Saturday, April 30, 2016

In the Garden: April 2016 - Apricot Tree Removed

When we had our backyard redone a number of years ago, we had a variety of fruit trees planted: lemon, lime, apple, peach, and apricot. We requested that all of them be the dwarf variety. However, the apricot tree became a fast-growing specimen getting quite tall and taller each year. We had it trimmed a few times. But ultimately, it's size meant that the vegetable beds were not getting enough sun light. So, after two years of poor output in the vegetable beds, we finally decided the apricot tree needed to go. The only thing we had to assuage our guilt was that over the holidays a neighbor advertised that she was looking for cuttings to propagate new fruit trees. She came by and took a number of cuttings from the then dormant tree. But the transformation in the backyard is incredible. Lots more sunshine in the backyard and hoping that this year's vegetable bed out put is better.

Another benefactor of the removed apricot tree is the apple tree which spent most of its life thus far living in the shadows of the apricot tree. But this spring, the apple tree has turned around. It has literally and figuratively blossomed. So far it has not produced too much fruit but I think this year will be different.

Spent some time last weekend working our compost into the vegetable beds. All of our kitchen and yard scraps go into the green bin which gets picked up separately. This gets turned into compost. Then, each Earth Day, every resident gets 3 bags of compost for free.

So, I will let the soil rest and incorporate the new compost. Sometime in May, I will head to the nursery to pick up this year's crop.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Roasted Beets on Hummus

Around this time of year we start to get a lot of beets in the box. We've been getting better about using up the beet greens in weeknight stir-fries. For the beets themselves, I have tended to roast them and I add them to salads along with celery, carrots, and roasted almonds

But over the holidays, we were up in Healdsburg for a few days and had a very nice dinner at John Ash in Santa Rosa. One of courses was, for me, a complete standout. It was roasted beets served over a base of hummus and drizzled with a verjus vinaigrette. 

I did a little research and discovered that verjus is the pressed juice of unripe grapes. It is similar to vinegar but the flavor is more subtle and gentle. I have not seen it in the local supermarkets but it can be obtained online for $20-$25. But each brand can have its own taste and it could take one some time and money to find a brand you like.

So I have served this as a side dish a number of times at home since I had it at the restaurant--all the while thinking about how best to bring this recipe to the home cook. You can substitute rice wine or white wine vinegar for the verjus. To make a vinaigrette you want 3 parts vinegar with one part oil. I made the mistake of trying a flavored oil which didn't work at all. You can also use any type of salad dressing that's in the Italian family. Whether it's your own or bottled, you just don't want to overdo the application. The hummus and beets have plenty of flavor. The vinaigrette just heightens the existing flavors. Experiment and find your own preference. 

For the beets, you most often will find the classic red beets but golden beets are increasingly available. I used a mix on the night I took the photos. Roasting them together causes the golden beets to turn red. Wash beets thoroughly and cut off the tops and the rat tail-like base. Put them in a roasting pan with just enough water to cover the base of the dish. Cover and place them in a 350 degree oven for an hour. Remove and let cool. When they are cool enough to handle, use your fingers to peel off the skin. Cut them up and they will keep for about a week in the refrigerator. 

This is an excellent side dish that is hearty and filling. The hummus keeps it grounded but the beets are subtle, sweet but still earthy. The splashes of Italian dressing adds some brightness.

Roasted Beets on Hummus

  • 4-6 beets - roasted, peeled, and diced
  • hummus - store bought or homemade
  • vinaigrette of choice
  • Use a spoon to lay down a bed of hummus
  • Spoon some beets over the top
  • Drizzle a bit of vinaigrette over the top

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Slow Cooker Thai Butternut Squash Soup

Butternut squash is typically associated with fall but its season is fall to winter when evenings are getting cooler and the amount of sunlight begins to noticeably wane.

This is a super easy yet slightly exotic soup and it is the perfect accompaniment to the changing weather. It would be a great weeknight treat. It's also a good soup to have by the mugful on a chilly weekend while you're reading a book.

I ran into this recipe while continuing my search for ways to use the slow cooker. Karen Raye's Kitchen Treaty food blog is a nice one and is worth exploring. I've added it to my list on the right.

Her Thai Curry Butternut Squash soup is great because there are only five ingredients. The one thing you have to be careful about is the Thai Curry paste. It packs a punch. If you don't like spicy then start with 1 teaspoon. I did two teaspoons and I thought it was good but my spouse thought it was too spicy. You will need to find your comfort zone and/or the comfort zone of those you will serve this to. You can find the paste in many supermarkets these days. If not, you can order it through Amazon.

Thai Butternut Squash Soup


  • Butternut squash - 1 medium to large
  • Yellow onion - peeled and chopped
  • Broth - 4 cups
  • Thai Red Curry paste - 1 1/2 teaspoon or to taste
  • Coconut milk - 1 14 oz. can (not light)

The night before:
  • Peel, seed, and dice the butternut squash
  • Peel and chop onion
Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

The morning of:
  • Add squash, onions, and broth to your slow cooker
  • Cook on low for 8-10 hours
That evening:
  • Turn off the slow cooker and remove the lid to lower the temperature
  • When cooler, use an immersion blender to puree the soup until smooth
  • Stir in the coconut milk
  • Stir in the red curry paste
Let the flavors marry. Taste to see if you want to add more curry paste or salt. You can garnish with some roasted pepitas or pine nuts. A sprig of parsley or cilantro can also be added.

Note: One of the questions that came to mind as I was making this is whether or not I could freeze it since it has coconut milk in it. The answer I found online is that it's perfectly acceptable to freeze it. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Sweet Potato & White Bean Soup

A long time ago, I picked up a slow cooker with the intention of trying to utilize it and take advantage of the convenience. I made a pretty good bean stew and promised to try more. But I haven't really done that and whenever I look at slow cooker cookbooks I always notice how meat-heavy they are.

While walking through the cookbook section of my local library (which I do every time I visit it), a cookbook caught my attention: The Vegan Slow Cooker by Kathy Hester. I checked it out of the library, brought it home, and proceeded to page through it reading through the recipes. There were easily a dozen recipes that I wanted to try. No more needing to skip through entire chunks of the book to avoid the meat recipes.

With the author being vegan, there are parts of the book dedicated to workarounds particular to vegans. And some of the recipes looked a little bland; written perhaps with the entire country in mind. Here in California, we have so many exotic ingredients available to us. So I immediately noticed places where I could add some changes and upgrades.

I decided to start with this recipe because we had multiple bags of sweet potatoes delivered that needed to be used up. I doctored up the recipe a bit.

On this particular December day, I was able to come home for lunch and get all of the ingredients into the slow cooker. I had an after-work holiday event to attend so I knew I wouldn't be home until a few hours later than usual. So I set this up to be our late dinner.

It was nice to walk through the door and pick up the scent of the simmering soup. This is a great weeknight meal for cooler fall and winter nights. Some good bread and olive oil goes along nicely.

Sweet Potato and White Bean Soup

  • Sweet potato - About 3 medium to small potatoes, peeled and chopped into mostly equal-sized chunks
  • Garlic - 3 cloves, minced
  • Celery - 3 stalks, cleaned and chopped
  • Diced tomatoes - 1 14 oz. can
  • White beans - 1 14 oz. can of beans, drained and rinsed
  • Veggie broth - 5 cups
  • Greens - 1 15 oz. bag of prepared greens. I used a bag of baby kale leaves.
  • Parsley - leaves of 2-3 sprigs, chopped
  • Bay leaf - 1-2 leaves
  • Parmesan cheese - grated
  • White pepper - 1/4 tsp or more to taste
  • Salt and papper - to taste
  • Flour - 4 tbsp

The night before:
  • Prepare the celery and sweet potatoes and store in air-tight container in the refrigerator.
The day of:
  • Add sweet potatoes, celery, herbs, beans, tomatoes, minced garlic, white pepper and broth to the slow cooker and heat on low for 6-8 hours until potatoes are softened. 
  • Remove bay leaf and parsley sprigs. 
  • Before serving put the flour in a bowl. Ladle some broth into the bowl. Whisk to dissolve the flour. Once it is fully dissolved add it all back to the slow cooker and stir to mix.
  • About 20 minutes before serving add in greens and let them cook down.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Top with some cheese and garnish with chopped parsley leaves.
  • Serves 4.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

French Mushroom Soup

We recently attended another dinner party with our friends. The theme this time was French. We volunteered for the soup course. But I knew I did not want to make the obvious: French Onion Soup. I quickly discovered that it's hard to Google the terms "French soup" without getting overwhelmed with French Onion Soup recipes.

I decided not to go with a bouillabaisse since it seemed more of a spring or summer dish. Instead, I settled on this elegant mushroom soup, combining two recipes I found online.

The soup was a success. You don't need a big bowl since the flour, cream, and butter make it a filling soup. This is a good special occasion soup that can be part of a larger, multi-course dinner. Perfect for the holidays.

French Mushroom Soup


  • 1/2 medium onion - minced
  • Butter - 1/2 cup
  • Flour - 5-6 tablespoons
  • 12 cups broth
  • Parsley - a few sprig plus some leave chopped for garnish
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 lbs. mixed mushrooms - cremini, shiitake, oyster
  • 4 egg yolks
  • heavy cream - 1 cup
  • white wine - 1 cup
  • salt - 1 tsp. or to taste
  • white pepper - 1/2 - 1 tsp.
  • finishing salt and pepper

  • Prepare and cook onion in 4 tbsp. butter in a large stockpot over medium heat until soft.
  • Add the flour and stir for a few minutes. Do not let it brown. 
  • Pour in some of the stock and stir until flour is dissolved. Add the remaining stock.
  • Add the bay leaf and parsley sprigs and simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Strain the mixture into another stockpot.
  • In a large skillet, heat the remaining butter over medium heat. 
  • Add the mushrooms and season with salt, pepper, white pepper and cook until they have softened and browned.
  • In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks and the cream together. While whisking, add a cup of the simmering soup to the bowl. Add to soup and keep the temperature low so the yolks don't curdle.
  • Let it simmer and season to taste.
  • Using a slotted spoon, remove about half of the mushrooms to a bowl. 
  • Puree the soup with the remaining mushrooms with an immersion blender. Add back the reserved mushrooms and stir to mix.
  • Ladle soup into bowls, add a pinch of finishing salt, and garnish with chopped parsley.
  • Serves 12.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Smoked Salmon Sandwiches

We recently spent a getaway weekend with some good friends in Chicago. Our hosts nicely accommodated our pescetarian eating preferences. Because our days were full seeing the sights, we often made our lunches in the morning and enjoyed them later in the day picnic-style.

They had the fixings for these excellent smoked salmon sandwiches that we made each morning. One day, we enjoyed these sandwiches on the new 606 walkway; another day at Starved Rock State Park; and again on the shore of Lake Michigan. Since coming home, we have continued to make and enjoy these for those times you need a quick and easy dinner or a weekend lunch.

One of the key ingredients is the Trader Joe's Wasabi Mayonnaise. If you don't have a Trader Joe's nearby you can Google the term and find some workaround recipes that you can make at home. It is worth it to take the time to have this ingredient in the sandwich.

If you have Trader Joe's and a Costco nearby you are set.

Smoked Salmon Sandwiches

  • Slices of smoked salmon
  • Havarti cheese - sliced
  • Arugula (or spinach)
  • Trader Joe's Wasabi Mayonnaise
  • Pesto
  • Bread
One slice gets pesto. The other gets the wasabi mayonnaise. Add the smoked salmon to one side and top with cheese. Add a layer of arugula.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Butternut Squash and Pear Soup

Fall into Winter. The CSA box is delivering lots of apples, baby bok choy, butternut squash, and leeks. So we are eating with the seasons.

In October,  I found some of this soup in our deep freezer. It was quite good. The different sweetnesses definitely marry over time. The coconut milk adds a nice silkiness.

Since I had the ingredients on hand, I decided to make the soup again tonight fresh. I might try to roast the butternut squash next time to see if that adds another layer of flavor.

It was still quite tasty. The butternut squash flavored is tempered with a little sweetness from the pears. The coconut milk adds its own dimension. A good one for cold fall and winter dinners.

Butternut Squash and Pear Soup


  • Olive oil - 3 Tbsp.
  • Butternut squash - 1 medium or 2 small - peeled, seeded, and chopped into 1 inch blocks
  • Leeks - 1 large or 2 medium, white and tender green parts chopped
  • Bartlett pears - 2 or 3 ripe pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1 inch blocks
  • Broth - 5 cups
  • Coconut milk - 1 14 oz. can of light coconut milk
  • Garnish: Dried chives or roasted pumpkin seeds or be creative
  • Salt and white pepper to taste

  • Heat olive oil over medium low heat. Add chopped leeks and cook, stirring often, about 10 minutes.
  • Prepare butternut squash and pears and add to leeks. Saute for 5 minutes.
  • Add broth and bring to a boil.
  • Lower heat to medium-low and simmer until squash is fork tender (minimum 20 minutes).
  • Using an immersion blender or standard blender, puree the soup.
  • Season with salt and white pepper.
  • Add coconut milk.
  • Cook down to desired consistency.
  • Garnish and plate.
Serve with some crusty, high quality bread with either butter or olive oil.

Original inspiration: