Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Images from Phipp's Conservatory

Last weekend, we were invited to take a tour of Phipp's Conservatory in Pittsburgh. I just love looking at all the plants and flowers and fish and, of course, the butterflies...

Phipp's was able to keep several of the pieces from the Chihuly Glass Exhibit

Canna Lillies

Cool butterfly in the Butterfly Room


Pretty Goldfish

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Butterfly Miracle

This is the second year we were able to see a caterpillar go through its stages from larvae to chrysalis and then to butterfly right in our own garden. I first saw this caterpillar while sitting on my back patio. He was hanging out on a large glass vase I had in the center of our outdoor dining table. How did he get there and why would he want to be there? I have no idea. But I gently picked up the vase and took it over to the zinnias where last year's caterpillar made its chrysalis. He hopped right onto the zinnia and hung out there for a day or two...

before forming this chrysalis. Last year we got it all on video tape. It is absolutely amazing to watch!

In a little more than two weeks (I checked on him daily), the chrysalis became more transparent and you could see the dark wing pattern through the thinning chrysalis. The next morning, we went to check on him again and there he was, hanging there to dry out his wings. This is nothing short of a miracle!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Southwestern Chicken and Bean Soup

The weather here in Pennsylvania this August has been beautiful. But we can all sense that fall is quickly approaching and too soon after that, winter will be here. With fresh, local peppers, onions, and tomatoes so abundant now, this is the perfect time to cook up a double batch of tortilla soup and freeze the leftovers. Come February, you'll be glad you did! This is my new favorite soup (and Ellen's). There is just the right balance of seasonings and just the right amount of heat (for me). If you like heat, you may want to add more jalapeno or some jalapeno seeds which add more spiciness than the outer parts of the pepper. You could easily make this a vegetarian soup and use vegetable broth and omit the chicken. The beans make it hearty even without the meat. You could also add zucchini or carrots to the soup if you were looking to use up some extra veggies in your refrigerator.

Southwestern Chicken and Bean Soup
adapted from Cooking Light (Southwestern Turkey Soup)

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and minced (add some seeds if you want more heat)
2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded, or any leftover cooked chicken
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 teaspoon chili powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 cups organic chicken broth
1 large bay leaf
2 large tomatoes, seeded and diced, or 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1 (15-ounce) can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
crushed tortilla chips for garnish
shredded cheddar or jack cheese, or diced avocado for garnish

Heat olive oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeno to pan; sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Add tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, black pepper and salt and stir to coat. Add chicken broth, bay leaf, tomatoes, and beans and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook 15 minutes. Add shredded chicken and simmer until chicken is heated through. Remove from heat and discard bay leaves. Stir in cilantro. Ladle into bowls and top with tortilla chips and cheese or avocado.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Fresh Plum Frangipane Tart

I've picked more plums from our friends' tree and I'm trying hard to use them all. I recently attempted a plum jam but was disappointed when it didn't set up all that well and it didn't bring out the plum flavor as I had hoped. I even acquired a food dehydrator in an attempt to make dried plums. They turned out alright, but were a little sour and I have no idea how I will use them. Then, when we made plans to have some friends and their three girls to our house for dinner, I saw it as an opportunity to try another plum recipe, a little fussier this time but not at all difficult - and I was not disappointed! This is one yummy tart - especially if you like almond flavor like I do. I'd heard of this frangipane before, and knew I'd like it right along with marzipan, but I'd never made anything with it. My only complaint - it only used about a half dozen plums - didn't even make a dent in the box! If you don't hear from me in a few days, it's because I'm canning plums!

I had most of the ingredients on hand and got started just after lunch. I made the crust dough and placed it in the freezer to hurry things along. I made the frangipane and chilled it until I was ready to assemble the tart. I sliced the tiny plums into wedges which was the most tedious part because the plums were small and they clung to the pit and were a bit soft for making good-looking wedges. Putting the tart together was easy and I pulled the tart out of the oven just as our guests were arriving. I used the plum "syrup" I made earlier in the week to glaze the tart. The photo below doesn't do it justice because the lighting wasn't quite right, but the plums got soft and sweet in the oven and the crust was a bit crunchy like shortbread. And the frangipane - pure heaven!

fresh plum frangipane tart
Bon Appétit June 1997
Makes 8 Servings.

almond crust:

Makes One 9-inch Crust

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds (about 2 ounces)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 teaspoon almond extract (I used less)
2 tablespoons (about) ice water

Blend flour, almonds, sugar and salt in a food processor until nuts are finely ground. Add butter and pulse food processor until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Mix in almond extract and enough water to form moist clumps. Knead dough briefly to combine, flatten into a disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate 2 hours or up to one day.

1 cup slivered blanched almonds
1/3 cup sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon dark rum (I omitted)
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
5 large plums, halved and pitted, then sliced

Blend all ingredients except plums in a food processor until almonds are finely ground.

2 tablespoons apricot jam (I used plum syrup)
2 teaspoons brandy (I omitted)

Preheat oven to 375°F. Roll out crust dough on lightly floured surface to 13-inch round. Transfer dough to 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Gently press dough into tart pan; trim excess. Freeze crust 15 minutes.

Place tart pan on baking sheet. Bake crust 10 minutes; pierce with toothpick if crust bubbles. Continue to bake until crust is pale golden, about 12 minutes. Cool crust on baking sheet 15 minutes. Maintain oven temperature.

Spread frangipane filling in prepared crust. Place plum slices on top of frangipane, pressing gently to anchor.

Bake tart on baking sheet until frangipane is puffed and golden and plums are tender, about 30 minutes.

For glaze, bring jam and brandy to a boil in a small saucepan. Brush glaze over warm tart. Remove sides of tart pan and cut into wedges to serve.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Wild Alaskan Halibut with Zucchini, Tomato and Onion

On a typical day, lunch for me consists of little nibbles of whatever I'm making my kids for lunch, or maybe some leftovers. The other day, however, I was wanting a real grown-up lunch, especially since our schedule that evening was going to make a real grown-up dinner impossible. The other prompter was the excess zucchini in my crisper drawer. This healthy lunch turned out quite delicious, and took hardly any time to cook and only one pan to wash. I happened to have some cooked brown rice in the freezer and I even used the fish straight from the freezer, cutting off a portion the right size for me, no thawing necessary.

Halibut with Zucchini, Tomato, and Onion
Serves 1

one small onion
one small zucchini
two or three tomatoes
chopped fresh herbs (I used oregano and basil)
small halibut filet, enough for one serving, cut into large, bite-sized pieces
salt and pepper

Heat a non-stick frying pan with some olive oil. While the pan is heating, coarsely chop the onion and place it into the pan and sprinkle with salt. While the onion is cooking, cut a small zucchini lengthwise and then slice into bite-size pieces. Add the zucchini to the pan, add salt and pepper and saute with the onions until they start to get soft. Coarsely chop the tomatoes and add to the pan and simmer until tomatoes start to break down. Salt and pepper the fish and add it and the herbs to the pan. Add a little water if the pan is too dry so that fish can poach in the liquid. Simmer until the fish is done a breaks apart easily with a fork. Serve with crusty bread or over brown rice if desired.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Butler Farm Show

We've lived in Butler County, PA for 14 years and have never been to Kennywood, never been to The Big Butler Fair and had never been to the Butler Farm Show...until this year. We finally made it to the Farm Show last Friday. We saw cows (4 buildings full), chickens, rabbits, sheep, horses, and pigs. We drank lemonade and ate cotton candy...

we participated in tractor pulls...rode rides like "the hurricane" and the bumper cars...

the kids made their own ropes...

and we saw more cows...a great time was had by all. I think we'll be going back...perhaps with a homemade pie in hand ready for the judging!

If you're near Butler, don't miss King Cones Castle, just across from the Farm Show grounds, where you can get a BIG 2-scoop cone for only a dollar.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Roasted Plum Cakes

If you can remember Spring here in Pittsburgh (it seems like so long ago), you'll remember the flowering trees and how they seemed to be just loaded with blossoms this year. Well, those blossoms have turned into plums in a friend's yard. I wish I had taken a picture of the tree - the branches were threatening to break from the masses of fruit on each limb, with the branches bending down until they almost touched the ground. And when my friends offered me a bag to fill with plums well, for me, that's like offering candy to a baby! I thought about making one of those beautiful plum tarts with all the slices placed just so and glazed with a shiny coat of apricot jam. But these plums were a little small and I didn' t have the time for a fussy tart. So instead I decided to try the Roasted Plum Cakes from Baking with Julia. They are simple to make and so delicious served warm with a side of vanilla ice cream. You could substitute raspberries, blueberries or peaches for the plums if you had them on hand. I baked one with red raspberries and it was delicious too.

Roasted Plum Cakes
adapted from Baking with Julia

1 stick of unsalted butter at room temperature
2/3 cup brown sugar, divided (I used less for topping)
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp minced orange zest (I used lemon)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup buttermilk
4 large ripe plums, halved and pitted

Preheat oven to 350. Butter 8 ramekins and place them on a rimmed baking sheet. Cream the butter, 2 T of brown sugar, and the granulated sugar for 6 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the zest and vanilla and mix well. Add the flour and baking soda and beat on low speed for only 15 seconds. Pour in the buttermilk and beat for 30 seconds more. Remove from mixer and use a spatula to finish blending the ingredients if necessary.

Spoon the batter into the ramekins, dividing the batter among them evenly. Place a half plum, cut side up, into each cup leaving the plum a bit higher than the batter so that the plum will show after the cakes rise in the oven. Sprinkle the remaining brown sugar evenly over each plum. Bake 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the cake portion comes out clean. Cool the cakes 10 minutes. To serve, remove the cakes from the ramekins onto a dessert plate and serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

State of the Garden - August 2008

2008 has been a big year for our small garden. First, we (and by "we" I actually mean Mark, since I played a role only as consultant and he did all the work - and it was ALOT of work) put in four 10'X10' raised beds adjacent to the raspberry patch. Second, we built a split rail fence around the now-combined vegetables and raspberries to keep the critters out...

because this is what happens to healthy cucumber plants if you have groundhogs and no fence to keep them out. (sob!)

But, along with misfortunes in the garden come surprises such as the three very prolific butternut squash plants that are growing out of the compost pile. I have a really good recipe for butternut squash soup which I will share if these make it to harvest time!

Assuming nothing happens to the tomatoes, it looks like we'll have a bumper crop although they seem to be taking their time ripening. I planted 30 tomato plants,

half of which are these Romas which are great for canning and then making into tomato sauce and other tomatoey things. I also have eggplants which are impossible to grow organically and therefore mine look completely sad (for the 3rd year in a row!) since I can't bring myself to put chemicals on anything. The four-striped bug, after doing a job on the daisies are now lurking about and multiplying on the zucchini and pumpkins. I'm holding my breath, hoping that they won't completely destroy them. I planted red onions and leeks and it looks like the leeks will be small and the onions seem to have disappeared entirely - I have no idea what happened there! The green beans are in and we're doing our best to consume them, although I am getting some not-too-subtle clues that the kids simply will have NO MORE beans! So that's the State of the Garden Address for now. It's pretty amazing considering that all of the vegetables except the onions and herbs were grown from seed by my own two hands! My babies are growing up! To remind you of what they looked like as babies, see my previous post here. I can't wait until harvest time!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Grandma's Barbeque Sandwiches a.k.a. Sloppy Joes

Close your eyes and imagine... a fresh, soft hamburger bun filled with ground meat and a special combination of spices, messy but not too messy and of course, delicious...this picture in your mind will have to do for now, since I didn't get a chance to photograph the Sloppy Joes we had this week. It's not a gourmet recipe or a fancy feast but it IS the best recipe for Sloppy Joes ever! The recipe came from my father's mother and gets compliments every time. The small amounts of cinnamon and allspice sound strange to put in a savory recipe, but you have to have faith and believe me when I tell you it works. It's not a difficult recipe either, so the next time you go for that can of Manwich, try these instead...

Grandma's Barbeque Sandwiches

1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
2 lbs ground beef
1 small bottle of ketchup
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp vinegar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice

Saute the celery and onions in a skillet with a little oil until they begin to soften. Add the ground beef and season with salt and pepper. Cook until the beef is no longer pink, being careful not to brown the celery and onions. Add the remaining ingredients (eyeball the amount of ketchup you need to make just enough sauce for the amount of beef in the pan) and simmer together for about 10 minutes or so. Serve on rolls.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

My CSA and Dill Pickles

Aaaaah...Summer's Bounty. This is my fourth year as a member of Kretschmann Farm CSA. Don and Becky Kretschmann have an all-organic farm just minutes from our home here north of Pittsburgh. Not only do they grow fabulous organic produce, but they have to be some of the nicest folks you'd ever meet.

Every Friday afternoon from June through November, I take a drive out to the farm. In just minutes I can be out of suburban Pittsburgh and rolling past cows and corn fields. I pull up past their house and down around the back of the barn where crates of veggies are waiting to be picked up and a kitten or two are waiting to greet you. Business as usual is going on all around - Becky is mowing the grass, Don is busy fixing a drip line or driving the tractor, and their helpers are washing dirt off the lettuce or tending to seedlings in the greenhouse.

Don writes a weekly newsletter and sends it via email to his subscribers. Through these newsletters you'll find the happenings on the farm that week, help in identifying some produce, and, of course, recipes. This week we found out that this is the year of the cucumber...

Well for him, maybe, but not for me in MY garden.

Ben told me he wanted to make pickles this year, so I ordered the pickling cucumber seeds, planted three rows of them and they were doing beautifully... until... some critter took notice and mowed them ALL to the ground! I hope he enjoyed them! The funny thing is, he left everything else untouched (he did sample a few of the sunflowers). Fortunately, the Kretschmanns came through with a surplus of cucumbers AND a recipe for dill pickles in this week's newsletter! Who knew making pickles was so easy? The people at Claussen's won't want anyone to know just how easy it is! But my kids and I will tell you, these are just as good!

Fresh Dill Pickle Spears
from Don and Becky Kretschmann

1. Slice one or two cucumbers into spears and place in a glass quart jar with a few sprigs of fresh dill.
2. Bring to a boil 1/8 cup salt, 1/4 cup vinegar, 2 cups of water and a sliced clove or two of garlic in a small saucepan.
3. Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the cucumbers. Let the mixture cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight. (To keep the jar from breaking, run hot tap water over the outside of the jar just before filling with hot liquid.)


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