Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Goodwill Hunting

My bread machine finally sighed and refused to work anymore.  Too many batches of bread, or pizza dough, or rolls or focaccia loaves.  The bread machine gave up and died.  The last batch was a heavy lump in the container.  Oh well.  I used to make bread the old fashioned way when my kids were little, kneading the dough, letting it rise, punching it down and kneading again.  It was very satisfying—especially as a way to release frustration or any other negative emotion—kind of like pulling weeds.  I could resurrect even this heavy lump with some energetic kneading.  The result was okay, but not the airy light loaves I was used to.  This wasn’t going to work out too well.
I know myself well enough to know that making bread the old way was going to get, let’s face it, old really fast.  But buying a new bread machine was out of the question, given our limited resources.
Then I remembered my last trip to Goodwill.  I’ve been losing weight, along with Joe and my pants, besides getting a little frayed at the cuffs, were too loose and sloppy.  Maybe I would find something at Goodwill.  My sister Betty always finds good stuff.  And my daughter Kim, outfits her girls—and herself, with really cute clothes that she finds there or at Value Village.  So I went in on Senior Day and found four pairs of pants and two tops for barely over $19.  All name brand, and as Betty would say, “gently used”.  I checked out their small appliance section, thinking I might find a pasta making machine.
I didn’t see that, but there were about four bread machines on the shelf.  There was even a griddle like the one I have from my mother—which dates back to the mid fifties.  There were a lot of waffle irons and Panini pans.  But I didn’t need any of that.  At the time, I didn’t think I needed a bread machine either.  Now I could only hope that I could still find a reasonably good one—and that it would work.

I bought the BreadMan machine for $9.99.  On close inspection, it looked only “gently used”.  But I still wanted assurance that I could bring it back if it didn’t work.  “Keep your receipt and keep the sticker on the top and you can return it within seven days if you need to,” I was told.
I gave the machine a trial run with a batch of focaccia bread.  No problem.  As I asked myself why a perfectly good bread machine found its way to Goodwill and then to my kitchen, I realized that it might be a very simple explanation, such as someone not wanting to make bread anymore, or downsizing and having no room for all those appliances, or…When I washed the container, I couldn’t get the paddle off.  Was that the reason the machine was discarded?  It still works fine and I can clean it even if I can’t remove the paddle.
There are a lot of reasons that I am glad we are in constrained circumstances; chief among them is a renewed sense of responsibility and accountability for my actions as they affect the world around me.  I don’t want to be part of a throwaway society.  Goodwill represents the opposite of that.  Recycle, re-use, and renew, as the company’s mission statement emphasizes the value of job training and placement—renewing lives by helping people help themselves. 
My son spent the weekend with us, so I thought he might like this first effort from my not quite new bread machine.

Focaccia Bread and Pulled Pork Sandwich
1 cup water
1/3 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups bread flour (high gluten)
1 teaspoon Herbs de Provence
1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
Put ingredients, in order given, in container of bread machine and set to dough setting.  When done, with oiled hands, press dough into oiled clay baking pan, pushing it into the corners and pressing down to make indentations with fingertips.  Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size, about 30 minutes.
Sprinkle dough with chopped fresh oregano, grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese and coarse sea salt.
Bake at 400˚ for about 20 minutes or until golden.  Let cool before slicing.
For each sandwich, carefully slice a 3” x 4” piece in half horizontally.  Top one side with pulled pork and dill pickle slices and cover with other piece.  Makes about 12 sandwiches.

Pulled Pork
2 pounds boneless pork ribs
1 bottle of beer (I used a Porter, because that’s what I had)
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon brown sugar
¼ cup ketchup
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Cook in crock pot until meat is tender enough to shred.  Transfer meat and sauce to large frying pan.  With two forks, pull meat apart to shred.  Salt to taste and simmer to cook juices down.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Foeniculum Vulgare (Fennel)

We spent the evening with Kim and Deryk and their lovely girls the other night.  Deryk has an amazing garden that he has spent the last several years building up until he finally feels it’s ready for show.  He’s accepted an invitation to have his garden be part of the Garden Tour this summer.  They live in a lovely house that sits on a flood plain, so when they first got there and Deryk dug his shovel into the ground, he was dismayed to find that just below the surface lay a sea of rocks.  Big rocks, little rocks, every kind imaginable.  If he was going to have a garden, he would have to clear his land first.  He also decided to do the French double dig method of amending the soil.  He has more energy, more passion, and more patience than I ever will when it comes to gardening.
But over the years, we’ve shared our ideas and our experience with all aspects of gardening.  My passion is food-related gardening, though I do have a lot of pretty ornamentals—perennials mostly, and native to the region when possible.  He, more than anything, is a rosarian.  I think his daughter, Hannah, my granddaughter, has counted seventy-two roses that she’s responsible for deadheading.
Deryk had asked me for fennel seeds.  I have a giant fennel plant that came up with us from California.  This particular fennel, though I originally thought it was the one which had a lovely bulb for a root, turned out to be the kind that is wild in California. 
Going crazy wild already
I have always adored the fragrance as it travels on the breezes near the ocean.  The seeds are good, as well, and when they are still green, I can harvest them for cooking.  But I’ve always been disappointed that I couldn’t use the root bulb.  I see them in the grocery stores and always resist the temptation to buy because they’re so expensive.
But Deryk went online and found what we were both looking for.  Foeniculum Vulgare is the fennel that is used in French and Italian cooking.  It grows to only about 24” high as opposed to over seven feet for the wild California fennel. 
Competing with Rose--both about nine feet high

Everything about it is edible: flower, seed, delicate frond, and of course, the root bulb.
“How do you cook it?” he asked me.
“The French have a fennel dish called Compotée de fenouil, which is the way I learned to do this from my French father.  The bulb is sliced and braised in white wine and butter and is a lovely accompaniment to fish or poultry dishes.”
“I don’t like the licorice taste it has,” Kim commented.
“When it’s cooked like this, it’s milder…more like a cross between celery and maybe peas…with just a hint of the fennel seed.  You like Italian sausage, don’t you?” I asked her.
“That’s different.  The seed works really well as a flavoring in that way and in spaghetti sauce, and a bunch of other ways.”
“Well, in any case,” Deryk handed me a little packet of seed.  “You can go online to Park City Seeds and get full instructions on how to plant this.  It doesn’t seem to even matter when you plant it—spring, summer, fall.  As long as your soil is well drained and you get plenty of water and sun, it’ll grow.”
“Water we can do.  I’m not so sure about sun!”  I was feeling a little hopeless about our grey days and what that was going to mean for my tomato plants, which no doubt must have thought it was still nighttime (though they do have blossoms now…)
Tomato plants with black Hefty bags to keep them warmer

But I was grateful for Deryk’s thoughtfulness in sharing his seeds with me.  I would start them in an egg carton and meantime prepare the soil for them. 
Foeniculum Vulgare (fennel) nested in egg carton
They would be a lovely border for our walkway, which needs something full and fluffy like the fennel plant to complement the lavender and succulents (of course I've lost the tag, so I have no idea what those plants are--but they're pretty, year-round).  
 Lavender, succulents and Heuchera at front of walkway 

Fennel could go here--once it's weeded and amended and much prepared
My vision is always more grand than the reality.  So, in truth, though I see it as a lovely border for the walkway, it may be that by the time the plants are full grown it will be fall and everything else will look tired and finished for another year.  And in the meantime, I will still be doing battle with the weeds—which of course love our rainy grey days.  Oh, well.  The challenges of the Pacific Northwest can be daunting!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Laundry Day

There is the sour, skanky scent of laundry that sits in a pile, waiting to be put in the washing machine.  Then there is the newly fresh, clean fragrance that is coming out of the dryer as I open the door to get the clothes out. 
I’ve been battling with increasing dinginess in all the white things—especially the dish towels.  I use bleach but it doesn’t seem to be enough.  Today, I tried something new and I’m astonished at the difference.  Now I’m going to sound like a commercial, but I must honestly say that the whites have never been so white except when they were new.  And though I don’t use any kind of fabric softener and never have, it appears that everything has a different kind of softness.  How did this happen?
Last week, our new neighbor from across the street came to the door early one evening.  She and her husband and their two small children recently moved into the rental house that had been vacant for some weeks.  From the very beginning we seemed to hit it off well.  When Stephanie said she was planting an organic vegetable garden, I was pretty excited to get to know her.  As we talked, that first time, she told me of a book she’d been reading that had inspired her to attempt a garden.  That Sunday morning, when we came back from church, there was her book, leaning against the door, ready for me to devour.  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver describes a year her family spent living “off the grid”.  In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, the family resolved to live and shop locally, within one hundred miles of home.
This seems to play right into my own humble efforts to live more like my parents did, as they lived “off the grid” like everyone else of their generation.  Fifty years ago, this was the normal way to live.  We didn’t buy strawberries in January, or asparagus from Chile. Grocery stores were not supermarkets.  Maybe there was a Sears, or a Penny’s, but no Wal-Mart.  Even MacDonald’s was new fifty years ago.  And now, with health and diet issues at the forefront, and our more constrained budget, the frugal life of my parents makes more sense than ever.
Stephanie came to the door that night a week ago.
“I wonder if you might be able to let me have a couple of eggs,” she asked.  “I’m making cupcakes for Kennedy’s fourth birthday party tomorrow and I ran out of eggs.”  She handed me a jar of powder and continued, “This is laundry soap that I made.  I thought you might like to try it in exchange for the eggs.”
I took the jar she handed me and unscrewed the lid.  I held it up to my nose to sniff.

“Wow!  That smells great.  What is it?”
“I found the recipe online.  Planet Green, I think.  The baby’s been getting a rash from the soap I was using so I thought I’d give this a try.  His rash is gone and the clothes get clean—so I’m happy about that.  I add a couple of drops of lemon essential oil, just because I like the citrusy scent.  And I think I’ll also try lavender.”
“Well, for that, you may certainly have the eggs.  As a matter of fact, would you like a loaf of homemade French bread?  And maybe a jar of marmalade I just made?”

I loved the direction we were taking our conversation.  I could see that we might continue to share and learn in a rich neighborly way that could evoke simpler times.  I was especially delighted that this young mother, representing the next generation, was moving off the grid in her own way.
My other across the street neighbor is also a young mother.  She and her family live in a two bedroom home and I sometimes wonder how she manages that with her young boy, her three little girls and her trucker husband.  He’s in heavy construction so he has some pretty big rigs parked in their driveway most of the time.  And now she has two chickens in the back yard.  She devised a pen for them from the dog kennel they had.  She raised it up on a platform and put straw in it so the chickens have a place to roost.  Her kids find them to be the best and most interesting pets they could imagine and they love to get the eggs in the morning.
I know all this because she came to the door yesterday with a dozen eggs, nicely nested in a cardboard egg container.

“We can’t eat so many eggs and Joe said you love eggs, so I thought you might like a dozen.”
I was thrilled and gave her a jar of marmalade in exchange.  More trading in the neighborhood.  When I start harvesting my squashes and tomatoes, I will bring a basket over to her.  Maybe she’ll continue to give me eggs.
I wonder why eggs from local chickens taste so much better.  And I wonder why laundry soap made from Fels Naptha, Borax and washing soda works so much better than any other laundry detergent I’ve ever used.
Laundry Soap
1 bar Fels Naptha
1 cup washing soda
1 cup Borax
Grate bar of Fels Naptha and blend thoroughly with washing soda and Borax.  Use approximately 1- 2 tablespoons per load of wash.  This is perfect for HE (high efficiency) front-loading machines, as this detergent generates very little suds, even as it does a better job of cleaning clothes.  Because there is no detergent residue, the clothes come out softer and don’t need a fabric softener, though ¼ cup white vinegar in the rinse cycle will do the trick.  For ring around the collar or tough stains, rub bar of Fels Naptha over the stain before washing.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

It's a Jungle Out There!

Lilies Among the Weeds

I’ve been so focused on the vegetable beds that I sort of turned my back on the rest of the garden—especially the area behind the very large lavender plants.  It’s kind of hard to get into that area, though we planted some dahlias there in April in place of three roses that didn’t make it through the long cold winter.  At the time, it was early enough in the season that the weeds were not yet very aggressive.   I guess they kind of snuck up behind me and now finally, I have had to face what has become a jungle of weeds.
Are those peonies behind the lavender?...

The weather has been very cooperative for this kind of daunting task, sunny and cool with a light breeze.  I dragged out the biggest yard waste container, donned my trusty gardening gloves and marched out to do battle with the weeds.  Trace followed, ball in mouth, ready for this new game.
He has to drop the ball right at my feet, and if he doesn’t get it close enough, he picks it up again and drops it closer.  Sometimes the ball rolls into the brush and he has to retrieve it and gently place it right by my hand.  I throw it without really looking where it’s going, but he knows and catches it usually before it even hits the ground.  Then he’s back for another toss.  It’s a game for both of us that makes the yanking and pulling of weeds a little more fun.  As I toss a big handful of forget-me-nots or feverfew, Trace can be showered with all the debris.  But he is persistent and always determined that we will continue to play this game of toss—be it ball or weeds.
Rose that was lost in Forget-me-nots

In the process, I discovered a lovely rose that had been completely hidden, yet somehow survived the choking jungle that engulfed it.  The peonies were tangled with morning glory vines which threatened to pull them down to the ground.  
Peonies, Freed of Morning Glory Vines

I wanted to save the California poppies where I could but they were enmeshed with forget-me-nots.  The big fennel plant is bigger than ever, and I’ll leave it alone because I love the seed and the fragrance reminds me of California.
Doing Battle!

After a full day of this, I filled not only the big yard waste bin, but also my wheelbarrow and another large bin.  And I’m only about halfway finished.  I waited too long.  As I was focusing on the vegetables, the weeds marched along, devouring everything in their path.  And, of course, I know that as I finish this area, I will turn around and have to start all over again in another part of the garden that I thought I had finished weeding.  Through it all though, I can see that the weeds have not entirely won. 
Iris, stronger than any weed!

 There is enough going on in the garden that will always be pleasing, in spite of the jungle out there.  
This rose has lost its tag, but oh, so beautiful and fragrant
Raspberries fruiting.  Yumm!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Thinning, Weeding, Freezing

It has come to the point that some major action has had to take place.  We are finally getting our spring weather and the plants love it—as well as the weeds.  I have so enjoyed getting our nightly salad by simply picking off the leaves of the young plants, not bothering to thin, not even really bothering to weed much.  I saved one of those big plastic containers from Costco, one that at one time had lots of spinach, or those lovely young lettuces from California.  Now it holds the lettuces from my own salad garden, all nested between a couple of sheets of paper towel to maintain freshness.
But today, I realized the garden had gone beyond the just picking stage.  More was required.  Big leaves were shadowing young shoots.  All these seeds were now crowding to get more growing space.   Time to thin.  Time to weed.  I could get at the pesky chickweed that seems to overtake everything—though I suppose I could just as easily incorporate it as part of our nightly salad.  If I didn’t say it was a weed, no one would know the difference.
I did a new thing (for me, anyway) this year.  I planted companion seeds between the rows of what had begun to establish.  I thought it would help lessen the weed problem.  It turns out that was a pretty good idea.  I have cilantro and dill weed just beginning to get strong in between the already more developed radishes and turnips.  Even the alyssum is beginning to sprout.  With all this competition, maybe the weeds will give up more easily.
But there’s just so much salad that two people can eat.  The spinach was especially good this year.  I have never had such a splendid row of spinach.  It had to be this cool weather we’ve had.  I think I can even plant another crop before it gets too hot.  Maybe we won’t even get a summer this year.  Maybe it will stay cool all the way to fall.  And if summer ever does come, I know it won’t be until at least the middle of July.  That’s plenty of time for another go at the spinach.  I got a packet of New Zealand spinach seeds—technically not really spinach, but more adapted to warm weather.  
So now comes the serious thinning.  First, the turnips.  As I pull, I’ll keep the tops and freeze them as I will the spinach that I thin.  Radishes definitely have to be thinned because I planted them with carrots seeds—on purpose—as a natural thinner for the carrots.  The radishes are super fast growing and the carrots take more time.  So it’s easy to thin out the radishes to give room for the carrots.  At least, that is my hope.
I wasn’t too sure about this whole idea of freezing the fresh spinach.  I’ve never done this before, but I wanted so badly to be able to reach into the freezer in December or January and pull out a packet of fresh spinach from a summer garden.  Could I do this?  I have all kinds of ways of preserving the fruits of summer, from tomatoes to apples to plums to whatever is a bounteous fruit—but spinach?  I went on line—of course.  Now I have the beginning of a nice supply of summer sunshine in my freezer—and more to come.
Think about it: a packet of seeds costs between $1.79 and way more if you go the heirloom route.  A packet of spinach seed gives and gives and gives.  We have had fresh salads for at least a month.  The thinning process has given an additional bounty to freeze for later.  And there is still a huge amount of leaf out there.  There is still time to plant another early summer crop.   And I can plant a third crop in the fall (though I’ve tried and not been successful before.  I hate gardening in the cold and wet.)  If I buy a Costco tub of spinach (which is cheaper than the baby lettuces) at a little under $3.00, it is the equivalent of one gathering in the garden, which I can do again and again for $1.79 for the seed.

Freezing Spinach—or Other Leafy Greens
1 large pot of boiling water
1 large bowl of cold water with ice
Leafy greens
Zip-Lock bags ( sandwich size)
1 straw

Put two handfuls leafy greens in boiling water.  Blanch for 30 seconds and remove with a slotted spoon.  Immediately immerse in ice water for 30 seconds.  Lay on towel to remove excess moisture.  Gently place in Zip-Lock bag.  Put straw in bag and seal.  Suck on straw to remove excess air and moisture and quickly seal.  Freeze to enjoy in winter months.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Garden Progress

Easter Lilies and Other Blooming things in front of Weeping Lace Leaf Maple
Blueberry Blossoms--so sweet!
After a series of spectacularly beautiful days (three of them!), it was time for a closer inspection of what might be going on in the garden.  The lettuce bed was on steroids, I knew, but what about some of the more cherished treasures—like the tomato plants, for instance?  A lot of the seeds I planted in April never came up because it’s been so cold.  I went to the nursery—on Senior Day, of course—to get a few starts to replace the failures.  I realized that the only seeds that came up were the tiniest ones: lettuces, radish, carrots, kale, beets, turnips.  The big seeds, squash, peas, decided it was too cold, I guess.  I learned an important lesson.   Next time, I’ll prepare the seeds before putting them in the ground.  I’ll put them between wet paper towels and get them to germinate first.  That should help.
Or, I can do what I’ve done in past years.  I’ll save some seeds from the best plants, dry them and grow my own starts in January, in flats in the house.  I have a sunny, south-facing bay window in my office.  I can put about four flats on the credenza and nurture my own seedlings.  And with the hoop house in place, the babies can be moved and sheltered a little later so they have a good head start on our short growing season.
Now it is June 7th.  What progress is there and what can the garden become in the next few crucial weeks?  The lettuce bed, as I said, is on steroids, and that is to be expected.  I have so much spinach I should freeze some, though I’ve never done that before (I just googled “freezing fresh spinach” and voila!).  It’s early enough in the season that I should be able to get another crop in before it gets too hot.
Lone Asparagus Stalk
The asparagus is a disappointment, as it usually is.  For some reason, I never seem to get more than one or two stalks at a time and they always seem to come up later than usual.  The rhubarb is finally getting huge, and the beans are doing really well.  Radishes seem to be all leaf and no radish so that’s a big disappointment.
The good news is the tomatoes have begun to bloom.  Black Krim has a cluster of yet to open blossoms. 
Black Krim
 And the Meyer lemon tree that spent the winter in the house, blooming in the house, sending its heady fragrance throughout, is now outdoors in the sunniest spot possible, right next to the back door, and its baby lemons are getting fatter.  There are only six, but the tree itself is only about three feet high, so I guess that’s okay.
Meyer Lemon
Best of all, the bounty in the garden is beginning to make a serious difference in our food budget.  Meat, dairy and staples are all I buy now as the garden gives more and more generously. As the season progresses, I can look forward to harvesting, freezing and preserving the taste of the sunshine of all the giving plants.
Here’s what we had for dinner the other night:
Kobe Style Sirloin Steak, Grilled Asparagus, and Risotto
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese 5 Spice
1 tablespoon Mirin (in Asian food section of most groceries)
½ teaspoon hot Chinese mustard
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
2 cloves crushed garlic
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
½ pound beef loin sirloin steak (about 1” thick)
10 stalks fresh asparagus brushed with garlic/herb oil
½ cup Risotto rice (dry)
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ tablespoon butter
½ onion, chopped
1 ½ cups chicken broth
Combine first 8 ingredients for marinade.  Pour over beef and turn beef to coat.  Marinate at least one hour, turning beef occasionally.
In a wide skillet, sauté onion in olive oil and butter until onion is translucent, about 3 minutes.  Add rice and toss to coat, stirring for a minute.  Add half the broth and stir occasionally until liquid is absorbed.  Add more broth and continue stirring occasionally.  Rice is done when still al dente, about 20 minutes.  Makes two cups cooked Risotto.  Prep time: 5 minutes.  Cook time: 20 minutes.  Serves 3-4.

Heat grill to hot.  Put meat on grill and sear about 2 minutes.  Turn meat and put asparagus on grill, brushed with garlic/herb olive oil.  Sear meat and asparagus an additional 2 minutes.
Hot off the Grill

Slice meat diagonally and serve with asparagus and risotto.
Sliced, Medium Rare

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Red Wine Calamity

Drying the Carpet
I found something new at Costco.  It wasn’t on my list, but it seemed right in line with my focus on stretching my grocery dollar, staying healthy, and keeping the nutritional values in balance. Coleman Natural All Natural Gourmet Chicken Meatballs were calling out to me and I didn’t resist.  I figured at 110 calories per serving (four meatballs), with no carbs and only 5 grams of fat, this could be a good choice for us—around 18 servings for $12 works out to 60 cents a serving.  Not bad.
I gave it a try that night.  I sautéed them with a couple of sliced mushrooms, added a spoonful of capers and made a little wine reduction, tossed them with lemon pepper papardelle noodles, radish tops (yes, radish tops) and a couple of tablespoon of cream.  That and a salad would be our dinner.
Joe set the table and poured the wine.  Then he played with Trace for a few minutes while I finished the final preparations of our dinner.  And that’s when the wine calamity happened.  Somehow, in the enthusiasm of play, a glass of wine went tumbling to the carpet.  A whole glass of red wine. 
I must say that Joe was extremely quick in figuring out how to deal with this.  He moved the furniture off and dragged the 9’x12’ carpet out the front door and onto the porch.  He trained the hose on the wine spill and power washed it thoroughly.  Then he used a squeegee to get as much of the water off as possible.  A friend had given me a canister of something called “Wine Away” last year.  “Just in case,” she said.  Joe sprayed the carpet, waited a few minutes, and then blotted the spot with a couple of big, thirsty towels.  He dragged the carpet back into the house and laid it in his office with a fan trained on it so that it would dry faster.
Papardelle Pasta with Chicken Meatballs
¼ package of Trader Joe’s Lemon Pepper Papardelle pasta (or 2 oz. dry linguine)
½ tablespoon garlic herb olive oil (from Kitchen Essentials)
8 Coleman Natural Chicken Meatballs (or other appetizer size cooked chicken meatballs)
2 medium crimini mushrooms
1 tablespoon capers
¼ cup white wine
2 cups fresh radish tops (or fresh baby spinach leaves)
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Ground sea salt and pepper to taste
Toss sliced mushrooms and meatballs in garlic herb olive oil in medium sauté pan at medium heat until mushrooms are nicely browned.  Add capers and white wine and reduce to syrup, about 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, cook Papardelle (or linguine) in boiling, salted water until al dente, about 8 minutes.
Toss pasta with meatballs, radish tops (or spinach) and about ¼ cup cooking liquid from pasta.  Take off heat and cover for 2 minutes.  Toss with cream just before serving.  Prep time: 5 minutes.  Cooking time: 15 minutes.  Serves two.

Because of the wine accident, our dinner was paused.  I had gotten as far as washing the radish leaves, slicing the mushrooms, prepping the sauté pan with garlic herb olive oil, and setting the water to boil for the pasta.  After the spill was taken care of, it was only a matter of minutes to put everything together and get dinner on the table.  All that was left to do was toss a salad—which could be done while dinner was heating through.
Now we were finally ready to eat.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ribs, Rubs and Mops

Three Sisters, Granddaughter, and Trace in background  waiting for some action
We had a party Monday night—just a good excuse to get together with family and friends.  But the larger reason was to somehow, by sheer optimism, usher in the season of summer.  Since we really haven’t had a decent spring, this seems a bit of overreach.  The plants know its spring, even though they shiver and wrap their lovely young green leaves around themselves.  It seems as if everything is at least a week late in germinating, or leafing, or blooming, or even coming out of the ground.  I know I planted a lot of seeds too early and they are still hiding under the cool blanket of earth and may decide to never emerge.
But, undaunted, I wanted to have a party.  Grocery stores are equally optimistic as their ads push the bounty of summer on the grill.  To reinforce the effort, it’s nice to have a reason for marking the day; and Memorial Day, besides being a day to honor those who sacrificed their lives for their country, also seems to be a reason to usher in summer.  Summer?  When we haven’t even had spring?  Of course there’s the coming June gloom to contend with as well.  And by June 21st, the gloriously long days will begin that inexorable descent into the dreary darkness of winter gloom.
Oh my!  We must hurry up and have a barbecue!  Ribs would be perfect.  And everyone could bring something else that would be complementary and deliciously representative of their culinary personalities.  My sisters would bring the appetizers and I would have my baked tortilla chips to scoop up the dips.  My daughter was bringing rhubarb from her garden to scoop over ice cream.  She surprised us with a corn and bean salad that was a perfect balance with the pasta salad.  She made corn bread and I made a simple focaccia bread.  A garden salad from my exploding lettuce bed would bring a light touch to a somewhat rich meal.
But the ribs…I felt insecure at the prospect of grilling baby back ribs or pork loin ribs—both of which I had gotten on sale, of course.  I wasn’t sure I could pull this off.  After all, this wasn’t the typical Tony Roma packaged and prepared for you kind of ribs.  These things were big and gnarly looking.  What to do?
I went on line and found Meathead.  At amazingribs.com.  Here was a guy—or course it had to be a guy—doing ribs and teaching about ribs.  As I walked through his tutorial, I felt more and more confident.  “I can do this!” I thought.  I would end up doing it my way, but at least I had the ribs.  That was the beginning.
Meathead said slow cooking is the key.  He said 225˚ should be your constant grill temp.  Okay, I thought I could do this; our grill has a thermostat.  He said leave the cooking alone for at least three hours, maybe as long as four.  He said; go do something else in the meantime: read a book, drink a beer, relax.  That’s really hard for me when it comes to cooking.  But I would do this! 
My sisters wanted baguettes, so I made bread.  They wanted a pizza dough ball.  So I did that.  I made the tortilla chips.  I put together the pasta salad.  I checked my hoop house to make sure my baby tomato plants weren’t too cold.  I watched Joe weed.  I didn’t want to get into that.  And every five minutes I checked the temp on the grill to make sure it was holding steady at 225˚.
But before all that, I had to prepare the ribs to put on the grill.  When I took them out of their plastic bag, that pink juice slid out all over the sink.  I washed them in cold water.  Then I tried to remove that membrane on the back.  “Joe,” I cried helplessly.  “I can’t do this.  I need help!”  Always eager to help if he can, Joe was at my side at the sink with four big racks of ribs and between the two of us and with the help of a pair of pliers (that membrane is slippery!) and a bloody towel, we finally ripped off the membrane.  I patted the ribs dry with paper towels (or was it the bloody towel?  I don’t remember) and then caressed both sides of each rib rack with a nice lathering of olive oil.  That would help the rub sink in.  I smeared the rub on with my hands (you have to get into this with a whole enthusiastic gusto).  Be a caveman (woman).  I wrapped the whole package in foil and let it sit in the fridge for an hour or so while Joe and I messed with the grill to get it just right.
In ancient cave man days it must have been easier.  Skewer the meat on a stick and sit by the fire while you turn the stick and wait until the juices smell just right, then reach in with your fingers and grab the meat and gnaw it off the bone.  But we’re civilized and have fancy grills that keep the temperature just right.  Actually I like that better.
Rib Rub (Makes 3 Cups)
¾ cup brown sugar
¾ cups white sugar
½ cup smoked paprika
¼ cup smoked salt
2 tablespoons smoked black pepper
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 tablespoons dried onion flakes
 2 tablespoons ground rosemary
Mix all together in a jar.  About one tablespoon per rib rack, rubbed in.  The sugar is really important for the long and slow caramelizing.

Rib Mop (Barbecue Sauce)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
¾ cup stone ground mustard
 ¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup white vinegar
1 cup honey
¼ cup white wine
 1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon herbs de Provence
Put all together in a saucepan and heat through, then simmer.  In last half hour of grill time, brush sauce over each side of rib rack.  Serve extra as additional sauce for ribs. 
More and more grocery stores have good supplies of herbs and spices, as well as grains and nuts in bulk.  I have come to really enjoy the rich smokiness of spices that have been smoked and it’s always more economical to stock up this way.