Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Asparagus now, asparagus later

The statistics of our life: Chuck and I are leaving on Friday, to drive the 1006 miles to visit our children. Before that, he will drive 500 miles roundtrip to pick up the college student who will be house sitting while we are gone. There is a lot to do, the packing, cleaning the house, shopping for road food as well as making sure there is some food here for the house sitter. Which might lead one to wonder, then, why I was blanching and freezing 115 spears of asparagus this evening. (One might also wonder why I am sitting here blogging, but hey, there has to be some mystery in life!)

Well, the statistics of local food- the asparagus is ready now, and it won't wait for me to get back from gallivanting about the country.

My sons tell me I am the weirdest woman in the world when it comes to food texture. Not only do things have to taste right, they also have to feel right in my mouth. I've been known not to eat things that have a fine flavor but a disturbing texture.* Asparagus is definitely on of those things. I've always felt that asparagus is one of those things that is perfect when fresh, lightly steamed or sauteed so there is a satisfying crunch when you bite into the stalk. Frozen asparagus is tolerable IN things like stir fried vegetables, but not eaten by itself like fresh. Canned asparagus is vile, good only for things like asparagus quiche, where the soggy green spear can vanish into the whole- the texture of canned asparagus is so very creepy, even though the flavor is acceptable. I have a jar of pickled vegetables made by my brother-in-law in the cooler, and I can see asparagus spears lurking in there. I have to admit, it's the main reason I haven't opened the jar- I can't quite get my mind around pickled asparagus. I'm afraid that neither the taste nor the texture would be quite right.

For the same texture reason, I was rather put off when I saw a recipe for roasted asparagus. Sure, the drizzling with oil sounded good, the balsamic vinegar and the sesame seeds sprinkled on top. But the texture? How could asparagus be good if it wasn't crisp, and how could it be crisp if it were roasted? I rolled it over and over in my mind, and finally decided to give it a try. On Mothers day, no less, because asparagus always reminds me of my mother- she is the one who taught me to love the first thin stems of spring best.

Wow- It was terrific! It was soft, but the roasting gave it a crispyness different than but not inferior to the crispiness I was used to. I used an olive oil infused with a hot red pepper, so there was a little bite, and I added garlic. This is definitely something we will have again.

And now we have come back to the 115 stalks of asparagus. They cost, all told, $20.25, which is $0.18 a stalk. I washed them, blanched them, and lined them up in layers in my 9 by 13 inch cake pan to freeze individually. Tomorrow I will parcel them up into my vacuum sealed bags, and will seal them up. My hope is, if I put them in the oven still frozen, that I can approximate the yummyness of Sunday's dinner.

115 stalks of asparagus will give us about 10 asparagus meals. And at each one, I'll remember this evening. That's one of my favorite parts of eating local- I love the connections.

There really is no recipe for the asparagus- I washed about 20 stalks, snapped off the woody parts on the ends, put it in my 9 by 13 inch cake pan. Drizzled a little (a couple of tablespoons, if that much) over the asparagus, chopped some garlic cloves fine, and sprinkled that and some sesame seeds. I heated the oven to 400 degrees F, and left them in for 10 minutes. Cooking for Engineers has a slightly more hands on method, and Kalyn, at Kalyn's Kitchen has a slow roasted asparagus I may try with some of the larger of these frozen stalks.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


Rhubarb is one of those things that you either love or hate. At least one, perhaps more, of my sisters loathes it. Understandable- back in the early 70's my mother was always on the look out for diabetic friendly foods. Rhubarb, sweetened with the nasty artificial sweeteners of the day, was one of those foods, and she served a lot of it. It was, in fact, pretty loathsome. Slimy and stringy.

However, while I developed an intense dislike for artificial sweeteners, I never developed an antipathy for rhubarb, and it's a HUGE favorite at our house. My husband and sons like to eat it raw, right out of the garden, and while I don't like it quite so fresh, I still enjoy it many ways. We've had it stewed, roasted, made into jam, muffins and pies. I've dried it, frozen it and canned it to eat later. I even tried making rhubarb ice cream. And I proved my "good mom-ness" by sending each of my sons a rhubarb cobbler kit- a bag containing some dried rhubarb, another bag containing the correct amount of sugar and flour for the pie, and directions calling for refrigerated crescent rolls as the crust. All they had to do was buy the rolls, add water and cook! (Did they make it? No. Crummy kids.)

I thought rhubarb was native to the US, but the Rhubarb Compendium tells me that the earliest written reference to Rhubarb was in 2700 BC in China. It also mentions that the name is derived from the Rha River, an early name for the Volga in Russia, because rhubarb grew along the banks. The Rhubarb Herbal at lists 3 kinds of rhubarb; Turkish, English and Monks. It describes the medicinal uses of the plant.

Finally, for those who REALLY enjoy rhubarb, there are the Rhubarb Festivals. The Wakefield Rhubarb festival in the UK is over for this year, but the festival in Intercourse PA is next weekend, May 18th and 19th. I'll have to put it on my schedule for next year; Intercourse is just a hop skip and jump over the mountain for me. Alas, I'll be in Kansas City that weekend.

I'm not the first to write about rhubarb for Weekend Herb Blogging- Writing at the Kitchen Table did a savory mutton in saffron and rhubarb sauce. Food Lover's Journey made a rhubarb streusel loaf, while Delectable Victuals did rhubarb scones. They all sound wonderful- especially the scones. While not a weekend herb blog entry, this rhubarb and custard sounds divine, and the photos are stunning.

This recipe for rhubarb tea sounds appealing, although it calls for strawberries and citrus along with the rhubarb. This tea is more basic, just rhubarb and sugar, with a strawberry for garnish if you desire.

I love my rhubarb plant- it takes little or no care from me, just a dressing of compost in the fall. I think it is beautiful- the long red stems, the deep green enormous leaves. I love the way they smell when I cut them up. Like my grapevine, it was planted by the previous owner of the house, and every time I harvest the stalks (by the way, the leaves are poisonous, eat only the stalks) I am so happy I bought a gardeners house!

Weekend Herb Blogging is being hosted by Up a Creek Without a PatL this weekend. I am terribly envious of her lovely visitor mentioned on the May 5 entry- go check this out! And, of course, see the round up of other Weekend Herb Bloggers.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Tofu, anyone?

I always thought I was a pretty good cook, if not a fancy one. The people who ate my food seemed to agree. But last summer, a foreign exchange student from Belarus made an off-hand comment that has stuck with me, causing me to re-evaluate.

One of the best things about having foreign students live in your house is it makes you think hard about your way of life. In order to answer their questions, you have to truly understand why things are the way they are. And just hearing the questions they ask makes you question yourself and the way you do things. Or the way your fellow citizens do things. When Vadim was here last year, he mentioned that he thought American had too many prepared food items. I was taken aback by that, because I thought, at least at our house, that we ate very few prepared items. At that time, we were hip deep in our CSA vegetables, I haven’t bought a frozen lasagna or tv dinner in years, and I never buy box meals; heck, we don’t even eat out very much. I dismissed his comment by assuming he meant it as applying to Americans in general, not to us in particular.

But over the months since he was here, I keep returning to that statement in my mind. After participating in the Penny Wise Eat Local Challenge last week, I think I understand what he meant. And, as usual, I am grateful for the questions both asked and answered.

It was hard for me last week to not reach into my cabinet and pull out a barbeque sauce (Gates, from Kansas City is the best!) or a curry sauce to enliven our meals. It seems I am not so much a good cook as I am a good “combiner”. The bare bones of my meals– meats and vegetables- are usually minimally processed and local. But the other parts of the meal- the sauces and marinades, rubs and seasonings, are mostly “store-bought”. I doctor them up so they are more or less unique, but is it really cooking? I can make my own salsa and tomato sauces, but I just don’t like them as well as some of the commercial ones. I rely on commercially produced ingredients to add “pizzaz” to our meals. Perhaps this is what Vadim noticed.

On the other hand, I am always interested in the process of creating things from beginning to end. In my fiber life, I have taken fleece right from the sheep all the way to a finished garment; washing, spinning and then weaving or knitting and finally wearing.

My food life is no different- I make my own yogurt and yogurt cheese, have made my own butter and ice cream, granola and bread. We don’t raise our own food animals, but if we did, I would love to smoke my own bacon, or make my own sausages. Recently I read an article on how to farm catfish, and found myself eyeing the goldfish pond in the backyard in a whole new light.

I can, freeze, dry; make pickles and jams. I’ve been known to harvest wild black walnuts and hunt the elusive morel mushroom. My gosh, I made dandelion soup, for goodness sake! When my sons were little, I took great pride that I made most of their clothes, and the food they ate was either breast milk LITERALLY made by me or, as they grew older, bits of our dinner unseasoned and ground in our handy dandy baby food grinder. I may not BE self sufficient, but I like to think that I have the knowledge and skills should I ever really NEED self sufficiency. (Besides, I just like to know stuff.)

Well, one of the things I now know how to do is make my own tofu. Using The Book Of Tofu, by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. I’m not going to describe the process in great detail, but here are the highlights.

First- soak 1.5 cups of soybeans overnight
Then divide the soaked beans in half, add 2 cups of water, and grind fine.

Put the ground beans in a big pot, repeat with the other half of the beans.
Bring it to a boil and cook for a while

Strain the ground soybeans through a cloth, catching the soymilk in a container.

Press the liquid out of the ground beans. Keep the pressed beans to use other ways.

Heat the soymilk to boiling again
Add solidifier

curds and whey

Ladle curds into a pressing box lined with a cloth

Press liquid out.

Take out of the box and unwrap
I am not sure what we did wrong, but instead of a cube of tofu, we got what Chuck termed a "laminate" of tofu- barely enough for us to eat. It did taste good, I thought. (Chuck's taste comment is below.) One thing, I didn't soak the beans overnight, instead I brought them to a boil and soaked for a couple of hours in the hot water. I may not have ground the beans long enough, although the okara, or residue from the beans seemed pretty fine. We'll try changing those two steps next time and see what we get.

I found a couple of sites with good directions if you don't want to rush out and purchase The Book Of Tofu. Lili Pintea-Reed wrote this article on Bella Online, and I found this on (I was excited to see Lili's name here- I met her several years ago on a Fiber Arts mail list.) Both sites provide easy to follow directions. And I bought my tofu making box and solidifier from SoyaJoy-Chuck did say he thought the tofu tasted like cedar...