goodbye kale and chard, hellllllllllo summer!

With this weekend’s heat (finally!), I knew I’d have to harvest the rest of my spring greens and snowpeas, plus with the Olympic Trials starting in Eugene with all its attendant crowds at local restaurants, it seemed the perfect time to stay at home. So we decided to host an impromptu barbecue!

Retrogrouch manned the meat station, and I played with vegetables. I’ll post about my new invention, Faster Than A Speeding Bullet New Dill Pickles, later. Suffice it to say I used a Japanese method and my great-grandma’s Polish cucumber salad to make a very serviceable new dill pickle slice in three hours flat. We ended up making a variety of grilled things based on what people brought, so it was a night of burgers, brats, salmon and steak (!), plus my black bean bulgar wheat salad and a mesclun salad with chive blossom vinegar as sides. Someone brought a lovely cool lime tart for dessert.

Another discovery was a very decent “spinach-artichoke” dip that I drummed up from our huge supply of greens. It was made from much healthier ingredients than your usual spinach dip. My recipe makes 3-4 cups of a relatively firm-textured dip that can’t be frozen, so you’ll either have to scale down or use it as a stuffing in cherry tomatoes, celery, peapods, etc., or as a pasta sauce. Or have a huge party! Or just leave it in the fridge and snack on it all weekend long during a heat wave…

The farmers markets are selling early, soft, large-leaved basil, so I used some for this recipe. It makes the dip taste less like “spinach-artichoke” and more like pesto, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The base is ricotta cheese instead of sour cream or mayo, which helps lend a lightness to the dip, as does the lack of oil. Add just a bit of lemon juice to keep the basil from discoloring. We used a budget Parmesano Reggiano, which was fine, and frozen artichoke bottoms, available at Middle Eastern grocery stores. You could also use artichoke bottoms (or hearts) canned in water.

Spring Greens Basil Artichoke Dip

Makes 3-4 cups.

  • 1 very large bunch chard
  • 1 very large bunch kale
  • 1 big handful fresh basil
  • 6-8 oz. frozen artichoke bottoms, thawed and chopped
  • 1 lb. whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 cup light cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 T. lemon juice
  • salt and freshly grated pepper

Clean greens and remove stems. Blanch the chard and kale in a large pot of boiling water by submerging the leaves in the water for only a couple of minutes max, until they are bright green and wilted. (I did it in two batches.) Then, remove the leaves and immediately plunge them in a large bowl of iced water to stop the cooking and set the color.

After letting the greens cool, remove from iced water and squeeze as much water from the ball of greens as you can (again, it’s better to do this in at least two batches).

When greens are prepared, add them and the rest of the ingredients to a food processor, and pulse until ingredients are well mixed but not pureed.

Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Salt is crucial, since the ricotta and greens are mild.

Refrigerate for at least an hour. The ricotta cheese and small amount of lemon juice makes this dip not so great for keeping at room temperature for long periods.

Serve with wheat crackers or pita bread.

billy mac’s — better than a sharp stick in the eye

They should take away my restaurant reviewing privileges.  Luckily, no one is paying me, so they can’t, muwahahaha!  But I do feel so depressed when I do Eugene restaurant reviews, because I *want* them to be good.  I really do.

That said, I’m happy to report that Billy Mac’s on 19th and Jefferson is not terrible.  (And Molly, I agree with your comments on my earlier post 100%.)  It’s a burger joint.  Do we need another burger joint?  Eh, maybe.  The burgers are pretty good.  And the fries are a world better than the jo-jo monstrosities at Mac’s at the Vet’s.  The fries are, I’d venture to say, quite good.  They are still battered, but thinner than jo-jos and done with a light hand, and served in rather appealing cone cups with ketchup and fry sauce (= vinegary Russian dressing).  The pizzas weren’t so good, but they were still edible.  I had one with gorgonzola and fresh tomatoes that was swamped with mozzarella so you couldn’t really taste the gorgonzola.  Was it supposed to have herbs?  I don’t remember, but if so, they were buried under the cheese.  The crust was crispy, but oddly tough and overbearing.

Other people seemed to be enjoying their food.  I actually almost ordered a fried calamari “tapas” when I saw it come out, because it looked as if it had been fried perfectly.  But since I was already taking a bath in cheese, I refrained.  Someone else ordered a milkshake, touted on the menu as something very rare and special.  It’s ice cream and milk blended up, and not even top quality ice cream.  But different strokes.

As for ambiance, the airflow on the otherwise congenial deck overlooking the parking lot is a problem.  Some dude nursing a soda decided to smoke two cigarettes while everyone else was having their supper, and made us all inhale his carcinogens.  Rude.  Not the restaurant’s fault, but I wish there were another place for smokers. I had momentary Bay Area dreams, where one can sit outside at a café and drink a cappuccino with a pretty girl and not be choked with cancer stick.  Ahh…

Meh.  Another minus is the service — it’s that over-friendly, chatty, ignorant-as-newfallen-snow, customer-is-always-right, folks-next-door, scatterbrained service so many places in Eugene urge upon their poor service workers.  Please, please, Eugene restaurants: train your staff about the specials and make them taste everything on the menu and even form an opinion about things on the menu…or at the very least tell them to pay attention to what people are ordering so they can at least point to some popular choices.  When we were there, the waitstaff was limited to one person, and we came just before a freak rush, so we were largely forgotten, but I forgive this situation, especially in a new restaurant.

For me, the worst thing about Billy Mac’s is the use of the word “tapas” to mean “standard mediocre pub grub appetizers like chicken fingers and cheezy toast.”   Just.  Don’t.  It’s annoying at best, and at worst, it reminds us that we don’t live in a place that has a Spanish restaurant and thinks it can cover it up by pretending we do.

So…go to Billy Mac’s and enjoy a burger.

of bicycle tour maps and new potatoes with mint

Retrogrouch has been in training for a long bike trip, and we’ve been discussing the particulars.  He’s adamant about being old-school, and I’m itching to play with the dehydrator and dry him 10-course meals for the journey, so we have very different plans.  But we agree that he needs appropriate clothing.

So he sends me this film made by the British Transport Film group, an account of the Bicyclists’ Special Touring Excursion to Rugby on May 8, 1955, with a note saying he plans to model his “entire look on these chaps.”

So I watch it… As expected, not my cup of tea.  Bikes, English people, bikes, bikes, trains, bikes, bikes, bike parts, ooh–there’s some tea…and bikkies!, bikes, bikes, healthy young people, bikes, propaganda, bikes, trains, bikes, bikes…then, hello!

“H. H. England, the Editor of Cycling, knows that a cycling tour without a map is like new potatoes without the smell of mint.”

My interest is piqued.  Minted new potatoes! Who knew!? What kind of a British conspiracy kept this delicious secret from the Yanks?  I look it up, thinking the mint would be added raw to the cooked potatoes, but discovered they BOIL the potatoes with mint!  Wow.

So we cycled out (ok, I drove) and bought some local new potatoes called German Butterballs, a yellow, lovely potato, and a head of new garlic, large and well-formed but still with undifferentiated cloves.  With herbs from my garden, it was an easy side dish.

The video itself is pretty interesting — socialism on bikes, sponsored by the railway network propaganda machine.  Bits of history and British imperialism sneak in every so often.  And check out those woolen cycling knickers.

More importantly, however, is the existence of MINTED NEW POTATOES.  I don’t normally steal recipes wholesale, and if I do, I certainly don’t blog about them, but this one was so beautiful and pristine that I couldn’t resist.  OK, I did change it just a teeny tiny bit, by accenting the mint cooking liquid with more chopped mint, and adding both lemon and French thyme, plus their blossoms, to the potatoes.

I don’t know much about the British cook Nigel Slater, other than he seems to be a lyrical writer and a good cook dedicated to the ebb and flow of British seasonal cooking, so you bet I’d like to know more. In this recipe, he boils the potatoes as usual with mint sprigs, then smashes each one in a baking dish, dots the potatoes with an herb and garlic butter, then bakes just until the top is until crusty and browned.

I’d like to think Mr. Slater would approve of my use of local butter, potatoes, new garlic, and herbs.  Not very British, no, but as right as a tour with a map.

Bicycle Tour With A Map Minted New Potatoes

Serves 4 as a side dish.

  • 1 pound new potatoes around the same size, no more than three inches in diameter
  • a handful of clean, fresh mint sprigs (4-5 large ones), two set aside for garnishing
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 3 T. minced new garlic (not garlic scapes)
  • 1 T. fresh thyme
  • freshly ground pepper and sea salt
  • sprigs of mint and thyme to garnish

Scrub potatoes well without peeling (new potatoes have flaky, thin skins — see image above).  Place in pot and cover with cold water.  Add several mint sprigs, reserving enough to add some to the finished dish and as a garnish.

While the potatoes are boiling, mince new garlic and thyme, then mash into the butter in a small bowl.  Add sea salt and freshly ground pepper to the butter to taste.

Boil potatoes until a thin knife can pierce them easily.  Drain potatoes, discarding mint.

Preheat broiler on high.  Place each potato in a Pyrex baking dish, and smash each one lightly with a fork, so the insides are bared but you can still see the shape of the potato.  Dot each potato with the compound butter, and broil only until top is browned, just a few moments.  If you’d like crustier potatoes, bake rather than broil at around 425 until crustiness is achieved, but I, for one, couldn’t wait, and won’t blame you if you can’t, either.  Garnish with more mint, mint sprigs, and more thyme flowers.

Serve immediately.  Your special excursion train to Rugby is pulling into the station.

manning the food safety and preservation hotline

Today was Day 2 of my hotline training for the statewide Family Food Education and Master Food Preserver Program.  I really like extemporaneously puzzling through odd problems, so I’m enjoying it greatly.  Today we had questions on a range of quality and safety issues, even though I would have bet they would be all about strawberry jam.  But I was wrong.  Some of the questions were:

  • how long can I keep pie crust dough in the refrigerator?
  • can I eat these home-canned crushed tomatoes from 2001 if they are still sealed and bright red?
  • why did my apricot preserves turn mushy last year, when Grandma’s were always bright and firm?
  • can I freeze strawberries with Splenda?
  • when should I schedule my trip back East so I can be sure to pick some ripe local blackberries and make jam for presents?
  • What varieties of plums are best for preserving?
  • Can I eat storebought cans of kidney beans and enchilada sauce that I bought in 2005?

And then, finally, yay…

  • I made strawberry jam, and none of the jars sealed.  (Husband tightened down the rings too tight, caveat uxor!)

I also got to ask my own questions about preserving with Xylitol, arrowroot, Honeoyes, checking out a dehydrator, and whether or not apricots grow in the valley (they do not), and my fellow volunteer (who is also a Master Gardener volunteer) got to ask about how to trap a resistant skunk under her chicken coop and how to get a wind reader.  She helped answer a question about planting lettuce and mesclun mix between tomatoes.  One program member, wearing what he called his “shit shirt” with images of different animal scat came in and received a purple kitted cap with earflaps, and we talked about making beer that didn’t explode and wine out of coffee.  Then the farmer from whom I bought last weekend’s Honeoyes came in with more yummy samples for everyone, and I absconded with three pints but without my coffee mug, which had done me no good anyway by dumping all my coffee on the desk and my lap at one point during the festivities.

In short, a good time was had by all.

strawberry comparison

Preparatory to anything else, I put up six half-pints and five mini-jars of strawberry-elderflower jam yesterday.  I couldn’t resist a half-flat of Bentons at the Saturday Market, just because we had been discussing them.  And the MFP Hotline people were right, they are bright red and make a tasty jam.  They’re also delicious, a lighter but still complex, flowery strawberry taste than my beloved Seascapes.  I thought the Bentons were better than the Shuksans I used for jam last year.

I also bought a pint of “Honey-Os” (Honeoyes) for eating. Though I had planned differently, I was once again seduced by no-pectin strawberry jam.  The Honeoyes were really tart.  I thought they’d add a bit of natural pectin, so I threw them in the mix.  Perhaps they did; the jam’s rather runny, but I think it will set up a bit firmer than what it looks like now.  The color is really nice (as you can see for yourself here), and would have been even better had I opted to use pectin and therefore not to cook it so long.

Anyway, the header picture is a berry color comparison.  Left to right: Seascape from my strawberry planter, Benton from the Slusher farm, Honeoye from Hentze Family Farm.  Each variety has different sizes and shapes, so the size here means nothing.

little green potstickers

One of my very first good friends in college was a Japanese guy, an exchange student who met with me for conversation practice.  I was seventeen, fresh from the suburbs, in a new town, and experiencing life on my own for the first time.  He was a bit older than me, but in certain ways in the same situation as I was.  He treated me at first strangely, based on Japanese custom for dealing with someone who is at once a beloved little sister and an esteemed teacher (so yes, it didn’t really work).  But over the months, as he became more and more Americanized and we got to know each other better, our relationship evolved into something really special.  He had a similar sense of humor as me (poor guy), and also a streak of melancholy and sensitivity that all truly funny people share. We kept in touch for many years, helping each other out in our native lands and through several moves and new careers, until one day he finally he vanished into the ether of Japanese corporate society.

But I still think of him every time I make potstickers.  I learned many of my homestyle Japanese dishes from him.  In fact, for a long time, I knew how to make more Japanese dishes than anything else.  I was a vegetarian for several years in college, and he gladly showed me how to cook Japanese vegetables and modified recipes, like the one for the very popular pork dumplings that we call potstickers and the Japanese call gyoza.

I’ve never measured this recipe, and I would never serve it to guests.  This is messy, slightly greasy, casual family eating with humble ingredients.  It also has a distinct disadvantage of being a pain to make.  But potstickers are delicious, and worth the trouble.

If you’ve had potstickers at Chinese restaurants, understand that these are significantly smaller, with a very light “skin,” not the heavy, doughy wrapping you’ll find there.  This is because you will be cheating and buying store-made skins, not making your own.  This does save a bit of time, especially since the skins can be kept in the freezer.

The other day, faced with (1) some thawing skins I was going to use for cheater pirogies with my homemade sauerkraut, and (2) an ever-growing vegetable bin full of local chard and kale, I was inspired to dude up my potsticker recipe.  My potstickers are usually filled with a cabbage, tofu, green onion, garlic and ginger mixture.  I thought it might be nice (and even remotely healthy) to swap out the cabbage for better greens.  And sure enough, it worked!

This filling is vegan.  You can include an egg, if you want, to help bind the filling, but I’ve never had any real problems with unbound filling, so I don’t bother.

As a warning, you’re going to need a largish non-stick skillet with a lid that fits over it tightly.  If you’re doubling the recipe, you should keep in mind you’ll need to cook the potstickers in two batches.

Little Green Potstickers

For the Filling:

1/2 cake regular (firm) tofu, drained well of water
3-4 green onions, chopped
2-inch long piece ginger, grated finely
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
2 big handfuls of mixed greens (or a quarter of a small cabbage)
1 t. sesame oil
1 t. sesame seeds
1/2 t. salt
1 T. corn starch

For the Dipping Sauce:

1 part Japanese soy sauce: 2-3 parts rice vinegar
a float of chili oil (la-yu) is optional

For Cooking:

1/4 cup vegetable or peanut oil
1/2 package potsticker “skins,” sold at Asian markets and at some large supermarkets

The first step is to prepare the filling.

To drain the tofu, remove it from the package, squeeze it a little bit, and place it in a colander.  On top of the tofu, place a small plate and then weigh down the plate with something heavy (a small pot or a gallon-sized Ziploc bag filled with water will do).  Let sit for 15 minutes, pressing down on the weight every so often, to drain as much water out as possible.  Pat dry before using.  Crumble and place into a large bowl.

To prepare the greens (this step is unnecessary if you are using cabbage), blanch them in a pot of boiling water for a few seconds, then immediately plunge them into a bowl full of ice water. This will fix the color and make the filling cook more evenly.  Remove greens from ice water, squeeze them very well to remove most of the water, then chop finely and add to bowl with tofu.

After preparing the tofu and greens, add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and mix thoroughly.

Filling and Folding the Potstickers:

The basic technique is to place a teaspoon full of filling on a “skin,” gently dampen one edge of the circle with water, then crimp or fold the edges to seal the dumpling.  A good seal ensures that when you cook it, it won’t burst the seams and ooze filling out all over the place.  The crimping process is difficult to describe in words, so I’ll give you a few options.  One, check out a video on how to do it.  Two, look at my pictures, and see how I fold while pressing the filling down with a finger inside the potsticker.  Three, just forget the whole thing and seal each potsticker by crimping the edges with a fork, just as you would a pie crust.

For the first option, check out this video I found on youtube, and watch her fingers.  She is using thicker “skins” that might be homemade, rather than store-bought.  You’ll want to use less filling than she does, but the video provides a good tutorial on folding:

Some tips:  more hands makes for faster eatin’ — see if you can enlist others to help you.  Some people get so good at the process they can work at the speed of light.  I’m not that talented, as you can see from my messy folding, but still rarely have a potsticker disaster.

Don’t use any more than one teaspoon of filling for each potsticker.  Less is better than more.

Don’t let the filled, uncooked potstickers sit too long on a plate, or they may start to stick and rip when you remove them.  You may want to prepare some, then cook them, then prepare some more.  Retrogrouch and I do this, often eating potstickers straight from the stove, as we’re folding more.

Cooking the Potstickers:

Once you run out of filling, you are done, and you can cook the potstickers!  Cooking is a two-step process: first browning the bottoms in some oil, then steaming the potstickers until the skin becomes translucent.

You don’t want to use too much oil.  Just coat the bottom of the non-stick pan with oil (I confess I use a regular pan and more oil, but they are much more prone to sticking and ripping that way).  Place each potsticker into the hot oil.  To discourage sticking, I do this in a quick one-two motion, dipping it in the hot oil down on the pan, then immediately lifting it up again, then putting it down.  It’s ok to crowd the pan, but move quickly, watching the earliest potstickers so they don’t get burnt on the bottom.

Once all the potstickers are browned on the bottom, add about a 1/3 cup of water.  Again moving quickly, pour all the water in the pan at once, then immediately put the lid on the pan so you’ll get the full rush of steam.  N.b., if you don’t move fast, all the oil and water will spray all over your stove.  See the video for a good example of this process:

When the skins are translucent, and you can see the filling inside, remove the potstickers carefully. (See the picture above for what they should look like when steamed — can you see the green?)  You can use a nylon spatula and loosen the bottoms, then flip them onto a plate.  Expect to lose a couple.  The losers should be devoured by the cook before anyone can see your lack of professionalism.

To Serve:

Serve with rice and a dipping sauce made of one part Japanese soy sauce and two or three parts rice vinegar.  It can be doctored with a float of chili oil (la-yu), and some chopped scallions or sesame seeds or even chopped garlic, if you’re fancy.

Enjoy — and feel good that you’re using up some of those delicious local greens!

strawberries for jam

Someone asked me a question today, and I thought I’d repost my response as a blog entry, since, well, it’s that season and I lurve talking about strawberries, and I’ll take any chance I can to promote the Lane County OSU Extension Master Food Preserver program. Oregon residents, please note I’ve posted an announcement about our statewide hotline on the right-hand side of this page.

Christy wrote to me and asked me if Seascape strawberries would be good for jam.  Here is my response:

I’ve only made strawberry jam once, and it was with Shuksans, which were recommended, but I was trying a French no-pectin recipe and it didn’t set up. I blamed the recipe and my skills. Seascapes are so soft and sweet that I suspect they wouldn’t be the best variety.

So I called my friends at the statewide Master Food Preservation Hotline (541-682-4246) and asked them what they thought! They agreed, and said Seascapes are beautiful eating, but wouldn’t hold up well in jam. For mid-season, your best bets include what you’ve been using, the Hoods, or Shuksans, or Bentons. The consensus was that Bentons are best because they make beautifully colored jam. They’re the berries that ripen salmon colored to light red, so the jam they make is bright and lively. Apparently, they’ve been used in commercial jams for a long time.

Some other suggestions were Olympus (also mid-season), Red Craft (late), and a new variety, Firecracker, that apparently has a better flavor than Hoods.

If you do decide to switch varieties, please let me know the results, and good luck!

I forgot to add that the solemn consensus was that Oregon strawberries should be chosen over berries from anywhere else, should that unfathomable choice arise.

I’d love to hear more suggestions and experiences, if anyone else has them!