Spring Cleaning

My generally feeling about spring cleaning is that it’s a good idea, in theory. I mean, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family did spring and fall cleaning every year, and they always lived in “little houses,” so if their houses needed it, mine probably do, too.

I have, however, yet to actually complete spring cleaning of an entire house. We are kind of close this year…the main part of the house is uncluttered and about as clean as it’s ever been, but we’ve kind of cheated by shoving lots of stuff out to the garage and getting new carpet and paint to help the house sell. I’m enjoying the feeling of a clean house in the meantime, knowing it will not last and is unlikely to be duplicated in the near future.

But today, I did a different kind of spring cleaning: cleaning out the freezer to prepare for the return of the CSA box next week!! Since we never eat all of our produce on a given week, I tend to cook and freeze lots of it, and I wanted to start off with a (relatively) clean freezer, plus a better knowledge of what food we already had.

Here’s what I threw out (and I am quite proud that this list is not longer):

  • lots of ends of bread loaves (both good bread from the bakery and not so good from the grocery store) that never made it into bread pudding or breadcrumbs
  • lasagna sauce from June 2013
  • pizza sauce from September 2013
  • grease from the grease pot, which was already slated to be thrown out but just hadn’t gotten there yet
  • shredded zucchini from August 2013
  • 1 quart bag of cooked kale from May 2013
  • a can of orange juice that said “best before May 2012”

On my “need to use soon” list:

  • 2 kinds of chorizo
  • 1 quart bag of collards from November 2013 (I’m giving myself a 6 month grace period on food in the freezer, and the collards and chorizo is all going into Mexican beans and greens this week)
  • Cheese and pasta casserole, also from November  (we ate it tonight, and so far everyone seems healthy)
  • 2 pie crusts from December 2013
  • Ham and green bean casserole from January 2014
  • Navy beans from February 2014
  • Frozen raspberries from who-knows-when, but they still look ok
  • Frozen cookie dough that my mom brought down in February, so I assume they still have some good freezer life in them

And finally, on my “need to use, but less urgently” list:

  • Duck stock from January 2014 (at least 5 or 6 cups, but it’s easy to use a lot of stock in a few dishes)
  • Pancake mix leftover from March’s pancake supper at church
  • Frozen green beans (from the store, not the farm share)
  • Frozen broccoli (ditto)
  • Pork chops
  • Pork roast
  • Bread bought in the last week and put in the freezer to last longer
  • Girl Scout cookies bought in February
  • Frozen macaroni and cheese (also from my mom)
  • Ice cream bought in the last month
  • Granola made last week
  • Ground beef bought last week

We’ve got some eating ahead of us, but I think we are ready to start the next growing season…next up to tackle is the random ingredients in the fridge and pantry that I don’t want to move to Maryland with us!

Do you have tips for saving/using up food?

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Cucumbers and Pickling

Thursday is our last CSA pick-up for the year. On the one hand, I’m always a little sad to say good-bye to the farm family and their employees, who we’ve gotten to know over the last 5 years. On the other, I am thankful that I will not have to brainstorm ways to use up the weekly bounty before it goes bad. Overall, I feel pretty good about how we’ve done this year. I’ve had to throw out some lettuce, a few cucumbers and squash, but I think we’ve gotten better about either eating up the produce or cooking and freezing it for later. Some appeals to friends on Facebook definitely helped–especially when we had a bumper crop of cabbage back in the summer.

Our last extreme bounty this years was cucumbers. I like cucumbers just fine, so does my husband. My kids range from indifferent to opposed. We don’t eat a whole lot of salad as a family, so while I used a few cucumbers in salads and even made a couple just-cucumber salads, that didn’t nearly take care of all the cucumbers we were getting. Since four out of the five of us like pickles, I finally decided to give pickling a try.

My experience in food preservation is pretty small. I will cook and freeze lots of things (my husband keeps joking about getting me a chest freezer for Christmas; part of the joke is that I would actually enjoy the gift even while laughing at it), and that includes having made freezer jam. I have never canned anything that requires processing in boiling water. Every time I think I will try that, I get a book out and start reading it and get scared off by the warnings that sounds something like “Follow the recipe exactly or you might die of botulism!!” Maybe next year I will be brave enough to try real canning. For now, I found a refrigerator pickle recipe here: http://spoonful.com/recipes/the-worlds-best-and-easiest-dill-pickles that sounded good, easy, and up for tinkering with amounts (since I didn’t know if I would have enough cucumbers to make a full recipe).

The recipe was as easy as it advertised, and it was a recipe that easily lent itself to small helpers. I made the brine, and then the kids helped me fill jars while we waited for it to cool. We are dill pickle fans–no sweet pickles or bread and butter here!–and the only ingredients besides the brine and cucumbers were fresh dill (which we had to buy special, but I managed to use it up just for pickles, so it wasn’t wasted), garlic cloves, and peppercorns. Then we just had to wait for a couple days while the pickles pickled.

They turned out wonderfully. I’ve ended up making these pickles three times: one half batch, one full batch, and one double batch (when the cucumbers just kept coming) and so far all the jars except one turned out great (that one turned out mushy). I had enough to give some away, and all the reports have been good. I may make one more batch if I can get to it in the next day or two, and then I will say so long to cucumbers for a very long time. At this point, I’ll probably discover a recipe I have to try that calls for 20 cucumbers or something. But such is life.

I did actually think to take pictures while making my first batch, so here they are:

Filled pickle jar, waiting to add brine.

Filled pickle jar, waiting to add brine.

Jar from the side.

Jar from the side.

Cucumbers turning into pickles.

Cucumbers turning into pickles.

Pumpkin and Squash Seeds

Yikes, I have gotten behind in blogging. I guess that’s just life sometimes.

I actually started this post way back before Halloween, because we had several winter squash and a pie pumpkin from our CSA box. However, we actually carved a jack-o-lantern this year (the first time at least since the kids were born, and by “we” I mean my husband with an enthralled audience of 4), so it seemed a good time to finish up the post.

Many of you probably already know how to roast pumpkin seeds, and the process is the same for winter squash. From The Joy of Cooking, the instructions are basically to separate the seeds from the strings and gunk, don’t wash them, toss them with some vegetable oil, spread out on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 250° for a very long time (Joy suggests 1 1/2 hours, but basically until they are dried out). Then you can toss them with salt or other seasoning or, if you are really feeling like torturing yourself, break off the outer shells to use the seed kernels in fancy dessert recipes. (My sister makes an excellent pumpkin brittle, but I think she’s gone to buying pre-shelled seeds.)

The problem with this process is that, as far as I can tell, there is really no quick and easy way to separate all those seeds, and the smaller the pumpkin/squash, the harder it takes. However, I’ve gotten a process down that seems to work fairly well, so I share it in case it proves useful to anyone else.

pumpkin_seeds_towelFirst, once I scoop the seeds out of the squash or pumpkin, I spread them out on a dishtowel–preferably a terrycloth towel over a tea towel. Then I use a spoon to sort of scrape the seeds away from the strings. It’s not fast, but it seems to go faster than using my hands to separate the seeds, since they are so darn slippery. I usually separate the seeds in small batches, and it took me about 40 minutes to get them all out when I did our pie pumpkin. My husband did the jack-o-lantern seeds, and he was a lot faster, which is normal for anything we both try to do, but I say he had the advantage of fewer strings in the bigger pumpkin.

The first picture shows them all spread out, while the second shows where a couple of the seeds have been pretty well separated.pumpkin_seeds_separated

After that, I just follow the recipe instructions and spread them out on a cookie sheet, bake, shake with salt, and enjoy!

pumpkin_seeds_sheet

 

Guacamole Soup and the Wonders of Buttermilk

Last week, I dug out a recipe that we hadn’t made for years: Cold Avocado Soup, from our (1997) edition of The Joy of Cooking. My husband made it as a first course for a fancy dinner once, and I remember eating it, but not loving it (I still tend to approach cold soups with some suspicion–something just seems wrong about them). However, I was looking for something easy and cold, plus we’d been using up a lot of meat lately, and I wanted something with less or no meat.

Plus, all three kids love guacamole.

Here’s an overview of the recipe, the simplicity of which I’d forgotten:

Scoop out the insides of 2 avocados. Process in a food processor (or a blender would probably work, assuming the avocados are ripe) with 1-2 cloves garlic until smooth. Remove to a bowl and stir in 2 cups of buttermilk and a little bit of lime juice, plus some salt and pepper to taste. Chill.

That’s it.

I had forgotten how easy this was, but I was thrilled to rediscover it. We served it with tortilla chips (for everyone) and salsa (for the grown-ups), plus some CSA heirloom cherry tomatoes and mozzarella cheese on the side, rechristened as “Guacamole Soup.”

It was a huge success. Everyone ate at least 2 bites (this is already a big success given our current dining crew), and the two older kids ate two servings each. We had no leftovers.

I then had a good deal of buttermilk left, so we proceeded to do the following things with it:

  • make ranch dressing (and I know I’ve tried this once without success, so I need to share the cookbook I used for this at a later date)
  • make chess pie (my husband, the real family baker, did this, but I can write more about chess pie later, if anyone wants to know)

We still have a little left, so I may put it in some biscuits or get my husband to make pancakes.

It was an all-around happy rediscovery, both of the recipe and the usefulness of buttermilk.

*Update: I was playing around online this evening and happened across this article: http://www.npr.org/2013/07/31/207060436/buttermilk-makes-everything-taste-a-little-better

Apparently, I’m not the only one with buttermilk on the brain.

Cabbage

Cabbage has been my CSA nemesis this year. This is mostly because we haven’t had any collards to contend with, but also because cabbage has never been a favorite of mine. It’s big, it’s very distinctive, it lasts forever. And this year, we have received LOTS of it (and very big heads sometimes, too). Oh, and I don’t really like coleslaw.

Thanks largely to suggestions of friends (hooray for Facebook recipe calls!) and my husband’s creativity, I have come to better appreciate cabbage this year. In case you are also not a cabbage fan, here are some ideas for your over-abundance of cabbage:

  • Obviously, stir-fry it. If you cook something with enough soy sauce, meat, and other veggies, it tends to taste better. I will put it in chicken stir-fry when I make it, and we also frequently make a recipe (from the cookbook More With Less) called Formosan Fried Cabbage, which is basically a stir-fry of sausage, cabbage, onions, and soy sauce.
  • Continuing in the Asian vein, a friend recommended this recipe: http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/japanese-pizza-recipe.html. This was very easy and good (although my kids didn’t really love it, my husband and I liked it enough to eat all the leftovers quickly), and rose even more in my estimation when it got mentioned on The Splendid Table after we had already made it.
  • We turned to good old Joy of Cooking and found a couple other ideas, one of which was to boil potatoes with cooked bacon, then add cabbage until it’s cooked, and add parsley at the end. With a little butter also added (not in the recipe, but it tasted pretty darn good), this was a family success. Bacon is often a key point in getting our son to try things.
  • I also made creamed cabbage (also from Joy) for the first time…not too bad with a homey meal of chicken and mashed potatoes. I put in too much salt, so taste before you salt!

That’s about it for now. I don’t think I’ve seen the last of cabbage for the year, though, so I’ll update if I find more to share.

 

 

 

 

 

Spinach

I think we are now safely past the spinach stage in our CSA season. So, now seems like the perfect time to talk about spinach, since I am not spending all my time cooking and freezing it.

First, a little background: we are on the CSA roster for Britt Farms, and we get a box of produce each week. We never know what we’re going to get until the day of the pick-up, but there’s always some fruit and lots of vegetables. Despite being a family of five, we still just get the small box, because our kids still largely subsist on macaroni and chicken, with vegetables added in as flavoring or discussion pieces. My husband and I make it our goal to eat all of the food before it spoils, and this year we are probably doing our best yet. I think I’ve had to throw out half a head each of cabbage and lettuce, plus a beet or two. We also haven’t had to given anything away yet. It helps that we’ve been doing this for about four years, so we now know many ways to cook most of the vegetables we get, and I also know how to save some of them for later use.

Which brings us back to spinach. Everyone in our family actually seems to like spinach just fine, but we just don’t eat it in quantities. It’s a pain to wash, it goes bad quickly, and I never used it fast enough.

Now, however, I use the “wash, steam, and freeze” method of spinach preparation. I wash the whole bag at once (which takes a good half-hour, but it won’t take that much less time for less spinach, so you may as well do the whole bag), steam it in batches, then freeze the batches (making sure to label them with both contents and date) for later use.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Clean out the sink–both sides if you have a double sink.
  2. Plug up one side of the sink and run a good inch of water into it while you start to add the spinach.
  3. Pull spinach leaves off the steams and add to the water to soak. Discard stems. Make sure to occasionally swish the spinach around in the water and/or spray it with your sprayer.
  4. Once all the leaves are in, move spinach over to the other side of the sink or into a bowl or colander. Rinse out the side that you’ve just used.
  5. Repeat soaking the spinach at least once.
  6. Steam the spinach for about 3-5 minutes (2-3 if you’ve already got the water boiling)–try to get it cooked without the color turning dark. If your steamer or pot isn’t big enough to do all the spinach at once, you can do it in batches.
  7. Use tongs to transfer the spinach into quart size freezer bags (pre-labeled makes life easier, or else use freezer tape to label them). Let the spinach cool before you seal the bags and put them in the freezer.
  8. Voila! You have lots of spinach ready to use when you want.

This method works for any greens (not so much cabbage and lettuce, at least not that I’m aware). I am particularly fond of doing this with collards and freezing them in tiny batches, so that I can hide them in things (none of us likes collards).

Here are some of the things I use the pre-cooked spinach in:

  • Risotto
  • Lasagna
  • Mexican lasagna
  • Quiche
  • Omelets
  • Chili
  • Spinach and potato soup
  • And, our new achievement this year, spinach pasta:

    Spinach pasta

    Ta-da!