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Dark Days: A local snack

ricotta cheese and a fuji apple

I spent last night on an airplane, struggling to get comfortable in a narrow seat, in the very back row. When I got back to Philly earlier this morning, on very few hours of sleep, my brain was slow and I felt a little squishy in the stomach. After a shower, I headed into work and proceeded to spend the rest of the day gazed blearily in the general direction of my computer.

I haven’t done much in the way of cooking since Christmas day, and I’m certainly not in any state to be operating a cooktop right now (I’m not to be trusted with a stove on less than four hours of sleep). But knowing that I wanted to keep up my Dark Days participation, I wandered into Sue’s Produce on my way home and bought three lovely local apples (that one up there is a Fuji) and a scant pint of wonderful, creamy ricotta cheese.

However, this isn’t just any ricotta. This is Claudio’s ricotta, made daily in their Italian Market cheese factory (it’s made with Lancaster milk, just blocks from my own 20th floor home). It is luscious cheese, and when combined with slices of apple, becomes something akin to a tangy whipped cream. Putting out a generous bowl of this ricotta along with slivers of sweet-tart apple is one of my favorite party food tricks (just make sure to toss the apples with a bit of lemon juice first, to keep them from browning badly). It is incredibly easy and is so, so good to eat.

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Dark Days: Local Beans, Holiday Chaos

beans

When I was still in Philly, anticipating this vacation I’m currently on, I imagined that I’d rise early (being an east coaster out west), snag a car and spend a couple of hours each morning at a coffee shop with my computer. I figured keeping up with the blog would be easy, given all that concentrated time I’d have, communing with the internet.

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Of course, the best laid plans rarely see the light of day. I have not been waking early. Instead, I’ve been sleeping until 10 or later, gobbling up nearly 12 hours of sleep a night (my candle was fairly well burnt by the time I boarded that plane last week) and allowing myself to flow with the chaos that is family during the holidays.

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I did manage to sneak away on Saturday for a couple of hours, in order to wander the final PSU Farmers Market of the season. I bought mountains of sweet potatoes, onions, beets, tiny red potatoes (for Christmas dinner), brussels sprouts, garlic, apples, pears and a beautiful orange squash for pie. I wandered for a bit with Sarah, chatting while she bought some local beef and mushrooms.

Sarah, buying meat

Knowing that I wanted to try to cook my Dark Days meal even though I was away from my normal vendors and sources, I searched out a main dish that would keep everyone in my parents’ tiny house happy (my mother doesn’t eat pork, my sister avoids red meat entirely and her friend Jamie is a vegetarian). I wound up with some gorgeous local pinto beans, purchased by the tin scoop (I felt delightfully like Laura Ingalls Wilder as I ladled up my beans into a crunchy paper bag).

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I cooked three cups of them with twice as much water, a pungent chopped onion and several mashed garlic cloves until they were tender (towards the end of cooking, I added a bit of chili powder, salt and pepper). For dinner tonight, we set up a bar of tops and bottoms and let everyone compile their own dream bowl of beans. I ate mine with some toasted local bread and cheese. The rest of the house paired theirs with some tomatoes (the last from my parents’ garden, picked green and ripened slowly in the garage), chopped red onion, brown rice, tortilla chips, avocado, cilantro and sour cream.

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Dark Days: Mostly Local Latkes

dinner

Hanukkah started last Friday night. For a secular, half-Jewish girl (with Ashkenazi roots) like me, that means it’s latke season. I didn’t grow up with latkes (my mother has something of an aversion to fried foods), but I adopted the practice of making them in college.

In fact, the second time I ever made these shredded potato pancakes was as a snack for a study break, when I was an RA in North Hall (a former hospital turned residence). I made around 150 in rapid succession. I learned a lot about the art of latke making that night (I also ended the evening with a number of grease burns on my forearms).

yukon golds

Over the years, I’ve developed a process of latke-making that utilizes both a frying and baking method. It means that I can use just 2-3 tablespoons of oil/fat and still have a latke that’s crispy on the outside and tender (and fully cooked) on the inside.

grater blade

I shamelessly use my food processor for the shredding of the potatoes. I’ve tried hand-grating them as well and I’ve found little discernible difference between the two. In this instance, I happily choose technology over elbow grease (it is about ten times faster). My Aunt Flora, who’s vintage Cuisinart I now possess, would be so proud to see it used in this fashion.

The only problem I come across when using a food processor is there’s always a thin bit of potato and onion that doesn’t get grated. I pluck those bits out and give them a quick chop, so that they mimic the size and shape of the food processor veg.

squeezing potatoes

One of the secrets to making a good latke is making sure that you squeeze as much moisture out as possible. Some people suggest putting the grated potatoes in a colander and weighing them down. I find that wrapping them in a kitchen towel (the floursack variety works best here) or some cheesecloth and then twisting to remove the liquid, works the best.

local lard

Hanukkah is a celebration of oil. The reason we celebrate for eight nights is that lamp oil that was only supposed to last for one night, miraculously stretched to cover eight nights (the time needed for more oil to be produced). That’s why we eat fried foods at this time of year, to honor the gift of that oil.

Because I was trying to keep these latkes local (they did contains non-local salt, pepper and flour) I made a decidedly un-Kosher choice. I cooked them in local lard. It was the best local cooking medium I had (I considered clarifying some butter, but could not find the time) and honestly, they were some of the most crisp and celebratory latkes I’ve ever made. If you aren’t trying to keep your latkes local (or you live in a different area of the country, with wider local fat choices), peanut, olive or some other vegetable oil would all be more traditional choices.

browning latkes

Last night’s batch of latkes used three small to medium Yukon gold potatoes, a quarter of a very large yellow onion, 1 egg (those first three ingredients were all-local), 4 tablespoons of all-purpose flour and bit of salt and pepper. Grate the potatoes, wring the liquid out, combine them with the grated onion, egg, flour, salt and pepper. Mix to combine. I’ve found that a fork is the best stirring tool for this particular job.

latkes on cookie sheet

Add 2-3 tablespoons of fat to a frying pan (I like using a cast iron skillet for this job) and line a cookie sheet with foil (it’s important that you use foil here, parchment or a silpat will make for soggy latkes). When the fat is hot, grab a small palmful of latke batter, give it a quick squeeze (too much liquid is the enemy of the latke), form it into a patty and add it to the pan. You can pat it down with a spatula if you’d like, but do not move a latke in the first couple minutes of cooking. Early movement can destroy the structural integrity of the latke and you’ll end up with hash browns instead of pancakes. Still delicious, but not the plan.

Give the latkes 4-5 minutes on the first side and an additional 2-3 minutes on the second. When they’re nice and brown on both sides, move them to the foil-lined cookie sheet. I made a relatively small batch of latkes (just the 15 you see above) so they all fit on a single sheet. When the cookie sheet is full, put it in a 350 degree oven and let them baking for an additional 15-20 minutes (baking on the foil allows for further browning. It’s best to put the lighter side facing down so that you don’t get over crisping).

Once they come out of the oven, spread them out on newspaper, paper towels or brown paper shopping bag, to absorb the excess grease. Eat with sour cream and applesauce (preferably homemade). We ate ours as part of a dinner that included steamed broccoli (local), roasted brussels sprouts (local) and roasted salmon (sustainably fished and purchased through Otolith Community Supported Seafood).

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Dark Days: All-local soup

veggie composite

One of the things that tipped me off to the fact that Scott was the right man for me was when I discovered his nearly endless capacity for consuming leftovers (a couple of weeks ago, when I was down with a cold and wasn’t up for cooking, he ate from the pot of chili I’d made over the weekend for five nights in a row). I know many an individual who can’t stomach the same item two nights in a row and so big braises, soups and stews are out in their households, as it’s nearly impossible to make those items on a scale small enough to satisfy the one-night rule.

I grew up eating leftovers and so never knew that there was another option (my mother was a big fan of making one cooking session last for at least two nights). When I moved out on my own, I’d often make a large-ish batch of a grain salad or bean soup, to eat for at least one meal a day, all week long. It made life easier and kept food costs controlled (I found that a pint jar of soup with an apple or a few Ak-mak crackers makes the perfect workday lunch).

sauting veggies

During the cooler months, I have one soup that I make nearly every other week. Around here we call it ground beef soup, although the vegetables are the stars, not the meat. It can be made in huge quantities (tonight, I filled my seven quart pot), keeps well and Scott and I both happily eats it meal after meal after meal. And this time of the year, all the ingredients are available locally.

The vegetables shift a little depending on what’s in the kitchen, but I always include onions (Fair Food), celery (a chinese variety, from the farmers market), carrots (Fair Food), potatoes (from the farmers market several weeks ago) and tomatoes (home canned in September). In addition, tonight I also used two tiny cabbages (shredded) and a black turnip (both of which were part of my final CSA box), a celeriac bulb (Fair Food), some rosemary from a friend’s community garden plot and a few cloves of garlic (from Seattle, purchased as an edible souvenir and hand-carried home when I was there in August).

nearly finished soup

To make this soup, I chop the vegetables (starting with the onions and then moving through the celery, carrots, celeriac, turnip and cabbage) into approximately equal sized cubes, adding them to the pot to saute in a bit of olive oil. Then I add the tomatoes (tonight I used one quart and one pint because I was making such a huge batch), some water (enough to entirely cover the veggies) and the potatoes. Then the rosemary and garlic. Lid on and let it simmer (when I’m not concerned with keeping it entirely local, I will also add some frozen peas at this point. Tonight, in the interest of adhering to the challenge of Dark Days, I skipped them) until the potatoes are tender.

At this point, I have a pot of deeply flavored, totally vegan soup (don’t forget to add salt and pepper to taste prior to serving). In the past, I’ve made this for parties and stopped right here so that all guests can eat. In that case, I’ll create a garnish bar that will include some cheese, browned ground beef or sausage, croutons and toasted nuts (for the vegans who still need protein). However, when I’m making it for the two of us, I brown the ground beef (grass fed from Meadow Run Farms) in a skillet and use a slotted spoon to transfer it from the skillet to the soup pot (to minimize grease transfer). It’s a great way to make a pound of meat stretch to cover nearly a week of meals.

One of the most satisfying things about this soup? Whenever I make it, Scott always turns to me once his bowl is empty, smiles and says, “Mmm! Such delicious soup!”

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Dark Days: Week Two (broccoli, meatballs, potatoes)

Dark Days, Week Two

This was the first night I’ve cooked dinner in a full week. This rarely happens to me. I believe in making dinner and eating with Scott (even if we do end up consuming said meal at the coffee table instead of the dining room one more often than not). Sharing a meal is part of the joy of living with another human being. It’s something I missed during those times when I was single and without roommates, and the pleasure of a companionable meal is something I don’t take for granted.

However, the last week of non-cooking hasn’t been due to solitude, just delicious leftovers, dinner with friends, holiday meals (we got to do Thanksgiving twice this year, without cooking more than a couple of sides and a pound cake) and a bit of post-travel disorganization (Scott, his brother Sean and I drove down to Virginia to be with their mom and relatives on Thanksgiving and Friday night when we got back, ended up ordering corned beef sandwiches from the deli downstairs instead of foraging through the kitchen). But now I’m back in the kitchen and am so delighted to have had the Dark Days Challenge to keep things simple and honest.

This dinner is entirely thanks to our meat buying club and the Headhouse Square Farmers Market. The ground beef comes from Meadow Run Farm and since discovering how succulent and flavorful their grass-fed beef is, I have a practice of keeping a couple of pounds on hand in the freezer. Those meatballs also featured some finely minced red onion (the last one from the CSA), one local, pastured egg (also from Meadow Run) and some crumbled feta. That feta is a revelation. From The Patches of Star Dairy in Nazareth, PA you can either buy it fresh, packed in brine or canned and packed in oil. The canned feta is shelf stable for up to a year and is an delicious treat to have tucked away in the pantry for those times when you haven’t shopped and need a quick meal.

Along side the meatballs were some boiled red potatoes (from Three Springs Fruit Farm) that I dressed with some homemade butter and salt (they were so tender and creamy that I could have eaten them forever) and roasted romenesco broccoli (from Culton Organics). The only non-local ingredients in tonight’s meal were the salt, pepper and olive oil.

I realize that the picture above makes this meal look a little monochromatic, but please believe me when I tell you that it had so much flavor and was so satisfying. Had I not been trying to create my local meal for the week, I might have tried to make it fancier or somehow more elegant. And yet, I’m so appreciative for the simple, wonderful meal that it was.

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Dark Days: Good Eating, Week One

Monday night local dinner

From now until the middle of March, I’ll be diverging from posts about foods in jars (no matter how loosely related to jars they are) once a week to post my Dark Days Challenge meal. The goal of the challenge is to eat at least one local meal a week during the colder months of winter. Because it’s quite easy to eat locally when the markets are bursting with strawberries, melons and eggplants, but when the farmers markets are yielding nothing but squash, potatoes and beets, it feels a little daunting.

These days, I’d say that about 65% of the food we eat at home is locally sourced. Part of what makes that number so high is that for nearly two years now, Scott and I have been members of a meat buying club. We order online and can select from a wide assortment of pork, chicken, beef, sausage, cured meats and eggs. They’re delivered to a friend’s house eight blocks from our place and the monthly pick-up has turned into a social occasion, as a number of friends and acquaintances all converge to get their locally raised, grass-fed, pastured groceries.

In addition, the bulk of our fruits and vegetables come from our CSA membership (although it just ended for the season) or the farmers market (there’s a weekly year-long market two blocks from our apartment). Also, being so close to Lancaster County means we have easy access to good, local dairy products. That just leaves things like beans, rice, grains, coffee and olive oil (and all those snack foods that Scott loves so much).

But anyway, on to our first Dark Days local meal. It consisted of some slow cooked pork, pan crisped potatoes and roasted brussels sprouts. The pork was from the buying club (Meadow Run Farm), the potatoes were from our CSA (Dancing Hen Farm) and the sprouts were from the Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market. I forgot to take a picture until we were finishing up dinner, which is why the pans you see above are mostly empty (proof of a delicious meal).

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