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Archive for the ‘Recipes’ Category

My husband is the daring adventurer in the kitchen.  He will watch something on a television show and say, “Well that looks easy!” subsequently diving in over his elbows into whatever new technique, skill or challenge the kitchen presents.  Usually he has the child ringside to engage and participate.  Yup, The Spouse is an awesome father.  I married well.  *grin*

I am the researcher.  He has always teased that I can put together a binder on just about anything.  Geeking on family traditions and recipes makes me smile.  I enjoy digging up history of ingredients and the provenance of traditions.

This summer I set about on my own learning how to make Boiled Beef Tongue from my dad, just like my grandmother used to make.  I don’t recall ever trying this as a kid, but I remember my father wistfully recounting tales of tasty beef tongue sandwiches.  With mustard.  On rye bread.

I had never even seen one in a market before this summer’s experiment.  But  grandma’s recipe came with the cabin, and the fabulous guy from Futility Farms regularly has them for sale at the Land O’ Lakes weekly farmers market.  Family history and learning a new technique for offal?  I’m in!  Eating nose to tail is an important facet of sustainably consuming animals.

I bought a frozen beef tongue at the farmers market, found locally baked rye bread from the Eagle Baking Company, some proper German-styled mustard, and waited for my dad to visit.

Confession Time

When it came time to thaw and prepare it, it creeped me out… juuuuust a little.  For the first time in a very long while I stood before something bizarre to cook and for a brief moment thought, “Ew…”  It lay there on the cutting board looking like a beef tongue.  It has taste buds, and it looks really strange.  Maybe it felt strange because it looked so familiar?

The photos at Wasabi Bratwurst are vastly better than any of the ones I took! Photo Credit: http://www.wasabibratwurst.com/pickled-tongue/

But we eat anything around here, so I just took a deep breath and dove in.

This recipe could not be simpler and serves as a reminder of what food tasted like when money was tight and ingredients few.

She Likes It!!

I made this recipe twice this summer, and in both cases everyone who tried it has subsequently sought it out on their own.  Including the seven year old!

The first time, my father and I started too late in the day for it to fully cool as directed. So we plunked the entire thing in the fridge in the vinegar solution overnight.  This resulted in the tongue being substantially more sour and grey than the second undertaking, but no less tasty.

The Child favors the pumpernickel over caraway rye, with Hot German Dusseldorf mustard, fresh tomato, and her suggested substitution of cream cheese in lieu of the traditional mayo.

I like the caraway myself, but I must admit, I think she’s onto something with the cream cheese!

I am looking forward to further experimentation!  Simply Recipes has a Lengua Tacos recipe that looks delish.  And Japanese gyutan grilled tongue is intriguing…  Here’s to fabulous, sustainable eating on the cheap!  Huzzah!

Grandma J’s Beef Tongue

Boil covered in salt water for 3 hours.  Remove skin.  (This is much easier than one might think.) Cover with 1 part vinegar to 1 part water solution and simmer about one hour.  Allow to cool in liquid.

Remove from liquid.  Wrap in foil and slice thinly for cold sandwiches as needed.

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Shopping at the local Northwoods grocery store is a bit challenging.  We get local items when we can, but when it comes to most things that is not an option.  Our area is historically trapping, logging, and mining country, not farming country.  The growing season is too short, and the soil quality is poor.  Most quality-raised food has to travel much farther than we are used to in California.  Sometimes shopping here is about choosing the least of several processed evils.  This is after all, a part of the world where it is socially acceptable to buy and serve Velveeta.

For the summer we cook like we’re camping.  We try to make careful choices while remembering that, sometimes, food is just fuel.  And without a dishwasher, one-pot meals with off the shelf ingredients have distinct advantages.
Since this cabin is typically occupied by someone in the family throughout the year, the cupboard and freezer are often filled with groceries other people have purchased.  The kind of food men buy on a fishing trip.

But no amount of Michael Pollan-esque food guilt can allow me to waste food.  I may not make the same purchasing decisions, but when the might-as-well-be-generic brand of canned peas (yes, canned peas…  shudder) are taking up space in the pantry, they ought really be eaten up.

The nice thing was that I had both bacon and a ham steak from the meat purveyor at the local farmer’s market.  I had bought a chicken from him as well and roasted it earlier in the week, so I had homemade chicken stock in my arsenal too.

Futility Farms sends a nice guy with a truck full of freezers each Thursday to sell their grass-fed beef.  Thanks to their neighbors raising animals with similar philosophical bent, there are also conscientiously-raised chicken, pork, and lamb.  The meat comes all the way from Gilman, Wisconsin.

I remembered my father mentioning my grandmother’s recipe for my favorite pea soup is made with canned peas.  And although that soup is beef based with drop dumplings, I decided to freestyle with some pork products, chicken stock, and my forsaken canned peas.

Finished in less than 30 minutes, it was fabulously cozy on a stormy, grey evening.  The Child had seconds, and requested leftovers the next day.  Like all pea soups, this one gets better each day in the fridge.

She wondered why we’d never made this before.  Good question, honey.  Turns out we will be putting canned peas on our pantry staples shopping list from now on.  Cheers to not wasting food and taking a chance.

Canned Pea Soup

1 ham steak, diced
1-2 rashers bacon, chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cans, canned peas, drained and rinsed
Homemade chicken stock
Pepper to taste

Saute the onion, bacon, and ham.  No extra oil or salt is necessary to saute as the pork bits provide sufficient fat and flavor.  When the onions are cooked through and beginning to brown on the bottom of the sauce pan, add the drained and rinsed peas.  Stir to combine and add chicken stock to cover.


Stir occasionally while the soup heats through. Some of the peas will break up on their own, and I suppose some folks might like to take a potato masher to it at this point, but we liked leaving our peas intact.

Served dinner for two, leftovers for a day or two, plus half the batch in the freezer for a rainy day.

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Musing about how The Child eats jump-started my writing, especially after we began eating goat at home.  It was the first time we ate goat we prepared ourselves, and the first time we purchased meat directly from a farm.  A positive experience, we were encouraged to search for a regular meat-CSA to join.

Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a food distribution model wherein the consumer and the farmer share the risk and rewards of farming.  Typically a subscription, the consumer pledges a monthly rate for a share of what the farm produces each month.  While it is more common to find fruit and vegetable CSAs, the demand for meat and dairy is on the rise.  Consumers typically seek out CSA food in an attempt to eat local, support small-scale agriculture, or obtain organic products.  They may also supply a greater variety of products, as well as heirloom produce or heritage breeds.

Singing the praises of Godfrey Family Farms is long overdue.  We experimented and signed up for a monthly share at the start of the year.  Having no idea what to expect, we planned to re-evaluate after 6-months.  Honestly, I thought by June our freezer would be bursting, and it would prove to The Spouse that our family was not large enough to justify the 15 pounds of meat each month.  We do not have sufficient square footage for a deep freeze of our own.

But I was wrong.  I love it.

One Saturday morning each month, The Spouse drives to a Home Depot parking lot to fetch our share of the monthly meat.  It runs $100 for approximately 15 pounds of various cuts from various beasts, including fresh eggs.  Rose and Brian Godfrey are remarkable.  They write a blog to keep folks posted about happenings on the farm, and have a Facebook Fan Page as well.  They both have a way with words and wit.  Back in January, I read their post about geese including photos of Thanksgiving…

…looking through the fence at Christmas…

…and I knew these were my kind of people.

Our traditional Easter dinner is rabbit after all, and we call him Thumper.

As it turns out, we consume most of the share each month.  We even purchase extra;  several dozen more eggs, and additional chickens anytime they have them.  We are thrilled when some challenge of farm living means there are extra rabbits, ducks, or veal bones to be had.

The meat CSA has made a profound difference in our diet and our lives. From the very first shipment of duck eggs with a magical double yolk… to guilt-free pastured veal… and a variety of beasts… Yes, it is safe to say I am biased.

To counteract said bias, I will skip the compulsory review of pros (eating local, pastured, and small-scale), and head straight to the cons of any CSA.  But are they really cons?   Seem more like advantages to me.

You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. My daughter learned this in pre-K, and it is a rule many adults could stand to learn.  When you join most CSAs you do not typically get to place orders.  And if you do it ought be considered a lucky perk worthy of your undying gratitude, not setting an expectation.

We learned how to meal-plan based on what default produce arrived in a box on our doorstep, and this is really no different. So we have tried new things such as guinea fowl, water buffalo, and duck eggs.  Instead of shopping based on a plan, we plan based on the shopping.  One Saturday each month we gather around the cooler to see what Santa brought us while attempting play a game of freezer Tetris with the frozen blocks.

Please remember it is a farm people!  The animals and crops really do not care what your schedule is, much less your menu.  Sometimes the guinea fowl are too much trouble to raise again.  Sometimes the butcher goes on vacation and instead of pork you get glorious water buffalo from the neighbor’s farm.  Sometimes the momma animals turn out to be less than skilled mommas.   And sometimes the hams, sausages, and bacon come cured by someone else.  We have fallen in love with Rose’s recipes, the Italian sausage and brats in particular, and this is not a con for us.  But it may be for some folks.  If you are particular about what cuts, or which beasts, or what sizes you *need* to have, perhaps this isn’t the right purchasing model for you.

Eating nose to tail. A big part of eating sustainably is eating nose to tail. Philosophically, if you are going to show respect for the animal you are consuming, let nothing go to waste. Economically, if you learn to cook the stuff other people do not want, you will have a wide selection of cheap proteins from which to choose.

It was not our intention to pose the chicken as if it were dancing off stage left. *giggle*

I am confident someone is enjoying the extra bits. (Lucky #$%^&*@!)  And even though Godfrey chickens arrive intact from beak to toes, most of the regular shares do not include offal.  When a family of three buys 15 pounds of meat per month, it reduces our trips to the grocery store.  That puts a dent in how many times we pick up braunschweiger or headcheese for lunch, have calf’s liver for dinner, or discover we like new things like veal kidney chops.

I miss my butcher. Well, not a particular butcher per se.  We predominantly shop at Lunardi’s Market, since the Andronico’s near us went out of business (pout).  It is an average-sized traditional grocery store with a meat counter, and a veritable army of butchers.  They appreciate questions and are quick to ask someone if they don’t know the answer.   I have never been ignored or hustled along.  The Child always loves to visit them.  Since infancy, she has been accompanying one of us, helping to pick things out, watching all the action as the butchers break things down, and fascinated by the various meats hanging from the ceiling.

Approaching this calmly as a reality helped her develop comfort and understanding of what lands on her plate.  But we spend less time visiting the local butchers now that our freezer is packed to bursting once each month.

Maybe it is time to figure out where to put the deep-freeze after all?  The Spouse can park his car in the driveway, right?

Okay, maybe not.

Skillet Sausages

Cast iron skillet (optional)
Bratwurst, bockwurst or favorite sausages
Onions, sliced in half, then in half-rings
A favorite beer or hard cider

Brown the sausages and add the onions tucked in around the edges, i.e. don’t just layer them in on top.   Open up a favorite beer to enjoy and share with the skillet.  Every once in a while check to see that things aren’t sticking.  When they do, add some beer and use your tongs to scrape up the brown bits off the bottom of the pan.

Skip the bun, serve with mustard and a side of sauerkraut or coleslaw… or both!

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Back in California, in the land of farmers markets, we don’t often go to them anymore.  As school and work and responsibilities crowd the schedule, we tend to cozy-in on weekend mornings and share family time together at home.  Between the weekly organic grocery delivery and the monthly meat CSA share, we have plenty of food options.  And nearby markets, even the very basic ones, have a wide range of ingredient choices hailing from all over the world.

But we spend our summers in Wisconsin.  Vilas County, Wisconsin to be exact.  Head north a mile or two across the lake and yer in da U.P. (that’s Upper Michigan for the uninitiated).  By we, I mean The Child, The Dog, and myself.  We leave The Spouse back in California for most of the summer, and come here, to the little 70’s shack where I spent my summers.  This is our third year, and so far the experiment seems to be working…  The Child has proven to be an outdoorsy kinda kid.  She is comfortable trading a busy schedule of activities and play-dates and friends, for solitary independence.  She can go outside and play, she can explore the woods and the shore and the yard.  She may be by herself.

Food shopping and cooking here in the Northwoods is very different than the options we have back in California.  The markets are extremely limited, and I am reminded of the Kwik-E-Mart challenge on Top Chef.  We make do with processed food and very few fresh ingredients.  Occasionally specialty local products are available at gift shops.  But our small town of Land O’ Lakes has a weekly farmers market on Thursday mornings.  It is small, often only one vegetable stand, one meat purveyor, and a few local folks selling cheese, honey, preserves, or foraged items.  Most of the booths are more reminiscent of a swap meet or garage sale than a market, but there are typically about a dozen tables selling goods.  In California, going to the farmers market has become an occasional and social destination, but here it is a necessary part of our weekly shopping.

Last year we discovered kohlrabi at the farmers market.  Mountains of them.  Most were green, but some were purple.  Most were softball sized, but some looked closer to soccer balls.  When I asked what they were and heard kohlrabi, I must have flinched a little, remembering not liking things like rutabaga and kohlrabi as a kid.  The woman working the stand made a point of assuring me that they were incredible, and that her favorite way to eat them was raw, sprinkled with salt, on a sandwich.  She deftly hacked into one and shared a slice, while quickly looking at the veggies I had selected and tossing in a few extra things for free, just so I could replicate her favorite sandwich when we got home.  We made a few sandwiches that afternoon, and she was right!  I was hooked!

It was, botanically speaking, incorrect of me to group rutabaga and kohlrabi together taxonomically.  They are both in the cabbage family (Brassicacea), but while rutabaga is its own species, Brassica napobrassica, kohlrabi shares a species designation with everything from cauliflower to brussels sprouts as they are all considered cultivars of wild cabbage, Brassica oleracea.  Thousands of years of specialized breeding have resulted in a multitude of cabbages which don’t look or taste anything like each other.  The next time you are eating your broccoli, take note that it is one of the ultimate GMOs mankind has ever produced.  There are so many cultivars of wild cabbage in fact, that they are classified in groups based on their developmental form.

•    Brassica oleracea Acephala Group – kale and collard greens
•    Brassica oleracea Alboglabra Group- Chinese broccoli
•    Brassica oleracea Botrytis Group – cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli and broccoflower
•    Brassica oleracea Capitata Group – cabbage
•    Brassica oleracea Gemmifera Group – brussels sprouts
•    Brassica oleracea Gongylodes Group – kohlrabi
•    Brassica oleracea Italica Group – broccoli

Very easy to grow, kohlrabi is generally disease free, it can take shallow soils, and is unaffected by most garden pests.  More than just frost-hardy, anecdotal reports online indicate it may stay quite happy in the ground until temperatures dip into the twenties and snow begins to fall.

Kohlrabi literally means ‘German Turnip’ and it is vastly more popular and traditional in Europe.  But monj (or munji?) is also a staple of Kashmiri cuisine where the round, swollen stems are cooked along with the edible greens.

Slicing kohlrabi first makes trimming off the peel very simple.

Raw

Raw kohlrabi was a revelation.  Just sliced up, woody skin trimmed off, sprinkled with some kosher salt, and YUM!  Served on a sandwich of toast, mayo, fresh tomato and a slice of cheese?  Double yum!!  So all year, I have been craving it.  Looking forward to that first Northwoods-summer farmers market when I could get some more.  And it did not disappoint.

The slices which did not make it onto sandwiches were chopped into chunky sticks and served with a side of salt for dipping.

Kohlrabi makes an excellent snack! (and yes... that's an old ashtray repurposed as a salt cellar)

Cooked

Last year, none of it ever made it past being crunched up raw or julienned into slaw.  This year I decided we were going to try cooking it.  Most of the recipes online indicated cooking times of about 15 minutes in a sauté pan on the stove.  A friend said she liked hers sautéed in bacon fat.  Fast cooking plus bacon?  I’m in!  The results were fabulous.  The Child enjoyed it enough to gush over her first helping.  She did not help herself to seconds, but later in the week enjoyed the nuked leftovers for lunch.  Frankly, I am surprised that there were any leftovers, since after dinner I was compulsively picking straight from the pan with my fork.

Last year raw.  This year cooked.  Next year?  I’m thinking pickled.

Braised Kohlrabi with Bacon

½ of a giant kohlrabi (~8” across) or an equivalent amount of the more widely available smaller specimens, skin trimmed, cut into small cubes
2 rashers bacon, cut small
Fresh cracked pepper

Chop kohlrabi into your preferred shape.  Some recipes use slices, or strips, or even grated.  I liked the little cubes.  Make sure it is uniformly cut for even cooking.

Cook cut bacon in large sauté pan until it starts to render a little fat (on my old electric stove this took a few minutes).  Add chopped kohrabi and sauté a bit before adding just enough water (or braising liquid of your choice) to keep it from burning.  Cover and let cook about 15 minutes, stirring regularly and checking for when it is just fork tender.  We enjoyed ours more al dente than mushy.  Generously add a few grinds of fresh pepper and serve hot.

Made 3-4 servings

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On Thursday last, Shauna James Ahern at Gluten-Free Girl tweeted an idea.

“What’s the first dish you ever learned to cook? How did it make you feel to cook it?”

Milestone meals started popping into my head, and in reverse chronological order I worked my way back to the first thing.  Okay…  perhaps not the first thing.  That would be Roast Beef with Pickle Gravy, lovingly prepared in Imagination Land as a very small child.  My dad made me a yellow toy stove in his basement woodshop, complete with real stovetop dials, electric burners painted on, handles leftover from their kitchen remodel, and one door which opened the same way an oven would (with a sliding rack inside too!).  I remember playing with that stove all the time.

My first proper independent cooking was breakfast.  Eggs to be precise.  I started with scrambled.  Maybe sautéing some onions in some butter before pouring in the beaten egg and chives, then mixing in some cheese or cut up salami.  My parents had a white, glass-topped, electric stove, and it was awful.  The breakfast preparation process involved putting the pan on the stovetop, turning on the burner, tossing a pat of butter in the pan, and walking away.  Only then would I bother with prep work;  cutting up onions, harvesting chives, cubing cheese, getting a plate, etc., because it seemed a full 15 minutes before that butter even started to melt.  But in any case, that routine became a rhythm and many mornings before school I got up to make my own breakfast.

It was not long before scrambled eggs became omelets.  To me, omelets feel like the first real dish I ever learned to cook.  I think I was around 12-years old, and it was utterly empowering!

Omelets were the first dish I made for someone else.  The scrambled eggs were always for me.  I cannot remember if my little sister ever ate the scrambled eggs, but the omelets were for everyone.  As if the act of sharing food with others is the last real step in preparing anything.  I remember getting praise from my parents, and being brave enough to cook breakfast in other people’s kitchens after an overnight.  I remember my mistakes in judging how much filling was too full to fold without cracking, which fillings got too runny, and how to get all the egg to cook without scorching the bottom too badly.  In point of fact, these omelets were more like a folded and stuffed frittata than a proper omelet, but they were tasty and very close to what my father made on the weekends.

Not long after, say 7th or 8th grade, my parents had me get dinner started once in a while.  I have few memories of being confident in middle school (who does?), but yet I have clear recollections of standing at the kitchen counter after school and enjoying these tasks.  I felt comfortable in my own skin.  It was never anything challenging.  These were uncomplicated assignments with clear direction.  My father is always one planned meal ahead.  He wakes up contemplating dinner, and he goes to bed thinking lunch.  But even without being complex cooking, these chores built an underlying ease with simple routines:  adding marinade to meat and getting it in the fridge, peeling potatoes, forming hamburger patties so they were ready for the grill as soon as the folks got home.  One frequent recipe in particular was simple baked chicken with a combination of garlic salt and brown sugar.  In college I asked my dad for the recipe, and he humbly sent a scrawled recipe entitled Dad’s Incredible Chicken.  It was met with acclaim by the roommates, and The Spouse and I still regularly make it, lo these many years later.

The remarkably addictive thing about learning to cook is that the learning feels good.  The process of diving into something new.  Deciding to try.  Learning how to fail.  If we succeed in passing these skills onto The Child, this already gutsy and resilient kid just might feel empowered too.  The Spouse commented last night that it is his hope The Child will find herself heading off on her own already “just knowing” how to cook.  I taught myself technique in my mid-twenties, but I already just knew how to cook.  Thanks Dad!

Dad’s Incredible Chicken

1 chicken, quartered
Garlic salt
¼ – ⅓  cup brown sugar

Arrange chicken skin side up in lightly oiled baking pan.
Season fairly heavily with garlic salt.
Sprinkle generously with brown sugar.
Bake at 375°F for one hour.
Cover with foil after 30-40 minutes if chicken appears too dry.
May be served hot or cold.
Share with friends and gloat.

***************************

Updated 6/15/2010:

I have so enjoyed reading the memories of the other contributors to the project.  Check out Shauna’s post to read more: http://glutenfreegirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/first-meal-i-ever-cooked.html

What was the first thing you ever cooked?

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No foodie should preach about sustainability and local agriculture without taking a serious look at their own pantry.  We have been getting organic grocery delivery of local produce for many years now, and I find it well worth the drawbacks for our circumstances.  Recently, we joined a local meat CSA (community supported agriculture) and drive once a month to a predetermined drop point to pick up our share of the monthly meat.

But if Vidalia onions are in season you can bet I am going to select them over the local ones, and I cannot function in the kitchen without my spice drawer which hails from all over the world.  All across California wine country there is a movement to drink local.  That’s great.  Support your community.  But I hardly think Napa would like to encourage restaurants across the country to only drink local.  In fact the story of their success depends on worldwide exportation and is a fabulous example of local agriculture makes good for a community.

So recently when I opened the pantry looking for a quick and easy side dish I saw the quinoa, which hails from *checks package* Bolivia.  Hmmm… dinner is going to have a big carbon footprint tonight kiddo… Except of course these things are all relative.  Quinoa packs nutrition, history, and socially-responsible agriculture into a tiny grain.

Technically, quinoa is not a true grain or cereal.  Botanically speaking, Chenopodium quinoa is a chenopod (like beets, spinach, or chard) and can also be consumed as a leaf vegetable, although it is predominantly grown for its edible seeds.  Originating in the Andes, it can be grown at altitudes over 13,000 feet.  And although it can also be grown on fertile plains with the benefit of mechanization, this contributes to soil erosion.  But the mountain crops are both easier on the land, of better quality besides, and are hand-farmed by small-scale communities.  The quinoa I purchase is produced by a cooperative of small growers and is sold through Alter-Eco, a fair-trade product distributor.  I prefer their Red Quinoa and choose to purchase it from Amazon in bulk.   It qualifies for Amazon Prime free shipping, and is cheaper per bag ($5.67/1 lb. bag) than the bulk price offered by Alter Eco online ($6.49/1 lb. bag).  You may not be certain you want eight pounds of the stuff right off the bat…  but I think the variety of recipes available on the intertubes these days will provide a multitude of inspiration.

The National Association of Quinoa Farmers (ANAPQUI) was created in 1983 in order to maximize the revenue of local communities who were selling at a loss. The Anapqui cooperative currently regroups 1100 small producers from the south of the Bolivian Altiplano who now benefit from decent living wages, transformation and packaging facilities. The latter, partially funded by the United Nations Development Program, enables them to export directly without having to rely on middlemen. The profit from sales goes towards financing educational and training programs that have led to the introduction of organic farming methods. -- Alter Eco website

Quinoa is a low-maintenance crop as the seeds have a coating of saponins.  Saponins are nifty plant-derived chemical compounds. They are amphipathic glycosides, so they have both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (fat-loving) qualities.  Saponins all share the same phenomena of foaming when shaken in aqueous solution, and some saponins were historically used as soaps.  Most importantly to quinoa, saponins tend to taste bitter.  Awful enough that crops are typically safe from birds, insects, and other foraging animals.  After harvest, the saponins are removed before consumption, and most quinoa available in the US comes ready to prepare.

Quinoa, together with potatoes and maize, were hugely important to the Incas and other pre-Columbian civilizations.  To the point of being sacred.  It is considered a complete protein, that is to say it has a balanced set of essential amino acids including the oft-missing lysine, which is very rare in plants, and according to the package I purchased, one quarter cup serving contains 160 calories, 5 grams of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber, and 20% of the daily recommended intake for iron.  There is solid nutrition science behind why this stuff fueled Incan armies.

Confession

To be quite honest, I forgot it was in the pantry.  I started buying it years ago when a friend was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, back before the food industry started catering to the gluten-free niche market.  I really only ever made one recipe:  Quinoa Taboulleh from Cooking Light.  It worked well as a gluten-free dip alongside hummus, or as a side dish to roast lamb.  I usually I made it for a crowd.  I skipped the raisins and went with parsley over mint.  And I shortened the cooking time to the package instructions of 15 minutes so it didn’t go all mushy.  Back then I bought red quinoa in bulk, but we have since diversified our gluten-free offerings as more and more friends receive their diagnoses.  So the last few packages had quietly hidden in the back of the pantry until I opened it up last month assuming I would take the easy out and just boil up some pasta.

Epiphany

While the fennel and onions bubbled away on the stove I read the package instructions.  Add rinsed quinoa to water, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.  Well that is about the same time commitment for pasta, so why not?  I find rice tricky because you have to cover it and not peek, but this simmers uncovered.  It cooked up just as it said it would, and as they absorb the water and burst there is a tell tale curlicue on each grain letting you know they are almost ready as the germ separates from the seed.  I mixed in some frozen corn, about 2 Tablespoons of salted butter (the butter is key if I want The Child to eat it without complaint!), and some fresh grinds of black pepper.  I would have added other things and played more, but it was time to eat.  It was under 30 minutes from the time I opened the pantry looking for pasta to the time The Child and I sat down to quinoa for dinner.

Quinoa and The Child

Much like discovering how easily farro could replace the desperation pasta meal, it was a revelation to recall just how quick and easy quinoa is to make.  While we ate I remembered one of the reasons quinoa had fallen out of favor around here.  It was not very baby or toddler friendly as a standalone dish for our family, as the individual grains were sometimes difficult to swallow.  We had a similar baby-gagging experience with couscous.  Mixed with something mushy, like hummus, tiny grains are easier for small children to eat safely and keep from sticking to everything.  In fact at our recent re-entry dinner The Child decided that mixing it with the fennel and onion mash was a more convenient way to eat it, instead of chasing the frustratingly itty-bitty grains around her plate with her spoon.  We each had seconds and stored the leftovers in the fridge.  Later in the week we discovered the leftover quinoa and corn worked very well mixed in with salsa and scooped up with tortilla chips, as well as making an excellent omelet filling with melted cheese.

During my health issues this spring The Spouse made another huge batch.  At first to help address the residual anemia post blood transfusion (between quinoa and meat and iron supplements recommended by the doc it cleared up within a few days), and then post-surgically to get more fiber and, um, let’s just say combat a challenging side effect of the pain medication.  This batch used up our leftover vegetable broth in place of the water for added flavor.  We had it stirred into cold chicken salad and salmon salad.  Alongside scrambled eggs for breakfast.  As a side dish at dinner served much like wild rice.  But the clear family favorite was mixed into salsa.  One post-hospital dinner consisted of a jar of salsa and red quinoa mixed 1:1, homemade guacamole, and Tostitos Scoops.  The Child was thrilled to “just have snackies” for dinner, and I welcomed the opportunity to nibble while healing.

Salsa for Dinner

Before we were married, my mom and her friends hosted a wedding shower.  I reluctantly agreed on the condition that there would not be any silly games.  That request somehow got lost in translation and there were, in fact, silly games.  One of them involved each person giving a gift getting to ask me any question they liked about The Soon-to-be-Spouse.  At one point someone asked what his favorite food was.  I didn’t really know what to say, but I answered, “Chips and salsa.”  There was much derision, but it was true.  Comfort food at the time often centered around a bag of chips and and a bowl of adulterated salsa.  And sometimes that became dinner.  And now we get to share that pleasure with The Child without any worries about the meal being insufficiently nutritious.  Time to make some more quinoa.

Photo by Randy Mayor for Cooking Light

Quinoa Tabbouleh from Cooking Light

Yield:  5 servings (serving size: 1 cup)

Ingredients
1 3/4 cups water
1 cup uncooked quinoa
1/2 cup coarsely chopped seeded tomato
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or parsley
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped cucumber
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine water and quinoa in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat; fluff with a fork. Stir in tomato and remaining ingredients. Cover; let stand 1 hour. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

CALORIES 182 (24% from fat); FAT 4.8g (sat 0.6g,mono 2.5g,poly 1.1g); IRON 3.5mg; CHOLESTEROL 0.0mg; CALCIUM 31mg; CARBOHYDRATE 31.6g; SODIUM 259mg; PROTEIN 5g; FIBER 5.3g

Cooking Light, OCTOBER 1999

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We actually had a *gasp* vegetarian meal.  Even when meat is not the star around here, it is typically incorporated as unctuous stock, or at the very least acts as garnish to soups or salads or sandwiches…  but without really thinking about it, I made a vegetarian meal.

First there was the broth.  Vegetable stock is a misnomer.  Without connective tissue, it is broth and not stock.  But as I figured out recently, there is no need for vegetable broth to be without flavor.  Mine turned out downright spicy!  Fennel tops, bendy celery, an old and cracked carrot, a handful of peppercorns, some salvaged cloves of sprouting garlic right in their paper skins, and some thick slices of unpeeled ginger.  And because there is no need for bones to release their collagen or for connective tissue to break down, it only took about an hour.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Fennel is new to me.  More accurately, home-cooked fennel bulb that tastes good is new to me.  I have watched it prepared a zillion times on the tube, often running right out to get some and try it myself.  I have roasted and sauteed and slawwed.  And every time it overwhelms with anise flavor in a truly unpleasant way.  I would be scared off for another year or so, convinced it was not meant to be.

To add insult to injury, I know I like it.  Anytime I order fennel soup in a nice restaurant it is tempered and smooth and gorgeous.  I grew up loving fennel seed in Italian Sausages and bread.  Decades ago in Southern California I made a hobby of learning to cook Indian food, and discovered an entirely different direction for fennel seed.  The feathery bits of leaves are great tossed into a green salad, or with eggs or fish in the place of dill.  Every part of the fennel plant is edible, even the pollen, but successfully cooking the damn bulb eludes me!

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (1887)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is interesting botanically because it is considered the sole species in it’s genus, although one cultivar stands out as being sweeter with a slightly larger bulb (Florence Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum).  Plants able to adapt to various habitats without evolving into different subspecies have to be tenacious.  This tough perennial has naturalized throughout the world, propagating easily by seed.  In climates similar to it’s Mediterranean origin it is an invasive species contributing to habitat destruction.

Introduced by humans to California, it has made itself at home across much of the state.  On Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands it has overrun native habitat, much like the introduced and devastating feral pigs which thrive on a diet of naturalized fennel.  Ironically it has also provided cover and shelter to native Island Foxes, a species recently hunted into threatened status by the Golden Eagle.  The Golden Eagle moved to the islands after humans completely displaced the Bald Eagle with DDT.  Ah the web we weave, or unweave as the case may be.  Recently Bald Eagles have been successfully reintroduced.

Fennel’s intricate history with humans far pre-dates California settlement and goes beyond just food.  It reads like a missing chapter from The Botany of Desire, what I find to be Michael Pollan’s most enjoyable work.  It is a book of essays about four plants which have benefited and changed due to the desires of mankind and how they in turn changed us.  Fennel was an important plant medicinally and mythologically in Ancient Greece, and the Romans carried it throughout their realm as well.  Used in Europe as one of the three herbs to make absinthe, the others being anise and grande wormwood, the rituals and lore surrounding absinthe production and consumption further the plant’s mystique.

Mystique to me is just science I don’t yet understand.  And the science which makes fennel special is really cool.  That overwhelming flavor comes from anethole, an unsaturated ether which measures 13 times sweeter than sugar.  And because anethole is less soluble in water than ethanol, it makes anise-flavored liquors milky and opaque when mixed with water.  This Ouzo Effect is a case of science spawning culture and ritual.  In this case resulting in artwork, specialized glasses, spoons, and antiques.  The collector in me swoons!  The legacy of it being hallucinogenic is entirely false, however the hypothesis is that cheaply made absinthe in the 19th century had toxic additives and color enhancements which fueled the lore.  (Humans adding toxic additives and chemicals to increase profits and thereby sell a dangerous product to an unwitting and less affluent demographic?  Imagine that!)

But yet I’ve been hesitant all these years to try absinthe.  I have never cared for licorice before, and have always turned down anise-flavored food and drink.  Really…  all this talk about making sure The Child tries new things, and here I am having never tried it before?  Note to self:  I ought set a good example and rectify this deficiency soon!  If for no other reason than the chemistry is so darn nifty.  But I digress…

"Absinthe Drinker" by Viktor Oliva

Fennel has a glorious history.  It has unique flavors and chemistry which have infiltrated centuries of human history.  It’s done pretty well for itself.  So at the very least I should learn to cook it!  In my previous attempts, I was clearly missing something.

…try, try again.

A friend recently offered a tip.  Steam it a bit.  Instead of just sauteing, hit it with a cooking liquid of some kind, slap the cover on, and let it go all translucent.  So I did just that.  I used the spicy vegetable broth I had made the day before.  And after giving it 15 minutes, took the cover off and tasted.

It was a bit soupy yet, and terribly white and bland looking, but it tasted really, really good!  I left the cover off and simmered most of the soupiness away.  At this point it I intended to let it caramelize a bit while figuring out what the heck to serve it with.  In the 15 minutes it took the quinoa to cook, the mush had reduced to more of a mash.  A colorless and ucky looking, but incredibly tasty, mash.  A little sprinkle of frozen chopped spinach (frozen peas would have also worked) and it had some color.  Sort of.  Who cares…  fennel finally tasted awesome and The Child had seconds!  She in fact chose to mix it in with her quinoa and eat them together.

This is exactly the kind of side dish that works well for an infant or toddler.  It is already nearly baby food as it is, but give it an extra whirl in the blender if necessary.  I remember sitting down with The Child to feed her dinner while we ate, and she was always thrilled when we offered her a taste of something off our plates.  Sometimes she wanted more of what we had, and sometimes she would return to the baby food options we had started with.  It instilled the family habit of The Child trying anything offered really early, but it never could have happened without us all sitting down for dinner together.

So how do you like your fennel?  All this chemistry talk makes me curious if using alcohol as a cooking liquid with fennel changes it’s flavor profile.  Maybe there is a chemical trick to various vinaigrettes which make raw salads more palatable?  I have many more experiments ahead.  Tell me your favorites, and share some recipes in the comments so I can try preparing it again and again!

Spicy Vegetable Broth

Stalks & leaves from 2 fennel bulbs
Leftover celery and carrots past their prime
Garlic cloves, given a quick smash but left whole and in their papers
2-3” piece of ginger, unpeeled and sliced
6-10 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Put everything in a pot with cold water and bring to a boil.  Simmer for about an hour.  After it cools enough to handle, strain and store accordingly.

Fennel & Onion Mash

(This can hardly be called a recipe when I was haphazardly winging it on this one.   But *something* worked… I just don’t know what.  An extra puree at the end would make this the best baby food ever!)

2 fennel bulbs, sliced thin
1 large sweet onion, sliced in half end-to-end, then sliced into half circles
Olive oil
Cooking liquid (broth, stock, water, wine, etc.)
Seasonings of Choice (I used just salt & pepper)
Colored add-in of choice (I used half a handful of chopped, frozen spinach.  Peas, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, or fresh herbs would also work.  Or a drizzle of pan sauce or gravy…  Yum.)

Saute in a saucepan with olive oil and seasonings until just starting to brown on the bottom of the pan.  Add enough cooking liquid to nearly cover veg and then cover pot and turn down temperature so it slowly simmers away.  Let it simmer covered for 10-15 minutes, occasionally giving it a stir.  (For a quick soup, carefully transfer mixture to the food processor with it’s liquid at this stage.)  After the cover is removed let it simmer to your preferred consistency.  For the mash I let it slowly bubble while pulling together the rest of dinner.  It took mine about a half an hour.  Stir occasionally to keep mash from sticking to the sides of the pan.  Turn off the heat and sprinkle in chopped frozen spinach and serve warm.

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