Happy Pride weekend, everyone!

Friday, June 24, 2011

The weather is with you!  Have a fabulous weekend!

Grilling tonight

Saturday, June 11, 2011

I like my grill and I'm a picky snob about it.  I have a simple Weber grill that uses real charcoal.  Gas grills are just not real grilling as far as I'm concerned; if you need to add all manner of accoutrements to get "real charcoal flavor," yur doin it rong.  Oddly enough, you get real charcoal flavor from real charcoal.  Wet wood, smoke chips, special rocks, blah, blah, blah.  You're not doing anything I can't do with a broiler in my oven.

But, just not any charcoal will do.  Use real wood charcoal like Royal Oak, Cowboy, or any other stuff that actually is recognizable as wood when you open the bag.  If there's a logo on your briquettes, again, yur doin it rong.  Kingsford pastes spent wood palettes together and you can taste the nasty chemicals of both the wood and the process to make the briquettes themselves.  DON'T USE THEM.  Ick.  Really.

To start the coals, I use a chimney starter (actually it's a #10 can from a restaurant with the top and bottoms cut off) stuffed with 2 sheets of newspaper and filled with good charcoal.  It can be a sort of pain to light, but you can avoid the second great sin of most barbequers -- lighter fluid.  Would you take a drink of it?  A long, deep breath of it?  No?  Then why are you allowing it to "flavor" your food?  I look forward to the day when this stuff is outlawed and even the simplest burgers and dogs are freed from the stench of petrochemicals.  Of course, I imagine those that can't wait the 15 minutes for the chimney to do its work will just use gas, but they'll end up killing themselves off soon enough...

Real wood charcoal burns faster and you may need to use more of them for a long spell for larger items and they also tend to cost more than briquettes, so look for deals in places like Menard's or Home Depot and purchase a couple bags when they're on sale.  Real wood charcoal has the advantage of burning hotter than regular briquettes, so you don't necessarily need more at the beginning, but you'll have to add them with a bigger cut.  This is truly an advantage when using indirect heat because the smoke flavors will fill your grill and your meat will benefit from the extended exposure.  You'll get that great pink layer of smokey taste without having to resort to the messy nonsense of soaking wood chips or other silly tricks.

There are two basic ways of controlling the heat of your grill; amount of coal burning at one time and the amount of air that you allow in the grill.  Carburation is a more of an art than a science as each grill, the contents and the desired effects vary with each grilling session.  The basic rule of air flow is the more the air vents are opened, the hotter and less smokey the fire will burn.  If you start to close the vents, the more smoke you'll get and the cooler the fire will burn.  The position of the vents also matter as the smoke will drift in the direction of the upper vent.

But don't think that you have to only cook animals on the grill, smokey asparagus, peppers and onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes and other roots take on the smoke also.  You can cook whole roots (potatoes, parsnips, turnips, beets and carrots) for about 40 minutes, onion halves (this keeps them from falling through the grill) and peppers for 20 minutes and romaine lettuce drizzled with olive oil for about 7 minutes and served with bleu cheese and olives as a salad.

A couple of examples of heat control:

  • Cooking tuna steaks - I like mine hot outside and raw inside, so a big pile of coals with the lid off is the way I typically do them.  5 minutes or less a side.
  • A large (+4 pounds) cut of meat - I recently did a bone-in leg of lamb on the grill with two small piles of coals pushed to the sides so the meat is not directly heated.  I placed the grill's top vent in line with the leg and left it open about 50% and added a couple of coals every 30 minutes until the leg's temperature was about 130F (nearly 3 hours for this one) and then took it off and let it set to come to 140-145F the perfect rare/medium rare for lamb.
  • Potatoes (sweet and regular), beets, carrots and parsnips benefit from indirect heat also, but you can build a regular pile in the center and then put the spuds towards the edge of the grill and put the vent over them half open to draw the smoke and heat without burning the skins.  Make sure to roll them every 15-20 minutes to prevent burning.
  • Burgers can go either way depending on if you want a nice rare char (use direct heat with no lid) of if you want a nice smokey flavor (really nice for cheeseburgers - cook 'em like the beets, and spuds mentioned above).
I've also heard of cracking an egg into a half of a red sweet pepper and grilling it until the egg is done, but I've yet to try that.  That would allow me to grill something I never thought I could grill...

Foraging for garlic mustard and a recipe

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lamb's Quarters
I've been away, I apologize.

I've been baking (more later), and Monster Gramma has been canning.  We're cooking our own dinners mostly and things are pretty mellow here at Casa de Batata.  Spring has finally shown up and our gardens are in.  This has proven more difficult than last year as the Winter That Wouldn't End kept me from preparing the ground and getting plants in said ground. 

Another part of the failure to get growing was a failure of our attempt to start plants from seeds.  I'm not sure what we did wrong, but evidence points to the wrong starter medium.  The plants got a great start, but became really leggy.  More investigation is needed.

In the mean time, the opportunity presented itself for a bit of self-guided foraging.  Upon reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, wild foods came to my attention.  He specifically mentions Lamb's Quarters and Purslane as nutrient-rich and easily obtainable.  When I decided to work some of my considerable Google-Fu on the plants mentioned, I was astonished that not only did I recognize them as a gardener, but I had been throwing them out without even so much as a second thought!

Both plants are easily recognizable and you'd probably remember them from your last weeding session.  Both show up later in the season, but show up they will.  In my garden I have a sort of "dead spot" where all manner of greenery shows up and I'll make damn sure that I don't discard these extremely nutritious plants in the future.

Since I've been awakened to the usefulness of "weeds," we've purchased a couple of plant identification books and one on foraging for wild greens called Edible Wild Greens by John Kallas.  This brought a new collection of plants to my attention, especially dandelions, garlic mustard and field mustard.

I have a dog and we will go to a "dog park" by the Minneapolis airport a couple of times a week.  Sheila is 13 and not really interested in running much now a days, so I get a chance to examine the flora as she wanders from squat to squat.  In my travels around the park, I've noticed all manner of edible plants: dandelions, wild onions, garlic mustard, shepherd's purse, and raspberries to list the ones my novice eye can recognize.
Garlic mustard

Today, I wandered into my favorite patch of garlic mustard.  I found it over a month ago and I've been harvesting young greens from it since (it makes a wonderful green to go with scrambled eggs).  Now that the temperatures have finally reached into the 70's, it has begun to bolt (grow a flower stem) and flower and it has quadruped in size since I've first spotted and harvested it. 

Garlic mustard is interesting in that it is first and foremost considered a noxious weed; it emits a toxin from its roots to stop other plants from growing near it.  Its copious seed production can create patches that overtake native species and drive out local flora and the fauna that feeds on it, so eating it will help stop its spread, give you a tasty and easily obtained vegetable, and provide you with a tremendous burst of fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.  You can find it quite easily and if you crush one of its heart-shaped leaves (as it probably is now at this time of the year), you'll smell the garlicy odor that give this plant its name. 

It has a slightly bitter, peppery, and garlicy taste that I find pleasant, but others may find a bit strong.  Boiling or sauteeing this plant will reduce any of the strong flavors.  I like adding the leaves to regular salad greens to add a little punch.  You can also try making what I had for dinner tonight: garlic mustard pesto.  This is different from your typical pesto in that it doesn't have any real garlic and that it has an almost "fresh-cut grass" nose and taste.  This is particularly tasty with a hearty whole-wheat pasta.  It also freezes well, so if you find a healthy patch, dig 'em up and make a big batch.

Garlic mustard pesto

2-3 cups garlic mustard leaves and tender stems (like asparagus, you can eat the flowers, buds, leaves, and stems where the stem snaps when bent)
2/3 cup grated Parmesan, Romano or other hard cheese
2/3 cup (or more) Extra Virgin Olive oil
1 cup nuts (I used pecans as that's all I had, but I think that pine nuts or walnuts would work as well)
1/2 tablespoon salt

Put the garlic mustard tops and leaves in a blender or food processor along with the cheese and pulse until the garlic mustard has been chopped fine.  Add the nuts and process until the nuts have been chopped fine and then begin processing the mix by continuously running the machine and gently adding oil until the desired consistency.  If you wish to back off on the oil, plan on adding more garlic mustard leaves and/or stems and flowers to add liquid.