A Simple Garden Dinner

Sunday night, after socializing on the 4th, 5th and 6th of July, we had a simple supper at home. Just the two of us and some veggies from the garden.  We’ve had more than twenty inches of rain in two months so the plants are really happy. The summer squash grew so quickly, it was like watching time-lapse photography! The dinosaur kale hasn’t slowed down since the mercury has stayed at or below 80 on most days. There’s a bountiful crop so far. Here’s how the veggie dinner came together.

Lacinato or dinosaur kale and summer squash fresh from the garden.

Lacinato, or dinosaur kale, and summer squash fresh from the garden.

The KALE leaves were mostly tender so I rolled stacks of them long ways and sliced across the roll into half-inch ribbons. A few leaves had big stems so I chopped them in half-inch pieces too. The kale went into an inch of salted water and braised for 20 minutes with the lid on. Then I uncovered it, let the liquid cook away and finished it with a squeeze of lemon juice and a few red pepper flakes.

For the SQUASH, Barb Swell inspired me with her Log Cabin Cooking blog. Her parmesan-fried summer squash is a quick, easy and nearly perfect dish for one or two people. It tastes almost like a southern squash casserole without the extra fat and prep time. This squash was so good I wanted it all for myself. Paul is lucky he saw any of it!

Parmesan shards for the squash

Parmesan shards for the squash

Then there were the FINGERLING POTATOES, earthy and delicious, from friends John and Melissa’s Highgate Farm up the road in Marshall. John is a regular at the Weaverville and East Asheville tailgate markets and always has lots of great naturally grown produce.

Here’s a simple method for cooking fingerlings. I believe it’s French in origin.  For two servings, add a tablespoon of butter, a good splash of olive oil and a healthy pinch of salt to a small to medium dutch oven and set over medium heat. When the oil/butter is good and hot, add enough fingerlings for two people. Give them a stir to coat and cover.

Earthy fingerlings from Highgate Farm

Earthy fingerlings from Highgate Farm

Just a few more minutes of browning to go!

Just a few more minutes of browning to go!

Try not to peek for at least 10 minutes, 15 if you’re strong. Then stop by every 4-5 minutes and give the pan a few good shakes to turn the potatoes and prevent sticking. Use your kitchen timer if you tend to get distracted. Do a fork test around 20 minutes for doneness. Adjust the heat as needed for browning. Total time depends on the size and number of potatoes, but estimate 20-30 minutes for two servings. Magically, the little fellows will cook in their own juices (with a little help from the butter). If you’re patient, they will be creamy on the inside and crispy-brown on the outside. You can add a dash of lemon juice, a few chopped chives or a grind of pepper to them on the plate, but it’s not really necessary.

You can make these for a crowd. Add a bit more oil, butter and salt, but don’t go crazy. The potatoes release a fair amount of liquid as they cook. And use a larger dutch oven. Surface area is important here. A double layer is fine if you’re very good about shaking to rotate the potatoes. Otherwise, they will steam but the top layer won’t brown. Stir them if you have to and allow more cooking time. Be sure to use a thick bottomed pot, preferably cast iron, for this recipe. I use Creuset. You can use any potato cut into a large dice if you don’t have fingerlings. These taters are so good, you could make a meal of them!

Our dinner was heavenly. Sometimes after a hectic weekend, simple pleasures really are the best.

P.S. Paul is away tonight and I picked a squash today. Guess what I’m having for my solo supper!

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Prize Winning Tourtiere (Quebecois Meat Pie) Recipe

Here’s the Tourtiere recipe adapted from Saveur Magazine’s 150 Best Recipes in their 150th issue. It’s this pie that won best in show at the Retro Pie Contest. I realize that there are accent marks in Tourtiere and Quebecois, but unless I can figure out how to insert them, there won’t be any this time! No disrespect intended. This is home cooking at its best.

I can’t wait until a cold day next winter to whip up this pie that is full of spices and cider. The buttery crust is really flaky and has a rustic look.  It’s a good make ahead recipe, keeps well and is excellent left over. This could become a Christmas Eve tradition at our house!

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TOURTIERE  (QUEBECOIS MEAT PIE)

INGREDIENTS

Crust

2½ cups flour
1½ tsp. dry mustard powder
½ tsp. lemon zest
½ tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
16 tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
Juice of 1 lemon

1 egg, mixed with 2 tbsp. milk, for egg wash (optional)

Filling

1½ cups finely chopped russet potatoes
2 tbsp. canola oil
1½ lb. ground pork (or combination of pork and ground beef or turkey)
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 small yellow onions, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups apple cider or hard cider
3/4  tsp. celery seed
3/4  tsp. ground cloves
1/2  tsp. ground nutmeg
3/4  tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4  tsp. ground ginger
3 bay leaves
3/4 Freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp. kosher salt

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Whisk together flour, mustard, zest, and salt in bowl; add butter, and using a pastry cutter or 2 knives, cut mixture until pea-size crumbles form. Leave some bigger crumbles too for flakier crust. Add lemon juice and 7 tbsp. ice-cold water, and stir with a fork until dough just comes together. Don’t overwork. Transfer to a work surface, and form into a ball; divide into two halves and form each into a disk. Wrap disks tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

2. Meanwhile, bring a saucepan of water to a boil; add potatoes, and cook until tender, about 6 minutes. Drain, and mash until mostly smooth; set aside. Heat oil in a Dutch oven or heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add pork, and cook, stirring, until no longer pink, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, onions, and carrot, and cook, stirring, until soft and pork is well browned, about 20 minutes. Add cider, celery seed, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, bay leaves, and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until liquid evaporates. Remove from heat, and stir in mashed potatoes; let filling cool completely. IMG_2312

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3. Heat oven to 400°. Place one dough disk on a lightly floured work surface. Give the disk 20 good whacks with a floured rolling pin, turning 1/4 turn every two or three whacks. Add more flour to work surface and pin as needed. Roll out with the rolling pin, turning periodically to prevent sticking, until ¼” thick. Transfer to a 9″ pie dish, and let excess hang over edge. Pour filling into pie dish, and smooth top. If filling has been chilled, stir over low heat to bring to room temp. Don’t heat more than that. Whack and roll remaining dough disk until ¼” thick, and place over filling. Trim dough sheets to within 1″ of edge of pie dish, fold edge underneath itself, and crimp with your fingers or a fork, if you like. Brush with egg wash if desired, and using a paring knife, cut four 2″ slits in the top of the pie. Bake until pastry is golden brown and filling is heated through, about 50 minutes.

NOTE: Tightly covered filling and tightly wrapped crust can refrigerated for 48 hours. Bring filling to room temp by stirring over low heat for a minute or two. Let filling cool to room temperature if it gets too hot. Pie slices keep well in the fridge for several days. In summer, it’s good at room temperature. To reheat a pie, bake in a 250 oven until warmed through.

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A Prize-Winning Pie, Oh My!

I still can’t believe I won the 13th Annual Retro Pie Contest in Asheville! There were 78 pies entered and eight crust-only entries from serious bakers. From Slow Foodies to professional bakers, cookbook authors to enthusiastic junior bakers, there was tons of talent.  Lots of pie categories add to the fun: historic, locally sourced, heirloom recipe, children’s, men’s, first pie, fruit, meat, custard, chocolate, tarts, small pies, gluten-free, most creative, prettiest, best in show and a few more I can’t remember.  There are non-pie categories too like best retro outfit, best retro apron and so on. My favorite is at the end: thought-you-should-have-won-but-didn’t category. You can nominate yourself or someone else for this and it gets pretty funny. If you taste all 78 pies you get a prize too. And maybe a tummy ache!

IMG_2619The mood was festive with a cloudless Carolina blue sky, 80 degree temperatures, tents in a lovely garden setting and toddlers in retro aprons. There was a table full of prizes to admire and clothes lines hung with vintage aprons. In the freezer were a couple of pounds of Benton’s Bacon, the very special Smokey Mountain bacon from Tennessee that is always back-ordered, as top prizes. There were kegs of local beer, bottles of wine and the gallons of cold water. Tasting 78 pies is very thirsty business.

IMG_2625I entered the small pie category with my blueberry hand pies, and the meat category with a Tourtiere Quebecois, a highly spiced, mostly pork pie traditionally served on Christmas Eve in Quebec.  My crusts came out really flaky so I was feeling pretty good and entered the crust only category too.

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My crust only entry.

My crust only entry.

How It Worked

Bakers registered, got numbers (the judging is blind) and a serving spoon and set up their entries at the table for their category. Talented hubby Paul painted adorable signs to go with my entries. He has a hollow leg, loves pie and really gets into the spirit. He tastes soooo many pies!  More than 100 attendees signed up to judge one or more categories. You must taste all the pies in a category to vote. Everyone votes for Best in Show, costumes, prettiest pie and most creative pie. The crust only contest is the most serious. The judges are real pie experts.

Once the ballots were in we took our spoons and little plates and tasted as many pies as we could stand. A few brave folks did taste all of them! I could manage only about three dozen bites. I have to admit , the last few were pushing it. Many revelers were in pie comas by the end. While the ballots were being counted, a bunch of us entertained the pie revelers with bluegrass and old-time music. Not an easy feat after all that tasting.

My tasting plate after more than 30 bites. Yes, there is a pea and a blueberry. The variety was endless.

My tasting plate after more than 30 bites. Jackson Pollock watch out!

Amazing Entries

Here are just a few of the incredible entries. Don’t you want to run to the kitchen and make a pie right now?  And eat it too of course.

The competition was tough in the small pie category!

The competition was tough in the small pie category!

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Fruit entries.

Fruit entries.

Vegetarian Everything in The Garden Pie.

Vegetarian Everything in The Garden Pie.

Yum!

Yum!

And the Winners Are…

Finally the winners were announced. Everyone pulled up chairs or stretched out on the grass to digest all that pie and hear the results. Winner of the small pie category was me! I selected a very nice vintage apron as my prize. Near the end of all the categories was the crust only announcement. I tied with a very seasoned baker for my savory flavored crust and came away with a bag of special Carolina Ground pastry flour. Carolina Ground is locally grown and milled wheat flour that bakes up like a dream. Excited to have won two cool prizes, I felt humbled in the company of so many great bakers!

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Making the blueberry jelly that filled the hand pies.

Making the blueberry pepper jelly that filled the hand pies.

 

Cookbook author Ashley English won the tart category with her Peach plum tart with Mint Pesto. Delicious and beautiful.

Cookbook author Ashley English won the tart category with her Peach plum tart with Mint Pesto. Delicious and beautiful.

 

Prize winning berry margerita pie.

Prize winning berry margerita pie.

 

Annie Erbsen's gorgeous gluten-free lemon pie. She has got the gluten-free crust thing down! And she won the prize for best retro outfit too.

Annie Erbsen’s gorgeous gluten-free lemon pie. She has got the gluten-free crust thing down! Annie won the prize for best retro outfit too.

 

Historic winner, shrimp heads and all!

Historic winner, shrimp heads and all!

At last it was time for Best in Show. The prizes were a cookbook, A Year of Pies: A Seasonal Tour of Home Baked Pies by Ashley English (autographed because Ashley, her husband and her adorable toddler were there!), and a pound of that excellent Benton’s Bacon. My jaw nearly hit the floor when I won for the Quebecois meat pie! It’s really fun to win when you don’t expect to at all!

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One of my Best in Show Tourtiere practice pies.

The best in Show Ballot Box.

The best in Show Ballot Box.

Paul was as excited as I and we were still basking in the pie glow the next day. I ordered a new pie dish to celebrate. We had the last hand pies for breakfast and the last of the meat pie (it was my practice pie) for dinner with home-grown lettuce and Buttermilk Chive Dressing. Like a lot of stews and meat dishes, the flavor of the meat pie gets better overnight.

Paul and Mom having a big time!

Paul and Mom having a big time!

 

The wonderful hosts addressing the pie crowd.

The wonderful hosts addressing the pie crowd.

Thanks to Barbara Swell, contest founder, for getting me to bake that first pie a couple of years ago, and to my family who tasted all my practice pies this year when I got serious!  This year I will make pie often. I’m inspired to bake more and now have my eye on a home-made English Muffin recipe that was on one of my favorite blogs, Food52, last week.  If I can conquer pie crust, I can take on twice cooked yeast breads, right?

I’ll post the meat pie and hand pie recipes later this week.

In the meantime, here are pie crust tips from my recollections of watching my grandmother bake and from research that helped me become a pie maker.

Pie Crust Tips

  • Keep the pie dough cold. Chill the flour, butter and even the entire pie before baking. Handle the dough as little as possible since your hands are warm. Anytime it starts to feel soft, put it in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
  • Use a pastry cutter with blades, not wires. The blades cut through the coldest butter. In lieu of a cutter, use two knives.  If crumbling the dough with your fingers, put it back in the fridge to chill half way through.
  • Most crust recipes call for pea-sized crumbles. Be sure to leave some larger and make some smaller for nicer texture.
  • Pound your dough disk with the rolling-pin 20-30 times before starting to roll. This makes the rolling time shorter and doesn’t melt the butter in the crust. Plus, it’s fun! Click here for a demo. 
  • After trimming the crusts, turn the dough under itself for a nice, high edge.
  • A silicon rolling mat and non-stick rolling-pin are invaluable, but rolling with a pin on waxed-paper or a stone (stone keeps the crust cold) counter top works too.
  • Keep your rolling-pin and rolling surface well floured. This seems basic but it’s essential.
  • In case I haven’t said it enough, keep the dough and rolled crusts cold!
  • HAVE FUN. If it’s not working, cover the dough or rolled crust with plastic wrap, put it in the fridge and take a break. It will keep.

I hope you’re inspired to bake a pie, bring friends together to eat it and even host a pie cook-off of your own. You’ll love it!

Ramps!

Ramps are a plant that rural folk have collected in the east down to the Southern Appalachians and parts of the Midwest for many generations. I imagine after a long cold winter with few fresh vegetables, and last summer’s home-canned vegetables nearly gone, this pungent onion/garlic green would taste awfully good. As a bonus, ramps are loaded with vitamin C. The ramp season is short since they grow in the spring in deciduous forests before the leaves come out. After just a few weeks, in late April or thereabouts here in the North Carolina mountains, leaf growth blocks the sun and the ramps die back for another year.

Fresh ramp bunches

Fresh ramp bunches

So what are ramps? Members of the lily family, they are alliums along with chives, onions, garlic and leeks. They have a small white bulb, burgundy stems at ground level and wide, soft, green leaves above that are reminiscent of lily of the valley leaves. You will know you’ve got a ramp by the pungent aroma that surrounds it when you pull it up.

Ramps grow in clumps and return year after year where foragers leave a healthy supply in the ground. Now that these little jewels are trendy and served at top restaurants in NYC and elsewhere, there are some shortages in the Northeast where foragers are harvesting every last ramp to sell. Kind of like killing the goose who laid the golden eggs.

Clean ramps

Clean ramps

The ones I cooked today came from the back of a pickup on the road side. They were harvested the day before at about 5,000 feet of elevation. The fellows who dug them said they harvested as many as they could before the hard frost fell the night before. We chatted as he wrapped my bunches to keep the root dirt from falling off in the car. I asked who was buying ramps these days. He lamented that most newcomers to the mountains don’t know about ramps so some days are busy and some are slow. He seemed happy that I knew what they were. In the car, the ramp aroma was heady and wonderful.

At home, I shook off some of the dirt and carefully rinsed off the rest. By this time, the garlicky smell was filling the house. After patting the ramps dry, I snipped the roots off and cut off the bulbs. The bulbs went into the pan where my husband had just cooked a couple of thick local pork chops. I splashed in a little white wine and let it cook off. When the bulbs were tender, I added the ramp stem and leaves, salt and pepper and a few tablespoons of water and cooked until the leaves wilted and the water disappeared. The key is to stop cooking the leaves before they exude an okra-like slime. The whole cooking process took only 7-8 minutes; just long enough for the chops to rest.

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We’re big veggie eaters so in addition to the pork chops and ramps, we had a chopped salad with all kinds of things from the frig and garden tossed with sherry vinegar and olive oil. This dinner truly tasted like spring!

Arugula Pesto with Angel Hair Pasta

Late last fall I planted a raised bed with arugula seeds. Arugula is one of my favorite greens and the thought of having it on a dreary winter day made me deliriously happy. We affixed flexible hoops to the sides of the bed and covered them with a large piece of frost cloth held down by rocks. Not exactly high-tech, but it works. Arugula is a cool weather crop so does well in winter if you protect it from the harshest weather.  

IMG_1765Winter gardening is almost carefree at our scale; no bugs, no watering if it snows and rains, and best of all, no weeds. We had spicy arugula all winter. It’s oddly wonderful to harvest salad greens on a cold night when snow is starting to fall! 

After five months in the ground, the arugula is budding and flowering in preparation for setting seed. We harvested all of it and I’m making pesto to eat now and some to freeze. I hate to waste even a leaf of the stuff! 

The word pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare meaning to pound or crush. In the old days, they used a mortar and pestle (pestle comes from the same  Italian root word), but I use a food processor. Arugula is fibrous so really needs the sharp blades to break it down. A blender will work in a pinch for basil pesto, but will jam and bind with the arugula fibers. Trust me on this; I speak from experience.

IMG_1771Pesto is usually a combination of these: something green (arugula, basil, parsley,  mint, green beans, etc.), some nuts (pine nuts, almonds, walnuts), garlic, salt and pepper, olive oil and grated Parmesan or other hard cheese. Once you’ve made it a few times, you can improvise and make it your own.  

photo (15)With all those flowers and buds in the arugula patch, I had to do a taste test. Turns out they are tender and spicy with a hint of sweetness. I threw some into the processor with the pesto ingredients and added the rest to a salad where they looked and tasted great. 

The best part of pesto-making is tossing the pesto with hot pasta; the heat softens the cheese, marries the flavors and sets the emerald-green color of the arugula. I want some now!

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Quick Tomato Tortellini Soup

We all have those days when we’re out of energy, ideas or time when it comes to dinner. For years this soup has been my go to on those occasions.  In fact, this recipe came to my rescue just last night! It’s 15 minutes from pantry to table, and is a delicious, healthy, one-pot meal. 

No shopping is required if you keep some version of these things on hand; fresh spinach or other greens, canned tomatoes, dairy case tortellini and chicken broth.  The flavors come together quickly in the pot. Add a loaf of crusty bread and you’ll be sitting down to dinner before you know it.

This soup cries out for improvisation. I hardly ever make it the same way twice. The constants are the diced tomatoes, greens and broth. Small ravioli can replace the tortellini. A parmesan rind adds amazing flavor. Use beef stock or try fire-roasted diced tomatoes or tomatoes with basil or italian herbs. Add cooked sausage or cooked diced chicken along with leftover cooked rice or farro instead of the tortellini. You get the idea.

Tonight we added some organic chicken sausage from the freezer (threw them in whole since they were frozen), a piece of parmesan rind and a drizzle of olive for each serving. Paul said it tasted like Italy in a bowl. High praise for 10 minutes of prep!

I’d love to hear what your improvisations on this soup are.

 

tort soupphotoTomato Tortellini Soup (serves 4 hungry people)

Ingredients:

4 cups low sodium chicken broth or stock 

2 – 14.5 ounce cans of organic diced tomatoes with juice (added flavors in the tomatoes are fine)

cloves of garlic chopped or 1/4 tsp powder

Salt and Pepper to taste

5-10 ounces fresh spinach, baby kale or chard (salad mixes are perfect)

1 package Buitoni whole wheat cheese tortellini (about 2 1/2 cups) 

Olive oil to drizzle

Optional and excellent:  Parmesan rind, a couple of sliced organic cooked chicken sausages, a cup of chopped cooked chicken, olive oil and grated parmesan for garnish.

Method

  1. Bring chicken broth, tomatoes, garlic, salt and pepper, and parmesan rind if using, to a boil in a dutch oven or soup pot.
  2. Add greens and tortellini and simmer for about 10 minutes.  
  3. Test tortellini for doneness, correct seasoning to taste and ladle into bowls.
  4. Drizzle each serving with olive oil.

Notes

  • Almost any greens will work. I’ve used lettuces, frozen spinach and canned turnip greens but lean toward fresh spinach and/or baby kale.  If your kale is mature, cut into small ribbons and add a couple of minutes before the tortellini.
  • Good olive oil makes a real difference here. I keep a special bottle for finishing soups and sauces.
  • Parmesan rinds are like hidden treasure. Buy real Parmigiano Reggiano and freeze the rinds to use in soups and sauces.
  • Most grocery stores carry tortellini and ravioli in the dairy case. I keep a package or two in the freezer.  It’s fine to add it directly to the soup frozen.

Morning Ruckus!

A big ruckus in the yard this morning brought me running.  I thought I heard a dog barking and that rarely bodes well for free range hens!  Boy, was I wrong.  The barking was coming from Ruby, our golden comet hen.  She was loudly defending her breakfast against attack by an aggressive crow.  I arrived just in time to see the crow back away and take off.  Three cheers for Ruby!

Meet Ruby the heart-breaker.
Meet Ruby the heart-breaker. She’s a great layer and was born with that crooked tail. She prides herself on being an individual. The flattened stokes asters in the background are a favorite spot for Ruby to take an afternoon nap in summer. 

Here’s another Ruby story.  We’d had her for a few months when we realized that one of our “hens” was a rooster.  Before the rooster matured, Ruby was all mine.  She hung out with me when I was in the garden and did a little subservience dance when she wanted me to pick her up.  She’d flatten herself a bit, lower her head and stomp her feet. I’d pick her up and we’d visit until she was ready to join the flock again.  Both of us enjoyed this daily ritual.

Then Big Bird, the rooster, grew up and started looking like a real man.  Right after that, Ruby dumped me.  She started dancing for Big Bird and I was persona non grata.  Our cuddling days were over.  If I needed to pick her up to check her for mites or anything else, I had to pluck her off her roost in the coop under cover of darkness.  I was broken-hearted but glad to see her so happy with her fellow.

Since Big Bird passed away a few weeks ago, Ruby has come back to me.  Sometimes she dances for me twice a day!  It’s like old times.  I guess some girls just need an alpha figure in their lives.  I’m enjoying our chat sessions, but I know they are fleeting.  We’ll get a new rooster this spring and once again Ruby will tolerate me only because I happen to show up each morning with the organic feed and dried mealworms that she loves.  She’ll eat out of my hand if I bring a special afternoon snack, like a banana or peach, but there won’t be any cuddles.

I am already steeling myself for the blow.  Maybe one of the chicks we are hand-raising will value me the way Ruby used to.  A girl can dream, can’t she?