what are you doing to keep your cool?

DSCF0468Here in Eugene, we’re facing day after day of increasingly hot weather.  It’s 102 degrees right now, and very few houses have A/C.  Cooking inside is out of the question; moving?  Not so good either.

I discovered that fresh corn tortillas (warmed in the toaster oven) with tomatillo salsa, queso fresco, cilantro, and cold salmon and grilled jalapeños from yesterday’s grill make a perfect supper. I have a big jug of Korean roasted barley tea in the fridge for thirst-quenching.

Is anyone even interested in eating this week?  Any ideas for cool, refreshing meals, snacks or drinks?


roasted vegetable ratatouille


Hot enough for ya?  With scorching temperatures continuing well into the week, maybe longer, I am feeling as lazy as everyone else in Eugene.  It even seems a stretch to water the garden, because I have to, well, turn on the timer.

Retrogrouch steps up during these difficult times and grills most of our meals.  He feels the grill should be dedicated to meat, so I have to sneak in little vegetable packages around the sides and after the main act is done.  I try to grill anything I can in this furtive, sloppy seconds manner.

One of the dishes I discovered could work well for day-after vegetable lunches and supper is a layered ratatouille, using fresh tomatoes and pre-roasted vegetables. The photo above shows one night’s version, made with a single, deep gold heirloom tomato.

Ratatouille, the southern French summer classic of sauteed eggplant, zucchini, garlic, tomatoes, onions and peppers, is a rather plain Jane.  It looks like the weeping stew it is.  So Thomas Keller, the chef of the French Laundry, came along and invented a layered version, dubbed confit byaldi to fancy it up. There, the vegetables are sliced into thin rounds and baked on a bed of sauce.

My considerably less fancy version involves layers, yes, and a quick jaunt in the oven first thing in the morning or last thing at night, before the heat sets in.  But I use vegetables that were cooked on the grill the evening before: skinny Asian eggplants and a head of garlic slowly roasted whole with olive oil in sealed foil packets, green and red peppers charred until their skin is black, and thick slices of sweet onion.

After peeling the black skin from the peppers, I cut the vegetables in thick, rustic slices and layer them in a Pyrex dish with slices of a juicy, perfect garden tomato and a thinly sliced zucchini, both of which favor being almost raw for a contrast to the mushy eggplant and peppers.  The onion and garlic can be either chopped and placed on the bottom of the dish, or integrated into the layers.  As I create the layers, I add fresh garden thyme and basil, and pour a healthy amount of olive oil atop the whole thing. Add plenty of salt and pepper, even more than you think you need.

After a quick jaunt in the oven at 425 degrees, no more than 15 minutes, the tomato has started to wither and melt, and the herb- and garlic-scented olive oil bathes the vegetables in a sauce that tastes of the very essence of summer.

Serve as is, with bread to sop up the juices, over rice or pasta, or even as a topping on burgers.  Because you have to use that grill again the next night, right?

i went to the coast and all i got was this lousy veggie garden


My relatives were visiting this week, and I did quite a bit of cooking and dining.  We had some delicious Ethiopian with the injera I bought in Portland, burgers, little hard rolls stuffed with sirloin, garlic, mint, onion and tzatziki sauce, early corn on the cob and green and wax beans slathered in local butter, local tunafish salad, etc., etc.  We also made vinegar pickles and sampled my new recipe for bright green half-sours.


Finally, seeking respite from the inland heat, we drove out to the coast.  We all enjoyed tidepooling and the lighthouse at Heceta Head, but I was far more fascinated with starfish eating mussels and the ripening salal, a dark berry that does well in the salt air of the PNW coast.


And you better believe it that my kin and kith all but deserted me when I spied the potager, the little kitchen garden outside the Heceta lightkeeper’s house, which is now a B & B.  Everyone went to go do something else and left me with my camera and dreams of such a beautiful little space.  But you wouldn’t desert me, would you?


I had no idea vegetables could grow so well in the damp chill of the coast.  Maybe it’s just that the innkeepers, both formerly executive chefs, know some vegetable magic.  True, the brassicas, lettuces, and artichokes were doing especially well, but nasturtiums, herbs, and squash were also outperforming mine by a mile.  Impressive!


lookee what i found!


I stopped by an Ethiopian market in Portland, and lo and behold, fresh, gorgeous injera.  There’s a woman in town who makes it — and I’ll tell ya what, I think every single Ethiopian in the whole city had ordered some that day, since they had a full standing display of them and each one was reserved.  The shopkeep sent me down the street to another market, and I scored.

Ethiopian tonight!

The same shopkeep advised me that one can easily freeze prepared injera.  Just fold each piece in four, then stack 3-4 together and freeze in gallon-sized freezer bags.  40 seconds in the microwave will make them, she assured, the same as new.

Ethiopian in two weeks!

blackberry tasting at frankenstein lab


Wonderful tour at the OSU Lewis-Brown Horticulture Research Farm in Corvallis yesterday morning.  I was headed up to Portland and had planned to celebrate cherries along the way, but when I saw the advertisement for the annual tour, staffed by horticulture faculty and USDA research geneticists, I Could. Not. Resist.  Fascinating place, and just a tiny bit scary.  This is where they keep gene banks of as many varieties of small fruits and other plants, cross cultivars to make new ones, and experiment with things like disease hardiness, fruit size and quality and color, and other desired elements for commercial food crops.  I have mixed feelings about this, as you might imagine, because this research makes a product that is meant for mass production, but it’s still really cool.


I had the opportunity to talk with Chad Finn, the friendly and accessible USDA geneticist who heads up the small fruit team, and some of his staff, about the breeding of blackberries.  They had a half-dozen varieties to sample, some so new they don’t have names, and others that could be appearing on the local market soon. Chad pointed out how some berries are adapted to be IQF (individually quick frozen) and others are perfect for baking, with a more compact profile.  The ones next to the Marions above are perfect bakers.  Others can be over 2-inches long and monstrous.  They didn’t sample any of those, sadly.

I took some dreadful pictures and notes for my upcoming blackberry article. I manipulated the images a bit so you can see how different the drupelets (berry bumps), berry size, and color look.  And a wide range of flavor, too.  I did learn that the Tupy-type blackberry, the one grown in Mexico and other places for long-range shipping, tastes like shit: bitter and watery and dull.  Avoid at all costs.  Come to Oregon instead.


I’d write more, but I have to finish said article, as well as do about ten thousand other things before my house guests arrive.

meeting about future of lane county extension tonight

Extension’s Future: A Community Meeting
Thursday, July 16, 2009 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM

Oregon State University Extension Service officials are seeking local support to help keep educational programs such as 4-H Youth Development, Master Gardeners, Master Food Preservers and Compost Specialists in Lane County. Extension lost most of its county-based funding one year ago and is working to survive the current budget year.

A discussion of Extension’s future, including ways that people can help, is scheduled for Thursday, July 16 at 7 p.m., in the Lane County Fairgrounds Livestock Arena.

The above snippet is an announcement from the OSU Extension – Lane County calendar of events.  Extension provides many, many services to our community, including the education I received to be able to write posts on preservation and food safety for this blog, and the classes I and many others give at extremely discounted prices, often donating our own materials as well as time.

Quite frankly, the future doesn’t look so bright.  I don’t know what they’re going to say at the meeting, but it doesn’t look good.  They’re trying to put a brave face on it, but as a community member and dedicated volunteer at a place that has — hands down — the best community programming system I’ve ever seen, I feel obligated to share my sadness and helplessness over the whole thing, the end of an era.

The OSU, as a federal land grant university, is mandated in its charter to have an outreach “extension” program for education in agricultural-based fields (I’m simplifying, but you get the picture) in all Oregon counties.  The system was set up over a hundred years ago to ensure cooperative funds from the federal, state, and county level would keep the university and Extension operating.  Technically, Extension as an entity is one of the main missions of OSU and other land grant universities.  Over the years and budget problems, this mission has become blurred or forgotten, and funds have been diverted to other necessary (and perhaps not so necessary) areas.  Many Oregon counties have lost or drastically minimized their Extension programs.  In Lane County, we’ve managed to keep Extension alive even through budget crises in the past.

With the loss of county funding and the risk of losing state funding, however, Lane County Extension can’t survive as it is operating, even with its curtailed hours and decimated staff.  Worse yet, it risks losing its volunteers.  What you see on paper is only part of the true cost of losing or severely curtailing Extension programming.There is a huge corps of longstanding (10, 20 years or more) volunteers who lovingly give their time to help the community use its agricultural and horticultural resources, pumping thousands of hours into these programs.  I’m sure someone has figured out the true cost of radically altering Extension, assigning dollars to the hours committed by hundreds (thousands?) of people in Lane County who staff programs, hotlines, demos, classes, and events for free. It would be a major loss to dissipate all the volunteer energy that goes into that ramshackle little building north of the Fairgrounds, a place I’ve come to love.

If you’re as heartbroken as I am, come to the meeting and hear what’s been decided for the near future.  Perhaps they’ve come up with a workable plan.  I’m hoping, anyway.  But in any case, it would be very nice to have your support, both there and at our classes this year.

fresh local green beans meet their maker in a Thai stirfry

DSCF4965I’m workin’ on stuff, but I thought I’d just pop my head in here and sigh happily about the impromptu Thai stirfry I made with the season’s first local green beans.

I love, love, LOVE fresh, sunwarmed, slender green beans, their sweetness, their bouncy snap when you break off the little stems.

I had some leftover ground pork, so I browned it with some onion and new garlic.  Then, when it was crispy and rich brown, I added some Thai fish sauce and sugar, which carmelized beautifully, creating a sweet, salty, crusty, oniony pork confit.  Then I threw in big handfuls of green beans and cooked them for a few minutes.  Finally, I added a few leftover cashews and a handful of Thai basil.  I ate the whole mess over jasmine rice.  NOM.

In other news, have you registered yet for “Backyard Food Solutions,” this year’s Gardeners Mini College?  Tomorrow’s the deadline for registration.  More info if you click here and to the right.  Apparently, we’ve hit a record number of enrollees, but there’s still room for you!

garden update from about a month ago


Aren’t they beautiful?  I’ve been digging out a handful or two of new potatoes every few days from my German Butterball crop.  These are the first, taken in early June.  The potatoes grow in the row marked by the convergence of the two hoses, in front of the raspberries, which are in the row farthest away from my hand.  The potato row is mostly blocked by peas in the row to the west of it, but it also contains pickling cucumbers, a few favas I’ve let go to seed, and two cabbages.

You can also see my arugula, near the peas and under the second solar lamp, a big clump of mint in the next row to the west, some fennel fronds, and a bunch of spindly tomatoes and gasping basil.  I think I’ve lost the basil this year.  First time ever.  Our cool weather has not been kind.  The tomatoes are doing well in one row and not so well in the second row.  I think I made it too compost-heavy when I split one existing row into two this spring.  Oh well.


Here’s a better shot of the tomatoes and tomatillos, also taken in early June.  I need to do an updated photo shoot, don’t I?  I’m standing next to the pea and arugula row, the potatoes and raspberries behind me.  That sad row in front of me is the beets, fennel, and cabbage.  They all look better now; I think I weathered the aphid storm.  Over by the shed is the artichoke plant that’s doing well, and the other artichoke plant that isn’t (not in photo).


Artichokes up close and personal.  The straggler is bathed in sunlight in the middle of the photo, in between a very healthy lovage plant and the other artichoke.  You have to squint to see it.  I planted the two artichokes together three springs ago, and this is the first year one is not responding to my ministrations.  But honestly, it’s ok, because I’d really like to build a cold frame in exactly this spot.  It gets wonderful morning sun, and remains sunny for most of the day.   Still, I wonder what is going on here.  The healthy artichoke is sheltered by the sun somewhat by the monster rosemary bush.  I thought artichokes needed plenty of sun.  I also worried about the “breathable” porous landscaping cloth I had around the artichokes, covered in compost and possibly blocking water flow because of the fine bits of soil matter clogging the pores.  I pulled it out this year, but it didn’t seem to help.

So that’s about it for now.  I’ll take more photos soon.

summer pudding in progress

DSCF4909I’m finding myself more and more drawn to British food, perversely.  It could just be that I’m in love with Nigel Slater, the British food writer, since I don’t really feel the need to linger lovingly over the scribblings of other British  chefs — Jamie Oliver, et al.  But I am stunned by the simple, focused, epicurian, poetic, vivid present in which Slater writes.  See?  When Slater gives it, British food doesn’t seem to be nasty, overcooked, and hunk-o-meatcentric at all.  It almost resembles cooking in Oregon in the summer, when we turn to the fresh vegetables and fruits at the market.  And it makes sense, too, because the climate of the land and the people are similar.

DSCF4915So I saw a recipe for his summer pudding with red fruit, and immediately set to adapting it for Oregonian kitchens, overrun with blackberries in August.  These are some pictures of my first attempt to make the pudding with the berries available early in the summer, tayberries and frozen blueberries.  I’ll be sharing the recipe soon and talking about this gorgeous dessert at my class on “Blackberries Gone Wild” at the Lane County Fair! [Edited to add:  See recipe for this and other blackberry summer desserts in my article in the Register-Guard.  The recipe for the pudding is pasted below.]


Blackberry Summer Pudding

Adapted from cookbook author David Lebovitz’s recipe. The proportions are for an 8-inch glass mixing bowl. You may use a 1½-quart soufflé dish or large glass loaf pan, but there may be fruit left over. This recipe is best with a mix of different berries, but can also be made with one variety of blackberries. The currants/sour cherries/blueberries add a tartness and texture to the mix, and should not be omitted. Frozen fruit may be used for this recipe, but fresh is best. Plan for an overnight refrigeration.

  • 6 cups blackberries
  • 6 cups another variety of blackberry (boysenberries are particularly nice)
  • 2 cups red currants, sour cherries or blueberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kirsch
  • 1 loaf firm, high-quality white bread
  • Extra berries for garnish

In a stockpot, bring the 14 cups of berries and sugar up to a simmer. Cook until the sugar is melted and the berries release their juices, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add the kirsch.

Remove the crusts from the bread and slice it into 1/2-inch slices if you are not using pre-sliced bread.

Line bowl with plastic wrap to ease the removal of the pudding. Use enough wrap to let it hang over the sides for folding over the top when you finish.

Place the slices of bread around the bottom and side of the bowl, overlapping the slices slightly and cutting pieces to fit the holes where necessary.

Set aside and refrigerate one cup of berries with juice for the final presentation.

Working slowly, ladle 3-4 cups of berries and juice over the bread, pressing juice and pulp into the bread on the sides of the bowl as well as the bottom. Pour half of the berries into the bread-lined pan, and spread them over the bottom layer of bread to cover the entire surface.

Add another layer of bread on top of the berry and bread layer, placing and cutting pieces as before. Spread out about half the remaining berries on the sides and bottom of the layer of bread.

Cover with a final layer of bread, and add the remaining berries and juice.

Fold the plastic wrap over the bread on top. Before placing in the refrigerator, find a plate or other flat surface to fit on top of the pudding, inside the bowl. Weigh down the plate with a large can of tomatoes or large bag of beans. Refrigerate overnight.

Before serving, unfold the plastic wrap and use it to help invert the pudding onto a large serving plate. Remove the bowl and the plastic wrap. You may see spots that are not fully stained purple. Use the reserved berry juice to color in these spots, and pour the rest on the sides of the pudding. Cut into slices and serve with whipped cream and any extra fresh berries.

Serves 8-10.

the reluctant baker uses pie weights for salad


Still fine-tuning my blackberry pie recipe, adapted from this one.  Made a single crust pie for our July 4 celebration, full of plump, juicy, tangy, just-picked tayberries.  Way more delicious than blackberries, in my opinion. I’m a big fan of fresh, non-sugary pies, so I really want to perfect this one recipe. It’s almost there, but not quite.  I love the crust, but the consistency is still slightly off.

As you know, I’m not a baker, and am beginning to think that I need to have three or four recipes in my repertoire that I can trot out when necessary, kind of like the people who don’t cook but have a specialty or two they’re known for at potlucks and such.  Yes, that’s my attitude toward baked goods.  I’d much rather have someone else deal with their flaky, sugary, fragile, fussy, sensitive, hard to transport little bodies.  And I’m fortunate enough to have several friends who are passionate about baking, so it always works out.

In true non-baker fashion, even as delicious and fresh as the pie was, I quickly grew a bit bored of the proceedings and the stickiness and the tedious dough rolling, and my attention shifted.  I had used the time-honored trick of dried beans to keep the crust flat while baking the empty shell, and the home economist in me thought hm, these beans shouldn’t go to waste; I wonder if they would still cook up after baking them at 400 degrees for 5 minutes.

And sure enough, they did.  I soaked the previously pie-shelled anasazi beans (hey, I don’t keep cheap beans around!) and cooked them late at night, when the weather was cooler, then threw together an impromptu bean salad with errant vegetables and other refrigerator specialties for lunch.


I tossed the beans with my homemade basil oil and my Hungarian chili and garlic vinegar, a roasted red pepper, some toasted pine nuts, and a big handful of fresh celery with its leaves.  A glob of homemade sundried tomato mustard and some freshly ground pepper spiced it up a bit, and I served it with tiny romaine lettuce leaves from a cultivar that makes little round heads.  Yep, a leftovers special, but oh wow, did it taste good.

And it gave me fortitude to scrub the berry goo and flour off the counters and walls.  So see — I can bake!