Thinking Outside the (Recipe) Box

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A Local Dinner

Before I moved to St. Croix, I was an adherent recipe fanatic.  For me, cooking a nice meal involved three steps:

  1. Find a good recipe
  2. Go to the grocery store or market and shop
  3. Cook.

There was often also a fourth step, which was – what do I do with the leftover ingredients I didn’t use?  For example, if a recipe called for a half of a head of cabbage, what did I do with the other half?  Generally it just languished in my fridge in the back of the crisper drawer, like some lonely forgotten thing, until in a week or so it was no longer recognizable and – out it went into the compost pile.

This was not only a very wasteful way to cook (do you know how much food is wasted in the United States?), but it was also very sad!  Food should be a joy, cooking should be love, and a home cook should be in harmony with her ingredients.  And once I moved to St. Croix and was faced with the daily task of – what to cook?  A lot of my recipe fanaticism went out the window.

Recipes for me now are guidelines.  I find a recipe I like and examine it, and then I pull it apart – I first ask, “hm, what can I replace in the recipe with a local ingredient?”  This is generally pretty simple.  Most tender vegetables substitute pretty easily for each other.  Don’t have asparagus?  Use local squash or zucchini.  Don’t have cabbage?  Use local bok choy.  Don’t have spinach?  Use local greens like kale or mustard greens.   You can also substitute honey for agave nectar, and coconut oil for most other oils (be aware it does add coconut flavor).  Jalapenos can be replaced with local hot peppers.  Peaches can be replaced with mangoes.  Apples can be replaced with sopadilla.  Local honey vinegar goes well in salad dressings instead of wine vinegar.  The possibilities are endless!

Meats can be a bit more of a challenge (and this year part of my advocacy goals is to increase local meat awareness), but you can buy local beef at Annaly farm, or local chickens, lamb, and rabbit at Sejah farm.  A local chicken comes whole, so learning basic butchering skills if you want to cut it up into parts is simple and fresh, and can be done for any chicken recipe.  Or you can roast the bird whole and then flake the meat for a recipe.  It isn’t hard to do!

The key to this method of cooking is simple – it is TASTE.  Taste your food, taste your ingredients, and consider what goes well together.  And if something doesn’t work out, don’t be upset, change it up in the next recipe.  I have a compost pile here at home and and area in our back yard where I make “offerings” to the local mongooses and iguanas of food that we aren’t going to eat!  So now, I’m throwing out as little as possible.

And that is the other side benefit of this type of cooking – now, when I have half a head of bok choy left to cook, instead of throwing it out because I don’t have a recipe, I am now seeking a way to add it to the next dish I prepare.  Much less waste!  And much more taste!  This is the delight of cooking with fresh, local, seasonal St. Croix ingredients at home.  So now my steps are:

  1. Shop for local foods
  2. Consider how to add them to dishes/find a recipe to use that can include them
  3. Cook.

And my cooking life is much more simple and joyful, and closer to the Earth.  As it should be.

*For a wonderful read on how to shop at your Farmers Market and prepare your week’s dishes in a simple and sustainable fashion, I recommend “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace” by Tamar Adler.  Read this book.  It will change your cooking relationship with food tremendously.

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Crispy Seeded Chickpea Crackers and Roasted Vegetable Tomato Bruschetta

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Tonight I thought I’d share with you two recipes that we eat fairly often around this house – they are both Vegan, Gluten-Free, and Paleo (with one change), and absolutely delicious!  The bruschetta mixture takes advantage of whatever local vegetables are in season, and the crispy chickpea crackers are a wonderful substitute for traditional toasted bread rounds as a base for the bruschetta.

Both of these recipes are simple to prepare, but take a bit more time due to baking in the oven.  But, both can be prepared way ahead of serving time, and actually get even better as they sit, as the flavors meld in the bruschetta as it rests – so don’t worry about timing this one out from stove to table, rather just take the steps as they fit into your schedule.   There are even several places where you can set the recipe aside and finish it later, if you like, to prepare for guests or to have with other dishes – up to you!  Just let your time in the kitchen flow and don’t pressure yourself with a timetable, because there isn’t one here.

I always start with the chickpea crackers first, as they need to be baked and cooled before they are finished, and while they cool I can roast the vegetables and prep the tomatoes for the bruschetta.  I’ve taken and adapted a recipe for traditional Socca, which is a street food dish from France and Spain, and given it an Indian twist as I’ve found in one of my favorite cookbooks, Heaven’s Banquet by Miriam Kasin Hospodar.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and then you begin with an empty food processor (or a bowl with a mixer), into which you place equal amounts of chickpea (also sometimes called garbanzo) flour and water.  I use Bob’s Red Mill brand, which can be bought locally at Plaza Extra, and sometimes at CostULess.   For this recipe, I use two cups of flour and two cups of water, and one teaspoon of salt.

Chickpea Flour in the Processor

Blend it all together just until a smooth batter forms, about the same as pancake batter.  The main point is just to eliminate any lumps.  Again, you could do this in a bowl with a handheld mixer or even a whisk, if you wanted the arm workout!

After it’s blended, grease a 9×13 inch pan and have it ready, and then pour the batter into a saucepan on the stove and add your seeds.  I used Charnushka seeds, which are a traditional India seasoning seed, but you can use cumin seed instead.  You can also try other seeds and see which ones you like, such as mustard seeds, fennel seeds, sesame seeds – there are many possibilities, just go with what you like!

Charnushka Seeds

Chickpea Batter with Charnushka Seeds

Slowly heat the batter over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens.  You’ll know it’s thick enough when it separates away from the bottom of the pan while you whisk.  Small lumps in the batter are okay, but if larger ones form whisk it until the lumps go away, or run it through the processor again.

Chickpea Batter Thickening

Pour the batter into the greased 9×13 pan.  Smooth and shake it around until it forms a thin layer on the bottom, which will be about 1/4 inch thick.  Then drizzle olive oil over the top and spread it around with the back of a spoon.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, just a shine of olive oil over the surface.

Chickpea Batter Ready for Oven

Then place the pan in your preheated 350 degree oven and set the timer for 30 minutes.

While that is baking, it’s time to move onto roasting the vegetables for the bruschetta!  I basically go through the ‘fridge and see what we have that needs eating from my latest market run.  I also prefer to have fresh local tomatoes because they really make the flavor of the bruschetta sing – so this is a great dish for this time of year while tomatoes in season.  For tonight’s bruschetta I used a few various local zucchini and a local eggplant in addition to the tomatoes, but I have also used asparagus (not local, bought at Quality Food), green beans, and peppers – think warm weather vegetable crops that will hold their texture as they’re roasted.  I opted to not use the mushrooms in this picture as they would get too soft in the oven for bruschetta, so I’m going to roast them separately for another dish tomorrow.

Local Veggies for Bruschetta

I peeled and chopped the eggplant, and peeled and chopped up the white zucchini (I find this variety has a thicker skin that is better removed), and then chopped the green zucchinis as well.  Throw all the chopped pieces onto a roasting pan and toss them with olive oil and salt.  Notice that the pieces are slightly larger than bite size, as they will reduce as they cook and you want the bruschetta to still be chunky.  I also don’t mind that the pan is crowded, as these veggies are better a bit more tender and not as dry as they would be if they were roasting with more space between the pieces.  Also notice that I am not roasting the tomatoes – those are used fresh in the bruschetta.

Chopped Bruschetta Veggies

Set this pan aside and wait for the chickpea crackers to finish baking.  The crackers will be done after baking for the 30 minutes, after which time take them out of the oven and let them cool – the surface of the pan will be cracked somewhat, which is good, and the texture will be dry and slightly chewy.

Baked Chickpea Batter

Then turn the temperature up on the oven to 400 degrees, and place the roasting pan of veggies in the oven for another 30 – 45 minutes to roast and reduce.  Go walk the dog or read a book or something, and then come back and take them out and also set them aside to cool.

Roasted Veggies

While both pans rest, chop your tomatoes and put them in a bowl.  Then chop up a handful of good fresh basil – I used a sweet Thai basil that Doug has been growing in our garden lately.  It has a wonderful flavor!  Set the basil aside to add into your veggie mixture.

Chopped Tomatoes

Thai Basil

When the roasted veggies are cooled, pour them in the bowl as well and add the chopped basil on top.  Add about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil, and 2 – 4 Tablespoons of balsamic or red wine vinegar – whatever is good to your taste.  Salt and pepper, mix it all up, and then set the bowl in the refrigerator to cool (the bruschetta tastes better slightly chilled) while you finish the chickpea crackers.

Mixing Up the Bruschetta

For the last step of the crackers, heat about 1/8 inch of oil in the bottom of a flat-bottomed pan.  You just want enough for the crackers to brown in, but not be completely submerged, so that they fry on each side.  I have been using grapeseed oil as I like the neutral flavor, but you could also use olive oil or even ghee or palm oil (to make it paleo).  There are several different opinions around regarding your choice of oil these days, so just use the one that you prefer for your particular diet – it doesn’t make much change to the flavor, other than ghee, which makes the crackers much more buttery!

Take a sharp knife over to your pan of crackers and cut the crackers into 2-inch squares.  For a 9×13 pan, I get about 12 good-sized crackers.  Lift them out of the pan with a flat spatula – be a bit careful, as they are thin and can break – and then lower them into the hot oil to brown on both sides.  Fry the crackers about 2 minutes on each side, flipping in between – they should have a nice golden color.

Frying Chickpea Crackers

Remove them to a paper towel to cool.  You will be tempted to try one right away, but don’t!  They stay hot for several minutes, as the beans hold the heat – I’ve burnt my tongue more than once!  Just let them cool, and then you can either go ahead and top them with the bruschetta, or put them in a storage container for later.  They keep at room temperature for 1 – 2 days, but they never last longer than 24 hours in our house!

Cooling Chickpea Crackers

Last step – take your crackers, and top them with the bruschetta, or set them with the bruschetta to use them to dip it up.  Be as simple or as decorative as you like, it tastes yummy whichever way you choose.

Here’s how I served the bruschetta to Doug:

Cripy Seeded Chickpea Crackers and Bruschetta

And here’s how I ate it (’cause the cook can’t wait, yanno):

The Cook's Bruschetta

And here’s how Doug ate it.  Yum!

Doug's Bruschetta

And either way, it was DELICIOUS.   Eating fresh, local vegetables brings such flavor to food, that once you’ve begun to experience it, you’ll never go back to stale store-bought vegetables again.

I hope you enjoy these simple recipes, and try them and adapt them to whatever you have fresh in your kitchen.  Eat local, St. Croix, and ENJOY!!

Clean Out the ‘Fridge Soup!

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I started poking through the refrigerator last night and realized I had some vegetables that were going to go past their prime if I didn’t cook them soon.  I also had a bit of chicken left from the roasted local chicken I made on New Year’s Day, so it made sense that it was time for a big pot of “Clean Out the ‘Fridge” Soup!

“Clean Out the ‘Fridge” soup is pretty simple.  It’s really just whatever you want to throw in, with some simple seasonings and an hour or two to simmer.  I started by taking inventory of the vegetables that needed to be used – and the ones that I wanted to add “just because.”

Clean Out the 'Fridge Ingredients

I started with a couple of carrots, celery hearts, mushrooms, some of the local tomatoes, and figured it was time for me to cut up and roast the local pumpkin before it got soft.  I decided to add 1/4 of it to the soup, and roast the rest for later.

Cut Pumpkin

Gorgeous inside, right?  This pumpkin came from Sejah Farm.

Soup and Pumpkin Getting Started

I chopped up the carrot, celery, 1/4 of the pumpkin, and left the pumpkin in large pieces to roast.  I put a bit of water in the pan with the pumpkin and then covered the whole pan with foil, and roasted it at 350 degrees for an hour (or until soft).

More Tasty Ingredients!

And here’s the soup with the tomato and mushrooms chopped up and added!  I decided to toss in some frozen green beans as well, and then started getting creative and went out to the garden for some japanese greens, which I gave a quick rinse in the sink before slicing them up and tossing them into the pot.

Japanese Greens and Amaranth

Last, I shredded the leftover chicken, tossed in a can of chickpeas, added some vegetable bouillon paste, salt, pepper, dried oregano, and put the pot on to simmer for a while.  I want to point out that with soup like this, I don’t worry too much about how I chop up the vegetables.  The most important thing is that they are all bite-sized pieces, and that they fit on the spoon when they are being eaten!  So some of the mushrooms are cut in wedges, other in squares…I don’t care.  Save the perfect little diced cubes for when you’re entering a cooking competition, but at home all that matters is that it tastes good and is easy to eat.

Soup Set to Simmer

And here’s the soup at the finish.  I stirred in some tomato paste because I decided to give it a bit more tomato richness, but that’s purely optional.

Clean Out the 'Fridge Soup

And, as a bonus, here’s the pumpkin puree – scooped out of the shell after cooking and popped in the freezer for future dishes…like pumpkin bread…or one of my favorites, pumpkin lasagna!

Frozen Pumpkin Puree

The best thing about making a soup like this is that it carries over for several meals, and is even better the next day.  It would also go well mixed with rice, or pasta, or a loaf of crusty bread.  I had it for breakfast.  🙂

So when your vegetables are starting to wilt, don’t throw them away…make a big pot of soup, and enjoy the abundance of flavors!

Braised Lettuce and Peas, Cucumber Salad, Avocados, and Grits

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For the next meal from Saturday’s shopping trip, I wanted to use up all the lovely butter lettuce, as it wilts quickly!  I found this recipe on Food Network (a site I go to quite often):  Braised Lettuce and Peas.  I’ve never cooked lettuce before, so I was willing to experiment – I wanted to do something other than simply make a salad.  And since I had some frozen peas in the freezer,this seemed a perfect way to use them both!  The recipe calls for shallots, though, which really can’t be found on St. Croix (at least not very fresh), so instead I substituted the last of the organic onions.

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I also had some organic grits, and I thought those would go well with the lettuce and peas, so I got that out too.

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I chopped up lettuce, tossed in the pot with the peas.  Grits on to boil.

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Chopped up the cucumbers, tossed with pepper, salt, and a splash of white wine vinegar…and then I noticed the lovely ripe avocado just waiting to be eaten (doesn’t it look lonely in the photo?).  So that was sliced up to add to the meal.

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And done.  A simple weekend meal.  Doug likes hot sauce on his grits and avocados, so I sprinkled a bit on top before serving it to him.

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The butter lettuce was very good cooked!  I think next time I’ll wait a bit longer before tossing the lettuce in to cook with the peas so it doesn’t cook down so much.  It seems to me that maintaining a bit more of the “leafiness” vs. a spinach-like texture would be nicer.  But it still was very tasty, and another experiment done.  So don’t be shy about experimenting with food, especially for a daily meal…you just might surprise yourself with how good it turns out!

Grilled Veggie Tacos with Butter Lettuce

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So there’s a delicious pile of fresh veggies sitting in the kitchen, and now the fun begins!  But before the cooking begins though, a few thoughts.

As I talk with others about buying and preparing local foods, another statement I frequently hear is, “I see all these great vegetables, but I don’t know what to do with them.”  Or, “I don’t have a recipe for them.”  I understand both those statements.  But the key to buying and preparing local is to be inspired by the food, and not the other way around!  We’ve been taught as cooks to go through three steps:  1) Find a recipe; 2) Go buy ingredients, and; 3) Prepare.   This is actually a very wasteful way to cook!  Invariably, when buying ingredients, too much of one ingredient is purchased (due to packaging) and some is thrown out – or, left to languish and rot in the refrigerator because there isn’t another recipe handy to cook with it.

When cooking locally though, the food is the inspiration!  Every week when I do my shopping trip(s), I have no idea what I’m going to prepare that week…that’s actually part of the fun.  I head out and I buy what looks freshest and tastiest, bring it home, and then I start to think about what I’m going to prepare.  Cooking this way means that I will use all of my ingredients and that I will be preparing food that’s as fresh as possible – and therefore, healthy as possible!  Oh, and delicious too, yep yep yep.  Doug and I eat very well, simple foods and simple meals that are filled with flavor, because we are eating foods that haven’t been sitting on a shelf or in a cooler for weeks and weeks.

Also, local cooking does not need to be complicated!  Really, everyday meals do not need to be elaborate cooking events that take several hours to prepare.  When I’m cooking for just Doug and myself, most of the time it’s a pretty simple dish, or a combination of a few simple dishes.  Doug eats vegan most of the time, so often much of what I prepare is vegetable dishes, which can be simple or elaborate depending upon my mood.  I often will choose a recipe based upon ingredients I have in the kitchen to prepare, but I freely exchange ingredients depending upon what I have.  So feel free, experiment, taste, cook, and enjoy!

And now for the first meal from yesterday’s shopping trip.

Doug bought me a grill for Christmas, which I’ve been dying to have!  I chose a charcoal grill, a Weber, which I’ve owned previously in the past and really enjoy.  So last night I wanted to fire it up and try it out with something simple.  I decided to grill some of the veggies and make vegan tacos for Doug, since he’s been craving some simple meals.

I started by choosing the veggies that I knew would grill best.  I pulled out some of the eggplants, the green bell peppers, and some non-local organic onions that I bought at Quality Food.  I did notice yesterday on my shopping trip that ARTfarm now has local onions in season, so I’ll be buying those next week!

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Washed, chopped, and in the grill basket (I LOVE this grill basket!)

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Getting the fire ready…wait, how did that get in the pic?  *grins*

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Next some seasoning.  I use Penzey’s spices almost exclusively for my cooking spices.  This blend of Szechuan pepper and sea salt is very tasty on vegetables – slightly spicy, and it has a warm earthy flavor.

IMG_2262Basket on the grill…wait…toss…drink more wine…

IMG_2268And then we’re done!  I had some tortillas left from the batch I made on Friday, so it served as the shell of the taco.  I lined it with some of the butter lettuce leaves, and filled with the roasted veggies…and topped off with Miss Anna’s hot sauce (made on St. Croix)!

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And…eat!  Doug said it was quite tasty.

One simple meal down, more on the way.  I’m getting ready to start preparing lunch, stay tuned!  😀