Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Leek and Potato Soup

More than anything else. I think of this blog as a book for my "children". They are in their 20s now so put the word in scary quote marks.... scary for me, not for them, hopefully.

I write this so they will have in words some recipes and photographs from this wonderful life I have been living. This is a post about leeks and a soup I love to make and eat.

If you have read any previous posts about leeks, you must know how chuff I feel about growing these marvelous onions. I have tried the conventional yellow and purple and white onions but, like my luck with figs, I am the only person in SELA who can't seem to grow them. Leeks, I do just peachy with for some reason or another and I really get smug when I have grown them from seeds. Other times, I have found a grow-pot at Lowes with leeks and just gone that route. It is not the easiest thing to seed them at just the opportune time for good growth transplant.

Now, check out these babies:

These have had the roots and crown cut away, and slit down length-wise to facilitate cleaning, and are ready to be chopped into 1/4" slices. I stop right where the white turns light green and I dump them in a large bowl and rinse cold water in.

This allows the onion layers to swell and let any grit rinse out. You don't want anything like that in a great soup.

Now I remove 3-5 outer leaves and keep the lower part (see where I am pointing? That is the keeper, the others on the upper left is tossed)

and toss them on the compost pail and continue chopping and rinsing. You will always find more dirt and grit in this area because of the way leeks grow in soil. I goo almost to the tips of the greens, especially if they are still bright and tender.

See the dirt? You definitely don't want that!

These I put in a separate bowl, usually one with a white interior so I can really see the dirt well. Get it all cleaned out. Rinse rinse rinse. Trust me.... dirt can hide very well, thank you!

Now at this point if you have more leeks than you want to use, parboil them and freeze in small freezer bags for future use. When you grow these beauties, this is an awesome onion to have on hand for quiches, stews and spaghetti sauce.

On to the soup!

3-4 large leeks, cleaned as I have described so thoroughly above
2 Tablespoon butter and 1 Tablespoon olive oil in a large soup pot

Saute the leeks until they have softened and add

4 large white potatoes, peeled and chopped into good-sized chunks. Russets are good, yukon golds add a buttery flavor that I like. You can use reds as well.

4-6 cups of chicken stock (I use the granules unless I happen to have canned stock on the shelf.)

White pepper and more salt if you really think you need it. Now let it simmer for 25 minutes and voila!

I say "if you really need salt" because bouillon cubes are heavy-salt and some people use salted butter. I always buy unsalted but I think I am strange about this. I usually wait til the end of cooking and taste the liquid.

If you want to thicken the soup, crush some of the cubed potatoes. They are a natural thickening agent and help eliminate the need for high-calorie flour or cream. This trick also helpes thicken beans... mash a half a cup of them and stir into a pot of beans for instant thick 'gravy'.

Here you can see the ratio of leeks to potato. Obviously, that can be reversed if you so choose. Me, I like the onion.

The Perfect Day

...Didn't start yesterday, I'll tell you that!

The "Perfect Day" was today but yesterday stared with a (slight) calamity.

On Monday, I planted all the tomatoes we started from seed back in Feb. 35 plants to be precise. 20 in the raised beds and 15 in the lower garden. We really like the Parks Razzleberries and Cherokee Purples and Evas so we went with those, naturally and decided to try a few new (to us) varieties like Pruden Purples, Black Krim and one Virginia Sweet we bought from an avid Master Gardener who just happens to live across the highway from us. I also seeded Margerite plums and Costoluto Genovese from last year's success and have made the executive decision to completely omit any cherry toms or tomatillos (unless I happen upon a seed pack of tomas. If so, all caution will be out the window.)

Seedlings are by nature susceptible to all sorts of attack and by now, I should know better than to leave them to all predators but alas, this is exactly what I did Monday night. I blithely walked away and forgot to sprinkle Sevin dust on these young sprouts so it should come as little surprise to learn, Tuesday morning, that 4 of them were immediately cut down by those miserable cutworms!!!!

I hate these creatures (may God forgive for saying this but I really do! I hate them with passion)(ggrrrrrrrr) and I can't believe the sense of rage I felt when I saw the little toma tops laying there on the dirt, slightly shriveled as though they had just in the ribbon light of dawn been whacked by these ruthless marauders.

So I cried my way back to the house and threw myself on John's mercy to help me protect the others and he came back with a marvelous solution.

He bought giant drinkstraws and ct them first lengthwise and them into 3" pieces and we slipped them around the lower stalk just at dirt level and pressed them lightly into the soil. That was last night and I am pleased to report all the others have survived the night and I replanted the missing spaces with my back-ups. It is so important to have a back-up waiting in the wings.

This morning, I planted the second set of zuccs and butternut squashes and will go out now and give them a collar before night falls. The rest of the day has been joyfully spent doing alittle organizing in the sewing room, working on a Grandmother's Garden I have had in the works for years (moan) and baking a banana cake.

All in all, a very good day. 4 eggs from the ladies (nothing yesterday... I'm telling you, it was not a good day, farm-wise) Leek and potato soup for dinner. Can't beat that!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Organize One Drawer

My foray into cooking Beef Rendang last week made me face a dilemma head on. That is,

What the heck all is in my spice drawer?????

I had envelopes and jars and zippies and tins and it was all a big jumble that I, over the three years we've lived here, would look at, fish around in and close with a promise to "deal with it" later.

So since it was only one drawer and I thought to myself, "how long could this take?", I tackled it. It took three days of tackling but it is done.

Those little jars up front are found at Michaels in the Brides aisle. They are gift jars and the perfect size for those spices you buy at World Market in small pouches. And as you see, they don't take up valuable real estate that large jars use.

I feel rather smug. Too bad all the other drawers are still all chaos.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beef Rendang

I grew up with a positive aversion to coconut. Mind you, my limited access to it back then was in Almond Joy or Mounds chocolate bars and the grinding texture and sickly sweet flavor did not impress me as a child so I avoided anything with the word 'coconut' in it for years.

Then we moved to the Far East and my path was crossed with a dish called Beef Rendang which is a spicy sweet aromatic and thicker version of what we might call 'stew'. I first tried it in a restaurant, I believe, and could buy it ready-made in tins (dreadful) but eventually was taught to make it by the housekeeper of a man who lived next door to us in Brunei.

The housekeeper/cook was a transvestite to begin with and I never knew which persona I would meet each day working out in the garden or running errands. At first I thought they were two different people, and I suppose that really is most accurate. But not germane to the story.

On the appointed day, I bopped over and after we visited for a few minutes, we got busy in the kitchen, by which I mean, she got busy and I took notes. She did not speak English, I did not speak Malay but we both communicated like fast friends over a common bond: Food.

Here is where I first discovered that coconut goes into the making of this delicious curry. And that most foreign and mesmerizing ingredient, lemongrass.

All the spices and herbs were ground up with a mortar, which took more time than necessary these days, thanks to our advanced technology of the mini-blender (c'mon folks, just get one) and today I whirr them all together in less than 2 minutes. But back then, I confess, as she ground and ground away, the fragrances that were released filled the room and senses like nothing I had ever experienced (except possibly, when in a bakery).

Then the ingredients are all fried up in a large pot and coconut milk and water added. This then slowly cooks for several hours and the beef tenderizes and pulls in the spices even as they break down. at first, the liquid is light in color and almost off-putting but eventually as it evaporates, the curry takes on a darker, richer color and if you prefer a 'dry' curry, you can continue til it's practically non-existent. This is not something I like because I let the rice we serve with the rendang soak up that gravy.


1 1/2 pound boneless beef cubes, cheap cuts are fine
5 tablespoons cooking oil
1 cinnamon stick (about 2-inch long)
4 cloves
3 star anise, I use powdered star anise 1/4 teasp. This is not the anise seed!
3 cardamom pods, or 1/4 teasp of the seeds from within

1 lemongrass (cut into 4-inch length and pounded) I used the stuff in the squeeze tube as the lemongrass is harder to find here

1 cup thick coconut milk (canned. Try to get a can from Thailand, not Mexico. It is prepared a little differently)
1 cup water
2 teaspoons tamarind pulp (soaked in some warm water for the juice and discard the seeds )(good luck finding this. I substituted 7 prunes and added 1 Tables of Lime juice)
6 kaffir lime leaves (very finely sliced) Sorry, I grow my own here in the South. Again, Good luck. try an Asian Grocery store
6 tablespoons kerisik (toasted coconut) (couldn't find it, omitted it altogether)
1 tablespoon sugar/palm sugar or to taste
Salt to taste

Spice Paste:

5 shallots
1 inch galangal
(Ii have powdered )
3 lemongrass (white part only) (Squeeze tube, (again)
5 cloves garlic
1 inch ginger
10-12 dried chilies (soaked in warm water and seeded)


  1. Chop the spice paste ingredients and then blend it in a food processor until fine.
  2. Heat the oil in a stew pot, add the spice paste, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and cardamom and stir-fry them until aromatic.
  3. Add the beef and the pounded lemongrass and stir for 1 minute.
  4. Add the coconut milk, tamarind juice, water, and simmer on medium heat, stirring frequently until the meat is almost cooked.
  5. Add the kaffir lime leaves, kerisik (toasted coconut), sugar/palm sugar, stirring to blend well with the meat.
  6. Lower the heat to low, cover the lid, and simmer for 1 – 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is really tender and the gravy has dried up.
  7. Add salt to taste. If not sweet enough, add more sugar to taste.
  8. Serve immediately with steamed rice and save some for overnight.

Okay, that fine recipe is from the link on the name above and it is superb. Galangal is a root much like ginger but different and you might find it at the Asian Grocery. I brought alot of these these ground dried spices back from Thailand and will search for them locally the next time I cross the lake.

I allowed it all to cook to at least 5 hours total and it would taste even better today if there was any left. Note to self: Make twice as much next time!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spring Sprung While We Were Not Watching

Yes, it slithered in on it's belly like a reptile and now all the water oaks are bloomed out and I don't know what is going with the peach trees and plums. They are just barren. I hope they aren't waiting for more chill hours because at this point in time, they'll have to wait another 10 months.

We spend several days out in the field planting and setting stakes for runner beans. I had already seeded 7 varieties of tomatoes and transplanted them into larger pots last week. At this point, they are hardening off to be planted in the plot and raised beds along with fancy peppers.
In the ground we now have:

Potatoes, zucs & cucs, yellow crook-necks, Silver Queen corn, Blue Lake, Moonlight runners, black-eyed peas. Soon to add the tomatoes and after the potato harvests, I'll plant okra!
In the raised beds, we have a few rutabagas left, celery, 3 kales going to town and they are SO good, carrots, a mix of salad greens, French shallots and English peas (quite the UN out there)(they refuse to speak with each other)

In the afternoon, I seeded more skinny eggplant (J has become a big fan of the eggplant lately) butternut suash, a zuc called the Contender (wouldn't you plant something with this name?) marigolds and zinnias and I just found another seedpack of eggplant that need to be seeded.

I have been slowly weeding an preparing to set in the eggplant and peppers and this year we are going to designate one of the beds for cantaloupe. I intend to train them upward and will support the fruit in slings. This because when we had them in the lower plot, something made off with all but two. The raised beds are protected by a fence.

Now, as I returned from Nonna's last Sunday, I stopped along the highway to get some shots of the lovely wisteria that has bloomed out along the roadways. It is only a brief time to enjoy them as they will be history again in two weeks and I swiped some seed pods. I want to try to propagate plant for myself. I know they are invasive so I must choose a site wisely. I think I know just the spot!

Wisteria: Beautiful

Azalea Wall Along the Highway

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cucidati and Then Some

A couple of years ago, I met a mother/daughter duo in a quilting class who, after we established a familial Italian connection, told me an intriguing story about a tradition from New Orleans called St. Joseph's Altar.

Now, I have lived here off and on for close to 20 years, and although I am not Catholic, I thought I had a handle on local happenings and this one completely slipped my radar. In addition to the tradition itself, these ladies made a fig cookie recipe that grabbed me by the throat and hasn't let me go. Cucidati....even the name intrigues.

You can see them here, iced cookie logs wrapped in cellopane.

I had the impression that these cookies take time to make and are usually exclusively mad around the Eastertime. This may not be the case, but as I said, it was my impression. The Altar is set up to honor St. Joseph and came to New Orleans from Sicily where the tradition started after a time where the famine in Sicily brought the people to beg their patron saint, Joseph, for relief. In answering their prayers, they paid homage to him by erecting an altar with their harvest and giving the food to the less fortunate.

In New Orleans, people would drape a greenery on their doorways to signify that they had built their own altar inside and invited people in to partake of the food and the tradition lives on in Churches, schools, homes and in this following case a local bakery, Nonna Randazzo's.

I spent summers and most Christmas weeks with my Father and Grandmother as a child and grew up hearing and eating Italian. The two of them conversed almost exclusively in the language and neither my brother nor I ever learned it. We instead spoke Swedish back home in Texas with our Mother and Mormor. Yessss. that was quite the combination.
My father's mother was in fact from Sicily and devoutly Catholic. But she learned to cook (deliciously, I might add) by my Grandfather who hailed from Naples. We ate like kings and queens in New York and I learned to make ragu and caccitore and biscotti and sesame anise cookies but I never had any fig filled nothing so I raced home and phoned Dad and asked him about it. After determining that I clearly had the pronunciation incorrect, we Googled it phonetically and ta-da! He got it! But no, he knew the cookie but not the tradition! And no my Grandmother who loved figs as much or more as me, never made them.

Again, that was a couple of years ago and last year another quilting group I am in spoke of this St. Joseph's Altar again and told me about Nonna's and that they held an Altar every year that was open to all! And that it was going to be held the sencond week in March. So, I went!

John met me there last Sunday and we enjoyed the very pleasant company of strangers at the lovely Nonna's in Covington. Here are a few photos for you to enjoy

If you can identify any of the dishes and give me names, I would be much appreciated!

When we left, we were handed a "goodie bag" with several items inside. A St. Joseph's Prayer card, a sesame anise cookie (memories!) a fava bean for luck (place it in your pantry and you will never run out of food.) (It's in there) and several cookies and a crust of bread for the freezer. Now in the face of a mighty storm, you break a piece of the bread off and cast it to the wind to protect your home!

And if you are interested in learning more about St Joseph's Altar, this is a link to the Virtual St Joseph's Altar

Saturday, March 10, 2012

I Did It... It Wasn't Pretty

Last Sunday was the Big Day, the Rock n Roll Half Marathon in New Orleans and we crossed the finish line in 3 hours 20 minutes 21 seconds.

The start was in the CBD and snaked around an entire city block, We were somewhere in the middle of the back of the line and it took our corral 29 minutes to cross the Starting Line. There were well over 20,000 people in this race and we met about a hundred of them standing in the corral and mooing our way to the front. Some were wearing the same shirt so I asked if they were a part of a club. No, this shirt was for runners who had completed 3 Marathons in 3 months. Any three consecutive months. Now we saw another shirt that read 50 States and asked about it. This man, in his 70s had run 192 MARATHONS in every state of the union. I'd capitalize the 192 if I could, for emphasis!

Here are R and P at the start of the race..... all fierce and ready to rock.

I found some sport tape at the Expo the day before and wrapped my right ankle and left knee is an effort to give them some added support. The good news is the ankle felt great the whole way through. The bad news is I have done some damage to the knee regardless the tape and by mile 9 .5 , I was in agony.

But Rachel and I slowed down to walking fast. Even at that, we were passing other walkers. I had no concept of the time that had passed and was determined I would cross that finish line in under 4 hours.

That was somewhere behind the the NOMA in City Park and as we approached the buiding itself, I saw hand-made sign reading ".25 miles".. Me: "REALLY!!!! REALLY???? It's only a quarter left???!!!!"

So we made a break for it and eventually ran under a huge scaffolding I mistook for the end...... Oh no wait.... keep going! Keep going!!!! So we plogged a little further and crossed.

YEA!!!!!!!! WE did it, now what do we do???

Here was the best part and now that I am more familiar with what to expect, I want to do it again.

After we crossed the finish line, we were handed or medals and limped away to where people press on you bananas and bagels and chocolate milk, Gatorade and water and fruit cups and oh, I don't remember what all...... Here is where I intend to linger at any future HM. I left that area WAY too quickly... big mistake!

But I was really hankering for that free beer and jambalaya we were promised. We hadn't eat much for breakfast and I was ravenous at this point.

We never found the free beer....... We finally found and I stood in a beer line that NEVER advanced for what seemed to be over 10 minutes. I saw people with cash in their hands standing there but never saw anyone ever leave the front with beer..... Meanwhile R and P went in search of food and came back with 3 styro cups of absolutely delicious jamba but they cost $5.00 each! Hmmmm... we clearly were doing something amiss.

We finally gave up on the beer altogether and tried to go back to get another water bottle or two but once you leave the gauntlet, you may not return.
So we found some bleachers and sat to eat and wonder where from that position do we have to travel to find the car park. I was wondering if my feet and knee would be able to transport me to the car! There were no officials anywhere to ask.... all the people along the gauntlet line were volunteers barking at the spectators to leave room for the runners to pass out of the way.

We eventually determined it would be faster to just walk across the park to the car than to walk the other direction to the bus line for the car park shuttle.

So the question immediately after the run was "would I do it again?" At that time, the answer was a firm no. But enough days have passed now and the answer is yes. I will and here is why:

I know better what to expect from all of it. The training, the actual distance, the prep the week before, pacing. clothing, and I had a great time. Now I want to do it again, only faster.

I know.... but another t shirt read

"Half Marathoners are only Half Crazy"