Still Life, With Cats

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Kitchen Adventures

A bit of this and a bit of that

I like to cook. I am not a gourmet chef by any stretch of the imagination, but I prefer to use fresh ingredients when possible, and we’re really focused on minimizing the use of anything from a can or a box (unless it was something I canned myself). I subscribe to dozens of food blogs and bookmark tons of recipes and I love trying to make new things. Sometimes they’re successful; other times, not so much, and then that’s why delivery pizza is such a wonderful invention.

I cobbled together two things recently that turned out pretty tasty. The first (which I tossed together on Friday) involved some chicken breasts and mushrooms and a large onion, chopped, plus a few frozen cubes of Meyer lemon juice (from last year’s crop), and a bunch of garlic, tossed into a crockpot and cooked slowly all day. I tasted it near the end and it was kind of flat, so I tried adding a bit more garlic, and then I tried adding in a bit of thyme, but nothing really seemed to do the trick, plus I was really looking for that lemon flavor, and then I remembered that last year, when faced with a bumper crop of those aforementioned Meyer lemons and not wanting to make another metric ton of lemon curd (and I do love lemon curd but seriously, there is only so much of that we can consume in a year, and our tree, while small, is prolific), I put up a whole half-gallon jar of preserved lemons. And they have been sitting in the refrigerator for about a year, because I had no clue what to *do* with them.

Preserved lemons, by the way, are nothing more than lemons cut into quarters, seeded, and packed into a jar with a whole lot of salt and then left in a dark corner of the refrigerator to sit and marinate for a while. The salt extracts the juice and breaks down the rind, so that when you finally dredge out a piece later, the rind is soft and pliable. They are very salty (obviously) and very bitter since you’re basically eating the rind, but they have just the strong lemon flavor I was looking for. I pulled out four segments, tossed the slimy pulp and then chopped up the rinds up into teeny pieces and stirred them into my chicken creation. Perfect! Granted, I have no clue how to recreate this, since aside from the lemon components, I didn’t bother measuring anything else I threw in there. Ah well.

The second was what I had for lunch today. We had a leftover yam in the fridge, and I was hungry, so I chopped up about one quarter of it, tossed it in a pan with a little olive oil, and just about as it was almost cooked, I added in one egg whisked with a dash of soy sauce, and a few heaping spoonfuls of brown rice. The soy sauce made the eggs a little grey, and a few of the yam pieces got a bit burnt when I was distracted removing a certain grey tabby cat from the dining table where he was trying to shove the box of jigsaw puzzle pieces onto the floor, so it wasn’t the most attractive of dishes, but oh my was it tasty. And at least this one I should be able to recreate again if ever I am in the mood.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.


Oh look. It’s October already. And this year that means things get a radical shift in the kitchen. Okay, maybe not all that radical, since we weren’t doing too horribly bad about things beforehand, but this year, Richard and I are taking part in the October Unprocessed challenge. Granted, the word ‘unprocessed’ is a bit misleading for this challenge, since just the act of chopping or cooking is by its very nature ‘processing’. But the point of the challenge is that if it’s not something that the average person could make at home, or the ingredients list includes things that were manufactured in a chemistry lab, it should be avoided.

So far, we’re not doing too badly, although it’s only been two days yet, and weekend days are a lot different than week days when it comes to having time to cook. Of course it helps that yesterday we made our yearly pilgrimage up to Apple Hill, so pretty much the only things we ate all day were made of apples, and were made by hand at the farms (shh, we’re ignoring the ice cream on the pie). Today I made bread and for dinner we made a huge pot of dal. We followed that recipe pretty closely, but added a chopped zucchini (because the monster zucchini plant of doom is STILL producing, for crying out loud). As an aside, should you be interested in that recipe, bear in mind that it makes a LOT. Unless you have a large and hungry family, or are intending to serve this to a crowd, I’d recommend halving the recipe, at a minimum. I ended up stashing about half of it in the freezer, because while it turned out really delicious, there are only so many days in a row either of us is willing to eat leftovers of something before we get completely sick of it (and I suspect that given the amount left that *didn’t* end up in the freezer, we’re going to be bringing leftover dal for lunch all this coming week).

I know we’ll be running into a few interesting surprises as we go through this month. I hit the first one bright and early yesterday morning, when I went to set up my first cup of coffee of the day, took a look at the ingredients in the flavored creamer that I always use, and realized that it did not meet the criteria for ‘unprocessed’ by any stretch of the imagination. Luckily I stumbled across a blog post from someone else who’s doing the challenge who ran into exactly the same problem, and she linked to these recipes. This afternoon I made a batch of the Cinnamon Strudel (which smells just like a freshly baked cinnamon roll) and when I’m done with that, I think I’ll give the French vanilla a try. In the meantime, if anyone stumbles across a recipe to make my own hazelnut creamer, that meets the criteria for the Unprocessed Challenge, let me know!

As I noted above, the zucchini plant is still chugging along, although at a thankfully slower pace than earlier in the summer. The tomatoes are also showing signs of slowing down, although based on the number of tomatoes we put in, ‘slowing down’ still results in me filling the freezer and having to process another dozen or so pints of sauce every few weeks. With what’s left from last summer, and everything I’ve put up this summer, we’re not going to have to buy tomato sauce (or pizza sauce, or marinara sauce) for a good long time. The cucumber and peppers, however, have hit their end point, so this morning we spent about half an hour doing some clean-up, hacking back the worst of the blackberry vines and pulling up an embarrassingly large number of weeds. Then we put in the first batch of cold-weather plants – lettuce, sugar snap peas, scallions, and spinach. Later on, I’ll get some beans and shelling peas started, and maybe even try carrots again, and maybe, if we’re really lucky, the snail and slug population in the neighborhood will take a drastic turn for the worse and we might actually get a decent winter crop.


Right now, the freezer drawers are full of gallon bags, stuffed with tomatoes. And the tomato plants outside are still full of tomatoes – most of them still green, but some of them that probably should have been harvested earlier this week, except that there were too many awkwardly placed spider webs and neither of us felt like trying to dislodge them while they were currently occupied by extremely large garden spiders, nor did we have any idea quite where to put any more tomatoes if we picked them in the first place. I have made red wine marinara sauce, and garden vegetable salsa, and still there are so very many tomatoes left to deal with, and I am running low on clean pint jars into which to put them after processing. Plus we still have plain tomato sauce left – at least a dozen pints of it – from *last* summer. All of which brings me to tonight’s decision to do Something With Tomatoes for dinner, except that I didn’t want to have to go to the grocery store and I didn’t want to have to thaw any of the whole tomatoes, and I didn’t want to have to do anything more than toss something into a pot and then walk away and immerse myself into a book until dinner magically finished all on its own. Or in other words, all of this is just a long-winded explanation of why tonight, I finally tried Marcella Hazen’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter.

I have seen a number of people gushing about this recipe on various food blogs, so I admit I was a bit skeptical about it at first, because I am used to my pasta sauce being full of herbs and chunks of vegetables; the sort of thing that takes a whole bunch of ingredients and a whole lot of time to put together. But there is a reason why people have been gushing about this sauce. It really is just as fabulous as everyone says. It only takes three ingredients, and best of all, even though it takes 45 minutes, it is exactly the sort of recipe where you can just throw everything into a pot and turn on the heat and then walk away.

Here is how you make this sauce (at least my version of it). Chop up one large onion and toss it into a big pot with about 5 tablespoons of butter. Pour in two pint jars of home-canned plain tomato sauce. Simmer over medium heat for about 45 minutes, or until sauce is thickened and the onions are translucent. About fifteen minutes before the sauce is done, start some water boiling for pasta, and if you time it just right, you should be draining your noodles just about the time your sauce is ready to go. If you are like me and only ever use unsalted butter, and tend to can your tomato sauce with no seasoning at all, you’ll probably want to add a few dashes of salt at the very end, but otherwise, resist the urge to doctor it up in any other way.

For such a simple recipe I have to admit, I was really surprised by how delicious it turned out. The onion imparts a lot of flavor into the tomato base, and the butter adds an element of complexity to the flavors. I am always happy when something so simple turns out so well – especially when it’s the sort of thing that makes use of something I’ve got in excess. We’ll definitely be making this recipe again. But next time, I’m going to make sure we have some kind of bread to go with the meal, if only to have some kind of method of somehow extracting every remaining bit of sauce off the plates.


The blackberry vines we planted last year are currently going crazy. Basically, they have spent the last twelve months going from two puny little stalks to doing their level best to take down the fence between us and the next door neighbors. The vines have been covered in flowers, and berries are popping out all over. Only recently, however, have some of them been ripe enough to pick, although admittedly it’s taking us a little while to figure out exactly when that might be. My excuse is that I think berries are horrid, nasty tasting things full of seeds, but Richard loves the little suckers, so I’d have thought at least one of us would be better prepared to distinguish a ripe berry from a not-quite-ripe one. Ah well.

Anyway. Aside from the random strawberry or three every few days, so far the only thing coming out of our garden right now is blackberries. Lots and lots of blackberries. Last night, we picked a great mound of them – big, fat berries that stained our fingers red. So what does one do with a giant pile of blackberries? Do you really have to ask that question? Obviously, I had to make jam.

Time between when they were picked off the vines and when the jars were pulled out of the boiling water bath to cool on the counter – just about two hours. Richard licked the spoon when I was done filling the jars and pronounced it delicious. I did not share his opinion, but that has more to do with the fact that I cannot stand the vile little fruits than any actual commentary on the state of the jam itself.

There are still oodles more of them on the vines, so it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to be dealing with large quantities of blackberries in the near future. I’m looking forward to giving other recipes a try – perhaps some blackberry syrup, or blackberry jelly, or even (if they get too out of hand) squeezing some of them down to juice and using them to dye some yarn (several kitchen towels are now sporting spots of the most beautiful blue).

From the oven

Let’s say you are in the mood to bake something. Maybe cookies. Shortbread is really quick and easy and only takes a few ingredients – all of which you always have on hand (you *do* always have these on hand, right?). Except you’re also in the mood for peanut butter.

This is what you should make.

Peanut Butter Shortbread

1 cup flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup butter (4 tablespoons)
1/4 cup peanut butter (whatever kind you like best)

Stir together flour, sugar and salt. Using a pastry cutter, or your hands, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Knead dough with hands until it comes together.

Press dough into an 8×8 inch baking pan. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, until lightly brown at the edges.

Let the shortbread cool completely before cutting into 20 – 32 pieces. Yes, really. I’m serious on this one. While you might be able to get away with eating regular shortbread straight from the pan, if you try a piece of this one while it’s still warm, you will have hot peanut butter goodness immediately coat your entire mouth and will be unable to do anything but make vague squeaking noises until you gulp down something to drink. As a side note to Richard’s writerly friends upon who I foisted this experiment, please accept my apologies for not realizing this would be an issue before I gave you still-warm-from-the oven cookies.

Should you decide to sprinkle about half a cup of semisweet chocolate chips on top of the cookies as soon as they are removed from the oven, and then once melted, spread that chocolate all over the cookies before you cut them, more power to you. Is it possible that one of us is considering adding a thin layer of additional peanut butter in between the cookie and the chocolate, just to ramp things up a bit? Maybe. But how about we keep that our little secret for now.


Well. NaBloPomo went well, hmm? Or…not. On to Holidailies, then. We’ll see if this goes any better.

Every year I try to make pomegranate jelly. Pomegranates are usually insanely expensive in the stores, which is especially galling considering how well they grow around here, so I usually try to find someone with a tree who wants to get rid of them (it always surprises me how many people have pomegranate trees but don’t like pomegranates). For the last few years, I’ve gotten pomegranates from a friend of my mom’s. She passes along a bag of fruit, and I pass back a few jars of jelly in payment once I’m done processing them. She gets rid of her pomegranates; I get to make jelly, and we’re all happy.

This year Richard and I went out to their house to pick them ourselves, since the trees had gotten a bit huge. We were a bit unprepared for the sheer scope of what we were dealing with. In the past we’ve been given a paper sack or two, with enough pomegranates for just a few batches of jelly. This time, however, we were faced with two huge trees, loaded with pomegranates – some of them of massive size. And they really wanted us to take them all.

This is what we came home with:

That is 107 pomegranates. Do you have any idea how long it takes to shuck 107 pomegranates?

So far I have made 3 batches of pomegranate jelly, 1 batch of pomegranate syrup, and 1 batch of grenadine. I had no idea grenadine was made from pomegranates, but then I am not a drinker, and before this past month I had never actually had a Shirley Temple.

There are still about 1 1/2 dozen pomegranates sitting on my kitchen island, waiting to be shucked, but I am so heartily sick of shucking pomegranates that I admit sometimes I try to pretend I just do not see them. Maybe if I leave them there long enough the magical elves will come along and shuck them for me. Or maybe I’ll just get tired of Rupert and Ingrid flinging the smaller ones onto the floor and finally deal with them myself.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies