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sugar snap, trellis

It’s the first true week of summer, and the garden is brimming with good things.  The shell peas are done already, but the sugar snaps have climbed 8 feet to the top of the trellis and the fat pods are in full spate.

cucumbers blossoming The prickly yellow flowers of the cucumbers are budding, and the vines began to run overnight.  I can never quite believe those tiny flowers will set actual, life-sized cucumbers.  Why is it that a cucumber’s flowers are so minute, while a zucchini’s are as big as a hibiscus–when the fruits turn out roughly the same size?

The complex, beady green clusters that will burst into white blossom are emerging at the junctions on the Nickel filet beans.   Carrots are ferning, lettuce is bolting.  And after years of wishing, I have eaten my first harvest of fava beans, fat and emerald green and worth all the trouble it takes to shell, skin, and blanch them.

The borage volunteered this year, flecking the beds with stars of brilliant blue.

 borage flowers 

Meanwhile, I am scratching my head again over a mystery plant.  I started my usual two types of tomato seeds in April: Sungold, the popular golden cherry bursting with sugars; and Rose de Berne, a well-formed small pinkish-red tomato with deep, carrying flavor.  I planted the Sungolds in one row and the Rose de Bernes with some Purple Cherokees from a friend in the other.  But now that they are setting fruit, I see that many of the Sungolds are not Sungolds.  Instead of setting small, alternate branches of many tiny fruits, they’re setting lusty, assymetrical branches of large and irregular, faintly striped fruit.  I’m sure they’ll be delicious.  Still, I’m baffled.

Meanwhile, the chicks are 7 weeks old and pullet-shaped.  The Barred Rocks have lost many of the markings I used to tell them apart, and they look like almost-identical quadruplets.  But if I look very closely, I can see that Two Patches’ almost-gone pale markings give her eye an almond shape, and she still likes to forage away from the others.   One Patch’s patch is gone, but her beak has a dark band.  Jumpy’s lost her J, but her beak has a light, spotty, disorganized pattern.  Lumpy still has a lumpy pink beak, complains all the time, and is the last to arrive.  They’re so busy pecking and scratching in their movable run, though, that I can rarely get a still glimpse of their faces.

7 week old chickens "barred rock"

silver laced wyandotte, 7 weeks

The Wyandottes are quick on their feet, fearless (for chickens, anyway), and enterprising.  Stormy is the most endearing bird in the flock–she comes running when I start pulling weeds and never leaves my side while I work.  Here Stripèd does what chickens do best: hunting for bugs, and incidentally keeping sections of my garden weed-free.

It’s days like these I remember why we moved to this crazy old farmhouse, this scruffy and uncivilized property, this place of frostbound winters.  It’s not always an easy row to hoe, but it sure is a rich one.

barred rock chick 7 weeks Ameraucana chick 7 weeks Silver laced wyandotte, 7 weeks barred rock chick 7 weeks


We tested this cookbook (by the celebrated chef of the gastropub The Spotted Pig) quite a while ago, in early spring, so many of the recipes have a cool-weather feel.

It’s a terrific book for the mindful cook who thinks with his or her hands.  JJ Goode does a beautiful job of conveying April Bloomfield’s detail-oriented yet unfussy, sensualist’s  approach to food.

That said, there are definitely days when I am not interested in turning each individual Brussels sprout half in the pan to achieve perfect bronzing.

Click here to read today’s review of A Girl And Her Pig in the Boston Globe. 

Each of us has a different approach to kitchen equipment.  Some of us–whether because we’re just starting out as cooks, or we live alone, or because we’re minimalists or purists–have a fairly austere selection: a couple of good knives of different sizes, cutting board, measuring tools,  a few good pots.

The rest of us tend to accumulate.  Some of us love quirky little gadgets, like lemon zesters and olive pitters and gnocchi boards and butter stamps. Some of us have a weakness for electric appliances, like crockpots and blenders and waffle irons.  Some of us like vessels from elsewhere, like tagines and iron nailhead teapots.

Every apparatus weakness a cook can have, I have.  I have to struggle with myself every time a kitchenware store has a “$25+ free shipping!” sale.  Yet over time, I have come to realize that some of the things I acquired  impulsively have become treasured, multi-use members of my kitchen.

So, without further ado, here are 5 things I’ve learned to love.  They aren’t essential in the way a knife or a bowl is essential.  Yet I can’t imagine doing without them.

1. OXO Good Grips 2-qt Batter Bowl.  You wouldn’t believe how often you end up needing a huge bowl with a pour spout and a small footprint and a no-skid base.  Just a few examples: pouring soup into a blender.  Rapid-cooling ice cream base (sealed ziploc bag in ice  water).   Storing a leaky bag of marinade and meat in the fridge (or just holding a lot of marinated meat period).  And, of course, making pancake/waffle batter.  The measuring marks are just a bonus.

2. High-heat silicone spoonula.  These are unbeatable–as heat-resistant as wood, as flexible as rubber.  They don’t hurt non-stick pans or anything else, and they won’t melt (up to a point).  You can cook caramel with them.  You can scrape out corners and wipe out bowls with them.  You can spoon out sips of soup to taste for salt.  Mine was a wedding gift from Williams-Sonoma.  It’s 14 years old and still going strong though a bit stained and charred on the handle.

3. Cuisinart SmartStick immersion blender or “stick blender” A friend gave me one of these a couple of years ago and I am still wondering how I managed to do without it my whole life.  It’s not just a better replacement for most applications of a traditional blender, where you have to pour and scrape and wash multiple containers.  It’s also perfect for smoothies, or for beating eggs when your kid absolutely, positively won’t eat eggs with visible white.  You can even get an attachment that whips cream in no time flat.

4. Bench scraper.  I’d never heard of these before cooking school, but once I got one I never looked back.  In a kitchen you’re constantly needing a small, flat, rigid plane  for stuff: cleaning off your counter, dividing dough, cutting up gnocchi, transferring small chopped stuff to the stove.  I like the kind with the ruler printed on it, which makes it easy when you need to make sure your cookies are coming out exactly 2″ in diameter, or your dice are really 1/4″.  And any time something sticky/gooey/spready/crumbly lands on something flat, and you wish it hadn’t, it’s a lifesaver.

5. Spiral skimmer.  I had seen these in Chinatown for years before deciding it was OK for me to get one, and even then I feared I’d end up never using it.  Wrong!  Although these are really for deep-frying, there are so many times you want to strain things out instead of pouring things through a colander.  You end up using a slotted spoon (too small!) or worse, your hands (ouch!).  If you blanch vegetables or boil ravioli or dumplings or soak dried mushrooms, you can pull them out of the bowl/pot super-fast with a 7″ skimmer.  The spiral design is better than mesh, which traps water through surface tension.   Plus, although I’ve never done it,  I bet you could separate eggs really easily with a spiral skimmer.

Yes, recipe testing is part of my job.  But you don’t need to cook professionally to make your life just a bit easier in the kitchen.  None of these things is terribly expensive–I think the blender is $35.  Everything else is $5-15.  Go for it! indulge yourself.  (Or make a cook you love very, very happy.)

A couple of weeks ago, I published a review of Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier.  It was in some ways a rather critical review, especially in the context of my “selling of style” post a while earlier. The food was tasty, I more or less wrote, but there was nothing “frontier” about the ingredients.

The review caused few waves, but I did receive an interesting email from a site devoted to debunking the faux pioneerdom of the Pioneer Woman.  The message alerted me to a subculture of bloggers infuriated by the hype and inauthenticity surrounding this enterprise.  Among the claims are that many recipes have been lifted from local community and church cookbooks in Drummond’s home state, Oklahoma, that the cooking is done by others, and that far from homeschooling her children, Drummond hires tutors and spends her own day with a camera and Photoshop.

I’m not an investigative journalist. We all know ghostwriting is a fact of life in cookbooks, and plagiarism is a very fuzzy issue when it comes to recipes (owing to the vagueness of the copyright law and the derivative nature of cooking itself).  Finally, because I am personally very prone to Schadenfreude, I try hard to avoid these sorts of attacks in my professional writing, the way a recovering alcoholic avoids liquor stores.

My own take is that Drummond’s a shrewd marketer, and that some of her fans are probably well aware that much of what she does is just for show.  Those fans who aren’t aware could use some education in media literacy.  But then again there are people who think the Colbert Show is “for real”.  There’s a sucker born every minute, folks.

All that said, anyone who is interested in hearing out the criticisms–which range from lighthearted to vicious and offer a mix of substantive and ad hominem critiques– can find them at the following sites:

The Marlboro Woman
The Pioneer Woman Sux
Pie Near Woman
Less is Enough (not devoted to the topic, but offering a series of sharp media-studies-type observations on the Pioneer Woman phenomenon, its adherents and malcontents)

Also of interest are the New Yorker articles by Amanda Fortini: a feature profile and a followup critiquing Drummond’s Food Network show.

fava beans peas garlic scapes spinach kitchen garden

Who can not love a vegetable garden in June?  A hundred shades of living green begging you to touch, pick, taste.  Blue and celadon shadows of green under the leaves, lime and chartreuse on the sun-facing fruit.

I was making up my weekly grocery list yesterday when I suddenly realized: it’s the first week this year I don’t have to buy any produce!  The garden is its own produce aisle, no refrigeration necessary.  After I finish out my formal recipe-testing for the current cookbook, it’s time to ponder the delicious dilemma:  what can I make with spinach, peas, scapes, baby fava beans?

I’m not 100% sure yet, but maybe I’ll make some paneer for saag paneer.  The scapes will go into scape pesto.  The favas will be tenderly turned with mint and maybe some butter.  And the peas!  Well, the peas will likely never make it to the table.   They may not make it past Bed 16.  They’re simply too adorable, too perfect, too delectable just as they are.

turnip greens, kitchen gardenOn a day like this I can even lose my heart to  turnips, even though they are turnips.  (They’re only babies, smaller than a ping-pong ball, crowned and shaded with papery greens.)

fruit salad, melons, nuts, thai fruit, peanutsIs there a more perfect summer food than fruit salad?  Three cool, brilliant, vivid mélanges that take us miles away from the  “fruit cup” of decades past (remember the scary dyed cherry! the thick syrup!).  Best of all, you don’t need to turn on the stove even once, except maybe for toasting some coconut.

When I tested these recipes, it was sticky, steamy weather.  I ate fruit salad every day for every meal…and I did not tire of it.  And, I hope, neither will you!

Read the Kitchen Window story here.

cookbook review  "asian tofu" cooking tofuI started testing Asian Tofu before my editor and I had even decided to consider it for review–that’s how excited I was about this book.

It’s a model (and I don’t say this lightly) for the single-subject cookbook: informative, well-researched, exhaustively tested, well-designed, and offering a wide range of usable recipes for different types of tofu and different levels of commitment.  If that weren’t enough, there is no comparable tofu book available on the market, as far as I’m aware.

Click here to read today’s review of Asian Tofu in the Boston Globe. 

silver laced wyandotte 4 weeks

Stormy explores the Great Outdoors.

Technically, I think they’re “pullets” now that their lovely feathers have grown in.  Last night Husby made good on his promise and finished the chicken ark just in time for the girls’  4-week birthday.  He and our friend Mark hefted the monstrous thing–4′ x 8′ and full of plywood–into the garden, where it is now parked.

portable chicken ark tractor

The girls get down to business.


Initially, there was clucking and panicking.  But by this morning, everybody was not only still alive but acting all casual, like, “OK, now what?”

I let two chicks out at a time to free-forage while I worked in the garden, figuring that with just two (just like kids!) I could keep an eye on them before they did any damage to the tender greens.    Mostly, they were just interested in digging around in the moist, weedy edges where the beds meet the ground, and that was fine by me.

Working girls take five.


Meanwhile I eradicated most of the tall grass inside the garden.  While not exactly a vision of order and rest, it’s still a very pleasant place to be: 17 big beds of vegetable goodness, plus some random stuff like the pea trellis, the strawberry refugium, and the blueberry bushes.


vegetable garden  growing strawberries rhubarb favas  tomatoes growing in vegetable garden

garlic scapes vegetable garden  snow peas vegetable garden  "fava beans" "vegetable garden"

lettuce, garden bed, vegetable garden, drip irrigation  turnip, vegetable garden  ameraucana chicks, chicken ark

"pioneer woman cooks" cookbook review "food from my frontier"Remember a couple of months ago when I was brooding about the selling of style in cookbooks?  The Pioneer Woman book was the cause of that rumination, because I was testing it at the time.  Today, my review runs in the Globe food section.

It’s tasty, if not original, food, and the process photographs are helpful.  But whatever your definition of “frontier food” may be, I don’t think you’ll find it here.

Click here to read today’s review of The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier in the Globe.

Author profile in the Springfield Republican, now online. A Spoonful of Promises, some black bean sauce, and me.  Read the story here.

Now cooking

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