Thursday, May 28, 2009

An Adventure in Homemade Pasta

In my quest to use the Swiss chard that has been so prolific in my garden I made homemade green pasta a couple weeks ago, inspired by Kate's post earlier this month.

This was my very first time making pasta. A few years back I tried some fresh pasta from the grocery store and was so underwhelmed that for quite a while I didn't really see the merit in taking the time to make my own. I have now seen the error of my ways - this was delicious!

While they are nice you don't need a pasta roller to make pasta, just know hand rolled noodles will be a little thicker than those a roller would produce. I did this entirely by hand. You can definitely do the kneading in a heavy-duty stand mixer but I find kneading therapeutic and I like to do brand new (to me) doughs by hand the first time so I get a feel for them. I did use eggs in this recipe, although I am going to try a vegan version next time with flax seed. I'd like to try drying it, but I do think I'd rather do that with a vegan variation. Also, it will probably dry more readily with thinner noodles and after this experiment I can say that I would definitely use a pasta roller... 

Homemade Green Pasta
Serves 8-12. If you don't have fresh greens you can make this from frozen, thawed greens, just use the 7 3/4 oz squeezed dry amount as your guide. 

1lb 4oz stemmed Swiss chard or other dark leafy green (weighed after removing stems), chopped
4 eggs
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tbsp vital wheat gluten
1 tsp salt
2-5 tablespoons water, as needed

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Blanch the chard 30 seconds - 1 minute, until bright green and just tender. Drain immediately and allow to cool then squeeze out as much liquid as possible (you should have about 7 3/4 oz once blanched and squeezed dry). I like to use a clean cotton kitchen towel for squeezing greens dry.

Finely chop 3 ounces of chard and set aside. Place the remaining chard and all four eggs in blender and blend until smooth. 

Mix all the dry ingredients together and pour onto counter (you can mix it in the bowl too, but doing it on the counter is fun!). Make a well in center of flour and pour in the egg mixture. Work flour in to eggs using a fork until you get a loose dough. Add the chopped chard and, using your hands, continue working flour into dough. Add additional water a tablespoon at a time as need to incorporate all the flour. You should have a tacky but not sticky dough. Knead dough 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic (it will not be perfectly smooth due to the chopped chard). 

Shape it into a ball, cover with a damp cloth, and let rest 30 minutes. 

After resting your dough divide it into four sections. Liberally flour your work surface. Working with one section at a time, roll it out as thin as possible into as even a rectangle as you can manage (you don't want too many weird edges). Cut into whatever shape you like. I used my pastry cutter on the first two sections, however it is just not sharp enough to handle pasta dough, so I abandoned it for a knife on the last two sections. I would like to note that as cutting surfaces go, granite is "EVIL" as far as you knifes are concerned, to quote Alton Brown.

It did make for pretty noodles though. I ended up cutting it into about one inch lengths just prior to cooking.

Once you have all your noodles cut sprinkle liberally with flour to prevent sticking and set aside to rest and dry a touch while you bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Add noodles to rapidly boiling water and cook 2-3 minutes, or just until al dente; fresh pasta cooks much more quickly than does dry. It will float, like ravioli. Drain pasta and immediately toss with sauce of choice. Serve hot.

A totally homegrown, homemade meal. 

Homegrown Swiss chard in homemade pasta, homemade pesto frozen from last summer's homegrown basil, homegrown tomatoes, and served with homemade Italian seitan sausages. If you have seitan sausages, pesto, and fresh pasta in your freezer you can have this entire dinner on the table in about 15 minutes. Healthy, fast, and entirely homemade. You can't beat that.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cooking with Hippies

Friends of ours invited me a while back to come visit them and help cook for a weekend for a training they were hosting. That weekend was a couple weeks ago so I thought I'd share some pictures. 

B and MJ went to high school together, which is how we know them. MJ and EA work for the Student Conservation Association as year-round staff. They actually met through the program and now plan and host trainings for crew leaders. As part of their job they get to live full time in the beautiful Delaware National Water Gap in a previously defunct YMCA camp. This lake is right outside their front door. Yes, I am seriously envious. 

The second morning I was there I woke up to this. It had rained the night before and was all misty and beautiful. I love visiting the East Coast. I get to bath in the lush greenness of it all. The few weeks of green hillsides a year that we get in SoCal pales in comparison; I hunger for it. 

EA and I, along with a couple others, spent Thursday - Sunday feeding a group of 60. It was so much fun (you know - if you think 16 hours/day in a kitchen is fun. Which I do. Yes I realize I'm Aby-Normal). The group consisted of omnis, vegetarians, and vegans, so except for the night we had an entirely vegan Indian feast we made at least two and usually three versions of each meal. I got to cook on this professional stove - heaven.

Peach Cobbler

We made breakfast, dinner, and dessert every day. For lunch we put out leftovers, sandwich fixings, and snacks and everyone was responsible for fixing their own lunch. EA was able to get dairy and eggs from local, family run farms. She also ordered her dry goods in bulk from the local health food store (the nearest town is pretty small, so the owner of this store actually works there - novel!), supporting a locally owned business. Everyone appreciated that she had taken the time to find local sources, to the extent that her budget allowed.

One morning we made Blueberry Strudel Muffins. We ended up with a bit too much batter, so I poured it in a pan and called it coffee cake. It was my first time using this recipe and I think with some experimentation it could be both delicious and reasonably healthy. Even with all the desserts and breakfast goodies it was by far the healthiest and tastiest "camp food" I've ever had.

They are serious about reusing, recycling, or repurposing everything possible. There was a bucket in the kitchen for all the food scraps, which went into the compost pile. The egg shells and coffee grounds went directly into the garden to feed and protect the plants. Empty plastic bags and containers were washed and saved for storage and lunch bags. There were no throw-away plates, utensils, or cups. Tread lightly was the name of the game.

The Part in which I Review Vita-Mix

While I was there I got to use a Vita-Mix for the first time. (As you can see I got to make a green smoothie! Despite how healthful the food was, I was still way below usual for fruit and veggie consumption, so this was really great. It was my lunch Friday and Saturday.) B and I had spent a lot of time researching before we picked the Blendtec and after using the Vita-Mix I am really happy with our choice. Don't get me wrong, if you have a "regular" blender either a Blendtec or a Vita-Mix will seriously improve your results. However, this green smoothie had flecks of green still present, even after a couple minutes of processing. I also used it to make hummus one day and despite the fact that it was a pretty thin hummus the machine still struggled. I had to keep turning it off and on to keep it from smoking. Additionally, the hummus was similar to the consistency I achieve in my food processor, as opposed to the totally smooth "paste" (as B calls it) that I get out of the Blendtec. I thought the tamper would be helpful, but it was more cumbersome than I was expecting, feeling more like an impediment than a help. Furthermore, I felt like I had to use it to get the blender to work well at all, even on reasonably thin mixtures, as opposed to a tool to help the blender along occasionally. A few more observations: it is next to impossible to get the remains out of the bottom of the jar, unless you have a very small spoon perhaps. The unit when all together is very high, there is no way it would fit under my counters and given how much we use ours it doesn't get put away much so that would be an issue. Finally, I like that Blendtec only requires one jar to handle both wet and dry jobs; it is one less thing to purchase and store. In summary, I continue to recommend Blendtec.

I also got to visit with this sweet girl. It is so nice that MJ and EA have jobs that allow them to keep her with them. 

Make a wish.

I had such a great time. On Saturday night we had a Contra dance with a live band. It is super fun, a folk dance similar to square dancing (there is a caller) but done in lines. It is *so much fun* and great exercise to boot. There was also a thunderstorm that night with lightning and everything. What a treat for this parched California girl!

Monday, May 25, 2009

News and the Weekly Menu

We are officially moving. We are still waiting for a decision about the house we made an offer on (it is a short sale - a misnomer if ever there was one!) but we just found out that we need to be out of our current house at the end of June. Since this likely means we will be staying with my parents for a short time I am starting to panic about the food in my freezer. So my strategy is to try and use something out of the freezer at least once a day while not adding anything new (I may make an exception if we totally run out of fruit for our smoothies). On top of everything else we are going to Hawaii for a week and to Chicago for a long weekend in June, both of which we are looking forward to, but it is making for a jam-packed month!

Click on image to enlarge.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Weekly Menu

Finally, a week "normal" enough to do a menu. I miss it when I don't have one, it really does make the week so much easier!

Click on image to enlarge.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Going Green: Household Cleaning

I, like many people, grew up using commercial cleaning products around the house. When I was small a good family friend babysat my sister and me. She also cleaned houses on the side; I distinctly remember one house that had a sunken living room and a 3 legged dog. My other most distinct memory of accompanying her to cleaning jobs was the smell of ammonia. I still can't handle it.

When I started turning into a "hippie", as B is fond of calling me, the more I read, the more I educated myself, the more I figured out the impact of even one person and small actions the more conscientious I became of the the ramifications of my choices. Plus I loath the smell of chemical cleaners. I mean, I don't enjoy cleaning the bathroom (really, who does?) but it is so much worse when I feel I'm being gassed out by the products I'm using to "clean". 

So I started exploring my options for cleaning. Initially I simply switched to green options, products made by Seventh Generation, Ecover, and Method. If everyone did nothing but switch to truly green cleaning products (produced by companies committed to environmental stewardship as opposed to green washed products by companies like Johnson & Johnson) that would make such a huge difference in our personal health, air quality, and water quality. 

But you need not stop there. You can make your own. It is even easier on the environment (because you buy the ingredients in larger packaging and reuse the containers in which your cleansers are kept) and your wallet (because most of the ingredients are super cheap and last quite a while).

I started by getting the book Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home by Lisa Mason Hunter and Mikki Halpin. The book is water resistant, which is nice since you will have it open around liquids when you are mixing up your concoctions. I haven't tried every "recipe" yet, but one of the first I tried was an all purpose spray that is now my go-to all purpose cleaner; the book was worth the money just for that recipe alone. I love it - it is super effective, cheap, and smells nice (because I pick the scent!). You can see all the ingredients in the picture above (plus water). It only uses a tablespoon or so of each and a few drops of essential oil so you can imagine how many bottles I get out of about $15 worth of ingredients (including the essential oils). I like a mix of lavender and tea tree oils, which are both very inexpensive, widely available, and have antibacterial properties.

My most frequently used cleaning supplies these days: baking soda and vinegar. I buy them in the bulk sizes at Costco. I also use borax, castile soap, salt, oil, and various essential oils in addition to a few commercial products like automatic dishwashing tabs and laundry soap. Possibly one of the easiest tricks ever is to use slightly damp baking soda to scrub out your bath tub. I can no longer stand being around "regular" cleaning products. They hurt my lungs, they hurt my eyes, and they make me feel sick. If that is what they are doing to me imagine what they do to the sensitive systems of our pets and kids. With the success I've had with the homemade cleaners I have tried my goal now is to gradually move to as many homemade products as possible, including laundry soap.

Making your own green cleaning supplies is really simple and inexpensive. Try one this week and let me know what you think. 

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spanish Style Stuffed Veggies

This is a simple dinner to put together and delicious to boot. The filling will stuff 4 largish tomatoes or as I did, two tomatoes and two medium zucchinis. You can increase the protein by replacing the brown rice with grated tempeh if you like, the texture is very similar. 

I highly recommend cooking a big batch of brown rice and freezing the leftovers in dinner sized portions. It makes recipes like this one and fried rice a snap to put together and is *way* less expensive than buying the pre-cooked stuff.

Spanish Style Stuffed Veggies
2 tomatoes
2 zucchinis (or two additional tomatoes)
1 link veggie chorizo, casing removed
1 smallish tomato plus the pulp of the hollowed tomatoes, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup cooked brown rice 
3 oz queso fresco, crumbled (optional, can also substitute crumbled tofu or cubed soy cheese)
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 450* F and adjust the top rack to the top middle position. Grease a small sheet pan.

Find the side on which the tomatoes will stand upright (probably upside down), that will be the bottom. Slice off the top about 1/2 inch down, or enough that you can remove the pulp and stuff it without too much trouble. Hollow out the tomatoes and chop and set aside the pulp. Slice a thin piece off one side of the zucchini so it will stand still (give it "feet"). Slice zucchini in half length wise and hollow out both sides of each. Lightly sprinkle the insides of the  tomatoes and zucchini with salt and pepper and set aside. 

Heat a skillet over medium heat and add chorizo*. Cook 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned. Add garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add chopped tomato, tomato pulp, and brown rice. Stir to incorporate and cook until juice from tomatoes starts to absorb, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the queso fresco. 

Stuff the tomatoes and replace tops. Stuff all 4 pieces of zucchini, just so filling is flush with the edges. Fit zucchini back together and place the tomatoes and zucchini on the prepared baking sheet. Spray well with olive oil spray and sprinkle the tops with salt and pepper. 

Bake 20-25 minutes, until the veggies have shriveled a bit, the tops have developed good spotty color, and the filling is hot. Remove from oven and allow to stand about 5 minutes.

Serve with fresh guacamole.

* I am sure a chopped or grated homemade chorizo will work great here, you just may need to add a bit of oil to the pan to prevent sticking. I added no additional oil because the Trader Joe's veggie chorizo has plenty in it already.