Into the trash

Last September, unable to abide any longer what seemed like the huge amount of food waste I was putting into my trash can, I invested in a composter for my back yard that I thought was the perfect solution. It was compact, rotating, seemingly sturdy, not terribly ugly, and large enough, I figured, for the organic waste management needs of a single-person household. I don’t recall the brand name, but it looked like this.

New composter

It was a simple snap-together project with a few screws to keep it stable, and I knew when I was assembling it and finding that the several interlocking panels that make up the bin didn’t fit together quite as snugly as I thought they should that this contraption was not worth the $100+ I paid for it. But I went ahead and set it up, and promptly began filling it with my daily collection of vegetable peels, pits, skins and so forth, along with tea bags and coffee grounds and egg shells and all that good stuff. I tossed in a handful of compost starter when I thought about it, gave the handle a few turns every week or so, and hoped to have “black gold” soon. I was proud of myself for reducing my weekly load of trash so substantially that I could even occasionally skip putting the can out to the curb. My kitchen trash no longer stank, and I felt I was doing my part for the planet.

As the bin slowly filled up, turning it became more and more difficult, and Clue No. 2 that this unit was poor quality was one day when I let go of the handle too soon as I was turning it and it whipped back on my arm hard enough to leave a bruise—the turning mechanism was supposed to go in one direction only to prevent exactly this action.

Also, some of the stuff in the bin turned black and gooey but other stuff seemed not to break down much at all, and my lord, how it stank! But I hoped that time and bacteria would do their jobs and break everything down eventually. After all, my parents have a compost bin so vigorously active that it could probably consume an entire human body, clothing and all, within a week or two at most. But my folks live in a rainy valley in another state. I live on the high desert. Apparently composting doesn’t work quite the same here.

I don’t know much about composting, obviously (and I was advised by someone who does not to buy this unit, so here I am, admitting publicly that you were right and I was wrong), so I didn’t know how to make my bin work better or what a more effective option would be. As I said, I just kept adding stuff and hoping for the best.

One sunny day about a month ago, I noticed a rank odor wafting from the back of the yard. Upon investigation, which Reggie had unfortunately already done by the looks of her befouled beard, I found my composter sprung open and ruined.

Broken composter

Busted

Those snap-together panels had little more than plastic tabs holding them together, and the bottom panel busted at the seams on both sides. You can imagine how much this fact was appreciated by my little poo-eating Schnauzer, who couldn’t leave the mess alone.

Broken composter closeup

I mean, really, how enticing is that?

So now I had a broken unit filled with at least 50 pounds of rotting vegetation, and there’s no way to fix the damn thing. What to do?

First I considered burying it. But that involved locating utilities (which proved to be a little too close by for my comfort), hiring someone with a strong back to dig a trench in my rock-hard clay soil, and then scooping all that mess into the ground and hoping the dogs didn’t dig it up. No.

The only thing to do was to dispose of it, all of it. And that, my friends, is a job I would not delegate to anybody because there’s no one in this world I dislike enough to foist it upon.

I pulled the barrel apart, dumped the contents on the ground, and (wearing elbow-length rubber gloves and a respirator mask), I scooped it all up handful by handful into plastic bags and then into the trash. The only job I can think of that might be worse is cleaning out a pit toilet using nothing but a gardening trowel.

In the process, I had to wave off a squad of yellow jackets that, thankfully, left without a fight, watched the biggest earthworm I’ve ever seen (I seriously thought it was a snake for a moment) emerge from under the pile, and evicted several spiders from their nests inside the gears (sorry, gals). I marveled at the dozens of bright-red and still plump cranberries I put in there last November, some exuberantly sprouting garlic cloves, and a nearly intact whole apple I tossed in months ago because it was starting to shrivel and wrinkle on my counter. Amazing how some things just do not break down.

The composter, however, did break down once I removed all its screws. I cleaned it up as best I could with a garden hose from 6 feet away, and now it’s out with the other recyclables awaiting a trip to the transfer station.

Dismantled composter

See ya.

I really like the idea of composting my food scraps, and would love to find a better, cheaper, permanent solution that not only actually makes compost, but also that I can keep contained away from the dogs. I will have to do some research on the worms option, as my neighbors who have outdoor compost bins tell me that the climate here just does not favor proper decomposition.

If you have links or suggestions for worm composting, please let me know in the comments.

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Pumpkin Apple Bread

I hope it’s not too late to wave the flag for pumpkin spice one more time before we head into peppermint and eggnog season.

yo-dawg-pumpkin

Sounds good to me. 🙂

I recently discovered the joys of making my own pumpkin purée, which has gotten me busy finding new recipes in which to use it. My Pumpkin Spice Bars have gone from excellent to ethereal, and now I have added Pumpkin Apple Bread to my repertoire as well. I have to say, I wish there were a county fair contest going on somewhere that I could enter this bread into because it is surely worthy of a blue ribbon and maybe a grand prize.

This is adapted from Libby’s own recipe, which makes two loaves. I halved the recipe, except for the apple (I had a smallish Golden Delicious on hand so I used the whole thing, cut up into 1/4″ dice), and added more spices. Cardamom is my latest favorite taste, so I had to have that. If you don’t have all these spices on hand, substitute two or three teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice.

Pumpkin Apple Bread

Ingredients
1-1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1-1/2 c sugar
1 c pumpkin purée
2 large eggs
1/2 c vegetable oil (I used avocado oil)
1/4 c apple juice or water (I used water)
1 apple, peeled, cored and diced

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9″ x 5″ loaf pan.
  2. In a large bowl, combine flour, spices, baking soda and salt.
  3. In a large mixer bowl, combine sugar, pumpkin, eggs, oil and juice (or water) and beat until just blended.
  4. Add pumpkin mixture to the flour mixture and stir just until moistened. Fold in the apple.
  5. Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan and bake for 65 to 70 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes; remove to wire rack to cool completely.

I appreciate this recipe for three other reasons besides how wonderfully good it tastes: 1) it requires only two bowls and a whisk, 2) it uses oil instead of butter, which simplifies things because I don’t have to wait for the butter to soften or cream it with the sugar, and 3) it contains both a fruit and a vegetable so that makes it health food in my book. 😉

If you want to make your own pumpkin puree, here’s a quick and somewhat amusing tutorial. The only thing I would add is that the purée will be slightly watery when it’s first made, so place it in a cheesecloth-lined strainer over a bowl for a few hours or in the fridge overnight to drain before using. Compared to any canned pumpkin, homemade is the clear winner in both taste and texture, so it is definitely worth the extra effort.

Mirepoix Soup

Winter seems to have passed us by altogether this year. After a couple of weeks of snow and ice in early November, it’s been pretty much spring ever since. Everything is budding and blooming and greening up earlier than I’ve ever seen it. But today, after several sunny days in a row, was overcast, which put me in a mood for soup.

Inspired by a recipe from Food 52 for Jane Grigson’s Celery Soup, I decided to clean out the last of the hardy veggies from my fridge and counter tops. I had all I needed for mirepoix, plus a few potatoes and some garlic, and that right there is a fine soup base. Add an outrageous amount of butter and soon all will be right with the world.

chopped-veggies

Mirepoix Soup

Ingredients
1 stick butter
3-4 c each onion, carrots, celery and potatoes, cut in 1/2″ dice
6-8 garlic cloves (or to taste), thinly sliced
4 c mushroom or chicken stock (I use Better Than Bouillon)
1 Tbs dried thyme
2 Tbs Tarragon Pepper Blend
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt (or to taste)

Preparation
  1. Melt the butter in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion, carrots, celery, potatoes and garlic and stir well to coat.
  3. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook about 10 minutes.
  4. Add stock, herbs, salt and bay leaves and bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes.
  5. Remove bay leaves and blend to desired level of smoothness with a stick blender.
  6. Just before serving, stir in 1 tsp of any kind of flavored vinegar you like, such as tarragon, golden balsamic, sherry, or apple cider. It only takes a little to add a tremendous depth of flavor.

A bowl or two of that warmed me up nicely, and I shared the rest with my neighbors who are in various stages of a winter cold.

The sun is expected to come out again tomorrow, so I can go back to thinking about washing the car and mowing the lawn.

Food overload

The trash gets picked up on Wednesdays in my neighborhood, so this morning I wheeled my big tote to the curb loaded down with heavy, dripping bags of rotting food from my own refrigerator. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and may Demeter have mercy on my soul. It was a very bad week for wasting food in my house.

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

I let my Bountiful Baskets get away from me, faithfully picking one up every week for three weeks in a row even though I still had produce piled all over my counters from the weeks before. I gave some of it to my neighbors and I did prep a lot of it into usable ingredients so I would have them available for cooking … but somehow the cooking part just didn’t come together before things started turning slimy and spotty. Which reminds me why I’ve always been leery of fresh food: It just doesn’t last that long. Not long enough, anyway, for me to 1) figure out how to use it and 2) get motivated to do so.

When I told a friend once that I like to cook, her first question was, “don’t you end up wasting a lot of food because you live alone?” I thought it was an odd query because why would my living alone make any difference? No, I told her, I am pretty good about using what I buy. And I always have been, for the most part. But every so often, my ambitions get ahead of my appetite, and much waste results.

I recently learned that food waste decomposing in landfills is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is a likely contributor to climate change. I don’t want to participate in that slow-motion catastrophe any more than I absolutely have to (and unfortunately, we all have to), so I’m thinking about getting a composter for my kitchen scraps. Maybe one like this, which is off the ground to keep the dogs from scrounging through it.

compost-bin

Tumbling Composter from Home Depot.

For all the peels, pits, rinds, seeds, soft spots, and other food scraps that I put in the garbage every week, this just might make a difference.

My fridge is now cleared of all but a few hardy veggies with long shelf lives, and my counters are mostly visible again—although I do still have a big jicama bulb and several pounds of blue potatoes from my basket that I am not sure yet what to do with. I didn’t get a basket this week, and won’t get one next week. I’m waiting to go grocery shopping until the last egg, the last carrot, the last drop of milk, and the last piece of bread are all gone. And then I’m going to be more careful about how I stock my kitchen.

food-dont-waste-it

This World War II-era propaganda poster is still good advice today.

 

La cucina dell’amore

Finally, I have found a recipe that I would, without hesitation, employ to seduce someone with a home-cooked meal. Didn’t get the chance to use it this Valentine’s Day, but maybe next year!

Amid all the online clamor about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie premiere this weekend, I came across a cookbook called “Fifty Shades of Chicken.” Truly, it redefines the “food porn” genre with both its language and its photography. It is intended to be a parody of the best-selling book, so the overwrought writing style is similar (or so I understand; I haven’t read any of the books in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy and don’t plan to see any of the movies made from same).

50-shades-chicken

Its Amazon listing includes a sample recipe for Dripping Thighs (if this and other highly suggestive language offends you, don’t click any of the links in this post and definitely do not watch the video on the book’s website), which I made tonight.

The chicken thighs are baked after being bathed in a sticky, sweet, savory sauce of onions in reduced white wine seasoned with cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, enriched with butter, and sweetened with honey. This unusual flavor combination is an over-the-fence home run. I regret that I had but a single stomach to devote to the meal, it was so very good. My reaction while eating it was not unlike Julia Child’s when she first tasted Sole Meunière.

If you’re nervous about clicking through to Amazon or the book’s website, here is the recipe. We can call it “Seduction Chicken,” if you prefer.

Ingredients
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, patted dry with paper towels
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tsp plus pinch coarse kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 c white wine
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs honey

Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.
  2. In a large bowl, toss the chicken, garlic, 1 tsp salt, and pepper together.
  3. In a small saucepan, simmer together onion, wine, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and a pinch of salt until most of the liquid has evaporated, 15 to 20 minutes. Add honey and butter and stir until butter is melted.
  4. Spoon the mixture over the chicken and toss well. Spread thighs, onion mixture, and any juices onto a baking sheet. Bake until chicken is no longer pink and onions are meltingly tender and caramelized, about 25 minutes.

I had a 2-pound package of chicken thighs, so I doubled the recipe, but otherwise made it as written. I found that “simmering” the sauce on low heat won’t get the job done in 15 or 20 minutes; you’ll need to either raise the temp to medium-high or wait a whole lot longer for the wine to reduce. Also, I was a little worried about the onions burning at 450 degrees, so I turned the oven down to 400 halfway through and they were not really caramelized but were definitely “meltingly tender.”

I’ve made some mighty tasty dishes in my day, but this one is miles ahead of all the rest. I can hardly wait to start working my way through the entire cookbook.

Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

I got several plump zucchini in my CSA basket this week and, as some of you know, I cannot abide squash of any kind. I considered whether to give them away or throw them away before deciding to get some use out of them, so I used them for knife practice. I julienned them, then brunoised them. I focused on keeping my fingers away from the blade (100% success), making uniform pieces (eh, not so much, but I’m getting better), and increasing my working speed (really no success at all there; I’m a plodder, but at least I never cut myself).

Once the zucchini were all so nicely (if not perfectly uniformly) diced, I thought that I ought to do something with them. If that something involved butter and garlic, I was pretty sure I would be able to eat it and like it. So I made this, which is the first recipe I have ever created and written, all by myself, from scratch, start to finish.

Rotini Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

Pasta with Caramelized Onions & Zucchini

Ingredients
2 Tbs olive or avocado oil
1 Tbs butter
6-8 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 medium zucchini, diced (about 4-5 cups)
1 large sweet onion, diced (about 2-3 cups)
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
16 oz rotini pasta, cooked according to package directions
1/2 c basil pesto
1 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 c fresh basil chiffonade
 .
Preparation
  1. Preheat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high for 5 minutes. Add oil and butter and heat until butter foams.
  2. Add minced garlic and cook for 30-60 seconds until fragrant but not browned.
  3. Add diced zucchini and onion, stirring well to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring every several minutes and lowering heat as needed to prevent scorching, until all the water evaporates and the mixture begins to brown. You can keep cooking it until it’s dark brown and fully caramelized, or stop when it’s just partially browned. Up to you.
  4. Boil the pasta to your preferred softness. Scoop out a cup or so of the pasta water before draining. Drain the pasta and place in a large warmed serving dish.
  5. Add the zucchini-onion mixture, pesto, Parmesan and basil to the pasta and stir to combine. Add reserved pasta water as needed to loosen the mixture.

I topped this with some small shrimp, which I sautéed in butter for a few minutes and sprinkled with garlic salt while cooking. I poured the leftover butter in the pan into the bowl of pasta before serving, which gave it a nice, glossy finish.

I thought it tasted absolutely amazing—if you cook zucchini long enough, it essentially disappears, and that is fine by me!

I’ve never really cared for turkey, anyway

I dialed my Thanksgiving cooking ambitions all the way back this year, not feeling any desire to cook turkey in any form and not the least bit sorry about that. I mean, it’s a fine bird and all, but it has never been my favorite poultry. So I can add to my list of things to be thankful for that I don’t have to eat it if I don’t want to! I also am grateful that I don’t have to travel anywhere this weekend. Our icy winter weather of earlier this month has cleared up to almost unseasonable warmth, but that doesn’t motivate me to hit the road on the worst travel weekend of the year.

Instead, it was me and the dogs here at home as usual, and a small dinner that was all about great flavors rather than great quantity.

First, I marinated overnight a whole cut-up chicken in Finger-Licking Marinade from KitchMe, which I modified as follows:

1/2 c avocado oil
1/2 c Super Tonic (apple cider vinegar can substitute)
2 Tbs mayonnaise
3 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbs lemon juice
1 Tbs salt, to taste
1 Tbs black pepper
1 Tbs dried thyme
1 Tbs dried tarragon
1 Tbs garlic powder

I baked the chicken for 45 minutes at 350°F, and it was amazing!

My side dish was a variation on colcannon, using fennel instead of cabbage. Also very good, even made with slightly less butter than the recipe calls for.

I didn’t get around to making a dessert today, but I got it started for tomorrow. I received a bag of fresh cranberries in my Bountiful Basket this week, so I ran those through the juicer along with an orange and an apple, strained the juice thoroughly, then simmered it with sugar, orange zest and a few cloves into a simple syrup. Tomorrow I plan to bake a from-scratch yellow cake and drizzle this syrup over it, then share it with my neighbors. I have made a couple of cakes this month with standard buttercream frosting (also shared with the neighbors) and have decided that frosting is just overkill. This syrup will add some fat-free sweetness, along with moisture and holiday flavor. I’m eager to see how it comes out.

Speaking of cakes, my first one was made from a boxed mix that had been sitting in the back of my cupboard for more than year, and it was just okay. It had a nice light texture, if a tad dry. After looking at the ingredients list on the box, I decided it was absurd to pay Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker to put this together for me when I have all the ingredients on hand. It’s only flour, sugar and baking powder, after all, plus artificial colors and flavors and all the chemicals they have to add to stabilize it on the shelf, which can hardly do a body good. Mixing up the same ingredients from the pantry takes about one minute longer than dumping out a box, but it makes all the difference in the final product. My second cake was an order of magnitude better than the first!

I don’t recall which site I snagged this recipe from, but here is the one I used. Give it a try, and if you’re at all like me, you’ll never make cake from a box again. (This recipe replaces a standard 18.25 oz boxed mix.)

Yellow Cake

Ingredients
2 c all-purpose flour
1-1/2 c sugar
1 Tbs baking powder
3/4 c milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 c (1 stick) butter, softened
3 eggs

Preparation
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour cake pan(s).
Sift the flour into a bowl and thoroughly whisk the dry ingredients together before adding the wet ingredients.
Combine with an electric mixer at low speed for 1 minute, then beat at medium-high speed for 4 more minutes.
Pour batter into cake pans. Cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (Err on the side of undercooking to avoid drying out the cake.)

Baking Times
8″ or 9″ cake rounds — 20-25 minutes
13″ x 9″ pan — 35-40 minutes
Cupcakes — 12-15 minutes
Tube/bundt pan — 45-50 minutes

today-i-am-thankful

Today and every day, I am grateful for good food and the tools, time and knowledge to prepare great meals at home. Also, I’m grateful for my family, friends and neighbors, and of course, my dogs. Happy Thanksgiving, from our house to yours!