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Archive for April, 2007

Wake Up!

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I was holding off on posting about this project until I received pictures, but since I never got them, I’ll get to it!  A few weeks ago, on Cesar Chavez Day, I took part in a playground-building volunteer project through Volunteer San Diego (www.volunteersandiego.org) and Kaboom (www.kaboom.org).  I volunteer pretty often, doing small projects like sorting cans at the food bank – projects which are satisfying in their own way, but which don’t necessarily give you a sense of completion.  This was just the opposite – a full day of hard work which paid off big time. 

I showed up early at the project housing site, coffee in hand, and signed my waiver.  I grabbed a name tag with a flower on it and met up with the leaders who were giving instructions.  It turned out that each name tag assigned you to a different group project, and I was super excited to learn that the Flower People were in charge of building a community garden – such an awesome coincidence!  Most of the volunteers were involved in various aspects of playground building – setting up equipment, painting murals, that sort of thing.  Our group of 7 was slated to work off-site, down the street at a small space in a quieter section of the projects.  We were given a few small bags of soil, shovels, rakes, trowels, and about 40 plants to put in.  This patch of land was hurtin’.  I looked at the ground surface and was pretty skeptical at first.  It was filled with tree roots and rocks, and was pretty unprepared for vegetables.  We got right to work, though, plotting out four beds and breaking them up as best we could.

We had started working at probably about 9-9:30, and just kept pushing on until lunchtime.  By that time, we had prepared four beautiful bed and planted everything we needed to – it was astounding what a group of people can do in such a short amount of time.  We broke for lunch and headed up to the main site, where the rest of the volunteers were working – again, I was taken aback at how much work had been accomplished.  We left a sad looking, empty lot a couple of hours previously and came back to see a vibrant, colorful playground.  It was inspiring.

After lunch, we took a couple of hours to beautify the space – we “borrowed” some paint from the muralists and painted everything we could get our hands on.  We had lined the four vegetable beds with bricks and so we were able to paint those with words like “WATER” and “HOPE” and “GROW”.  We were a little slap-happy at that point, so slapped some paint on the fences as well.  Hopefully the residents will be so stoked with the vegetables that they won’t mind the extra flair.

As all this was going on, one of the members of my team remembered a park bench that he had sitting in storage, and offered to donate it to the cause.  He went to get it, and our garden was complete.  I plan to go back there this weekend to see how it’s doing, and I’ll be sure to take some pictures then.  I left that day feeling dirty, tired, and elated – it was amazing.  This is the only picture I could find on the Kaboom website of our particular sub-project, it’s from the very end of the day and is not very clear – I’ll share more pictures soon.

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Our mission: to stealthily remove a section of the front lawn, under the watchful eye of neighbors, and prepare it for planting edibles.  Food not lawns, people!

I took on this project a couple of weeks ago, just me and a shovel on a Saturday morning – it only took two hours for my back to rebel against me.  At first, I was trying to save the sod in order to transplant it to a walkway in our back space, so I was digging out 2′ squares of sod, about 3 inches deep, and lugging them out of the ground using a tarp to drag them across the yard.  That’s some heavy stuff.  I got about 1/3 of the way across the lawn, and decided it was time for some rethinking.

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On my second attempt, I brought in reinforcements – my awesome neighbors are all very into gardening, and they came through to help us.  This time, we were brutal – all of the weedy, water-sucking grass would go straight to compost, so our methods had to change.  We initially went through and broke up the sod into easily manageable sections, probably about 6 inch x 3 inch rectangles.  From there, it was down on our hands and knees to pull out the roots and shake off any usable dirt.  I was amazed at how invasive the grass was – we spent most of the day searching out roots, and there are still a ton of little buggers fighting their way through the soil.  It looks like the next couple of planting seasons will need to have their share of weeding time.

We plotted out a curved bed to allow for maximum garden access, and because, well, it looks cute.  We biked to the Home Depot for landscape edging in the mid-afternoon – I’ll post a picture of the XtraCycle under the weight of our purchases when I can figure out what’s wrong with the camera!

The finished product is beautiful – so much bigger and nicer than I could have imagined.  In order to make sure that the bed is ready for planting, we’ve been turning the soil to dry out any remaining grass roots and adding tons of good compost.  I figure that, since we’ve physically touched every square inch of this plot, it’s been infused with so much TLC that it can’t help but be a productive area.

The next step will be to transplant our tender seedlings and see how they do – Happy Spring! 

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Mmm, candy… I make these bars when I have an excess of grains, seeds or nuts around – they’re simple and delicious high-energy snacks.  Perfect to bring along on a day hike.  From Rebecca Wood’s The Splendid Grain:

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Oat and Seed Candy Bar

2 cups oatmeal

1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds

1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds

2 Tbsp chia or flax seeds

I also added sesame seeds to this one, and have added other seeds and even nuts in the past – really, anything will do.   You could also substitute rye or kamut flakes for the oatmeal, although I haven’t tried that yet.

1/2 cup honey or maple syrup (I always use a little extra, to cut down on the flaky factor)

2 Tbsp unsalted butter or tahini

Preheat the oven to 325º.  Butter an 8-inch square baking pan (or if you’re doubling it, a 9×13 pan).  Spread the oatmeal and seeds on a baking sheet (you’ll mix them up and spread them out, not in a mound like the picture shows – also, you’ll hopefully have a rimmed baking sheet to avoid scattering seeds around your kitchen).  Bake for 20 minutes, stirring twice to assure uniform toasting.  Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.

Pour the honey into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 7 minutes, or until the honey reaches 275º on a candy thermometer.  (For those of us without candy thermometers [gasp!], she provides more instruction…)  At first the honey will expand and bubble up the sides of the pot.  When it starts to condense and thicken it is ready.  Stir in the butter (I use tahini in this – I love the added nutty taste, but I’m sure butter would be awesome too).  Pour the hot syrup over the oat mixture and stir to combine evenly.  Transfer the mixture to the baking pan.  Let cool 2 minutes, then press firmly with lightly moistened hands.  Let cool for 10 minutes more.  Use a moistened knife to cut into 2 x 1-1/2 inch bars.  Tightly wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper and store in a cool dry spot.

These are great right away, because they maintain some extra chewiness, and are even better when they cool and become crisper.  Watch out for a bit of a mess, though, as they have the tendency to crumble a bit.

I’ll be taking them on the plane tonight for a high-altitude treat – beats the heck out of peanuts!

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I know I keep claiming that this is a gardening blog as well as a recipe blog, so I figured I’d better have some photo evidence!  This was the first beet of the harvest, and I was able to pick about 5 more for the harvest dinner.  Freshly picked beets, washed and pocketed in foil, roasted at abou 425° until they give a little when you poke them.  As you can see, the peels come right off after being roasted and then you can slice them up.  I had planted a variety of beets, and it looks like the candy-striped ones turned out the biggest.  Season with salt (some people like to add vinegar to combat the sweetness of the beets, but I’m not one of them – bring on the salt) and enjoy.

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To complete our feast, I had all those chard stems reserved from the lasagna, and it’s a shame to let those go to compost.  I also had more greens to use up, so for this meal, I made my standard greens saute.  Very easy – olive oil, pressed garlic and red pepper flakes, then add the stems.  They’ll take a little longer than the greens, so add the greens last and cover.  It takes about 3 minutes to cook from there and is ready to go.

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My neighbor has constructed a compost bin in our shared yard, and in order for it to be turned, she needs some of the garden space.  Luckily, it was time to harvest the chard and beets which were planted there, so I had tons of fresh-from-the-soil vegetables to cook for dinner.  I made one of my favorite special occasion dishes – Chard and Eggplant Lasagne, again adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.  It takes a little extra prep work, but it’s delicious and lasts for days in our small household.

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1 box lasagna noodles, or if you’re superwoman/man, freshly made egg pasta

2 cups tomato sauce or diced fresh tomatoes – I had some homemade tomato sauce in the freezer and supplemented the extra with that pretty Trader Joe’s box

1 1/2 lbs eggplant, sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick

2 Tbsp olive oil, plus extra for the eggplant

2 Tbsp butter

1/2 onion, finely diced

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped or pressed

1 bunch chard, about 1 1/2 lbs, stems removed and reserved (I also had some beet greens which I added in – any hearty winter green would work in this dish, I think)

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup ricotta

1 egg

3/4 cup grated pecorino Romano

8 ounces fresh mozzarella, grated

Almost all lasagna recipes start with boiling the noodles, but I find that it’s impossible to keep them unstuck and prepared for the final assembly stage, so I do it a little differently – details of my innovation to follow 🙂

First, if your eggplant is less than garden fresh, you can salt the slices and let them drain for about 20 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 400° and lay the slices on a baking sheet.  Roast the eggplant for about 30 minutes or until golden brown, flipping once during the process.  Remove, let cool, and roughly chop, setting aside (after you pop a couple of pieces in your mouth – it’s a wonderful dish on its own).

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and butter in a wide skillet over medium heat.  Add the onion and garlic and saute until soft and golden.  Add the chard and cover, letting it wilt with the moisture in the skillet.  When it’s wilted and wet-looking, remove and roughly chop.  Season with salt and pepper as desired.  Combine the egg and ricotta and lightly beat together.  Add the chard mixture and eggplant, and you’re ready to start assembling.

Now for my cutting edge innovation: I boil the lasagna noodles one layer (4 noodles) at a time, letting the next batch boil as I assemble the other ingredients.  I’m sure other people do this, but when I discovered it, I felt very smart.  So, start the water boiling as you spread about 1/4 of the tomato sauce in the bottom of a 9×13 inch pan.  Add the first layer of noodles, followed by 1/3 of the chard mixture, a handful of both cheeses, and begin again when the next batch of noodles are ready.  Layer away, ending with noodles covered with the remaining tomato sauce and a handful of mozzarella.  If you’re not eating right away, you can pop the lasagna in the fridge for later – otherwise, cover with foil and tent it in the center so that the foil doesn’t stick to your precious cheese.  Bake at 400° for 20-30 minutes, remove foil and bake 5-10 minutes more or until the top is golden.

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I’ll post about the other two dishes later, as all came from the garden and I’m very proud.

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Sunday Pancakes

I woke so lazily this morning – I ignored my 6:40 alarm, a remnant from yesterday’s volunteer project (which I can’t wait to write about, after I get some pictures back).  I vaguely remember a kiss on the cheek when Chris left to surf, and then driften back to sleep until a decadent 9:30.  I didn’t have too much to do today – two days of gardening has left me a little sore and lazy, so it seemed like the perfect day for some pancake experimentation.  I usually reach for Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone for most things, and pancakes are no exception.  She has a recipe for cottage cheese and nutmeg pancakes which are so very rich and satisfying, but alas, no cottage cheese this morning.  I decided on a multi-grain variety.

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1 cup whole wheat flour plus 1/2 cup wheat bran (you can also use white whole wheat flour, an amazing invention, but I wanted the nuttiness of the wheat bran today)

2 Tbsp sugar (adjust up or down depending on your sweetness specifications and the potency of your maple syrup)

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp nutmeg, I also added a heaping 1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice, as I’ve obviously been in the pumpkin spice mood

2 eggs

3 Tbsp grapeseed oil (you can use melted butter or canola)

1 1/2 cups milk (I didn’t have any buttermilk, so used regular milk and omitted the 1 tsp baking soda from the recipe.  If you’ve got it, by all means…)

1 tsp vanilla

Regular pancake instructions follow – beat the eggs with the wet ingredients, add the dry ingredients and stir until just combined.  For each pancake, drop about 1/4 cup batter onto a nonstick griddle or skillet set over medium-high heat.  Leave them alone until you see bubbles in the center of the pancake which pop on their own.  Flip them over and cook until browned on the second side, about 1 minute.  Refrain from patting them or turning them a second time as both actions will make the pancakes lose their lightness (and these grain-heavy pancakes have no lightness to spare)!  When done, you can keep them warm in a low oven until all are finished, or if you’re like me, let the rest of the batter sit covered in the fridge, throw ’em on a plate and enjoy.  I curled up with a book, a cup of decaf chai with steamed soymilk, and these hearty, nutty sweet cakes and had a lovely morning.  I suppose it’s time to get up now…

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Edited to add: after a couple of hours in the fridge, we cooked up another batch of these, and they were magically transformed to be much more fluffy and light!  As far as I can tell, it’s the same principle as refridgerating cookie dough for more fluffy cookies – I’d definitely recommend it with these grain-dense beauties.

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