grow and measure

Chef Daniel in the kitchen with Asturian kale grown in his home garden

Last August, my garden produced a good crop of Asturian kale. This year, I’m going to measure everything my garden produces.

I’ve been gardening for many years, and often wonder how much food my garden actually produces. Years ago, my summer garden covered a whole field. Now that I have kids, I only have time for a small plot — 112 square feet. Pretty small and manageable for a busy guy like me, right?

I garden for the love of it, and of course it provides organic food for my family. But how much food comes from this small garden?

This year I decided to find out.

At harvest time, I’m going to try to count and maybe even weigh every vegetable and fruit (yes, we even have fruit: young blueberry bushes, a fig tree, a sour cherry tree and two plum trees) that we harvest from our yard. Besides the main garden, I also have two secondary plots that measure 9′x3′ and 24′x3′. That’s a total of 211 square feet under cultivation.

I’ll probably wish I had never started this project by the time the zucchini comes in, but maybe this way I’ll be able to see if gardening is more than a hobby that is good for my soul :-)

Happy gardening!

rhubarb shoots in my backyard on April 18

The garden is already showing a few signs of life, like these little rhubarb shoots.

garlic mustard

garlic mustard

I love to find edible “weeds” like this one: garlic mustard! I served it in a salad this weekend, and it was a big hit.

If you are like me, you notice different plants–trees, weeds, flowers–during the day and you wonder what they are. Have you every seen a plant like this? Clumps of it have been appearing my yard this spring. It kind of reminds me of wasabi. The roots smell like garlic. Could it be edible?

Here’s the verdict from Tom Patterson at Wild Purveyors:

Garlic mustard, eat it! They are best eaten at this stage of growth before flowering. It can be eaten fresh, but I prefer it cooked and treated like spinach. Makes a good pesto.

Enough said! I served it fresh with tender greens like red vein sorrel, green oak, and green mustard frill, with a simple dressing of balsamic, olive oil, and mustard.

A little more research reveals that garlic mustard–Alliaria petiolata–is an invasive species. Uh oh. Not another one! (The Plant Conservation Alliance calls it an “Ecological Threat” to native plants like spring beauty, wild ginger, bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, and trillium, saying “garlic mustard outcompetes native plants by aggressively monopolizing light, moisture, nutrients, soil and space.”) Everyone in North America must do their part to eat it all up!

If you don’t have any garlic mustard in your yard, check with Wild Purveyors. Buen provecho!

Garlic mustard with friseé and other mixed greens, served as a salad with simple balsamic dressing

Garlic mustard with fresh mixed greens, served as a salad with simple balsamic dressing

baker’s problem, chef’s solution

Sundays are my bread baking day. Well–the bread making begins the night before, on Saturday evening, but Sunday is when I put the bread in the oven. This is my one day off, and you might think baking bread is too much like work, but I have it down to a system. Let the dough rise during a leisurely breakfast. The oven is already hot from crisping the breakfast bacon, so crank up the heat and it’s ready for bread.

The bread has gotten better with each week. With the advice of some friends who are expert bakers, I developed my sourdough starter and learned how to “read” it and make good dough from it. Lately I have been working with a very wet dough that gives me a great finished loaf: even distribution of bubbles, elastic but tender texture, and a crisp, chewy crust. But then I ran into an unexpected problem.

I have been making baguettes in my nice USA Pans baguette pan. Like all USA Pans, it’s coated in silicone to be nonstick, but it’s perforated to help you get a good crust. When I lay the raw dough on the pan, it is so wet that it seeps through the perforated surface and keeps on expanding out the bottom of these holes as it bakes. Imagine the bottom of this pan with a 5 o’clock shadow made of bread whiskers. The only way to remove the bread from the pan was to scrape off the bread beard, leaving a hundred little bread dots everywhere. It had become a sort of little tradition for my girls to ask me about all the little bumps on the bottom of the bread, which is cute. But cute or not, I was sick of the “whiskers.” I tried a number of approaches, including over-spraying the pan with cooking spray, but didn’t find a good solution.

Finally, I thought of my training behind the line. What would I do to prevent food from sticking to a sauté pan? I would heat up the pan for a fast sear. So last weekend I tried it: I heated up the pan in the oven before putting the dough on it. And it worked like a charm. No little bread dots, no sticking, no problem. And the girls didn’t seem to miss the whiskers when they were eating a hundred pieces of bread… I wish I had thought of this sooner.

I wonder if commercial bakeries handle this problem the same way, or whether they encounter this problem at all. I’ll probably find out one day, but in the meantime I’ll try to use my experiences behind the line to help me become a better baker.

Happy baking, and buen provecho!

bread dough for baguette loaf doesn't stick to pre-heated pan

This is one of the baguettes that I made in the pre-heated pan. The bread was not stuck to the pan at all–you can see the surface is perfectly clean. It’s too bad I don’ t have a photo that shows the bread “whiskers”–especially now that they are HISTORY!

getting serious about fresh-ground coffee

I think of myself as a down to earth guy in the kitchen. As with most things in life, it’s important to take care of the basics first. Fresh food, sharp knives, clean counters, and so on.

This is why some people laugh when they discover my array of fancy coffee-related equipment.

The Breville Smart Grinder is not cheap, but it's easy to use and clean.

The Breville Smart Grinder. Maybe a bit of a luxury, but it’s easy to use and clean. And I use it every day. So maybe I have to give up Starbucks for a couple of months…!

To them I say, “Here’s some freeze-dried decaf–off you go!”

Life is too short to drink bad coffee. And though you can make a good cup of coffee with basic equipment, I prefer to make a fantastic cup of coffee. We have a number of different coffee machines in our house: french presses, an old school moka pot, a drip machine for family gatherings, even a ROK manual espresso maker. Each one performs best with a different grind.

We used to use a little Krups coffee grinder from the grocery store to grind coffee beans. You could only grind a small amount of beans at a time. In each batch, the coffee at the bottom was always ground to powder. I would carefully save this for espresso, but then I wasn’t able to have freshly ground coffee for my espresso. And we were always just guessing about how fine the grind was. If you opened the grinder to check, it made a mess. So there’s some inaccuracy, some inefficiency, some waste of coffee, and sometimes not the best coffee.

I know what you’re thinking: How can you live under these conditions? Exactly. This is how I justified splurging on a new, state-of-the-art grinder. With this grinder, you dial the type of grind (filter, press, etc.), enter the number of shots or cups, and the brew strength you want and it automatically produces just the right amount in the correct grind. It’s perfect. Easy and fast. I have only had it a couple of months now, but so far this is the best home grinder I’ve ever had.

(Don’t worry: the Krups is still put to good use as a spice grinder.)

Buen provecho!

Breville Smart Grinder
KRUPS Coffee Grinder

“Hoppy Hour” a great choice for beer lovers and valentines

Sampling a rare batch of "Blackout Stout" from Great Lakes Brewing

Sampling a rare batch of “Blackout Stout” from Great Lakes Brewing that has been aged in bourbon barrels. Outstanding! In the background are brewer Luke Purcell and regional sales manager Connie Tucci of Great Lakes Brewing Co.

If you’re still trying to think of something fun to do on Valentine’s Day, I have a suggestion for you. Last week I attended the first “Hoppy Hour” event scheduled by the Giant Eagle Market District in Robinson. Hoppy Hours are beer tastings intended to showcase various breweries, where you can sample selections from the brewery’s lineup along with food pairings that the menu described as “light bites” (but they were substantial enough that eaten over the course of the evening, they made a satisfying meal). This first event featured Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company.

For this event, we gathered at 6:30 at the bar (yes, a bar inside the grocery store—-how can you refuse to go grocery shopping now?) and the tasting began right there with a light malty Conway’s Irish ale and a mini shepherd’s pie. This was a great start and a favorite of mine, but the tasting had just begun.

Then we went upstairs where the event room was set up with five more tasting stations closely supervised by brewer Luke Purcell. At the first station we were greeted with a lager, Dortmunder Gold, and a slice of Hawaiian pizza. At the next station, a trio of French bleu cheeses was accompanied with a citrusy Burning River IPA. Next an amber lager called Eliot Ness with spicy smoked salmon on grilled sourdough bread. (As a baker and sourdough aficionado, I was interested to learn that the bread is made in house at the Market District every morning from scratch.) Gyro burger sliders were served with Commodore Perry IPA, a dry fruity IPA. For desert? Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, a bittersweet beer with hints of coffee and chocolate, the perfect match for a parfait of chocolate ganache and berries. I wasn’t crazy about the ganache, but I’d enjoy drinking the beer again.

Brewer Luke Purcell took the time to answer all our questions at the end of the tasting. And perhaps to keep the Pittsburgh crowd friendly, he pulled out a bourbon barrel aged stout. This beer is made in such small batches that it’s not even available for sale at this time, and maybe I shouldn’t be talking about it. I’m not a beer expert, but to call this complex beverage mere beer is almost demeaning. This beer was as sophisticated as a port or a well-aged bourbon. Great beer and a great evening.

If you’re looking for something different to do, the Market District will be hosting these beer tastings for several more weeks and the next one is a Valentine’s special. Ladies, your man will love it!

fruit cake

mix of fruit for blackcake

This is the mix of fruit we included in our fruitcake. Raisins, dates, prunes, maraschino cherries, and of course the wild pears that I foraged last year. You can see they are a bit discolored from the everclear, but it’s not so bad!

Now that the holidays are over, you may be sick of fruit cake. But I want to tell you about a very special fruit cake.

I didn’t realize this until now, but the making of this cake started in the fall of 2012.

Remember when I found those very interesting pears growing wild by a parking lot? The tree was very overgrown and the fruit was small. To this day I still don’t know if they were Asian pears or honey pears or some other variety.

I took the pears home. Peeled them and put them in everclear, without blanching them or any previous treatment. They preserved well. They had a great flavor and gave a nice amber color and a pleasant fruity taste to the everclear. But the pears turned dark brown. Picture a gallon-sized glass jar full of these discolored pears floating in yellow liquid, sitting on the kitchen counter. Not the most appealing sight in a food preparation area. You can imagine the kind of things my wife would say about this, but I was mostly pleased with my experiment and I refused to get rid of it just because it wasn’t pretty.

One day Laura mentioned to me how those pears would probably not be bad in a fruit cake. At first I thought this was probably another derogatory comment towards my pears. But Laura has an obsession with black cake, Jamaican fruit cake. And she has been wanting to make it for a long time.

We gathered dried and preserved fruits, my pears included, and we made black cake. Well–sort of.

burnt sugar on the stovetop

Burnt sugar. This is not nearly black enough for blackcake, but this is as far as I could make myself go! Maybe next time I’ll be able to burn it real good. Or maybe I will put my wife in charge of the sugar. ;-)

Black cake calls for very dark, burned sugar. That’s what makes the cake black. And I just couldn’t do it. I started the sugar like I have many times for flans or other preparations, but in this case it has to go beyond to the dark side and it has to be very dark and bitter. I have seen this happen by mistake multiple times. Thick smoke permeates the kitchen and your innocent preparation turns into Napalm in front of your eyes. A rookie pours water on it and then it takes over your kitchen! Years of training kicked in and when the caramel was to a “safe” darkness I pulled it away from the heat. I just couldn’t burn it. It wasn’t dark enough for the Jamaican version but it made a very nice looking “regular” fruit cake.

We kept it in a can for three months, like you do, turning it periodically for the moisture to code evenly.

A few weeks ago we tried it for the first time. It was tasty! Laura was pretty pleased with the results, even if it’s not as dark as she was hoping for.

I was glad my special pears were put to good use. It was a fun project. And I don’t have to hear any more complaints about the big jar of pears on the counter.

a slice of fruitcake--our first attempt at Jamaican "black cake"

A slice of fruitcake–a classic holiday dessert, often mocked, but this one is pretty tasty. It’s our first attempt at Jamaican “black cake.” It was delicious–fruity, tender, soaked in alcohol–what’s not to like?! Happy holidays to me. :-)

baking bread

Here I am scoring the loaves I made with homemade sourdough starter after putting them in the oven.

Now that the brotforms are seasoned with use, it gets easier to use them and the bread I have been baking with my homemade sourdough starter has been steadily improving. I try to bake a batch of bread each week. Here I am scoring the loaves to help them expand upward.

Even though we got a brand new italian loaf pan at the USA Pans sale on Saturday, I used my brotforms (coiled cane bread molds) to shape the loaves I made this morning.

How did you spend your “extra hour” when you turned the clocks back today for the end of Daylight Savings Time? The best way to spend it is in the kitchen, of course. ;-)

Buen provecho!

homemade bread

There’s nothing like homemade bread!

USA Pans – factory sale of premier bakeware

USA Pans bakeware

Muffin tins from USA Pans full of banana bread batter.
These muffin tins are a joy to use and clean.

Pittsburgh is home to manufacturers of leading kitchen equipment. If you are a serious chef or a self-respecting foodie, you have doubtless heard of Pittsburgh’s own All-Clad. But have you heard of USA Pans? Maybe not, because they create branded bakeware for retail labels like Williams Sonoma or Sur La Table.

If you ever use pans made by USA Pans, you’ll never want to use anything else. This bakeware is a commercial favorite: quick release silicone coating on heavy duty Pittsburgh steel. In my own kitchen, I have muffin pans, half-sheet pans, a meatloaf pan, and a baguette pan from USA Pans, and I’m still looking to stock up on more.

And Saturday November 2nd from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. might be the time to get a few more pieces. They are having their biannual PAN SALE!

Come check it out! They’re located at:

33 McGovern Blvd.
Crescent, PA 15046
Link to this address in Google Maps

USA Pans jellyroll pan

Drop biscuits on a USA Pans jellyroll pan

baguette pan

USA Pans baguette pan with sourdough loaves during baking

USA Pans loaf pan

USA Pans loaf pan with fruitcake batter

hen of the woods

This is my largest skillet and it's pretty much full of hen of the woods mushrooms. This was a great haul.

This is my largest skillet and it’s pretty much full of hen of the woods mushrooms. This was a great haul.

This year has been great for wild mushrooms, and even now as we enter autumn, a favorite among mushroom lovers is ready for picking. I’m talking about hen-of-the-woods, ram’s head, sheep’s head, maitake, signorina, grifola frondosa, the king of mushrooms some say. This mushroom is highly valued in traditional medicine, but it’s also very tasty and versatile in the kitchen.

In the past two weeks I have foraged around 5 pounds of grifola frondosa. The first day we had them with ham, collard greens and smoked gouda. I also made a creamy mushroom soup a few days later. And the leftover cream of mushroom I used to flavor a rice and chicken casserole—better than Campbell’s!

The rest I pickled in a simple solution of vinegar, water, and salt. I also used a little fresh thyme and a green onion from the garden. My philosophy on pickling is keep it simple, so that whatever you’re preserving can be as versatile as possible when you later use it in a dish.

Mushrooms are a great addition to any meal: fun to work with and even more fun if you are able to forage them yourself.

Buen provecho!

3 jars of pickled mushrooms. Pickling is a good way to preserve this wild mushroom harvest. I go light on the seasonings because I want to be able to use a variety of seasonings when I eventually cook with these mushrooms.

Pickling is a good way to preserve this wild mushroom harvest. I go light on the seasonings because I want to be able to use a variety of seasonings when I eventually cook with these mushrooms.

A bowl of mushroom soup, topped with croutons fried in olive oil just as my grandma used to do

Puree of mushroom soup, topped with croutons fried in olive oil just as my grandma used to do

Brooklyn visits Pittsburgh, October 22-27, 2014

How about an event for everyone in the family? “Food, Film, Music, Books and Beer”–this is what you’ll find at the “The Brooklyn Brewery Mash” in Pittsburgh, October 22nd to the 27th. Check out the program of events. I’m especially excited about “Chaos Cooking,” a potluck where people don’t bring a finished dish, they bring the ingredients they want to cook.

Hope to see you there!