Monday, February 18, 2013

Delicious quick meal after a long drive

Today( well, actually, yesterday, since  this blog post was begun  prior to midnight and finished after!), Mr. G and  I drove up to Decatur, AL to visit our youngest daughter, who is in the hospital being treated for an infection. It was a lovely day for a drive, and we had a nice visit, or as nice a visit as one can have in that setting.

We thought  about stopping at a barbeque place and getting  something to bring home for supper, but discovered that our favorite  place was closed on Sundays.   I told Mr. G that we had a nice fillet of Alaska cod in the fridge that I'd bought yesterday. We could have that.    The drive home was  quite pleasant, with very little traffic on the interstate or on the side roads  when we exited the  interstate. I spent some time trying to think about what we could have  with the cod, and remembered that we had a mango and some pineapple in the fridge, and a lovely  mint plant in the greenhouse, so that was the  basis for the meal I  planned   on the trip.  

After fussing over the dogs and  feeding them, letting the cat out and back in, watering the greenhouse plants and setting up the lights in the greenhouse, I took inventory of what we had on hand for a quick supper.
I   decided to make a  mango, mint and pineapple salsa to go with the cod, and cook some rice as a side dish. Most of the salsa recipes I've seen call for red onion, lime and cilantro-none of which I had, and I don't really like cilantro anyway. So I dug  around in the fridge, cupboard and greenhouse and came up with a mango,  pineapple, an orange bell pepper, a jalapeno pepper, a lemon, a shallot and the mint.
 I  have mangled many mangoes , trying to  cut them, but finally bought a  mango slicer, shown here in the pic, hoping it would solve all my mango slicing problems. It didn't, because I just don't seem able to push it down over the mango with enough force, so I have reverted to my trusty chef's knife to do the job. I did find a few videos on how to slice a mango and  learned some handy little tricks. I've posted one  here that I found very helpful..
I cut the mango and pineapple into cubes,   removed the seeds from the peppers and chopped  the  bell pepper and jalapeno into  rather small pieces, and after rinsing , drying and stacking the mint leaves,  cut them into strips,  as in a chiffonade. I minced the shallot and  sauteed it in butter in a saucepan,  removing half when it was tender, and leaving  half in the pan  to  flavor the rice. I mixed the mango, pineapple, cooked shallots, peppers, and mint in a medium bowl, sprinkled  them with salt and peppe, added a few drops of lemon juice and  placed the bowl in the refrigerator while I prepared the rice and fish.
 To the butter/shallot mixture  remaining in the saucepan, I added 1/2 cup of jasmine rice and heated over medium heat, sautéed until the rice  turned translucent, then white. I then added a cup of  chicken broth to the saucepan, brought  it to a boil, turned  the  heat to low, covered the pot and cooked it on a  slow simmer for a bout  13 minutes until done.
While the rice was cooking  I  rinsed and dried the fish.  The fillet was  quite large, so I cut it into four sections. I used the "double dip" method to  batter the fish: first I  dredged the pieces in flour seasoned  with salt and pepper, then  dipped them in a beaten egg, and finally dredged them in cornmeal. I heated some olive oil  in a frying pan, and sautéed the fish, two pieces at a time, so as not to crowd them in the  pan, until it was browned to a lovely golden shade. Almost any flour/cornmeal  variation can be used here, depending  on how adventurous you are -- spelt flour, masa, polenta. I used unbleached white flour and organic yellow cornmeal this time, because that's what I had on hand.
The fish looked lovely on the plates snuggled next to the rice and blanketed with the salsa. And it tasted  good, too! A nice, quick, tasty, healthy  meal, coked from scratch and served up in a hurry. After all,  tonight was the season finale of  Downton Abbey and one  wouldn't want to be tethered to the stove at such a time and miss the whole thing, would one? ;-)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Happy lemons for happy days

When I was very young,  I  liked to suck on lemons.  Something about that delicious, tart, juicy, sunshiny fruit  made me happy. Even today, I prefer  tart and tangy over sweet and syrupy.  Except for  Nutella- I love the sweetness of Nutella. But I digress. . .

I  use lemons a lot.  Lemon slices stuffed in a  roast chicken; lemon juice drizzled on  sauteed fish; lemon  pie, lemon curd, lemon in sauces and salad dressings; lemon  zest in cakes, cookies, soups,sauces; candied lemon peels as a garnish. Lemons are so useful and so versatile. And so tasty! 

But lemons are also useful around the house. For years, I have used lemons to rub stains out of my cutting boards.  I've dipped  lemon halves in baking soda or salt to use as a scrub for the kitchen counters, and lemon juice is great for removing  stains from  lots of things.

For several years, I've been trying to get away from using  harsh chemicals around the house. I bought a steam mop for the floors which  not only gets the floors sparkly clean but saves  a lot of money since I no longer need to buy  floor cleaners.  I've used  vinegar to  clean the windows (This isn't a new idea- I can remember my mother using nothing but  vinegar water and newspapers to clean  and polish windows when I was young). I've combined vinegar and baking soda to  clean the drains in the sink and to  scrub burned food off pots. And now, thanks to One Good Thing by Jillee, a wonderful blog with   household tips, recipes and other good stuff, I've  discovered a new way to use lemons and vinegar together. Jillee has a recipe for lemon vinegar, and since the  neighborhood Piggly Wiggly had bags of  lemons on sale, I couldn't resist.

First I  cut the lemons in half and squeezed  out the juice.   While  doing this I came to the conclusion that  we need a more efficient   juice extractor.  My little citrus reamer is fine for doing one or two  lemons but it's hard on the wrist  when  you're  juicing a whole bag of  lemons. But I got them all juiced- enough to fill up an ice cube tray for the freezer. Now, when a recipe calls for  just a little lemon juice, I can  use a  lemon juice cube, or use  several to make a  glass of lemonade.

After juicing, I cut the lemons into quarters and put them in canning jars.  There were enough lemons to fill one quart jar and one pint jar. I then filled the jars with white vinegar and capped them. Now they are  tucked away in the cupboard.  After two weeks I'll take them down, strain the  liquid, mix it  50/50 with some water, put it in some spray bottles and try it out.  I can hardly wait!

I was trying to think of a song about lemons,  and of course, Led Zeppelin's  Lemon Song came to mind, plus one or two others.  But they were all   on the depressing side, and I wanted a happy lemon song.   I finally found  Happy Lemon!  Enjoy :-)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sproutage! We Have Sproutage!

The last few days have been rainy, windy,  gray days with no sunshine to brighten things up. So it was a lovely surprise to be greeted by the sight of  little green plants popping up in the trays I seeded last week.
You can barely see them, but that's the Swiss Chard on the left and some basil on the right.  I seeded the basil a bit more thickly than I would have liked.  Well, actually, I shook the packet a little too vigorously and the seeds are so tiny that there was no way to fish them out of the vermiculite, so I'll have  more little  seedlings of basil to pot up and may have to  make a much larger area for basil in the herb garden.But, really, can one have too much basil?  I think not ;-)

There is something so exciting about  those first seeds emerging. Like the jonquils that  pop up, sometimes through the snow, they are little messengers from Mother Nature, sent to let us know that winter will end soon and Spring is on its way.  I'm excited about the prospect of having  the tomatoes and eggplants emerge soon, and sowing more seeds.  I've already set the  fluorescent lights over these two sprouting babies to make sure they get about 15 hours of light  a day. I was able to turn the lights off  for most of the day today because we had beautiful glorious sunshine streaming in the greenhouse, making  artificial light necessary only when the sun faded.

Yes, Spring is on the way! There may be  more dull, gray days of winter before us,  maybe even some snowy days, but there will be  more sunny days, too, and Spring WILL come!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Come along and follow me to the bottom of the sea

We'll join in the Jamboree
At the Codfish ball.

OK, to be honest, we didn't go fishing, attend a  ball or even  eat codfish balls, but we did have cod for supper tonight. I used a recipe published in Bon Appetit in 2006: Baked Cod and Potatoes with Horseradish Cream Sauce. It's an easy recipe, with a minimum of dirty pots and pans and it gives me a chance to  hone my skills on the mandoline. 
 I have never been able to slice potatoes or anything else into perfectly even slices, which is  why I love my mandoline- it lets me slice a potato or  a bushel of potatoes, or other veggies into slices of exactly the same thickness so they cook evenly. And the best part is, I haven't sliced off a finger yet! My mandoline is a French-made Bron that does many things I haven't yet had the nerve to ask it to do (fear of finger-loss), but  any  good, sharp mandoline   will do the same thing, I'm sure. Here's a picture of it in action with the red potatoes for tonight's meal:
 You just set the blade for the thickness you want,  set the hand guard on its guide rails, position the potato (I cut the larger ones in half so they are easier to fit in the hopper of the hand guard) and begin slicing.  It's  best to use a steady, fast motion maintaining the proper pressure as you slide the guard. 

In no time at all  you potato slices that are of  an even thickness.

I dipped the potato slices in a mixture of mayonnaise,  mustard with horseradish and lemon  juice,  then, after  shaking the excess mixture off the potato slices, placed them in a single layer on a baking sheet and baked them in a 400 º oven for about 13 minutes, until they  were just beginning to turn brown.  

Meanwhile, I dipped  two cod fillets in the same mixture, then sprinkled them with salt and pepper and placed them on  a baking sheet and baked for another  10 minutes or so until the flesh was opaque and tender. The timing will depend somewhat on the thickness of the fish.  I placed the   potatoes on the plates and topped them with the fish. I served  creamed spinach with this.

I think I might try to jazz up the sauce a little next time, it seemed  somewhat blander than I like a sauce to be-- especially one with horseradish!  Otherwise, it made a nice, easy meal. The lighting  was not good for these pics and they aren't the best quality, but they give a fair idea of how it turned out, I hope.

And about the song lyrics that opened this post- - they are the from the song, Catfish Ball, featured in the 1936 movie,  Captain January, starring  Shirley Temple (I had forgotten just how  cute and talented she was!). Here's a video of her performing the song.  See if you can guess who her dance partner is :-)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Feeling fine on elderberry wine. . .

Or elderberry  syrup, or jelly or pie, or in my case, elderberry tincture. Elderberry, which contains vitamin C,  A and B also contains flavonoids, sugar, tanins, carotenoids, and amino acids, has a long history as an herbal remedy. Rosemary Gladstar, in  her book, Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, notes that  elderberry syrup is the most popular herbal cold remedy in Europe. Native Americans used elderberry  for a number of  ailments, and recent preliminary scientific studies have shown elderberry extract to be an effective treatment for Type A flu if taken at the first sign of symptoms.

 I keep a bottle of elderberry tincture around and have found that if  Mr. G and I take a spoonful at the first sign of a scratchy throat or flu-like symptoms, it seems to  keep whatever we were coming down with at bay. We've gone several years now without  suffering  the flu or even a major cold. It may not work for everyone and shouldn't be considered as a replacement for traditional  flu preventatives and medications, but it has worked well for us so far.

A few years ago we would gather wild elderberries, but it was often  difficult to get to the berries before other critters had harvested them, so I ordered an elderberry  bush  from Possum Creek Herb Farm.  It has grown like wildfire,  and is a lovely sight in May and June when it is in full bloom. I sometimes gather and dry the elder flowers to make  elderberry tea, which is quite delicious sweetened with  local honey.
  When  if has finished flowering,  the berries form, green at first, then turning red, and finally a deep  purple. That is  when they are ready to harvest. Here in Alabama, they  are usually  fully ripe by the middle to end of July.

Sometimes, though,  there are few berries  left to harvest.  I've found umbels  picked clean by birds and bugs. But usually  I can gather enough to make a  nice jar of tincture, if not enough for pies and jelly.
It's important to separate the berries from the stems completely, as the stems, leaves and bark  are said to be toxic if ingested.  I have decided not to  test this out  on myself or Mr. G and am VERY careful to keep the stems  out. Some people use a fork to remove the berries, and others freeze them first, which is said to make removal easier, but I just  use my hands and fingers and that has worked well for me so far. Once the berries are separated, I rinse   them and drain them in a colander, then put  them in a  clean canning jar, filling it  1/2 to 3/4 full of berries. I then  fill the jar with the solvent or menstruum, completely covering the berries.  I  use 100 proof vodka.  You could also use gin brandy or  rum. If you do use alcohol it should  be  at least 80 proof. The proof  tells you the percentage of alcohol- 100 proof  50% alcohol, 50% water, 80 proof is 40% alcohol 60% water. The alcohol serves as a preservative, but if there is a health condition or other problem that  precludes using alcohol, glycerin or vinegar can be used instead, but I have never tried that.

Once the jar is filled, I cap it and place it in a dark  cupboard for about  2 months. I  try to shake or turn the jar at least once a day, since it seems to help speed up the extraction process, but I don't think  it's crucial and have been known to skip several days without dire consequences. 
This jar  had been sitting for   less than a week, and the liquid had already turned a lovely dark color. After a  couple of months, I strain off the liquid, bottle it up, label it  and we are  all set to face  flu season with a little more confidence. We usually just take a teaspoon full a couple of times a day when we first begin to feel  symptoms, but  you could also add the tincture to juice, water or herbal tea. We have found that it rarely takes more than one or two doses to do the trick.

So we  have been feeling fine  this flu season with our tincture, but I may  be lucky enough to have a bumper crop of berries this summer.  Maybe even enough to make a tincture AND some elderberry wine. Then we can sing "Elderberry Wine" along with Elton John :-)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Way Down South in Birmingham

Way down south in Birmingham
I mean south in Alabam'
There's an old place where people go. . .

That's the opening of "Tuxedo Junction," a  jazz song co-written by  Birmingham Native Erskine Hawkins,   played by his orchestra and later recorded or covered by many famous orchestras and   solo performers, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra,  Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and The Manhattan Transfer.
 Tuxedo Junction is a real place in the Ensley Section of Birmingham, in the 1700 block of 20th. Street. Once a busy business hub and the site of a jazz and blues club at a streetcar crossing, there is little physical evidence remaining to attest to the vibrancy of the area depicted in the song.  The building, now  an office building re-named the Nixon Building, still stands, and little more than a historical plaque and  the memories of a few folks who lived in that era mark the spot where musical history was made, but  there is evidence that those memories are  becoming stronger and are being passed on, because  every summer, the "Function in the Junction" celebrates the musical heritage of the area with a parade,  music, food and activities celebrating the history of  Tuxedo Junction. I was fortunate  to attend one of the very first revived "functions" and  really do have the t-shirt to prove it!

Birmingham  has gotten a lot of bad press over the years, much of it well-deserved. But Birmingham today is a  very different place from the Birmingham  people saw in the news during the news coverage of the Civil Rights Struggles of the  1950s and 1960s. We still have a lot of problems, but we have moved forward in so many ways. We have so many beautiful places,  talented, vibrant and caring people of all races and  socio-economic groups who believe in Birmingham, its potential and its future. And we have an  artistic climate  encompassing art, music, theater and all the rest  that can well hold its own with  any place that is considered among the best. And beer-  we  have some very good beer!
I visited two of  my favorite areas in Birmingham today:  Pepper Place  in the  Lakeview area, and Avondale,  a newly revitalized  and thriving area of  Birmingham with a long and varied history.

Today was a beautiful, sunny day- a little on the chilly side, but  not anything to complain about. My first stop was at Pepper Place,site of  several specialty shops, antique stores and a thriving   Saturday  Farmers Market in the summer.  Rod, owner of Owl's Hollow Farm,  braves the winter weather to set up a stand  there to display his  hydroponic veggies plus eggs, pork, cheese,  bread, honey and jams and jellies  from Owl's Hollow and several of his neighboring farmers. I came away with eggs, spinach, onions, sweet potatoes and red potatoes.  I got so involved  talking, though, that when I got home, I discovered that the  beautiful stalk of Brussels  sprouts  didn't make it home with me- I must have left them behind.  Drats!

After loading the goods in the trunk of the car, I  went round the corner to Charlie Thigpen's Garden Gallery.  There are so many  wonderful,  whimsical  things  there that I  wish I could buy one of everything, but I settled for a  few lovely botanical  notecards and some seeds.

From there, I headed for Freshfully market in Avondale, a  newly  reopened and renovated store that carries products made in Alabama- with a few out-of-state  items like  Florida strawberries for those (Me!, Me!) who find it very hard to be total locavores in the dead of winter! Their renovation  includes a lovely  wall   with the  store logo, painted by   local   high school art students. Today the wall was serving as a backdrop for a sushi class that was being  set up  while I was there. Lots of stuff happening at Freshfully- tomorrow, there's a yogurt -making class!

From Freshfully I drove to V. Richards, where I was  lucky enough to park close to a beautiful camellia bush in full bloom. The camellia  is Birmingham's  official flower, despite the fact that it isn't  a native plant, which is a shame, since we do have  many  perfectly wonderful native plants..  But the camellias are a beautiful sight, blooming their hearts out in the winter.

 V. Richards has a  wonderful selection of  poultry, meat and fresh fish, plus an extensive  wine and beer selection and a good selection of produce, much of it local. Today, they  even had edible orchids! So pretty.  But I passed, since edible orchids are not on my menu plan for the coming week. They were lovely, though.

  I did buy  a nice flounder fillet,,which we  had for supper tonight, dipped in  egg, coated with  french-fried onion crumbs, sauteed in peanut oil and served with anchovy butter.  Yummy!

I hope your day was as pleasant and enjoyable as mine. The weatherman is predicting quite a few cloudy, cold and rainy days for us  in the coming week with little hope of  sunshine, so today's sunshine and  warmth was a gift much enjoyed  and appreciated..

And if you aren't familiar with "Tuxedo Junction" or even if you are and just want to hear it again, here it is for your listening pleasure!

Friday, February 08, 2013

Seeds of Contentment

They're here!!  Today has been a very good day.  Not only did I discover that our income tax refund had already been direct deposited to our bank account, but  the first order of garden seeds  from Pinetree Garden Seeds arrived in the morning mail!
There are so many good reasons for growing your own plants from seed: economic, environmental, greater choice of varieties and colors, preserving heirloom varieties, avoiding GMO veggies, and so on.  But aside from all those reasons, there is something just so satisfying about the whole process, and  for me, at, least, seeing  seeds break the surface and lift their heads to the light is a wonderful and exciting experience!

I like buying seeds from Pinetree because there are fewer seeds in a package, which means less waste and less seeds I have to carry over from year to year and run germination tests on, since I hate to  waste seeds. After reading Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening, I began using  his single seed sowing method which made a lot of sense. Sowing  just  the number of seeds I needed  also alleviated the guilt pangs I suffered when thinning out  little seedlings that had struggled  hard to break free of their seed cases and emerge victorious, only to be rudely plucked from the soil and discarded!

Having already made space in the greenhouse a few days ago, and having  disinfected my seed starting  containers, I was ready to  begin sowing. I use  basically the same equipment in the greenhouse that I used  before we had  the greenhouse: A large  black plastic mortar mixing box,  heat cables,  a fluorescent light, a few plastic flats without drainage holes, and  a variety of  recycled plastic containers such as yogurt, cheese, margarine tubs and  some containers that gourmet dog food came in. I punch drainage holes in the bottom of these and have found that they last very well and can be reused several times.

First we  put some sand in the bottom of the mortar mixing box, then bury the heating cables in the sand.

I like to  start my seeds in vermiculite rather than a seed starting mix because I've always had  good luck with it.  The vermiculite   moistens easily and it's very easy to  extract the seedlings  for  repotting without damaging their roots. After making sure they all have drainage holes (I use an ice pick to punch the holes), I fill the   tubs with the vermiculite, then place them in a plastic flat  half-filled with water. Once the  vermiculite is evenly moist, I remove the   tubs and  begin to sow the seeds, using a  Popsicle  stick marked with the seed name and sowing date, and place them in a dry flat on top of the sand.

I then place a piece of  clear rigid plastic, like Plexiglas, over the  mortar box and plug in the heating cable. I keep a thermometer inside the  mortar box to monitor the temperature, which I try to keep at around   70 degrees Fahrenheit. On sunny days the greenhouse heats up and we don't need to  plug in the cables. Even when the outside temperature is in the 20s and 30s, with the sun shining, it sometimes gets so warm that we need to vent or remove the cover. I  keep an eye on the moisture so that the containers don't get too dry or too moist, and water the containers by putting water in the flat so the  the containers are watered from below.  This method seems to help avoid  the seeds damping-off. I don't fertilize at this point, since seeds contain all the nutrients they need to germinate, and once the seedlings  have developed their first true leaves I  prick out and transplant them into individual  containers filled with potting soil and begin to fertilize them. So now, all I have to do is wait for that magic moment when   I see little crooks of green poking up through the vermiculite, ready to greet the world! At that point,  I'll keep the temperature a little cooler and bring on the lights so that they  will develop into  sturdy little seedlings  ready to  move into the garden when  the soil is warmed by the spring sun.