Sunday, May 30, 2010

The First Strawberries of the Season

We picked the first strawberries out of our little jumbled patch in the yard this week. They were like glowing jewels hiding beneath the mess of mother and daughter plants out there. I was so excited to find a ripe one, that I showed my two year old, we picked it, she devoured it, and started picking every nearly reddish one she could find. Not sure it was the best idea to let her in on the secret of the strawberry patch, since now, we probably won't have many berries that will actually make it to the fully ripened stage. But, the joy of seeing my kid outside, picking her own food, stuffing it in her mouth, walking around with the juice stained fingers to show for it, is all the satisfaction I need. So half ripened strawberries will have to do for this year in our little strip of earth in the city.

Growing your own strawberries:
If you want to grow your own berries it is really easy. They can grow in pots or in the ground. Ask at any garden center or nursery about different varieties of berries and how to take care of them. The "mother plants" send out runner plants called "daughter plants". I haven't quite found the time to figure out how to manage these well, whether to remove the daughters or let them grow. I have just let them run wild, but that isn't really the way to get the most berries. Sorry not to be able to help out more on this one, but a quick google search will yield some answers, them you'll have to start paying close attention to which plant is which. Growing them in a row is better than the mess of a patch I have, but for now we are getting berries, and so for now, we are a happy bunch. 

Picking your own berries:
I love the site where you can search the whole country for great places to pick fruits and vegetables. They have a lot of detailed info on each farm and their growing practices. It is good to ask if the berries have been sprayed with chemical pesticides or fungicides. Many farms and orchards have good, more sustainable growing practices but cannot afford to be certified organic. If they say they are an IPM farm that stands for Integrated Pest Management which means that they try to use a more holistic approach to farming than conventional farms to avoid using a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. It is still good to ask questions like "were the plants sprayed when the fruit was on them?" or anything else you want to know, since there is a very wide and unregulated range of IPM practices out there.

Also, look around for local strawberry festivals or special desserts at restaurants serving up seasonal local menus. Yum.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Snack Time - Yes Really

Yes, this is actually a snack at my house, and yes my kids eat it.
No, they don't always eat it, and yes they some times have pretzels or cheese or even a cookie, and they love when they can snag some cheddar goldfish from their friends on the playground. But, they do eat vegetables for a snack, and I'll tell you how.

On really busy nights when I am scrambling to get dinner ready, I often distract my hungry kids with a video for 30 minutes until dinner is ready. Now, just so you know it is not easy for me to say that I plop my kids in front of a movie, ever. I was raised with a crazy relationship to television; made to feel like it was bad for me at my mom's house where it was hardly allowed, and entranced by it like a zombie at my dad's house where it was on all the time, in every room. But, needless to say, I do let them watch videos, and since right before dinner they are so hungry and I'm trying to buy some time before dinner is ready, I often chop up a bunch of vegetables for them while I'm cooking, hand them to the kids while they're watching a movie and silently slip away. (Only to return a few minutes later to see all the vegetables gone.)
My kids staring at a movie, munching on delicious veggies.

The combination of hungry kids right before dinner and a bowl of vegetables is a good one. The added distraction of a video, while unfortunate, also keeps them occupied, so they eat the fresh delicious food in front of them without running into the kitchen pulling at my legs and complaining about being hungry.  Then when dinner is ready, they are still hungry for the rest of the meal, and I don't have to keep reminding them to eat their vegetables through dinner.

Another plus to this is that because they often eat the vegetables when they are hungry, they taste better to them and they like them more. They also love eating them picked fresh from the garden, so we are waiting eagerly for our seedlings to sprout us some food! 

Many years ago, before I became a chef, I worked as a teacher in Brooklyn and in Boston, running after school programs. I would always try to include as many fresh fruits and vegetables into our snacks as possible, and despite people saying "kids don't like vegetables", those kids always ate their veggies, and were happy for them! Sometimes you have to do a little cajoling to get kids to try a new food, but often if you can get them to take a taste, or if they see a friend eating a pepper and saying "yum" they will like it and be better off for it!

Some vegetables and fruits that make great (and affordable) snacks are:
sugar snap peas
green beans
bell peppers
cherry tomatoes
apple slices with cinnamon sprinkled on them
clementimes or oranges
broccoli -steamed or blanched
cauliflower - steamed or blanched
orange slices

Note: nuts are another great snack when kids are hungry. I often give them some vegetables or fruits and a small bowl of nuts. These foods don't fill them up so much that they won't eat dinner, but give them a lot of great nutrients and the nuts add protein.

As part of the work I did for the New Haven Cooks - cookbook, through CitySeed, funded by the CT Department of Public Health, we did fresh fruit and vegetable tastings around New Haven, CT at schools and at community events. This was a family day at the Peabody museum, thousands of kids were there and all of our fruits and vegetables were eaten. The board you see behind me says "Try Me" and kids got to vote on which foods that they tried they liked, and to describe the flavors of the foods. it was a fun interactive way to get kids engaged and thinking about what they eat. Then they made stickers showing what was in their tummy.
please leave any comments below

An Urban Farm on 1/10 Acre!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Birhtday Cake Bonanza

April is a big Birthday month in my family. My husband, my two children, my mother and my uncle are all born in April. Since four of those people live in my house or next door(my mother), in this house, April showers brings cake, and lots of it!

I know April is long past, but I hadn't had a chance to post two of the fun cakes from this year. For my son's 6th b-day he wanted a surprise cake. He requested " vanilla cake with different sized chocolate pieces in it, whipped cream, strawberries and buttercream" (the design was the surprise part, and my choice, which was cool, cuz I was trying to figure out how I might handle the possibility of an  underwater diver cake with out using a lot of food coloring which I generally don't use (see one exception below on the petit fours).  

So, for his party it was a crocodile cake, he wanted to put the strawberry scales on the back, and since it was really hot out, we put the whipped cream on the side so we didn't have to refridgerate this gigantic cake. 

For the actually day of his birthday which falls on the same day as my mothers birthday, I made them petit fours. both of their names start with the letter "A". There were many fillings. My favorite was  the passion fruit jam I brought home from the farmers' market in Amsterdam, along with dark chocolate ganache layered between a light buttermilk cake. Yum!! (Sorry the light in these pictures isn't great, so much for late night picture taking!)
Believe it or not, I added some whole grain flour and almond flour to the cake, and reduced the sugar  to improve the nutritional value just a touch, and no one knew the difference. Still, it was a lot of sweet cake, but the little petit fours made the day feel special. We did eat some delicious, non-sweet food too, check out this humongous artichoke!!
Another fun cake I made for his 3rd and again for his 5th b-days' was a dirt pile cake, it was a huge hit with marzipan worms wiggling out of the "dirt" (actually chocolate cookie crumbs).
Made any cool cakes lately? Comment below!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Simple Red Lentil Soup with Greens

In a few minutes, I am off to the local public library (see post below for all the details) to do the last of three cooking demonstrations connected to the cookbook I developed: New Haven Cooks/Cocina New Haven. For tonight's event we will be cooking Seven Pepper Collard Greens with guest Tabitha Carter who submitted this recipe to the cookbook. They are not your average collard greens!  I will also be demonstrating two "sneaky greens" recipes that help people "sneak" a few more greens into their meals. All these recipes can be found in the wonderful bilingual community cookbook. Also, not your average community cookbook.

At some point I will post all of those recipes, but for a moment I want to sing the praises of one, the red lentil soup. Lentils are very inexpensive, incredibly tasty, nutritious and  easy and quick to cook.
If you have ever had dahl or lentil soup at an Indian or Middle Eastern restaurant this soup will be familiar to you. while those soups may have some spices such as cumin and coriander added to them, the bulk of the flavor is derived from those tiny red lentils.
For this recipe, you just put 2 cups of red lentils in a heavy bottomed soup pot, add 6 cups of water a finely chopped small onion, a few pinches of salt and let it simmer away. in about 30 minutes you will have a delicious soup. Finely chop some greens such as spinach or kale, toss into the soup simmer a few minutes until the greens are tender (about 1 minute for spinach, a little longer for kale).

If you want to add more complexity, try adding some cumin seed, hot pepper, chopped tomato or any other spices you like.

After tonight I'll have some good pictures (I hope) of Tabitha cooking her collards, so check back for that recipe soon.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Three Bits of Food News

New White House Initiative to End Childhood Obesity:


Chefs Move to Schools is a new initiative of Michelle Obama, White House Chef Sam Kass, and the US Department of Agriculture, to connect Chefs with schools in am attempt to end childhood obesity by introducing kids to the importance and deliciousness of fresh healthy foods. 

For more info, check out this post on the White House Blog about the new program or on the New Haven School Food Blog run by Tim Cipriano, the Executive Director of New Haven Public Schools food service program.
Check out Tim Cipriano, White House Chef Sam Kass, John Turenne of Sustainable Food Systems meeting in D.C.  Notice the cookbook in Sam's hands, New Haven Cooks!
We've been working on promoting healthy delicious fresh foods to our community and schools, it's great that the whole nation is getting mobilized too!

Cooking demo from New Haven Cooks cookbook
Wednesday May 19th @ 6pm - Mitchell Library, New Haven 
Seven Pepper Collard Greens and other Sneaky Greens recipes 
with Chef Tagan Engel and guest Tabitha Carter
The last of 3 cooking demos at the Mitchell Library in New Haven. Join us to learn about delicious easy recipes using greens such as collards, dinosaur kale and spinach. If you are in New Haven and aren't going to the Taste of the Nation event, (see below) or don't mind showing up a little late, stop by and see what's cooking. New Haven Cooks will be available to purchase at this event, it is also available online, all proceeds go to support CitySeed.

Taste of the Nation - Delicious Fundraiser to End Childhood Hunger in the USA
Join Us For Taste of the Nation and help end childhood hunger
"Savor the finest food, spirits and wine from the nation's hottest chefs and mixologists. 
100% of ticket sales supports Share Our Strength's efforts to end childhood hunger." 
If you are in New Haven:
The Taste of the Nation event is this Wednesday May 19th from 6-9pm at the Yale Commons on the corner of Grove and College streets. Tickets are available for this fun and important event. 

If you are elsewhere in the country: 
Check the Share Our Strength Website for dates and locations in your area.

Taste of the Nation is a nationwide event run by Share Our Strength to raise funds to fight childhood hunger. Chefs and restaurants donate food for a fun evening of tastings and socializing. Participants purchase tickets for the event and profits are distributed among local organizations who work to combat childhood hunger. Many of these events around the country are happening this spring and summer. Check the website for dates in your area.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Building Raised Garden Beds

These days many people are getting back into the art of growing some of their own food. This could be anything from a few herb plants in your window box, a couple tomato plants on your stoop, some rows of greens, cucumbers and a small raspberry patch, or full on homesteading where you grow most of what you consume. Whatever level of gardening you chose to take on, it is important to make sure that you are raising plants in healthy, uncontaminated soil. For those of us living in urban environments that can be a challenge.
We have an area about 5 feet by 30 feet in which we can grow food in our yard, which feels like an incredible luxury, and a great opportunity to grow as much food as possible.  I spent many years growing food and flowers in tight spaces and pots both in Boston and Brooklyn which was wonderful as well. You can also yield a good amount of food from just one or two beds if that is all you have room for.

For the past few years, I have been gardening in mounded beds on one side of our yard (see photo above). We dug up all the grass and added some lime, and a few bags of organic soil, compost and manure we bought at a garden center. This was a fairly quick inexpensive way to build our garden, but by mid summer the grass and weeds would be climbing up the vegetable beds and starting to strangle our plants.  This year we took the leap and built raised beds with a wood frame. Raised beds can have many advantages for the backyard and urban gardener. The first advantage is that you can control the quality of the soil you grow your food in making sure it is not contaminated with lead or other harmful toxins, and that it is rich in nutrients for growing food. Raised beds also allow you to create a clear boundary for plants to grow in, making weeding easier and keeping children from trampling them. Raised beds also allow you to raise plants closer together and maximize your growing space and the yield from your garden.
This year, we horded away a little bit of our tax rebate money to build some raised garden beds. We did this project in one day. It was a lot of work for one day, but well worth the effort. One of our neighbors watched one of our kids for a few hours, which was a considerable help! You can find raised beds for sale online made out of all kinds of materials. We chose to make ours out of wood, and we used fir (pine would rot too fast, and cedar was way to expensive). We went to a local lumber yard (West Haven Lumber for you local folks). We built 6 raised beds 5' x 3', for a cost of $23 each. this is considerably less than if you buy a kit. We used 2'x12' boards that were 8' long. We only had to make one cut in each board so that we ended up with a 3' section and a 5' section. We purchased cedar railing posts which were 2" square by 3' we cut those in half to use for the corners. the 18" length allowed 12inches to attach the corners of the boxes, and then 6" to stick out the bottoms and sink into the ground to stabilize the beds.
I didn't get a good side view picture, but this corner piece extends 6" below the frame and is set into the ground to stabilize the bed.

To build one bed:
2 - 2"x12"x8' boards of fir or cedar
2 - 3' long cedar 2'square railing posts
electric drill
  1. Cut boards into a 3' and a 5' length
  2. Cut post in half so you have two 18' length
  3. Screw boards into the cedar posts to make a rectangle. The three foot lengths should go flat across the front of the box. The posts should stick out from bottom of the bed by 6 inches.
To install beds:
there are various ways to do this, and you can google it to read about them. you can cover the existing ground with newspaper or wire mesh or other things to inhibit weed growth, create a barrier from toxins with landscaping material or wire mesh to keep moles out. we were covering existing garden beds so just built right on top.

Dig down 6 inches in each corner to set the cedar posts into the ground and secure the bed. use a level to level out each bed before filling in the holes for the posts and adding soil to the bed.

Filling the beds:
If you buy a large amount of soil it is sold by the cubic yard. In other words, 1 yard of soil is 3'x3'x3'. to fill a 1'x3'x5' raised bed you would use slightly more than half of a cubic yard. multiply it out depending on how many beds you have. The soil/compost mix i got cost $28 a cubic yard. This price and quality can vary widely, so look around.

You can now buy organic soil, compost and manure at many garden stores. Contact your State Cooperative Extension Services through the department of agriculture or an Organic farming organization in your state for resources on soil testing and resources for quality, safe soil and compost.
We needed a lot of soil for this project, so I called a local (New Haven area) nursery that I knew was involved in a lot of our local CT NOFA  (Northeast Organic Farming Association) organic land care workshops; Natureworks in Northford. They recommended a place in Milford called: Greencycle Grillo. I have to admit that I did not investigate this soil company beyond this recommendation, so  feel free to ask questions of your own. The next day they delivered a pile of dirt at our house. We  also added some to the back of our yard where there is concrete poured under the topsoil, so nothing was growing there. We ordered a little bit too much dirt, so we were shoveling soil from noon till after dark, around 8:30pm, exciting and exhausting! If you are just getting dirt for a few garden beds, it should be more manageable. 

Making your own compost: It is easy to start a compost pile if you have a small yard. I'll post about it soon, but search Google for some tips on how to do it. You don't need to buy a fancy composter, a few wood pallets screwed together to define the pile or piles can work well. This compost won't be ready for the start of this season, but you can transform most of your kitchen scraps into nutrient rich soil for your fall garden.  This is a compost Bin at the Barnard School for Environmental Science in New Haven take during last year's garden building party.
Info on soil testing:
There are free or low cost places to get your soil tested in every state at your State Cooperative Extension Services Office run through the Department of Agriculture.  It is important to ask that your soil be tested for lead or other toxins in addition to their standard soil testing. There are certain crops you can grow safely in soil with lead, and you can sometimes adjust the soil acidity to keep other crops from absorbing the lead. You can do some searches on line to find info and articles about this. If the idea of growing anything in soil contaminated with lead bothers you, you might want to consider building a raised bed and filling it with soil that you know is safe.

In the New Haven Area Contact the CT Agricultural Experiment Station at 123 Huntington St. Phone: (203) 974-8521.

Local Garden Event:
Seedling Sale and Farm Festival at Common Ground High School, Saturday May 22, 10:00-3:00 seedlings $1-4. click here for more info. 

Other great local resources for growing your own food:

CT Northeast Organic Farming Association (CT NOFA) - gardening resources and workshops
New Haven Land Trust - community gardens
Master Gardeners program - gardening workshops and assistance

Are you growing food near your home? If so, what are you growing and where? 
Leave any comments below.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Cooking Demo - Wednesday 6pm - Bombay Sandwiches with Cilantro Mint Chutney

This Wednesday May 12th I will be doing the second of three - free cooking demos and tastings at Mitchell Library in New Haven, CT at 6pm. Come join me and my guest, Sadna Chopra to cook her recipe from New Haven Cooks, a delicious collection of recipes from great people in our city!  I will also be demonstrating a variety of ways to use the chutney to liven up other meals, and how to make a simple and delicious red lentil soup.

Cookbooks will be available to purchase as well. All proceeds from the books go to support CitySeed.

Wednesday May 12th @ 6pm
Mitchell Library
37 Harrison St, New Haven, CT
203. 946.8117

Upcoming Cookbook Events:
May 19th - Collard Greens with Seven Peppers and "sneaky" ways to get more greens into your diet. Guest Tabitha Carter.
Mitchell Library 6pm 

May 26th - Meal planning for Health and Budget - Talk at the Main Branch of the NH Public Library with Wendy Battles and myself. 6-7pm. 

New Haven Cooks is a Project of CitySeed, developed by Tagan Engel and funded by The CT Department of Public Health.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Strawberry Coconut Milk "Ice Cream"

The unexpected heat waves in the past few weeks, and the number of April birthday's in our family (4) inspired some recent ice cream making. With our little old Krups brand ice cream maker (still going strong after 10 years) we make everything from frozen custard to frozen smoothies. If you eat the smoothies straight out of the ice cream maker, or within a few hours of freezing, they are all equally superb!

For this batch we made some vegan birthday "ice cream" for my husband who avoids dairy. Since we were planning to eat this ice cream within a few hours of making it, we could just make a smoothie and pour it into the ice cream machine to freeze and it would be a perfect texture. Once frozen for more than a few hours in the freezer however the high water content of this mixture would result in a solid brick of strawberry ice.

Ice Cream makers can be found for as little as $35. It is fun and delicious to make ice creams at home, either the real custard based kinds or just a fruit smoothie poured from the blender into the machine. Note that once frozen any mixture you make will taste slightly less sweet, so adjust the sweetness accordingly. 

For this non-dairy ice cream we blended frozen strawberries, some lemon zest, one can of coconut milk and a few spoonfuls of organic cane sugar. We pureed it all in the blender until it was smooth, and poured it into the ice cream maker to freeze. When it was nearly frozen, we added a handful of raspberries for added color and flavor.

                                 Blending in the raspberries:

The finished ice cream. This was scooped into a container to hold it in the freezer for an hour while we finished preparing dinner. It maintained it's smooth texture until dessert. By the next day however, it was too hard, and you had to scrape it to eat it, so this kind of "ice cream" should be enjoyed without delay!
If you don't have an ice cream maker, you can achieve a similar effect by pouring the smoothie into a shallow baking dish and placing it in the freezer. Every 15 minutes take a fork and stir the mixture around a bit. after a few hours you will have a similar result.

Do you make ice creams? What are some of your favorite flavors that you've created? please leave comments below.