Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ratatouille – Dallas Fresh Veggie Style

 Ratatouille – Dallas Fresh Veggie Style

If my memory serves me correctly, the first time I was served ratatouille, it had been prepared by chef Graham Dodds who has presided over several wonderful Dallas restaurants since I started farming, and becoming more aware of my taste buds. You can, and definitely should, go check his art out at Wayward Sons in Dallas, where he is now currently cooking up a storm of wonderfulness!

It was such a colorful dish; full of reds, greens and yellows. And it tasted so good! I looked it up to see what all was involved in making this dish, that’s how much I liked it! There was no way I could just figure it out from eating it, because remember last post I told you, I'm not a chef! 

So today I’m sharing with you a version of ratatouille that begins with the recipe I found on line under Martha Stewart's web site. Of all the paper, real life handed down and gifted, food stained cookbooks I have at my house, I can't believe that I had to find it on line. But you can find the list of ingredients and more detailed instructions here.

The above photo shows the base ingredients from my farm and a few from the farm of my friend and colleague, Beverly Thomas who owns and operates, Cold Springs Farm near Weatherford. 

She grew the banana peppers, those cool little green eggplant, and the red onion. The rest is from my place. Tomatoes, yellow squash (in lieu of zucchini), bell peppers, garlic and not pictured, fresh oregano and a secret ingredient I’ll tell you about later. 

I started out with very ripe, fresh tomatoes. The recipe calls for cans, but – nah – if you have fresh ones, that’s what I’d opt for, every time. As you can see, I mix and match varieties. Here are Hillbilly, Costoluto Genevese, and Burbank Slicers – I think. 

I chopped off the stem/core and then chopped them up into chunks. I tossed them into a baking dish and drizzled them with some olive oil, gave them a stir and into the oven they went. As per directions, I stirred them every 10 or so minutes; keeps them from sticking and blends the flavors as it thickens. 

Meantime, in between stirs, I cut up the eggplant into chuncks and salted them with the Real Salt that I sell here at Eden's, using the larger crystal or “kosher” version, and set them on top of a paper towel. This “sweats” the eggplant of its excess moisture. 

Next up is to sauté the chopped up onion, just till it was a little translucent, and then add the garlic. Now Martha’s recipe calls for an entire head of that stuff, and that may be why, in part, I needed the secret ingredient at the end, but since I’d only made this once before, I went ahead and followed the recipe as it was written for the most part. 
The variety of garlic I used was Burgundy, I believe.  A Creole Hardneck garlic with a well deserved reputation for its combination of rich taste and striking beauty. I had 3 kinds this year but I am pretty sure this was the variety I grabbed. 

Next into the hot olive oil goes the peppers. I had a couple of small, bell style that were starting to get wrinkly I thought I'd better use up, and I thought I’d add 1 or 2 of the pretty lime green banana peppers from Beverly’s place, too. I had tasted one last Sunday at the VeggieVan and thought it was a little warm, but didn’t think it would spice up this dish too much with all of the other ingredients that are included. Ha! 

After stirring and getting the peppers all nice and crispy, and after stirring the tomatoes several times and letting it get kind of syrupy, I combined them into the cast iron skillet, along with fresh, chopped up oregano.  

Side note – be sure to wash your hands really well after picking your oregano, and before fishing out of your eye whatever flew in it on the way back from the garden – or be prepared to cry. ouchie. My friend Trish says that a drop of coconut oil on the corner of the eye will put the fire out. Next time, if there happens to be one....

Now the kitchen is really smelling yummy! Chopped squash and the eggplant are last to go in. Simmer a bit more, turn it down a little, then cover; leaving just a little of the lid open for escaping steam. 

A few minutes later, I just had to have a taste to see how it was coming together. Added a bit more salt, I never seem to use enough at first, and then a couple of tablespoons of the red wine vinegar and it should be done. 

Well, I wasn’t expecting quite the kick out of those banana peppers that I got, or maybe it turned out to be the full head of garlic. But at any rate, the day before at Market Day when talking about making this dish with my friend and bee keeper, she mentioned using what sounded like an odd ingredient to add to this otherwise savory dish. But, alas, I decided it was what I needed!  Honey. Susan had just brought a case of our “spring” harvest Zip Code Honey®, too.

I needed to cool the dish down because I am not a fan of chasing every bite of my food with milk or something else to cool off my tongue or throat.
Now, it was going to be perfect! And it is!! I like to eat mine with some fresh baked, crunchy crusted bread and fresh butter, the real kind.  The bread was still rising and I was hungry though, so that will have to wait for next time. But boy was this a great lunch! And you don't have to be a chef to make it - but it's good to have it made for you, too!

Now, since today happens to be National Ice Cream Day, I will follow it up in a little while with a big ol’ banana split! Sorry, not pictured – I have to get some of those goodies at the store, yet. Nothing better than a homemade banana split to cool down a slightly spicier than planned lunch!

I think a pint of Ben and Jerry's non-GMO ice cream and some organic bananas are in my immediate grocery list future!


Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Decisions for Meal Planning Made Simple!

I have a little confession to make – I’m not a chef. I mean I can make a mean lasagne and I’ve gotten decent at creating just about anything stir fry, I’ve learned how to make ricotta cheese and what the heck to do with fava beans. But much of what I know how to make, are simply my versions of my family standbys I grew up eating and later customized for myself.  
Fresh Fava Beans Partially Shelled

Summer Squash & Arugula Salad - Eating Local by Sur La Table
Now I know this may come as a surprise to many of you, because, yes, I do post pictures of various food items that I’ve made; generally made from scratch using things from the gardens.

But I’m kind of a color-by-numbers sort I guess, in that, I’ve learned to cook being dependent on recipes. I love cookbooks and still have most, if not all, of my mother’s beloved cookbooks and a few of my own I’ve picked up and been given along the way. I’ve shared various recipes from some of them with you over the years.

And cookbooks are awesome with their gorgeous photographs and step by step directions – as long as you have all of the ingredients a recipe calls for, or a suitable facsimile. 

But how many times have I (or you), stood in front of an open refrigerator door staring blankly at the dozens of bags of assorted produce, cheese, fresh herbs, milk, cream, butter, yogurt, etc., etc., and then walk over to the pantry and stared into its shelves of dried and canned beans, rice, cous cous, lentils, olive oil, balsamic, oatmeal, various dried fruits, pastas, etc., and ended up making a bowl of popcorn with apple slices and peanut butter on the side? So many I’m almost embarrassed to tell you. Kind of like standing in front of the closet trying to decide what to wear to the school dance when we were in 8th grade. 

I guess by the time I come in from a double digit hour workday, sometimes on a triple digit temperature day, my brain is a little fried out for fresh ideas. And if it doesn’t jump out at me, well, it’s not happening, folks. Without a lot of energy left to brainstorm a fabulous meal at the end of the day, I imagine, is why many people turn to the obligatory drive-thru, meal in a box or dining out option.

It's probably a good thing that my budget doesn’t allow for dining out that much, because down here, there’s really not anywhere I want, or should want, to be eating anyway. Which would mean spending a good hour and half going out to eat in Big D, or at the least, up in Mesquite, to one of the two semi-healthful, semi-clean-fastish-food options. Chipotle or Jason’s Deli.

But one day while my stomach grumbled at me, I stumbled upon what maybe many of you did a long time ago and just forgot to tell me about; because there are a whole lot of people who “like” this guys Facebook page. And there's a cool website for color-by-number people like me – for cooking! 

My Fridge Food!

You simply tell the data base, (that I imagine was built by someone with the food skills that I don't have), what you have on hand, click a button and ohmygoodness! – dozens of recipes simply appear on your screen – and even tell you if you have all of the ingredients, or identify what items you are missing, based on what you input originally. It allows you to add items you may actually have, that were not originally asked about in the initial survey, to further build your menu options. And it even remembers everything for the next time you visit!

My Food Fridge Helped Me Whip Up a Simple Bruschetta for Lunch
Now there’s an app for this already – and I hope you get it, but I’m not a big app person.

However, I did bookmark the website and refer back to it whenever my brain goes dry for meal ideas. Which can be often. I’ve not been a pre-planned "menu for the whole week" person for years, because for one thing, this occupation is pretty inconsistent and I don’t always get to eat at the same time. This means I can’t always plan ahead for how long I’m going to have to make said menu items. And secondly, I may not want on Thursday night for dinner what I wrote on the menu Sunday when I planned it. And I don't always have a Sunday afternoon to prepare a week's worth of menu items for the freezer, and anyway, that brings me back to the "what if I don't want pasta salad for lunch on Wed. I want something else", issue.

So this is perfect in that I can tell some invisible chef in my computer what I have on hand and skim over the list of options it provides; which also gives a prep time, and then decide what looks good and what I have the energy to make. Unfortunately it ends there - you will also still have to prepare the said dish(es). But as long as I have a recipe, I'm usually game to try making anything that sounds good. And there are plenty of options with pictures so something catches my eye sooner or later.

This definitely should help reduce wasted time in front of the open fridge, expand meal options and reduce wasted food! I've not tried a lot of different recipes yet, but the few I have tried, have been easy to follow and came out well. And again, I'm not a chef so even if your kitchen skills are limited, these are not difficult to follow recipes.

Whenever I grow these, I get a lot of questions. Do you know what these are?
And for those of you in a CSA and are the ones who open your bag of goodies each week and says to yourself, “what am I going to do with this”? Fear no more! Just add the items each week to your list of things on hand and watch the ideas roll in! (Just make sure you asked your farmer to identify everything in the bag, before you left the farm.)

Here it is…..

You’re welcome! :)


Eat Your Food - Naturally!

PS - For those of you a little wary of signing on using your FB profile, or without one to use, I emailed Nick, the site owner, about other sign-in options. His reply was that he "had to take down the email log-in until I can run some security updates so Facebook is the only log-in option.  However, I have made it to where the site works the same way whether you're logged in or not until I get it fixed.  The pantry list should save to your browser."  

Thursday, May 19, 2016

It's All About the Dirt - Part 3

Winter peas add nitrogen (see small nodules), and much needed organic matter to the soil. Also, decomposing mulch slowly breaking down to further add om to the soil. Note the color is getting better, and you can see the sand particles if you look closely.
So I promised you all an update on my soil’s recovery. I’ve not pulled soil for another test yet, in part because I’m pretty sure it’s about the same, despite the fact that I’ve applied all of the suggested amendments. That’s right. At least in the nitrogen department, I can see from looking at the non-native plants growing, that’s all of the veggies, that they still lack this basic nutrient in many of the beds.

A winter squash plant showing signs of N deficiency.
The problem with Nitrogen is that it is water soluble, meaning if it rains and there’s not enough organic matter in the soil for it to cling to, it will simply wash out. This is proving true with many of the artificially applied nutrients, I imagine, though I have not yet confirmed. It has to do with ionic charges - a subject I studied, but could never effectively explain it without looking it up. So here is a brief explanation. I do know that sand's CEC is very low and only one of the many reasons to build up organic matter.
Tomatoes growing in some of the most improved beds show good color and fruit.

Remember, I’m growing in the equivalent to a box of marbles – sand. According to the soil test done last Dec., on a scale of 1 to 8, 8 being most clay and 1 being most sand, my soil scored a -5. Just kidding. It scored a 1. That's as low as you can get.

But the good news is that according to the NRCS, before all of the horses over-grazed and prior land owners neglected this land, it was considered “prime farmland”. So I have every hope that it will be restored from its current desertification status back to prime farmland and a sandy loam texture that produces abundantly.

I am seeing improvements in many areas from the time I was able to start really spreading compost out on the beds with the loader. Some of the earth smells like fresh forest soil, the way it should smell.  And I can see small particles of organic matter in the color changed soil – no longer brown, sandy but a darker, “dirtier” color – you know, like soil! But in other beds, it seems the compost was just sucked into a black hole. It's as if I never added a thing.
With the spring’s heavy rains, I am sure a lot of what was applied in December has since long washed/leached away again in the areas that remain predominately sand. I hope to be able to take more individualized soil tests this spring instead of combining soil into one test – this can get costly if you run full spectrum tests and do so for several areas – (so please commit to joining our CSA for this fall, that’s the sort of thing your membership pays for!). 

Until then, I need to do continuous foliar applications of fish or a poultry manure based fertilizer to keep the N up for the plants to grow throughout the summer months. I add compost tea that I make from my finished compost piles which adds microbes and bacterial, other very necessary components to breaking down the nutrients in the soil, to make them available to the plants.

And while I’ve been advised to use everything from plain sugar, worm casting tea to sea salt, use more mulch, less mulch no mulch, etc.,; I honestly don’t think there is one silver bullet to fixing tired soils. I'm using a little bit of all of these methods but 
if we look back to farming of the old days, they used what they had most available on the farm – manure and plant debris. And achieving sustainability means utilizing the means of the farm, as much as possible; reducing and even eliminating the purchase of inputs from outside sources.

After the chickens have pilfered through these scraps, the pile will be turned under
 I have access to both manure and plant debris. Of course, it just takes time – compost happens – gradually. And thanks to the new loader, I’m making more and more piles of compost out of the piles of dumped wood shavings and horse, chicken and sheep manure from the farm. I also add vegetable scraps, like those I received and talked about last blog post from the Dave Matthews Band’s tour.

I used to collect leaves by the pick up truck bed-full, although with the theft of our nice shredder/chipper, this isn’t as efficient any more because they break down much better when cut/chopped up. Running them over with the brush-hog scatters them out a lot more than when you run them through the shredder into an enclosed area where they can be scooped up and added to the compost pile. (I'll still take your bags of leaves though! They are still good to add to the compost.)

I’ve also added a manure spreader to our farm’s wish list for this fall's Chefs for Farmers' event. The fine folks at CFF said that they’ll make note of this item for this fall’s big shindig in which they're compiling wish lists for the farmers attending. I hope they can raise enough for a spreader! That would be such a big help in spreading compost out on the beds. A lot less labor on my part.

For now, I use a small lawn tractor trailer attached to the back of the tractor and a shovel and a rake to dump from the trailer and then spread out sifted compost onto the soil. When I’m spreading out just on top of the soil layers, I use the loader with the chunkier compost and then lightly rake it in with the disk where it can be over-seeded with a cover crop and break down over a season.

I’m getting pretty good at using the disk with a light touch, instead of digging it into the soil as when one is breaking up grasses or new beds. Not adding raw mulch is key because it will compete with the plant materials for available N to break down. As seen here in the garlic where it's been planted directly into a deeply mulched row as part of an ongoing research bed, testing the technique of one of my colleagues.
Feed me Seymour! Nitrogen based foliar feedings are done weekly and still the plants lack color and size for this time of the year.

So, that’s a basic update! Slow but steady - that's how topsoil is made!

Until next time -

Eat Your Food - Naturally!