The Pressure is On

My pressure cooker is my new best friend. Especially when I’m not in the mood for cooking, I can toss a few ingredients in, lock the lid down and come back to a healthy, nutritious supper in just a few minutes.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a pressure cooker cookbook up to my standards. All of the ones I checked out from the library, even those newly published, seemed stuck in the 1950s tuna noodle casserole era, when pressure cooking was last popular. Thankfully, a friend sent us a copy of Pressure Cooking for Everyone by Rick Rogers and Arlene Ward. The recipes are simple and I’m especially fond of the squash risotto and vegetarian chili.

Speaking of vegetarian, the recipes in this book are on the meaty side (Kelly is a “fishatarian” and I simply don’t buy supermarket meat). Someone does need to do a good vegetarian pressure cooker cookbook as the only one I could find was stuck in a kind of brown rice and bean sprouts 1970s style vegetarian groove.

Pressure cooking saves energy, a real plus during tough economic times. And with this cookbook our great recession era meals need not be bland.

Deadly Nightshade vs. Black Nightshade

I spotted the sign above at the Heirloom Festival in Sonoma. The sign made the claim that “deadly nightshade” is actually a choice edible. Unfortunately, there’s considerable confusion over the popular name “deadly nightshade.”  The plant most commonly referred to as “deadly nightshade,” is Atropa belladonna, which is a highly unpleasant and toxic hallucinogen. “Black nightshade,” Solanum nigrum, on the other hand, is edible. The potted plant below the sign was Solanum nigrum not Atropa belladonna. One must be careful when using the popular names for plants!

Solanum nigrum

To add to the confusion, Solanum nigrum is eaten and used as animal fodder all over the world, though many sources continue to describe it as toxic. As with all members of the Solanum family there’s still a great deal of superstition when it comes to toxicity. Remember that many Europeans considered tomatoes to be poisonous well into the 18th century. Even today tomato leaves, used by my Filipino neighbors as a seasoning, are still labeled by many as poisonous. An interesting article in the New York Times “Accused, Yes, but Probably Not a Killer” busts the tomato leaf toxicity myth.

Atropa belladonna – don’t munch on this one!

The confusion over the case of the alleged toxicity of Solanum nigrum may stem from our lack of  intimacy with plants in the West. The use of Solanum nigrum by indigenous peoples is actually a bit complicated. Different soil conditions can, it turns out, produce some toxic alkaloids in Solanum nigrum. Cooking eliminates the alkaloids.  Jennifer M. Edmonds and  James A. Chweya, writing for the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, describe the uses of Solanum nigrum and end up advocating for its widespread use as a cultivated food source. Here’s what they say about it’s toxicity in their book, Black nightshades, Solanum nigrum L. and related species, which you can read in Google Books,

. . . the comparable number of accounts reporting that these species [Solanum nigrum] are harmless as food and fodder sources suggest that this toxicity is variable. Indeed a chemical suvey of various members of the section Solanum reported the presence of potentially toxic alkaloids only in unripe fruits, with ripe berries and vegetative parts tacking these compounds. Shilling et al. (1992) therefore concluded that the plants are probably only poisonous to indiscriminate feeders such as livestock who might consume the whole plant. However, these plants are browsed and used as fodder for animals without any detrimental effect in some areas, and Rogers and Ogg (1981) suggested that the development of toxic levels of these alkaloids is dependent on their growth under certain conditions or in certain localities, and even on the age of the plants concerned. Other reports suggest that the amounts of poisonous ‘princinples’ vary greatly with climate, season and soil type (Cooper and Johnson 1984). It is highly probable that boiling destroys any toxicity inherent in these species; most ethonobotanical reports of their use as vegetables refer to cooking, boiling and even repeated boiling with the liquid being discarded; similar reports of the use of berries also refer to their being poisonous when uncooked or unripe. Drying, however, does not destroy the toxicity of the solamine-type alkaloids (Everist 1974). It is these glycosidal alkaloids which are responsible for the bitter taste often associated with the Solanums. 

The Solanum nigrum growing in our backyard.

A few Solanum nigrum plants popped up in the yard last month and I’ve let them grow. While I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the berries, I’ve tasted them raw and lived to tell the tale.

Return of Recipe Friday! Carrot Soup

We had a party at our house last week and lots of people brought baby carrots. And no one took their baby carrots home with them when they left. So I took the pile of baby carrots and made a pureed carrot soup with them–one of my all-time favorite soups, in fact. Working with baby carrots was kind of fantastic. No chopping! No peeling!

Doing this reminded me that I haven’t shared this recipe on the blog, so I dug up the original recipe card. This is one of the oldest recipes I have. It sort of taught me the basics of soup making. I no longer refer to the recipe when I cook, but it was good to go back and see the original instructions. This soup is just about an ideal soup. It’s fast and flexible, doesn’t require many ingredients and seems to please everyone. At heart it’s vegan, but can be made more decadent by adding dairy. I wish I could credit it properly, but it’s something I copied from a magazine onto a card fifteen years ago or so.

It’s amazing how such a simple soup can have so much flavor. The sweet-spicy flavor and bright orange color also make it an ideal dish for this time of year. Each time I eat it I feel like I’m doing something really good for my body.

Carrot Soup

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
  • About 2 pounds of carrots, peeled and sliced into chunks* (Peeling is optional but the soup tends to be sweeter/less earthy if you peel. To tell the truth. I never weigh my carrots–I use as many carrots as I have. If it looks like a whole lot, I’ll add more onion to balance it out. If I don’t have a lot of carrots, I still follow the recipe as is–it works, you just have less soup.)
  • 1 large onion chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves peeled
  • 3-5 whole spice cloves (not absolutely necessary but very nice)
  • A little bit of salt. It doesn’t need lots. Start with 1/2 teaspoon or less and add more later if it’s needed.
  • About 4 cups of water or vegetable broth. Broth makes it extra rich, but I usually use water.
  • Fresh lemon juice, about one tablespoon. Best just to have a lemon on hand.
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Optional: yogurt or sour cream or heavy cream for topping

Heat oil in a a large heavy bottomed pot or saucepan. It should have a lid. Add the carrots, onion, garlic and cloves and saute until the onion is translucent. Then add the water or broth and salt. It should just cover the carrots. Cover the pot and simmer until the carrots are tender–maybe 30 minutes.

Fish out the spice cloves and discard. Puree the soup until smooth, either with a stick blender or a countertop blender or a food mill. If you use a countertop blender, do it in small batches instead of filling up the blender so you don’t get the exploding volcano effect, i.e. hot carrot soup launching from your blender. Believe me, I’ve been there.

Do a final adjustment of seasoning after it’s blended (put it back in the pot if you used the blender). At this point add the lemon juice, which is the magic trick of this recipe. I don’t consider this ingredient optional. The recipe calls for one tablespoon of lemon juice but I usually add more. If it seems right, a bit of sugar. Just a pinch or two. Sugar really helps if the carrots aren’t sweet. Then polish it up with salt and pepper to taste. You can add more hot water or broth to thin it if it seems too thick.

If you wish, serve it with a swirl of yogurt or cream on top, and maybe a sprinkle of chives for fancy.

It keeps well overnight, improves, even.

Changing it up:

I often add different herbs and spices at the beginning. For instance, I think thyme and carrots like each other, so I’ll often throw some sprigs of thyme in at the beginning, to be sauteed with the onions. Same goes for sage. Sometimes I’ll add a bit of cumin. Or cinnamon. Or cayenne. Or ginger. It’s up to you if you want to push the soup toward more of an herbal/lemony flavor or more toward spicy/exotic or toward a sweet pumpkin pie profile. It’s endlessly flexible.

You can also make this same soup with sweet potatoes instead of carrots. Sometimes I mix the two.

*A reader points out that she grates her carrots when she makes carrot soup. Good point! The smaller your veggies, the faster they’ll soften up. Dinner will be on the table sooner–and she thinks it may make better tasting soup, too. But if you don’t have the energy to grate, big chunks will soften up just fine. It’s all good.

So-So Tomatoes Become Excellent When Dried

As we reported earlier, we weren’t thrilled with our cherry tomato choice this summer. They were just plain dull. They were also rather large for a cherry, more like mini-plum tomatoes, which made them awkward for salads. But they were healthy plants, and very, very prolific. In situations like this it is good to remember that tomatoes which don’t taste good off the bush often cook or dry well. The ratio of skin and seeds to pulp in these tomatoes made them a bad candidate for sauce, so we’ve been drying them.

And man, are they good dried. Like tomato candy. It’s very hard not to snack on them, but I’m trying to save them for the depths of winter, when I really miss tomatoes.

We have maybe a couple of quarts of them now. Several years ago we had an absolute disaster involving a pantry moth, its many offspring, and one big jar of dried tomatoes. For this reason I’m storing the dried tomatoes in a series of small jars, to offset the risk. Another good tip for fending off moths is to freeze any food stuff which you suspect might be at risk for 4 days to kill moths and their larvae.

How did we dry our tomatoes, you ask? Usually we use our homemade solar dehydrator, but this year we’ve got a friend’s electric dehydrator on loan. It seemed wicked to run the thing day and night, but it dries a lot faster, and with less work overall, than our solar set-up. (Oh, the wonders of Modern Living!) The one thing I did not like, though, was the constant noise. The dehydrator sounds a little like a running microwave, not loud, but persistent. I was always half-consciously expecting to hear the microwave “ding!” at any moment.

So, while the electric dehydrator let us process this crop of tomatoes in record time, I don’t think we’re going to ever buy one ourselves. Old Betsy, the wonky wooden dehydrator, suits us well enough.

High Speed Garlic Peeling


How to Peel a Head of Garlic in Less Than 10 Seconds from SAVEUR.com on Vimeo.

Via BoingBoing.

ETA: We finally tried this, using a sealed Tupperware container instead of the two bowls. It actually works!!! But these are the catches: 1) It doesn’t work as fast on the skinny, inner cloves as it does on the fat ones. You can get those peeled too, but you have to keep shaking. 2) You have to rinse the cloves after shaking because they end up with little bits of skin all over them. Even so, it is still a remarkably easy way to peel a whole head of garlic.

Summer Urban Homestead Failures: Exploding Beer Bottles

Somehow in last week’s roundup of the summer’s failures I blocked out of my memory the most exasperating: exploding beer bottles.

I think I may have had a contaminated siphon hose which passed on some nasty, yeasty bacterial bug to every single bottle of two batches of beer I had made this summer. Three of those bottles over-carbonated to the point that they became beer grenades and exploded. One blew up on the kitchen counter and the other two in the garage. Having had a bottle explode in my hand a few years ago (wild fermented ginger beer–a bad idea) I can tell you that bottle grenades aren’t funny.

So having had three bottles explode and all the other bottles I opened showing signs of over-carbonation, I had the dilemma of what to do next. String my bow and shoot arrows at them from a distance? Call in the homebrew bomb squad?

I decided to don a heavy jacket (in 90ºF + temperatures) and safety goggles and uncap each one in the sink. The second to last bottle gave me a cooling beer shower.

Time to clean our messy kitchen and go on a sanitation campaign.

Gadget Love: The Johnson Temperature Controller

A friend of mine gave me a chest freezer recently and I augmented it with a handy gizmo, a Johnson temperature controller. The temperature controller allows me to run the freezer at any temperature between 30 and 80ºF. It works by cycling on and off the power to the freezer as needed. You just stick the copper probe in the freezer and adjust the dial to the desired temperature. So far I’ve thought of the following uses:

  • Proof bread overnight at 54ºF. I used to proof my dough in my refrigerator, but the chest freezer, running at this higher temperature thanks to the temperature controller, results in a more active proofing.
  • Make lagers (which ferment at low temperatures).
  • Make ales in hot weather. The house gets too hot to make beer in the summertime. Now I can make a batch or two without having to worry about the weather. 
  • Use the chest freezer as a backup when I need to repair the gasket on our Scandinavian refrigerator YET AGAIN!

Not wanting to be a profligate energy user I only use the chest freezer periodically.

Now if only I could lower the temperature of the whole house which, thanks to the first heatwave of the summer, is now warm enough to make yogurt!  

    Roundin’ up the Summer Urban Homesteading Disasters

    Everyday loaf on the left, “charity” loaf on the right.

    As we’ve noted in our books, part of the deal with this lifestyle is persevering through the inevitable disasters. Which means it’s time for a regular blog feature, the disaster roundup.  

    Loafing Around
    I agreed to bake a few baguettes for a charity function this evening. Problem #1 is that I can’t do baguettes in my small oven so I decided to do a shorter batard. Problem #2: for some reason, despite the fact that I measure my ingredients carefully with a digital scale, my dough turned out extra moist. Anticipating that the batards would stick to the peel as I put them in the oven, I decided to make round loaves in proofing baskets instead. Problem #3: the dough stuck to the proofing baskets and I ended up with edible, but aesthetically unappealing, loaves.

    Moral: the more important the event the more likely disaster will strike.

    Squashed
    I’ve blogged about it before, but my attempt to grow winter squash (Marina di Chioggia) ended in disaster. The squash vines took up the majority of one of my few vegetable beds. I got only two squash, one that was consumed by racoons and the other that never fully matured before the vine crapped out. The immature squash was still edible, but bland.

    Moral: winter squash just ain’t space efficient. Next year I’ll tuck it around other plants and trees rather than have it hog up space in my intensively planted veggie beds.

    Luscious compost tomatoes.

    Unintentional Gardening
    I built a cold frame this spring so that I could get a head start on propagating my tomato seedlings. So guess which tomatoes did better: the ones I carefully propagated from seed and transplanted to richly amended vegetable beds, or the ones that sprouted randomly in compacted soil? You guessed it, the ones that grew on their own.

    Moral: nature knows best when to start seeds and where to plant them than us homo sapiens. Maybe there is something to that permaculture thing . . . 

    Our Hameau de la Reine
    This summer the garden generally looked like hell. It thrives during our mild winter and spring then gets baked by the merciless Southern California sun at just about the time I start slacking off on my planting duties. Then the New York Times shows up and wants to do a photo spread about a month after stuff has quit blooming. This is when I usually come running in the house to complain to Mrs. Homegrown that the garden, “does not look like Versailles.”

    Moral: take a class from someone who knows what they are doing, which is exactly what I’m up to starting next month. I vow that the garden will look like Marie Antoinette’s fake peasant village (the Hameau de la Reine) by next year. Then again, I say that every summer.

    Garden Follies
    Thinking the garden needed some ornamentation and not wanting to go the garden gnome route, I thought it would be a good idea to cast some Platonic solids in concrete–don’t ask me why–these things, “just come to me.” Mrs. Homegrown (using her Master of Fine Art superpowers) viewed this project with considerable skepticism. I successfully cast a tetrahedron and dodecahedron and stained them with iron sulfate and proudly placed them in the garden. They kinda worked but I have to agree with Mrs. Homegrown’s assessment that the scale is off–they look like the miniature Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.

    Moral: trust the MFA in your household even if that MFA was in conceptual art. 

    I could go on, but I’ve failed to document all of the disasters. Next, we’ll review what worked.

    99¢ Store Proofing Basket

    For years I’ve used a special wooden basket called a banneton to proof my round loaves of bread in. I’m teaching a bread baking class this weekend and needed a bunch of proofing baskets for the class. Bannetons are nice but expensive so I decided to try using a canvas lined proofing basket as a more economical alternative.

    I got some metal bowls from my local 99¢ store. Wicker baskets or a plastic colander would also have worked, but the 8 inch metal bowls were the perfect size for the kind of bread I make. The canvas came from an art supply store, but a fabric store might also work. I’ve tried to use dish towels in the past, but I’ve found that canvas works better. Just make sure to flour the CRAP out of the canvas and never wash it, or your loaf will stick.

    I sized the canvas so that I can fold it over the whole bowl to keep the dough from getting oxidized. New kitten “helped” with the fabric cutting.

    When you’re ready to bake you just invert the bowl and dump the loaf out of the basket. I like the look of bread proofed in a canvas lined basket.

    Stay tuned for my levain-based bread recipe in an upcoming issue of Urban Farm Magazine.

    One way to salvage stale bread

    Mrs. Homegrown here:

    So I bought a baguette this week, which caused Mr. Homegrown to grumble with hurt indignation. His homemade bread is better than any store bought, it’s true–but he hadn’t baked in a few days, and I wanted to make caprese sandwiches. However, my plans went awry and the baguette went stale.  Oh, the shame on my head! Just where did we put out our supply of sackcloth and ashes?

    However, tonight I salvaged the bread by making it into Melba toast (?) or rusks, maybe (?).  I have a fondness for hard, blandish cracker breads like this. You can pile an amazing amount of dip-like-substances on them, and as I’ve said, I could live on chips and dips.

    I have to admit that for anyone who’s ever made croutons, this recipe is a little “Well, duh”– but, nonetheless:

    All you have to do is slice the stale bread up into reasonably thin slices. Lord knows my slices vary in thickness quite a bit. Thinner is easier on the teeth.Very thin would be exquisitely crunchy, but mine are never very thin because I am both uncoordinated and lazy. Baguettes make perfect rounds, but you could chop up larger loaves into bite size squares.

     I like to make these out of bread so far gone it could not be sliced the next day. You know that thin line between salvageable and brick? That’s what this recipe is for. I think there are better things to do with only slightly dry bread–like making bread salad, for instance. See below.

    Then I use a garlic press to add garlic juice to some olive oil–maybe one or two cloves to 1/3 cup? It doesn’t really matter, because this is a very loose process. I put the bread slices in a big bowl and drizzle the garlic oil over them and toss them about until it looks like all the slices have been well greased. This usually means I add some more olive oil. I like lots of oil, but I’m sure it would work fine with less. It would also work fine with no garlic.

    Finally, I toss the greasy bread with lots of salt and pepper. And yes, of course, you could use all sorts of herbs and spices at this point. Whatever takes your fancy.

    The bread goes on a cookie sheet into a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes to a half hour. I’m not sure about the timing because I just check until they look done. “Done” means they’re brown, but not black, and have gone dry and hard as rocks.  Timing will vary by how stale the bread is when you begin, fresher bread taking longer. Thinner slices dry out faster than thicker ones.

    Not so wild about melba toast? I don’t have tested recipes on hand, but google up “bread salad” or “panzanella.” This is basically just pieces of stale bread tossed with basil and tomatoes, lots of olive oil and a touch of vinegar. It can be jazzed up with cucumbers or olives or hard boiled eggs or whatever is on hand.

    Also, I just saw this recipe for cold bread and tomato soup at the Awl. Haven’t tried it, but it looks interesting.

    What do you do with your stale bread?