Thursday, March 31, 2011

In the Kitchen - Pepper Jack Cheese No Knead Bread

pepper jack cheese bread 2
Some of you may know by now that I'm a "No Knead" bread (freak) enthusiast. For the past couple of months, we've been baking it religiously at least once or twice a week. I continue to be amazed by the awesomeness that is this bread. It's so easy to make that I don't even think about the process anymore.

You can find my slightly tweaked version of the classic recipe here. Honestly, why spend five bucks on a "fresh" loaf of bread at the supermarket when for the same price you can bake a half dozen of these beauties without even breaking a sweat.

pepper jack cheese bread
Just to keep things interesting, lately I've been folding a few extra ingredients into the basic dough just before the final rise. Shredded cheddar cheese and chopped rosemary made for a interesting combination. Cubes of pepper jack cheese and a coating of sesame seeds turned out even better (our favorite combo thus far). Pulled flat and topped with some olive oil, chopped herbs and coarse sea salt, you even end up with a passable focaccia.

pepper jack cheese bread 3
My favorite part - when you slice open this warm loaf, you get all of these big pockets of melted cheese. This stuffed bread stores well in the fridge and is also excellent toasted the next day.

So what's next for this versatile dough? Chopped dried figs and roasted pumpkin seeds perhaps?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Transplanting Spring Greens

transplanting Asian greens
This past Saturday, I decided to clear out some bed space in the hoop house and transplant some Spring greens. While temperatures only got up into the high 30's by noontime, the hoop house was a balmy 80 degrees. It felt nice to soak up some sun and do a bit of gardening.

Bed of Brassicas
From left - Shanghai bok choy, tatsoi, mizuna and mini Napa cabbage. I reserved a bit of space on the right for a couple heads of lettuce. Something told me it was still a bit too early for them.

transplanting spinach
My instincts were proven right as it got all the way down to 25 degrees that night. The bok choy and mizuna were virtually unaffected but the tatsoi and Napa cabbage suffered some frost damage to the outer leaves. Hopefully they will bounce back as the weather warms up. Otherwise, I'll have to sow some more seeds.

I also transplanted out some spinach - yet another invincible green this time of year.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Things to Ponder - Out in the Field and In the Kitchen

A while back, I came across this video for Pete's Greens, a local four season farm located in Northern Vermont. Hopefully we'll be able to make it up there one of these days to witness their amazing operation firsthand. Whenever I see a farm operation such as this, I can't help but to think of what an impact Eliot Coleman's ideas have had on our next generation of New England farmers. It's hard to regard food as a "commodity" when you are growing it in a way that is more sustainable and locally inspired.

I'll admit that I probably have an overly romanticized view of what it would be like to farm for a living. (I'm a dreamer, what can I say?) Still, I can't help but to fantasize about one day stepping off of the corporate rat race and starting a little homegrown business of my own, whatever that might be.

On a completely different subject, I purchased a copy of Tartine Bread a while ago but have yet to venture into the kitchen with it. To create bread made entirely from a natural yeast starter sounds amazing, especially if you're interested (like I am) in stripping down this wondrous craft to its simplest, less predictable and wildest form. I'm sure it will be a while before I can get one of my bread to look as good as the ones shown in this video - that is if I can find the time to go down this path. I hate to admit it but I've become a No Knead bread junkie (it's just so darn simple and convenient to prepare and I've come up with a version that we really enjoy).

Has anyone tried the techniques described in this book?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Beware: Messy Hoop House Tour

hoop house
It's been a while since I've given an update on the hoop house. Some of you may have been wondering whether or not it was still standing. I'm glad to say that it has in fact endured the terrible winter and the 90+ inches of snow that fell. One of the arches has stuck deeper into the ground and now dips lower than the rest but I'm sure I'll be able to correct that later this summer. As far as my short term plans for the hoop house are concerned, I hope to transplant all of my spring greens into it this weekend. By May, I will probably remove the cheap plastic covering and replace it this fall with the more durable and transparent professional greenhouse plastic that I purchased last November. Hopefully the professional stuff will work out even better next winter.

Anyway, here's a mini-tour of my messy hoop house:

spring hoop house 1
It's not very pretty is it? I need to lay down a fresh layer of straw and clear out several of the beds. If you look closely, you can see that my spinach bed (front right) has been ravaged by voles.

spring hoop house 2
The voles haven't done too much damage to this particular bed. The mizuna has come back to life and the lettuces are beginning to grow again.

The claytonia has changed dramatically since I last saw it. The leaves have become much more succulent and there seems to be enough for several salads. I wonder when it will produce it's characteristic heart-shaped leaves with a flower protruding from the center.

Overwintered Kale
The Red Russian kale has made it through the winter without any problem as expected. The voles haves stripped many of the leaves, leaving the purple stems behind to rot on the ground.

Mr. Pippin
I was also glad to see my friend Mr. Pippin again. Here he is among the kale trees.

spring hoop house 3
Here's another bed of lettuce and mache. If you look closely, you can see some half eaten leaves on the right. (Those darn voles!) Eventually, the greens will be cleared out and I will grow all of my perennial herbs here.

sage and thyme
Now that the weather has warmed up a bit, I'm sure the sage will rebound quickly. Thyme (left) has to be one of the hardiest herbs there is. By the looks of it, a dramatic haircut is in order.

Overwintered Tuscan Kale
Tuscan (Lacinato, Dinasaur) kale is less cold hardy than other varieties but this one appears to have made it through the winter. Interestingly, it's starting to branch out. It's unfortunate that I have to rip it out now.

dead kale
Out with the old and in with the new. Spring cleaning, gardener-style.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sowing Fava Beans

Soil Testing
Just when we thought that winter was behind us, we got a couple inches of snow today. It will melt away in no time at all but at this point, the shear sight of the falling white stuff just irks me like nothing else. I'm sure it will be awhile before I feel any differently (check back with me in August).

Planting Fava Beans
I did end up finding a reasonably dry patch of earth to sow some Fava beans this past weekend. They say that you should plant the seeds as soon as the ground can be worked or when the crocus have emerged, which they have. What they don't tell you is that much of the land (at least in our immediate area) is crap this early in the season. You dig three inches down and see nothing but muddy water.

Anyway, fava beans were one of our favorite things from the spring garden last year. They are fantastic just simply grilled in their pods. Unfortunately, last year's crop didn't amount to as much as we had hoped. The extraordinarily warm weather we received in late spring caused many of the blooms to fall without pollinating. We ended up with only a handful of edible pods at a time. This year, I've sown at least four times the amount of beans that we planted last year including three varieties - Windsor, an early Italian variety given to me by Mac (I don't think she specified a name) and a crimson-flowered variety from Michelle. (Thanks again ladies!) Hopefully, we'll be swimming tasty fava beans this year.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunbathing in March (I wish)

Recovering citrus trees
It wasn't exactly sunbathing weather this weekend but at least we're seeing highs in the upper forties again. Now is when I usually start doing the daily dance of bringing my citrus trees outside in the morning and back in when the sun sets unless the forecast is extraordinarily cold or windy. Citrus trees are generally hardy down to 32 degrees F and in my opinion, the added sun they get from being outside during the day outweighs the warmth they get inside. Spending the winter indoors zaps them of their strength and by early spring, they are starving for more sunlight. Maybe in a couple of weeks, I'll be able to keep them in the hoop house until late May as nighttime temperature are now hovering around freezing under the plastic.

My meyer lemon tree is at the far right - a shadow what it used to be. It lost about 70 percent of its foliage. When I checked the PH of the potting soil, it was off the charts high. I've read that citrus trees prefer soil that is on the acidic side. I pruned the tree back today to encourage new growth and will re-pot it with fresh potting mix and peat moss. Hopefully this will help.

harding off seedlings
My early seedlings went out for the day as well. I have a speckled variety of romaine lettuce (at the lower right) that is absolutely beautiful. Everything is growing really well and will be ready for the hoop house very soon. I still need to clean up the space and deal with the voles before doing so. You can see my artichokes at the top right. They are much healthier then last year's batch and no signs of aphids either (knock on wood).

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Sprouting Garlic 2
I ventured out into the garden for the first time in weeks today. Our yard has had a lot of standing water lately since the snow began melting a couple of weeks ago. Much of it has been absorbed into the ground but it's still pretty muddy out there. It's still too wet to plant anything; even my raised beds feel overly saturated in most spots. Hopefully, I can find a couple of dry areas to sow some fava beans tomorrow. The peas will have to wait another week or two. Better a little late than rotten!

Sprouting Garlic
I also noticed today that the garlic was up. How exciting is that! It actually caught me quite by surprise and stopped me dead in my tracks. I'm growing three types of hardnecks this year - German Extra Hardy, Pskem River and Bogatr. Upon closer inspection, I realized that every single clove had made it through the winter intact. I planted 65 last November and all are up. Maybe this is a good sign to things to come. :)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In the Kitchen - Oodles of Noodles

homemade wheat noodles
As I'd mentioned in my last post, I've decided to work on a couple of non-gardening projects this year. First, I'd like to learn finally how to use a sewing machine. I'd purchased one last year but am sad to say that it's still lying sealed inside the box. Hopefully that will change soon. If anyone has any suggestions on how best to learn without having to take a sewing class, please let me know!

The other project I'd like to get done this year is to put together a book containing recipes I've collected in my head through the years as well as photos. Like most home cooks, I tend to cook with "a little bit of this" and "a little bit of that" and have never really put the time or effort into writing it all down on paper using proper measurements. The focus for this year's work will be Asian noodles, essentially all of the noodle dishes that I personally like to eat. Maybe next year, I'll work on something a bit more fun - like deep-fried Asian comfort food. I figured that this would be something special to hand down to Jonathan when he gets older and also to give out as Christmas gifts to my family.

Anyway, this weekend was all about fundamentals - homemade wheat noodles to be exact. I make mine with a mix of bread flour, wheat starch and water. Most recipes you come across will omit the starch. However, using flour alone often results in a noodle that is on the gummier side. The starch adds tenderness and sheen to the cooked noodle. I use about 1/4 cup of wheat starch for every 2 cups of bread flour. Enough water is added to form a stiff dough. Then it goes into the fridge for a few hours to relax before it gets run through the pasta maker.

Making Wheat Noodles
You can hand-roll and hand-cut the dough to make thick udon style noodles. In this case, Jonathan and I used a pasta maker to create thinner noodles, which ultimately ended up in a stir-fried lo mein dish. Jonathan is getting so strong - he's now able to roll out the pasta by himself from start to finish.

This upcoming weekend, we'll work on making homemade Chinese egg noodles and lye (or alkaline) noodles. If we have time, we'll make some soba noodles as well.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Is it March Already?

March Seed Starting 1
I have to apologize for being rather MIA lately, but it's not for lack of interest I can assure you. Admittedly, I've had a lot on my mind lately. In addition to the garden, I'm hoping to take on one or two other major projects this year - things I've been wanting to accomplish for a long time now but for one reason or another have not been able to get around to doing. I didn't have a New Year's resolution for 2011, but if I had to come up with one right now, "more doing and less dreaming" sounds like a good one. We'll see how well that goes.

March Seed Starting 3
Unfortunately there's not much to report on the gardening front. From the steady snow melt, we're starting to see some lawn - a welcomed sight indeed! But we still have to wait a while longer before we can put garden fork to soil again. I'm hoping to get the hoop house cleaned up within the next couple of weeks and get the first seedlings in the ground shortly after that - that is if the flood waters don't come this year.

Inside I have some lettuce, spinach, Napa cabbage, tatsoi, mizuna and bok choy growing away. They look healthy and I'm glad to report that the green aphids have not developed into anything more than being a minor nuisance. Let's hope it stays that way.

March Seed Starting 2
Another tray of scallions, leeks, celery and artichokes is also well underway. Earlier this week, I also sowed some broccoli, herbs, strawberries (a day-neutral variety easily started from seeds called "Sarian") and a second round of spring greens.

Things are moving fact and hopefully by this time next month, the shelves will be filled to capacity. How is your seed starting coming along?