Garden Metamorphosis

Minette – World’s Premier Garden Cat and Mole Predator!

I’m an old farm kid, having spent my years 4 to 10 on a chicken farm in New Jersey.  And although we certainly weren’t self-sufficient, I do know I got a good dose of good old American agrilife.  We had a huge garden, and my mother was not one to let anything rot in the field if it could somehow be preserved.  It was here that I got my grounding in the idea that autumn on the farm is in fact the most labor intensive season of the year!

This is true because harvest time not only means most crops must be picked and stored, or in some way preserved, but there is a major effort involved in getting the garden ready for its winter rest, and readiness for the spring planting – the transition from one season to another in the garden requires preparation – one does not simply turn their back on the garden in autumn lest one is willing to correct this mistake with extra effort in the spring.  And in the case of my own garden, if I were to ignore autumnal garden preparation, the wetness of the soil would keep me from being able to till until maybe as late as June, thereby losing up to two months of springtime growing time.

Any gardener knows about the changing character of the seasonal garden – and any farm kid knows that this changing seasonal character also sets the tone of life on the farm.  And when autumn rolls around, activity on the farm shifts into high gear.

But I have been imposing even more autumnal work on myself this year by my efforts to ready my garden for fall and winter productivity – I’ve tried some of this in the past, and most of that was more a learning experience than anything – this year I’m ready for my most extensive winter garden ever.  Let me show you my plans by sharing a gallery of garden pics.

Ready?

Believe it or not, this is perhaps the stalwart member of my winter garden – leeks.  I have mixed success with the onion family – I think I’ve mastered green onions (show you in a minute), but with bulbing onions, I’ve struck out!  So I’ve substituted leeks, which cooking wise can do a good stand-in for onions.  Trick with leeks hereabouts is to start them mid-summer, get them properly placed in the garden by mid-autumn, and then just let them over-winter – come spring, they should burst into full glory.  The schedule is much the same as for garlic, but I refuse to grow garlic since I can’t seem to get it to give me nice large cloves – and of course, the garden guides all tell you that the larger the cloves you plant, the larger the cloves you get back.  Oh yeah!  My experience says otherwise.  From now on -until I learn the secret- I think I’ll just use the big cloves for cooking, and buy my garlic at the farmer’s market.

By the way, those leeks are mulched with 5 year old compost – which should not only keep most weeds out of the leek bed (very important!), but will also give them some nutrition during their winter rest.  This is my No Effort compost pile – created from a bi-annual free load of chips dropped off here by a local tree trimming service.  I use the chips for mulch in the yard, and leave the rest to rest – after 4 or 5 years, I dig down into the pile to discover that it has magically transformed itself into dark, rich garden compost!  Amazing – and extremely useful.

Here’s another key piece of the winter garden this year – in the foreground are some Asian greens, which have marvelous resistance to low temperatures and a good tolerance to wet conditions – however, lettuce tends to ‘drown’ in our winter rains, so I’ll be trying this simple covering of clear poly to see if that makes a difference – I think its growth will slow down significantly, but I think it will continue to grow.  A bold experiment.

Here’s an Asian green that I’m expecting big things from – The Japanese are especially good at crossing various strains of mustards and cabbages, of which this one -Choho Mustard- is an example.  It’s a wonderful ‘cut and come again’ vegetable, which means it will simply grow back after you cut it – kinda like getting a haircut.  For those of you who avoid mustards because of their pungent hot character, this one has none of that – in fact, it reminds me more of spinach than any of its parents – I really love it.  And when it’s young like this, you don’t even have to cut out the stalks for cooking – they cook up just as tender as the leaf itself – a great winter green!

This one should be a real winner – it’s Tuscan Kale, but goes by many other names (Cavolo Nero, Lacinato Kale, Black Kale, and Dinosaur Kale).  I don’t include kale in general among my favored veggies, but this one is different – to me it has a much richer and interesting taste than other kales I’ve eaten – and it’s another of the ‘cut and come again’ vegetables.  I tried this stuff several years ago, and I started it too late, so it never grew much during the winter – but this one is well on its way and we’re expecting big -and delicious- things from it all winter long.

These are my green onions, which I mentioned previously – these are called, ‘Flagpoles’, I assume because they grow so tall – and they do!  But what I like best is that they also grow very deep into the ground – next year I’ll get more of these and bury the seedlings half way up the green stalk and see if we can get even more of the white root.

Onions don’t compete well with weeds, and I’m late getting these weeds out of here – these weeds are henbit, or dead nettle, or maybe ground ivy – they all look alike to me.  They’re not hard to get out, really – but they grow so fast that I’ve got to clean these beds every four or five weeks to stay ahead – this time, I’ll give them a good showering of compost for their winter sojourn – I’ve grown green onions all winter several times now, and they do beautifully in our wet, sunless winters.

And speaking of overgrown with weeds, witness here a bed of Broccoli Raab, if you can see them at all for the mass of aforementioned weeds.  But there is beauty in this mess – they can withstand the competition of the weeds better than the onions can, but I’ll be giving them a bit more room to themselves soon – and they’ll do even better.  Broccoli Raab won’t grow on into the winter, since it really goes to seed rather early in its life – but it’s such a delicious one just as it’s putting out little yellow flowers, that I usually make some room for it.

And this is the ‘wild’ winter garden.  This is where the Rutabagas and Turnips live – they’re pretty hardy plants and don’t seem to mind the weeds as neighbors – so I don’t spend much time pulling weeds in this section; they’ll do fine without my help.  And frankly, I like their attitude.  I also think Rutabaga is one of the garden’s most unappreciated veggies – I love ‘em.

I’ll end my post today by telling you about a couple of garden ‘techniques’ which work well for me in the winter garden – the first only works with those seedlings which don’t mind being transplanted when young – such things as lettuce, cabbages, and Asian greens.  In mid-summer, I take a tiny piece of garden space and quickly and casually broadcast a small amount of seed in that space.  Since it’s nice and warm, that seed soon sprouts and quickly grows into nice seedlings – here are a few Komatsuna that I threw down in August.

Then a month or so later, when I’ve got a bigger space available for some serious winter garden residents, I dig up a few of the Komatsuna seedlings and transplant them into their new home.

These are planted fairly close together, so in a month or so, I’ll thin them out by pulling selected entire plants to use in salads, and thereby giving the remaining plants plenty of room to keep growing.  Komatsuna is great because it manages to resist both freezing temps (at least to 25F or so) and drenching rains too – and I appreciate it because it’s a good substitute for spinach, which doesn’t ever do well in my garden.  It’s a goodie.

I’ll end by telling you a tale of beets – do you love baby beets? (I sure do!) then let me tell you about a strange and purely experimental technique I used this spring, that continues to produce nice ‘baby’ beets, even now.  This technique is also good for really small gardens.

Way back in April of this year, as I was planning my garden layout, I realized that I had an overload of beet seed, some of which was more than 3 years old – well, there seemed little sense in taking a chance on the older seed, germination wise, especially since I had new seed on hand – but I sure do hate just throwing away seed, and I really wanted to see what 3+ year old beet seed would do.  So I took those old beet seeds and rather thickly broadcast them over a small area of the new spring garden, thinking that maybe less than half would germinate – but I think the germination rate must have been close to 90%!  I immediately thinned out some of the tiny sprouts, with a plan to let the remaining tightly crowded beet plants continue to grow, and to see if any bulbed out to baby beet size.

I must admit that those beets have grown very slowly over the summer – but every month, I’d stick my hand down through the foliage to see if any of the beets were beginning to swell – and it always was a pleasant surprise to find that, Yes, they were – I began to get a regular supply of baby beets.  July, August, September – and now, just a few days ago I again pulled some 8 – 10 small beets from that initial planting, and yet here’s what it looks like today:

As you can see, these beets have a problem – as best I can tell, they have a virus or a soil borne disease that has affected the leaves – actually, they’ve not been sprayed with anything to counter the problem, and yet, they still are slowly maturing.  In truth, they still could use some more thinning – and so they shall – for I’ll be leaving these in the winter garden as this bold experiment continues.  What fun!

You know what?  I think if I have any leftover beet seed this coming spring, I’ll try this one again!

Posted in Garden, Oregon | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

A Tale of Three Cultures

Images of Merida Urban Adventures, Merida
This photo of Merida Urban Adventures is courtesy of TripAdvisor
The Mercado in Merida, Mexico

Sandee and I moved to Florida -from New Jersey- in the early ’70s – and we took Melissa along with us.  It took us a year or two to get settled there before we even started thinking about traveling anywhere – but eventually, the wanderlust grabbed us.

Florida is a great jumping off place for travel, especially for the Caribbean or Latin America – and in those days, some of the travel deals were nothing short of phenomenal.  Those were also the days when a traveler still used travel agents – I can remember how tempted I was with the posters on the window of our local agent for Merida, Mexico, which touted, airfare, 3 nights hotel, and transfers from the airport – for $169!  We’d often say, ‘It costs more to stay home!’

That first trip out of Miami was exciting, but at the same time, not one of high expectations – I assumed that Merida was one of Mexico’s second rate cities – why else the cheap rates?  How wrong one can be!!  Merida -the capital of the Yucatan- turned out to be an exciting city with much to teach us – a city of two cultures – and although Merida was only a short hop away from the U.S., those cultures were unbelievably different from the American culture of our homeland.

Merida’s Lovely Zocalo
courtesy of creative-journeys.com

Founded in 1542 by the Spanish, the city space of Merida had already been inhabited by the Mayans for many centuries – and in fact, some historians think Merida and its Mayan city predecessors could well represent the oldest inhabited city in the Americas.  And although the Spanish did their very best to destroy all visible remnants of the Mayan culture and architecture, there are still enough pieces of both the Mayan and the early Spanish history left today to make Merida a city of much fascinating history.

Over the years we lived in Florida, we and the girls took many long weekends to Merida and immersed ourselves in those two, often very conflicted cultures – the girls, much more so than we, soon learned enough Spanish that they were our translators, whenever needed – which was often.  My prime interest, of course, was the food – and my prime target area of the city was the huge labyrinth of a mercado in the center of the city.  Sometimes contained in solid buildings, then moving out into semi-open areas covered only with tin roofing, and then finally out into the open air, the market seemed never-ending.

Fruits and Vegetables in the Mercado
courtesy of virtualtourist.com

The mercado represented to me whole new world of food knowledge – it was an overwhelming assault of the senses as well.  The mercado was divided into sections by the kinds of foods, or goods, sold there – There was a section for fruits and another for vegetables – I could have spent all my time in these two areas alone, learning about new and exciting kinds of fruits and veggies – and being amazed at how such ripe perfection could be had so cheaply.  But at the same time, it was sad to see all this, for there was none of it that we could lug through Customs back in Miami – it simply couldn’t be legally carried home.

Perhaps the greatest sensory assault was reserved for the meat and fish areas, whose smells were sometimes less than appealing – Merida is not a cool environment -it is most often quite the opposite- and there is nothing about the mercado that suggests coolness, except perhaps that most of it is shaded – Yet, most meats and fish were displayed entirely out in the open, as if it were more important that the customer be granted direct access to the merchandise than it was to protect it from spoilage – or from the flies.  Depending on the particular vendor -and their cleaning habits- the smells would vary as you wandered down the rows admiring the huge halves of beef or pork, some being carved into unrecognizable butchering chunks, and many on display covered with a blanket of flies – occasionally, a vendor stood over the meats with a fan, swishing away the pests so that customers could have a better view.  The most disturbing part of this experience was the thought that these were the meats and fish that would be the likely subject  of tonight’s restaurant dinner.

courtesy of gettyimages.com

But the most exciting section of all in the market was the spice section, whose smells were blended into one huge cacophony of sensory invasion.  Nothing was in closed containers, instead, the spices were piled into beautiful mountains of varying colors and textures – red mounds, yellow mounds, green mounds, even jet black mounds – simply fascinating.  But the blending of the many competing spice smells created the greatest sensory assault of all – giving one a constant and continuing remembrance of smell memories stored in the recesses of one’s brain.  Overwhelming and exciting, all at once.

One of those spice pastes -an unassuming brick red color, with a musty, earthy smell- would prove to be the most exciting new taste to emerge from our Yucatan adventures.  It was achoite, the spice made from the annatto seed, and used to create the local favorite, Cochinita pibil.

Technically, Cochinita pibil means a slow roasted suckling pig that has been marinated in a sour citrus/achoite mixture – but as happens in the culinary world, today this dish is most often made with a pork shoulder, as it was that first time we experienced it in Merida.  I’ve never really had Cochinita pibil made with suckling pig, but I can’t imagine that it would be any more delicious than was the dish we had that magic night in one of our favorite Mexican cities.

Slow-Cooked Achiote Pork (“Cochinita Pibil”)
(Source: Rick Bayless, “Mexican Everyday”)

ingredients:

  •   3 pounds bone-in pork shoulder roast
  •  1/2 of a 3.5-ounce package prepared achiote seasoning (I like Yucateco brand adobo de achiote, available in Mexican grocery stores and through Internet sites)
  •   3/4 cup fresh lime juice (divided use)
  •   Salt
  •   1/2 of a 1-pound package banana or plantain leaves, defrosted if frozen (optional), available in Mexican or Asian markets
  •   1 large white onion, sliced about 1/4-inch thick
  •   1 large red onion, thinly sliced
  •   About 1/2 cup Fresh Hot Chile Salsa or Mexican hot sauce

directions:

  • Place the half package of achiote seasoning in a small bowl, pour in a 1/2 cup of the lime juice and 2 teaspoons salt; use the back of a spoon to work the two together into a smooth, thickish marinade.
  • If using banana leaves, cut 2 two-foot sections and use them to line a slow-cooker—lay one down the length, the other across the width. Add the meat and pour the marinade over and around the roast. Scatter white onion over the meat.
  • Pour 1/2 cup water around the meat. Fold up the banana leaves to roughly cover everything; turn on the slow cooker. Slow cook for 6 hours until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender (the dish can hold on a slow-cooker’s “keep warm” function for 4 more hours or so).
  • While the meat is cooking, combine red onion with the remaining 1/4 cup lime juice in a small bowl. Sprinkle with about 1/2 teaspoon salt, toss and set aside to marinate, stirring occasionally.
  • Use tongs to transfer the meat and onions to dinner plates. Spoon off any rendered fat that’s floating over the juices. If there is a lot of brothy sauce—two cups or more—tip or ladle it into a saucepan and boil it down to about one cup. Season with salt if needed, then spoon it over the meat.
  • Top with the lime-marinated red onions and serve with salsa or hot sauce—and plenty of hot tortillas for making tacos.
  • No Slow Cooker?
  • In a large (6- to 8-quart, at least 12-inch diameter) heavy pot (preferably a Dutch oven), assemble the dish as described, including dribbling the water around the meat. Set the lid in place and braise in a 300-degree oven for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until the pork is thoroughly tender. Complete the dish as described. If there isn’t much juice in the bottom of the pan, remove the meat and add about a cup of water. Bring to a boil, scraping up any sticky bits, season with salt, then pour over the meat.

My Notes: White vinegar may be used in place of the lime juice (or part), but lime juice is traditional. I did not use the banana leaves either, and set the slow cooker on High – I used the probe and set the temp to 190F (probably a bit too high) – it was very tender and ‘fall-off-the-bone’ consistency in 6 hours. However, this will be nice for pulled pork uses, and for cutting off in cold state for micro heating later on. A very nice result and not especially difficult to put together.

I love the slightly earthy, musty character of achiote – and I shall never experience it without a flood of memories of mysterious and romantic Merida.

Posted in Food, Foods of the World, Travel Tales | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Old Ways

Some Favorites

We bloggers tend to be an undisciplined lot.  Not that I’m against that – to me, undisciplined is an art form, and one I treasure. I’m just making an observation.

I’ll give you a ‘for instance’ – a few years ago I began a monthly piece on the food culture of America, which I called, ‘America’s Food Secrets’ – those posts were mostly based on the fact that America’s food culture is relatively young and still evolving – but there was an interesting base of growth and development there – and that if one wished to dig it out, a record of that evolving food culture could be found in the many little soft covered community fund raiser cookbooks that had their heyday from about 1950 thru 1980 – they fell out of favor after that, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t a valuable record of treasured family recipes of America’s immigrant masses. I loved them – and I would pick up a copy or two whenever I’d see them in a used book store – but that’s the hard, slow way to collect those little gems.

Those were the days -the early 2000s- when eBay was just getting off the ground, and I discovered it was a literal gold mine of availability for those little community cookbooks. For the most part, those cookbooks were worthless to their owners, and I never paid more than $1 for a book – postage was always the most expensive part of the deal. Often, sellers would put up a batch of them – then the postage would become more reasonable – so I soon only looked for the ‘bulk lot’ sellers – over the years, I’ve probably amassed close to 1000 of those cookbooks – only 100 or so of them are out in our formal book shelves (our home is crammed with book shelves everywhere you look!) – the rest are stored away in boxes, cataloged by the states they come from.

Although the ‘America’s Food Secrets’ posts were among the most interesting (to me) that I did, I stopped doing them – don’t know why – but I’ve often thought I’d give it another go – hey, it’s the way of the undisciplined!

America’s food heritage has many diverse roots (of course) but I think the most obvious -the British- is a mixed influence.  Not because British food was dull and bland at the time (but it was!), the lack of influence had a lot more to do with a population of British expats who suddenly found themselves, after the revolution, rejecting all things British, so the food had to go too.  However, given the fact that the majority of the new Americans were of of British blood, the food was in-grained, and any ‘rejection’ was going to take some time.

But in a land of immigrants, it couldn’t have been hard to find options – certainly, those early residents of the new America had some solid choices: the German influence was strong, as was the Dutch – and by that time, the earlier Spanish and French influences had come, made their mark, and for the most part, already gone.  But the influence that most casual observers would overlook is that of the Native Americans – the American Indians.  And this influence not only formed the base for what would become the emerging American food culture, it was so strong it would also make a major contribution to the food cultures of the rest of the world too.

How?  Just look at the long list of those foods which were introduced to the world by the Native Americans – potatoes, beans, corn, popcorn, wild rice, peanuts, pumpkins, tomatoes, squash, peppers, turkeys, cranberries, maple sugar, many nuts, melons, and sunflower seeds.  And if one is willing to include the Native American Indians of Mexico in that influence, you can add chocolate, vanilla, pineapples, avocado, and tapioca to the list.  In fact, 60% of the world’s current food production consists of crops which were introduced by Native Americans – I’d call that a major influence!

As you may have guessed, my discourse here is simply to suggest that I’m going to resurrect that earlier effort, and begin again to do a regular recurring piece on America’s Food Secrets gathered from those little gems of family food treasuries, the community fund raiser cookbooks.  However, I should admit to you that I’ll be injecting an editor’s bias into that effort, for my interest is not simply in repeating old family recipes brought over from the old country – my bias shall be for those foods and dishes which have influenced ‘adaption’ or change as they found their way into the evolving culture of food in America – and when I can, I hope to discover and point out those foods which have become ‘American’ in their own right, but only after having evolved from something quite non-American first.

I hope you’ll agree that in this way, we can discover new and interesting food journeys and paths – I suspect that at times, our journeys may be controversial, but that may be necessary to move the discussion forward – likewise, I don’t think we’ll need agreement to make the discussion interesting – in fact, I’m quite sure that our most interesting conversations will most certainly center around those with the most disagreement.

Another bias I’ll be injecting is a geographical one, for it is my humble opinion that the evolution of America’s food culture has developed more in the American South than in any other area of the nation.  For it is in the South that the most important contribution of Native Americans -corn- has been utilized most successfully and most fully – and the American South is the part of the country where the foods of the African American slave immigrants were developed and evolved, and this effort is most significant because the slave immigrants were not necessarily bringing their foods to America, they were bringing their own food culture, and adapting it to the new foods they found in America – and by so doing, they were contributing much to the development of the new American food culture.

I’ve often heard it jokingly said that the three major food groups of the South are sugar, lard, and corn -  and sometimes it can seem like this may be true – but as one peruses the community fund raiser cookbooks for evidence of how corn was translated from the Native American uses to adaptations in the American South, an interesting fact emerges – the overwhelming southern corn preparations are created without any sweetener – in fact, it is a badge of honor that true southern cornbread is NEVER made with sugar added.  Perhaps this is to separate it from Yankee cornbread, which ALWAYS is made with added sugar.  Whatever the reason, this is not to suggest that one’s breakfast cornbread should not be drenched in syrup or honey before it is eaten – it’s just never baked with sugar in the South!

The number of corn based dishes in the South is almost endless – and if you dig deep enough, you discover that every county of every state in the South prides itself on some sort of variation on the use of corn – a prime example of this is Spoonbread.  The Spoonbread which has come down to us today is neither a bread or a pudding, although it is not difficult to determine from where has come its name, since it is best served with a spoon.  It’s always been a side dish, and has a proud history – Spoonbread is found among the writings of the everyday life of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but we don’t start seeing any recipes for Spoonbread until the mid 1800s – as usually stated, those recipes are for a dish which is quite practical and versatile, one that could be served at any meal, and ready to change complexion at the slightest suggestion – a very useful and valuable dish for any occasion.

Spoonbread has evolved today into what we know as ‘corn pudding’, and may remind some of a souffle, given its high egg content and the way it rises without the aid of any leavening – in fact, although it may once have been more bready, none of the recipes I’ve seen create anything which reminds one of bread – its also surely related to what the Native Americans passed down to us as ‘Indian Pudding’, and to the British, ‘Yorkshire Pudding as well.  Spoonbread has many obvious influences and relationships, and neatly fills a key slot in the long chain of the ‘corn kitchen’ of the American South.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of eating Spoonbread, you owe it to yourself to add it to an upcoming menu – shouldn’t be hard, given its versatility and ease of preparation.

Spoonbread
(from Southern Treasures – a cookbook compiled by
the Athens College Woman’s Club, Athens, Alabama – 1970)

 Ingredients:
1 cup corn meal
4 cups milk (I used sour milk – I never throw the stuff away!)
2 Tbs. butter
2 tsp salt
4 eggs, well beaten

Procedure:
Preheat the oven to 400F (204c)
Mix together the corn meal and milk in a medium saucepan, and heat over a low heat, stirring frequently, as the mixture thickens – (it will achieve the consistency of a thick sauce – remove from heat and allow to cool for 5 or 10 minutes).  Add the butter, salt, and eggs, and mix together well.  Pour mixture into a greased 1 1/2 quart baking dish and bake at 400F for 45 minutes.  Serve immediately (or it will fall) with gravy, butter, or syrup.
Serves 5-6.
My Notes:
I really enjoyed this dish – and I think it adds a festive touch (at very little effort) to a dinner – but I think  it may be even better as a fancy breakfast dish served topped with a sweet fruit sauce or syrup.  I added the note in the recipe about being careful not to add the eggs to a hot corn meal/milk mixture, lest it cook the eggs – either let the mixture cool before adding eggs, or temper the eggs before mixing together – but you knew that, right?

Posted in America's Food Secrets, American Food Culture, Food | Tagged , , , , | 25 Comments

Clam Flat Adventures

Each year, San and I get our shellfish licenses, which cost the outrageous amount of $7.50 each.  This is a new thing in Oregon, since only a few years ago, there was no license requirement for collecting shellfish.  And yes, you can find some who bitch and moan about having to get the license, but the truth is it’s one of biggest bargains going.  Why?  A shellfish license allows you to collect crabs (including Dungeness crabs), clams (including razor clams), and mussels (a recent post), none of which are especially difficult to gather or catch – but all of which are relatively expensive in the market.

I know San favors going crabbing over the other shellfish choices, since that means we most often trundle out to the crabbing dock in Bandon on a warm sunny day, throw our traps into the water, and plop down in our lawn chairs to catch up on our reading, while we wait for the crabs to be enticed into our traps.  But I tend to look at the big picture – while the catching of the crabs may be the fun part, the cleaning and removing of the succulent meat from the shell is sheer torture – this is why ‘picked’ Dungeness crabmeat sells for up to $25 lb in the market!  My personal choice from the big picture perspective is clamming – and yes, of course I’ll tell you why.

The Charleston Clam Flats – a Long Way Out!

Hereabouts, when you mention clamming, most will envision razor clams, since those are the most romanticized of our available clams – however, they are also difficult to locate and difficult to dig – so I don’t even bother looking for them.  Another popular clam is the Gaper, or Empire clam, which is the size of a small melon – but I avoid digging for those as well, for while they are numerous, they live some 18-24 inches down in the mud, and it takes a major effort to get at them – I no longer have the endurance for the battle. There are several other common types of clams as well, which do not dig themselves so far down into the sand/mud – and all of these are conveniently found in one popular location, the Charleston clam flats.

Courtesy of rvresortstoday.com

Charleston is a quaint and unique fishing village of some few thousand year round residents – in today’s culture when all too many towns seem to be custom made for touristic purposes, Charleston remains a very real link to what a fishing village should be – yes, it’s very popular with tourists, and its summer population easily quadruples on weekends (a good time to avoid it!). It has a large and active marina and a few interesting restaurants too.

U of O Institute of Marine Biology
(Courtesy of uoregon.edu)

Charleston is also home to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology – interestingly, the clam flats to which we are headed are a part of the university’s estuarine research area, but there are no restrictions on clamming.  In fact, a good part of their research is finding out how the heavy clamming activity affects the sustainability of the clams on the flats.

Coos Bay (the body of water) is Oregon’s largest bay, and its many connected tidal sloughs and estuaries are extremely important, not only as nurseries and residence to the many marine creatures who live there, but to the human population whose quality of life is dependent on the continued health and well-being of the estuarine system and its affect on the rest of the environment.  It is a testament to the sustainability of this very popular clam digging area that even with the constant pressure it receives from human recreational clam harvesting, it continues to produce full limits regularly to those who dig here.

Closeup of Pickleweed or Sea Beans
(courtesy of vegetablecow. wordpress.com)

As we park the car above the salt marsh, we look out over a wide expanse of thick low growth, through which we must walk to get to the flats – upon close inspection, what we see is an interesting succulent type plant that gives an audible crunch as we move through it – this is known as ‘pickleweed’ or ‘sea beans’, and is unique to the salt marsh – it is, in fact, an indicator of the high tide line in the marsh, as its roots need the high salt content of the daily drenching they receive from the incoming tides, but the plant would soon die if it were completely covered by those same tides – pickleweed is edible and quite salty to the tastebuds – it really is a very interesting salt marsh vegetable and is becoming popular on many restaurant menus – check this site for some ideas on how to use it in your cooking: http://vegetablecow.wordpress.com/tag/sea-beans/.

The Broad Expanse of Pickleweed Marks the High Tide Line

We step from the carpet of pickleweed onto the muddy substrate of the clam flat itself – our first steps are easy over the solid surface, but we note that the further out we go, the softer is the mix of mud and sand.  The experienced diggers here know the most solid paths out to the far edge of the exposed low tide area, where the largest clams are sure to be.

But there are areas of the flats that deserve to have ‘Danger’ signs posted, as they contain mud so soft as to trap the unwary into its grip.  I have had several scary experiences where on each step I would sink mid thigh into the soft mud, literally trapping me in place.  On such occasions, the only escape is to either fall forward or backward and attempt to extract your feet, and then slowly retrace your steps back out to avoid getting in any deeper.  The price you sometimes pay for this folly is your shoes or boots, which often remain buried once you pull your feet free.  This is why clam flat shoes are most often an old raggedy pair of sneakers.

On this day, we needn’t worry about any of that, for our target clam is the cockle – and since the cockle is most often found close to the surface, it is the easiest of the clams on the Charleston flats to be dug – and to make our quest even easier, we’ll not seek the largest of the cockles, but instead we’ll look for the smaller ones, which reside much closer to shore – only 100 yards from our car.

Our local cockle shares its name with many different kinds and types of shellfish around the world, the most famous being the very small one of the British Isles – our cockle looks like this

and is heavily ribbed like a scallop – the cockle has a hard shell and is most generally found from 1 inch to 4 inches in size.  No other local shellfish looks like a cockle, so once you find one, you’ll always be able to identify them for ever after.

The cockle is a bit unique among its clam neighbors – instead of finding a good spot to burrow into the mud and stay for awhile, the cockle is more mobile, and with its hard shell for defense, it does not fear spending a good part of each day moving over the surface of the clam flats seeking food.  But all this exercise gives the cockle a very strong foot, and therefore the larger cockles are rather tough – as such, they are best used for chowder or ground up for use in stuffed clams and fritters.

Some Big Cockles From a Previous Dig

I appreciate this characteristic of the cockle, for it is the reason why many clam diggers do not seek the cockle.  However, if one is satisfied with the smaller ones, the young cockle makes a fine steamer clam – and those will be our targets today.

Within a few feet of entering the mud/sand surface of the clam flat, we come to a rivulet (good word, huh?), which runs across the entire clam flat – there are, in fact, several rivulets running across the flats, all natural made, and all serving a good purpose.  In this case, our conveniently placed rivulet will supply us with a full limit (20 clams each) of the smaller cockles, for this rivulet is a clam nursery.

My tool of choice when seeking cockles is a garden cultivator with four prongs – it’s effective, light and helps me move through slippery areas of the flats.  Some clammers simply rake away at the sand/mud until they hit something that feels like a clam – but all clams which burrow into the substrate use their siphon (through which they filter feed) to make contact with the water above their muddy hiding place – and by so doing, the clam often leaves a ‘show’ on the surface.  Finding the clams can be much easier if the digger looks for the clam’s show (each clam has a distinctive show) and then rakes there.

Several clam shows in the water.

I once witnessed a young girl equipped only with a long bladed kitchen knife and an empty onion bag hanging from her waist – when she found a cockle show, she slipped the blade of the knife down into the sand until it hit the clam – since the clam most often has its siphon extended and its shell therefore open, she was quickly slipping the knife’s blade into the shell of the cockle just before the clam closed its shell tight with the knife blade inside.  She would then simply lift the clam up and out of its hiding place.  A neat trick – some day I may try that myself.

OK, let’s try to get a cockle with our rake -

What it looks like in the water as you rake.

Can you see the clam yet?

Yeah, there it is!

Here’s our take at 5 minutes – we’re well on our way to our limit – did you notice that the clam on the far left is not a cockle?  If you did, good for you – that’s a butter clam, usually found deeper in the mud – for whatever reason, he was up higher than he should have been, and he paid the price, but we’re glad he did.

We really like the cockle – it’s a versatile clam, fun to gather and not at all difficult.  If you want big ones, just walk out a little further at low tide – but if you’d like a plateful of smaller steamers, like we did today, just walk out 100 yards and start raking.  And 20 steamed clams is plenty enough for anyone – except maybe a starving glutton.

Posted in Clamming, Food, Oregon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

What Makes Pie Crust So Challenging?

OK, here’s the way I think – sometimes I think there’s a unseen world around us where our pets are actually hosts for the spirits of those we once shared love with, and who are now departed – and then sometimes I think that all living creatures on earth share the same impression, that their species is at the top of the domain of all living things (and that actually mankind may well be somewhere near the bottom and soon will be gone anyway, and that perhaps bacteria is actually at the top) – and then sometimes (no, all the time!) I’m a fatalist, and I believe that fate and destiny are one – if you are sensitive to the cues and clues.

On a recent Saturday, as I journeyed out in search of another adventure, I turned on the radio to NPR, and remembered that Saturday is the day for ‘talk’ programming, when there’s no music – I was about to make a move to another station when I realized that they were talking about food – pie crust to be exact.  OK, maybe I’ll stay with this for awhile.

Now, I have a love/hate relationship with pie crust – I love it, but I hate making it.  And here was NPR sending one of its correspondents to the CIA (that’s the Culinary Institute of America) to learn how to make pie crust.  And the teacher, chef George Higgins, was promising a simple 3/2/1 formula to success – guaranteed success!  Could the CIA afford to be teaching anything less than perfection?

I listened – I absorbed – and I knew it was meant to be.  I couldn’t wait to get home and to give this a try – fate was at work here.

I have given some thought to why I fear making pie crust, and I’ve determined that a good deal of the problem is that my chosen approach to cooking/baking is one deeply instilled from my days in the restaurant kitchen – that approach simply is that one must learn how to apply an economy of effort in everything one does.  In other words, it is vitally important to find shortcuts in one’s daily kitchen work – if you can accomplish two things with one effort, good – but if you can do three, so much the better!  You are constantly looking for steps to eliminate.  And I am serious when I tell you that approach has been so firmly implanted that I find it impossible not to look for shortcuts for everything I cook or bake!

How then can I successfully make bread, since bread is a discipline that requires application of scientific rules for success?  Well, extensive experience will teach you which shortcuts will work and which will not – you simply learn to work around failures, which are always our best teachers, and of which I have had many.  Pie crust, OTOH was something I had not yet had enough experience with to find the shortcuts which would work – and I was violating the rules in the process.

What are those rules?  Well, as outlined in NPR’s piece, the keys to a good pie crust are:
*  Avoid, as best one can, the development of gluten (many ways, including a low gluten flour).
*  Keep everything (ingredients, tools, bowls) as cold as possible,
*  Handle as little as possible (really part of the first rule, but hey, it’s important).
*  Do not over-mix those lumps of butter.

If you’re like me and already you feel unsteady about pie crust, you may notice that this dough breaks what we all thought was another of pie crust’s rules, the one about using as little liquid as possible – Whoa, how can a pie crust with so much water be successful?  I considered this for a bit and then thought that if this recommendation was coming from the CIA, I needed to give it at least a ‘first try’ level of respect – OK, let’s go with it.

But what kind of pie will this be?  Didn’t take long to settle on a summer favorite, Ricotta Cheese Pie with a fruit topping.  I love ricotta because it lends itself to simplistic but delicious creations, and yet requires little sugar.  Let’s get to it and put this baby together.

Here is Chef Higgins’s exact instruction just as it appears on their website:
*  To make a flaky pie crust, start by measuring out 12 oz. (by weight) flour, 8 oz. firm butter, 4 oz. ice water. Keeping it cool is key. [I'd add a little salt as well, maybe a 1/2 tsp]
*  Cut the butter into one-half inch chunks. Add water and mix by hand. [No, the water will not be absorbed by the butter - mix briefly and move on]
*  [Add the flour and salt] Flake the butter chunks into the flour. The chunks should still be visible.
*  “Do not overwork the dough,” says Chef Higgins. You want a loose, jaggedy ball.
*  Press ball gently into a disk, refrigerate in plastic for an hour or so before rolling.

OK, that’s simple enough – just remember to limit the time you are working the dough with your hands, but don’t be afraid to ‘pinch’ the butter and flour together – once the dough begins to come together, pull it into a ball and wrap it in plastic.  I used white pastry flour for this – if you’ve got a low gluten flour, use it instead of AP or bread flour.  Resist the urge to use the food processor for this, as it is guaranteed to ‘disappear’ your butter chunks – do it by hand this time – next time, use the processor and compare the results.

My New Cast Iron Pie Pan

I have a new cast iron pie pan which I was eager to use – it’s a 10 inch pan (outside diameter), but frankly, I think the amount of dough from this formula is too much for a 10 inch single crust pie – next time, I’d use only 2/3rds of this amount, or I’d reduce the formula by 1/3rd.  If you are using a 9 inch pan, you’d have enough dough for 2 crusts – with an standard 11 inch pan, it’s a perfect amount.

How about the ricotta cheese filling?  I prefer the simpler types, and that’s what I chose:
*  1 lb ricotta
*  3 eggs, beaten well
*  1/2 cup granulated sugar (you may like less)
*  zest of 1 med lime or lemon
Preheat your oven to 375F (if you bake on a stone, make sure your oven preheats for 1 hour) – Mix all above and place into your pie crust in pan.  The cheese/egg mixture will be quite wet, so I slipped the pie into the oven for 15 minutes to avoid having the fruit slip below the wet cheese.  Then pull the pie from the oven and arrange fruit (I used 3 skinned peaches and a handful of blueberries) around top and sprinkle some sugar over the fruit.  Place assembled pie back into the oven and continue baking for 20-25 minutes or so – keep an eye on it, and if crust gets too browned, it’s done.

How was this crust?  Very nice, I’d have to admit – it was very flaky, but still had structure – not so tender that it fell apart as you ate it – and the taste was quite nice, with a buttery crunch that paired well with the fruit and cheese.

And what did I learn from this?  I’ve always had trouble with the concept of leaving large chunks of butter in my dough, and on this one I suppressed that desire and learned I’ve been wrong!  As you roll out the crust, those lumps will tend to disappear and do their magic.  This is also the first time I used pastry flour for a pie crust, and of course, it’s perfect for a pie crust due to its low gluten content.  The other thing I learned was that this amount of dough is more appropriate for an 11 inch pan than my 10 inch one – I should have guessed that they were using the larger pan, since the 11 incher is the commercial size, but I didn’t.

BTW, my new cast iron pie pan did a fantastic job right out of the chute – very nice indeed.

Summer is the perfect pie time, as long as you can still heat up the kitchen – so don’t miss the opportunity to do something delicious with all that luscious summer fruit.

Posted in Baking, Food, Fruit | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Cookie as Teacher

I don’t bake a lot of cookies, I think maybe because I’m a diabetic, but I do recognize their value to cooks as an educational tool.  Why?  Well, let’s start with their commonality – there’s no one who doesn’t know what a cookie is – even those who call them biscuits still know what you mean when you say ‘cookie’.  That doesn’t mean, however, that everyone knows what a cookie is made from.  For many, the cookie is a mystery, not worthy of investigation or further thought beyond that required to select one brand from another at the neighborhood grocery.

But the cookie’s real value as an educational tool lies in their simplicity – just as good bread is defined by a minimal number of ingredients -flour, water, yeast and salt- so too most cookies have only a basic few key ingredients -flour, sugar, and shortening.  And it is my contention that within those few ingredients lies a world of knowledge and educational experience for the emerging baker or cook – for depending on the ratio of those few ingredients, and how they are used in the construction of the cookie, an amazing diversity of types and kinds of cookies can result.

You may know exactly where I’m going with this discussion – or not – but regardless, allow me to provide an example of the three basic cookie types which depend on the ratios of these three ingredients.
More flour, less sugar and shortening = cakey type cookie.
More sugar, less flour and shortening = chewy type cookie.
More shortening, less flour and sugar = shortbread type cookie.

There’s much to be learned here, about how each of these basic ingredients works to effect the end result of whatever it is we seek to be cooking – my point is that the role that sugar, for instance, plays in a sauce, may not be so evident, since it is much more subtle, but it still will make a difference, and the skilled cook may have learned a good deal about sugar’s role from the simple cookie – and that knowledge is then transferred to the creation of many other dishes which utilize sugar as a component part.

And it is this kind of knowledge which helps to make competent cooks, and cooks which don’t need the constant reinforcement of a ‘recipe’ to be able to put dishes together.  In fact, I think it is this kind of knowledge which begins to make cooking and baking the joys they should be – with freedom comes creativity.

Having said all that, I now would like to put that knowledge to work.  As I mentioned above, as a diabetic, I try not to be baking a lot of sweet, sugary things – however, I’m not above seeking out alternatives, because I’ll admit I share a sweet tooth with most other Americans, who I fear are addicted to sugar – but I’m one of those who believe in the toxicity of sugar, even beyond the role it plays in the issues of diabetes.  So, I often look to taking my knowledge of sugar’s role in baking, and trying to find alternative ways to make those goodies without sugar.

The world of artificial sweeteners, and even those ‘natural’ non-sugar sweeteners, is one of controversy and political intrigue – and it’s also a world of strong public opinion.  Many potential users who may benefit from the use of artificial sweeteners wouldn’t be caught dead using them.  Many are turned off by the taste -or aftertaste- of them, and simply feel the price of benefit is too high.  And many others are convinced, even without governmental or university research attesting so, that the day will come when artificial sweeteners are found to cause cancer and other bodily harm.

Although I share the opinion of those who object to the taste of many artificial sweeteners, my taste buds have adjusted to the point where I can use them effectively without even noticing their negativities.  I think the key to accomplishing this is to train your taste sensitivities to less and less of a sweet taste – over time, this is possible – in fact, in my case, today I find many sugar based desserts to be overly sweet, and there are many things I eat and drink without sweetness, even though the rest of the world does not.

The artificial sweetener I use most is Splenda (Sucralose) which is created by changing the molecular structure of glucose by replacing three select hydrogen-oxygen groups on sucrose (table sugar) molecules with three chlorine atoms.  Splenda has been subjected to much testing, and those tests are ongoing, and has been found to be easily metabolized in the body – it is flavor stable up to 450 degrees F (232C) – and I personally think it has the most natural sweet flavor of all the artificials, but then, my taste has adapted and sensitized to it.

Perhaps you are among those who object to the chemical makeup of Splenda – if so, I’d suggest you investigate Stevia, which is a natural sugar alternative.  It too is heat stable to over 400 degrees, and has little aftertaste – and since it is 300 times sweeter than sugar, very little is needed when used.  Here in the U.S., Stevia has had a rough ride, and as yet does not have full FDA approval and can only be sold as a ‘dietary supplement’, and not as an ingredient in commercially available foods – strange for something which has never been shown to be harmful in studies and has been used extensively in many parts of the world for many years.  I have not used Stevia much in my baking, but I surely intend to do so.

Another thing you learn when you begin changing some or all of the sugar in a recipe is that sugar does far more than simply make things sweet – it adds color and volume, and contributes to the structure – so if you leave it out, you’ll soon learn what happens when you do!  Most of us learn by experience, so it’s OK to go right ahead and do it – and learn.

One of my favorite cookies is oatmeal – and I especially enjoy the chewy kind.  Just my luck!  I probably like the chewy ones because those are the ones I can’t have.  But I also like shortbreads a lot, which is what we’ll get if we simply replace the sugar in the following favorite oatmeal cookie of mine, a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, those champions of recipe objectification! (Yes, they are money-hungry, and Kimball is the ultimate ego-maniac – but they still do good work.)  And if I’m going to look for a good sugar free cookie, I’d much rather start with a recipe for a good sugared variety, and adjust it, than trying to find a decent sugar-free one among the mountain of mediocrity on the web.

So, take a look at this one, and my suggested changes, and then join me in My Notes below the recipe as I continue the discussion.

The Ultimate Oatmeal Cookie
(recipe adapted from The Complete America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook)

Ingredients:

  • 1¼ c all purpose flour
  • ¾ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ¼ tsp salt (or more)
  • 1¼ c old-fashioned oats
  • 1 c chopped walnuts or almonds (toasted at 350F for 10 mins.)
  • 1 c dried sour cherries (or cranberries, raisins or any other dried fruit)
  • ¾ c semisweet chocolate chunks or chips (I use dark chips and liked the result)
  • 1½ sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1½ c packed brown sugar, golden brown (or 1/3 cup white sugar, 1/3 cup Splenda, and 1 tsp molasses)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Procedure:

  • Preheat oven to 350° F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment.
  • In a large bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a smaller bowl mix together oats, walnuts/almonds, cherries and chocolate chips.
  • On medium speed, beat butter and sugar in a stand mixer until creamy and smooth.
  • Add the egg and vanilla and take speed down to medium- low to beat for not more than a minute.
  • Decrease mixer speed to low, slowly add in the flour and beat until just blended, 30 seconds.
  • Incorporate oat mixture and mix on low until just combined.
  • Stir the dough one last time using hand to integrate all ingredients.
  • Take ¼ cup measure from the dough and roll roughly into a ball shape. Repeat for approximately 16 balls. (or make smaller balls!)
  • Place balls on baking sheets.
  • Press down each ball until flattened to thickness of 1 inch. (? – seems too thick to me)
  • Set sheets in upper middle and lower middle racks of oven.
  • Bake for 20 minutes, rotating sheets halfway between, edges will be golden brown but the center will be soft and slightly mushy.
  • Cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes, this ensures a final cooking on the pans themselves.
  • Transfer cookies onto wire racks to cool completely.

See, the bottoms browned nicely.

My Notes:  The recipe above (without parens) is the original America’s Test Kitchen recipe – if you’d like the full sugar version, use that one.  But if you share my concern about sugars in our diets, you may want to consider reducing the amounts you eat – a good way to do that is to desensitize your taste buds to sweets – I’d suggest you can do that in any recipe by simply cutting the amount of sugar by half, and then dividing that ‘half’ between sugar and Splenda – I think this works because the taste of Splenda is more intense than is sugar itself, and so it seems sweeter – once you begin doing this, you’ll find you can use less and less Splenda and still get the same sweet taste.

Actually, the cookies in my pics above were made with no sugar at all – and only 1/2 cup of Splenda – but if you have not yet baked with Splenda, I’d suggest you simply reduce the amount of sugar used, rather than eliminate it entirely – and that way you can teach your taste buds to adjust to less and less sugar.

One last note, watch out for hidden sugar, such as in my chocolate chips here – you can find sugar-free chips, but in my area, they are strangely expensive – a better option is to buy bulk sugar-free chocolate and chop it into chunks – this makes for a beautiful effect in your cookie!  Frankly, I know dried fruit is loaded with its own sugars, but these are complex carbs, and the body processes them much differently than it does simple sugars – besides, the dried fruit has a load of other beneficial nutrients, so the calorie jolt may be worth it.

Enjoy, and learn too.

Posted in Baking, Food | Tagged , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Lettuce Overload

Our local gardening community has a saying, ‘It’s either a tomato year or a cabbage year.” – which is simply a descriptor of current climate – and unless one lives here, they probably wouldn’t believe that we’ve surely been living through another ‘cabbage’ year, while the rest of the nation was experiencing severe, record breaking heat!  Well, a cabbage year is not the worst of all gardening worlds, because the lack of heat allows many other vegetables a comfortable growing environment – such things as the many Asian greens, anything in the brassica family (Yes, the cabbage family), peas, beans, and lettuce – lots of lettuce!

Another reason I like the lettuces is it’s one of those vegetables whose seed remains viable for a looong time – I generally take my leftover lettuce seed that is more than 3 years old and mix it with other old lettuce, and then broadcast it into an open garden bed just to see if it will germinate, and it always does – this year I did that with some especially old seed (5 years + old) and I was again surprised at how thickly that seed germinated.

I think I also may have said that we gardeners create huge amounts of wasted food in our home gardens – and that fact bothers me.  If you’re a gardener, you know there’s no way to control this fact – a gardener who is too conservative in their seed sowing will too often find their garden beds have large open spots where seed simply failed to germinate or does not grow to maturity – and in response we all over-plant to guarantee having enough, with a result of over-production.

Lettuce, because of its good germination rate, and its rapid growth, is also one of the garden’s prime warm weather bolters – and bolting lettuce does not make for a good salad.  We’ve all tasted that bitter flavor that quickly develops in a lettuce that is ready to bolt – some kinds don’t even have to look like they are bolting, just by being mature is enough to flip that switch.  And most of us do only one thing with bolting lettuce – it gets pulled and added to the compost pile.

Once in a while, as I’m in the middle of doing just that, I think, ‘isn’t there something else I can do with these big, beautiful heads?’  And, as you may have suspected, yes, there is.  In fact, I suspect that there are many gardeners who regularly include bolted lettuce in their schedule of garden delights, because if one Googles ‘bolted lettuce, recipe’, one gets more that 428,000 hits!  So, eating bolted lettuce is not an unusual thing.

Another suspicion I have is that, like myself, many gardeners actually like the slightly bitter taste some vegetables take on – I always make some room in the garden for broccoli raab, the endives, collards, kale and chard – actually, most of what are known as ‘winter greens’ are bitter to some extent, especially when grown and eaten in the warm months – once those same greens have been subjected to a touch of frost -which all can easily handle- they tend to lose their bitter edge.  I find all those bitter veggies good table fare regardless of whether they are eaten in summer or winter – their changing character makes them more interesting and avoids making them boring.

My search for bolted lettuce dishes eventually took me to a recent New York Times article and recipe for an Asian approach which included ‘seared’ tofu (don’t you love how the food professionals go out of their way to create new ways to appeal to our food sensitivities?  The NYT is especially good at creating catchy titles.).  Of course, the NYT’s recipe here is not specifically for bolted lettuce – but it’s my opinion that this specific approach will always be better if one of the bitter greens is used in it.

So, there you are – whether your lettuce is bolting – or not – here’s a wonderful idea on how to use a splendid member of the garden which may be otherwise going to waste.  Actually, there’s nothing special about this recipe – any recipe for any of the winter greens would also be good, but this one is very nice – I hope you’ll give braised lettuce a try, especially the next time you have a big, beautiful head go south on you!

Stir-Fried Lettuce With Seared Tofu and Red Pepper

Adapted from a recipe by MARTHA ROSE SHULMAN
  • 2 tablespoons Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 1 tablespoon chicken broth, vegetable broth or water
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce (oyster sauce would also be good here)
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil, rice bran oil or canola oil
  • 12 ounces firm tofu, drained on paper towels and cut into dominoes or diced (I like to dust my tofu with corn starch before frying – a very nice effect!)
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon minced serrano or jalapeño chili
  • 1 red bell pepper, cut in 2-inch-long julienne
  • 1 pound ‘mature’ or bolted lettuce, cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide pieces
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons chopped or torn cilantro

1. Mix together the rice wine or sherry, the broth or water and 2 teaspoons of the soy sauce and set aside.
2. Heat a large flat-bottomed wok or steel skillet over high heat until very hot. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the oil by adding it to the sides of the pan and swirling the pan, then add the tofu and stir-fry until golden brown. Add the remaining soy sauce, toss together and transfer the tofu to a plate.
3. Swirl in the remaining oil and add the ginger, garlic and chili pepper and stir-fry for no more than 10 seconds. Add the red pepper and stir-fry for 1 minute, then add the lettuce and sprinkle on the salt. Stir-fry for 1 minute, until the lettuce has begun to wilt. Add the rice wine mixture, cook 15 to 30 seconds, until the lettuce is bright and crisp tender, stir in the cilantro and remove from the heat. Serve with rice or noodles.

Yield: 4 servings.

My Notes:  What I did wrong-  I used much more than 1 lb of lettuce, but I kept the rest of the ingredient amounts as above – bad!  I think my excess of lettuce diluted the flavors of the ingredients – keep the percentages of the recipe to avoid this problem.  Also keep in mind that lettuce holds huge amounts of water, and the longer you cook it, the more water is released – yes, I cooked mine too long.  I also used a Japanese soy sauce (Kikkoman) which is a more subtle taste than a Chinese or other SE Asian soys – that didn’t help either.  Oyster sauce may be an ever better choice here.

Enjoy.

Posted in Food, Garden, Oregon | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments