Last Sunday evening we pulled back into town, four of us stuffed into the car that seemed to shrink fast with two boys in the backseat and so many plants and eggs and luggage and leftovers nestled in around us that it was hard to move.  The baby and I went out to the farm for a 4-day weekend, and my husband and a school-worn 2nd grader had come to pick us up.  Sunday morning, my Dad picked me some rhubarb.  That always seems to be tricky thing.  How much do you want?  Not too much?  Once you get to slicing through the stalks, you lose track of how much rhubarb is not too much.  I figure I had a paper sack with about 30 pounds, so much that he had to tie it up well with garden twine to contain it to the bag.  

Ash-rhubarb comparison.
With baby for scale.  This rhubarb patch is huge.

I remember the days when I practically lived behind the windshield.  Almost every weekend it would take me exactly 4 minutes to pack everything I'd need; I'd toss all of it into a green army duffel sack that I actually still have but is going unused in the basement.  Now, it takes me way too much time and planning to get out the door.  I have to tuck all the cultures in, I have to bake bread to bring along.  I have coolers in the summer to keep all the stuff I bring to and fro cool.  An extra son makes backseat real estate a premium, and I absolutely refuse to drive a minivan so these sardine days will be with us for the foreseeable future...

But the rhubarb was worth it.  I didn't bring any dessert with me this time because I knew my Mom would have something rhubarby baked, and she did.  It was great.  In fact on Saturday, I ate rhubarb dessert 3 separate times.  But when I lobbed the heavy bag into the basement fridge on Sunday night I wondered if I'd get through it without having to sacrifice any to the compost pile.  It took the week, but I did it.   I'm proud to admit I had zero waste, even though that rhubarb patch grows like crazy and when I can't reach it I'm blessed with neighbors who are happy to share.


I got to meet Marisa McClellan (Food in Jars) in person when she was in the Chicago area in April, and was freshly inspired by her and her books.  I made a tiny batch of her Rhubarb-Rosemary jelly (a single canned jar, actually and a mostly full one to enjoy now) from her new Preserving by the Pint book after the rhubarb had been prepped and sitting in the pan with water for 24 hours.  It seems each day I feel I get nothing accomplished, and when I fall into bed exhausted at the end of the day, I realize that I actually accomplish tons.  Sometimes preserving might go on hold for a few hours but thankfully it's a forgiving process.

Encouraged by my Mom's bright pink rhubarb dessert, which when asked she told me she just baked with the pinkest parts, I set out making rhubarb juice concentrate using just the pinkest parts of the stalks.  Why didn't I ever think of that?  For years, my rhubarb endeavors were "industrial green" as I had taken to calling them.  Delicious, but utilitarian.  The concentrate was from the Ball Home Preserving book, and had lemon and orange zests and juice in it.  It's really very nice, and 4 1/2 pints are probably a perfect quantity for me as the sole rhubarb consumer.

Then with a glass of rhubarb juice in hand, I made myself a crisp.

rhubarb crisp

In the interest of time, I noted the process on flickr if you click the photo.  I still have some left - it's marvelously tart.

Thursday I made 2 9x13 pans of Rhubarb Kuchen and yesterday I delivered them to my friend Ginny who shared them.  And somehow in between line-dried batches of laundry I also managed to get a batch of Marisa's Rhubarb Vanilla Jam with Earl Grey done yesterday too (the recipe is in her first book, and also on her site) - and in the company of a napless and fairly cranky kid who grasped at my knees for dear life pretty much the whole time I was stirring the canning pot. 

I really can't get over the difference using just the pinkest part of the rhubarb stalks!  I think this is one of the nicest rhubarb jams I've had ever.  I left some of the errant earl grey tea leaves in for asthetics.

rhubarb vanilla jam with Earl Grey

All of that pink rhubarb left me with an amount of green rhubarb, which I think tastes just as fine as the rosy base of the stalk if not conjuring a more vegetal side of rhubarb.  Yes, I could do something savory with it... but I wouldn't bother trying to get the boys to eat it.  Instead, I chopped it up and was amazed to find I had exactly the 2 1/2 pounds that Deborah Madison calls for to make a green rhubarb puree in her Seasonal Fruit Desserts book that I was fortunate to find a copy of.  I have to pick up a grapefruit later today to make it, but look forward to her tarts made with a corn flour base and barely spiced green rhubarb puree.

green rhubarb

Hopefully, that can wait a few days until the rhubarb crisp is gone.  It does seem to me that sliced rhubarb keeps well in the refrigerator if stored in plastic.  That's probably a good thing.

Deep, Dark and Dirty Secrets: A Love Affair with My Yard.

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I have a shocking confession to make. I love dandelions. There, I said it. I love how they smell, I love how cheerful they look dotting the yard. I love that my hands get sticky when picking them, and I love that they wilt magnificently when you try to keep them in a glass of water. I love that taste of their bitter leaves - though I don't eat them from my citified yard - and I love that my little Boy-O now likes to pick them and hand them to me and watch me smell them each time like I have never smelled them before. I feel a bit sad when Summer wears on and the bright yellow hats turn to bald heads...

I'm reminded of this storybook that I read and re-read hundreds of times when I was growing up. My worn and yellowed copy of Story Hour Readers Revised (Book Three) was bound in 1923. I'm unsure where I acquired the copy, but as a kid, I poured over the fairy tales contained within it's magical pages. My favorites still being abridged versions of The Brownie and the Cook and Black Beauty, an Aesop fable: The Cats and the Cheese, and this beautifully illustrated poem about Dandelion:

It may be the drawings that inspired my love of the dandelion - I couldn't really be sure. I know that now I am an adult, when I reread it's short text, that life itself indeed seems as shortly sweet as a poem meant for children... and all too soon another Spring will pass and the bounty of another Summer's produce will be upon us cooks to do and preserve with what we can.

It seems that those who love to cook (and eat) by extension, naturally grow gardens. I've had a garden in the yard of every apartment I've ever taken, and some were cared for better than others. When I first came to Milwaukee, Frankee came up for the weekend and we rototilled a proper green space along the edge of my driveway, enough room for trellising peas and other curiosities, even GOP graciously let me dig up her backyard of the Square Pie to plant tomatoes, basil and onions. Our first apartment after we got married had overgrown and sadly neglected gardens, that received my thorough overhauling, even though we moved out in June before I could see any fruits of my labor.

When we moved to our house four years ago already, my Father-in-Law helped me turn the ground behind my garage. At the time, it seemed like a good idea - and it still does every early Spring until the hedge of wildness grows up around it. Even though it is south-facing, last year I hardly got a ripe tomato, and green peppers and eggplants never matured. This year, I've decided to plant it full of shade perennials and attempt to be as good of a gardener as the generations of my family before me.


My Grandpa O. is a great gardener, and in central Wisconsin tended a garden all the while my Dad grew up, planting in him too the enjoyment a backyard garden can bring. He still gardens each year, now in his '80's, as spry and able-bodied as ever. My Gram, grew an astounding array of haphazard plants, flowers and vegetables in northern Wisconsin. For years, after retirement, she grew for the farmer's market, and still had abundance left to share with any and everyone who may have needed it. Both of my own parents cultivate truly beautiful gardens, that are as gorgeous as they are productive. Neat rows alternating of corn, rhubarb, cosmos, pickles, peppers, all looking like the cover of an Organic Gardening magazine. Really, that is not an exaggeration, since they both enjoy the outdoors so much, that most of their free time is spent in enjoyment of yard work.

I assembled some raised-bed boxes in my back yard this afternoon, which along with my already established herb bed will get ample and full direct south-exposure sunlight. Already, I'm happy to see the shock of green chives, sage and lemon thyme poking up from what always strikes me as incredible odds given the cold and depth of a Wisconsin winter. Last year, I planted some herbs in an over sized planter, and grew too lazy to clean them out in the Fall. Good thing, because a good amount of Russian tarragon began growing inside the garage in early Spring, and now that I've moved it outside, it seems voracious in it's attempts to propagate itself. This is pleasant news for my egg-eating.

Every year, I say that I'm going to be better at growing gardens. Not that anyone who sticks a seed into soil can't be rewarded with something, but this year, I really want to "cultivate" a garden. Not only for it's production, but also for it's beauty. I vow to water and weed, I vow to take care in garden planning, and I vow to plant some flowers among the veg.

Lemon Thyme.

I know each Spring, it seems like an easy thing to vow, at least for me. I forgo New Year's resolutions in favor of this Spring resolution nearly every year, but now that I've committed at least in type, I am sure to follow through on that vow. I guess I'll have to wait and see if I can deliver on my promise, but I want to lead my little Boy-O into the same love of the natural world that I grew up with, be it citified or not. And it is so true that spending even the smallest amount of time cultivating even the smallest seed of a thing can result in amazing bounty. How lucky I am to be able to teach someone that!

Veg of the Month Club: Ramps (A Wisconsin Pie)

Since innBrooklyn announced their new seasonal cooking feature, Veg of the Month Club, I've been excited. I'm reminded of my favorite college professor, an artist who staunchly believed that the more restrictions you had on a theme, the more creative you would be forced to become. I find this is true so many times, especially in the kitchen. There are so many things I'd like to try, and if I just get a nudge in the right direction, I am sometimes all the better off for it.

That was certainly the case with this Veg of the Month Club pick: Green or Spring Garlics. I have to say while I've eaten ramps, the wild growing, leek-like Spring varietal, I never cooked with them myself. Laura gave me a pint of pickled ramps one year, and that was a particular favorite! Our Winter Farmer's Market has closed, and I was unsure where to turn in the city for a few of these delicacies. I was tipped by Lo that Outpost had them at the State Street location, so we took a drive out to Wauwatosa to pick up a small bunch.

After thoroughly documenting them photographically, I tasted the lovely looking greens. I really was shocked with their mild garlic flavor, and was plotting something to make the best use of their tenderness...

As I collected my ingredients, I knew I was going to aim for a quiche (or Pie, as we Wisconsinites - or at least I - like to call them). I figured since I had wild Wisconsin ramps, why not challenge myself to a fully Wisconsin Pie? I do try to eat local and preserve what I can from other Wisconsin growers (including some of the bounty grown from my own Parent's ample garden), but don't ever really set out using ingredients that are fully from my state. My result was astounding, in my ever so humble opinion, and I can see this pie becoming a Springtime favorite.

To make less work of it, I made the crust first thing yesterday morning. Then I roasted the ramp bulbs and "baked" the bacon. To roast ramps, drizzle them with olive oil, salt and pepper and put them in a 425 degree oven for 15-20 minutes until they are soft and lightly golden. You can do the same for the bacon, but use a 400 degree oven, and watch it so it doesn't get too dark. I like to use a rack over a baking sheet, but since it was so lean, I probably could have just let it go right on the baking sheet. My beautiful bacon came from the same pig that the rest of my pork stores are from, grown on an Amish farm just down the road from my Parent's house. It was very nearly like ham, so lean and nicely flavored. I think this may be the first of the bacon I've made from the hog, and let's just say until now I thought that Comet/Honeypie had the best bacon...

I swear I did not shellac this bacon.

Wisconsin Pie could be adapted to use your local ingredients, and that is one of the most beautiful things about a quiche, chief on my list however is that they are good any way you choose to serve them: hot, room temperature, or cold. One of the first cookbooks that I ever purchased was Mollie Katzen's The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. In it, she gives a "formula" for quiche that in the years since, I've used frequently. It is a very general and proportional recipe, and includes some suggestions for variations that lend themselves to great or small experimentation.

For my pie, I also decided also to use a completely unusual crust, one I've never used before: Oat Crust. It's not often, my friends, that I adapt a recipe to include more fat, but that is what I did for this one. Originally from Cooking Light, it only used 2 tablespoons of butter, and that was not enough to hold it together. (I imagined their test kitchen working with this recipe, and trying to be painfully patient in their attempts to get it right!) I love the texture of oats in most things, and this crust was no exception. It also gave me the unexpected assistance of soaking up some of the cheese and egg custard of the pie. I didn't actually notice this until I ate a piece for lunch today and could see how custard-y the bottom of the pie had become. It does add to the richness of this regal dish, and I will keep it as a quiche (or pie) base for years to come. (I will also note that the oats I used may or may not have been from Wisconsin. My Mom traded me many quarts of rolled oats - she seals them in canning jars after purchasing 50 pounds of oats from her co-op.)

Wisconsin Pie (a.k.a. Ramp Quiche)

9 in. pie crust of your choice, unbaked (Oat Crust recipe below)
4 oz. mild Swiss cheese, grated (Country Connections Sweet Amish Swiss Cheese)
2 oz. crispy, baked bacon (5-6 slices, but you can use any leftover for garnish - or eating while you wait)
1 bunch roasted ramp bulbs, sliced (there were 7 in my bunch)
Strips of ramp leaves, cut in half or thirds
4 eggs (Amish raised, farm near my Parent's house)
1/2 c. sour cream (my homemade - from Crystal Ball Farms milk)
1 c. buttermilk (my homemade - also Crystal Ball milk)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Into pie crust, layer cheese, bacon, ramps, and latticed ramp leaves. Whisk together eggs, sour cream and buttermilk and pour over the top. Dust with black pepper (but omit any salt until you taste it, I didn't need to add any due to the bacon and cheese). Bake for 35-40 minutes until the top is puffed and lightly browned around the edges, and a knife poked into the center comes out clean. Let stand out of the oven for at least 20 minutes if you can help it. The longer you let it sit, the easier it is to get neat slices.

Oat Crust

1 cup rolled oats
1/3 c. oat bran
4 T. (half a stick) cold butter, cut into cubes
3-4 T. ice water

Combine oats, oat bran and butter (and a pinch of salt if you like) in a food pro, and pulse to combine into a homogenized "coarse pebble" mixture. The rolled oats will not be fully processed to a flour state. Add ice water and continue pulsing until the dough holds together when pinched, adding a bit more water if needed. (Since oats are gluten free, you don't have to worry too much about over processing...). Gather dough into a ball (I like to dump it into a plastic bag, and form it into a ball and then a disc this way), and roll out between two sheets of waxed paper.

Lightly grease the bottom and sides of a 9 inch pie plate with butter (a bit of insurance against sticking), remove the top sheet of waxed paper, and carefully use the bottom wax paper to help you fit the crust into the pie plate. Fill and bake! I'd bet this crust would also be good pre-baked and filled with a custard or pudding...but it may be a little temperamental since it is a bit on the fragile side.

I was fortunate to have Sasa for my Pie dinner, since my Husband is not crazy about this kind of thing... but I do have a feeling if he would have had some, I may have won him over! It was so rich and delicious, I can't imagine anyone tasting it and then disliking it. It had a quiet garlic base, and the bits of bacon were a perfect thing to include to highlight them, though I guess I would be hard pressed to find something that bacon didn't improve.

Because I was so proud of my homemade sour cream, I made Sasa try a bit on the side. A subsequent serving then had to be served with it directly on top...

And wouldn't you know that the two of us ate nearly a whole pie? There were only 2 pieces left, one of which was eaten for lunch today. We just couldn't stop. It was that good.

So many times, restaurant food leaves me so full and heavy. Though this pie contained more rich ingredients than I ever usually use in one place and at one time, it somehow translated as light. Perhaps it was the spring essence of the ramp? Perhaps it was chatting over the slabs of pie for a couple of hours? Either way, I am proud of my state and her ability to healthily produce for us who love to eat and cook, as I'm certain so many others are proud of theirs.

If you have a spring garlic recipe, why not consider sending it over to innBrooklyn for the Veg of the Month Club? There are still a few days left, if you need to be properly "nudged" into making a recipe. Sometimes, that is the best way to cook!

Spring Greens: Leek, Asparagus & Ham "Shepard's" Pie

Spring. Green. Everything is a lovely shade of verde lately. A week full of rain has produced greens in all the shades of the green rainbow, colors of green that you forget exist outside of spring. Chives are happily poking up from my herb bed, and organic leeks at the Outpost were 79 cents a pound! It's really here, no denying it now.

Still thinking about the innBrooklyn call for Asparagus recipes, I decided to use up the rest of my Easter leftovers last night by doing one of my favorite things with leftovers: making a pie. I love quiche, but my Husband does not, fortunately for me it is never hard to get him to eat leftover's by making a Shepard's Pie of sorts, basically a crustless quiche with a mashed potato topping. It is amazing to me that I can go into the fridge, pull out several bowls of languishing leftovers, add a bit of heat and a simple sauce and turn it into something delicious. Perhaps not the most elegant, regal or photogenic of recipes, but satisfying nonetheless. Another plus is that it goes into the oven, so almost all the cleanup is done before dinner begins.

My recipe of sorts for Leek, Asparagus & Ham "Shepard's" Pie: (or the "Or so" Leftovers recipe)
  • 3 medium leeks, sliced
  • 1 c. or so leftover ham
  • 3/4 c. or so frozen peas
  • 1/2 c. or so asparagus (I used leftover already blanched from dinner on Wednesday)
  • 2 T. AP flour
  • 1 1/2 c. water or stock
  • 2 c. or so leftover mashed potatoes
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • salt, pepper, herbage of your choice - chives in my case
Saute the leeks in a bit of butter and/or olive oil until wilted, about 5 minutes, season with salt and pepper (and I also used some Aleppo pepper). Stir in flour, and continue stirring for a minute. Add stock and whisk until smooth and thickened, a minute or two depending on your heat. Add in the ham, asparagus and peas, and continue cooking over medium-low heat until everything is heated through. Pour into a 9x9 glass baking dish.

Mix mashed potatoes with the beaten egg until smooth, and spread out over the top of the dish. Bake at 350 for 35-45 minutes until heated through and the potatoes start to get brown around the edges.

Recipes like these always beg for inspiration, you could add cheese to your mashed potatoes, or add more leeks and veg for a vegetarian version. Ham is a highly seasoned meat, so I really didn't feel the need to add any other flavors to the mix. I added a fair amount more of black pepper at the table, post photographing:

Which reminds me of the saying, "Be a miser with the salt, and a Demon with the pepper". I'm not sure who said that, but I like it, and usually feel that pepper is tremendously unsung in the culinary world. I often add it to the oil/butter I'm sauteing in, to release those oils that bring out the surprising heat in plain old black pepper.

Now my leftovers are gone, and I can start a new week of adventures with no jumping off point. This is good and bad, but something will emerge, I'm sure of that.