Cabbage and Carrots

A friend of mine used to decry what she called “inefficient frugality”–that office practice of inexplicable cost-cutting measures like monitoring Post-It note consumption or shaking the last tiny bit out of every toner cartridge. Fred and I practice a version of this called “erratic frugality.” We’ll spend $5 a pound for a locally raised, cage-free chicken without batting an eye but freeze up at the prospect of shelling out more than $3 on a bottle of shampoo.

Lately, though, our desire to escape from the Jerry Springer show that is our neighborhood has spurred our efforts to economize. These people aren’t kidding around–today, for instance, I discovered that the murder rate in our neighborhood is 7 times the national average.

Thank goodness we’ve put an offer on a house, in a neighborhood where the murder rate is only twice the national average. (Please don’t tell my landlord. It’s a short sale so she probably won’t lose us as tenants until 2015.)

To afford this we’ll need to scrape together about $10,000 extra dollars a year, and the first step will entail reducing our total monthly food bill (including eating out) from somewhere north of $1,200 a month to a more reasonable $900 or so. Plus, we both still need to lose weight.That should be easy because Atlanta was recently voted the 18th healthiest city in the country. I’m not sure how our neighborhood’s murder rate factors in there, but perhaps the joggers in Grant Park help balance that out.

So, to help our budget and improve our chances of survival, we are eating cabbage. There’s a reason the poor eat a lot of it. It’s high in fiber, vitamin C and calcium, and it tastes pretty darn good. And the smell may deter the murderers.

Joking aside, I love this dish. The herbes de Provence and carrots lend a sweetness to the cabbage, and it’s tender without being soggy and drab. It’s lovely as a side with chicken or pork.

Cabbage and Carrots

1 tbps. olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, halved lengthwise and sliced into thin strips, the strips cut in half1 clove garlic, minced
4 carrots, sliced lengthwise into thin strips, the strips cut into pieces about 3″ long
1/2 head cabbage, sliced lengthwise in strips about 1/4 inch wide, the strips cut in thirds
About 1/2 cup chicken broth, or enough to cover the bottom of a 10″ skillet
Generous tbsp. of herbes de Provence
Salt to taste

Heat olive oil in 10″ skillet on medium high heat. Saute onions in oil until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic carrots, and herbes de Provence, stir, and continue to saute for a few more minutes. Add remaining ingredients and stir. Cover and cook until cabbage is sweet and tender, 15 – 20 minutes.

So much for being back

We’ve been back home in Atlanta going on six months now and I still can’t seem to find the time to write. I seem to have lost my voice for the moment. A nasty comment on my last post may have affected me more than I want to admit. In any case, my writing self has lain dormant for a while.

The good news: the cats. They couldn’t care less. They have catnip . . .

 … and food.

Never mind that their humans live in a part of the city hell bent on recreating past episodes of the Jerry Springer show for the entertainment of the neighbors. In the six months we’ve lived here, we’ve seen furniture thrown off the porch during a particularly dramatic spat, had to call the cops on a domestic dispute, dealt with teenagers who seem to have mistaken our front yard for their own personal football field, and headed to the back of the house when we heard gunshots.

And I love being here, in Atlanta, my home. I’m cooking again. I’m writing again. I will be back. Thanks for being patient.


We’re back! Back in Atlanta, stuck in traffic, sweltering in the heat, wondering if our trash will ever get picked up, marveling at the number of mattresses that make their way onto the interstate. It’s wonderful to be home.

I tried to like Durham and North Carolina. I should have liked it a lot more since I went to college there and had a good experience. But my heart is in this messy, inefficient, traffic-filled, smog-coated, crowded city in the part of the world I love best, where I can drink wine outside with old friends on a warm evening, and find a Korean taqueria tucked into an industrial park and it not be the only Korean restaurant in town, and see the skyline while jogging around Grant Park (our new neighborhood), and sit on the deck at Six Feet Under and look over the cemetery, and have dozens of interesting neighborhoods to explore, and not be subject to the fashion whims of bald, graying professors laboring under the delusion that the ponytail they grew in 1972 still looks cool.

I’ll be posting on a regular basis again sometime in the coming weeks, once I get a bit more settled into my new job. Glad to be back!

Hummus: Sweet Potato and Pumpkin

My world underwent a quiet but dramatic change about a month ago. My dear friend Rocco, who is a fabulous cook, started it all when he pointed me to the beet hummus on the Simply Recipes site.

Up to that point, I’d never considered anything other than chickpeas and roasted red peppers as the basis for hummus. How foolish I was! If the unloved beet could be converted into a delicious hummus, then anything was possible.

Luckily, two purple sweet potatoes from the Durham Farmers’ Market rested on my counter top at that time, waiting for their moment of glory. Looking at them, I was certain I was about to blaze a trail through the hummus jungle, forging past black bean and red pepper and into a territory of new taste. I’d be the first person to make sweet potato hummus. I’d be famous. I’d never have to work again.

Following the general contours of the beet hummus recipe, I came up with a sweet potato hummus using the purple sweet potatoes, with just the right mix of spice with lots of lemon to brighten the flavor.

My success made me think that other vegetables in the same genre, such as winter squash, might also work. Having bought about a dozen cans of pumpkins (on sale!) over the holidays, I tackled pumpkin hummus next. Experiments led me to tone down the lemon, allowing the pumpkin to assert itself. The addition of tomatoes increased the acidity but provided a softer, earthier complement to the gentle pumpkin than more lemon would have and made for a more balanced flavor.

After my work was done, I googled “sweet potato hummus” and “pumpkin hummus” just to confirm that I was the first.

I won’t humiliate myself by linking to the results. So the blogosphere is not likely to be wowed by this post. But I like both these recipes. Unlike many of the other hummus variations I discovered, these don’t include chickpeas, which allows the flavor of the base ingredient to stand out. Maybe I’m not the first, but I’ll imagine I’m among the best.

Pumpkin hummus, foreground, and purple sweet potato hummus. (My limited photography skills kept me from getting a good close-up of the sweet potato hummus Let’s just say that the close-ups took the idea of “food porn” to a new and somewhat disgusting level.)

Sweet Potato Hummus

1 cup cooked sweet potato (about 1 medium)
1/4 cup olive oil (or more to taste)
1/4 cup tahini (or more to taste)
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 – 2 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. cardamom
2 tsp. cumin (or to taste)

Mix ingredients in food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with celery, carrots, bread, or crackers.

Pumpkin Hummus

1 can pumpkin
4 tbsp. tahini
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. cayenne
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. cardamom
4 tbsp. crushed tomato (or more to taste)
1 tbsp. lemon juice

Mix ingredients in food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with celery, carrots, bread, or crackers.

Arugula, Lamb’s Quarters, and Goat Cheese Salad

Yesterday offered a sobering reminder of why gluttony is a sin. Fred and I joined a friend at our beloved  Federal to watch Butler and VCU in the Final Four. I found myself drinking barley wine, a deceptively named beer that even I, normally not a beer drinker, could enjoy. We dug into a plate of fries, then moved on to a pork belly sandwich (Fred ordered, I sampled). We downed a mountain of nachos. 

After seeing a plate of nachos with guacamole at a nearby table, however, and realizing that we had at least 30 more minutes of basketball remaining, I decide that additional nachos were needed. This was a serious error. The onslaught of more cheese, beans, sour cream, and chips–now with guacamole thrown in–proved devastating to internal systems already groaning under the weight of the garlic fries and the barley wine. The rest of the evening was lost to a food coma of monumental proportions. I’m still recovering.

The moral of the story? Greens are your friend. Greens will make up for a multitude of sins. Greens are what I will eat for the rest of this week. (Guacamole does not count as a green.)

Most importantly, greens are delicious, and the Durham Farmers’ Market has some beautiful examples right now, including some I’ve never tried. Recently, for instance, I picked up lamb’s quarters, pictured below. They may look like tree leaves, but they have a mild flavor–more like lettuce than a green–with a light peach-like fuzz that disappears after they’re washed.

I bought Russian kale as well. (Note the continuation of the tree leaf theme.) This is a mild kale, and the purple adds a nice bit of color.

Most people recommend lightly sauteing these greens before serving. I’ve found, however, that both lend themselves quite well to salad. The lamb’s quarters, in particular, offered the perfect balance for some sharpish arugula we picked up on the same day. The resulting salad was, according to a friend who came over for dinner, the best he’s ever had. Truth be told, it was even better than the nachos.

Arugula, Lamb’s Quarters, and Goat Cheese Salad

Serves 4

6 cups mixed lamb’s quarters and arugula, large stems removed from lamb’s quarters, all greens rinsed and dried
4 spring onions, all but 1″ of green part removed, halved lengthwise and sliced 1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese, or to taste

1/4 cup olive oil
1 large clove garlic, cut into six pieces
1 1/2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp. fine grain sea salt, or to taste (can substitute regular or kosher salt)
Fresh ground pepper to taste

Whisk all dressing ingredients together in small bowl. Let sit for 15 minutes or so. Place greens in large bowl. Remove garlic pieces from dressing. Whisk dressing again and pour over greens. Add additional salt and pepper to taste and toss. Add onions and goat cheese. Toss one more time before serving.

Other ingredients that work in this salad: Mushrooms, cubed Granny Smith or other sour apple, chicken, Parmesan cheese instead of the goat cheese.

Going Home

I am pleased–and most importantly, my mother is pleased–to report that it looks like we are returning to Atlanta in just a couple of months. I’ve accepted a new job there and am looking forward to getting back. Fred has already laid bets with his best friend on the chances of Braves third baseman Chipper Jones suffering a season-ending injury before July 4. One of them will get a steak dinner out of this. It’s entirely possible I’ll end up cooking it either way.

In any case, posting will be sporadic over the next couple of months, much as it has been over the last few weeks as we made this decision and worked to get our house(s) ready to sell.

Today, I’d like to pay homage to the Durham Farmers Market, which I will miss when we return to Atlanta. Specifically, I’d like to honor the pea shoots that have been available there for the last three weeks, if you arrive early enough.

I sincerely hope that they will be available this Saturday. They are a miraculous little green, with the taste of tender, leafy snow peas–a little sweet, somewhat crunchy, with a delicate, almost minty flavor.

You don’t really need to know how to cook them. It’s okay to stand in the kitchen and stuff them into your mouth by the handful, like potato chips. They also infuse any salad with a gourmet air–add them to your mix of lettuces and put a little sign by the serving bowl that says, “Local lettuce and pea shoot mix with something-infused oil.”

So far, though, my favorite way to enjoy them is over pasta.

Here’s the recipe, such as it is. It is very forgiving. I never seem to make it the same way twice, and it’s always good.

Pea Shoots with Pasta

Makes 2 meal-size servings. This dish will also work with other tender young greens, like cress or creasy greens, also available now.

1/2 lb. linguini, spaghetti, or fettucini
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
6 small scallions, sliced, including some of the green part
3 – 4 cups pea shoots, rinsed and dried
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup coarsely grated Parmesan

Following directions on package, put salted water for pasta on to boil. Meanwhile, add butter and olive oil to large skillet. Heat on medium high heat until butter melts. Add scallions and saute until tender, 3 – 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Finish preparing pasta according to package directions. Drain well. Add pea shoots to skillet. Pour pasta over top. Add generous amounts of salt and pepper and mix until pea shoots have just wilted. Pour additional olive oil over pasta, to taste. (About 1 – 2 tablespoons should be enough.) Transfer to two serving bowls. Top with Parmesan cheese and additional salt and pepper if desired.

Still No Artisan Bread

Dear readers, I regret to say that I lied to you at the end of my last post: “I discovered that you can make good artisan bread with no recipe at all.” 

I’m not sure why I suddenly took on the tone of a Google sidebar ad (“I got white teeth for only $1. Find out how”), but to be fair things did seem to be heading in that direction. What I should have said was a little less glamorous: You need a recipe, but artisan bread isn’t that hard.

Cleo: “Even I can make artisan bread!” (Note: She was whisked from the scene before she got a chance to prove it.)

Thought it isn’t hard, it involves several steps and takes a couple of days to make–which means that recipe testing is taking longer than I originally anticipated. So it will be a while before I can post on this topic.

I’ll be turning to other subjects in my next few posts. In the meantime, though, check out this fabulous site on artisan bread to learn  from someone who actually seems to know something about it.

Artisan Bread

It seems everyone these days is making artisan bread. I thought I was on the right path by making five minute no-knead boule dough, whose proponents claim for it the quality of artisan bread without the starter and all the effort. Recently, though, I received a 20-year-old starter from a bread-baking neighbor–and now everything has changed.

The starter, housed in the bowl my grandmother used for making cornbread for my grandfather’s nightly supper.

Suddenly, I had a heavy responsibility in my hands. The starter was born around the time I began graduate school, possibly just as I was leaving Durham for Wisconsin. It sat in my neighbor’s kitchen as I meandered across the United States for 20 years, perhaps waiting for me to return to Trinity Park. Worse, it was the beloved child of a man with a structure behind his house dedicated entirely to a wood-fired oven–a wood-fired oven for baking loaves of bread.

David, the starter’s parent, delivered it on a day when Fred was at home. When I got back, it was in a jar on my kitchen counter. David had provided a spreadsheet for the baking process too. He told Fred to let the starter sit out for a couple of hours and then put it in the fridge. “She’ll know what to do with it after that,” he said.

This was a grave error. Glancing over the spreadsheet, I might as well have been reading a formula for making rocket fuel: “The column to the left has the refreshment regime. Line 4 is the variable; fill it in with the amount of starting levain and it calculates the flour and water you need to make a 66% levain from a 66% levain.”

I felt just as I had when I first read postmodern literary theory, around the time that damned starter had emerged from a combination of flour, water, and whatever yeast and bacteria floated around Trinity Park circa 1990: “How the heck had I never learned any of this?” My mastery of the bread baking techniques outlined in my 4-H Club booklet had failed me. I could not bear to tell David that he had turned a portion of his precious 20-year-old starter over to the bread baking equivalent of a crack-smoking nanny who’s never changed a diaper. Especially a man who had spent tens of thousands of dollars on an oven just to bake bread.

In desperation, I turned to the internet, where my complete ignorance of the bread baking process was further reinforced. It turns out (and this won’t be news to artisan bread bakers) that bread made from this kind of starter is fundamentally different from the yeast breads you find in your average recipe book. The basic technique for these breads is this:

  1. Proof yeast in warm water (optional)
  2. Mix ingredients
  3. Knead
  4. Let rise in oiled bowl until doubled
  5. Punch down and shape into loaves
  6. Let rise until doubled again
  7. Bake

This process takes anywhere from three to six hours, depending on the type of yeast you use. Yeast is a living thing, and the gasses it produces as it feeds make the bread rise. With commercial yeast–a product that was developed in the relatively recent past (a hundred years or so)–that process is relatively fast. 

In contrast, bread made from the kind of starter that I was given takes two or three days. The yeast and bacteria that create the rise come not from commercial starter, but from the air. The process looks more like this.

  1. In the morning, take a small amount of starter and add enough water and flour to double. Let rise, covered, until bubbly.
  2. Add water and flour to double starter again. Let rise again until bubbly.
  3. Repeat. This rise will be overnight.
  4. Knead in salt. Knead a lot to incorporate air.
  5. Let rise in bowl lined with lightly floured towel, covered. Fold once or twice during rising.
  6. Shape into round loaf or loaves. Bake on stone in hot oven.

Though the rising time is slower, there are advantages. Yeast in each part of the world produces a unique flavor (hence “San Francisco sourdough”), and so this technique is the best way to get that “bite” you find in a traditional sourdough bread. It’s hard to match this type of bread for flavor and texture.

But there are additional disadvantages to this method–the biggest one being that artisan bread bakers are a fussy, persnickety lot, agonizing over issues such as oven spring, crumb, exact baking times, and so on. And there is an impenetrable chasm between those who measure their ingredients and those who weigh them. Measurers see weighers as inflexible, unimaginative dilettantes; weighers turn up their noses at haphazard cooks who treat recipes as culinary free-for-alls.

This meant that there was no guidance on how to transform the weight-based percentages on David’s spreadsheet into cups and tablespoons. I ran the amounts through a converter, but I was still faced with the problem of the levain (yes, it’s the starter)–I couldn’t find a reliable way to determine its weight without a scale. And the amount of all the other ingredients–the flour, water, and salt–depended on that weight.

To solve the problem, I ended up getting a scale, but the good news is that I also discovered that if you are not one of the fussier types you can make good artisan bread with no recipe at all. I’ll post on this next time.

Panela Hot Chocolate

Durham enjoyed a white Boxing Day, and so did Fred and I. We made a snow kitty.

Yes, it is wearing a bowtie and playing a recorder. It is probably not necessary to say that these items were Fred’s idea.

And we walked through the neighborhood, still aglow with Christmas decorations.

When we were happily tired and chilled, we repaired back to the house, where I made Fred what might have been the first cup of homemade hot chocolate he’s ever had.

I won’t dwell on how ghastly it is to live in a culture that uses hot cocoa mixes combined with . . . (I can barely say it) water when the homemade version is so simple and so much better. Let’s just say that since this was Fred’s first experience with hot chocolate from scratch, I wanted to do a good job. So I decided to lace it with my newest addiction–Latin America’s culinary answer to crack–panela.

Panela is raw sugar cane, boiled down until it forms a firm cake. You might recognize it from your local market as a brown, cone shaped item that can easily be mistaken for a candle (not that I ever would have done that, of course). Also known as piloncillo or papelon, it tastes like brown sugar infused with the richness of molasses, with smooth overtones of maple syrup. In Central and South American it is grated, shaved, or broken off in pieces and added to recipes. Despite its firm texture, it grates easily and dissolves quickly in hot liquid.

I discovered panela when I made asado negro for Fred, from a recipe that appeared in the New York Times Magazine earlier this month. Asado negro is a Venezuelan dish consisting of roast beef simmered with leeks, onions, peppers and garlic in a thick, dark, caramel-like sauce. The magazine column, “The Cheat,” explained how to create the sauce with a combination of white and brown sugar, but indicated that the roast would be “spectacular” if you could find some panela. 

Remembering the little candles, I immediately trotted over to Compare Foods to get one. There I found that panela comes in different shapes and sizes. There was the candle, but there were also large round cakes and these smaller beauties, which I decided to bring home.

The asado negro didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped (the cooking time in the recipe ended up being too long for the meat), but none of this mattered. After my first taste of the panela, I wanted it in everything. I put it in my oatmeal. I sliced it over cheese. I cut off chunks and ate it all by itself. 

So when the need for hot chocolate arose, I knew panela had to be involved. Its smoothness is the ideal  complement to cocoa’s rich bitterness, and I’m glad to say that Fred’s first cup of homemade hot chocolate was the best I’ve ever made. 

Panela Hot Chocolate

For each serving, you will need:

1 cup milk
1/4 cup half and half
1 1/2 tbsp. Dutch processed cocoa
Dash salt
2 T grated panela, packed (more or less to taste) (if you can’t get panela, white or brown sugar would be fine)

Pour enough milk for all servings into saucepan and on high heat. Into each cup, add half and half, cocoa and salt. Whisk with small wire whisk (or a fork) until well blended. Add panela and whisk again until panela has begun to melt. When milk is hot but not boiling, fill each cup. Whisk again until panela has melted. Add a dash of cinnamon or ground chili pepper for garnish if desired.

Microwave version: Follow directions as above but do not heat milk in saucepan. Instead, add cold milk to cocoa mix in each cup and microwave each serving until milk is hot, about one minute. Remove from microwave and whisk ingredients until well blended before serving.

Blue Crabs

For a farm girl, I’m inconsistently squeamish about killing things. Flies in our house are caught with a cup and freed outdoors, but roaches are mercilessly squashed. Ants might be allowed to roam across counter tops for days, then tortured to death with  poison from traps placed in strategic corners. Meat from sentient creatures such as cows, goats, and chickens is consumed with abandon . . . and I can’t put a live crab in boiling water.

The crabs caused a lot of trouble a couple of weeks ago, when Walking Fish, our CSF (Community Sponsored Fishery), let us know that North Carolina blue crabs were in the next delivery.

I’d been avoiding the crabs, and apparently so had many other Walking Fishers. Originally, members were simply told that crabs would be arriving as part of their weekly share; those who didn’t want the crabs could write to the group’s e-mail list and arrange for an exchange with another member. But it seems there was so much switching around, and too many crabs not being taken, that Walking Fish changed the policy. Now, when crabs come in, those brave enough to face them down have to add their names to a list.

Fred wanted to be on that list–the list of mighty crab killers. Why remains a mystery, but it is probably the same impulse that propels him–my sensitive, bookish artist–to yell at hapless pitchers and treat interstate on-ramps like entryways to the Indy 500.

“Will you just have it all done when I get home?” I pleaded.

“Sure,” he said. Perhaps it was my imagination, but his chest puffed out the tiniest bit. “I’ll look up how to do it on the internet.” 

That should have been my first warning.

As usual, he picked me up from work on Thursday.

“How are the crabs?” I asked.

He couldn’t seem to look at me. His head drooped. “It was awful,” he said. “I couldn’t get any meat out of them. I tried and tried and I got just enough to put on a cracker.”

Confused, I asked, “What do you mean there was no meat?”

“There was just this watery stuff, mostly, and then I couldn’t get the meat to pull away from the shells.”

I pondered this. “That’s odd.”

Then it came to me. “Did you cook them before you tried to get the meat out?”

He looked up, and the life drained from his eyes. “Cook them? The internet instructions didn’t say anything about cooking them first.”

At moments like these in married life–like when the Braves lost to the Giants in the playoffs, or when a man struggles with assembly instructions you figured out an hour ago–it is important to be gentle. “Honey, I think you need to cook them first.”

He put his head in his hands. “But the instructions didn’t say anything about cooking them first. They just talked about cleaning them. I thought it was like fish, or chicken. You know, you clean it, then you cook it.”

I put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up again, despair clouding his face. “Why didn’t they say anything about cooking them first?”

Now is probably not the time to mention crab boils, I thought, or all the stories you hear about cooking live crabs, or children’s movies like The Little Mermaid, which admittedly Fred probably never saw. Instead, I patted his hand.

“We can probably salvage something,” I said. “I’ll take a look when I get home.”

“I don’t know,” he moaned. “There really isn’t much there.”

I figured he was exaggerating. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.

If you’ve ever wondered how much meat you can get from six blue crabs without cooking them first, here it is.

Luckily, Fred stopped his cleaning efforts before he got to the claws. We boiled the carnage, seasoning the water with herbes de Provence and salt. We made an appetizer of the meat we salvaged. It was sweet and tender, possibly the best I’ve had.

Fred’s been pondering the meaning of this incident ever since. He’s wondered how many times, at 50, he’s missed critical first steps. He’s even considered the crabs as a metaphor for his whole life.

That may be true. If so, then it’s also true that a few good things can be salvaged from a mess. And that we’ll get another shot at the crabs, if we want.