Vegetable Barley Soup

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I was very tempted to call this post “refrigerator soup” but I feared no one would ever read it if I did.  But now that I have your attention, what I am about to share is my technique for how to use up as many of the vegetables in your refrigerator to make something comforting and delicious.  I typically make this soup for lunch on Sundays when I have a bit of time to scrounge around for odd bits of leftover vegetables in the veggie bin and generally assess the status of the week’s leftovers.

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The ingredients in this soup change week to week but the technique is generally the same. The possibilities are literally endless.  In place of barley, you can substitute lentils, Israeli cous cous, tubetti pasta, baby shells or macaroni. Onions can be substituted for leeks or shallots. You can use practically whatever vegetables are in season, and even add beef, chicken or baby meatballs. Continue reading

Spicy Carrot Pickles

Even before Mollie’s delicious looking carrot soup post, I had carrots on my mind. After trying hopelessly to cling to summer for the months of September and October, I’ve finally come around to the reality of seasons and started bringing home root vegetables and winter squash and big bundles of colorful chard instead of bags filled to the brim with zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes. I managed to sneak in one last perfect season bridging recipe – a simple carrot soup by Nigel Slater with equal parts carrots and yellow tomatoes – before succumbing to  more substantial soups and all things roasted and stewed.

Here’s one more season extender – a quick spicy carrot pickle recipe. Now is the perfect time of year to make these pickles. In October/November you start to see big bundles of baby carrots stacked high on the tables of farmers market stands. No, not those slimy baby carrots you find in bags at the super market; verifiable baby carrots planted in the summer and plucked out of the earth hardened by a first frost. These tender little carrots are not only delicious but pretty much exactly the right length to stand upright in a pint jar in a mix of spicy pickling liquid.

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Guilty Carrot Soup

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I have a confession to make.  I stole the carrots to make this soup.  I’m guilty.  But before you close this link out of fear that your integrity will be compromised by making this recipe, let me explain.  We have a plot in our local community garden.  The growing season is from April to December, or whenever the Village of Gambier gets around to clearing us out.  I don’t know the actual demographics of our Village but I would guess that it is 95% populated by students and faculty of Kenyon College, ourselves included.  Having been through one full growing season at the garden, I’ve noticed a trend amongst its residents.  Come April/May, academics are feeling tired but enthusiastic about the impending summer months.  June, July and August symbolize time to yourself, a chance to get out into the sunshine and steer clear of anyone between the ages of 18-22.  They energetically plant their gardens, weed and water them for about a month.  Then come the trips, Ohio’s unbearable humidity, and the  slow, creeping realization that you’re being paid for 12 months a year because the expectation is that you’ll actually do a little work during the summer.

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Meanwhile weeds begin to take over.  Seeds fruit and then flower. Greens bolt. Summer squash takes over. And eventually these garden plots go from orderly, romantic landscapes to cubist nightmares. So on October 20th, as my daughter and I were harvesting ground cherries and arugula, I couldn’t help but peak over at our neighbors over grown mess and notice carrot tops.  After carefully monitoring our surroundings for signs of approaching scholars, I ventured over to investigate.  I brushed aside some dirt to find an outcropping of orange tops.  I looked to my left and noticed a few more tops peaking out. Soon I had called Adeline over and we were excavating pounds of amazing carrots that had been sweetening all summer long!  Round, knobby, crunchy and delicious, these were some of the best carrots I’d ever had.

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Fresh Ricotta

I was talking to someone the other day about how hard it is to try new things as you get older. Every day I sit back and watch Orion voraciously exploring the world around him. Sometimes it seems like every day he finds something new to examine, learn about, or attempt to master. He’s recently decided that he’s big enough and coordinated enough to start walking down stairs by himself – he’s not. How different the world looks through his eyes.

It can feel insurmountable some days to take care of the littlest of tasks, let alone finding the confidence to take on new unfamiliar adventures. I remember moving to the west coast and trying for the first time to snowboard or surf or even spend a night out in the woods backpacking – each seemed as foreign and terrifying to me as visiting a new country by myself. Then came learning how to drive stick shift. Then learning how to drive stick shift up large hills. And finally mastering parallel parking on big hills. All in all, I’d say the west coast has been good for me. I was raised to eye new and unfamiliar things suspiciously and proceed with caution. So trying these new things, while scary, was also invigorating. Although ultimately other than learning to drive our new car, most of my attempts at new hobbies were fairly unsuccessful.

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Now here I am ten years later fashioning myself into your run of the mill pacific northwesterner with a new slate of hobbies to try or attempt to try. And yet trying new things still feels just as scary. It seems easy on the face of it. Why not just get off your butt and give it your best shot. What’s the worst thing that can happen if you take the right precautions and prepare adequately. Somehow that very real fear of failure though can stop me in my tracks.

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Some days I feel giddy with excitement at trying to get this blog off the ground. I love the back and forth with Mollie, the sharing of recipes and gathering of ideas. I like trying to find new ways to express myself and new foods to try. Yet most of the days in between feel uncertain and intimidating. How can we get our voice to come through. How can we find something interesting to say to our readers about what we’re making. Do we even have any readers. And how can we make delicious, simple food while convincing our toddlers to wait just a minute longer and stop spreading peanut butter on the floor.

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Dry spice blends

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Dry spices play a huge role in my style of cooking and with some exceptions like smoked and sweet paprika and roasted cumin, I rely heavily on blends. Finding the right spice blend helps you create deep, complex flavors in little time and as we venture into the soups and stews of the fall and winter months, blends play an increasingly important role in my everyday recipes.

I first got into using spice blends when I started to explore cooking Indian food.  Curry, as you may well be aware, is not an individual spice but a blend of spices, herbs and chilies that may taste completely different depending on which part of the world it comes from.  Some curries are smokey, others are sweet.  I first got into making Indian food using recipes from Madhur Jaffrey whose dishes use a variety of whole and ground spices that require toasting and grinding. I loved making these blends but soon realized that I only had time for these recipes on weekends.  I began to explore prepared spice blends, recognizing that much of what I was looking for could not be found in the spice aisle of my local supermarket, and that I had to find the freshest spices I could in order to mimic the flavor profiles I was after.  Once I found some great independent spice markets, listed below, it opened the door to a whole world of spice blends that I could use to make dishes that tasted like I’d been cooking for hours.
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Here are my go-to spice blends for weekday meals linked to the local spice shop where I found it

Mediterranean/North Africa:

Mexican/Latin American flavors/Caribbean:

South Asian:

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Plum Butter

After a fairly hectic summer filled to the brim with activities, fall announced itself in no uncertain terms last week. I felt myself dragging my heels at first refusing to give in to apple tarts, soups of any kind or anything remotely hinting at pumpkin or spice. But inevitably I’ve had to face facts. Fall is here and it’s only a matter of time until I make my first batch of soup and the sound of rain on our windows sounds cozy instead of depressing.

We’ve been taking the opportunity of a slower season to take a little longer to do things. Orion and I have started taking walks since school is back in session and the local playground is off limits. We’ve been taking fifteen to twenty minutes to explore the three blocks leading back to our house. I said slower, didn’t I. And yet you’d be amazed at how much a toddler can find to marvel at in one block, let alone three.

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We’ve talked about the difference between sun and shade, met rolly pollys, learned about ants and stopped to watch them, met neighborhood dogs, and unearthed small treasures like this ladybug peaking out from flowers around the corner from our house or the elfin-sized swing tucked away under a cyprus that only someone Orion’s height could discover. If it had been summer we would have been rushing through sprinklers or playing with friends outside, too busy to notice the wonder tucked into the edges of our daily lives.

So take advantage of this change in seasons to spend a little longer making a hot breakfast and then sit down on the kitchen floor to share it. Or see the buskers at the farmers market through your kids eyes and let him walk back and forth between two performers for twenty plus minutes unable to chose which he’d rather dance to. And if you’re feeling brave even try to listen to your one and a half year old when they tell you they are perfectly capable of carrying an egg from the chicken coop to the kitchen by themselves. As it turns out sometimes they aren’t but other times they’ll make it all the way inside the door and deliver the egg safely.

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