Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sunny Sunchoke Pickles

The first time someone served me sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), it was pureed - a sort of creamy mash with a nutty flavor. The next time I ate them, they were served as creamy sunchoke mush... and the next, well, I think you get the point. What do you do with a little root that looks like a potato or a piece of ginger, and is sold as an "artichok" (see below)? Apparently, you mash it with butter. Don't get me wrong, I love things mashed with butter. It's one of my favorite ways to eat, well, anything, but it also seems a shame to mask the interesting shape and flavor of this relative of the sunflower by treating it like a potato with an identity crisis.

I wanted to branch out a bit, so I pickled mine! I'm not going to claim this was complete ingenuity - people have been making sunchoke relish and pickles for centuries, but I was pleased to make something fresh and crisp from the oft-mashed veggie.

It seems that the culinary world is a bit confused by this tuber, and if you look at its history, you shouldn't be surprised. The sunchoke is one of the few tubers native to this part of the world - indigenous peoples of America have been growing and eating sunchokes for centuries. Apparently, the Europeans were subject to rumors that the plant was dangerous if eaten. Some brave soul decided to try one anyway (maybe in a game of truth or dare), and figured out that it was mighty tasty. After this, the story goes that some French explorer took some plants back to an Italian friend, who, upon remarking that its flavor resembled an artichoke, named the tuber "girasole articicco," meaning, "sunflower artichoke."

Like a game of telephone gone goofy, English speakers flubbed up the name and called in a Jerusalem Artichoke - though they have absolutely no connection to the holy city. Ah, but the name stuck, and perhaps the early myths of the danger have survived through history, because these tasty guys are still on the fringes of the culinary world. Don't worry, they are only myths. The sunchoke is the root of the Helianthus tuberosus, which looks like a mini sunflower. Also, they seem to be a good starch alternative for diabetics, because the substance that allows the tuber to make it through the winter, inulin (not insulin), breaks down into fructose instead of glucose during digestion. Sunchokes are completely safe, even if they won't be winning any beauty contests.

It was pretty empowering to make a batch of pickles, even if they were simply refrigerator pickles that didn't require any special sterilization or months of waiting. My roommates weren't too happy that I made the house smell like vinegar and spices, but by now they are used to my kitchen escapades and didn't complain. Much. A week in the fridge, and these pickles were ready for eating. They are so good, I've thrown in a bunch of veggies to the juice to pickle-ify them. The sunchokes themselves taste a bit like artichokes with the texture of jicama. A great way to try the weird looking tubers from the farmers market, with no danger at all. Well, except that vinegar smell.

Good luck, and Eat Well!

Oakley's Sunchoke Pickles

2 pounds sunchokes
1 red bell pepper
1 quart water, plus 1 cup
4 tablespoons salt, divided in half
3 cups cider vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Cut the sunchokes and bell peppers into thick slices (about 1/4 inch), and combine with the water and 2 tablespoons of salt. Let soak overnight in the fridge. Drain and rinse well.
Bring the cider vinegar, 1 cup of water, the remaining 2 tablespoons of salt, sugar, and all the spices to a boil for 6 minutes. Plug your nose and alert your roommates.
Pack a jar (or jars) with sunchokes and peppers, and pour the hot vinegar mixture over the veggies up to 1/2 inch below the neck. Place any remaining spices in the pot into the jars. Allow to cool, cover, and store in the refrigerator for a week before eating. These will keep for about 4 weeks in the refrigerator. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sirloin Tacos with Red Cabbage, Scallions, and Cilantro

Eating seasonally is a funny project. During the winter, the farm finds are so fundamentally winter that it's difficult to break out of the soup/stew/casserole/roast recipes. But here I find myself dipping my toes into the first spring produce, and I'm making tacos with flavors I'd usually associate with a summer grill.

It may be a rebellion against the typically heavy foods of winter, the anticipation of sunny days on the horizon, or the abundance of fresh cilantro at the farmers market, but I found myself craving spicy, fresh, latin flavors this month. While my herb garden is sprouting, I'll be able to find everything I need, made and grown locally in Portland at the farmers market. That is, everything but citrus, the singular kink in my locavore chain. Most sacrifices are bearable - I don't really need avocado, I have no cravings for pineapple, but I miss citrus like I miss my parents. I should investigate those indoor lime trees.

I had some organic top sirloin strips (butcher cast-offs from some special order, always a good find) and some gorgeous red cabbage, fresh cilantro, some thick greek-style yogurt and scallions as big as leeks. Pulling a stack of corn tortillas from the fridge, the natural decision was tacos!

I sauteed the scallions with cumin, chili powder, and pepper, and seared the steak until it was done. After I warmed the tortillas, I piled the tacos with the cabbage, cilantro, yogurt, and a bit of hot sauce. No real recipe here, just fresh flavors and spices you like. If I had thought ahead, I might have marinaded the steak, but this was just a quick lunch and it was plenty flavorful. The scallions caramelized and the cabbage had great color and crunch.

My only complaint with this dish was the tortilla. I had to pick them up at New Seasons, and while they were organic and wholesome, they were probably made last week. I miss the big latino super-grocers in Southern California, where you can get a HUGE stack of still-warm tortillas, bulk pico de gallo, and all the citrus you could eat for pennies.

I need a place to get great, fresh tortillas in Portland. Any suggestions?

Here's to slightly warmer days and fantasies of cocktails by the beach. Eat well!

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Love Song for Portland

TThis is the second week of the farmers' market, a day to separate the produce friends from the fanatics, as the rain poured down in a 38 degree chill. Everyone had these conspiratorial smiles on their faces as they sought out their spinach and leeks, sharing in each others' giddy stubbornness in refusing to let the weather keep us from our Saturday fix. The veggies seemed happy enough, and we got our first rapturous glimpses of rhubarb and asparagus amidst the onions, roots, and greens.

Drenched to the core, I felt like a golden retriever at the beach as I shook my soaked hair before I raised my camera, wrapped in a plastic bag, to snap shots of the day. Note to self: Jackets with hoods are NECESSARY. A playful feeling shocked through the small crowd - we gave up caring about our appearance and became kids, jumping in puddles, drinking apple juice from the jug, and eating chocolate covered mint patties fresh from the mint farm. The smell of the smoke from Mark Doxtader's Tastebuds pizza and bagel brick-oven made the whole scene feel like a camping trip, as we took every chance we could get to huddle together under tent coverings. That being said, I can't remember a campfire ever producing bacon and leek pizza with the best crust in the Northwest.

By noon, the lines for Pine State Biscuits were still shockingly short, and those for the coffee carts wound their way beneath vendor awnings and oversized umbrellas. Everyone seemed to have the same thought on their minds - holding a hot cup of caffeine is the only way to make this bearable. As I reached into my pockets to pull out the requisite $1.25, my hands were so cold they could hardly muster the dexterity to search for coinage - so the Funky Monkey baristas (cart-istas? vendristas? Addiction Pushers?) got their tip and then some. As I filled up my cup with french press brew, topped off with Norris' Dairy cream, I couldn't help but whisper, "Damn, I love this town."

A snapshot of my love affair with this city: Coffee in my hand, Leeks, cabbage, goat cheese, fresh made noodles, scallions, cilantro, and steamer clams from the coast in my backpack, babies bundled up with bearded, tattooed daddies holding umbrellas while they eat freshly made artichoke tamales, bluegrass music wafting over the sounds of water pouring off tented produce stands, and the farmers who brave this weather all week to bring it to the heart of a big city that thinks it's a small town.

A huge pool of water escapes from the awning above me, lands on my head, and as I start shivering, I take another sip of my coffee, wipe off my poor, abused camera, and laugh - this is what it's all about. The weathermen have pointed to rain every day for the foreseeable future, and we'll be smiling our way through it. A few weeks ago, Business Week named Portland, Oregon the Unhappiest City in America. Looking around this morning, I have to say they were quite mistaken. They obviously haven't been to our farmers market at the beginning of Spring.

I love you Portland. Eat well.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Baked Chioggia Beet Chips

I've been spending a lot of time in the kitchen this week. It's my Spring Break, and instead of gallivanting off to some exotic locale, I figured I'd be happiest if I spent the week at home, catching up with some books, recipes, and movies with my housemates. Of course, that means more time for the blog, which has made me very happy, indeed. And with all of this produce from the first farmers' market of the year, this break couldn't have come at a better time.

I had grabbed three big Chioggia Beets, an Italian heirloom variety with gorgeous stripes of pink and white. Also known as candy-stripe or bulls-eye beets, these little guys are one of my favorite farmers' market finds. Oh, and I asked the farmer, and now can proudly pronounce their name correctly - it's kee-oh-gee-ya!

I've had a beet chip recipe tucked away from an old issue of Gourmet. The original recipe blanches the beets in a simple syrup before baking, but I think I prefer blanching in plain water and tossing with a bit of canola oil and sea salt. Chioggia beets can be sweeter than standard beets, so I didn't feel the need to add more sugar.

I sliced the beets paper-thin with my mandolin, though next time I'll slice them thicker, as they crumbled quite a bit when they cooled. Plus, a thicker chip will hold up to a dip, which is always a good thing. The trick with these chips is to take them out of the oven earlier than you think. They won't get crispy in the oven, they need to crisp as they cool, so start checking by taking a few out of the oven instead of peaking at them while they are still inside.

The result is a sweet little chip - they shrink a lot, because the water in them is not replaced by the usual oil of frying - and they would be a good way to get some extra fiber and plenty of other nutritional boosts: they are high in folic acid (great for pregnant women), potassium, calcium and antioxidants (betacyanin, which is what gives beets their rich red color). A perfect snack from a superfood with style.

Tomorrow it's back to school, but I only have a few weeks left. This last lap will be a killer, but I'll make it through to find summer waiting at the finish line. Until then, I'll be sneaking into the kitchen every chance I get, and can't wait to share those adventures with you.

Eat well!

Baked Chioggia Beet Chips

For chips

* 2 medium beets with stems trimmed to 1 inch
* 1 cup water
* 1 Tablespoon canola oil
* Sea salt

Peel beets with a vegetable peeler, then slice thinly (but not too thinly) with mandolin or sharp knife, using stems as handles.

Bring water to a boil in a saucepan. Add beets, then remove pan from heat and let stand 15 minutes. Drain beets in a colander, discarding liquid, then let stand in colander 15 minutes more. Toss beets with oil and salt.

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 225°F.

Line a shallow baking pan with nonstick liner, then arrange beet slices snugly in 1 layer. Bake beets until dry, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Immediately transfer chips to a rack to cool (chips will crisp as they cool).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Creamy Stinging Nettle Soup with Baby Garlic Greens

With regards to many seasonal fruits and vegetables, my job is fairly easy - It doesn't take much to get someone to switch to locally-grown strawberries and peaches - the intoxicating smells and incomparable flavor of farm-fresh fruit will convert anyone into a farmers market groupie. Even things that used to be considered out of the ordinary to the saaviest of shoppers - giant king oyster mushrooms, garlic scapes, and ramps - are now standard fare that most people know how to tackle.

Stinging nettles, on the other hand, are another story.

I woke up early to arrive before the first opening bell of the farmers market season - so many familiar faces, smiling kids with pastries bigger than their heads, hugs from market friends who seemed to be asking one all-encompassing question - "How was your winter?" We've all (barely) made it through the months without our weekly market bags filled with the harvest and our mouths filled with breakfast burrito, but the underlying celebration was evident everywhere - spring is here, and we're back in business!

I made my usual rounds, snapping shots of cute kids and all the photogenic produce you could ask for this early in the season. It was quite a turnout - plenty of greens and garden starts, gorgeous bouquets, and some new stars - including the nefarious nettle.

The small bags of nettles offered at a few stands seemed like perfect little gifts, each wrapped in an opaque bag, and at $2-3 bucks a bag, a seeming steal. Until you pick one up and the farmers cast knowing smirks as they ring you up and hand you a piece of paper with cautionary instructions. Yep, these babies come with warning labels.

I also scored some beautiful baby garlic greens that look and smell a bit like scallions with a purple cast. I picked out some beets, sunchokes, a peppermint start, and a big bag of pears to last me through the week. My score of the week was a salad bowl - a big round pot filled with tons of baby lettuces, bok choy, and spinach, a perfect mini-garden that cost less than a bag of gourmet greens - and it'll pay for itself over and over, I'm sure. It's such a good idea, I'm going to have to create a few more myself.

Here's the lovely Joan from Rainyway Farm with my Salad Bowl!

It was a beautiful morning, the sun poked out a couple times, and bluegrass music floated through the air, punctuated by sizzling sausage and bursts of laughter.

I came home with my bounty and got to work prepping the nettles, as I didn't want to leave them in the fridge where someone might get an unpleasant surprise. When handling nettles, you want to wear gloves - I used the thick kind we have on hand for dishes - and rinse well as you separate the tender leaves from the thick stems. I was probably a bit more paranoid than I needed to be, but these guys looked frightening, and I still felt a few stings through the gloves. After they are rinsed, you'll want to handle the nettles with tongs - trust me, you don't want to touch them.

I can remember being a kid in Oregon campgrounds in the summer, playing barefoot in the playgrounds and walking back to the tent with my older sister, and then - ouch - my foot landed in the middle of a nettle patch. I had a habit of stepping on things I shouldn't have - nests of red ants included - but this was a killer. It's funny to think the nettled I bought at the market today were probably harvested not too far from those campgrounds. So it was time for revenge.

While the nettles waited in a bowl by the window, looking mighty threatening, I chopped up some shallots, garlic, and the baby garlic greens, and sauteed them in butter and olive oil - never a bad start. After letting this smell fantastic for a while, I added a bit of dry sherry and the nettle tops and leaves. A quart of water, some salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of parsley, and I left it to boil off the danger for about ten minutes. Most recipes call for five minutes of boiling, but again, I was paranoid.

After the nettles seemed safe, I added a handful of baby spinach from my mini salad garden and a cup of good greek yogurt. A bit of a whir with the immersion blender, and... it smelled FANTASTIC, but looked not unlike swamp sludge. I know. I shouldn't say swamp sludge in a food blog. But it's true. As I was stirring, and tasting, and mmmmming, I couldn't help but laugh. My roommates wont touch it, partly because I scared them with warnings of imminent kitchen danger and partly because the immersion blender caused the soup to foam a bit, which did not help the situation aesthetically. In further appraisal, however, I'm really glad they won't be fighting over mugs of this stuff. I'll just let them think it's dangerous, because it's so good, I don't want to share.

Look out for more local finds from today's market this week, stay safe in the kitchen, and eat well!

Oakley's Creamy Stinging Nettle Soup with Baby Garlic Greens


* 3 Tablespoons butter or olive oil, I use a mix
* 2 shallots, minced
* 2 garlic cloves, minced
* 1 cup chopped baby garlic greens or scallions
* 1/4 cup dry sherry
* 1/2 pound wild nettle tops
* 1 quart water or broth
* Salt and Pepper
* 1 cup greek yogurt, crème fraiche, sweet cream, or half and half
* 2 Tablesoons fresh parsley
* 1 handful fresh baby spinach


1. Sauté shallots, garlic, and garlic greens in butter or olive oil. Add sherry and nettles.
2. Add water and bring to a boil.
3. Cover and simmer until the nettles are very soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add spinach.
4. Add salt and pepper to taste, add yogurt or cream, and puree using an immersion blender.
5. Add fresh parsley and serve with more yogurt and chopped garlic greens.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Cinnamon Apple-Raisin Oat Bread

According to my National Parks Calendar and the definitive Google homepage, today is the first day of Spring!

Here in Portland, the sun has been taking turns with the rain, and there is a distinctive honesty to the air that tempts your nose with traces of winter daphne and fireplace smoke. The daffodils are out if full force, standing guard in small battalions around the city and along my walk to the store. I bought a dollar bag of organic Columbia Gorge Fujis at Limbo this week, thinking they would tide me over until the inevitable produce splurge that will be tomorrow's farmers' market. Unfortunately, the apples were a bit past their prime, which explains how I got 10 for a buck. As I'm sure many of you know, an ugly fruit has never stopped me, so I made a HUGE batch of Cinnamon Raisin bread (three big loaves) and added a few cups of diced apples for extra sweetness and texture. It's hard to go wrong with a good cinnamon bread, and the house smells almost as good as the air outside.

For some reason this dough did not want to rise, but the resulting bread was pleasantly hearty without being too dense. I used all-purpose flour instead of bread flour, but It's probably for the best, because a lighter crumb would have fallen apart in the toaster, and this bread begs to be toasted. Also, the recipe measurements are a bit wonky, as I had to convert them from metric quantities. Someday I'll get a kitchen scale, but for now, my haphazard measuring-cup methods aren't causing too many disasters.

I've got two loaves saved for a breakfast-for-dinner part tonight, complete with some honey-cinnamon butter I made by setting a stick of butter near the kitchen window, adding a few tablespoons of honey, two teaspoons of cinnamon, and mixing. Simple, yes, but this tastes SO good on the toasted bread, with the sweet bits of raisin and apple scattered through the slice.

The rest of the apples will be used to make a caramel apple pancake topping, which will be a sort of farewell to the winter flavors I've loved for the past few months before I set of for a greener palate.

Hope to see you at the market tomorrow, and I would love to hear about the signs of spring where you live, culinary or otherwise. Eat Well!

Cinnamon Apple-Raisin Oat Bread
Adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread
Makes 3 loaves
5 1/2 cups bread or all-purpose unbleached flour
1 7/8 cups whole wheat flour
1 5/8 cups rolled oats
2 1/2 cups water, divided into 2 cups and 1/2 cup
3/8 cups half-and-half or milk
3 tablespoons honey
5 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 tablespoon dry active yeast
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 cups soaked and drained raisins
1 1/2 cups diced apples

While you measure and mix the other ingredients, soak the raisins in warm water. Next, soak the oats in a large bowl in the 2 cups water for 20 to 30 minutes. Proof the yeast in the remaining 1/2 cup warm water for about 7 minutes. Mix the flours, yeast, milk, honey, oil, salt, and cinnamon into the oats. Mix well, until all of the flour is hydrated. Knead by hand for 5 minutes or in a standmixer for 3, then mix in the drained raisins. Knead or mix until the raisins are distributed throughout the dough.

Cover the bowl of dough and allow it to rise for 1 hour. Then remove the dough from the bowl and fold it, deflating it gently as you do. Place the dough on a floured work surface, top side down. Fold the dough in thirds, like a letter. Fold in thirds again the other way. Flip the dough over, dust off as much of the raw flour as you can, and place it back into the bowl. Cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise in bulk again for another hour. Then divide the dough in thirds and shape the loaves. Place each shaped loaf into a greased bread pan. Spray or gently brush each loaf with water and sprinkle with some more oats. Cover the pans and set aside to rise until the loaves crest above the edge of the pans, roughly 90 minutes. Preheat the oven to 450. Place the loaves in the center rack of the oven. After 5 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 375. Rotate the loaves 180 degrees after 20 minutes, and bake for another 15 to 25 minutes, until the tops of the loaves are nicely browned, the bottoms of the loaves make a hollow sound when tapped. Cool before slicing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Portland Farmer's Market Update!

Hello friends, I have exciting news!
The Saturday Portland Farmer's Market at PSU is scheduled to open TWO WEEKS earlier than usual. Yes, that means THIS Saturday, March 21, as in three days from today, the market is back! That means more green in the fridge and more chances for me to explore the offerings of the Northwest with you and yours.

We'll be able to see our heroic farmers who have been braving this crazy weather through the winter, and fill up our bags with those precious spring finds (nettles, anyone?). I'm scheduled to photograph the opening, so if you see me walking around with a camera and a goofy grin, say hi!

I thought I'd fill this post with photos of our fantastic vendors to get you pumped, so get out your coats (it'll probably be raining, but who knows? I'm writing this in a patch of deliciously warm sunshine) and your walking shoes, and I'll see you this weekend!!!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Signs of Spring

We have a newspaper clipping on our fridge. It is an black and white photo, fourteen years old. It's laminated, with three creases from being folded in an envelope, and from it shine the faces of three midwestern children, perched in a tree. Their eyes lift up towards the right of the photograph, past the edges of the frame towards some unseen specter. Dressed in grubby knees and too-big sweatshirts, they wrap their thin arms around the branches of a bare tree, holding, waiting. A few small leaves can be seen, starting their life, but we can tell it is cold, that the grass would be just as grey if the picture was in color.

The caption reads: "Looking for Spring."

The tomboy in the center of the photo is my roommate, and she tells me it was mostly staged. Some Madison reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal looking for a suitable image had stumbled upon three kids, mesmerized by a trapped pigeon in the attic of a neighbor's house. He stopped, called out to them, and asked to take their photo. The only problem was, their attention was focused on a spot just above the photographer, so he had them shift their gaze, had them look up to his right, up into an empty, cold sky. The skepticism in their faces reads clear - there are no signs of spring, no pigeons in this new vision - just empty sky. Nevertheless, the photo made the presses, and fourteen years later, it has made it to the door of our freezer.

My roommate's face has hardly changed since then. Neither has her skepticism. But now it is March, and we find ourselves searching the sky, cherishing the tiny green leaves on the all but bare trees, spotting an out-of-place seagull flying high above the railroad tracks that cross under Holgate Boulevard: Looking for signs of Spring.

I made it out to People's Farmers Market this week, a year-round venture. This time of year, it's the same handful of farmers with the same bounty - some cold weather greens, potatoes, some mushrooms, and the stalwart Daikon radish - a baker or two, and booth touting some perfect goat cheese. The difference this week was not on the tables, it was not for sale. It was the sun, crashing down through the bitterly cold air, casting a light on the sorrel and French red fingerlings, and the bee pollen, and the 100% rye, and the tiny kale starts in black soil - only 25 cents.

My eyes were fixed not in the sky, not on the lone cloud that held no trace of rain, but on the boxes of jewels from under the ground, the potatoes that had come out from the frost-battered soil to sit here, in the sun. Those potatoes have been around for a few months. But here, in the light of a wednesday evening after the time has shifted forward one hour, allowing me to pretend that I can go out of the house in less than two sweaters and a peacoat, they are new. New potatoes, signs of spring.