Monday, January 20, 2014

Mother Nature is a fickle woman !!

What a fantastic Iowa spring day! Sunday in the 50s, snow melting all over, just an amazing day. Except for one thing. It's January. We know it isn't going to stick around. In fact, snow is on the way and highs in the teens and more below zero temps THE VERY NEXT DAY. But these teaser days get me thinking about gardening, and gardening goes right along with cooking.

This year there will be some new additions to our garden. There are a lot of vegetables we have not grown before and this is going to be the year. Kale, for one. All my friends rave about it, Food Network is always using it in recipes, yet unless it's been snuck into a salad mix and I didn't know it, I don't think I have ever tasted it. Brussels sprouts too. I love to roast a pan full of Brussels sprouts tossed with bacon and roasted onion. Beets may join the party. I hear Brussels sprouts are a challenge to grow but I like at least ONE challenging plant every year so I think this year it will be these little guys. Roasted root vegetables are hard to beat for an easy and delicious side dish. My life experiences with beets have not been the best- from my mom opening a can of tasteless cubes and heating them, to horrible piles of "Harvard Beets" served at luncheons at different church functions, it's not been the best. Yet again browsing veggie catalogs I see such beautiful different beets and I long to roast them and try them in a whole new way. 

We use a ton of tomatoes around here, and the bulk of our tomatoes come from the farm and are canned at home for use throughout the year but we always make sure to grow a couple plants at home for eating day to day. There are so many wonderful heirloom tomatoes out there, and I could save seed and keep them coming year after year. Bell peppers- eh- they are hit or miss for us. We either have more than we need or not a single one, and again, those we can get at the farm. I do want to grow some super hot peppers again this year and have three different ones to choose from that I have never grown before. 

Every year we grown a TON of herbs for cooking. Last summer was a terrible year for our herbs so we need to catch up with several herbs. Basil is one we use loads of all year long and I need to get growing a forest of basil plants! Parsley is a big hit around here too. Italian flat leaf parsley is a great addition to salads, I love the peppery bite. And it's pretty hardy so a little snow doesn't usually kill it off. We had a very early spring last year but all was lost when we had a May snowstorm- the basil was killed and never fully recovered before the blazing hot, dry summer moved in. I barely had enough for fresh use. So early start in the house this year. Poring over the seed catalogs might inspire me to try some new herbs as well. I love lots of fresh thyme as well, and hopefully will grow several different types this year.

But let's forget the unusual edibles- flowers! I love to grow edible flowers. Everything from chive blossoms to nasturtiums, if it's edible in any way, I try to grow it. Even the humble wild violet makes an appearance on our table, in jelly, or just petals tossed into salad. Just be careful and know what you're picking and eating, and make sure it hasn't been treated with any chemicals! 

And you can't talk about spring in Iowa without talking about the wonderful wild foods that are everywhere- free for the picking, if you're willing to spend the time hunting. From tender stalks of wild asparagus growing roadside ditches to the famous and highly sought after morel mushroom, there are TONS of amazing wild edibles all over. Just plan on spending a day, and don't be too heartbroken if you come home empty handed a time or two.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Guest Chef- Mad Science from The House on Vine

Ohhhh my goodness, I have been bugging my friend Mary for a guest post for AGES !! Mary has been my friend for quite a while and we share a love for cooking,  wine and cocktails and entertaining. She is quite the hostess too- very skilled at plating and garnishing and plans to write a cookbook soon. I will be the first to add that to my collection, you can bet.

Mary, the Mad Scientist

When Mary is busy working on a cooking project she dons the garb of the mad scientist and sets to work in (use your Bella Lugosi voice here) her "labouratory." 

You won't find a lack of color and texture in the dishes either. Fresh veggies add color, crunch and healthy goodness. Her pasta dishes look like restaurant creations. Her soups are legendary! And she has a great eye for food styling with a collection of colorful and interesting serving pieces and dishes that add so much style- well, you will just have to see for yourself!!

So, without further ado- here is Mary the Mad Scientist's Winter Crab Stir Fry

1 cup shredded carrot
1 1/2 cups halved brussels sprouts
8 oz. sliced fresh mushrooms
1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
2 cups fresh kale, chopped
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 package imitation crab
olive oil

Heat olive oil in large skillet. Add garlic and saute for just a few minutes but don't allow it to brown. Add pepper, brussels sprouts, stir fry for a few minutes, then add carrots, water chestnuts. Cook and stir a few more minutes, then add mushrooms, crab and finally, the kale. Give a quick little toss then pile mixture into large bowl. Add sea salt and pepper to taste, toss with 4 tablespoons of butter for a creamy finish.

For easy and quick stir frying,make sure all your
veggies are prepped and cut up before you
start cooking.
How about that ?? Fresh and delish! And in the middle of January it looks like a happy plate full of summer to me. And like any stir fry dish, so versatile- switch out what you have and don't have, or don't like. If you like some heat, hit it with a big pinch of crushed red pepper. Have an unexpected guest or two? Add a scoop of rice or asian style noodles. Swap out the meat or go all veggie! The possibilities are endless!!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Betcha thought pumpkin season was over ??

Pumpkin and cranberries linger on........ but this time in the form of a beer, a beer I have been hiding away for a couple months, waiting for time and inspiration to strike. Well, who am I kidding, I am always on the hunt for interesting brews for mustard making. I was hunting for this......I admit it. I always grab an interesting one to squirrel away for a future project. And since stores have been selling singles, it's easy to try just one of something without having to commit to a $10 six pack and not like it.

I found a very interesting fall brew made by New Belgium Brewing- "Pumpkick", a spiced ale with cranberry and pumpkin juice. Sounded interesting. Screamed autumn. Had to have it. I even tasted a wee bit of it- not bad, not bad at all.

So let's get started on my mustard. I've made many and if you've been following my antics for any length of time you have seen the basic procedure- soak, season, blend, process. It's so simple I don't know why more people don't give it a shot. You don't even have to be a canner- prepared mustard keeps for ages in the fridge without having to process in a canner.

The ingredients used for this mustard are:

1 1/2 cups mustard seed (I used a mix of yellow and brown but you can use whatever you have or prefer)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 bottle beer
1 tsp salt
couple good grinds black pepper

That's your very basic grainy mustard mixture. Your choice of beer and any additional ingredients are what makes the mustard unique. 

* Spiced pumpkin ale with cranberry as my beer choice
* 1/4 cup pureed cooked pumpkin (I may use slightly less, depending on consistency)
* couple tablespoons or so FINELY chopped fresh cranberry, cooked slightly in a splash of water (and again I will adjust accordingly depending on consistency) Actually I wish I'd had the foresight to save just a couple tablespoons of that beer- that would have been good !!
* 1 tsp minced fresh garlic

Place mustard seed, vinegar, salt, pepper and beer in glass bowl. Stir to mix. Cover and allow to sit at least 24 hours. I find 48 hours to be about the perfect resting time, to get all the yummy flavors infused in the seeds, and softened enough for a good grind. Seeds will soak up the liquid and plump up. When you are ready to proceed, remove mustard from fridge and allow to reach room temperature.

Prepare your add-in ingredients. Mix the garlic and cranberries into seed mixture, add about half the pumpkin puree. Blend in food processor to desired consistency- grainy like German mustard is my personal fave but you can blend til completely smooth if you prefer. I like to see the bits of good things in there. Add more pumpkin puree if mixture is too thin- you can also taste to see how your flavors are coming along. Remember- it's much easier to ADD MORE than to try and fix too much. So start small and add to taste.

One you've reached your consistency, place mustard into hot, sterile jars. If you don't want to process in a canner, label and date jars and store in fridge or freezer. If you share MAKE SURE to tell your friends it is NOT shelf stable- you don't want to make anyone sick. If canning, I use 4 oz jars and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Now I just can't wait for grilling season !! These are my favorite mustards for yummy grilled brats, or even a big plate of fried potatoes and sliced kielbasa (one of my favorite easy meals for a weeknight). Excellent with roast beef and ham too, you can add a great pop of flavor to a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, not to mention to endless uses in salad dressings, marinades and pan sauces. Deviled eggs with just a little something different your friends can't quite decipher! The best part of making your own mustard- you get exactly the flavors you want, from the brews you like, without a lot of added chemicals and preservatives. You can't get much fresher than that!