1. Slow Cooker Pork Roast in Apple Cider

    It’s Sunday, and it’s also Halloween. In the interest of freeing up my day to spend some time on task (I’m seriously going to try to clean up my studio today, or at least get a start on it), I popped the bulk of tonight’s dinner into my slow cooker this morning.

    I have a 2.5 lb boneless pork sirloin roast (I’m not sure what to expect here — it was rolled and tied when I bought it, and it stayed that way) that I seasoned liberally with salt and pepper and then browned over medium high heat in a couple teaspoons of olive oil. I took the roast out and put it in the slow cooker. To the pan I added a chopped medium yellow onion. Once the onion started to brown a bit, I added 3/4 cup of white wine and reduced it, and then added about a cup of apple cider, two bay leaves, a tsp of dried thyme, and a handful of prunes (I cut them in half). Brought the whole thing to a boil and poured it over the meat in the slow cooker, where it’s now simmering happily away.

    I’m going to serve this with a nice beet salad, some roasted potatoes, and some sauteed green cabbage. It’s like autumn in your mouth.


  2. The End of the Garden 2.0

    So it’s the end of the garden for this season, and the end of another part of my life as well.

    I resigned my position as executive editor at Blogcritics at the end of September. After six gratifying and mostly fun years behind the scenes, it was simply time for me to reclaim some of my personal life while I ponder my next steps. At the very least, I’m happy to have time to relax with the Sunday papers and spend an evening here and there watching TV with my undivided attention. At best, I’m hoping to spend at least some of my reclaimed time writing, which hopefully means more regular posting right here.

    The garden was pretty successful this year, and as always, we learned things. This year’s additions included two Earthboxes (for tomatoes) and a 4 x 4 raised bed herb garden. The herb garden flourished (Italian basil, Thai basil, dill, parsley, rosemary, lavender, and mint) and I found it hugely gratifying to wander out to the yard every evening to gather some fresh herbs to cook with. And the lavender is in bloom right now, perfuming the yard. It’s a wonderful thing, especially combined with the heady scent of the basil.

    We had a bumper crop of habanero peppers — and we will not be planting quite so many of these next year. We’ve had lots of green peppers, summer squash, and cucumbers, and even a few eggplants. The tomatoes, as always, were challenging, but the cherry tomatoes did really well. The heirlooms were another story; blossom end rot is pretty hard to deal with.

    And right now there’s a chicken roasting in the oven, and I’ve managed to make a week’s worth of breakfasts (steel cut oatmeal, dried apples and cranberries, a touch of cinnamon and some brown sugar), and am about to make one last batch of pesto with the garden’s last basil.

    All in all a good year, and the garden, as it always does, reminds me that things end and begin again, over and over.


  3. The Midsummer Garden

    At long last, the yellow squash seems to be coming to an end. I don’t know if this is part of the normal squash life cycle or if the plants are being bothered by something, but in any case we’ve had enough yellow squash this summer to last us a lifetime. Last week a Penzey’s catalog arrived, and in it is a recipe for a cinnamon quick bread that uses yellow squash. I’ll be making that. My next-door neighbor was glad to take some squash off my hands this week as her young adult children are home for the summer and are both vegetarians, so that’s good to know.

    The pepper plants are gearing up. There are a number of habaneros out, and a few of the green bell peppers have gotten quite big. I have two eggplants getting bigger by the day, and the other night I picked a cucumber that would’ve made any gardener proud (it must weigh two pounds — it probably should’ve been picked much sooner, but it was hiding). The tomato plants are heavy with fruit, but so far we’ve only been able to pick and eat one Big Boy. It was delicious, but I’m looking forward to having juicy, sweet cherry tomatoes for my salads.

    The herbs are doing wonderfully — I’ve been making nearly daily use of the parsley, mint, dill, rosemary and basil. The lavender is doing well, too. I wonder when it’ll flower. The mint is doing what it’s supposed to do, and seems poised to take over the world, which just means we need to drink more mojitos, and quickly.


  4. Steamed Mussels

    Yesterday we were pondering what we might like to eat over the weekend, and Jim requested steamed mussels for this evening, one of his favorite dishes. I love them too, not just because they’re good and constitute an absolutely minimalist meal, but because they’re so easy to prepare. We’ve enjoyed (and I’ve made) some wonderful steamed mussels with a spicy marinara sauce (oh so good over linguine), but tonight I’m making them in a bit of white wine.

    This is about as simple as it gets, and even simpler if you can find decent frozen mussels. I’ve used fresh mussels plenty of times, and if you’ve ever scrubbed and de-bearded fresh mussels then you know that little task removes this from the realm of quick and easy. A few years ago my fish guy started carrying very good quality frozen mussels, which you cook frozen right out of the bag, and I no longer have to summon the ambition to clean the little critters. These are clean-shaven, free of grit, and ready to go.

    Ingredients:

    • One large onion, chopped
    • 3 medium cloves garlic (or more or less, to taste)
    • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil1 to 1.5 cups white wine (don’t buy anything fancy, but don’t use crap either - it should be good enough to drink)
    • Handful of chopped parsley
    • Salt and pepper
    • Two 2-lb. bags of frozen mussels (do not thaw before cooking)

    Directions:

    1. Over medium heat, heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven or other pot large enough to hold all the mussels.
    2. When oil is shimmering, add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent.
    3. Add the wine and cook for a few moments until the alcohol smell dissipates; add the parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper.
    4. Raise the heat a bit, and when the contents are at a lively simmer, add the mussels and cover the pot.
    5. Cook for five minutes or so, or until the mussels are open. Don’t cook them beyond this point or the mussels will toughen.

    Serve large portions in shallow bowls accompanied by a hearty, crusty bread for sopping up the juice.

    See what a simple supper this is?¬† This serves the two of us as a meal, but it would easily serve four if you were serving it as an appetizer. We are going to precede this with a simple antipasto of dry salami, a good hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, some marinated artichoke hearts, some olives, and perhaps a few roasted peppers. We prefer beer¬† with this, but a chilled wine will do nicely — perhaps some of the wine you used to steam the mussels, in fact.


  5. Fourth of July Garden Update

    I’ve not been particularly good about updating, not for a lack of things to write about, unfortunately. Finding the time has been a challenge, so here’s to a little writerly discipline.

    In spite of today’s rather extreme heat, I spent some time working in the garden. A couple of days ago I harvested our first-ever cucumber, which was kind of neat. Our herb garden has been providing flavor accents for our meals for quite a few weeks now, and fresh mint for delicious mojitos. Yesterday I noticed a few munch-holes on the yellow squash (and at least one pepper) and decided that today was a workday.

    So far this morning I have harvested a batch of basil for tomorrow night’s dinner (fettuccine and walnut pesto), gathered what’s left of the late-season lettuce (it’s regaining its crispness in a big bowl of ice water as we speak) and cleared out the stalks of the lettuce plants that have gone to seed, and harvested five yellow squash. As soon as I’m done with this coffee, I’m going to water the tomatoes, the herb garden, and the big vegetable garden and then spray everything with some Capt. Jack’s Deadbug (organic, of course) in the hopes of defeating the critters who would eat our plants.

    And after that, a shower. Jim’s been outside pruning trees and dragging away the brush all morning, so I think we’re both going to want lunch before too long.

    Tonight’s dinner: sausage and peppers made with house-made Italian sausage from a local meat market (of the old fashioned variety — these people are butchers who know their stuff and sell quality), and a salad of the last of our romaine and our very own cucumber. I’m going to dress that with some of the koroneiki olive oil and 18-year-old balsamic we bought in Vineyard Haven, and it’ll be good.


  6. A Week Away From the Garden

    We returned yesterday from our annual jaunt out to Martha’s Vineyard. Although we were only gone for a week, a week of warm temps and sunshine can really bring about big changes in a garden, and I was anxious to check out the herbs and vegetables once we finished worshiping the cats.

    The first thing I noticed was the size of the tomato plants in the Earthboxes on the deck. They seem to have doubled in height and they look happy and healthy. There are blossoms on all of them, and I think we’re maybe a couple of weeks away from eating tomatoes. The fungus seems to be under control now thanks to the stuff I got at Van Wilgen’s.

    The herbs are running riot — all but the mini mojito mint, which doesn’t seem particularly happy. The cilantro is growing, but not proliferating (I am skeptical of it taking off like wildfire), but the parsley looks great. The basil looks like a small bush right now, the spearmint is big, the dill is feathery (and I think we’ll have some on salmon later this week), and the lavender and rosemary are both much taller. There will be pesto this week for sure — the basil is amazing, especially compared to last year’s dismal failure.

    We picked three yellow squash last night. They’re beautiful, a gorgeous shade of deep yellow. They will likely make their way into this evening’s supper. The cucumbers got much bigger, and I think I can see the beginnings of actual cucumbers. I’m not entirely sure, not having grown any before. The eggplant is healthy but is almost in danger of being overshadowed by its neighboring squash plant, and there’s enough lettuce for a week’s worth of salads. The pepper plants all look good, but I don’t think there are any signs of fruit just yet.

    A lot can happen in a garden in a week.


  7. Garden Update & Other Stuff

    This past weekend blessed us with absolutely glorious weather, and I spent most of Saturday planting stuff. First up: setting up the two new Earthboxes for the tomato plants. That was actually more work than I thought it would be, since each box takes nearly two cubic feet of soil. It was “bend over” work, and my back was worse for the wear by the time it was done. But we now have four tomato plants happily ensconced on our deck, and they appear, at this early date, to be thriving. At the very least they seem to be happy at being released from the confines of our downstairs bathroom.

    The next task was planting the herbs in the new 4 x 4 raised bed that Jim built. In the back row I have a lavender seedling flanked by two small mint plants (one spearmint, and another variety called mini mojito — you can see where I’m going with this). In the middle we have dill, rosemary, parsley, and cilantro, and in front we’ve got regular basil and Thai basil. So far things look pretty good — they’re all perky, especially the cilantro, which wasn’t looking to good immediately after being transplanted. We’ll see how it goes. I will be heartbroken if the basil fails to thrive.

    It was right around this point that we took a lunch break, which in this case meant a drive down to the Branford River to enjoy our first lobster rolls of the season at The Lobster Shack. They were sublime. The weather was perfect, and we drove there with the top down. Not at all a bad way to kick off the season…

    When we got back, it was time to put the vegetables in. This year we swapped yellow squash for last year’s zucchini, and added cucumbers to the mix. There are three varieties of lettuce (romaine, butter crunch, and mesclun), green peppers, habaneros (I have no idea what Jim is planning for these — there are several of them), and one eggplant. I may go back to the garden center to see if there’s any Japanese eggplant, and once the lettuce is gone, we’re contemplating putting in a fall crop of … something.

    On the food front, I’ve been making a concerted and largely successful effort to greatly reduce our meat consumption. Like an awful lot of people, we had become accustomed to building nearly all of our dinners around a meat course, with the veggies and salads serving as sides. No more. We’re down to doing that maybe twice a week now, and essentially going vegetarian the rest of the time. I’m really enjoying it so far, and I think Jim is too (at least I’ve heard no complaints). It’s been a fun challenge to plan meals, and the variety is endless. I’ve been doing a lot of ethnic cooking and can’t wait to have some stuff from our own garden to toss into the mix. Last night I made a very good jalapeno-corn pudding — the recipe needs a bit of tinkering, though, and once I have the few bugs ironed out, I’ll post it here.


  8. Garden Update 2010

    This weekend was garden weekend, but we got totally sidelined by the weather. Saturday was actually pretty nice, although it started out rainy. It eventually cleared, and we headed out to Home Depot for bags of soil and some lumber, then over to Van Wilgen’s for plants (and a little fertilizer). When we got home, we brought the plants inside and set them up in their temporary quarters in the downstairs bathroom.

    Come Sunday, and the day was gloriously sunny, but cold. And windy. Windy enough that we unsurprisingly lost power for a little while in the afternoon. Jim spent the better part of the morning assembling a really nice 4 x 4 raised bed for the herbs. We’ve situated it right behind the garage, where it’ll get the fullest amount of sun during the day. It was so cold out that we ended up closing windows and actually turning the furnace on when the temperature in the house plummeted to 60 degrees (the cats were even complaining), and I began to have second and third thoughts about taking the plants outdoors. Not long afterward, Jim got an email from Van Wilgen’s warning customers that there was a frost warning in effect for early morning and that plants that weren’t in the ground yet should be brought indoors, or covered up if that wasn’t possible.

    So my instincts were good (this time). The plants are still in the bathroom (where they’re thriving, actually), and we’re expecting more cold weather tonight. And rain on Wednesday. With a little luck, we’ll be able to plant them this weekend.

    So here’s the game plan: I’ve ordered two Earthboxes, into which will go four varieties of tomato plants (two in each box). Those will go out on the deck. Into the herb garden will go two kinds of basil (Italian and Thai), two kinds of mint (spearmint and mini-mojito, because what the heck), dill, parsley, rosemary, and lavender. Into the big vegetable garden will go two kinds of lettuce (romaine and mesclun mix), eggplant, yellow squash, peppers (hot and otherwise), and cucumbers. I’m going back to the garden center this week to see if they have any Japanese eggplant to add to the Black Beauty I got.

    Now if this season’s weather would only cooperate…


  9. Tuna Puttanesca

    We stopped at the fish market on the way home tonight and bought two beautiful tuna steaks, ruby red and about an inch thick. They’re gorgeous. I’m going to pan-sear them (rub with a small amount of oil and brown on both sides in a hot cast iron skillet) and then finish them quickly in a hot (425 degree) oven. But they need a little something, so I made what I can only describe as a raw puttanesca sauce to serve alongside like a salsa.

    I took two medium-sized ripe tomatoes and diced them small. Added two small cloves of garlic (I put it through my garlic press, but you could certainly mince it), a tablespoon or so of capers, approximately one-quarter cup of diced kalamata olives, and one-half cup of chopped fresh parsley. I added a small amount of extra virgin olive oil, a splash of my best balsamic vinegar, and a little salt and pepper.

    The side will be orzo and peas. Oh, and there’s a loaf of bread. Simple. Good. Oh, and it’s Friday, which makes everything taste better anyway.


  10. Garden 2.0

    We’ve been enjoying a streak of above-normal temperatures for the past week, and today seemed like a good day to work on getting the garden ready for planting. We learned a few things from last year’s garden, and one thing we’ve decided is to put the tomato plants in Earth Boxes this year. The deck gets full sun and seems like a good place for them. They got so big last year they shaded the peppers and eggplants and probably soaked up most of the nutrients in the raised bed. Hopefully the new plan will keep things under control a bit better.

    tilled-gardenAfter I raked the dead leaves out from around the bed (they spent the winter trapped between the bed itself and the deer fencing), I cleaned out the bed, and turned the soil over. I was happy to discover that the bed is full of earthworms. While I’m not crazy about finding them in my escarole (that’s a long story for another time), I do recognize their worth in a vegetable garden. Once the soil was turned over, I raked it smooth and then took some samples from various points in the bed. The samples were mixed together and will now go to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, where they will analyze it (for free!) and tell us what we need in the way of soil amendments before we begin planting.

    germinating-acornsAnother very cool thing about gardening is the up close and personal view you get of the persistence of life. The bed, like the rest of the yard, was full of acorns. A lot of them, left to their own devices, were in the process of becoming trees. Now they’re trees interrupted, of course, but someday one of these little guys will grow up to be a mighty oak like the one that graces our yard.