Sunday, September 26

Pita Bread

Our challenge to bypass packaged foods has led to some great cooking adventures in the garden unit. We no longer run to the store for a can of tomatoes or a package of bread or a bag of pretzels, only open up our cook books and get creative. In the spirit of homemade goods, I ventured to make pita bread for our welcome-back potluck back in August. I must say at first I was a bit apprehensive, but pita bread is a definite hit and so simple to prepare. The other day, I was at the store and noticed the pita bread selling for three dollars. As easy as it would be to purchase a pack of pitas, it is so much more satisfying to put in a bit of time and effort to make a beautiful creation.
Introducing my newest favorite recipe:

Pita Bread

1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups of white flour
2 teaspoons of salt
2 teaspoons of yeast (the instant kind)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 1/2 cups of water (luke warm)

Mix all the ingredients together.
Add extra flour if the dough is too sticky. Then knead the bread for about 5 to 10 minutes. After kneading, place dough in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate. The dough should refrigerate for around 3 hours. It can also be left in the fridge up to 3 days. It is a great dough to prepare and then make when you have some spare time.
Out of the fridge, divide the dough into 8 to 12 sections depending on what size of pita you would like. Roll each section into a ball and then flatten out into a disc with your palm. Cover, and let these rest for 20 minutes. Next, stretch out each disc into a pita, aim for 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. It takes a bit of trial and error to get the thickness just right (either way, the end product is tasty!). Let the dough rest for another 5 to 10 minutes. The final step is to cook the pita. Heat the skillet (no need to use oil), and once the pan is hot, cook the pita on one side until it gets puffy, then flip. Cook until brown spots appear. Then repeat!

Pita bread is so simple and the end product is not only delicious, but so beautiful! It is a great recipe to make and then freeze. Happy cooking!


When you really begin cooking, you realize that a dish is not the same without  spices. In fact, I would argue that often times, the spices make the dish. Spices, I think, are especially critical in the fall, when the flavors of summer are passing and you are faced with a new spread of produce to prepare. Just for a minute, think of fall without spices: imagine pumpkin pie without cinnamon and cloves; or consider your favorite chili without chili powder and cumin. Recently, I have been exploring this element of cooking and I am currently in a state of: overwhelmed, but in only the best sense of the word. 
Over the last year or two, I have frequented our local spice shop, The Spice House. From this, I have gained so much more than a simple spice collection. Every time I visit the Spice House, I feel as though I have stepped into my grandmother's kitchen, and am learning the wisdom of cooking that she learned in her grandmother's kitchen.
Today I visited the Spice House, with the intention of finding some vanilla beans for vanilla extract and a simple recipe for chili powder. When I began talking with one of the Spice House employees, we connected almost instantaneously. First we talked about chili powder. She directed me towards the chili powder section of the store, but when I expressed that I was interested in making my own chili powder, it was as if she understood me and I her. The exciting thing about making your own chili powder, is that you can really achieve the flavors that you want. I like my chili powder to have a little heat, but not extremely hot. She has experimented with homemade chili powder and was excited to share her wisdom of this, with me. I ended up with dried ancho chile powder. This will be my base for my chili powder; ancho chiles are a mild and sweet pepper which exude the aroma of tangy raisins. To this, I will add dried, red chili peppers from my dad's garden, eventually reaching the flavor and heat that is perfect for my tastes.
Then, was vanilla extract. She, a woman about the same age as my mother, had been making her own vanilla extract for years. She shared stories of her vanilla extract, and how it has changed her cooking and how simple it is to make! We were sharing ideas, and recipes and suddenly the spices I had were more than spices, but flavors of wisdom that had been shared with me. When I use my vanilla extract or chili powder, I too will begin to have food memories and hopefully one day, I will share my wisdom with someone.
This got me to really thinking about our current food situation. I have been reflecting a lot lately, about our food culture. Much of this reflection has been in part, because of the garden unit's commitment to non-packaged foods. In eating this way, we are forced to be creative with our foods and practically reject the food mecca of the grocery store. Let us look closer at the grocery store. Think of the spice isle at the grocery store. Every time I would try to buy spices from the spice isle at the grocery store, I would have to clear my afternoon of any other obligations. Talk about overwhelming! I never know where to start in that isle, and your chances are, that no-one in the store can help you too much. A specialty spice shop, however, encourages conversation. Suddenly, your spice shopping is a conversation with someone else who uses spices like an art medium.

Then I began thinking about the internet and cookbooks. Technology is so helpful in sharing knowledge and wisdom with others, but I feel as though our culture has lost the beauty of the human relationship in cooking. It seems that our meal times are often spent rushing from place to place, eating our meals from a box, and though our stomachs are filled, we still feel hungry. Perhaps we are yearning for the community that once was a part of food. Surely, it is a wonderful thing to be able to hop on the web, and search for what spices to use or what recipe to use. But, let me just say, the internet would not have suggested ancho chiles to me, like the woman from the Spice House. I cannot have a conversation with the internet. And, suddenly, cooking and learning becomes a solitary act, rather than a communal experience. And what fun is that, to cook alone?

When I left the Spice House today, I was so excited to start exploring the many levels of flavor that are a part of chili powder, and I was excited to have had a conversation about it. And when I left the Spice House, the woman I had been talking with said to me, "keep fighting the good fight".

Spices are critical to completing a dish. Similarly, food is not complete without conversation and human relationships. Really, I have come to believe that these are fundamental elements to the food experience. It seems that these elements are as nourishing, if not more, than the food it self.

On that note, happy eating!

Monday, September 20

Love to El Salvador

My dearest friend Bridget (who you may have heard about, if you have been reading this blog... she is an important part of my food world!) is studying in El Salvador for the semester, and has been so greatly missed (though a recent letter and a few emails suggest that she is having the most beautiful time there!). She lived in the garden unit this summer and as a housewarming gift before her departure to Central America, she left us "Singapore Seasoning" from Penzey Spices. We have so greatly enjoyed using the spice mix that resembles a tangy curry to season our veggies and spice up our grains. However, to this point, there have been no recipes to be inspired by the spice mix. This had to change! The solution? Hearty with fall vegetables and some love, resulting in a warm soup with a hint of Bridget's warm spirit! Perfect.
Fall Soup (with Bridget on our minds) 
A couple handfuls of carrots (from the farmers market and my family's garden!)
A bunch of tomatoes (from my garden!)
A small onion (from my garden!)
A couple cloves of garlic (from the farmer's market!)
A couple of eggplants (one from my family's garden and one from the community garden!)
Salt and Pepper
Singapore Seasoning (from my best friend Bridget!)
2 cups of water plus some
A splash of olive oil
A splash of milk

1. Chop up the vegetables and place them in an oven proof, deep pan. Drizzle with olive oil and add a splash of water. Then add Singapore Seasoning, salt and pepper, to taste and toss the veggies so that they are all coated. Roast in the oven on broil, for about 50 minutes or until the veggies are tender, tossing the veggies once.

2. Keep all of the juices from the veggies and place in a large pot. Using an immersion blender (or just a regular blender), puree all the produce until it is relatively smooth. Add 2 cups of water and some more Singapore Seasoning and boil for a while, until it reaches the desired consistency. Puree again, and serve hot, in a nice bowl.

3. Curl up in a cozy chair, with a great book, some friends, a beer and your soup, and stay warm in this beautiful fall season!

Bridget, you may be hundreds and hundreds of miles away, but this fall soup makes it seem as though you are right here with us. Love from the garden unit!
Happy eating!

Tuesday, September 14

The weekend journal

Two weekends ago was so jam packed with food (my Indian cooking bonanza with Val!), I could not even consider posting it all in one post; hence, the second post for the weekend. The second part of that weekend, was dominated by grapes: First, a wedding at a fine vineyard in Illinois (Jill's sister was married!) and then foraging for wild grapes with my mom on Monday (still the weekend, since it was Labor Day).
Jill's sister's wedding was hosted at the Mackinaw Valley Vineyard in Illinois. The main gazebo was on a dock, surrounded by a glass-like lake and a dome of black sky filled with crystal stars. It was really a beautiful place and Kelsey and I were so pleased to be there with Jill for the evening. Following suit, Monday was filled with grape picking and later, grape juicing! My mom and I foraged along the roadside near our house, harvesting over a gallon of grapes, which I later juiced into about 40 ounces of sun-kissed, wild grape juice. Delicious! Their season is just about over, so if you have time, head out to your local bike trail or the curb along a country road and search out the wild grape! They are free and plentiful and with two grocery bags full, I was able to juice about 3/4 of a gallon of juice. It is pretty tart so I will probably use it to make jelly or sherbet later.
To juice the grapes, I used my moms steam-juicer and steamed the grapes for about an hour. Another method you might choose, would be to boil the stemmed grapes and simmer until the desired concentration is met. Then strain and compost the juiced berries! As with any foraging adventures, be sure that you are properly identifying the wild grapes. There are many wild berries in season right now, and if you accidentally pick the wrong one... it would be not so good!

Then this past weekend, Jill, Kelsey and I plus Lauren and Lou, ventured to the great Kettle Moraine for some camping and outdoor time. Along with some day hikes and nights by the fire, we made sure to eat like queens! When you are car camping, there is just no reason to eat poorly. Our menu spread included Jill's specialty pumpkin pancakes and pita (both of which recipes will hopefully soon be making an appearance on the blog!), red beans and rice, and my contribution of homemade marshmallows.

To make your next camping trip extra special, pack some homemade marshmallows. They are so simple and just delicious.
Homemade Marshmallows
3 packages of unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar
1 cup of light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of vanilla
Powdered sugar for coating

1. Combine the gelatin with 1/2 cup of water, in a bowl and set aside.

2. Next, combine the sugar, syrup, salt and an additional 1/2 cup of water. Heat over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Then, raise the heat to high and cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees. Remove from heat.

3. With an electric mixer on low, slowly pour syrup into the gelatin. Then, put mixer on high speed and whip until very thick, or for about 15 minutes. Add the vanilla and mix.

4. Powder coat a 9 inch by 9 inch pan with the powdered sugar (using a small sifter works wonders for this step!). Pour in the mixture and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Let stand until stiff, about an hour (but sometimes more, depending on the weather! This sounds silly, but I'm completely serious... It just might take a bit longer if its humid)

5. When cutting into pieces, use the knife to separate the marshmallow, while simultaneously coating with powdered sugar. You can be generous with the sugar, as any excess can be scooped up and re-sprinkled elsewhere.

* If you are taking these camping, I would cut them up before hand... its a bit messy and takes a little patience, but it is completely worth it!
Trust me, our camping experience was just lovely, and making more than plain 'ol pb&j (which don't get me wrong, I love a good pb&j) made the trip even more of a delight!

Happy eating (and camping), from the girls in the garden unit!

Wednesday, September 8

The weekend with Val

This past weekend has been highly anticipated for about the last year and a half. There has been much build up, and let me just say, I was not disappointed. Why was this past weekend so highly anticipated, you might be wondering? Well, because my close family friend Val opened her kitchen to me and taught me some of her traditional Indian cooking methods and recipes, or course! And a wonderful time it was, indeed.
Now, let me preface my cooking experience with Val, with a brief history of my personal connection to India. One of my first Indian experiences was in the second grade, when I attended my uncle Brad's Indian wedding ceremony, in which he married my aunt Sujata. I remember vividly, the colors and smells and excitement in the air on that day, as the beautiful women prepared themselves for the ceremony and others prepared the food for the reception. It was from that point on, that I was in love with Indian culture. At such a young age, I was completely fascinated by the unknown culture of my new aunt.
Then, one year later my brother Ben, a kindergardener at the time, met Bryan. Bryan's parents, Val and Lax are both from India but have raised both of their sons here in Wisconsin. It was Ben and Bryan's friendship, that brought our families together. Since then, our families have remained close and shared many special times with them. It seems that almost every holiday since I can remember, has been shared with them, and my holiday dinner plate has hosted a variety of foods, of both American and Indian decent.
The culmination of my connection with India occurred this past January, at which time I was fortunate enough to be able to travel overseas, to the beautiful country itself. Traveling with my dad and several others from my school for a school business trip, I was transported into the place I dreamed of as a child; there were colors of every hue on almost every surface in the country, the food was flavored in such a beautiful way and with such deliberateness, and the people were so loving and kind and breathtaking. It was this time in India that confirmed my love for India as well as deepened my personal and emotional connection.

In one week, Bryan is heading off to school at Princeton (yahoo!), so this past weekend, Val and Lax hosted a lovely farewell party for him, with a beautiful spread of traditional Indian dishes. On Saturday, I was so fortunate enough to share in the excitement of the celebration, by sharing in the food preparation. Together, Val and I prepared three dishes: Chutney (which I suppose isn't considered a dish, though I could definitely eat it with a spoon), Roti and Paratha. Today, I will share with you the recipe for chutney. I will save the other two for another time, after I have practiced them so that I can give you the best directions possible (I hope you understand!)

Here are the basics of what I learned. However, so much of this cooking experience was benefited by the personal connection and experience with Val in her kitchen, that these recipes can do it no justice:
3 cups of fresh mint
3 cups of cilantro
The juice of 2 limes
15 small green chili peppers
2 inches of fresh ginger
12 ounces of shredded coconut
2 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
Cumin to taste
1. Remove the mint leaves from the stems (save the stems and any less desirable leaves... these can be dried and added to tea, later). Peel the ginger and grate into a thick paste, using a cheese grater. Remove the stems of the peppers.

2. In a food processor, puree the ginger, peppers, coconut, salt, sugar, cumin, lime juice, 1/2 of the mint, 1/2 of the cilantro, and just enough water to allow the ingredients to liquify. Gradually add more mint and cilantro until desired flavor and consistency is reached. The final chutney should be thick but not dry. You can store extra chutney in an air tight container for several days or even a week.
Chutney is used as a condiment, similar to how some people use ketchup. Pretty much, it can be used on anything (this is probably an exaggeration, but I wouldn't mind using it on anything...) as a flavor booster. Val grows her own mint in her garden. I am not sure how well mint does indoors, but I have to imagine, based on the dense growth of mint in her outdoor garden that this hardy plant would have no problem flourishing indoors as well.

Happy eating! (stay tuned for more of my weekend of food adventures, soon!)