Monday, March 28, 2011

Ravioli, Cinderelli?

Egg Dough Ravioli with Ricotta Filling

Ravioli, ravioli, everyone loves ravioli….
(sung to the tune of "Cinderelli")
(Okay, this is what becomes of a mostly-happily-married older couple with no children who happen to own every Disney movie ever made… we have no one else to blame our silliness on!) J

It was chilly and cloudy this morning, so I decided to take a day to get caught up in the kitchen. Course the whole weekend kinda got blown to Hades when the cold front moved in the day before, and on weekends like this, we tend to kick back, relax and eat very, very well! For lunch Saturday, I kept it light and made a pot of Avgolemono soup, some salmon and rice croquettes and a salad. Then we feasted on Asian food that night – pork and bok choy egg rolls, then a shrimp stir-fry with asparagus, carrots and baby corn.

Yesterday I decided to see if it’s really true that pressure cooking an older chicken makes them more tender (as my friend Jack pointed out years ago, and whose advice I ignored!). I had a 2 year-old red broiler hen that promised to be quite chewy to experiment on. Turns out it really does work! I’ve done a LOT of pressure canning, but no pressure cooking – there’s just never been a need to learn. I must say, however, that I’m surprised more working households don’t do it – it cuts cooking times down immensely and you can even roast large birds and hams in a pressure cooker. I’m definitely sold on it – last time I stewed an older rooster, the dog wouldn’t even eat it! In just 40 minutes, this bird was so tender the meat was falling off the bone. I’m sold!

Curtis loves soups and stews and "all things brothy," so I decided to make a pot of REAL bona fide "Chicken and Noodle Soup" with the tender chicken and stock and homemade noodles. I suppose I’ve never made it before because it sounds boring. And probably because I’ve eaten it from a can before and who would want to eat something like THAT when they had other choices?! But it really was good – onion, celery, our carrots, baby portabella mushrooms and spinach – we almost polished off the whole pot last night. And it was a BIG pot!

I got started about this morning. We don’t have a dishwasher (nor want one), so getting everything cleaned up is always first on my agenda. I forget everything I did today, but I finally got wrapped up around . Of course, the eggs are still a top priority right now. An angel food cake went into the freezer and I mixed up 3 batches of egg noodles. (Twelve cups of flour and 3 cups of egg yolks is a LOT of noodles!) But I wanted to do something a little different too, so I decided to use some of the dough to make raviolis with.

It’s been YEARS since I’ve made raviolis. I have several sizes of the plastic dumpling presses shown in the picture and I often make calzones and won tons and fried pies and such. I’ve also got one of those ravioli trays that looks like an ice cube tray that I don’t think I’ve ever used. (It was a wedding gift.) I wish I had a plain old crimper and I wouldn’t bother with presses or trays at all, but I’ve not gone looking for one. I looked around on the net for a good filling recipe, but didn’t find anything suitable for what we had on hand. I finally settled on a ricotta cheese filling with some herbs.

Let me just say up-front that I rarely find anything THAT challenging needing to be done in my kitchen. A few years ago, I processed some 700+ ears of corn over a couple weeks time and barely batted an eye even though I cut it all off the cob before canning, freezing and dehydrating. That was NOTHING compared to making raviolis completely from scratch! I’m pretty sure I’d not make it for anyone outside my family unless they were holding me at gun-point or paying me at least $40 an hour. (While they held me at gun-point!)

I do have an Atlas pasta press and at least that part was easy. I rolled the noodle sheets out on Setting 1, then on Setting 4, then again on Setting 5. (Those long sheets remind me of a skinned rattlesnake hide!) Then I cut them into circles with a 3” cutter. (All of the trim scraps went into a covered bowl to re-moisten and make regular egg noodles from – I can’t tolerate waste.) Each circle was brushed with an egg wash, then filled. And here’s the hardest part: that little well in the center will only hold about a heaping teaspoon of filling. I suppose it’s just human nature to try and get it fuller, but it just can’t be done.  Believe me, I tried every single time and ended up eating a lot of filling that got squished out the sides. J

I ended up with 32 of the little puppies, which are presently on a tray in the freezer, pending moving them into a plastic bag. Next time I need a convenient meal, I’ll pull out a pound of our homemade Italian sausage and a jar of our home-canned tomato sauce. A smattering of grated "mozzarelli" and it’ll be a 30-minute meal (not including the 8 hours that went into making the raw ingredients for it!). I live for meals like that. J

Simple Ricotta Ravioli Filling
(makes about 32)

7-8 ounces Ricotta cheese (1/2 a carton)
6 ounces small-curd cottage cheese (1/2 a 12-ounce carton)
1 large egg
¼ cup dried Parmesan cheese (yep, the sawdust-in-a-can!)
Parsley and/or Oregano, to taste
Fresh minced or dried garlic to taste


Ricotta Raviolis with Italian Sausage in Vodka Sauce

I knew I couldn't stay out of them! They were delicious. I was afraid the dough wasn't rolled thin enough, but they were perfect. The only problem is now they're half gone and I'll have to make more!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Spring Greens: Spinach

"Nobel Giant" Spinach Seedlings
One of the things I love about March is the abundance of fresh greens I can harvest from my own garden IF (big IF!) I’ve planned and executed well.  We love spinach both fresh and cooked and I do a huge planting of it in September. It overwinters in Texas so long as it’s gotten off to a good start before truly cold weather sets in.  I got very poor germination on my fall spinach (my fault), so we’ve really suffered this year for lack of it. But normally, it makes for many a tasty meal thru the cold winter months and would just be starting to bolt right about now.

After the poor germination episode, I’ve decided that in the future, ALL spinach will be transplanted into my garden. It’s just too valuable to risk not having it available.  The really great thing about it is that it it’s easy to germinate in pots and the pots can be very small, taking up little space in the hoophouse or greenhouse, and it grows very quickly. The spinach shown above was started about a month ago and is ready to set out this weekend. There are 63 little (1.5”x1.5”x2”) pots in that flat so it will make for a LOT of spinach in another month or so. I gave it a dose of fish emulsion last weekend and it has really greened up and put on a lot of growth this week. I have another flat that is just now germinating.

I’m still learning the art of seed starting and transplanting on a rotational schedule, but if I’d really been on the ball, I could’ve started it in flats a bit earlier and set it out as early as mid-February. Good to remember for next year! Spinach is day-length sensitive and a crop sown in March will begin bolting about mid-May in Texas. It’s possible to grow seedlings for baby cutting mixes entirely in flats from that point on, but spinach doesn’t really care for our summer temps. In any case, we’re usually tired of it by the time May rolls around and we’re content to take a break from it and enjoy it in its season.

I prefer keeping spinach simple and I don’t bother with hybrids, though I’m told some of the hybrids are slower to bolt than the open-pollinated varieties. I also prefer the savoyed varieties. They are no longer used in commercial production because dirt and insects lodge in the crinkled leaves.  For using fresh in salads and on sandwiches “Bloomsdale” is probably our favorite. The “Nobel Giant” shown above can grow very large, making it perfect for cooking with if you let the leaves get too big. I get both varieties thru Willhite Seed, just a few miles down the road from me. They sell both varieties by the quarter-pound for only $3.30. That’s a LOT of seed and it’ll last you a few years if you take care of it.

We’ve never had a problem with disease on our spinach, but spider mites and aphids start munching on it once the weather warms. Both can be controlled with a simple soap spray (a little Dawn in some water) or if you want to get out the big guns, some organic pyrethrum. (I usually just knock the aphids off with a high pressure sprayer.) Spinach is easy in Texas – with a little planning and not much work, we can enjoy harvesting it from October until May. That kind of simplicity is pretty hard to come by in the vegetable garden!

Spinach and Strawberry Salad

I’m only going to give the dressing recipe here. It is fantastic and reminiscent of the old-fashioned, sweet celery and poppy seed dressings that have always been popular in rural areas. The basic salad is comprised of fresh spinach and sliced strawberries. I often add some crumbled feta cheese and later in the season, I’ll add some sliced red onion and cucumber slices as they become available.  My husband’s family has taken to adding a topping of pecans carmelized in sugar and they often substitute a boughten balsamic viniagrette in place of the homemade dressing. No matter how you make it, the combination of fresh spinach (or lettuce) and strawberries is delicious in its season!

½ cup sugar or Splenda
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 ½ teaspoons minced onion
¼ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon paprika
¼ cup cider vinegar
a few strawberries
½ cup canola or vegetable oil (NOT olive oil!)

Place all of the ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Dressing can be served tossed with the salad or served on the side. If serving tossed, use only about half of it, then serve the remainder on the side.

Curtis’ Favorite Cooked Spinach

Talk about simple and nutritious! I serve this mostly during the winter as a side dish. Amounts are approximate.

Spinach (a gallon, or as much as your stockpot will hold?)
1 Onion, sliced
A little olive oil or other oil/fat

Place the sliced onion in the bottom of the pot and give it a splash of oil. Wash the spinach well, then pack it in on top of the onion with  the leaves still wet. Set it on a slow burner and wait for the leaves to wilt, tossing with tongs occasionally if you’re afraid of the onion scorching. When the leaves are wilted (it doesn’t take long), season with a little salt to taste. You can cook it a little longer or serve immediately. (It’s more nutritious with as short a cooking time as possible.)

A Few More Ideas For Spinach

*Chop the leaves into Chicken and Dumplings or Chicken Noodle Soup.

*Chop it finely in the food processor and add it to the dry ingredients when making dumplings.

*Add some chopped into a quiche.

*Dehydrate it and use the powder as a soup/seasoning base.

*Use the dehydrated powder in homemade egg noodles. (That’s usually how colored commercial pasta is made to look green.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nightshades on Parade

Black Plum Tomatoes
Over the weekend, we went to our local feed store and purchased what will end up being our “early” tomato and pepper plants. The selection is pretty limited, but the plants are only fifty cents each, so we buy a pretty good stock of them to get us started. It’s still too early to set them out here, but we like to get them out of the one-inch starter pots and into bigger ones so we have some good-sized, well-established plants to set out in a few more weeks. I bought enough “Rutgers” and “Homestead 24’s” to plant a two hundred foot row, which is the length of our biggest garden area. I’ve grown both these heirlooms before and they do well here.

The manager of the feed store told us that the company they get their plants from is having a hard time filling orders this year and we’re hoping they’ll have some “Large Red Cherry” and “Porters” in sometime this week. The cherries are always our earliest tomato and I could get by all season on them if I could only plant one variety. They also make excellent sun-dried tomatoes. I’ve dried them alongside the traditional Italian sun-dried tomato “Principe Borghese” and couldn’t tell a difference in flavor. (I also use the cherry varieties as a “trap crop” for the chickens to keep them from sampling the GOOD tomatoes! “Yellow Pears” are a great variety for that too.) The Porters are a decent saucing tomato and they produce well throughout our dry, hot summers. Unfortunately, they’re a little small for skinning and chopping, so I prefer to make salsa from other varieties.

I may also grab a few “Beefsteaks” though I rarely bother with hybrid anything, except for “Juliet” tomatoes, which are one of my favorites. I could probably run a produce stand from that tomato alone, so prolific and perfect they are! The only other hybrid we’re growing this year is the “Ancho San Martin” pepper. We go through a LOT of those fresh and dry the rest for chorizo, enchiladas and tamales. If I’m going to have to fire-roast and skin the darned things, I like for them to be BIG, and the hybrids are the biggest!

We ended up getting only eight each of the jalapenos and cayennes, which will probably be more than we need. Curtis canned several cases of jalapenos last year and we probably have enough dried cayenne to last us for a couple years. I’ll grab a few “Cal Wonders” and “Big Berthas” when they arrive though. I’m not a fan of regular bell peppers, but it’ll be awhile before the really good peppers we start from seed will be ready, so they’ll fill in the gap. And I can always sell them to people who actually like them once the good ones are producing!

We’ve also started most of our tomato, pepper, tomatilla and eggplant seedlings.  Most of those won’t be ready to set out until the middle of May. This year, we’ve scaled the pepper varieties down to about thirty varieties (from the forty we did last year), and I’ve kept the tomato varieties about the same as last year (around thirty), but I’ve elminated some and added others. I’m trying a new variety of tomatilla this year, the “Cisneros”. It’s quite a bit bigger than the traditional heirloom “Toma Verde” and is closer in size to what’s available in stores now. I’m doing a full two hundred foot row of tomatillas this year and hoping to sell some.

We’ve never had much luck with eggplant, even though we both love it. Seems like it needs really warm weather to even get decent seedlings and by that time, the flea beetles demolish it. This year, we sprung for a couple cases of 2.5” and 3” blow-molded nursery pots to start our seedlings in and we’re hoping it makes a difference, especially with the size of seedlings come planting time. I ordered them from Novosel Enterprises and they’re very clean, heavy and well-made (no oozy plastic seams!) for a great price. We’re hoping that with good care, they’ll last us several years at least.

This year, our nightshade seeds came mostly from Tomato Growers Supply, with a few from Baker’s Creek, Totally Tomatoes and Willhite.  (I still have a few left over from last year from Pinetree, but I’ll be hesitant to order from them in the future after discovering their “Principe Borghese” was not true-to-type – it MUST have a pointy end and be indeterminate!) I’ve read some negative reviews on Dave’s Garden Watchdog about Tomato Growers Supply, but sometimes I think others think more highly of their seed-starting skills than are warranted. (It’s hard to take people seriously who claim their seeds didn’t germinate when all of ours germinated just fine!)

Anyway, here’s the list of nightshades we’re growing this year. If anyone from the Wise County area is reading this, we may have a few extras to share, plus tomato cuttings later in the year for fall harvest.

Amish Paste (new)
Anna Russian (new)
Arkansas Traveler (new for me – my stepdad loves it)
Black Plum (grew last year – salad variety for eating fresh and drying)
Box Car Willie (new)
Costoluto Genovese (new)
Djena Lee’s Golden (new – free seed packet from Totally Tomatoes)
Early Wonder (free seed pack last year from TGS – loved it!)
German Orange Strawberry (grew last year – for slicing and saucing)
German Red Strawberry (ditto)
Hillbilly (new)
Homestead 24 (grow most years)
Hungarian Italian (new)
Juane Flamme (grew last year – chickens “sampled” most of them)
Juliet F1 (grow most years – best salad tomato I’ve ever eaten)
Kalman’s Hungarian Pink (new)
Large Red Cherry (grow most years – early, productive, good dried)
Mama Leone (new)
Martino’s Roma (grew last year – great sauce tomato)
Opalka (grew last year – one of my favorites)
Pink Ponderosa (grow most years – big, meaty slicing tomato)
Polish Linguisa (grew last year – my 2nd favorite tomato)
Porter’s (NOT improved – grow most years)
Principe Borghese (grow most years – great fresh and dried)
Purple Russian (grew last year – use fresh, it turns sauces and salsas brown)
Rose de Berne (new – I have high hopes for this one)
Royal Hillbilly (new)
Rutgers (grow some years)
Sausage (grew last year – my favorite tomato EVER for saucing!)
Sioux (new – I’m really excited about this one)
San Marzano Lapadina (if you can only grow one, pick this one!)
San Marzano Redorta (grew last year – the fruits are HUGE)
Virginia Sweets (new – free seed packet from TGS)

Mild/Hot Peppers
Anaheim TMR (our standard for ristras, very fragrant dried)
Ancho San Luis (good dried, a little small for poblanos)
Ancho San Martin F1 (hybrid – for poblanos)
Fatali (new)
Golden Greek Pepperocini (same as the Italians from BC we grew last year)
Guajillo (we dry these)
Habanero (I made ONE batch of salsa last year with these – whew!)
Italian Pepperoncinos (the ones from Totally Tomatoes are different than BC)
Jalapeno M (the standard hot jalapeno)
Leutschauer Paprika (quite hot, but delicious – I’ve been using it in sausage)
Mulato Isleno (ho hum, but we had some seed left from last year)
NuMex Big Jim (new, supposed to be bigger than Joe Parker’s)
NuMex Joe E. Parker (nice ristra pepper)
Pasilla Bajio (smoky-flavored dried pepper)
Serrano (the standard for pico de gallo)
Tabasco (nothing like them, but they’re a pain to pick!)
Tomato (a new variety from Baker’s Creek)

Sweet Peppers
Chinese Giant (grew last year, but I’m still not sure about them yet)
Cubanelle (my favorite frying/grilling pepper, bar none!)
Giant Aconcagua (new – TGS, just had to try them!)
Giant Szegedi (grew last year, very productive)
Golden Marconi (new)
Paprika (from Pinetree – who knows what it actually is?)
Paprika, Alma (grew last year – plants didn’t do well)
Pimento L (grow most years)
Quadrato, Red (grew last year – plants didn’t do well)
Quadrato, Yellow (grew last year – delicious)
Red Cheese (we’ve not had much luck with this one, but I keep hoping!)
Red Marconi (my favorite pizza/salad pepper along with Corno di Toro)
Sweet Cayenne (new – thought it might make good paprika)
Sweet Cherry (grow most years – my favorite pickling pepper)
Sweet Pickle (grew last year – growing as ornamental this year)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Oodles of Noodles

Once a year, between about Valentine’s Day and all the way through March and April, the inevitable happens: every hen in the henhouse lays an egg every single day. Sometimes we get so many eggs, I think the roosters must be laying too!

One has to keep a few too many hens to get plenty of eggs during the winter months when they don’t lay as heavily. Plus we tend to lose more birds in the winter months to predators, so we don’t want to sell ourselves short. Of course, many of the hens we hatched ourselves were never destined to be production layers and as the weather warms, on days when I’m able, I’ve been thinning the herd by a few a week. It pains me to butcher the hens, but people don’t want to buy non-production layers, so I have little choice.

On a good note, there’s plenty of chicken available right now! Some of the hens are slightly past the age of being tender, so I’ve been filleting out the breast meat for ourselves (and it is EL PRIMO!) and boiling the rest down for dog food or pressure-cooking it for soups, pies and fillings. Except for the breasts, there’s not much meat on a standard hen anyway. But they’ve been eating lots of grains all winter and there’s plenty of fat. I ended up with a full quart of rendered fat from the last 2 hens I butchered. (More about how strongly we feel about consuming at least SOME animal fats in later posts.) I’ve also been putting back a quart of stock from each hen.

Right now, we’re getting about 2 dozen eggs a day. Luckily, the weather is warm enough I can load up the incubator once a month. That wipes out about 4 dozen. As for the rest, an angel food cake and a batch of egg noodles wipe out another dozen. The angel food cakes are going into the freezer for the rest of the year and the dried egg noodles are going into the pantry for convenient meals later.

The dogs and cats are also getting their share and we’re eating as many eggs as we can stand – hard-boiled, in egg salad and in tuna salad. There’s a Russian radish and egg salad I’m quite fond of, and I’m planning on making an asparagus quiche this weekend. And let’s not forget fresh mayo for sandwiches, homemade salad dressings and Hollandaise sauce! When the chicklings hatch, I’ll be able to scramble some eggs every day for them as well. Some of the heartiest birds I ever raised were started on scrambled eggs, cornmeal and shredded pumpkin.

If your homestead is as abundant as mine and you’re in the same boat with me, here are a few recipes:

Mile High Angel Food Cake
(recipe adapted from Marcia Adams “Cooking from Quilt Country”)

1 ½ cups egg whites (11-14), room temp
1 1/8 cup cake flour*
1 ¾ cups sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 375 (350 if using coated pan).

Sift the flour and ¾ cup of the sugar together 5 times. (I actually just whisk it thoroughly.)

Add the salt to the egg whites and beat until foamy on medium speed. Sprinkle in the tartar and extracts. Continue beating until the whites are stiff and can stand in peaks, about 3 minutes.

Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and add the 1 cup of sugar, a tablespoon at a time. Beat only until sugar is blended, about 1 ½ minutes.

Turn mixer to low and sprinkle in the flour/sugar mixture. Beat only enough to blend, about 1 ½ minutes. (Use a spoon to make sure flour is not on bottom of bowl!)

Pour batter into an ungreased tube pan and draw a thin spatula or knife around the pan in a circular motion 3 times. Bake for 35 minutes (coated pan) or until the cake is golden brown. Turn off the oven and leave cake in oven for 5 minutes more. Allow cake to cool about an hour before removing it from pan.

*Cake Flour Substitute: 2 tablespoons corn starch in 1 cup measuring cup, fill with all-purpose flour to top. Then add an additional tablespoon each of corn starch and flour for the 1/8 cup.

Egg Noodles

4 cups bread flour
3 teaspoons salt
¼ cup oil or melted fat
1 cup egg yolks (appx.)
(however many are left from the angel food cake)
½ - ¾ cups water
(or use all egg whites instead of water)

Combine flour and salt in a mixer bowl. Make a well in the center and add remaining ingredients, reserving the last ¼ cup of water/egg whites until you’re sure you need it. (However, it is best to err on the side of "too wet" rather than "too dry" if using a stand mixer -- you simply cannot ADD liquid to an egg dough as easily as you can add more flour if it becomes too wet.) The dough should be smooth and silky, like bread dough. Let dough rest 45 minutes. Divide into 8 parts and form into “patties”. (If necessary, rest dough again.) Roll thru pasta press on 1st setting. Roll again on 4th or 5th setting (4th preferred for fettucine.). Hang to dry for about 24 hours. Boil in salted water or stock for 3-5 minutes.

Russian Radish and Egg Salad

1 pound spring radishes, sliced
3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
½ cup plain yogurt
1 bunch green onions, chopped
Salt, pepper and fresh dill to taste

Combine all ingredients, chill and serve. I prefer all-white radishes in this (like white icicle or hailstone) as the red radishes turn the whole dish pink if you don’t eat it right away.

Curried Egg Salad

5 large hard-boiled eggs, chopped
½ cup celery, finely chopped
2 tablespoons onion, minced
1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/3 cup sweet mayo* (or Miracle Whip, if you must!)
2 teaspoons stone-ground mustard
1 teaspoon sweet curry (NOT optional!)
½ teaspoon celery salt (or just use salt and some celery seed)
black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish (or chopped bread and butter pickles)

Mix all together, adding a little juice from the pickles or a little sugar, to taste. Delicious served on pumpernickel or rye bread, but also good on whole wheat.

*I can’t stand Miracle Glop and always make my mayonnaise fresh. Just add a little sugar to the mayo to get the same flavor without all the ingredients you can't pronounce!