Friday, March 30, 2012

Applesauce Pizza Crust

Happy Friday! One of our favorite weekend meals is (big surprise) pizza! Although I love our usual whole wheat dough, sometimes I'm looking for a crust that's a little different. I'll experiment with various flours and add-ins, trying to change the flavor and texture (while still ending up with usable dough!). I recently decided to try adding applesauce - I was hoping to add moisture and softness to the crust.  And I'd say I succeeded! We enjoyed this pizza al fresco, thanks to the amazing spring weather we're still having.

Unlike our regular whole-wheat pizza crust, this one is soft and somewhat sweet. The dough has a softer texture and can easily be hand-stretched to make the pizza skin (rather than rolled out). If the dough turns out too sweet for your taste, feel free to omit the honey. We both really liked the sweetness level - it's not super sweet at all, but the sweetness is definitely present.

Applesauce Pizza Crust
Yield: 2 medium pizza crusts

1 cup white-whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups bread flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp italian seasoning (dried herbs)
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast (1 packet)
1 cup water
2 tbsp honey
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 tbsp olive oil

1. Combine flours, salt, herbs, and yeast in a large mixing bowl, and stir to combine.
2. Create a well in the middle of the flour mixture, and pour in the wet ingredients. Stir to combine all ingredients, switching to your hands to incorporate all of the flour. This dough will remain slightly sticky, but add a bit more flour if it is too difficult to work with. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes.
3. Oil a large mixing bowl, place the dough in it, and flip once to coat with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about an hour.
4. Punch down the dough and let it rise to double again, about 30 minutes.  Preheat your oven to 450 degrees, with a pizza stone on the middle rack.
5. Divide dough into two pieces. Stretch and/or toss on your fists to make a pizza skin the size of your pizza stone.
6. Bake for about 8 minutes, popping any bubbles that form with a fork.
7. Remove the pizza crust from the oven, flip it over, and top as desired (sauce, cheese, you know the drill). Return to the oven and bake 10-12 minutes more, until the cheese is browning and the crust is golden.
8. Slice and enjoy!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Container Gardening: The Costs

Previously, we discussed our seeds and space, and our containers and soil.

So how much is all of this gardening costing us? Of course prices will vary, depending on where you live, but hopefully our experience can help you know what to expect. 

The thing that I didn’t think too much about before we started was how much more it costs to grow things in containers. You must provide every space and all of the soil for the plants, which can add up! Also, because this is our first year gardening, we had to buy nearly everything new. As you will see, we tried to be thrifty where possible, while making a few splurges to get the maximum use out of our space.

Shelving unit: $59.99 (Target)
8 large buckets and drip trays: $2.78 per bucket + $0.84 per tray, total $28.96 (Menards)
2 self-watering planters (10 inch): $7.98 (Menards)
4 self-watering planters (8 inch): $8.97 (Menards)
Trough planter: $10.98 (Strader’s)
6” ceramic pot: $4.99 (Strader’s)
We already had a few other small pots that we are using.
2 railing planters: $29.98 (Strader’s)
Seeds: $42.24 (Some from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, the rest from Strader’s.)
This was MUCH more than I expected, but we’re growing a lot of different things. The average cost was $1.83 per seed packet. We will be saving seeds from as many of the plants as possible to grow again next year.
Organic potting soil: $58.63 (6 32-quart bags of Miracle Grow Organic Choice – Home Depot)      
2 grow lights: $21.94 (Walmart)
These are for seed starting, probably optional if you have a very sunny windowsill
Odds and ends:
$2.09 for wooden plant labels (Strader’s)
$1.98 for hooks to hang grow lights (Home Depot)
TOTAL INVESTMENT: $278.72 (not including sales tax)

Costs we expect to be one-time: all containers/planters, many seeds, shelving, lights.
Costs we expect to have next year: more soil (although we’ll be looking into re-using some), some seeds, odds and ends.

So our investment this year is pretty substantial, but the cost should diminish significantly in the following years, even if some items must be replaced. I’m sure there will be a few more costs as the season goes on, but these are the big ones.

Our two big splurges were the shelving unit and the railing planters – those set us back about $90 total. But the shelves will let us use a lot of vertical space, and ditto for the railing planters. Since we have such a small area to work with, using vertical space is really important. They are also things that we can re-use in the future.  I think these will be worth the investment.
Comparing this to the CSA I joined last year, the CSA cost a little more than $400, and I got a few pounds of vegetables most weeks of the summer. This garden will cost us a little less than $300, but we don’t know what kind of output we will get. The CSA and garden both carry the risk of crop failure due to any number of causes (although the CSA is in the hands of a professional, not my inexperienced hands). The garden requires more work – I just picked up the CSA once a week. The nice thing about our garden is that we totally control what we plant, and how we grow things, so there is more choice involved. And I’m hoping that growing some of our own food will be very rewarding.

A few things we haven’t spent money on:
1.       Dedicated gardening tools. I’m planning on doing most of the work with my hands, scissors, or a large spoon. This is one of the advantages of container gardening – no back-breaking work to turn up soil!
2.       A watering can or garden hose. The hose was an easy decision – we don’t have an outdoor hook-up for one. I’ll try using an old laundry detergent container (cleaned out well!) as a watering can - it's a pretty simple DIY project. 
3.       Seed starting kits. We are using empty toilet paper rolls (which we’ve been setting aside for a few months now) instead of buying seed starting kits from the store. The cardboard will decompose when we plant the seedlings. 
4.       Fertilizers or pesticides. We’re planning on using a little counter top compost mix to fertilize plants, and I’ll address pest issues as they arise. Some of these natural remedies will be an additional cost, but I don't know which we will need or use yet!

Do you have a garden? How much would you estimate it costs you to keep? 
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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Container Gardening: The Plan, Part II

In The Plan, Part I, we talked about the seeds we’d like to grow and the space we have to work with. Want more on gardening? Check out the gardening page!

I planted some wildflower seed paper in our purple ceramic pot, and I'm hoping it will add some color to our garden! The seed paper came from a Whole Foods gift card holder. I've always thought seed paper was really neat, but never planted any until now.

The Containers
5 gallon bucket, 10 inch planter, 8 inch planter, herb trough
Although pretty planters are certainly nice, the more reading and research I did, the more I realized that they weren’t necessary. I knew we could provide good room to grow without investing a ton of cash. Enter pickle buckets (AKA 5 gallon buckets). We picked these green buckets up at Menards for $2.78 each. I'm considering picking up some spray paint to make them more aesthetically appealing.

The problem with the buckets is that they don’t provide any drainage. Fortunately, that’s easily solved with a drill and a drip tray. Nick will be drilling holes in the bottom of each bucket, and they will rest on drip trays so they don’t drip on our downstairs neighbor!  (An aside: because we live in an apartment complex, there’s always the issue of neighbors. I’m hoping to make friends with the nice lady who lives downstairs by sharing some of our produce with her, and by doing everything possible to avoid dripping or dropping things onto her patio!)

These buckets will be used for the tomatoes, beans, squash, peppers, eggplant, and carrots. I will also be companion-planting some herbs in those same buckets. For instance, my reference book says that tomatoes and basil like to grow together, because the basil helps shade the soil and has much shallower roots than the tomato plant (so they don’t compete for nutrients). We will only have one plant of most of these larger plants (because they need the nutrients to themselves), so companion planting lets us get a bit more out of the space.

The smaller plants got lucky when we went shopping for containers. Menards had some self-watering planters that were a good deal. We could have used smaller buckets for these plants too, but the buckets were actually not a better deal in this case, so we went with planters. I don’t know how well the self-watering feature will work, but in any case these should be functional. We have two sizes – 10 inch pots for the larger lettuces (swiss chard, kale), and 8 inch pots for the smaller lettuces and herbs.

We will also be using the ceramic pots we used on the windowsill garden (three six-inch pots and one six-inch strawberry pot). Some may be re-planted; I’m not sure yet.
I mentioned our railing planters above. These are the only two planters like this we’ve located (with a deep pocket for the railing), and they cost $14.99 each. They were definitely a splurge, but hopefully worth it. One of these is going to be all mint.

And finally, one more container: the herb trough. This will be dedicated to our various types of basil.

The Soil

Since we’re gardening in containers, we have to provide soil for the plants. It might seem like the best or thriftiest thing to do would be to take soil from the ground. Putting aside the fact that we don’t have any land to our names, so we’d be stealing the soil from someone, this is a bad plan for a few reasons. First, soil that’s good in the ground isn’t good in containers. Container soil is much lighter in texture and must drain better; soil from the ground will compact and be too hard in containers. Second, we need a very nutrient rich medium for our plants. Potting soil has this built in – the kind we are using contains compost for fertilization.

We’re using an organic potting soil mix (this one) because we want to keep our garden as close to organic growing as possible. We’re not planning to use regular fertilizers or pesticides. We will use a number of natural fertilizers, and deal with pest issues with natural remedies. (Don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted!) There’s no telling how this will work out, but the more organic our garden is, the happier we will all be.

So how much is all of this costing? Later this week, we’ll take a close look at how container gardening is affecting our wallets. 

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Container Gardening: The Plan, Part I

Spring has definitely sprung here in Nebraska. Most of the trees are flowering now, and petals fill the air when the wind gusts. The beautiful change in scenery - vibrant green grass, blossoms all around - has livened up my morning walks with Cooper.

As warmer weather approaches, we’re gathering supplies and getting ready to start some seeds for our container garden. Working with a small space means we have to plan everything very carefully so it will all fit. Here’s what we’re looking at so far.

The Seed List
Seed packets
We will be planting, and attempting to cultivate, all of the following. A few of these have gotten a head start or trial run on our windowsill garden. Most of these specific plants and varieties were selected because they are supposed to perform well in container gardens.

- Basil (sweet Italian, fino verde, cinnamon, lemon, and dark purple opal varieties)
- Dill
- Mint
- Parsley
- Cilantro
- Chives

- Rainbow Swiss Chard
- Spinach
- Tom Thumb lettuce
- Buttercrunch lettuce
- Blue Curled Scotch Kale

Other vegetables:
- Black Krim tomatoes
- Bush beans (Contender and Royal Burgundy varieties)
- Ronde de Nice zucchini
- Pattypan/Golden Scalloped squash
- Danvers Half-Long carrots
- Nutri-Red carrots
- Little Fingers eggplant
- Red Belgian peppers (sweet)

The Space

That is a LOT of things to try to grow on one tiny deck! The space we plan to use on our deck is 4 feet by 5 feet. (The whole deck is about 13 feet by 5 feet, and houses a grill and a small table.) We’re trying to make the most of the space in a few ways. First, we’re using straight-sided containers for the largest plants (more on that in Part II). Second, we’re using a wire shelving unit to make use of vertical space to grow lettuces and herbs. Third, we invested in a few railing planters to further use all available space. (Most railing planters won’t work on our deck, because it has thin metal rails rather than a thick wooden rail, so it took some searching and splurging to obtain these.)

The other challenge that our deck presents is that it is covered. This means it does not get tons of direct sunlight. In the morning, it gets direct sun from the east, but overhead sun doesn’t happen. This will undoubtedly affect some of the plants more than others, and is part of the reason this year is so experimental. Some plants just might not like living on our deck.  The plants that need the most sun will go along the railing, where they will get the most light, and more shade-tolerant plants will live on other parts of the deck.

Next time, in The Plan, Part II, we’ll discuss containers and soil. 

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Meatless Mondays: Pepper and Mushroom Pasta Salad

Last week, when I gave you my favorite method for roasting peppers, I promised this pasta salad. Although this week is going to be much more garden-focused than usual, I couldn't wait to share this recipe with you!

This is another recipe I like to make for lunches all week - it makes a lot of food, and is delicious hot or cold. It comes together quickly once the peppers are prepared - if you're crunched for time, use jarred peppers, or frozen roasted peppers (like I do - roast a bunch, then freeze them to have them on hand). Once the peppers are done, this barely takes more time than cooking the pasta - about 20 minutes.

This recipe is vegan, and thanks to the combination of pasta and beans, a source of complete protein. (It's also a fantastic source of flavor!)

Roasted Pepper and Mushroom Pasta Salad
Use any variety of mushrooms you like - a blend of wild mushrooms is fun, although I most often use regular white button mushrooms. I drain a can of chopped tomatoes for the tomato juice here - you need pure tomato juice, not a flavored/spiced version like V8.
Yield: 6 servings

12 oz whole wheat pasta shapes (twists, shells, etc.)
10 oz mushrooms, sliced
2 bell peppers, roasted, peeled, and sliced into strips
2/3 cup rasins
1 14-oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp tomato juice
1/4 tsp each salt and black pepper, or to taste
3 tbsp chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped green onions

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Be sure to salt the water.
2. While pasta cooks, heat a skillet over medium heat, spray with cooking spray, and add mushrooms. Sautee the mushrooms until they give off their juices, then transfer mushrooms and any of their liquids to a large mixing bowl.
3. In that same mixing bowl, add roasted peppers, rasins, and beans. Stir to combine.
4. In a smaller bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, tomato juice, salt, and pepper.
5. When the pasta finishes cooking, drain well. Then add the pasta to the large mixing bowl, and pour on the dressing.  Stir to combine, then gently stir in basil and green onions. Enjoy hot, and refrigerate leftover in individual servings for quick lunches.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

How to Roast Bell Peppers

There are many different techniques for roasting bell peppers, but this is my favorite. It's simple and pretty hands-off, and consistently produces perfectly roasted peppers. I use the broiler to roast the peppers, but don't place the peppers too close to the broiler, so the entire flesh roasts by the time the skin is charred. 

To keep roasted peppers on hand, I like to freeze them after roasting. Lay the skinned, roasted peppers out on a sheet tray, place in the freezer until frozen through, then place in a baggie for freezer storage. Individually freezing them this way means you can easily grab however many you need for a given recipe.

While I was taking photos of the pretty red peppers on the deck, Cooper thought they smelled good and was sure they were for him (dog logic: things on the floor belong to the dog!). He was disappointed that I wouldn't let him eat them. 
How to Roast Bell Peppers
You will need: 
Bell peppers
Baking sheet
Oven with broiler

1. Place a rack in the middle of your oven. Turn on your broiler (to high, if it has different settings). Let it heat for a few minutes while you prepare your peppers.
2. Wash your bell peppers. Cut each in half, and remove the stem, seeds, and white membrane.
3. Arrange the peppers, cut side down, on your baking sheet.
4. Place the peppers in the oven, and broil for 10 minutes, or until the skins have plenty of charred spots on them.
5. Remove the peppers from the oven, then place in a container with a lid. Seal the container closed; this traps the steam in with the peppers, which makes them easier to peel.
6. Peel the outer skin off the pepper. Use as desired, or freeze for later use.

I'm saving these peppers for a pasta salad that I'll post next week, but here are a few recipes other that use them: quinoa salad, and muhammara.  These are also a great addition to hummus, and I love them sliced up on top of pizza.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Windowsill Garden: Lessons Learned

So how did our garden grow? Check out the beginning, February, and March updates. 

Our windowsill gardening experiment lasted a mere three months this winter, but in that time we learned a few things.  Some of our plants grew strong and hearty, and others fizzled.  As amateur gardeners, we didn’t expect everything to work perfectly, but I think experience has taught us a few lessons. 

1. Some plants will thrive, with or without your best efforts.
Our parsley plant is the prime example of this lesson. We abandoned it when it was barely sprouted (we forgot to take it home over Christmas break!), and it survived.  It is thriving now, and I hope that it continues to do well in the future.  I take no credit for its health.  
Our green onions, which I wrote about here, did great in the windowsill and were basically effortless to grow. Again, I don’t feel like this is any sort of spectacular green thumb of mine, but rather a plant doing what plants do. 

2. Some plants will utterly fail, even with your best efforts.
Our chives basically failed to germinate until last week. I think this was because I followed the package directions to sow the seeds on the surface of the dirt, when they need a little cover to keep them wet enough to germinate. We had a similar issue with the tom thumb lettuce.  Those two, however, I think we can chalk up to experience.

Our cilantro is another story. It was one of the first things we planted, with the parsley, but it didn’t survive abandonment. We re-planted, barely got one sprout (about a month later), and that sprout quickly died. We tried again with new seeds, which are germinating decently. It might take us a while to get cilantro growing well for us!

3. If at first you don’t succeed, try again.
See lesson 2 – each time something failed, we tried again. Usually, we adjusted our approach.  Usually, it seems to have helped. We've planted cilantro three times - maybe this time it will stick around.
A corollary to this lesson is that you must be flexible. Things won’t necessarily work as you planned, or as you want them to. Accept that fact, and do the best you can with what you have. 

4. Small space = small yield.  Therefore, herbs are a great choice.
We tried growing some lettuces too, and some micro greens and sprouts.  The micro greens worked alright, but I think we would need to use a much larger container to make them worthwhile in the future. Sprouts were fun, but I didn’t really keep up with them. They were enough to top things with, but we barely grew a salad’s worth altogether. I don’t think we got our money’s worth out of these things, but we might have if I committed to containers with a larger surface area. 
Although the parsley was the only herb we really got to take off, it has worked well. Because we only use a few tablespoons at a time, the plant can keep up with our demand quite easily. And financially speaking, fresh herbs can really get expensive at the grocery store, so growing your own can actually save you money. Plus, I find freshly picked herbs are the tastiest.

Mesclun sprouts

5. Keep it simple.
Stick to things you know you will use often, and focus your space and energy on a few plants. You don’t need to grow the whole produce section at the grocery store. I’d also advise not growing things you don’t eat a lot – I don’t eat tons of salads in winter, and I didn’t find many uses for my sprouts other than mixing them into salads. 

Next year, I’m thinking some herbs, and maybe microgreens – but that’s a big maybe. Our windowsill gardening future might be all about the herbs. And that’s fine – it’s simply what we use. 

6. Don’t start in January!
I think windowsill gardening will work much better in the future if we start around, say, October, and the plants get some real sun before toughing it out through the darkest months. If we go into the winter with more mature plants, I think we’ll both have an easier time of it and see a better return. 

There are still some issues that I haven’t figured out.  We had some problems with things growing very “leggy” (long and scraggly), and I think that was partially due to the fact that our windowsill wasn’t super-sunny. With the weak winter sun and short days, the plants simply didn’t get enough light. We added a UV bulb, and that helped quite a bit. But some things, like the tom thumb lettuce, grew very leggy anyways. It’s an issue I’m hoping to read up on so I can address it in the future.

Now that things are warming up, we’re looking forward to starting our outdoor container garden! Next week, I’ll be talking all about our plans for that, including our containers, space, seeds, soil, budget, and progress so far.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Takeout Fake-out: Orange Chicken

When I posted our orange bourbon chicken recipe, I mentioned how we had purchased a frozen orange chicken meal from Trader Joe's a few times. Confession: I love Chinese takeout, and I'd gladly eat it several time a week if it were at all good for me. My orange chicken cravings have continued (to no one's surprise), and I knew we needed to come up with a simple, baked alternative that we could make ourselves. No fuss, no deep fryer, just great food.

Like our weeknight calzones, this recipe is designed to be faster and healthier than takeout - not to mention easier on the wallet. When the weather gets warmer, I tend to want to spend less time in the kitchen, so a quick meal becomes more appealing. Having recipes like this in my repertoire keeps me from picking up the phone to order takeout - because I can make the food - from scratch - faster than I can get it delivered!

This dish is actually quite easy to make, and takes about 20 minutes, start to finish. I broke the directions down into a lot of individual steps, but they're all quick and simple.

Curious about those green onions? Check out this post - they're super simple to grow yourself! 

Orange Chicken: Takeout Fake-out
This orange chicken tastes as good as take-out, but is baked instead of fried.
Yield: 2 generous servings

For the chicken:
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp panko bread crumbs
1 lb raw boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
pinch each salt and black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten

For the sauce:
1/2 cup warm water
2 tbsp cornstarch
2 oranges, zest and juice
2 tbsp mirin
1/4 cup honey
2 tbsp lite soy sauce
2 tsp toasted sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
Sliced green onions, sesame seeds, and hot rice to serve

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray or line with parchment.
2. Place flour and bread crumbs in a gallon sized baggie.
3. Place chicken in a large bowl with egg and season with salt and pepper. Stir to coat chicken pieces with egg.
4. Add the chicken to the baggie with the bread crumb mixture, one piece at a time, shaking off excess egg. Seal the baggie (with extra air inside), and toss to evenly coat chicken pieces.
5. Spread chicken in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet, and bake for 10 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through.
6. While the chicken cooks, in a medium bowl, whisk warm water with cornstarch until cornstarch has dissolved. Add orange zest and juice, mirin, honey, and soy sauce and whisk to combine.
7. Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add sesame oil, garlic and ginger and cook until slightly softened and fragrant, about 1 minute. Add juice mixture. Cook, stirring, until thickened, 1 to 2 minutes.
8. Remove skillet from heat, add chicken, and toss to coat. Serve topped with green onions and sesame seeds over hot rice.

What takeout or restaurant meal do you wish you could create at home? Do you have any of your own takeout fake-outs? 

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to Make Great Kale Chips

Kale chips are one of those foods that have blossomed from total obscurity to a fairly mainstream presence. It seems that there are as many posts on making kale chips as there are food bloggers. So why am I making my own? During the several years that I have been making kale chips, I've followed many different recipes. Each one seemed to prescribe a different time and temperature and even method for baking the chips. Through trial and error (and a lot of burnt kale) I figured out what works, what's important, and what is unnecessary.

If you haven't had kale chips before, give them a try! The leaves turn crispy in the oven, and have a taste akin to good broccoli. Some folks have touted these as a less-guilt potato chip swap - I don't agree with that assessment. If you really want potato chips, these don't taste like potatoes. But they are crunchy and salty and great to snack on.

Use whatever seasoning or spices you like, even just plain salt. I usually use a blend of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika.

How to Make Kale Chips
Yield: depends on amount of kale used, usually 3-4 cups per bunch

You will need: 
1 bunch kale leaves (any variety)
Spray oil (like 100% canola oil cooking spray)
Baking sheet

How to make kale chips:
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
2. Wash and dry your kale. You can use a salad spinner to dry the leaves, or pat them dry with paper towels. Sometimes kale is quite muddy, so don't skip this step.
Step 3: Tear kale leaves into chip-sized pieces, and discard the tough stems. I like pieces 1-2 inches across.
Step 4: Spread kale leaves on a large baking sheet in a single layer. Spray with oil (100% canola oil cooking spray works well for this). Toss the leaves with your hands and spray again. Sprinkle on your seasonings, and toss one more time, so all the leaves have a thin coating of oil and seasoning. Arrange in a single layer.
Step 5: Bake at 300 degrees for 18-20 minutes. Wait until the leaves are crispy (no soggy bits), but still bright green. If your oven bakes unevenly, turn the pan once during baking. 

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Meatless Mondays: Roasted Eggplant and Tempeh

Roasted eggplant is one of those foods I never get tired of. I like oven-roasted veggies in general, like these potatoes, but eggplant probably tops the list. This recipe pairs a sweet and garlicy sauce with some simple roasted ingredients for a dinner that's big on flavor but not on fussy. 

Tempeh is a vegan protein source made from fermented grains, usually including soybeans. It has a nutty taste that mixes well with roasted veggies. I buy mine at Trader Joe's, and it's both organic and affordable - look for it near the tofu.

Unlike most of my other Meatless Mondays series posts, this one takes a bit longer, because the veggies have to roast. I'd allow an hour or so for preparing and cooking this dish.

This dish is vegan-possible, because the feta cheese I used on top is not vegan, but the rest of the dish is vegan.  Simply omit the cheese or use a vegan substitute.

Roasted Eggplant and Tempeh
I used butternut squash here, cubed and frozen when squash was in-season. You can substitute the squash of your choice, or sweet potatoes. Be sure to cut the vegetables and tempeh to similar sized chunks (about 1 inch cubes), so they cook evenly. Adapted from Super Natural Every Day, by Heidi Swanson.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1 medium eggplant, cubed
2 cups cubed butternut squash
1 8-oz package tempeh, cubed
Zest of one orange
Juice of one orange
1 tsp salt
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grade B maple syrup
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees farenheit.
2. Combine eggplant, butternut squash, and tempeh in a large mixing bowl. Combine orange zest and juice, salt, garlic, paprika, olive oil, and maple syrup in a smaller bowl, and whisk to combine. Pour about 2/3 of this sauce over the vegetable mixture, and toss to combine.
3. On a large, rimmed baking sheet, arrange the vegetable mixture in an even layer. Bake about 30 minutes, stir, and bake 15 to 30 minutes longer, until it begins to turn golden brown.
4. Place the roasted mixture into a large serving dish, drizzle with the remaining sauce, and top with the cilantro and feta cheese. Serve family-style. Enjoy!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Windowsill Garden: March Update

We started our windowsill garden back in January, and I last updated you about a month ago. 

Toward the end of February, we moved everything to a wire shelving unit with some grow bulbs we had set up for seed starting. I suppose this defeats the purpose of a windowsill garden, but I honestly didn’t see a huge difference between growth when we provided a UV bulb on the windowsill, and growth strictly under grow lights.  I've since moved most of the plants back to the windowsill, as the days get longer and the sun gets stronger.

I’m not sure our windowsill is sunny enough for starting plants in winter – with short days and weak sun. In the future, we’ll hopefully be working with some older plants, and we won’t be trying to start young, needy plants during the shortest, coldest days of the year.  If you’re planning to start a windowsill garden, I wouldn’t advise starting in January!

Our spider plant, for example, did great on the windowsill and put off a few more flowering stalks with baby spider plants on the end. So, I think a more mature plant would survive the shortest winter days, even if it didn’t do a ton of growing, but a young plant just can’t quite get moving in the weak sun. 

Here’s how the individual plants are doing:

The parsley is still thriving:
The cilantro and chives have started to germinate. We planted new cilantro seeds (from a new packet), and these ones are looking better than the last. I put a little soil over the chive seeds, and it seems to help germination (the packet said to sow them on top of the soil, which did not work). 
The tom thumb lettuce sprouted after I planted some new seeds, went wild, and I trimmed them back. They grew very scraggly, and I’m not sure what I need to do to get them to grow more compactly. It’s an issue I’ll be working on in our outdoor container garden. It also looks like something might be eating the lettuce leaves (although that might also be decay from sitting in the dirt).
The microgreens and other sprouts continued to do about the same – I harvested some of them, and the rest are doing fine. We’ll be eating the last of these soon; I don’t plan to include sprouts in the outdoor garden.
Our swiss chard is really starting to look good. Although still tiny, it has begun to produce more leaves on a regular basis. The plants are only a few inches tall, probably because of the small pot they are in (a 6 inch pot). I’m considering just transplanting it outside in a larger pot, rather than starting over, but I need to do a bit more research (it might just bolt more quickly).

So what did we learn from this experience? Next week, I’ll talk about our lessons from windowsill gardening. Most importantly, I learned that I don’t have a black thumb, as previously thought – I’m just not sure that I have a green thumb yet either!

Soon, I’m going to focus a lot on our garden plans for the spring and summer. With the super warm weather we’ve been having, I might be starting things outdoors a month sooner than anticipated! I’ll discuss our containers, space, seeds, soil, budget, and progress so far. Look for those posts the week of March 26th

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Windowsill Garden: Green Onions

I wanted to give you a quick update on one of the most surprising and successful aspects of our windowsill gardening experiment. I'll be writing a more detailed update with an analysis of the whole experiment soon.

I found an idea on Pinterest that seemed almost too simple and easy to be true. By placing the white ends of green onions in a glass of water, we could grow new green onions. This meant that we would have a steady supply of fresh green onions for practically free, considering we usually just tossed those root ends. After only few days in the water, the onions showed some promising growth:

Green onion

And now, a month or so later, we've got more green onions than we know what to do with!

I'm working on figuring out what the best technique for harvesting is. It seems that we need to cut as close to the white part of the plant as possible; each root piece sends up several stalks of onion. The root systems have grown to provide a stable base at the bottom of the glass - one of the initial challenges was keeping the pieces propped up (not just floating around in the water!).

These taste just as good as the ones we grew them from, and so far we've expended no more effort than changing the water every few days. I was worried they might taste somehow watered down thanks to being re-grown, but that hasn't been the case. We've been able to use the entire green stalk that we harvest (I usually discard part of the greens from the store because they are too wilted).

We used the onions in this orange wheatberry salad, and in a few other dishes so far. This is definitely something I would suggest trying - although green onions aren't expensive, you can grow your own for practically free!

Do you have any tricks like this? Are there other kitchen scraps that can actually be re-grown?

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Aztec Chocolate Syrup

First, today is Nick's birthday - HAPPY BIRTHDAY NICK!  And birthdays call for dessert, right?

I wrote about how easy it is to make your own chocolate syrup at home recently.  Once we had used up that first batch of syrup, I wanted to experiment a little, and try a new flavor twist. Spicy chocolate syrup, inspired by Mexican or Aztec style hot chocolate was at the top of my list. I like the grown-up twist of spicy flavors in ice cream - it is unexpected and delicious.  For this version, I reduced the amount of sugar, because it seemed the spicy flavor would be better if less sweet (and a bit more intensely chocolate-y).

The issue that arose after I made and cooled the syrup was this: it came out very thick - more like fudge sauce than chocolate syrup, and pretty difficult to work with. It didn't drizzle thinly like the regular syrup - it was too...goopy (yuck.). This problem was pretty easily solved by simply using a bit more water to thin out the sauce. If your sauce cools and is thicker than you would like, you can stir in an extra tablespoon or two of hot water to adjust the consistency.

Both this recipe and the original chocolate syrup recipes are vegan. Most store-bought chocolate syrups seem to include some milk products. However, the vegan-ness depends on the type of sugar used. A natural, unbleached sugar is vegan, but some vegans don't consume bleached white table sugar. If you're vegan, you probably have a favorite sugar product - if you're cooking for someone else who is vegan, ask them what sugars are okay with them. (Also: it is definitely not vegan if you eat it atop regular ice cream, like I do!)

This sauce, like the original, blends nicely into a hot chocolate drink; all the spices add a really fun, gourmet twist. It is also great on top of ice cream - the spiciness is largely masked by the sugars from the ice cream, but the flavor of the chilies shines through. If you want it to make your ice cream really spicy, use more cayenne.

Aztec Chocolate Syrup
This sauce is mild to medium spicy; increase the cayenne if you want spicier sauce, or omit it for mild sauce.
Yield: about 2 cups syrup

1 cup sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup plus 3 tbsp water
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ancho chili powder
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1. In a medium sauce pan, combine sugar and cocoa powder. Stir together, breaking up any clumps of cocoa. Add the water and salt, and stir.
2. Place pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and boil for a minute until the mixture thickens slightly. At this point, it will coat the back of your spoon and look like you expect chocolate syrup to look.
3. Remove the pan from the heat. Let it cool about 5 minutes, then stir in the vanilla extract and spices. (If you add the vanilla before it cools, it will evaporate and not flavor your syrup!). Adjust the heat level to your preference.
4. Pour into an airtight container, let cool, then store in the fridge.

I'm loving our warm weather this week - although I had to photograph this ice cream fast so it didn't melt (too much) on me! I've been getting out for runs with Cooper and Nick, and I'm loving how late it stays light.

I've been doing a lot of planning work for our outdoor container garden, and I'll be telling you all about that soon! With this warm weather, it looks like we might start things off quite a bit earlier than I thought. 

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