a steamy cuppa valentine love

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Grand gestures are showy, but quiet, small ones are sweeter.

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Today is that favorite day of retailers, florists and restauranteurs everywhere, Valentine’s Day. And while I’m weary of the commercialized aspect of the day, you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted to not love one big collective day of appreciation for the special people in our lives.

We Pennsylvanians will tell you that this winter has been an old-fashioned, mettle-testing trudge. We’ve been very fortunate here in Western PA  – unlike our neighbors in Eastern PA who are suffering some real damage and hardship, we’re just inconvenienced and fatigued.  The kind of weariness that can be soothed with a steamy, creamy cup of home-made cocoa.

I nixed commercial hot chocolate powders a long time ago in favor of the old-fashioned, off the package Hershey’s cocoa recipe that my mom used to make. Real milk, cocoa, salt, sugar and a bit of vanilla – all things found in an average kitchen. Is it really too difficult to heat a pan of milk?

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But then , one day Molly at Remedial Eating wrote about something that stopped me in my tracks. Something I had to try ASAP. And I’m so glad I did. This is one of the nicest, sweetest DIY gift ideas around – a jar of chocolate ganache ready to spoon into heated milk for a perfectly delicious, creamy, real cup of steaming cocoa.

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Who am I kidding?? Try 3 or even 4…

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Of course, once that idea was planted, variants were inevitable. What about the hand crafted stoneground chocolate I bought from Rancho Gordo?  Maybe not for everyone, but definitely for me. A little grittier and cinnamon-ey, this is dangerous.

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How do I love thee Rancho Gordo? Let me count the ways…

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So, if you’re still struggling for not-too-big, not-too-small gift ideas, here you go. A nice jar of homemade chocolate ganache. A steamy cup of ready-made love for your beloved.

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 heating up the milk too difficult?  there’s always spoon truffles. Spoon truffles? You know exactly what I’m talking about – no double dipping!

Previous Valentine’s Day ideas:

Glazed Strawberry Poptarts

A Sweet Sack of Homemade Caramels

foraging the farm: great balls of pork

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Inspiration for Velcro? No kidding…

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There are few things I love more than looking at something reviled through a new lens and finding that it’s actually just misunderstood. And, the burdock I inherited from the previous farmer? Let’s just say that’s one thing I’ve been determined to beat understand.

Burdock, burrs, beggar’s button, wooly burr, cocklebur, and the inspiration for Velcro, everyone knows burdock though you might not recognize it by name.

It’s that annoying large broad-leafed plant with the prickly burrs that get stuck in your hair, your socks, your sleeves, the wooly coat of the dog, and matts up the pretty flaxen switches of the Ladies’ tails.

After reading my favorite The Seasons on Henry’s Farm, my opinion if not my experience of burdock has been turned completely inside-out. Maybe I’ve just not been looking at burdock through the proper lens.

Around here, burdock is one of the plants that sends most farmers sprinting for the nearest vat of Round-up. But, on Henry’s farm, they actually plant the stuff. You read that right. I had to wipe off my glasses and go back for a re-read, but it’s true.

And, while we post-Colonial Americans have no real custom of eating burdock, it appears our Indian predecessors were well familiar with its virtues. Burdock was dug in the fall during the Harvest and Hunter’s moons, then dried to provide sustenance during the long frozen winter months.

The Japanese too have long had an appreciation for the sweet, delicately flavored crunchy root cloaked in its plain dirty brown wrapper. Never knew it, but the massive root is nutritious, delicious and has significant medicinal benefits as well.

So, with subversive glee and high expectations, I set out to prove that burdock’s unsavory reputation has been a bad rap all along.

I decided to make the chicken broth with pork and kale recipe from Nigel Slater’s enviable book, Tender: A Cook and his Vegetable Patch. Which is really the story of my life, only much, much cooler. I cannot wait for the movie…

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You say you think chicken broth with pork and kale sounds boring? Nay, nay. Anything but. Modern, richly flavored yet fresh, light, herb-y and comforting at the same time. And substituting burdock leaves for the kale is bound to shake things up, right?

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Fresh herbs are lovely, but Oregano Indio from Rancho Gordo gets ‘er done…

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I hunted up the more delicate, small leaves from the first year plants and gathered up a hefty bunch. Then I harvested green onions from the garden, mint from the pasture, and foraged roasted poblano peppers and ground pork from my freezer.

I made Nigel’s recipe more or less exactly as it’s written, but used my burdock leaves instead of the kale or cabbage. Here’s the printable recipe.

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My pork is slow raised heritage breed so I’ve got a bit more fat. Best of both worlds, just refrigerate & skim the fat from the top before serving.

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I so wanted this tale to have a different ending.  I mean, I worked those burdock leaves – I wanted them to be miraculous. But, even after boiling the burdock in water with salt & some vinegar to reduce the bitterness they were still peculiar and unpleasant. Washing-your-mouth-with-soap kind of bitter.

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baby burdock leaves – rinsed, blanched in water laced with salt & vinegar. Yikes! that’s some bitter shizzle…

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I have read tales of other people enjoying the flavor of burdock leaves and describing the bitterness as pleasant?  I suppose they’re telling the truth, but let’s just say it’s not for me. Acquired taste is kind of an understatement…

Now –  burdock roots? I’m still holding out hope for the crunchy-tender deliciousness of burdock root.

The pork balls on the other hand are simple perfection and not to be dismissed. Our American food culture is short on uses for unadorned ground pork, but when you buy a half or whole pig, guess what you have? Unless you have it all made into sausage, which is a bit limiting, you’ve got plenty of plain ole ground pork.

If you haven’t bought your pork in bulk, a good, old-school butcher shop that doesn’t get its meat in processed boxes should be able to grind you some.  I hope your town has one of those. If so, do check in and let us know about it. I love hearing about those kinds of artisan treasures.

I highly recommend keeping a bit of ground pork in the freezer. Nothing riches up your chicken stock like a long simmer with a few of these tender meatballs.They’re useful, versatile and freeze well.

Since the burdock turned out to be a not-so-great-idea, next time I went for the Savoy cabbage. Much, much better.  Cabbage and pork fat have a special bond, and the flavor of the cabbage doesn’t overwhelm the herby, delicate flavor of the pork balls.

But my favorite combination?  Definitely the kale. Delicious.  Far from being another kale cliché, kale & pork balls were made for each other.

What’s the next big weedy crop? Lamb’s Quarter. They say it’s like spinach, only better.  You know them, don’t you? They say a lot. I sure hope they’re right next time.

What do you say?  Do you have a favorite foraged green or excellent use for simple ground pork?

We love foraging the farm. Check out some of our other misadventures:

Monsanto’s got it all wrong: got weeds? don’t spray ‘em, eat ‘em

in which we lament: don’t hate us because we’re (not) beautiful

in which we say: My Haw!

Real Food Pantry Tricks: a freezer full of ratatouille

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A satisfying winter diet filled with veggies can be a challenge….

Sometimes, I need something warm, filling and rich that’s not soup. Something comforting and velvety in texture that can help me resist my cravings for calorie laden dishes like macaroni & cheese and mashed potatoes.

Yesterday we talked about what a flexible ingredient ratatouille is.  Today I want to show you my favorite lighter recipe and how doubling up each time I make it is one of the ways I preserve summer veggies for winter.

I found my ratatouille salvation in Martha Rose Schulman’s great cookbook for beginners, Light Basics Cookbook. Sadly, this book is out of print – it’s packed with gems, tips and tricks – particularly to those new to the kitchen. But, used copies are still available and Martha keeps a helpful online archive of her recipes, so all is not lost.

Here’s Martha Rose’s recipe for her less caloric version of ratatouille.

Except for one thing. Martha’s online recipe leaves out one slightly fussy step that makes the book version of this recipe such a treasure. Sure, you can skip it and your ratatouille will still be good, but why stop at good when you can have fantastic?

It’s only slightly fussy and the difference is well worth the effort.

The trick is reduction.  Making use of the power of reduction is one of the little-mentioned secrets of Kitchen Greats. Simmering a sauce until the water evaporates concentrates the flavor and thickens the sauce without adding flour or thickeners. It takes just a little more time and attention, but can boost a recipe from good enough to amazing.

A  reduction intensifies the flavors of my rustic fruit pies. Pan seared meat served with sauce made from reducing the pan juices and an added liquid is rich and elegant. I don’t love floury gravy for my beef stew, brisket or short ribs either. Instead, why not remove the meat & veggies to the serving dish and reduce the sauce?

Of course, you could finish by adding a knob of good butter which only makes the whole thing more plate-lickingly good…

So, how does ratatouille benefit from a reduction? Simple. After cooking, place a colander over a  large bowl. and dump the ratatouille into the colander.  The juices will drain into the bowl.

Transfer the juices to a saucepan and return the ratatouille to the casserole.

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Heat the juices to a simmer. Try to keep your boil as gentle as possible – the harder the boil, the faster the reduction, but also the more the flavor is altered by temperature. A slower simmer preserves the flavor.  And, any seasonings will intensify after being reduced so adjust to taste after the reduction, particularly the salt.

Reduce by half over medium-high heat, add your knob of butter if you wish (I wish you will), then stir the reduced juices back into the ratatouille.

This is a dish that is even better made the day before.  For best results, cook and refrigerate overnight.  Next day, serve at either room temperature or warm.

On seasoning ratatouille:  I admit that one reason I didn’t love ratatouille at first is because it tends to be heavily herbed/seasoned. Call me crazy, but I really don’t care for that.  Late tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion have more than enough flavor without and some fresh basil added just before serving is just right for me. So, if you feel the same way or just don’t have the thyme and/or oregano, don’t let that stop you. The flavor without is every bit as delicious.

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If you’re going to make one ratatouille, why not make two and save some for later?

When you’re done, take your leftovers, measure out the size you would be most likely to use at one time (if you aren’t sure, go smaller). Two cups per bag is my preferred amount.

I prepare quart freezer bags by labeling them,  rolling the tops down and standing them up on the table.

You may be wondering, so here it is: there is no way to know in advance exactly how many bags you will need, so label cautiously. You could label after filling, but it’s really hard to write on jiggly filled bags and messy & difficult for marker to adhere to frozen ones.

Carefully measure your rat into the bags, squeeze any air from the bag, seal and lay flat on its side on a baking sheet or flat plate.  Carefully stack your bags so each lays perfectly flat.  Place the stack of filled bags into the freezer, keeping as straight and level as possible.

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Freezing the bags flat on their sides on a plate or baking sheet is an important detail.  Skip it and the weight of the liquid will cause the contents to sink around the freezer racks.  The bags will become entwined around the racks, then freeze that way making it impossible for you to remove them from the freezer or stack them neatly.

Don’t ask me how I know this…

Next day, when your bags are frozen solid, you can stack them upright to save space. Plastic organizers and large freezer containers help keep everything tidy, visible and help you squeeze more in.

The more tightly packed your freezer, the more efficiently it runs. 

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Do this all summer and you’ll have a virtual library of preserved “books”.

What kinds of garden goodness is in my library? Pumpkin puree, fresh tomato sauce, squash, ratatouille, roasted beets, beet greens, cantaloupe puree, shredded zucchini, rendered lard and plum pie filling.

What’s in your freezer library? Any delectable secrets? Do share…

10 reasons you need a freezer full of ratatouille

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Last call all ye wannabe preservers.

Soon enough, we’ll be forced to choose one of our off-season options for our veggies. If you’ve been a busy preserver Ant, your winter veggies are already tucked away in jars, freezers or root cellars.

If not, you Grasshoppers can still get something put by if you hit it now. As in today.

And, if you think you would never eat vegetable stew on a regular basis, you need to work on your biggest kitchen tool of all; your brain. Not because you’re not smart, but because we’re usually too rushed to the take time to consider familiar things more deeply.  When we do, we often find there’s usually a lot more “there” there. At least it is with this vegetable stew.

The key to becoming a Jedi leftover-ninja is stocking your pantry with flexible basics.  Ratatouille is a chameleon of a staple that freezes up nicely and does lots of useful tricks:

  • Use ratatouille in omelets or frittatas
  • Pizza topping: puree to your favorite degree of chunk, add a pungent accent like capers, olives, anchovy, or hot sauce, top with grated cheese and yum.
  • Blend and use as a sauce for pasta, fish or meats – add cured black olives, nice!
  • Switch up your salad: serve room temperature ratatouille drizzled with vinaigrette over a bed of greens
  • Dip/sandwich spread – pulse in a food processor and add one or more pungent flavors like mustard, vinegar, capers or hot sauce.
  • Soup base: puree until completely smooth, then thin with your favorite stock. After that, throw in whatever else or absolutely nothing. Need I mention cream?
  • Quiche – mixed with egg, Gruyère, Parmesan and milk and baked into a crust. Mmmm, old school fast food…
  • Quesadilla – schmear Rat topped with shredded cheese between two tortillas & toast until crispy. What kid questions the Quesadilla?
  • Hand Pies/Empanadas – mix some with beans and cheese and tuck into a circle of dough. Bake or fry, or even better, tuck some uncooked into the freezer for a quickie later.
  • Quick, comforting, simple main dish: warm Rat served over cooked pasta, grain, polenta, gnocchi or noodles tossed with a little butter or oil. Top with a grated pungent cheese.

Don’t believe me? Even Thomas Keller says so.  Check out his post on the LA Times sharing some of the ways he uses ratatouille. He says:

“With a little imagination, a pot of ratatouille can be a door opening onto a whole world of dishes.”

See?  Tomorrow we’ll get busy with my favorite (lighter) ratatouille recipe and a system to make sure your freezer is filled with ooey, gooey, summer-vegetable goodness all winter.

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Today?  I just want you to think about how seriously this can make your winter better and figure out how you’re going to get your paws on the ingredients.

This is a call to action… I hope you’ll accept the challenge.

Already on board the Ratatouille train? I’m dying to know how you do Ratatouille – let us in on your ratty secrets by commenting below…

M is for cream pie

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This post is brought to you by the letter M

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Don’t be mad letter C, I know I wouldn’t have cream, coconut or cantaloupe without you. But mMother’s birthday, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day all start with the letter M. And, they all happen in the second half of the Month of May.

Something special my mother really likes is coconut cream pie. So I make coconut cream pie for her birthday. See?

Anyway, I’m really appreciating the Food 52 site lately. And this recipe from em-i-lis for coconut cream pie was, though I didn’t know until I found it, something I’ve sorely needed.

Not too sweet, rich and creamy with a dense, real custard filling – no gelatin, tapioca or other textural trickery. Pure, true and perfectly coconut. Thanks em-i-lis & Food 52 for making my day.

Even better? There’s a two-fer in this recipe. A homemade version of sweetened coconut flakes that’s so much more delicious and healthy than store-bought sweetened coconut. If you never ever make the pie, do yourself a favor and make the toasted, sweetened coconut.

I had no idea how many things were in need of a sprinkle of toasted coconut…

Bob's Red Mill coconut flakes

This is not a paid ad, I swear…

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Thanks too, Bob’s Red Mill for these amazing unsweetened coconut flakes. I like a rustic, chunkier texture which I realize not everyone will prefer, but these larger flakes toasted are unique and special.  If you favor a more delicate, finer grind, Bob’s has that too.

I know. Coconut is not local to western Pennsylvania.

While I’ve dramatically cut down on my dependence on non-local products, I still live in a world where lemons, oranges, almonds, avocados, olives, bananas and coconut are everyday items and they are sometimes impossible for me to resist too. Nor, as long as they are produced in a fair and clean way, do I see any reason I should.

Moderation, man. Moderation.

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Cantaloupe from last summer’s garden, pureed and frozen

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So, inspired by my coconut cream pie success, and cleaning out the freezer to make space for this summer’s booty, how could an idea be any more perfect than this: cantaloupe cream pie?

Em-i-lis’ recipe can easily be adapted for any pureed fruit, as long as the thickness of the fruit puree is right.

Aiming to match the texture of the coconut milk called for in the recipe, I took four cups of cantaloupe puree from the freezer and reduced it to about 1 1/2 cups, which worked out perfectly.  It doesn’t have to be exact, just pudding-thick.

Then, I followed the recipe exactly, except for these changes:

  • I replaced the coconut milk in the custard recipe with my thickened fruit puree
  • I did not add fruit puree to the whipped cream. I did use the sugar
  • I did not add flaked coconut to the cantaloupe custard
  • I kept the toasted coconut garnish since I thought it went well with the cantaloupe, but may not suit all your fruit flavors. It does add a nice texture
  • I used my favorite butter crust recipe, though em-i-lis’ crust method is pretty intriguing. If you try it, do come back and let us know how you like it

Success! Now I have a flexible, mix & match cream pie method for the juicy fruit bonanza  coming soon.

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 no weepy, runny fillings or soggy crusts need apply

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Peaches, plums, berries, cherries, pumpkin, squash… hurry up and get here already!  How about you? What’s your favorite cream pie?

lard have mercy: wonderous fried pies

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Old school fried pie – proof that pleasures can be coaxed from hard times

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Garden & Gun, I’m mad at you. And, after I’m finished hugging you, I’m going to give you the cold shoulder for a while.

Why? Fried pies, that’s why. As usually happens, this idea planted itself in my brain a while ago when I discovered April McGreger’s posts on Grist(dot)org.  Her Farmer’s Daughter brand is the ultimate dream for me – local traditions and history transformed into all kinds of award-winning deliciousness.

As much as we’d like to believe, it’s not usually high-minded sacrifice that gets us to mend our evil environmental ways, it’s decadent deliciousness. And what’s so amazing is that almost without exception, what’s best for the environment and kindest to the animals is the most extra-ordinarily tasty too.

Anyway, I’m talking fried pies here, don’t let me wander off. April posted this about her authentic fried pies in her blog and I’ve been carrying that around in my head ever since. But, April sells pies. And I want to make pies. Authentic ones.

I need a recipe.  Lucky for me, Garden & Gun shared this article about Joe Trull’s fried pies. And it’s just what I’d been looking for. The recipe gives tips & tricks to make your pies as authentic as can be.

Why did it take me so long to get around to fried pie-making?  Lard, that’s why. I didn’t want to fry my pies in Crisco or vegetable oil, I wanted the real, traditional deal. And, until I got my hands on some true leaf lard, I just wasn’t inspired. Note: if lard isn’t your thing, no problem. The recipe calls for high quality vegetable shortening, so you can do it too. 

Guess what? I’ve got leaf lard! Leaf lard is made from the fat surrounding the kidneys – it’s more delicate in flavor and texture than back fat and perfect for pastry. These pies do not taste one bit piggy.

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Leaf Lard: I used lard in the crust and as the frying oil. If you prefer shortening, go for a non-hydrogenated brand like Spectrum.

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The fat came from my own pig and I rendered 5 pounds in my crock pot – it’s not difficult at all and it’s been an amazingly useful ingredient.  If you’re interested in giving it a try, here’s a step by step tutorial from the Fat Queen herself, Jennifer McLagan. If you haven’t already, you should really check out her book Fat – it will turn your beliefs about animal fats inside-out.

See, one of the usually missing points in the debate about the affordability of sustainably raised meats is fat. We are in the habit of paying for yet throwing away all the fat from our meats then going on to purchase other commercial highly processed and/or expensive fats.

In the day, the fat carefully collected from your pig was just as important as the meat.  Prior to WWII, Lard was the most common source of cooking fat in the US. We were sold on commercial, processed fats by advertising campaigns promoting commercial fat sources as an improvement in healthfulness and hygiene, which is a post for another day.

Turns out that the fat from well raised animals – not commercial lard sold on grocery shelves – is the healthier way to go.

I’m determined to make the most from every bit of my pigs – when you get close to the source of your food, you’ll see. Every wasted scrap is an arrow to my heart.  I am not kidding…

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Rhubarb on the left, plum on the right. Note the too-thick crust on the rhubarb. Good but heavier and doughier.  1/8-inch thick is perfection…

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I tried a couple local riffs on the filling. First I went with rhubarb. I still had a pound of last fall’s rhubarb chopped and ready in the freezer. Of course, strawberries aren’t in season yet here yet and I didn’t have any of them in my freezer,  so the rhubarb went solo. It was super-tart, but without any sunny lemony-ness. Good, but not great.

If you’re a lover, don’t let me rain on your rhubarb parade, I think it’s me. I just don’t love rhubarb, and my rhubarb is the green type which only makes it more unlovable.

I hit the jackpot with some plum pie filling I put up last summer. Now, this is important. Fried pies need a filling that’s not too wet – some use dried fruits, some sweet potato and others fruit butter.  Keeping that in mind, I strained the fruit from the juice and used a generous two spoonfuls of mostly fruit to fill my pies.

Joe shares several tips in the article, mainly the thing about the not-too-wet filling, the importance of maintaining proper oil temperature and heaven help me, rolling the finished pies in a mixture of sugar and orange zest.

But I also found the dough thickness to be very important too. The 1/8-inch recommended thickness is perfect. The dough wants to be thicker, and it still tastes good that way, but the result is doughier and tougher. And you do have to pay attention while frying. The pies can burn quickly.

You must think all I eat all day is candy, cookies, cake and pie. And some days, that may be true. Hey – it’s one of the perks of being a grown-up, right?  But there is a reason I’m attracted to pie.

In the quest to make total use of every scrap of everything I grow here, pies both savory and sweet are a good trick to know. They’re universally loved and relatively cheap; it’s no accident that every culture has one version of pie or another.

I ask you: Who doesn’t like pie?  What’s your favorite way to eat things in crust?

More pie please:

rustic apple pumpkin pie
mile-high pumpkinsnap pie
rustic rhubarb tarts

building a real foods pantry: everyday cornmeal cookies

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Closest I’ll get to sunshine this cold, gray early spring day

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Sugar  Corn Pops, Bugles, Niblets, Jiffy Cornbread Mix, Fritos, and summer’s long-awaited treat corn on the cob was my childhood understanding of corn.  Then Chi Chi’s changed everything when they showed up with the tortilla chips and salsa.   And, if I hadn’t married a man who loved polenta, that would have been the complete, quickie version of my entire corn history.

Somehow, without any informed, factual reason, corn just got pushed to the back of my brain and marked second-class; lesser somehow than other whole grain options.

Is it because Corn’s crackie relatives are always attracting controversy for their freakish DNA , their miscreant behavior and their Big Food/Big Ag shenanigans?

Not sure, but  my brain somehow decided corn = not so good and locked it away.

Well. Boy, do I ever owe Corn an apology. Turns out there’s a lot more to her than the few commercial varieties used by industry in about a gazillion-and-one products. Check out what the Whole Grains Council has to say about this useful, delicious and nutritious grain.

My deeper exploration of corn started with polenta. Then came  home made cornbread. And is there any more filling and satisfying breakfast than a steaming bowl of cornmeal grits with their delicious pool of melted butter or, even better, cheese?

I have yet to grind my own cornmeal, explore hominy or make my own tortillas, but that’s sure to happen eventually.  Particularly since planting my own corn is one of this summer’s projects, and I’m very excited about the open pollinated Early Riser variety waiting in its box for the soil to warm.

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But you know what is a truly underrated use for corn? Cakes and cookies. Ask the Italians-  they know. Corn makes some super-delicious (not too) sweet treats.  Recently one chilly gray day I made these Italian cornmeal cookies, masa zaletti.

In case you haven’t noticed, I am an unashamed lover of cookies.  There is no occasion that isn’t improved with a cookie, and if there’s a person who isn’t cheered by one, I sure haven’t met them.  Since I am so helpless to resist, I prefer to keep cookies around that are more rustic, wholesome, less processed and not so sweet as store-bought brands.

And, of course anytime I cook something entirely from ingredients raised here and/or bought from local farmers instead of the grocery store, it’s a real bonus to say the least.

This particular recipe from Whole Grains for a New Generation adds a more savory element by mixing the raw fine yellow cornmeal with the New World ingredient masa harina.  Check out the printable recipe here. 

The whole batch only calls for 1/3 cup sugar, and no white flour at all, so I’d say these were a truly guilt free way to make a little sunshine of your very own.

What’s your favorite way to enjoy corn?