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I met Paula Disbrowe on New Year’s Eve three years ago.  She’s tall and very pretty, with long legs, high cheekbones and a classic sense of style.  That night, she was dressed like a lady, but cussed like a sailor, a combination I find irresistable.  It was a while before we saw each other again, but when we met for lunch and finally shared confidences over a bottle of bitingly cold, steely white wine, our conversation felt easy and effortless, the beginnings of a friendship that has always felt both familiar and exciting.  Aside from being one of the best storytellers I know, she’s courageous and not afraid of making bold, epic decisions.  She has cooked at a chateau in France, covered the food beat in New York city, written award-winning cookbooks, and traveled far and wide, but my favorite story is about the time she came back to New York from an assignment in Texas, packed up everything she owned and moved out to Rio Frio to run a gourmet fitness ranch as the cowgirl chef.  Paula chronicled this experience in Cowgirl Cuisine, a cookbook I’ve read cover to cover.  A love letter to her years in West Texas, the book is a fantastic read, and the recipes inside are exactly what you want to eat.  Paula’s cooking is always perfect–the food she cooks is big-hearted and fun, delicious and interesting, and the best part is that every dish tells the story of a life lived large.

Ruby Salad with Crumbled Feta and Spicy Pepitas

from Cowgirl Cuisine, by Paula Disbrowe

to prepare beets:

1 bunch beets, trimmed and scrubbed

2-3 fresh thyme or rosemary sprigs or 3 fresh bay leaves

1/2 tsp. salt

olive oil

for the vinaigrette:

1 Tbs dijon mustard

2 Tbs sherry wine vinegar

2 Tbs fresh lemon juice

salt & pepper

1/4 c olive oil

for the salad:

4 c very thinly sliced red cabbage

1 medium red onion, very thinly sliced

4 c mixed baby greens (sometimes I just increase the red cabbage and leave this out, sometimes I add thinly sliced raddichio)

6 oz feta cheese, crumbled

(I also add chopped cilantro)

1 c spicy pepitas (recipe follows)

To roast the beets, preheat the oven to 400.  Line a baking sheet with foil.  Put the beets, herbs, salt, and a drizzle of oil in the center.  Toss the beets to coat.  Fold the foil in a loose-fitting but tightly sealed packet around the beets.  Roast the packet on the baking sheet until the beets are tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.  Let the beets cool completely in the foil.  When cool, use a paring knife to peel and slice he beets into wedges (beets can be roasted up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated).

In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, 1/4 tsp salt, and a few grinds of black pepper.  Slowly whisk in the oil.

To assemble the salad, combine the cabbage and onion in a medium bowl and set aside.  Up to an hour before serving, add the beet wedges to the cabbage and onion and gently toss with half the vinaigrette.

Just before serving, add the baby greens, half of the feta, and half of the pepitas; toss with the remaining vinaigrette.  Arrange on a big serving platter and garnish with the remaining feta and pepitas.

spicy pepitas: toss 6 oz pepitas (pumpkin seeds) with 1 tsp oil, 1 tsp chile powder, and 3/4 tsp salt.  Spread evenly on a rimmed baking sheet and roast at 375 until golden and fragrant, 6-8 minutes (you’ll hear them popping).  Cool completely on the baking sheet.  Can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container.

There is a lull, a tiny one, between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  In this momentarily quiet space, I am ever so grateful for the chance to enjoy the full bounty of the autumn fields on homey evenings with my family.  Fall itself is an all too brief season in Central Texas, and I relish the chance for walks through fallen leaves in the weak sunshine of the afternoon, a season to be a little melancholy, to ponder, to read, to cook comforting recipes, to nest.

These flaky hand pies are one of my favorite ways to be self-indulgent.  The crust, adapted from Tartine, will easily become your go-to pastry recipe.  It comes together quickly and is amazingly sturdy, stretchy, pliable, and just about as buttery and flaky as puff pastry.  It contains no sugar, so is also perfect for savory pies as well.  In this recipe, the pastry surrounds a sweet and tart apple filling, warm with spices, and rich, earthy and complex with the addition of ever-so-slightly mysterious cheddar cheese.

Maple-Glazed Apple Cheddar Hand Pies

makes 4

1 pound apples
2 t fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 t ground cinnamon
Pinch ground nutmeg
Pinch salt
2 T butter
2 T all-purpose flour
1/2 recipe of flaky tart dough
1 cup cubed cheddar
1 large egg lightly beaten with 1 T water

Maple Glaze, recipe follows

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  In a bowl, toss the apples with the lemon juice. Add the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and toss to combine.  In a saute pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Cook apple mixture for 7 to 10 minutes until apple juices release and apples are slightly softened. Sprinkle flour over mixture.  Cook for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry dough. Using a saucer or a lid as a guide, cut the pastry into 5″ circles.

Add the cubed cheese to cooled apple mixture.  Divide the apple mixture on one half of each pastry circle, leaving a 1-inch border along the long sides.  Carefully fold into half moons; brush the edge with egg wash, crimp the edges together to seal, and place on the prepared baking sheet.  Lightly brush the outside of each pie with the egg wash.
Bake until golden brown, 25-30 minutes minutes. Remove from oven. Cool slightly and drizzle with maple glaze.

Maple Glaze

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

4 T cream

5 T maple syrup
Combine sugar, cream and syrup until smooth.

Spanish Sweet Potato Tortilla with Salsa Verde

3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, halved lengthwise, and sliced as thinly as possible (a mandoline will do the best job)

salt & pepper to taste

1 1/4 c. olive oil

1 small onion, halved lengthwise and cut into thin slivers

6 large eggs

2 T chicken stock or water

Toss potato slices with salt.  Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet with high sides until hot–about 3 minutes.  Reduce heat to medium-low and add potatoes in even layers.  Cook potatoes, stirring and turning occasionally until the potatoes are about half-cooked.  Stir in the onion, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the potatoes are soft, about 15 minutes more.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes and onions to a colander and let them drain thoroughly.  Set aside 2 T. of the oil and discard the rest.

Place the eggs, chicken stock or water, and a generous pinch of salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk until just scrambled.  Gently stir in the potato mixture.  Let stand for about 10 minutes.

Heat the reserved oil in a 8-9″ non-stick or well-seasoned cast iron skillet over medium high heat.  Pour the egg and potato mixture into the skillet and flatten the potatoes with a spatula until the top is fairly even.  Reduce the heat to medium-low.  Cook, running a thin spatula around the edge to let uncooked egg run underneath.  Continue cooking until the top is slightly wet but not liquid, about 6-8 minutes.  Run the thin spatula completely under the tortilla to ensure it is not sticking to the skillet.  Top the skillet with a plate slightly larger than the skillet and carefully flip the tortilla out onto the plate.  Slip the tortilla back into the skillet top-side down (if the skillet looks a little dry, add a little more oil first.  Shake the skillet to straighten the tortilla, then reduce the heat to very low and continue cooking until the center is cooked through.  Serve warm or at room temperature with salsa verde.

Salsa Verde

1 large bunch of Italian parsley, washed and leaves picked
1 small bunch mint, washed and leaves picked
3 to 6 anchovy fillets
2 to 3 tablespoons capers
1 small clove garlic
1/4-1/3 cup of olive oil
juice of 1/2 a lemon
Add the lemon, parsley, mint, anchovies, capers, and garlic to blender container. Blend for a minute, then slowly add the olive oil, reducing the ingredients to a slush. Don’t over-process, so as to leave a sauce with some texture. Add salt, only if necessary.

I have a confession to make . . . my kitchen is filled with processed food.  Pancake mix, frozen waffles, canned chicken broth, prepared breadcrumbs, canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, and all manner of little jars and bags of “flavor enhancers.”  But, ha!  Before you condemn me, let me also say that while my life is made infinitely easier by all these little cheats and shortcuts, I am off the hook, because I have processed it all myself.  It would be impossible for me to feed my family efficiently, healthfully, and deliciously, without all these mother’s little helpers, but that does not mean that I am willing to succumb to factory-produced salad dressings, packaged foods filled with chemical preservatives, and the like.

It’s all really just a matter of thinking ahead and using the freezer efficiently.  The only real altercations my husband and I have had occurred when we were first married and he repeatedly threw away all my little kitchen dibs and dabs that, to his neat-freak eyes, looked like garbage.  A roasted chicken carcass?  ”That’s like money in the bank, and you threw it away???”  I would screech.  The leftover vinaigrette in the bowl after dinner—down the drain?  Well, mister, we’ll just see how you like your crunchy broccoli and grilled shrimp pasta salad without dressing when you eat lunch tomorrow!  The first mantra of a prepared chef is, first and foremost:  Do Not Throw Anything Away.  I know, I know, no one likes leftovers (including me).  But here’s a different way of looking at things.  Turn leftovers into something else, and then they are no longer leftovers, but pre-prepped ingredients.  Leftover pot roast?  Shred the meat, sauté onions and garlic, and add to crushed tomatoes and wine for an amazing ragu that’s divine with papparadelle.  Last night’s vegetable side dish becomes tomorrow’s savory vegetable soup with the addition of a little chicken broth and some cannellini beans—grate a little parmesan on top and serve with hot crusty bread.  Bacon leftover at breakfast?  Crumble, chop, and stir into savory scones with a little grated cheddar, or add to smashed potatoes, or crumble on top of a tomato risotto.  This is how we save money and stretch flavor.  If you don’t have plans for using these leftovers right away, store them in freezer bags or containers, carefully label, and freeze for a night when you are pressed for time, or the cupboard looks bare.

The second rule of thumb is this: when you’re making a little, go ahead and make a lot.  When we make waffles on weekend mornings, there’s always batter left in the bowl after everyone’s been served.  It’s no extra work at all to go ahead and cook more waffles with what’s left (even make a double batch), cool, then freeze for weekday mornings.  Beats Eggo’s.  Making breadcrumbs or croutons for a recipe?  Make extra and freeze.  Roasted chicken for dinner?  Throw the carcass in a pot with an onion (cut in quarters, don’t peel) and water, and you have a pot of homemade chicken stock before you finish washing dishes.  Strain into containers and freeze for soup and risotto.  If you really don’t have time to make stock (what, do you have tickets to the opera?), just freeze the carcass and make it later.  Dicing onions?  Go ahead and do a few extra, and freeze for when you’re really pressed for time.  Making cookies?  Triple the batch, scoop into balls, and freeze flat on a cookie sheet.  When they’re frozen, transfer to a ziplock and bake as needed.  They don’t even need to thaw first.  Bake an extra loaf of banana bread, or whole wheat sandwich bread, or batch of cinnamon rolls, or anything you’re putting in the oven on a leisurely day.  Make a huge pot of chili, a bigger batch of meatballs, more Bolognese than you could ever possible eat at one time.  Your weeknights just got a lot easier.

Third, don’t ever let anything go bad.  The only thing I have not successfully frozen is lettuce.  I like to think of the freezer as a little time machine that gives me a minute to breathe.  There’s nothing more panic-inducing than vegetables and fruit slipping towards oblivion.  Take a trip down the freezer section of the grocery store, and you will see that’s there’s very little that can’t be frozen.  Get some good containers, and those over-ripe peaches can be turned into compote with a little sugar and vanilla bean, easy to stir into an ice cream base, pour on top of whole grain pancakes, or stir into pound cake batter.  Wilted greens and spinach can be washed, dried, chopped and frozen to star later in risotto, soups, dip, pasta.  Learn from the corporate giants, but beat them at their own game.  I do have an extra freezer, but it’s cheaper than a full-time prep cook, and I know intimately what’s in all our food.

Homemade Apple-Pecan Granola

1 large or 3 small apples, peeled, cored & diced

1 vanilla bean, split open lengthwise, seeds and paste scraped out

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 c. maple syrup

8 c. rolled oats

1/2 c. sesame seeds

1/2 c. pumpkin seeds

1 c. pecan halves

2 T. grapessed or other neutral oil

pinch of sea salt

Start with a quick homemade applesauce–place diced apple in a small saucepan with a splash of water, the seeds and paste from the vanilla bean, cinnamon and 2 t. of the maple syrup.  Simmer until the apples break down, about 15-20 minutes.  Add more water if the apples begin to dry out.  Remove from the heat, and mash the apples with a fork.

Preheat the oven to 325.  In a large bowl, combine applesauce with oats, seeds, pecans, a pinch of salt, and the rest of the syrup.  Spread out on a large baking sheet lined with a Silpat or parchment paper and bake for 25 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until golden brown and toasty.  Cool the granola on the sheet and store in an airtight container or bag for up to three weeks or freeze for longer.  My favorite way to enjoy it?  With yogurt or kefir and chopped fresh apples.

This morning, I helped my fourth grader memorize the preamble to The Constitution, and I guess it proves what a nerd I am that reading that document and really listening to it makes me a little teary.  The phrase that resonates most strongly for me is, “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  These words are a reminder that at the very core of our democracy is a responsibility to think about the well-being of future generations.  We are not just in it for us.  Our founding fathers were philosophers and statesmen, but they were also farmers.

“In his own eyes, Thomas Jefferson considered himself first and always a man of the land. He felt that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God….” What made Jefferson unique in his time was his understanding of the interrelationship between humanity and the environment and how they shaped each other. This wisdom and his subsequent practices, such as crop rotation, use of fertilizer, and contour plowing, characterize him as one of America’s early agronomists.

Jefferson was one of the first Americans to realize that the bounty of this continent was finite. If the nation and its citizens were to continue to enjoy the fruits of the New World, then its resources must be husbanded with proper stewardship.

At the center of Jefferson’s vision of the United States stood the educated, yeoman farmer. An enlightened citizen, trained in many fields, was the only force that Jefferson felt could maintain our democracy and the land upon which it was based. This natural educated man was the basis of stability in government, the basis of true morality, and the basis of the country’s freedom. Proper stewardship of the land was vital if the infant United States were to survive.” *

Those of us who enjoy the bounty of this great land are no less stewards, so think about that when you sit down to dinner tonight, know that the farmers you support work tirelessly every day to preserve the happiness of future generations, and be proud to be a citizen of this great nation.

*excerpt from Thomas Jefferson: Agronomist

Paneer & Tomato Curry

8 oz. paneer (a compressed Indian cheese, available in the dairy department of most well-stocked grocery stores–firm tofu can be substituted), cut into 1″ dice

1 T grapeseed or neutral vegetable oil

3 large cloves garlic, peeled and cut into paper thin slices

1 2″ piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into paper thin slices

pinch red pepper flakes

2-3 t tumeric

1 t coriander seeds

2 cardamom pods, outer husk removed, small seeds only

8 medium tomatoes, three chopped into 1″ pieces and five halved crosswise (core if cores are large)

1 can coconut milk

small handful cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

toasted naan or warm basmati rice to serve

Heat oil in a cast-iron dutch oven.  Brown paneer cubes, in batches if necessary, salting lightly as they cook. When they are brown, remove to a plate and set aside.  Add a little more oil to the pot if necessary, and add the garlic, ginger and pinch of red pepper flakes.  Fry briefly over medium heat.  Meanwhile place coriander and cardamom seeds in a mortar and pestle or spice grainder and grind to a coarse powder.  Add to the pot along with the tumeric and continue stir-frying until  spices are fragrant.  Add the chopped tomatoes, cover pot and cook until saucy.  When tomato pieces are cooked down into a thick sauce, add browned paneer cubes back to pot, and cook 1-2 minutes.  Add tomato halves, cut side down, cover and cook until tomatoes are beginning to soften, but still hold their shape.  Uncover and add coconut milk (start with 1/2 can and add to taste).  Stir gently to combine, then remove to a serving bowl or platter, top with chopped cilantro, and serve with naan or warm basmati.

When I was in high school, there was a class called “Home Ec.”  This might seem charming and antiquated, but wait til you hear the rest of it.  Home Ec was just for girls.  There was another class, a class that was boys only, and that class was called “Bachelor Living.”  I was always a little jealous about Bachelor Living–I suspected that while we were learning how to sew and cook and create tasty meals on a shoestring, the boys were throwing darts and drinking lager and grilling steaks. Maybe even playing the drums loud and throwing dirty clothes on the floor.  At best, they were probably learning how to hold their lives together just long enough to get married and have somebody else do all the hard stuff while they went out to have fulfilling careers.  This sort of thinking probably explains the collapse of the entire Home Ec curriculum in schools across the nation.  And, now that we have thrown the baby out with the bath water, can we look forward to generations of bachelors, hordes of helpless souls waiting around for someone to come sew on a button or put out a small kitchen fire (with baking soda!) or stretch a meatloaf with oatmeal to feed a family of six?

I say, bring back Home Ec!  For can there be more useful information than knowing how to care for ourselves, to learn to value food and spend sensibly in the domestic sphere, to have the resources to prioritize quality over convenience?  What a relief it was to enter into adulthood knowing how to cut up a chicken, to increase a recipe to feed twelve, to repair a torn seam, to plan ahead.  Teaching this knowledge in school says that as a nation we value this information, we think it’s important to be thrifty, to be self-sufficient, to abhor waste, and to spend time considering the choices we make.

Roasted Squash & Farro Salad with Feta 

1 med-large winter squash (butternut, pumpkin, acorn, red kuri, etc), peeled and cut into 1 1/2″ cubes

8 oz. farro, cooked according to package directions & cooled (found in the rice & grain section of the supermarket)

2 small sweet red peppers, diced

1 bunch green onion, sliced thin (white part and about 1/2″ of green)

1 small handful parsley leaves, chopped

4-6 oz. feta cheese, cut into 1/2″ cubes

juice of 1 lemon

1/2 tsp whole grain or dijon mustard

1/2 c. olive oil + extra olive oil for roasting squash

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 425.  Toss the squash cubes with olive oil, salt and pepper and spread out onto a baking sheet.  Roast, tossing once or twice, until tender and lightly browned.

When farro is cooked, spread out on baking sheet until cool.  When it’s cool, place in a large bowl, and add peppers, green onions, and parsley,  Set aside and make the dressing.  Place lemon juice and mustard together in a small bowl.  Whisk together until combined and continue whisking while drizzling in olive oil until dressing is emulsified.  Pour over farro mixture, stir to combine and correct seasoning with extra salt and pepper if necessary.  Add roasted squash pieces and feta cheese and lightly toss again.  Refrigerate or serve at room temperature.

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