Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Green and amber and gold it grows...

 I like the way my grains look here, all lined up in their jars.  I'd taken them out to search for wheatberries, which I didn't find, but I had plenty of other grains and was able to make a splendid supper. The grains above are, from left to right, whole wheat couscous, quinoa, barley, popcorn (grown by my farmer-friend Sara and probably destined for caramel popcorn balls), millet, and flax.

We've been eating a lot of grains lately, and Justin-the-carnivore allows as how a meatless diet wouldn't be entirely miserable for him.  He also has acknowledged that mushrooms are edible when they are distilled into roasted vegetable stock.  He's eaten far more mushrooms than he knows about, to be honest, but I doubt he'll ever tuck into a mushroom turnover with gusto.  Or anything short of loathing.  Which is a shame because I've been improving my pastry skills lately, and mushrooms are a natural filling for savory pies.

Anyway, for a (relatively) cheap and easy meal that is very filling and entirely vegan, you can't beat a pilaf. The main thing is to have a very nice vegetable stock, which is pretty easy to make well.  I prefer roasting my veggies and then simmering, but you can make a super-fast version with a few aromatics and a handful of herbs.  I use Mark Bittman's roasted vegetable stock recipe as a template -- it's in his How To Cook Everything Vegetarian. Once you have a good stock (it's a good idea to make a ton of it and then freeze it in 1-2 qt portions) you can follow the basic pilaf method of sauteing the grains with or without aromatics, then adding the stock and any additional vegetables.  Finish with chopped parsley or any other herb.  Serve with something bright green, like lightly steamed broccoli, chard, or spinach if you like. 

Barley and Wild Rice Pilaf

olive oil, and lots of it!
1 small to medium onion, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
4-6 carrots, chopped
2 turnips, chopped
1 cup hulled barley (pearled can be used, but it cooks faster, so add it after the rice has cooked 20 minutes or so.)
1/4-1/2 cup wild rice
1 qt. vegetable stock
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley

Heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Working in batches if necessary, saute all the veggies, seasoning with a little salt and pepper. I did the onions, celery, and carrot (the mirepoix) together, then moved them to a bowl while I sauteed the turnips.   I use about 2T olive oil for each batch of vegetables.  You want to cook as many as you can without crowding them and if you have a big enough pot you can do them all at once.  The turnips I like to cook until very soft and golden.   Once the veggies are cooked, add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, and add the grains.  Saute them, stirring continuously for about a minute before adding all of the veggies back in, then the broth.  Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cover the pot.  Hulled barley and wild rice should take about 45 minutes to cook, possibly longer.  Be ready to add extra broth or water if the mixture dries out before the grains are tender.  Adjust the salt and pepper and then add the minced parsley off heat. 

dinner tonight is Robin's birthday dinner.  He requested spaghetti and meatballs, and a cocoa buttermilk cake with chocolate-malted icing. 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Baking and cooking season is in full swing...

I'm still without a camera, and it's very vexing since I've been baking and cooking like no man's business.  If I could show you a picture of the sardines I just scaled and gutted!  To be honest, they're very poorly done since it was my first time prepping whole fish of any kind, but it was lots of fun.  The boys enjoyed seeing the gills but something was lost in translation for Finch who then wanted to know where his gills were and why his lungs couldn't 'breeb'  water as well as air.  Robin realized that water must have 'extra' oxygen since, if the fish breathed the oxygen that is bonded with hydrogen in water molecules, we'd have oceans full of hydrogen, which is a gas in it's natural state and so clearly there must be some other oxygen and I almost turned it into a teacherly moment but then the kittens got into the fish heads so we all sang the fish heads song instead which was probably just as well.

I've also been baking bread, cookies, and brownies.  We've made peanut brittle and divinity and plan further forays into confectionary for the future, including fudge, fondant, and caramel pinwheels.  Just like Brachs only tastier, fresher, and with better ingredients.  I have 4 quarts of roasted vegetable stock in the freezer as well as a modest amount of cookie dough already portioned and some extremely rich baked macaroni and cheese in individual portions. 

On deck for next week are apple cider doughnuts, sandwich bread, brownies, and either a pumpkin roll or an apple pie depending on how ambitious I'm feeling.  Also, next week's dinner menu:

Brown rice, spinach, and lentil soup (I know, it sounds terribly healthy, but it includes sausage and it's really very nice)

Roasted beets with their greens, barley pilaf (again with the healthy, but this one is quite nice also)

spaghetti with braised fennel and kale (wow, we're really cooking healthy and delicious food this week!)

braised lamb shanks with root vegetables and chickpeas (this will be my first time using lamb shanks and I have to admit I almost didn't want to own up because lamb shanks seem very sophisticated and chefly to me)
potato leek soup?  (or, use leeks for vegetable broth)

Potato-leek soup and warm spinach salad

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Comfort Food

Well, my camera died. My plan was to put this blog on hold until I got a new camera, but I miss blogging and, anyway, Wren has a camera. I think she'll be pleased to take some pictures (and receive a photo credit here on 3Birds!) so subsequent entries will have some visual interest. For tonight, I just felt like blogging even without a picture.  Tonight's supper isn't particularly photogenic anyway, but it's simple, nourishing, and delicious.

If someone asked me to list my favorite comfort foods, I'd begin with the meat and potatoes meals of my childhood: roast chicken, parsley potatoes, and green beans; meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and peas; pork roast, scalloped potatoes and broccoli. But I'd also have to add some meals that would have seemed yucky, odd or even exotic to me as a child. I didn't like eggs very much then and certainly wouldn't have eaten them any other way but scrambled, but these days I savor a soft boiled egg with buttered toast. Or, to be honest, two soft boiled eggs with lavishly buttered toast. I would have thought it odd as a child to look forward to any bean dish because beans were what we ate when the budget ran short,  Beans always meant sliced hot dogs served with canned 'Boston Baked Beans' doctored up with some brown sugar, ketchup, and mustard.  These days I enjoy all kinds of bean dishes, including an authentic Boston Baked Beans,  but a fairly austere dish of white beans boiled with a bay leave and then drizzled with sage frizzled in olive oil is my favorite.

When I need a quick supper but I'm also craving some edible comfort, I make coconut curried rice:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Front yard in May, Front yard in June

Frontyard in May
Originally uploaded by 3Birds
I've been remiss in blogging, but very busy in real life. Since I last blogged, I've done a lot of baking and gardening, been reviewed by the Baltimore City Public School System (more about that in future entries), resumed several knitting projects, rekindled my own and my children's interest in microscopy and entomology, and buried my beloved cat (more about that next update.)

Despite our best intentions, we never did get around to making doughnuts, and now that the warm weather has set it, we probably won't until next fall. I've gone from baking 3-5 days a week, to only once or twice, and Finch is a little mystified. He is accustomed to getting cookies or cake more or less on demand; when he asks and I tell him we're out, he usually says "So, bake some" with a little shrug of his shoulders, as if to ask "why do I have to tell her this?"

Of course, the strawvberries have been abundant at the market, and now the cherries are coming in, with blueberries, brambles, and apricots to follow. Not to mention the melons! My own blueberry bush (a baby) yielded one delicious blueberry several weeks ago; it's ahead of the pack, maybe because it's a lowbush blueberry. The huckleberry flowered prettily, but didn't fruit. I'm going to put in 2 more blueberries and 1 more huckleberry next year.

This year's gardening effort seems to be paying off handsomely. We've got plenty of basil, dill, rosemary, thyme, and sage. I'm getting a few cukes each week, and the first of the squash is nearly ready. The tomatoes aren't beginning to ripen yet, but they're plump and full of promise. I have a few embryonic peppers and some lately-planted bean plants beginning to flower. The 3 yr. old fig tree is, as always, amazingly prolific: over 2 dozen figs at last count. I don't know how many the squirrels will get, but I'm considering a net this year if they get too greedy. Other pests include woodchucks (in the city!), doves (they eat the sunflower shoots), and stray cats and dogs. Our insect population is pretty balanced and I haven't seen too much damage from leafminers or beetles.

Best of all, we planted a few more native perennials, and on hot afternoons my yard is beginning to smell like a meadow in midsummer. It reminds me of a field my father used to take my sister and I to on long walks. We lived near some railroad tracks, and he used to walk us along the tracks and into the woods to skip stones on a pond. Those were happy days; my father always loved being outdoors, away from houses and people, and we had grand times wandering in what is now almost entirely developed (into vast tracts of McMansions, starter homes, and strip malls.) I'm glad I had those experiences, and that my own kids get outdoors all the time.

dinner tonight: grilled chicken seasoned with my handmixed taco spice blend (which I'll share soon), served with fried tortillas, shredded cheese, shredded lettuce, crema, grilled peppers and onions, and cilantro-lime rice.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Originally uploaded by 3Birds
We've been having a delightfully busy spring, and I have any number of projects and outings to blog about, but not much time or energy to actually blog. After days filled with spring-cleaning, gardening, hiking, and playing, I'm usually too tired to do anything after supper except read and listen to podcasts. I welcome the shift to earlier mornings and more active days just as I welcome the lazier days and longer nights that come with the cold weather.

Just as unseasonably warm days in autumn dismay me, so do the inevitable cold spells of springtime. Today was cold and rainy, so I comforted myself with some pictures I took last month on an outing to Gunpowder State Park. This particular part of the park looks for all the world like the parks in Western Maryland; rocks and rapids everywhere:

The tree my family is embracing in the pictures is a hemlock, and I utterly
failed to capture it's grandeur. Looking up into the canopy made us all dizzy! It was too early for many of the migratory birds on this walk, but we did see some turkey vultures, a red-winged hawk, several flickers, and a couple of wrens. We also saw a couple of toads, but no salamanders, frogs, turtles, or snakes; I'm always elated when I see any of the herpetiles, but I'm particularly fond of salamanders.

Another interesting species we saw was this skunk cabbage. For several years now, the children have asked me whether skunk cabbage really stinks, and for several years I've invited them to find out. Despite my reassurances that no harm will come to them, none of my children have been intrepid or curious enough to find out. I still hold out hope for Finch. (Yes, it stinks, but not as much as a skunk does. It's odor helps it attract the flies which are it's main pollinators.)

Tomorrow is another cold and rainy day, but the rest of the weeks promises fair and, after all, winter really is done for this year. I'll be phasing out the pictures of baked goods and knitted items, in favor of green and growing things. Happy Spring!

dinner tonight: roast pork shoulder, braised red cabbage, baked potatoes

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Originally uploaded by 3Birds
My children love to go 'downtown' especially when we're heading toward the Inner Harbor or Ft. McHenry. There is an intersection that provides a sort of visual portal between ordinary city and downtown, and whenever we pass this spot, we get a little silly.

I'm not sure we'd be as enthusiastic if we didn't have the baby inspiring us to new heights of awe and dorkitude. As soon as he sees a crane, a ride-the-ducks, the U.S.S Constellation or the American Visionary Art Museum, he commands us all to 'LOOK! LOOK!' until we not only look but admire, out loud, whatever it is he's talking about.

Even worse, he usually demands that we sing 'Downtown' when we get to the light at Saratoga and St. Paul Place, just when the glorious vista of tall buildings, traffic cops, taxis, tourists, suits, and vagrants appears before him. We comply, mostly because he's such a tyrant when crossed, but also because we kinda like that song and we also enjoy the grand spectacle.

Lately, Ft. McHenry has been our favorite downtown destination. I enjoy seeing some waterfowl I don't often see: American Black Ducks, American Wigeons, Double-Crested Cormorants, Gadwalls, and Canvasbacks. The boys are mostly interested in watching the cargo ships and tugboats, sailboats, kayaks, and barges. They enjoy watching the cranes load and unload huge containers very much and Robin thinks he would like to be a stevedore or a tugboat captain. When the ships head out toward the Bay, they always look like they're far too tall to go under the Key Bridge, and it's only at the last moment that it becomes clear that they actually can. I think Robin secretly hopes a ship will get stuck one day.

After we've done a few laps around the Fort, we often play soccer. I'd like to fly the frisbee, but Justin thinks that a) someone's apt to throw it into the harbor and b) frisbee is more conspicuous than soccer and, therefore, inadvisable. No trip to the Fort is complete without a visit to Orpheus, father of song (built to honor Francis Scott Key) and a quiz about the War of 1812 for the kids. Well, really just the Battle of Baltimore. IWe're unschooling(ish) but sometimes, I just can't help myself.

Incidentally, there is (so I've read) a pylon marking the spot where HMS Tonnant was anchored while F.S.K. wrote his poem. I don't know exactly where it is and I always forget to look for it while we're there. It's supposed to be painted red, white, and blue and I'm guessing it's one of the supports for the bridge. I don't suppose I could even see it with my binoculars (they're only 10x40) from there. We've also never attended any of the fireworks displays or special celebrations, nor have the children ever been inside the actual fort. Which is shameful. But we often enjoy the martial melodies of the fife and drum corps as we walk and watch the birds and ships and people, and 'one of these days' we fully intend to do a proper tour.

dinner tonight: chicken noodle soup, buttery dinner rolls, and peanut butter cookies (I almost made dumplings, but chickened out. The rolls were heavenly though -- I made them cloverleaf-style, and poured about a tablespoon of butter over each one before baking!)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Beauty is twice beauty...*

Originally uploaded by 3Birds
Today I saw Hazel-the-Turtle: Queen-of-all-Turtles sunning herself on the living room rug. She'd taken advantage of one of the intermittent patches of sun that had been teasing us all afternoon. I grabbed my camera, quick as quick, because poor homely Hazel was almost beautiful in the golden glow and I thought it would be as well to record her moment of glory, but the sunlight faded too fast. Robin had been watching and said simply but with real sympathy (he's an unusually sensitive boy) "Well. That was discouraging."

It certainly was discouraging; January, February, and March are very trying months in Baltimore. I suppose they're trying throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere. When it's cold and gray outside, the smallest setbacks depress me, and I begin to suspect the Universe is deliberately targeting me for destruction. I begin to take things very personally and very seriously. Last week I hollered at the hapless drunk who told me it was too cold for my kids to be outside; today I nearly cried when I realized I was out of almond extract.

Normally I don't allow random strangers' criticisms of my parenting disturb me, especially when the criticisms have anything to do with the weather and how my children are dressed, and especially especially when it's a drunkard doing the criticizing. But last week's encounter lead to a lot of needless brooding about the relentless judgment and disapproval mom's absorb.

Which they do. I am, if society is any judge, both too lenient and too strict a disciplinarian; extremely selfish and pathetically self-sacrificing because I am a homemaker; the downfall and the pillar of civilization because I homeschool, and, above all, utterly incapable and in need of constant guidance and advice from pretty nearly everyone about pretty nearly all aspects of parenting.

Perhaps I am exaggerating just the tiniest bit.

But, if wintertime makes me melancholy, prone to brood, and capable of making mountains out of every molehill, it also makes me deeply appreciative of the small gifts and graces I receive every day.

Seeing a red-tailed hawk soaring high above us, or a flock of pigeons flapping just above the roof-line, or a long and straggling line of crows heading into the setting sun -- all of these can restore my sense of wonder. The smell of bread baking, the taste of wheat and yeast and butter and honey, the sight of my children's sticky, satisfied smiles -- these restore my sense of gratitude. The sound of the pipes clanking, the cats purring, and the wind rattling the window panes -- these restore my sense of comfort.

Today I served a simple but delicious chickpea stew with saffron and almonds for lunch, and as we ate and chatted about today's work and tomorrow's plans I felt supremely content. Tomorrow we will have our weekly playtime co-op. The kids will run around like wild things and the adults will talk and laugh and we'll all feast on sweet, gooey, cinnamon-y monkey bread, and life will be good.

*I stole this of course, from Pablo Neruda, as translated by, I believe, Robert Bly.

dinner tonight: Portuguese Kale Soup with Chorizo

Monday, January 05, 2009

First Library Card

First Library Card
Originally uploaded by 3Birds
My youngest got his first library card today. My plan was to wait for a special day and make a Very Big Deal out of it, but today when we were gathering our books and cards he said "Me want my own card" so I told him we'd get him one that very day. And we did. The Enoch Pratt Free Library restricts new borrowers to just 2 books for their first check-out, and Finch chose Tana Hoban's Is It Larger? Is It Smaller? and a very large book (I swear it's almost as big as he is!) called Fire Engines UP CLOSE by Andra Serlin Abramson.

I loaded up on picture books and so could not get my reserved books, but they will hold them for me one more week. Highlights of my haul include Always, by Ann Stott, illus. by Matt Phelan; Starlight Goes To Town, by Harry Allard, illus. by George Booth; Island of the Skog, by Steven Kellogg (a perennial favorite); The Trouble With Dragons, by Debi Gliori; and Hill's End, by Ivan Southall. This last one is a middle-grade novel, not a picture book, and I'm hooked after only 3 pages.

On our way to the library we encountered 3 drunks (all friendly), the local schizophrenic (quiet today), a gang of heartbreakingly young would-be thugs, a Jehovah's Witness (nice of course, but very annoying), and one incredibly old man*. I rarely see another mom or dad with kids in tow, and I feel isolated and alien and other sometimes, which makes it all the more pleasant when the librarians greet me by name, remark on how fast the baby is growing, and grab my reserve books off the shelf as soon as I walk in the door. Even though I didn't get to check out my reserves because Pratt has that bothersome 30-book limit for all borrowers.

For the first time in weeks, I spent an entire day without knitting, crocheting, or sewing. In fact, the only creative thing I did today (besides parent) was to make dinner. Which wasn't all that creative because I've made it before. But it was tasty and nourishing. In the pipeline: a hat for Wren, another baby hat, a fabric stocking for the 2009 advent calendar.

*by 'incredibly old' I mean Methusalan! Antediluvian! And yet, still walking. Yes, his pace was excruciating, but he made it from his car to the liquor store without mishap and before we passed him.

dinner tonight: sauteed chicken cutlets with a white-wine pan sauce, rice pilaf with pine nuts and dried cranberries, sauteed spinach with shallots

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Practical, portable, patternless...perfect!

Originally uploaded by 3Birds
I've been knitting lots of hats lately because they are well suited to knitting while visiting, riding in the car, and waiting (for the cookies to bake, the husband to take his turn at Scrabble, the line to move, etc.) Hats are among the simplest of projects, yet non-knitting strangers seem unduly delighted and astonished by hats-in-progress. One stranger, a beginning knitter, assured me that she could never aspire to this height of knitterly glory. I've heard this before, and I think it would be a fine thing to cast ample stitches onto a 16" circular so as to have a teaching example ready and waiting. I could carry it with me at all times, and whip it out whenever anyone claimed that such skill is beyond them.

This hat is knit in 3x2 ribbing in a gorgeous handpaint I got at Spinster Yarns and Fibers. I'll edit with the name of the yarn if/when I remember or figure it out. My first round of decreases reduced the purl columns to 1 stitch each, then I did a few plain rounds before decreasing away the remaining purls. At some point I decided to put in a horizontal rib (purl welt) of about 2 rounds, but I wish I hadn't. Not so much that I'm willing to undo it you understand, but I should have stuck to stockinette, or, possibly, reverse stockinette. The top-knot is simply i-cord on the last 3 stitches, about 4" long and then bound off and knotted. I like this and use it a lot, as you can see from exhibit #2:

This is knit in, I think, Debbie Bliss cashmerino. I've had it some time now and can't remember. This is just a simple, striped infant hat with basic crown shaping. It reminds me of those peppermint pinwheel candies, and is knit for a wee lass who is scheduled to make her debut in the next few weeks. I wish her and her mother a safe and easy birthday.

dinner tonight: beef stew and dinner rolls