And it's time to start planning the compost pile/barrel/container/pen.

I'm normally in favor of the do-it-yourself option over all others, but I have to admit, I have no desire to learn about composting. I just want something that works. I just want to collect my kitchen scraps and feel good about them going back into the garden. I want to use as few fertilizers as I can, but still produce substantial... um... produce. So, Erik got this book titled, "Compost." Clever, huh?

What was also clever was the way Erik presented it to me. "It's like a flip book. It's the only one from the library that had pictures." Wow, you can tell a guy thinks highly of you when he selects books based on whether or not they include pictures.

So, I flipped, I scanned, and I still have no idea what I'm going to do.

I have about ten minutes left, so right now, I'll post some pictures of the raised beds from last year. They're full of eko-compost (that stuff is like gold. I'll share more about it later.) One bed has zucchini and pumpkins and the other has basil, lettuce, and peppers. The pics are pretty big, but I'll resize them later.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

stolen rhubarb

I made berry rhubarb pie last night for movie night with the ladies. Anyone seen A Mighty Heart? I thought it was fantastic movie - very well done.

The pie, however, was not. I don't know what it is about pie crusts, but I can NEVER get them quite right. Perhaps it's because I don't use lard, or perhaps there's some human error. I've used shortening. I've used butter. I've used a fork. I've used a pastry cutter. I've used the food processor. Nothing works. It's either crumbly or tough or just tastes terrible.

I forgot to take pictures before we started eating... oops!

Luckily, last night's crust was just crumbly - it didn't taste bad. Since I'm terrible with crusts, I'm not going to share any recipe that I've tried until I find one that is foolproof. The one from Better Homes and Gardens New Baking Book is not foolproof, and I need some more practice at it.

I do have a recipe for filling that has never failed me. It's pretty darn easy, and it calls for honey instead of sugar - I'm a big fan of that.

It's out of Mollie Katzen's New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant. It works for any fruit, and even though it says it's cobbler filling, it is delicious as a pie. Five cups soft fruit, honey, lemon juice, and cinnamon. Mollie calls for cornstarch dissolved in water or fruit juice, but I've tried that several times and don't like the taste of cornstarch in my pies. Leigh told me about using flour, and it soaks up the excess juice without adding a strange flavor to the pie. I throw about a third to a half a cup in. If you haven't noticed already, I don't like exact measurements - if the recipe works with loose measuring, I call it a good recipe. I suppose that might be a little unfair...

And, I thought I'd throw in a photo from last summer. Erik and I didn't actually steal the rhubarb I'm holding. His neighbor has a large backyard with no garden but giant rhubarb in the corner. Several of the plants had already gone to seed when we finally got around to asking him if we could harvest it, but there were plenty of stalks that were still great for baking. We cut them up, tossed them into a ziploc bag, and froze them. So, the berries were store bought, but at least the rhubarb came out of our... err.... our neighbor's garden.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

cosmetics and environmental concerns

My friend Erin wrote today that she had been avoiding talking about going green "to avoid coming off as all braggy-braggy in a self-righteous, crunchy hippy-chick sort of way." I absolutely loved her post. Not because it was talking about eco-friendly changes you can make in your life (which I do like) but because it was real. By going back to school for Environmental Studies, it's no surprise that I became surrounded by eco-minded folk. Eco-minded folk that I love, mind you. But sometimes I think we're a little unrealistic about our expectations of the world. What is going to keep this planet habitable for us humans isn't going to be some flashy, complex, technological fix, it's going to be finding small ways to fit sustainable living into everyone's lifestyle. It's going to be narrowing the spectrum of green-mindedness - "granola" is at one end and at the other is an insincere, corporate marketing ploy. There's so much room in the middle! At least that's my opinion. I'm so glad that Erin wrote her post!

And, in honor of her post, I'm shifting from gardening and cooking to talk about something kind of environmental - in a pretty silly sort of way. While I was chatting with the ladies, I mentioned that I was SO excited about this lip gloss I ordered online. Yes, the girl who worked as a fire fighter and regularly went days without showering (sometime weeks), wears cosmetics. The girl who once made a living teaching kayaking, guiding rafts, and leading backpacking trips likes cosmetics. The girl who insisted her new boss let her take three weeks to raft the Grand Canyon this spring checks the mailbox every day looking for cosmetics.

Well, I'm not going to embarrass myself further by mentioning the brand of this ridiculous tube of lip gloss, but I will say that it came up in conversation because I felt guilty for not checking to see how the product rated in toxicity. There is a wonderful organization in Missoula called Women's Voices for the Earth (or WVE, everybody says "weave"). I, myself, have often thought they were a bit "braggy-braggy in a self-righteous, crunchy hippy-chick sort of way," but they are doing some pretty cool things for the environment with a focus on how the environment specifically impacts women's lives. One of their big things is the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

I haven't followed the campaign very closely - or really at all, but I did hear about a specific website through them. The Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety database has all kinds of information on a wide range of products. I think it's important that organizations that run campaigns to change consumer behavior reward corporations that comply with campaign requests. Like.... a shampoo company doesn't want to change it's ingredients, but a campaign creates enough political capital to make the company change. That company should be rewarded - whether they change, kickin' and screamin,' or whether they volunteer to. Bottom line: they changed. We need more companies to change. All of this is to illustrate that I don't know how often the database is updated - if anyone else knows, please please comment and fill us all in.

Anyway, the database is there, and I hope you guys find it interesting. My lip gloss rated at 6. I could probably do better, but I like what I've ordered. And, sometimes I feel the need to break out of my "crunchy" shell - cause you just can't take yourself too seriously...

The Jane Austen Book Club Night

Last night I hosted our Jane Austen Book Club. Three founding members invited three friends (one apiece) to get together and talk about Jane Austen’s six novels. Pretty simple – six novels, six people, six nights. Thanks for my invitation, Kassidy.

I should admit that after three tries at Ms. Austen’s novels, the Jane Austen Book Club is fast becoming the Jane Austen Movie club. We are shamed and embarrassed but equally busy and not able to get through a lengthy novel each month… So, after last night, we have decided to switch to movies. (Since there had been quite the trend for abandoning the books already, I did have door prizes for whoever read the most and least… The most was two chapters and the least was, of course, none at all.)

Instead of making more excuses and defending our status as conscientious readers – for everything but Jane Austen – I thought I would share the menu for the night.

Last summer, I made oodles and oodles of pesto which I froze, and I already had several kinds of cheese in the fridge, so I decided we’d start with little bruschetta/ crostini thingies. If it sounds SO easy, you're right. It is. I got a baguette and sliced it into thin, round pieces of toast. I drizzled olive oil on the bottom of each of the breads. I spread either marinara or pesto or goat cheese or some combination of the three on all of them. Then, I topped them either sliced roasted red peppers, sundried tomatoes, parmesan or kalamata olives. I put them in the oven right at 350 degrees when people started walking through the door and we ate them straight from the oven after about ten minutes.

Dinner was my latest favorite meal: SHEPHERD’S PIE!!! I think I mentioned this dish earlier because it is the inspiration for my plan to grow eggplants this summer. I adore this recipe. Since Mollie Katzen has it posted on her website, I won’t feel bad sharing it with you all here:

Adapted from The Enchanged Broccoli Forest
Preparation time: 45 minutes, plus 30 minutes to bake.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

A deep-dish casserole with vegetable hash on the bottom and garlicky mashed potatoes on top.

Mashed Potato Topping
(Make this first):
2 large potatoes
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup milk
3 large cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

Peel or scrub the potatoes, and cut them into 1-inch chunks. Cook in plenty of boiling water until soft. Drain and transfer to a medium-large bowl.
Add the butter, garlic, and milk and mash well. Add salt and pepper to taste, and stir in the parsley. Set aside.

Vegetable Hash:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cups minced onion
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 stalk celery, minced
1 pound mushrooms, chopped
1-pound eggplant, diced
1 medium bell pepper, minced
2 teaspoons dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup peas (fresh or frozen)
1 cup (packed) grated sharp cheddar
1/4 cup fine bread crumbs
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
Cayenne to taste
Paprika for the top

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly spray a 2-quart casserole or its equivalent with nonstick spray. (You can also use a 9 x 13-inch baking pan).
Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until it begins to soften.
Add garlic, salt, pepper, celery, mushrooms, eggplant, and bell pepper. Stir until well combined, cover, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the herbs, stir, and cover again. Cook for about 5 more minutes, or until the eggplant is perfectly tender. Remove from heat.
Stir in the peas, 1/2 cup of the cheddar, the bread crumbs, and the vinegar. Add cayenne to taste. Spread this mixture into the prepared casserole or baking pan.
Spoon and/or spread the mashed potatoes over the vegetables. Sprinkle the remaining cheddar on top, and dust with paprika.
Bake uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes, or until lightly browned on top and bubbly around the edges. Make the sauce while the casserole bakes. To serve, spoon a little sauce onto each plate. Add a chunk of "pie" potato side-up, and spoon extra sauce over the top. Serve hot.

I thought I would mention that even though I don’t exactly double the recipe, I usually add extra of whatever I like to ensure I can make two pans of it. It tastes great right out of the oven or reheated for several days afterward (I live alone – my favorite dishes always end up lasting me a few days). So, to ensure it fills two pans, I use an eggplant that is 1 ½ pounds, extra mushrooms, tons and tons of bread crumbs, twice as much cheese, and extra onions. Also, I mix chives in the mashed potatoes, and I usually toss in extra potatoes as well.

Since I was entertaining and I understand not everyone is a vegetarian, I conceded to a request for BACON. It’s been about eight years since I’ve eaten bacon, and the smell actually (don’t tell anyone) still makes my mouth water. Despite my bacon-yearning, I did not try the bacon pie. But, I will mention that the feedback on the bacon was that you couldn’t really taste it; the base layer is so flavorful that the bacon simply adds a little extra salty taste.

So, if you want to keep your meat eaters happy, I recommend serving a steak on the side. Skip the bacon.

Lastly, dessert was homemade vanilla ice cream with mint oreo crumbles. Erik gave me the ice cream maker attachment that goes with my mixer for Christmas, and I am so pleased with how this second batch of ice cream turned out. I’ve heard that some people haven’t had good results, but if you put the attachment in the freezer for the fifteen hours that the book recommends, the ice cream has a nice soft-serve consistency and isn’t soupy at all. Plus, you have to let it set up in the freezer after it’s mixed. If you want to serve ice cream, or just have some yourself, be sure to plan ahead!

And of course, the piece de resistance of every meal was good wine and good conversation. Thanks, gals!

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Forgotten Zuke

I thought I would explain the banner at the top of the blog right now. It may change (if I quit my job or if the day magically grows from 24 to 28 hours), but for now, it's a photo of some zucchinis that came out of the yard last year.

It's not a very long story. The zukes and pumpkins were my favorite garden plants last summer; almost every day I'd poke around, find the new fruits, and make a new count. I kept pretty close track of what was out there... Until I had to go to Crown King.

I was still working as a wildland firefighter last summer, and I had to replace someone on an engine down in Crown King, AZ. Before I left, I thought I had harvested all the zukes that needed to come out of the garden, but apparently I missed one. When I got home, I found a zucchini the size of a small person's arm!

So, lesson learned: look hard because even though large zukes don't taste bad, normal-sized ones have more flavor. I wonder how big that zuke would have gotten had I just let it grow...