Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Summer Menu #1 (Pasta)

Everyone loves summer because you can go outside!
I volunteer occasionally with Cooking Matters in Minnesota. Cooking Matters is a nutrition education program where participants learn by cooking. Participants learn to prepare basic recipes from a chef, receive a nutrition education lesson, and then share a meal together.

Right now I am working with a group of volunteers to put together a collection of seasonal menus that we can put online. I am working on summer. Hopefully we can develop it into a "cook along" next summer.

I am responsible for developing three complete, nutritious, seasonal menus. Here is the first of the three. It is a basically pasta in a white sauce and I have added suggestions for substitutions so that the menu can be made seasonally in both the early and late summer (and hopefully in between!)

Early summer pasta menu - this menu is delicious any time, but several of the ingredients will be at their peak in June.

Spinach pasta bake
Green salad
Strawberry shortcake

Seasonal ingredients: spinach, lettuce, strawberries, you can likely find these items at the farmers market in June

Spinach Pasta Bake
approximately 4 servings

1 tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic, minced or chopped into very small pieces
1 tbsp all purpose flour
1 cup low fat milk
1 tbsp dried basil (or more to taste)
1 cup cottage cheese
¼ cup parmesan cheese
2 to 3 cups dried pasta, any shape you like - I usually use about three handfuls
1 bunch of fresh spinach - this is about one pound, and de-thawed frozen is also delicious

Directions -
Prepare pasta according to package directions

heat the butter over low heat until it melts. Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds. Add the flour and stir for another 30 seconds. Slowly pour in the milk and continue stirring until the sauce begins to thicken - This usually takes between three and five minutes or about as long as the sauce takes to start to boil. I don’t usually stir the entire time, but enough to keep the milk from burning or getting stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add cottage cheese and basil and simmer another minute or two, until the cheese seems to be melted and incorporated into the sauce. Add the pasta and the spinach and pour into a casserole dish.  Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

While the pasta is baking is a great time to prep the dessert and a salad.

There is no specific recipe that I would suggest for the salad. I usually use whatever type of lettuce I have on hand, some chopped carrots, and toss with a tablespoon or so of olive oil and one of balsamic vinegar.

Strawberry shortcake:
I have a recipe for biscuits that I really like to use for strawberry shortcake but all of my cookbooks are in storage! 
It has lavender and walnuts in it. I will post the recipe in September, but that is likely too late for strawberry short cake. But you could use any biscuit recipe you like. Top with washed and thinly sliced fresh fruit and I like to top mine with plain yoghurt.

Adapting for late summer - Come late July and August fruits and vegetables that prefer slightly cooler weather may become less available, more expensive, and possibly lower quality since they have to be shipped longer distances. The above menu can be easily adapted.

Substitute fresh basil for spinach - fresh basil is often very expensive in grocery stores, but in August it grows like a weed and you can get huge bunches fairly inexpensively at the farmers market or your own garden if you have one. Since basil has a stronger flavor than spinach you may want to use only half of a standard "bunch" in the pasta dish.

Don’t bake the pasta - July and August can be very hot, and turning on the over may be the last thing you want to do. You can make the sauce for the pasta over the stove and it is delicious even without being baked in the oven.

Instead of salad wash and cut up bell peppers into spears. Bell peppers are often very expensive, but again, in August they are prolific. The bright colors are both attractive and fun, and they are delicious raw.

Instead of making strawberry shortcake enjoy fresh melon - Strawberries prefer cooler nights so they don’t do as well in late July and August, additionally making the shortcake requires turning on the oven. But fresh melons such as watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew are at their peak!

Sauce variations:The sauce included in this recipe is VERY versatile. Here are some additional ways that I have used it, but there isn’t really any limit.

Change the spices - in the winter I often use a tablespoon of sage and one of rosemary instead of the basil.

Change the cheese - sometimes I put in a ½ cup of cheddar cheese and a tbsp of mustard with the cottage cheese and leave out the parmesan and basil

Change the vegetables - I mentioned spinach and fresh basil, but broccoli is also good, or later in the fall you can add pre cooked winter squash (such as butternut)  

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Terroir of Minnesota

I made a special local/organic dinner on Sunday to celebrate one year living in Minnesota. We were also celebrating the one year anniversary of my partner's blog Day by Tao. Both of these choices are also part of a larger effort to live sustainably and connect to the place (ecologically and culturally) where we live. Both native northwesterners we moved to Minneapolis so that I could go to grad school. Minneapolis is a wonderful city, and we are starting to feel at home here. So making progress towards living our goal, but still a long ways to go.

I designed this menu to highlight the flavors of Minnesota and the season (early spring). The dandelion greens and some mint in the barley were actually foraged from my neighborhood:

Celebrating MN Menu

Roast lamb shoulder
Sauteed dandelion greens
creamy barley risotto
Maple Custard

If I were in Oregon I would have had to include salmon as the protein portion of the meal, but what represents Minnesota? I chose lamb. I am not really sure why, other than MN is a fairly meat and potatoes kind of place and something about a Sunday lam roast seemed to hit the mark.The lamb shoulder came from the Midtown Farmers Market (which opened this weekend!), but I don't remember the name of the farm. I used a crock pot and added:

1 2lb roast (in this case lamb shoulder)
a cup red wine
1 cup water
1 tbsp dried rosemary
1 onion chopped roughly
5 garlic cloves cut in half
2 carrots cut into one inch pieces
1 cup mushrooms cut in half

I pretty much just let all of those things cook in the slow cooker on low for 8 hours. The carrots turned out pretty mushy, though still delicious. Next time I will add them with an hour or two left. I think the mushrooms are my favorite.

For the barley I sauteed 1/2 onion minced in 2 Tbsp butter, then I added two cloves of minced garlic and sauteed for 30 seconds. To the pot I added 1 1/2 cups of hulled barley (the barley is local and from Whole Grain Millers). I covered the barley with 3 cups of vegetable broth, reduced the heat to low, and let it simmer for about 45 minutes. When the barley was tender (if the broth evaporates too quickly just add more water so the barley doesn't stick to the pan) remove from heat and add 1/4 cup half and half, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup chopped mint. I found the mint by the sidewalk,  making it very local.
Dandelions in my backyard

My backyard is FULL of dandelions (jealous, right), and I know that they have not been treated with pesticides, making them a local and economical option for dark green vegetables. Dandelion greens are best in the early spring when they are tender. They are somewhat bitter, and they get more bitter later in the season. I sauteed them in a little butter for a minute or two.

Custard is pretty much my favorite dessert. It can come in pretty much any flavor, is super easy, relatively healthy, and tasty. This recipe came from the Moosewood Cookbook I think in the original version it called for full fat milk, but any milk will do. The higher the fat content the creamier the custard will be, but I don't actually think it makes that big of a difference. For the custard I mixed;

1 1/4 cup 1% milk
1 1/4 cup half and half
1/3 cup maple syrup
4 eggs (I use two to four depending on how many eggs I have)
a dash of cinnamon and one of nutmeg

Pour the above into 6 custard cups and bake at 350 for 45 to 60 minutes or until the custard is set and does not appear liquidy any more. I think custard is best chilled. NOTE: I don't own custard cups. I usually use 1/2 pint mason jars because I think they are cute, but I have also used a muffin pan.

I wanted to do like a creme brule topping for the custard so I sprinkled about 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts on the top and then mixed 1/2 cup sugar with 2 tbsp water in a small pan and heated it on low until it turned a light caramel color - about 3 minutes. I poured a thin layer of syrup over the cooked custard and then broiled the top for a minute or so. This worked pretty well, but then the custard was warm and seemed to dissolve a little so I don't know if I would actually recommend it. I think just sprinkling toasted walnuts on top would have been a better option.

I still miss Oregon and can't wait to go back for the summer, but I think I am connecting more and more with Minnesota. This meal represents that connection.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Not so quick

I am apparently giving up on the quick part of my blog (not that many of my recipes have been very quick). But am fully embracing the cheap and local parts of it. Shaun and I decided to spend the summer WWOFFing. We have had a small garden for several seasons and are hoping that spending almost an entire growing season working with someone more experienced will help us improve our own gardening skills fast. Well, faster than several years of trial and error. We currently live in an apartment in Minneapolis so I am not sure how much of what we learn will but into practice within the next couple of years, but eventually we hope to grow a significant portion, if not all, of our fruits and vegetables (and maybe our eggs and honey as well)

As a plus we are hoping that WWOOFing in the northwest will give us the opportunity to spend some quality time with friends and family. We have returned to my native Willamette Valley to spend the next six weeks on a small farm outside of Monmouth and then the six weeks after that near Shaun's hometown in NE Washington. The picture on the left is actually neither. On our way to the Willamette Valley we stopped off in the Grande Ronde Valley to spend a wonderful weekend with some great friends and that's the view from their deck (Why did we move to MN again?)

I don't know how many recipes I'll post but I thought this would be a good place to track the things I am learning about farming.  We are finishing up our second day on the farm. So far I have learned that fava beans are a good dry bean for small spaces they are really big and you can use them in tasty dishes like fava bean hummus which needs lots of sauteed onions to mellow out the strong flavor of the fava beans. You can make your own tahini by blending 2 cups of sesame seeds with 1/2 cup of oil. The farmer also recommended the book the New Organic Farmer by Eliot Coleman which apparently has a lot of good information including her favorite recipe for potting soil. Also, black forest squash over winters the best, but the seeds are very tough and you can't eat them.

I consider myself pretty healthy, but the diet here is predominantly vegan, includes VERY little sugar, and no coffee or alcohol (there are no rules about having these things they just aren't provided). It is amazing how much I find myself wanting sugar and cheese. I also think I am getting caffein headaches which I previously thought I was imune to. It is interesting feeling how my body adjusts. We are still very much adjusting to life on the farm. The schedule is very relaxed, 10 to 5 with a long lunch, and it is amazing to have time to read, knit, meditatie, run and do yoga all in the same day! Though I have to admit I haven't actually done all of those things in one day yet. It also turns out there are parts of farming that are a bit on the boring side, four hours weeding blueberries for example. It has been fairly rainy and cold which has made me a little cranky, though I have been trying to hide it. But like I said, it is only our second day. The people we are staying with are truly inspirational!  They are so committed to living sustainably and in harmony with the land and are wonderful teachers.