Sunday, July 29, 2012

Budget dinner at its finest: Black beans and rice

There are dishes that Brian and I ate while we were growing up that bring back some loving and cringe-worthy memories: SpaghettiOs with hotdogs sliced into it, boxed macaroni and cheese mixed with peas, and a little (delicious) gem that my mom made called tuna fish and rice casserole. These meals were filling, made an attempt at incorporating multiple food groups, and cost about 30 cents per serving.

As a kid I was happy, and loved, and snuggled, and read to, and watched TV when we had cable, and so what if I ate store-brand cereals and Hydrox and peanut-butter-and-butter sandwiches? Back then, everyone had patches sewn onto their jeans. Brian claims that pigeon traps on his friend’s roof provided him with a tasty lunch during one afternoon visit. I’m not sure if I believe this. But you get my drift. He still remembers how delicious his butter and sugar sandwiches tasted. The point is, we were all toting questionable lunches to school in the 80s.
For example, when my brother and I went to visit my dad on weekends, he would occasionally be tasked with packing me a lunch for Girl Scout hikes or other excursions. This was always a strange experience. I’m not sure if my dad just didn’t want me to go hungry or if he truly had no idea what a typical eight-year-old girl ate for lunch, but, on more than one occasion, he sent me off with a gigantic brown paper grocery bag filled with three bananas, three apples, four granola bars, two sandwiches, and multiple juice boxes. I was the Gulliver of the Girl Scout Troop, as I pulled an entire grocery bag’s worth of lunch out of the bright green, industrial-sized backpack that he’d sewn for me out of extra boat canvas (he’s an upholsterer). Now, I can appreciate that he was very much ahead of the crafty, DIY curve, one of the “original hipsters,” driving around in his green-and-white striped El Camino. But back then, well…I had a big giant school bag.
Thrift extended beyond the kitchen, of course. For my mother, punks were the source of many of her purchasing decisions. If we wanted Z. Cavariccis, my mom would say no, only punks wore those. Skidz? A special favorite of punks. The laser-beam background for school pictures? Punk-ness preserved forever. As with my father, I can now appreciate my mom’s reticence to succumbing to ugly, overpriced trends. Back then, well…I had maroon corduroys.
“You make it sound like we were dirt farmers,” my mom exclaimed when I told her about this post.
We were not farming dirt. Brian and I were just like every other kid in the 80s and early 90s: We played outside until the street lights came on, ate freeze-pops until our tongues turned green, squatted over a pile over grass clippings for hours making bird’s nests, and watched cartoons starting at 5 am until we left for school. But thanks to my mom, I know that popcorn tastes better, is far cheaper, and is leagues healthier if it’s popped from actual kernels in a pan on the stovetop instead of from a bag in the microwave.
I still have a fondness for getting a lot out of a little, and I think a good example of that is the black beans and rice dish that’s been a hit in my house for years. It’s a step above hotdogs in SpaghettiOs, but it’s still true budget dining at its heart. Here it is:

Adapted from The Teen's Vegetarian Cookbook
  • In a stockpot or other large saucepan, heat 5 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Saute one small, finely chopped onion for 1 minute, then add one clove of finely minced garlic and sauté for a minute more.
  • Use a food processor (or just your amazing knife skills) to finely chop a green pepper, two carrots, and a jalapeño pepper (with the seeds removed).
  • Add the additional veggies to the pot and sauté for 5 minutes.
  • Add 1 teaspoon of cumin, a 15-ounce can of black beans (liquid and all), and 2 cups of veggie broth to the pot. (Hint: You can used the canned or carton version, although I’ve been known to use veggie bullion to make my own broth in a pinch. Or go full DIY and make your own). Simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Add ¾ cup of instant brown rice and simmer, covered, until the rice is cooked. If it’s not thick enough for you, add more rice. Optional additions: 1 tablespoon of chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice.
  • Serve alone or with sour cream and tortilla chips.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Recipe: Lazy lady’s guilt-induced homemade frozen garlic bread

I often wish that I could be effortlessly crafty and creative and have a house full of homemade quilts and furniture that’s upcycled from empty soda cans and plastic wrap or something like that. But my projects inevitably look like something that a slow-witted six year old made during arts and crafts at summer camp.

This desire to be a creative DIY-er also extends to food, and although my cooking doesn’t possess the same deficiencies as my pathetic artistic efforts, it’s often trumped by another demon: Laziness. As much as I would like to make everything from scratch all the time, I just don’t have the time or inclination to do so, and sometimes (often) succumb to things such as store-bought frozen garlic bread.
It’s a scene that plays out frequently: I stand, paralyzed, in front of the freezer case at the grocery store. I grab a loaf of frozen garlic bread, read the list of unpronounceable ingredients, and guiltily put it back on the shelf, closing the freezer case door with a steely resolve. But I don’t walk away. I think about dinner and the task of making dinner and how yummy and convenient and inexpensive frozen garlic bread is, and how well it goes with spaghetti and meatballs. I might wonder if other shoppers are watching my dance of indecision, if they can see the little angel and devil on each of my shoulders, whispering in my ear. Buy it! The devil hisses. It’s delicious. You love it! Admit it!
He’s right. I do love it. I brush the angel away and quickly toss a loaf into my cart where it lands with a thud. I walk away in a shame spiral. I console myself by thinking that at least the meatballs will be homemade.
At home, the garlic bread is quick and easy and undeniably tasty, but I still feel yucky about all of the processed crap that I just served my family.
Then I had a revelation: I could make frozen garlic bread myself; make my own convenience food. With minimal upfront effort, you can be rewarded with an excellent harried-weeknight payoff.
Now I should warn you that I’m not claiming that this is health food. There’s a stick of butter in it for shit’s sake. But at least the four ingredients you put into it are recognizable, pronounceable, and regularly appear in kitchens, rather than test tubes. Check it out.

Recipe: Homemade frozen garlic bread
  • Take a stick of butter (the real stuff, please) out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter until it’s soft.
  • Roast a bulb of garlic in a 400 degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until soft. (Click here for an excellent, visual tutorial on how to roast garlic).
  • When the garlic’s cool enough to touch, hold the bulb upside down and squeeze out the now-soft garlic into a mixing bowl. Note: Experiment with the amount of garlic to see how much you like. It's always easier to start with a little and add more.
  • Mix together the garlic and the soft butter until it’s smooth (ish). Add kosher salt to taste.
  • Take a loaf of any kind of rustic or Italian bread you like and cut it into one-inch slices. Line up the slices on a foil-lined sheet pan that you can easily fit into your freezer.
  • Slather each of the slices with a generous amount of garlic-butter.
  • For cheesy bread, grate some parmesan over the slices (using the big holes on your box grater), then press the cheese down into the bread a little so it sticks.
  • Put the whole shebang into the freezer until everything is frozen.
  • To store, place a slice-sized square of waxed or parchment paper between the slices, stack them up, and store them in gallon-sized zip-top freezer bags. I like putting four slices in each bag because that’s how many I generally would reheat for a single family meal.
  • To reheat, remove the waxed paper, and place the bread slices (butter side up, of course) on a baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees until they’re golden and crispy.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Here I become yet another foodie enamored of squash blossoms

If there’s a single food that perfectly captures the fleeting feeling of summer, it would be squash blossoms, without a doubt. Some people might argue strawberries or some other fruit with a short growing season. But here’s what I say: Although strawberries are at their peak for just a few weeks in June, they’re still available at the grocery store in January. They might be tasteless and spongy and shipped from half a world away, but they’re there, on the shelf, year-round. Squash blossoms are never on any shelf, often not even at farmer’s markets. They’re just too delicate, these gossamer blooms that open eagerly in the morning to drink in the July sunshine and wilt by sunset.
I’ve read about fried squash blossoms for years, and despite the yammering about them from foodies, they seemed to be a delicacy not worth bothering with. The main ingredient was impossible to locate, and I was skeptical about how satisfying a fried flower could actually taste. Plus, there’s my closeted fear of frying things. I am not the most, say, graceful person on earth, and even though I love cooking, I seem to burn myself more often than would be considered normal. So putting me in charge of a pot filled with boiling-hot oil was a scenario that I could not envision ending well.
But then we planted our little four-by-four garden, and suddenly, bright yellow zucchini and squash blossoms were staring me in the face every time I stepped out the back door. By now our garden had morphed into a parking lot-abutting jungle that inspired awe-filled chuckles from our neighbors. The squash and zucchini plants had choked out all of our other veggies—carrots, beets, and lettuce—except for the pole beans. These were the most enthusiastic and hearty plants I’d ever encountered, shooting runners across our walkway and growing higher than my waist. If one of the climbing vines had reached out to tap me on the shoulder on my walk to the car, I don’t think I would have been too surprised.
Our first, ready-to-pick zucchini was this long, stout, phallic thing sticking out proudly over the wall of the raised bed. I cut it off with a pair of scissors, making gleeful squeaking sounds as I did it; I think I skipped into the house with the zucchini raised triumphantly over my head. I made Chloe sit on the couch and hold it in the air like a trophy so I could snap pictures of it with my camera phone. We grew food! I was astounded. We put a seed in dirt and a couple of months later, food came out. It was a miracle.
Here, I learn that Brian doesn’t like zucchini. Which I find odd, because to me, zucchini has very little actual flavor. It’s more a vehicle for other flavors. But he’s vindicated because Chloe doesn’t like it either. And we have more zucchini than I really know what to do with in a house where only one person will eat it in its natural state. So I start making those aforementioned zucchini breads in earnest, tripling my recipe again and again for multiple batches and freezing the loaves for later. My whole family loves zucchini bread, especially for breakfast. Chloe actually claims to be “hungry for zucchini bread,” which I can totally relate to.
And crowning the ends of all those lovely zucchinis that are filling our little garden? Zucchini flowers, in abundance. Sometimes there are flowers where no zucchini will ever bloom from the vine. So I’m ignoring them, ignoring them, ignoring them all summer, until an internet search for what the hell else to do with zucchini accidentally yielded recipes for fried zucchini blossoms. Some called for the blooms to be battered and fried alone, but I happen to have ricotta in the fridge and want to use it.
So I found a blog with gauzy and ethereal-looking pictures of a fabulously DIY life. The blog’s owner was a serenely beautiful hipster lady chef who had lovely, manicured fingernails and demanded that a free-range egg be used in her squash blossom recipe. Her instructions included step-by-step photos taken with an amazing camera. Here’s a photo of the blossoms strewn artfully on a sunlit, clutter-free counter. Here’s a photo of her pretty hand filling the blooms with ricotta. Here’s a photo of the zucchini blossoms stuffed and laid out in a neat row on a vintage platter. Naturally, I wanted to reach through the computer screen and slap this woman.
The real-life process for frying squash blossoms is not so angelic, but the taste was oh-so worth it. And here’s what I learned about frying: It’s pretty darn forgiving. After getting a dip in batter and a sizzle in the hot-oil Jacuzzi, my squash blossoms were delectable. Maybe they weren’t pretty enough to warrant a Pinterest board, but they were gone so fast, it really didn’t matter. I’ve made them twice now for different groups of people and each time they’ve vanished from the plate within minutes.
I harvested them from our own garden and doing so got dicey only once, when I accidentally disturbed a beetle who was hanging out in one of the blossoms. He flew out angrily and then buzzed me once in the head for good measure before flying off. I screeched and threw his little blossom condo into the parking lot while Chloe laughed hysterically at me from her orange Adirondack chair.
After that, it was all smooth sailing. And I burned my fingers only once. Here’s how it goes down.
Recipe: Fried and stuffed squash blossoms:
  1. Make the filling: Combine a cup of ricotta cheese, a half-cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese, one beaten egg, one clove of garlic that’s minced as finely as you can get it, just under ½ teaspoon of grated lemon zest, and a big pinch of kosher salt.
  2. If you’re harvesting the squash blossoms yourself, do it now. Take 8-12 squash blossoms and open up the flower petals. I’d tell you to be as delicate as you can because these suckers like to stick together, but I’ve ripped every one of my blossoms so far and they’ve come out fine.
  3. Heat the oil: Heat about 2 cups of vegetable oil in a wide saucepan.
  4. Using a piping bag, a zip-top bag with the corner snipped off, or even just a spoon, fill the open blossoms with the ricotta mixture until they’re about 2/3 filled. Twist or fold over the petals to close it.
  5. Make the batter: Mix 2/3 cup of whole-wheat flour (I like its nutty flavor) with one cup of seltzer and mix until the flour is just wet.
  6. Dip each of the stuffed blossoms into the batter to coat and drop them one by one into the hot oil. Move them around so they don’t stick together or to the bottom of the pan. (I think this is best done in two batches, frying them 5 or 6 at a time). Fry for three minutes.
  7. Remove them to a paper-towel lined sheet and sprinkle them with kosher salt.
  8. Lay claim to at least two of them for yourself immediately. They go fast.

"Of course I can!"

We picked strawberries this weekend, and of course Chloe ate more strawberries than she put into her basket. She popped them whole into her mouth: stem and leaves and dirt and all.
The rest of these strawberries are destined for the desert of winter, when I will open a jar of homemade jam and be instantly transported from the cold, dull gloom of January back to the sunny, sweet warmth of June, of picking strawberries under a bright blue sky with my little girl and her daddy.
Of course, I’ve never made jam before, ergo have never canned it before either. A healthy fear of botulism has kept me from venturing into the dark netherworld of home canning, a practice that seems so arcane, so foreign that I feel like I’m traveling back in time just by contemplating it. I don’t even think my maternal great-grandmother—a divorced, chain-smoking woman who sent her only child to live with nuns Monday-Friday so she could work full time—ever considered canning.
But I am more than contemplating it now. I am going to do it. The strawberries sit, untouched, in the fridge. They have a higher purpose than being added to something as mundane as my morning cereal. They are destined for greater things. Summer—and ingenuity—in a jar.
Since I am overly romantic about everything, I insist, then, on saying I am “puttin’ up” jam, like I am a homesteader living on the range, not a yuppie living in a condo. I wear a red cotton sundress and sandals, throw the windows wide open, and set about rinsing these newly picked strawberries—I am almost giddy with excitement. My jars and pectin (whatever the hell that is) are waiting at the ready.
Here I will pause to impart some canning wisdom.
Things I have learned about canning:
  1. Don’t wear sandals. Boiling jam is really fricken hot and hurts like a bitch when it splashes on top of your naked foot.
  2. Having one of those wide-mouth funnels really helps to get the jam into the jar. It’s not just something “fancy” that you don’t need. No matter how many times you mutter “motherfucker,” that jam will not make it off the counter and into your canning vessel.
  3. When attempting to process the filled cans, be sure your pot is tall enough to house both your jars and enough water to cover them by at least an inch. Displacing boiling water all over the stop top is an ugly turn of events. (Although jumping backward and screaming as the water scorches across the burner and onto the floor is a surefire way to get your husband’s attention).
  4. Canning tongs with rubber grips that curve around the jar’s rim are also essential, also not just another something “fancy.” Trying to extract heavy cans from boiling water using nothing but your wits and a ridiculously huge set of grilling tongs is no fun; no fun at all.
  5. There is little else as satisfying as the pop of a vacuum seal gone right.
  6. You might irritate your friends by sending text message pictures of your new jars of gorgeous jam. Do it anyway!
  7. You might have recurring dreams all night that your jam doesn’t “set up.” Resist the urge to run to the kitchen at 2:30 am to check on it. You’ll be rewarded in the morning with perfectly set jam and a happy toddler begging to eat it on toast, to which you will blissfully oblige.
Now that I have successfully done it once, I am obsessed with canning. I immediately order a canning kit online, complete with the correct tongs and funnel, and check the website 30 minutes later to see if it has shipped yet (it hasn’t). I obsessively take pictures of my gorgeous jars and scoff at my camera’s inability to capture their jewel-like beauty.  I can’t wait for the blueberries and raspberries and blackberries to be ready for picking, and therefore jam making, and therefore canning. And although I am not anxious for the long days of summer to slip through my fingers like sand at the beach, a part of me can’t wait for January, for popping open that jar of June jam and smiling all over again at a job well done.

How does your garden grow?

Finally the day to plant outside has arrived, but first we have to put together the four sides of the raised bed. My husband, Brian, isn’t the handiest fellow on Earth, so the task of screwing the thing together falls to me, since I don’t get hurt nearly as often or as dramatically as he does. The job is a quick one.

Chloe observes all from her spot on the lawn, sporting her pink polka-dotted cat-eyed sunglasses and a thick layer of sunscreen.

“That was a tough job,” she says periodically throughout the proceedings. She quickly dispenses of the bucket of water she was given to play with, and joins us to dig up the lawn, trowel in hand, “rescuing” the worms that have been unceremoniously dug up and disposing of the many rocks that seem to be growing in the dirt.
Brian has a head that’s shaved bald, so sweat just beads up on his skin and rolls onto his face, stinging his eyes with salt and sunscreen. I think he sweats a lot. He insists he sweats no more than anyone else; it’s just that everyone else has hair to soak it up. Perhaps this is true. Whether it is true or not, though, I will give him this: In the almost 12 years we’ve been together, he’s never smelled anything less than shower fresh, even after a couple days of camping, even after playing nine innings of baseball on Sunday mornings. I don’t know how he does it, but I challenge any other lady to be able to say that about her man.
Brian puts on a hat to soak up his head sweat, and soon, we’ve dug a beautiful square of dirt. We pound in the four sides of the raised bed and pat ourselves on the back. Since our previous attempts at planting eggplant and tomatoes in smaller patches right next to our steps and directly into the ground resulted in cracked and blighted-looking fruit, we fill the garden with the contents of four 30-pound bags of lovely, rich, black garden soil that promises to feed our vegetables for three months! And grow them twice as big!
“Why are there so many sticks and stuff in there?” Brian demands. He sounds cheated. I don’t know why they’re there; maybe for drainage. I have heard drainage is important in such matters. He seems appeased by this explanation, so we smooth the soil out, making it clump free and even. Suddenly possessed and overcome by the beauty by this wide expanse of dirt, Chloe frantically hops over the raised bed wall and into the newly dug garden plot, planting herself right in the middle. I ask if she’s a vegetable and whether she wants me to fry her in butter for dinner. She laughs gleefully at this proposition, but hops out.
We plant only the six healthiest-looking squash and zucchini plants, plus some of the beets, a few more beat seeds, and a bean plant that Chloe and I started on a lark in a plastic bag in the window, but which is now growing like, well, a weed. We also plant carrot seeds. I mean, we “direct sow”carrot seeds. I have to remember to use the right lingo here. I am delighted that the carrots can be planted every two weeks throughout the season to ensure an ongoing crop. We save the lettuce for another day. Brian keeps telling me that his grandfather grew lettuce in bathtubs, but somehow I think a bathtub on the lawn would raise the ire of the condo people, so we’ll hold out for metal buckets.
I have visions—maybe delusions—of our summer; of walking out the back door and plucking the ingredients for that night’s dinner off of the bushes with a serene smile on my face, looking like the beautiful, peaceful earth mama that I wish I could be. Of making enough zucchini bread and jars of beautifully pickled beets and whatever the hell you do with carrots to last us the whole, long, cold, winter. I am a good cook, if nothing else.
“Is four-feet-by-four-feet enough space to grow all of that stuff?” a friend asks me at a party later that night.
“I don’t know,” I confess, to a chorus of laughter. I wish my gardening career didn’t begin with so many people laughing at my ineptitude. But even if the garden doesn’t end well, it’s not like I won’t be able to feed myself. I can still drive to the grocery store.

My black thumb

We planted a garden today, and we might get in trouble for it. We live in a condo with a tiny spit of grass outside our back door and this morning, my husband and I decided that it’s time we start trying to live off this land!

Problem is, according to our condo association, we’re not really “allowed” to have anything in our “yard.” No hangers for line-drying clothes, no pots or welcome mats on the porch steps (lest they rot the wood underneath), no bikes outside. We once left a dry, dead, hanging plant outside for too long post-mortem and immediately got a tersely worded letter asking us to please remove the offending foliage, as it was, apparently, an eyesore.
The one exception to the 'Don’t Sully the Common Area' rule seems to be gardens; the people here tend to gussy up their sad plots of land by cramming as many bushes and flowers as they can into the couple feet each of us has in front of our townhouses. We thought, if they can do it, so can we. Granted we’re the only ones digging up a big portion of the lawn for a raised bed vegetable garden, but there you have it. If the condo manager arrives to scold us, I will simply charm her with some big, beautiful bushels of garden-fresh zucchini.
So for mother’s day this year, my husband bought me a 4x4 screw-together raised bed garden frame from Aldi that’s made out of some kind of fake-wood-plastic composite and has a five-year warranty. 
My almost three-year-old daughter, Chloe, and I started our plants in the house in mid-spring in a long seed-starter tray: we planted beets, lettuce, zucchini, and squash, 48 plants. They all grew! I couldn’t believe it. This was after getting laughed at by my grandmother when I informed her I was going to the hardware store to buy some seeds.
 “What are you going to do with them?” she asked.
“I was just going to dig a hole outside, and sprinkle them in,” I confessed.
Hysterical laughter.
“It’s too early to plant them in the ground,” she says. “My father always said ‘don’t plant outside until after Memorial Day.’”
“Really?” I asked, dejected. It was mid-April and sunny and warm and I am not a patient person. And I had promised my kid gardening that day.
“Well, you can start them inside, in containers,” she offered.
Bingo! Since I also fancy myself an environmentalist, I started pulling empty containers out of the recycling bin, showing Chloe that we could turn anything into vegetable pots. Hooray for life lessons about reducing trash and growing our own food! I am supermom.
We strolled into the hardware store and were faced with a wall of seed packets. Too many choices. Paralyzed. I start pulling stuff off the rack at random, while nonchalantly explaining to the store owner that I was going to plant our seeds in old milk jugs and peanut butter jars.
More derisive laughter!
“How about this?” he asks, pointing to the fancy seed-starter tray, with an air of redirecting a confused child.
I’ll take it. And while I’m at it, I ask what seeds I should buy. I also confess to him that I know nothing about dirt, one of the world’s most common substances. Why not? He’s already found me out as a gardening fraud.
And so five or six weeks pass by and our plants are growing like crazy! My neighbor asks what we’re growing. I tell her, and she looks at me skeptically, warningly.
“You get a lot of zucchini off of one plant,” she says. I have 12 of them.
“Well, I really like zucchini bread,” I say. She’s unconvinced. “And I have hungry neighbors?”
“Yeah, we like zucchini,” she says. OK then!