Butternut Squash Polenta with Sausage and Onion

Butternut Squash Polenta

When I saw this recipe in the New York Times last week, I though, why have I never thought of adding grated winter squash to polenta? It seems like such a natural paring and after trying this dish I can tell you it is a delicious natural paring and one I’ll be using from now on.

Grated squashThe recipe is quick and easy taking a little over 30 minutes to complete. Grated winter squash is simmered with polenta and bay leaf until they are tender, then you add a little butter and black pepper and the polenta is done. While the polenta cooks, you brown the sausage and caramelize the onions.  What could be easier? Add a nice green salad and dinner is served.

Butternut Squash Polenta 2

Polenta simmering with grated winter squash and bay leaf.

I used andouille sausage since I had some in the freezer and loved the contrast between the spicy sausage and the sweet taste of the squash and onions. I think you could use just about any kind of sausage and have a satisfying result. I did use rosemary but not the fennel seeds, mostly because I didn’t have them on hand. Using sage instead of rosemary could also be a nice variation.

Thanks to Melissa Clark at the New York Times for this keeper. You can find the recipe, a “how to” video and more information about polenta here.

The Power of Procrastination

Play-DohI’ve always said that a tight deadline can bring on some pretty creative ideas and for me procrastination is usually what creates the deadline. I’ve known I was going to a 4th of July potluck party today for about a week now but didn’t press myself to decided what to take until that tight deadline started showing it’s ugly head. OK, the deadline is here. “What are you going to take?” I ask myself. Well, I have lots of fruit that could be used in something. So I start thinking about the fruit, that leads to cobblers and then it hits me. What about the Berry and Peach Cobbler I make each year when I’m with my family at Packer Lake? “Perfect idea”, if I do say so myself. But instead of putting heart shaped pie crust pieces on top I’ll use stars. The problem is I don’t have a star cookie cutter. Or do I?

After fretting about the star cutter and wondering who I could borrow one from or where I could buy one on very short notice I remember where I might have one. So its off to my closet where some toys my grand children play with are stored to find the Play-Doh stuff and sure enough, there was a star cutter. Love it when it works out that way.

Berry and Peach Cobbler

Cookie cutter in hand. I’m back in the kitchen peeling peaches, mixing berries, sugar, lemon juice and tapioca. Now the fun part cutting stars from the pie dough (store bought this time but works just fine) and placing them on the fruit. A nice brushing of melted butter, a sprinkle of cinnamon and turbinado cane sugar and it’s into the oven and wait.

Here’s the final results and judging how incredible the house smelled this morning I can tell this is going to be a hit.

You can find the recipe for the Berry and Peach Cobbler here.


It Won’t Be Long Now

I’ll bet you think I’ve lost my mind. Well maybe I have but I was so excited this morning when I checked my Russian Heirloom cherry tomato to see that there are tiny tomatoes on it, that I couldn’t wait to shout it to the world. I have tomatoes! Well, I almost have some. It won’t be long now.

This year, I am trying a new variety called Koralik. I bought the plant in Sebastopol on a day my sis and I spent antiquing and nursery hopping. Definitely a great way to spend a Spring day. Anyway, I usually buy the cherry varieties since I grow them in a container. I did learn one thing after I had purchased and planted it that I wish I had known before. The little plastic tag that has the information on it said “Organic Russian Heirloom red cherry – Determinate plant: bears loads of cherry-sized fruit with great flavor. Wonderful for all locations. Only 60 days!” The thing I learned is what “determinate plant” means. Determinate are varieties that grow to a compact height. Determinates stop growing when fruit sets on the top bud. All the tomatoes from the plant ripen at approximately the same time (usually over period of 1- 2 weeks). They require a limited amount of staking for support and are perfectly suited for container planting.

So the good news is that the tomato won’t require staking and it is perfectly suited for container planting. The not so good news is that it sounds like all the fruit will ripen at about the same time so I’ll be overwhelmed with cherry tomatoes for a couple of weeks then I won’t have any. That wasn’t what I had planned on, but looks like what I’ve got. Such is life. Live and learn.

This is the vegetable container part of my little garden. The Koralik tomato is in the pot at the back, an Ichiban Japanese eggplant (Abundance, July 2010) is on the right and a container zucchini, Astia, planted from seeds from Renee’s Garden is in front. The zucchini is also a new selection I am trying this year.  An upgrade to my garden this year is the addition of the wheeled pot stands. They are fantastic. I can move the pots easily to change their location or just to rotate them so they grow more evenly. They even have little brakes you can set so the wheels can’t move. Definitely a luxury I should have given myself long ago.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest I think I’ll get back out there and check on what the snail population is munching on. And that is a whole other story.

(note: the sprinkler that is sticking up in the front pot is not how I’m watering the pots. They are on an automatic system that works off my in ground sprinkler system. I think I stuck that one in there so I wouldn’t misplace it. Good thing I took this picture cuz now I’ll remember where it is next time I go looking for it.)

Hungry Hollow Asparagus

Undoubtedly, asparagus is my favorite spring vegetable. At this time of year I always look for it at the Farmers’ Market. There was fresh asparagus at the market on Sunday but I didn’t buy it. Instead, I stopped at my neighborhood grocery store and  bought some. I didn’t buy it there because the price was better. It was actually about the same. I bought it because it was from Durst Organic Growers, local fourth generation farmers from the “Hungry Hollow” area at the mouth of the Capay Valley.

Capay Valley, about 45 miles from where I now live, is where I lived during my last two years of High School. We had a 40-acre Almond ranch there and the elementary and high School, in Esparto is where all the kids from up-the-valley and all the areas surrounding Esparto went. Some kids spent an hour on the bus getting to school and another getting home. The buses carried both elementary and high school (there was no middle or Jr. High) kids, so if you were from a large family like me, you rode to school on the same bus as your brothers and sisters.  The schools were very small by today’s standards, about a couple hundred of us at the high school and that’s probably being generous. My senior class had thirty-two. It was a wonderful place to live in those days, a little like Mayberry RFD. The Durst kids went to school with my younger sisters. Some of their cousins were in my class. In small towns everybody is somebody’s cousin, unless like me, you moved there.  So maybe it was nostalgia that brought me to buy their asparagus. But really, I don’t think nostalgia was the reason. Durst Organic Growers bring beautiful products to market so while nostalgia may have played some small part in my choice I was really just looking for the very best asparagus available. The only asparagus I’ve had that beat theirs was some wild asparagus I found growing in a meadow along a trail where I was walking. It was so beautiful, some of the spears had leafed out into their fern-like foliage and tucked below it were perfectly shaped spears, some  about 7 inches tall and no bigger around than a pencil. The temptation was too great. I had to to taste this perfection.  I broke off the spears and ate them, slowly, one by one, relishing their taste and texture. They were sheer heaven.  I don’t know what there is about foraging food but to me it always tastes much better than anything I can buy.

To celebrate my asparagus bounty I grilled some and added it to a penne pasta recipe I came across on one of my recent digs (through recipe clippings of which I have more than I probably need). This is not heavy, although with all that cream one would think it would be. I didn’t feel it over whelmed the vegetables. I could still taste their bright spring flavors.

Penne with Asparagus, Peas, Mushrooms & Cream

8 – 10 servings

1 lb thin asparagus

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for grilling

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3 medium shallots, minced

¾ pound shitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps thinly sliced

2 ¼ cups heavy cream

1 ½ lbs penne rigate

1 ½ cups fresh or frozen baby peas (if frozen thaw them before using)

¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Preheat a cast-iron grill pan. Brush the asparagus with olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper. Grill the asparagus over high heat, turning until it is lightly charred and very tender, about 6 minutes. Cut the asparagus to 1-inch lengths. (I used my BBQ instead of the cast-iron grill pan)

2. In a very large, deep skillet, heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the shallots and cook, stirring once or twice until the mushrooms are golden and tender, about 8 minutes. Add the cream and bring to a boil. Simmer until slightly reduced, about 4 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving ¾ cup of the cooking water.

4. Add the pasta to the skillet along with the asparagus, peas and grated cheese and toss well. Add the reserved pasta water and simmer, tossing, until the pasta is nicely coated. Season the pasta with salt and pepper and stir in the parsley. Serve right away.

More asparagus ideas from Annie:

Grill’n Between Storms

Early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans Prized Asparagus. Me too.

Slow Post for a Quick Stir-Fry

California Rice

Snow geese over harvested rice field

When I drive to work in the morning I cross a three-mile bridge over a floodway. This floodway, or bypass, was created early in California’s history to carry water away from the Sacramento River during high flows and prevent the city of Sacramento from flooding and so far it has done its job. Within this floodway a wildlife area was created in 1997, the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. It provides habitat to hundreds of thousands of waterfowl that visit each winter as they travel the Pacific Flyway from Alaska and Canada down into California’s central valley. There are also rice fields alongside the wetland habitats within the bypass. They also provide food and shelter for scores of wildlife species. In fact, California ricelands provide habitat to 230 wildlife species, including more than 30 that have been designated as special status. Ricelands provide more than half of the food needed by wintering waterfowl in the Sacramento Valley.

Rice production also benefits Californians in a big way, it puts more than a billion dollars into our economy, it supports local communities and premium California rice is found in every piece of sushi made in America. So if you eat sushi, you’re eating rice grown right here in my back yard. So, how did rice get to be such an important crop? It certainly isn’t native to our area.

Like so many things in California you could say it all started when Sutter found gold in “them thar hills”. The California gold rush brought thousands of fortune hunters to California. Immigrants from all over the world came, the largest group were Chinese workers hired by the mines and the railroad. Rice was an important part of the Chinese diet and it had to be imported from China or Japan. European and Asian miners who didn’t fair well in their search for gold turned to their previous profession, farming. Some saw rice as a potential crop.

But early attempts to cultivate long grain rice failed time and time again. It wasn’t until 1908 that a USDA soil specialist discovered that a Japanese medium grain variety, Kiushu, was better suited to northern California’s climate and soil. The first successful crop was grown at the Belfour-Guthrie Ranch in the community of Biggs just after the discovery and by 1912 the rice industry was established. Today California’s rice industry flourishes in the Sacramento Valley and a small portion of the San Joaquin Valley. About half of the rice produced in California stays in the US, the rest is exported to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Middle East. Rice is also produced in two other principal areas of the United States: the Grand Prairie and Mississippi River Delta of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri and the Gulf Coast of Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

One of the things I like to make with California short grain rice is risotto. I’ve been using it for years now and prefer it to the more traditional Arborio rice from Italy. To me Risotto is a comfort food, much like mac-n-cheese.

Farmhand Risotto

Tonight I put together a risotto hearty enough to satisfy a hungry farmhand or just a very hungry gal looking for some comfort food. It combines short grain rice, chicken stock and vegetables fresh from this morning’s Farmers’ Market, fresh carrots, crimini mushrooms, onions and tender spring spinach. I also used celery and country sage sausage, a touch of fresh thyme from my garden, a pat of sweet butter, some baked garlic cloves I had on hand, and a sprinkling of grated Asiago cheese just before serving. Served with a simple mixed green salad and a glass of wine it was the perfect dinner on this rainy spring evening.

Additional information and recipes for California rice can be found at California Rice Commission.

3/10/11 – Annie’s article  for step by step information on how to make risotto.

A Birthday Brunch at the Wildlife Area

Today was not unlike most Monday mornings. I awoke at 5am and began my morning routine finishing with a light breakfast around 7am. Now I was ready to start a very important deviation in my morning routine. Today I am baking an apple crisp to take to  a brunch at work. It is the Director’s birthday and and we want to do something special for this very special lady.

At most places of work a birthday brunch would mean gathering around in an office setting and sharing a variety of delicacies. Not where I work. It meant that we were headed out to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area to do some bird watching, look at some of the newest research and restoration projects and of course, have our birthday brunch amongst a beautiful wetland setting with the birds singing and the sun shining down on us.

The Wildlife Area is a very special destination for all of us at Yolo Basin Foundation, but it is especially special to Robin, our Director. Robin was part of a handful of people that came together in 1989 to begin the conversation of restoring the wetlands of the Putah Creek Sinks located in the Yolo Bypass. As a result of these conversations  the Yolo Basin Foundation was founded in 1990 as a non-profit dedicated to the stewardship and appreciation of wetlands and wildlife through education and innovative partnerships. In 1997 the Wildlife Area opened to the public, the beginning a long-term partnership between the Yolo Basin Foundation and the California Depart of Fish and Game to provide public outreach and educational programs at the Bypass. The original area of preservation was 3,500 acres and that number has grown to over the years to over 16,000 acres. I can’t think of a more appropriate place to have her birthday celebration.

I have been thinking about how to make this crisp for days now. One member of our staff doesn’t eat foods containing gluten and another is allergic to walnuts. I want everyone to be able to enjoy the crisp so I combined ideas from a couple of recipes. I used Annie’s Apricot Crisp recipe to create the topping, but this time instead of using wheat or oat flour I used almond flour. Another potential problem was that some folks who are gluten intolerant don’t eat oats and I definitely wanted to include rolled oats in the topping so I checked to see why something that doesn’t have gluten in its makeup was on the avoid list. A Google search turned up http://www.glutenfreeoats.net/. Their reasons were: “The concern is that if oats are grown in a field that previously grew other gluten containing grains, some of those other gluten containing grains will naturally grow in the oat field the next year, which will then cause the oats harvested from that field to be contaminated. If a farmer uses the same equipment to process all his grains, that can also cause cross contamination. If the coop or transport company that brought the oats to the processor has stored and transported other grains, that can cause cross contamination. If the processor processes other gluten containing grains, there can be cross contamination.” Makes complete sense to me so I found some certified gluten free oats to use not wanting to take the chance of using cross contaminated oats. The second recipe was from Simply Recipes. It gave me the basic ingredient ideas for the apple part of the crisp; apples, lemon juice, vanilla, brown sugar and cinnamon. I added some nutmeg and increased the cinnamon and vanilla amounts over what they recommended. After a half hour of peeling, slicing and mixing the apples with the lemon juice, vanilla, brown sugar and spices, the mixture was poured into a 9 x 12-inch pan, then the topping with the almond flour, certified gluten free oats, chopped pecans and butter mixture was added. It looked great and if it hadn’t been a foggy morning with very little natural light coming in the kitchen windows I would have taken some nice pictures to show you. I really don’t like how food pictures turn out when you use flash. In my opinion the look is very unnatural and unappetizing and Annie is definitely not into unappetizing looking foods.

The crisp came out of the oven 45 minutes later, smelling wonderful as only apples drenched in sugar and cinnamon can and looking perfect. I wrapped it in a towel to keep it warm, loaded the car with my laptop and some serving utensils and headed off through the fog to work. The closer I got to work the sunnier it got which is unusual since there is always more fog in the rural areas and that’s where our office is, in a field surrounded by agriculture.  At work we loaded the food each of us had brought; bagels and cream cheese, just picked tangerines and freshly shelled walnuts, hot water for coffee, tea or cocoa, and Greek yogurt to use on the crisp.  Plates, silverware and hot cups were placed in a basket and loaded into the fifteen passenger van along with a loaded ice chest. Party supplies all loaded we all jumped in and headed two miles to the east to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area where we drove south into a closed area to view a project area and some recently restored wetlands.  It took us a while, every time we got started down the road one of us would see a bird or birds that we would have to stop and watch.  Sometimes it was to make an identification. I was sitting in the third set of seats from the front, warm crisp on my lap and the basket of the other goodies and a co-worker beside me. My views were through windows that do not open and have not been washed for who knows how long. It was not good viewing, with or without binoculars, and definitely not good at all for picture taking. Since I couldn’t take any pictures of the birds we saw I took this picture to show you my view of everyone else bird watching. I thought it was funny. There they sat with their binoculars all at attention, the part you can’t see or obviously hear is the discussion as to which bird it was that was spotted and where it is amongst the hundreds of other birds out on the water. Then there is the discussion by a few of them that are using the iBird app on their phones to research or justify identification. It was definitely entertaining and not atypical of birders, which all of us, with the exception of two are. Actually the app was great help since some of the female ducks are really hard to identify. We also used it to confirm some eared grebes that are not common to the area.

When we got to the southern part of the wildlife area we stopped and had our brunch. Since we didn’t stop in an area with a table we used the ice chest and the seat and step of the van to set up our feast. The crisp went quickly and this is all that was left after eight hungry women had finished with it. At one point this morning I had considered making a 9 x 9 pan, glad I didn’t. Yes I ate again. I had to see if the crisp tasted as good as it had smelled all morning. It was delicious if I do say so myself. Guess what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow morning. Love leftovers!

As we pulled to the top of the levee to leave the wildlife area we were given one more memorable moment, we spotted five river otter playing in the water just below us. As we sat watching their antics I couldn’t help wish that I could just stay and spend the rest of the day as carefree as the playing otters seemed.  That wish would have to wait; there was work to do back at the office. But I knew as we drove off that I would be back out to the Wildlife Area the next day, this time with a class of excited school children and we would continue the exploration of this wonderful area.

To see pictures of the wildlife area and some of it’s inhabitants click here.

Gingerbread Muffins for Breakfast

Foggy, misty mornings, not uncommon here in California’s central valley during winter,  are when I want to fill my kitchen with the aroma of homebaked spicy-smelling foods; like gingerbread muffins with golden raisins and chopped walnuts. Spicy-smells, like ginger and molasses weren’t really the only reason I chose to bake gingerbread muffins. The other reason was a little jar of Pumpkin Butter with Port that I had brought back from a trip to Washington (pictures from some of my travels can be viewed on my Flickr Photos – just click on a picture and you’ll be taken to the site) earlier this year. This wasn’t the first time I have purchased this butter, but it had been a while. So when I saw it I knew it was going home with me and sometime this winter it would be accompanying  some warm gingerbread.

As I started to write this I thought I should find a link to the company that sells the pumpkin butter, Aloha from Oregon, just in case you would like to try it too.  Having found the link I became curious as to the companies name since I hardly think of the word Aloha when I think of Oregon. Well it seems that the post office in Aloha, OR, just west of Beaverton, was established in 1912 and Robert Caples, a railroad man from the area, supposedly gave the the town it’s  name but the reason for its origin was unknown until 1983, when it was revealed by Joseph H. Buck of King City, that his uncle Julius Buck, was the first postmaster and that he named the office Aloah after a small resort on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, but that during the application process the last two letters were transposed by the Post Office Department, resulting the shift from a Midwestern Indian name to a Hawaiian word. Now, that’s a story I can believe.

For a recipe for the muffins I went to my James Beard’s American Cookery cookbook. Hopefully you can see the age and wear on this much loved book from my collection in the photograph.  This page contains not only the gingerbread recipe but the cornbread recipe I have used for the past forty some years.  I added the golden raisins and chopped walnuts to give the muffins more body and texture.  Another great combination might be dried cranberries and chopped pecans. They were served warm from the oven with the pumpkin butter and were deliciously satisfying.


James Beard’s American Cookery (©1972)

1 cup light or dark molasses

½ cup boiling water

5 tablespoons butter

½ t salt

1 ½ to 2 t ginger

1 t baking soda

1 cups all-purpose flour

Put the molasses in a mixing bowl and add the boiling water and butter. Stir until well mixed. Add the salt, ginger, and soda, and stir lightly. Stir in the flour just enough to moisten and mix. Turn into a 9 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan Bake at 375 degrees 25 – 35 minutes, or until the top springs back when pressed lightly and the mixture is pulling away from the sides of the pan.

I added about ½ cup golden raisins and the same amount of chopped walnuts. Baking cupcakes or muffins takes less time, test for doneness by touching the muffin top to see if it springs back when lightly pressed.

A Great Interactive Site For Finding Information on California Markets, Farms, and Agricultural Events

I just found this great website called, California Agricultural Almanac,  that has all kinds of information about vegetable, fruit and nut specialty crops in California. Using interactive maps and data you can check out where to find locally grown produce, farms, farm markets and agricultural events. Give it a try for the area you live in or for the area of California that you might be visiting. As much as I love finding off the beaten path places, I can see where this is going to come in handy. This site is definitely getting bookmarked.