Late Spring Stir Fry

So, I actually feel a little silly about the recipe I’m about to give, mostly because I rarely measure ANY of the ingredients when I make it myself. I also change the ingredients based on what’s in season and what I have. A lot.

But I’m sharing anyway because, quite simply, I love stir fry. I make it all the time. I mean, what an awesome go-to meal! It’s warm. It’s savory. It’s quick. It makes great leftovers. And it’s chock full of whatever vegetables are in season.

This is my first spring living in North Carolina, and I must say, I am impressed by the bounty of produce that is already available at the farmers market. Maybe this is all old hat for life-long North Carolinians, but to see this many vegetables fresh from the fields in early May is astonishing to me.

Now, I definitely could have gone with just these and had almost completely local stir fry. But I must confess, a few of my favorite stir fry add-ins are definitely not from around here. These three in particular lend a crunchiness that I find delectable against softened vegetables and chewy rice.

You should use whatever vegetables you want. My dream stir fry is probably not the same as your dream stir fry, and in fact, you may think I’m a bit odd for having a “dream stir fry” at all. Really, who says that?

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Strawberry Jam, Part III: Recipes & Results

The berries have been picked, sliced, sugared, and cooked. Each jar has announced with a satisfying little pop! of the lid that it is sealed and ready to be stored until it is opened, its contents slathered onto someone’s breakfast. Maybe mine, maybe yours.

The final step in my eight-flavor experiment in strawberry jam (who knew there was so much variety?) was definitely the most relaxing: the tasting! Sampling each variety was hugely important, you see. I mean, how else could I tell you which ones worked and which ones didn’t? Trust me, there was no other reason to open so many jars of jam at one time.

I made a date of it. Made some biscuits, sat on the balcony, even grabbed a notepad to record my initial reactions to each jar. It was fancy. I may or may not have pretended I was a snooty judge on a Food Network show.

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Strawberry Jam, Part II: Preserving

Soooooo, twenty-0ne pounds of strawberries. Now what?

I wish you could have seen the faces of other customers entering the strawberry field as I was attempting to tote these boxes out. Most of them looked at me with a bizarre look of pity. Like I’d gone off the deep end. And/or had a serious strawberry addiction.

In case you’re just now tuning in, I spent the early hours of sunshine last Saturday picking strawberries to transform into jam, and after arriving home with my loot, it was time to start preserving.

Freezing Fresh Berries

While most would agree that berries are best when eaten fresh & ripe, they also freeze really well. In my stubborn attempt to avoid purchasing produce when it is incredibly out of season, freezing berries opens up many possibilities to enjoy fruit when it’s snowy (or, in my current location, semi-cold and gray). Berries can be frozen in a syrup or juice, but I prefer to freeze them whole.

What You Need

cookie sheets (make sure they fit in your freezer… trust me on this one and test the space with an empty sheet before you start)
parchment paper
freezer
berries (if you don’t have those, you’re doing the wrooooong project)

It’s pretty straight forward. Sort through your berries and find the beauty queens. Freezing berries with soft spots isn’t the best idea, so find the nicest, firmest, most beautiful berries in the bunch. Wash them, pop off their tops and if you can, pop out the hull (the white firm spot right beneath the green leaves). Arrange them on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper so that they aren’t touching. Then freeze ’em!

I froze one sheet for about three hours and another tray for twenty-four, so I’ll keep you posted about any difference between them when I actually use them on some dreary winter day in the future. Why did I not just freeze them in their container and skip the teetering tray of berries step? This way, I will be able to pull out exactly the number of berries I want rather than one giant clump of them fused together. Just planning ahead. For smoothies. Who needs ice when you have frozen strawberries?

Anyway. Moving on.

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Strawberry Jam, Part I: Pick-Your-Own

Strawberry jam: the first recipe in food preservation cookbooks, the poster child for all things homemade, and glistening ruby red in quilted glass jars and wrapped with a ribbon of twine.

And you can make it with tools you probably have in your kitchen already.

Now, baskets of still-earthy vegetables from the farmer’s market seem to provide the standard imagery for the local food movement, but my goal is to eat as locally as possible all year long, which involves learning how to preserve food when it is plentiful to get through months when it is not. And while jam is not the most necessary of foods, it is a great starting point if you want to learn to can. Which I do.

I’m sure you can tell where this is going: I made some jam! Okay; I made a lot of jam. So let’s rewind from this spoonful of crimson goodness, and I’ll tell you all about it.

Pick-Your-Own Strawberries

A key ingredient of strawberry jam, as you might imagine, is a hefty amount of fresh strawberries. You can go about procuring these berries however you want, but I chose to find a local farm where I could pick them myself.

The premise of a pick-your-own farm, or a “u-pick”, as they are commonly called, is simple: a grower plants their crop, then instead of harvesting it and selling it in turquoise paper baskets, they invite customers to the farm to pick it themselves at a much lower price. While most pick-your-owns also offer some pre-picked goods for sale at the farm stand, the labor burden is significantly reduced since the majority of harvesting is done by the customers themselves. They get free labor, you get a good price on berries, it’s a pretty sweet deal.

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Guacamole

I find the phrase “holy guacamole” somewhat misleading. Holy things are revered. They are viewed from afar. They are stored in stone cathedrals and world museums.

They are never scooped onto chips, dolloped onto quesadillas, or spooned directly out of the bowl.

By these guidelines, this is decidedly unholy guacamole.

Cinco de Mayo was as good of an excuse as any to buy avocados and make my favorite electric-green dip. I generally try to limit my produce purchases to those grown locally, but the convergence of both a holiday AND a dinner invitation were enough to merit an exception.

The cilantro on the porch, however, was ready to harvest! After researching HOW to harvest cilantro without killing the plant and preventing future growth, I went to the balcony armed with scissors and a bowl and voila! Really fresh cilantro!

Guacamole is one of those things that can be prepared “perfectly” in a million different ways. Some guacs are smooth and creamy, some are chunky and spicy, some have tomatoes, some don’t. Personally, I’m in the no tomato camp. If I want tomatoes, I’ll eat salsa from the other dip bowl, thank you very much.

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Don’t Eat the Books

It’s been a couple of days since I’ve spent a lengthy night in the kitchen. Instead, I spent my evenings this week consuming beautiful words and whatever I could grab out of the pantry rather than working through new recipes.

Sometimes, life stops for books. The book in question had a return deadline I couldn’t extend (it’s so popular!) and I couldn’t possibly send it back half-finished… so my other plans had to wait.

It was sooo worth it.

So I have no food for your bellies tonight. But! Food for your brain, your soul, your bookshelf, is just as important. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts with you about this most recent read, as well as a couple of others from the Resources page, that have helped inform and inspire my passion for food.

No one is asking me to tell you about these books. I’m just glad I read them. I think you should read them, too. The end.

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball
My mom put this on my radar because she heard it was about farms and because the author’s first name is spelled like mine. Moms. Detailing her own transformation from a coffee-toting, high heel-wearing, travel-writing New Yorker into a radical organic farmer over a surprisingly brief period of time, Kimball illustrates the joys and the trials of her new farm life. The book reads like a well-written romantic comedy, starring a smart, savvy woman, her skillful, principled spouse-to-be, and their plan to build a farm to provide their community with any food they might need.

Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Yes, I know that this is like, THE book that new foodie converts read. But I really do think it’s a fascinating account of one family and their attempt to go local, and I mean REALLY local. For an entire year, they vow to eat only what can be grown on or very near their Virginia farm. I was already well-versed in Kingsolver’s work when I picked this up, but even if you’ve never read her work before, this is a good place to start. Then check out her other work because it’s beautiful.

Seedfolks by Paul Fleishman
This is a very quick read and is technically targeted toward little kids. But it takes lovely little peeks into different walks of life. And it’s full of hope for gardens urban and rural, established and spontaneous. Read it to your kids, your cat, or yourself.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
If local eating had a syllabus, this is another book that would be required reading. Michael Pollan’s depth of research focuses on four different “meals” ranging from the industrial food poster child (a fast food meal consumed in the car) to a meal entirely foraged and hunted by the author himself. The book does a great job of addressing the meaning behind and age old question: “What the heck do I want to eat?”

That’s enough for now. I have big dates this weekend with the farmers market, a strawberry patch, my camera, and my stove, so stay tuned for some tasty recipes in the coming days! I promise.

Four Cheese Fettuccine

My favorite dish as a kid was spaghetti with butter and parmesan cheese (the powdery kind, mind you). It was years before I would tolerate spaghetti with spaghetti sauce, and to this day, I still prefer it without.

But the first time I indulged in the miracle of the universe that is fettuccine alfredo, I was hooked. Thoroughly convinced it was the best. food. ever.

Not much has changed.

And so! For years I have searched for a recipe that achieves in my kitchen what various restaurants mysteriously create every day: a creamy, cheesy, tangled mass of warm pasta that knocks my socks off.

When I stumbled across this recipe, it was love at first sight. I HAD to try it. The first taste was enough to convince me that it was definitely worth making over and over and over. And I have!

To be sure, this dish certainly steps it up a bit from the powdered parmesan I grew up on. I’ll admit, my new found love of these cheeses takes a larger chunk of my budget than your standard block of orange cheddar. But oooh, they are worth every grated bite.

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Chicken Pot Pie(s)

Okay, before I dive into this one, I need a favor. I have a bit of bloggie housekeeping to take care of, and it’s a bit embarrassing. Long story short, I recently installed a plug-in affecting the feed that I didn’t realize I needed when I initially launched the site. Sooooo if you have subscribed to the RSS feed, I would very much appreciate it if you would unsubscribe… and then resubscribe again and refresh the reader. Live and learn, I suppose. I appreciate your help!

Now to the tasty business.

This may be a staple comfort food for some of you, but I don’t think I ever had chicken pot pie until Brad insisted I try some of the Marie Callender one he had one night in college.  I was… not particularly wowed.

This recipe changed all that. I my original intent  in seeking out this recipe was as a surprise look-I-made-you-one-of-your-favorite-meals-ever dinner after Brad’s first round of law school exams. The look on his face when I finally let him out of the study (wouldn’t be a very good surprise if he could see what I was making, would it?) was like a six-year old’s at Christmas.

The original recipe I found for this claimed to make one 9-inch pie. With the adjustments I made, I have ended up with TWO 9-inch pies both times I’ve made it, which yields delicious homemade lunch for the next few days.  Tasty lunch, too. Also, it’s very flexible to veggie preference. Prefer potato over corn? Broccoli over peas? Both or either would probably be delicious. I like the crunch offered by the celery and the carrots, so I definitely recommend leaving them in if you’re gonna play mix-and-match, but it’s your pie, do what you like. Within reason…

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Introducing the Third Floor Farm

Growing up, we didn’t have a Nintendo. We owned no boat, and we didn’t have a big screen TV. We had something much more valuable: all the fresh produce we could possibly want.

For most of my life, my grandparents cultivated an enormous garden from whence treasures of all colors and flavors erupted every year. I never saw a jar of store-bought jam in our pantry because my grandma made jam every summer with berries my sister and I picked (er, the ones that made it to the kitchen). I learned at an early age that eating peas off the vine in the humid embrace of the garden was better than any candy at the checkout line. Luckily, we lived just one hour north of this lush patch of land and could watch the garden cycle from seed to harvest.

Sadly, the recent death of my grandpa and the waning strength and stamina of my grandma leave the garden plot barren this year, save for the persistent blackberry bush and some volunteer cosmos. But that garden still holds some of my fondest memories with my grandparents, who taught me at a very young age the value of homegrown food and instilled in me an aspiration to grow some of my own.

After college, one thing I looked forward to more than any other was starting a patio garden at our first apartment in Washington DC. I was unfortunately thwarted: somehow, we managed to secure an apartment assignment with a balcony that received literally no direct sunlight. None. It was quite aggravating. The next year, I was certain that our new place across town would yield a sunnier outlook. Alas, two hours of daily commuting to a full-time job, and most days, a part-time job as well, meant that I could barely keep myself fed and watered. Besides, after deciding in late April that we would be moving to North Carolina in July, it didn’t make sense to start building an army of soil-filled containers that would also have to make the move.

And so, with no further ado, I want to take a moment to introduce you to a few of my long-awaited leafy friends. Friends that I hope will survive, and if I’m lucky, that will actually produce some extremely local food for my little kitchen.

Ta da!

Okay, so I’m not gonna get a pantry full of jars out of this. In fact, I’m gonna go ahead and say that I’ll consider this adventure a success if I get ONE tomato.

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Easter Eggs + Deviled Eggs

If Easter eggs are your thing, you have probably already dyed yours and let them spend their happy morning in a pile of scraggly plastic grass. So while this might not provide you with a must-try kitchen adventure for this weekend, I still want to tell you about the brief, but bizarre, life of my Easter eggs this year.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve used the standard effervescent tablets of color in mis-matched coffee mugs to dye eggs. This year I saw not one but three different suggestions for techniques to dye eggs with vegetable dyes. Perfect! A lifelong tradition that could be easily adjusted to accommodate my transition to local food. Easy right?

Mmmmm not as easy as I’d hoped.

Obtaining the dyes was not too difficult. I needed beets (readily available at the farmer’s market right now), red cabbage, and turmeric. Okay, so the turmeric is in no way, shape, or form local. But it seemed to be the most prevalent suggestion for creating a golden-hued egg, so I gave it a shot. Other than that, water, vinegar, and salt were easy to come by.

Next! I saw a technique to achieve beautiful eggs stenciled with leaves and flowers. A few minutes wandering around my apartment property provided a few stenciling options. A couple pairs of hose chopped into egg-friendly pouches later, some friends came over to partake in the vegetable dyeing experience.

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