Friday, July 31, 2009

Using Up the Zucchini Glut

It's always the same with zucchini plants: they give, and give, and give until we just can't take it anymore. This year I planted two of them, which is one more than any family of less than ten people needs, thinking that I would donate the harvest from one of them to the local foodbank. But the June rains did in one of the plants, so I'm only dealing with a normal garden glut of zucchini. As usual, I'm racking my brain to figure out what to do with all this bounty, other than the usual tales of leaving the vegetables on neighbors' doorsteps in the dead of night, or disposing of them in parking lots via any parked car I can find with an open window.

I realize this topic is probably a wee bit late for many of you. But here in the northeastern section of the US, incredibly heavy spring rains have pushed back a lot of crops by about three weeks. I'm just now getting that familiar overwhelmed sensation with my garden. So here's a roundup of ideas I've found and used to cope with zucchini overload. has an excellent special zucchini bread which I made a few batches of both this year and last. They freeze well. This really is special - not your granny's zucchini bread. She calls for curry powder or other even more assertive seasonings in her recipe, but I favor a hefty dose of cardamom, a little cinnamon, and the merest whiff of cumin in mine. In fact it's a pretty forgiving recipe. Even if you think you don't like zucchini bread, I'd urge you to give this one a fair shake.

Chocolate zucchini cake is good too. It took me a while to try this one, but I became an instant fan when I did. The zucchini was almost undetectable in this super moist cake, and I was using one of the gargantuan zucchinis that got away from me. Had I used the properly sized little ones I don't think even I would have noticed any trace of the vegetable.

Another blogger posted about partially dehydrating fat zucchini slices and then caramelizing them in a saute pan. Without getting rid of a good portion of the water, it would be pretty hard to caramelize zucchini. I haven't tried this one yet, but check out the post - they look fabulous. I think I'd try layering them with some mozzarella, or grilled eggplant, or both.

Julie posted about zucchini slice, which is a crustless quiche-y, souffle-y sort of preparation. Very easy to make, but I found I needed to use five eggs to one cup of flour. If you don't have any of the self-rising flour called for in her recipe, substitute 1 cup of all purpose flour along with 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and a 1/2 teaspoon of salt. I also added some kernels cut from a grilled ear of corn. Very tasty, suitable for any meal of the day, and you can use up a good deal of zucchini with this recipe! As Julie suggests, if you're going to bake one of these, you might as well bake two, maximizing the use of the oven during the hot part of the year, while stashing a meal for later on in your freezer.

I once had a recipe for zucchini-lemon muffins. I suspect it was a version of the flexible muffin recipe from the Tightwad Gazette. After cutting down on the sugar from the basic recipe, I added grated and squeezed zucchini, lemon juice and a little zest, plus walnuts. These made a great breakfast muffin that I often sent on the road with my husband when he traveled a lot for work. It saved him a little money, and though it may not have been the healthiest breakfast in the world, he would consistently eat them rather than resorting to even less healthy choices, while also saving him time in the morning. You could make these with whole wheat flour if you're quite health conscious. If you try these, remember that you can use more zucchini than it would seem at first glance, especially if you're vigorous about wringing lots of liquid from the zukes.

You probably don't need tips on how to squeeze more meals out of your zucchini plant, but I'm going there anyway. Cut off some of the male flowers and use them as vegetables in their own right. I hear down in Mexico they make soups out of the flowers. Italians like to batter fry the blossoms. Cleaning and stuffing the flowers is a bit of a chore, but I usually manage it once per season. After making sure there are no lurking critters inside - I once brought a bee inside the house that had slept overnight in a blossom that had closed at sundown - fill the blossom with a mixture of breadcrumbs, cheese, herbs, or even a little grated zucchini. Then dip them in beaten egg, seasoned flour, shake off the excess, and pan fry them. If getting the stuffing into the blossom cavity is too laborious after the first attempt, just batter fry the cleaned blossoms. This makes a lovely appetizer. I also like sliced squash blossoms on pizza. It brightens up the pie.

If all your zucchini management efforts are overwhelmed by the abundance of the plant, and if your neighbors have taken to guarding their doorsteps, you can always, as a last resort, grate and freeze zucchini for later use. So here's a tip. The day after you freeze it, pull it back out of the freezer and let it thaw. Pour off all the water that comes out of the vegetable and freeze it again. All that water was going to come out anyway when you were ready to use it. By getting rid of it now, you free up a lot of freezer space, allowing you to store more of it.

And remember, when it all gets to be just too much, your local food bank or soup kitchen would probably be thrilled to have your excess zucchini.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

DIY Chicken Plucker

I know my track record is not great when it comes to delivering promised posts on certain topics. I'm trying to make amends this week. So today it's a post on the homemade chicken plucker that I used to help process my three layers last week.

The idea came from someone named RedneckPete, who posted about this invention, calling it the $6 chicken plucker. You can see a video of this plucker in action here. (Don't click either link if you're squeamish about such things.) I came across this last year, when I first anticipated slaughtering my older laying hens in late fall. I can't remember exactly what the materials cost me when I went shopping for this project, but it was more than $6. I'm sure it was less than $20 however. I bought a PVC endcap, a short length of small diameter all-thread, a package of six rubber bungee cords, and a few bolts and washers. I already had the Makita drill.

The way it works is that the S-hooks are removed from the bungee cords and the cords trimmed to leave about 3" of material attached to each end. Then holes are made evenly around the PVC endcap to take the rubber "fingers" from the bungee cords. The wide ends where the S-hooks attached anchor the rubber inside the endcap. The all-thread passes through a hole drilled at the top of the endcap and offers purchase and a good grip for the electric drill. The business ends of the fingers whirl around and strip the feathers from a scalded carcass before evisceration.

I found that this worked reasonably well during my first processing experience. I still had to pluck some feathers by hand. If I'd had another pair of hands to help, it might have been better. As it was, I had to duct tape the drill to a sawhorse and depress the trigger with one hand while I manipulated the chicken carcass with the other. The largest feathers on the wings easily resisted the homemade chicken plucker, as did the finest pin feathers. Most of the others came right out.

For the very small amount of slaughtering I'm likely to do from year to year, this simple plucker will suffice. If I had ambitions for raising my own broilers in larger numbers, I might consider the Whizbang plucker, which is far more complicated and expensive to build, but can handle three chickens at a time. Harvey Ussery wrote about building one of these, and he seemed quite pleased with the performance. The drill chicken plucker is obviously a quick and dirty contraption compared to the Whizbang. But since the low end estimates for building a Whizbang come in at $600 or so, I'll stick with the <$20 model for now.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Done In

I have some grim news to report. I slaughtered my laying hens this past week. It wasn't the best day of my life, and it sure wasn't the best day of the hens' lives either. I had no qualms about carrying out the deed when it came to the moment of truth. In fact, I felt worse about depriving the girls of food the day before I slaughtered them than I did about killing them. And I felt doubly evil for tempting them out of their coop with food when they became overly cautious.

I wish the entire process had gone more smoothly, but I really did the best I could without having any prior experience, and no one on hand to guide me. I did almost everything entirely by myself. I appreciated Howling Duck Ranch's recent photo documentary on slaughtering a rooster. (Caution: that link is pretty graphic.) The pictures were sufficiently detailed so that I had some idea what to expect, and I had read other accounts of chicken "processing" before. Because I was working by myself, I didn't get any photos. I just wanted the less than cheery chore over and done with as quickly as possible. I will however post soonish about the homemade chicken plucker that my husband helped me finish up just a day or two before the girls met their demise.

The girls each dressed out at less than 2.5 pounds. Surprising how small a laying hen is. I tried making coq au vin with one of them, but the results were less than inspiring. I made broth from the other two and canned it. It was excellent broth.

As you might expect, I had my reasons for slaughtering my first batch of layers. They hadn't been laying all that well recently. There were days when I got no eggs at all, and too many others with just one egg between the three hens. A consistent two eggs per day would be one thing, but less than that is what I would call retirement living for the hens, and that's something I promised myself I would not do. The lack of eggs can't even be blamed on hot summer weather, since up to the point they were slaughtered we'd been having an eerily cool July. The clincher though was an offer of free two-year-old White Marans layers. These girls are the same age my first layers were when I got them. Some Marans lines have feathered legs, as do three of our new girls. But they are not heavily feathered, so it's not very noticeable.

White Marans hens, which actually have some very light buff coloration.

The neat thing about all the Marans varieties is that they lay very dark colored eggs. White Marans, as you might expect, lay lighter colored eggs than their darker kindred. But have a look at these, our first few Marans eggs compared to the last of our Red Star eggs.

Leftmost is a very pale egg from a Red Star hen showing the bleaching associated with age and summer weather. The two darker eggs are from Marans hens, probably also showing lighter than normal due to stress of relocation.

The farmer who passed these layers on to me said that the White Marans will lay a 6 or a 7 on this egg color chart in the springtime, but any sort of stress lightens the color. Given that they'd just been moved, and that it got rather hot the first few days they were here, these eggs should be at the lighter end of the range that the new girls will lay. Springtime coloration will be something to see.

So we're now up to five layers. They are not nearly as well socialized as our Red Stars were. They were pretty freaked out by the move, and they are extremely timid about me being near their pen and coop. Apparently they weren't given treats at their previous home nearly as often as we're accustomed to doing, if ever. The first time I gave them some bread, they had no idea what it was, didn't go bonkers for it, and had to (very cautiously) decide what they thought of it. So far they've shown very little interest in the fresh greens I've offered them, though they are picking at the grass. The first few eggs they laid, developed while they were on whatever diet their previous owner gave them, had extremely pale yolks compared to what we normally get. Frankly, they looked like store-bought eggs. I'm hoping they begin to appreciate the bolted lettuce, dandelion leaves, and purslane I offer them, because it's the plants that make the flavor, color, and nutrition of the eggs. Well, that and the bugs. Some of them have figured out my offers of Japanese beetles, but they really don't seem to associate people with anything positive just yet. I'm working on that.

We expect that our five new girls will keep us in plenty of eggs, with a dozen here and there to share or barter, once they're over the trauma of the move and new environs. Unlike the Red Star hens we started with, the new girls are not beak trimmed, which I'm happy about. Aside from it being a cruel and unnecessary practice, the new girls will be more accomplished at pecking and foraging for treats in the dirt.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Second Annual Grass-Fed Beef Cookoff

I've no idea how many local-ish readers I have, but I wanted to alert those of you in Pennsylvania to an upcoming event designed to showcase sustainably raised Pennsylvania beef. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) is hosting the second annual Grass-Fed Beef Cookoff in Fogelsville on Sunday, August 2nd. I volunteered at the inaugural cookoff last year and will be doing so again this year. Believe me, this is a fun event for sustainable foodie types.

This year at least fourteen Pennsylvania beef producers who raise their animals on pasture will be competing with steaks to be judged on the basis of taste, texture and appearance. Last year's winner, Harvest Home Meats, was from Northampton county, close enough to us that we got our prime rib for Christmas dinner from them, and believe me, that was a decadent piece of beef. Cookoff attendees will enjoy a sample of beef stew and a burger, all made from Pennsylvania 100% grass-fed beef. There will be live music, local beer, and the setting at the Glasbern Inn and Farm is simply gorgeous. If you can make it, keep an eye out for me and please say hello!

More info, and ticket information, here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer Harvest Solution: Borsch

I've had a request for a "tried and true" borsch recipe. This chunky soup which hails from Russia is quite adaptable, so there's little that can be said with absolute authority about borsch. The only thing that always holds true with borsch is that it contains vinegar, and usually cabbage. Americans tend to associate borsch with beets and the vivid color they impart to the soup. But in Russia this is considered an option, not a given. The soup can be served hot or cold, and may contain meat or be vegetarian. I see this versatility as an asset rather than a problem. Best of all, borsch as I like to make it helps to use up many vegetables that are coming in from the garden at more or less the same time.

I don't have a set in stone recipe for my borsch, since I tend to use what we have on hand. But since I was asked for one, I'll give it a shot, in my usual narrative fashion.

Kate's Borsch

cooking oil
2-3 onions, or onion equivalents (leeks will work), depending on size
1 large or 2 medium, very ripe tomatoes
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
a good fistful of carrots, say 5-6 medium or large ones, peeled and medium diced
a small head of cabbage, or part of a large one, cleaned and chopped small enough to fit on a soup spoon
3-4 medium beets, preferably already boiled or roasted (wrap in foil, 45 minutes @ 375 F), peeled and diced
1-2 cups leftover cooked beef or chicken, cubed (optional, and substitute as you wish)
4 cups of broth (beef/chicken), or water, with or without bouillon cubes
2 cups of water
1/3 cup of vinegar, preferably distilled white or apple cider vinegar

To garnish when serving: fresh dill (or parsley) and sour cream, both optional

Medium dice the onions and cook them in the oil in a large soup pot, over medium heat. Stir well and cover with the lid of the pot. While they simmer, take the tomatoes and cut them in half from stem to blossom end. Place the cut face of the tomato against the small holes of a cheese grater over a dinner plate and gently grate the fruit. The skin will protect your fingers pretty well from the grating holes, so get every last bit of flesh off the skin, working gently. The pulp will collect in the plate. Uncover the onions and stir them well again. They should be well softened, but without much color. Add the tomato pulp and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook for several minutes, stirring as needed, to let this liquid cook off. Add more oil if the sugars start to stick too much to the bottom of the pan. Compost the tomato skins. Add the bay leaves, and salt and pepper to taste.

You're ready to continue when the tomato pulp has mostly disappeared and the oil itself has taken on the color of the tomato. Look carefully at your dish thus far. This is an important step and contributes a lot of flavor to the soup, so don't skip it or change it. Really, this is the only authentic borsch trick in my arsenal.

Add the carrots and stir them around. After a few minutes, when they have warmed up, add a cup of the liquid and deglaze the pan of any sugary brown bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the remaining liquid and bring it to a good simmer. (I like to use a quart of meat broth and 2 cups of water to dilute it a bit. But vegetable broth or all water works too.) When it reaches a steady roll, reduce the heat and let it cook for about 3 minutes. Add the chopped cabbage and let it simmer for another 5 minutes. Now add the chopped and cooked beets and any leftover meat you want to include in the soup. Continue simmering for about 5 minutes. The beets will color the soup vivid deep pink.

Add the vinegar, stir well, and taste the soup. If the soup is too chunky for your preference, dilute it with more liquid. Adjust the seasonings of vinegar, salt, and pepper to your preference. Fish out the bay leaves if you can find them. Serve immediately or cool the soup very well to serve it chilled. Garnish with freshly chopped dill and sour cream if desired.

-Feel free to improvise with the ingredients in this soup. Celery isn't used much in Russia, but it's a fine addition to borsch. Ditto for peppers. Extra diced tomatoes can be added if you happen to have a lot of them. Potatoes are usually added in Russia, but I tend to make borsch earlier in the year than they are harvested. I had pretty disappointing results when I tried canning this soup. Fortunately, it freezes beautifully. We usually have several quarts of it on hand in the chest freezer. It's especially nice as a chilled dinner on sweltering summer evenings.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Independence Days Challenge - Japanese Beetle Edition

I am glad that I am not a novice gardener this year. A significant number of my spring crops failed with all the wet we had in June. If I didn't know this for the simple luck of the draw (a bad one), I would be so discouraged that I would probably give up on gardening entirely. Nor would I know that replanting provides even odds for a fall harvest of some crops. As it is, I've been patrolling the garden with something close to anxiety, watching my second round of starts like a hawk. The gorgeous sunflowers are some consolation. Normally at this time I would be struggling to keep up with the kale, and putting as much of it away for the winter months as I could. It feels very odd to have as much time on my hands as I do right now. Not in a good way, either. Though it is allowing me to gather plenty of Japanese beetles by hand, much to the delight of the hens.

Though we treated with milky spore early this year, we are still seeing some damage from these supremely annoying, invasive pests. Nothing native eats them; there are no checks or balances with Japanese beetles. The girls however will happily eat as many as I can bring them. I tried putting a hormonal lure and modified beetle trap right in their pen, but I think the lure is old and ineffective. It was given to me for free by a relative. I find the beetles most often on my potatoes and comfrey, and on my husband's raspberries and grape vines. I've seen a few on other garden plants and there's a shrubby sort of plant in our weed patch that attracts them very strongly. I have to dump the beetles onto a light colored frisbee so that the girls can see the little pests, which otherwise are too well camouflaged on the earth. They love this special feeding time. I'm getting about a dozen beetles each time I gather, which is now at least three times per day. It's worth it since it lets me cut back on the purchased feed for the chickens. And oh, how satisfying to see my girls eat my pests!

Planted: Finished transplanting my last ditch efforts with the Tuscan kale and Savoy cabbage for this year. I'm on pins and needles about these fall crops since my spring brassicas failed entirely due to the June rains. What we'll do without a bumper crop of kale, I just don't want to contemplate. Trying again with okra too. Put in a few more snow peas and daikon radish seeds.

Oh! I was also inspired and deeply impressed with Julie's ginger harvest. It's technically too cold to grow ginger here, but I do love it. So I decided to try growing some in a five-gallon bucket, which I'll need to bring indoors for the winter. The experiment began just a few days ago. We'll see how it goes.

Harvested: The remaining 1/3 of my garlic crop, a few excellent cylindra beets, lots of herbs, Slobolt lettuce, the beginnings of the summer squash and squash blossoms, eggs as usual from the girls.

Preserved: Air dried a few zucchini just as an experiment. Also made a simple syrup with anise hyssop for mixed drinks (alcoholic and otherwise).

Waste not: Used a bunch of newspaper for lasagna mulching in a new area of the yard. Feeding the beetles to the girls instead of putting up with crop damage or resorting to pesticides.

Preparation/Storage: Priced some shelves for food storage in the basement, but the price is really more than I want to pay. Still looking.

Community: Not much. I've committed to helping can raspberry jam with an acquaintance, and promised some garden seeds to her too. I hope she follows through and lets me know when she's ready to can.

Eat the food: Used some of last year's roasted tomato sauce and summer squash from the garden for a squash tart. It was a hit. I'm going to try it again this week with the addition of pesto. Also made a chunky salad of beets, grilled zucchini, roasted corn kernels, avocado, garlic scape pesto and mayonnaise. It all turned the lurid color of beets, but it was really tasty and went very well in wraps with Slobolt lettuce from the garden. So four of the ingredients (half) were homegrown.

Read about Sharon's Independence Days Challenge, and you can participate too!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

On the Pleasures of Being an Adult

I've been very bad lately.

As background, I'm more of a vegetable person than a fruit person. That is, I can easily go without fruit for several days in a row, and can easily go for weeks or even months without fresh fruit. Whereas going without green veg for more than a day makes me feel low and crave vitamins. This is a handy set of preferences, given my locavore ambitions, since fruit is in shorter supply and has a shorter season than the wide range of vegetables that grow in my area. While we've planted several types of perennial fruits, they take so much longer to mature than annual vegetables.

But, oh! when I get my hands on fresh local fruit ... I do tend to go to excess. This past week my husband brought back three pints of sweet dark cherries from the farmers' market. He called to let me know what he'd scored before he even came home. So I whipped up a pie crust and had it ready to roll by the time he got home. While he pitted the cherries, I rolled out the dough and picked some anise hyssop from the garden (on which, more to come soon) for an accent to the rich cherry flavor. As he stood there watching me arrange the filling in the pie he asked, "What's for dinner?" I gave him a quizzical look and answered, "With dessert like this, who needs dinner?" Arguments? None. Man, do I love being an adult!

Then, just yesterday, we returned a borrowed chipper to some gardening acquaintances. These are the sort of people you can never do any nice thing for without having them turn around and do something twice as nice for you. So I always go to them bearing gifts. Yesterday it was eggs from our hens and some sprigs of the aforementioned anise hyssop. They in turn sent us home with a pint of their homegrown blueberries.

Now, we're rather low on the few foods we still buy from the supermarket just at the moment. There were no leftovers from a proper meal that needed to be finished off. This is an unusual situation in our house. But I did have an extra pie crust from when I made the cherry pie. (I always make a double batch.) And I had two lemons in a nearly empty fridge. What else did we have? Well, eggs from the girls, of course. Is it obvious where this is going? It was obvious to me. Honestly, it hardly felt like I had any choice...

Lemon curd tart with blueberries.

This didn't quite end up being dinner, but it was a close thing I can assure you. Nor, let the record show, did I indulge in it for breakfast today. I had to finish off the few blueberries leftover after making that gorgeous thing. They disappeared rather quickly with my mueslix this morning. These are stupendously good blueberries, possibly the best I've ever had in my life. Now I'm really, really glad I put in those blueberry bushes this year. As for the lemon curd, it's surprisingly easy to make. (I use this recipe.) I know it's got sugar and butter and eggs in it. I'm well versed in the conventional dietary wisdom, thank you very much. But I challenge anyone to take a bite of freshly made lemon curd and tell me with a straight face that it's bad for us. Go on, try it! You cannot possibly condemn it. Lemon curd and fresh blueberries together are just so right.

Yeah, I could and probably should eat my fruit with less sugar. It's just that fresh fruit is such a rare commodity in my diet that I can't help but want to celebrate it. Summer is the season of sweetness, after all. The frugal angle? Well, I dunno if there is one, I just felt like sharing. But if it's really examined, the lemon curd-blueberry tart hardly cost me anything. I paid for organic butter, sugar, lemons, and flour. The eggs and blueberries were free (or nearly so). And I have a plan to grow my own lemon tree starting next year, hardiness zone 6 be damned! With luck, that will be one more product that becomes both homegrown and local for me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

I'm a tea junkie. As for many people, my day cannot properly begin without a dose of caffeine. But unlike most Americans, my preferred medium is tea, rather than coffee. I'm every bit as particular and fastidious about the tea I drink as any coffee drinker can be. It should be good tea, well brewed, and served piping hot (except, of course, when it's served well chilled).

Now it so happens that one of my most favorite teas is sold by a company on the west coast, where my husband travels several times a year for work. This tea is not cheap, and I don't like to run out of it. So he had been buying several 4-ounce packages each time he was in the neighborhood. He's due for another trip out there, and I finally got it into my head to call the company and ask about a bulk discount. Lo and behold, I ended up placing an order for 5 pounds of tea and getting it at the wholesale rate, or about half the price of the small packages sold at retail prices.

When I spoke to the woman who handles wholesale orders, she initially said that anything over a pound would be sold at a 10% discount, and that there were no further discounts until ten pounds or more were purchased at one time. I didn't argue this, but I said I would be interested in five pounds, then asked if I needed to arrange for that much to be available at one time. At that point she simply offered me the wholesale rate for five pounds of tea, even though she'd just told me that I needed to buy ten pounds to get that big a discount. I didn't ask for clarification, just placed the order.

Needless to say, I'm pretty psyched about securing a large supply of my favorite tea at nearly a 50% discount. I have the space to store the tea in the freezer, and a vacuum sealer to keep the moisture out, so it shouldn't be a problem to buy such a large amount at one time. It made my day to get such a good deal, simply by taking the trouble to ask. The fact that a lot of packaging will be avoided is pure bonus. Moral of the story is: it never hurts to ask. A few minutes of my time on the phone saved us a tidy sum.

Now for the downside. I must acknowledge that tea is not a local product for me. I'm partially consoled by the fact that tea was an item famously traded over long distances in the age of rigged sailing ships. I admit to justifying some foodstuffs such as spices and the occasional citrus fruits in the same way. My husband is traveling to that area anyhow, which means we're not making a special trip just for this one purchase. Beyond that, I have to admit that I am simply dependent upon the stuff and really don't want to go without. Also, I don't know the fair trade status of the particular tea, which is probably not a good sign. It's not easy to be an ethical eater (or drinker) and keep the budget trimmed at the same time.

All this confessional is just my way of saying I'm not perfect either. Sometimes I worry that in focusing on the positive here on my own blog, I paint my life as far more ideal than it really is. My life is a balancing act of my own ethical standards just as much as anyone else's is. So I'm asking in hopes of receiving again - if any of you are serious tea drinkers and can recommend an excellent fair trade black tea, please recommend it in the comments!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Harvest Meal: Garlic Scape Carbonara

I'm counting this as a harvest meal even though only two of the ingredients were produced by us. They're important ingredients, and there just aren't that many ingredients in this dish, after all.

Spaghetti carbonara is a decadent dish that's often done very badly. Its sauce should be silken, but it traditionally includes no cream. It's very easy to get the flavors and ingredients out of whack too. My approach is to hold firm to the three eggs per pound of pasta rule, and to save a cup of cooking water, retrieved just before draining the pasta. This gets used to loosen up the pasta after the first servings have been removed. This is not a dish that holds well, so people should be seated and waiting at a set table while the cook finishes up the dish. It's also essential that said cook have all ingredients prepped and at his or her fingertips when the pasta is done cooking.

This particular variation came about because I harvested the last of my garlic yesterday. You may recall that I am experimenting this year with leaving the scapes on certain plants in order to see if this allows those bulbs to store longer. Since these scapes were more mature, they were also tougher. So I was only able to use the few uppermost inches of each scape. I snapped off the tough portions in much the way asparagus stalks are broken at the tough-tender juncture. I used this small harvest to substitute for the garlic cloves in a traditional carbonara. The dish came out with a gentle but bright green color, which reminded us of fresh mushy peas.

Garlic Scape Carbonara

5 slices smoked bacon, cut into 1/4" strips
3 eggs, beaten
3 oz. (by weight) garlic scapes, rinsed and patted dry
1 pound spaghetti or other long strand pasta noodle
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated pecorino cheese
freshly ground black pepper to taste
salt for the boiling water

Bring a large kettle of water to a boil and salt it generously. Meanwhile, cook the bacon strips in a skillet over medium heat until they are well browned.

Put the garlic scapes in a food processor and process until very finely minced. (Mince extremely well with a knife if you have no food processor.) Add the beaten eggs and process just until well combined. Put the mixture back in the bowl you beat the eggs in.

Combine the grated cheeses.

Cook the pasta (using the parboil method). Prewarm a large serving bowl in the microwave or with warm water. Just before draining the pasta, reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid. (I like to put my measuring cup in the colander so that I cannot possibly forget this step.) Have all the ingredients ready to go by your serving bowl.

Drain the pasta very quickly, without trying to drain away every last drop of water. Place the pasta in the serving bowl and immediately add the beaten egg mixture. Toss the hot pasta with the sauce very well to cook the egg and coat all the noodles with sauce. Add the bacon and grated cheeses and mix again. If the sauce looks too thick and dry, add some of the hot cooking liquid to loosen it and toss again. Reserve the remaining liquid to mix with any leftovers before refrigerating.

Grind some pepper over the dish and serve immediately.

Be warned: this dish is not for anyone shy of garlic. This is one powerful garlic wallop, stronger even than the clove or two of bulb garlic that normally graces carbonara. You may want a palate cleanser after this meal. I know the cheeses blow this dish as locavore fare. And it's definitely not something we can enjoy every week from a nutritional or caloric perspective. But as cheap decadence, it's right up there. Serve it with a simple green salad, and don't fret too much about the calories.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

July Frugal Action Item: Stay Cool Without Touching That Thermostat

Time for another monthly Frugal Action Item. I realize it's a little late in the year to address cooling issues for some of you out there. But here in the northeastern US, so far we've had a rather cool spring and early summer. Herewith are my suggestions for beating the heat on the cheap.

Get used to it. Slowly. Your body is designed to operate in a wide range of temperatures. It has multiple strategies for cooling itself down. But after a long winter of trying to keep you warm, it needs a little time to dust off the cooling system and get it running again like a finely tuned motor. Seriously. The adjustment takes about two or three weeks, and during that time you will be a little uncomfortable sometimes. The rest of the suggestions here will help. But if you give your body that time without confusing it by hanging around in AC all day, it will make the adjustment. Your blood vessels will distribute your body heat closer to the surface for better cooling. And your sweat glands will work more effectively. Eric Brende reports on this phenomenon in his book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.

Lose weight This is a perfect example of the anyway principle. If you're carrying around an extra 25 pounds, you know you should shed it for so many different reasons. Keeping cool ranks around #14 on the list of reasons to lose weight. But it will help you feel cooler, as I know from personal experience. Fatty tissue holds in body heat. Your body will be better able to cool itself when there's less insulation.

Cooling herbs and foods Don't discount the old-time wisdom of drinking mint tea or other cooling beverages. Many herbs and foods have long been held to cool the body. Cucumber and watermelon are famously cooling. There are many tasty and safe herbs that help cool our bodies. Mint, lemon, oats, and pomegranate are considered refrigerant plants. Okra, garlic and oregano are diaphoretic, meaning that they promote perspiration. Chamomile and sage are vasodilators, meaning they help your blood vessels widen. This both lowers blood pressure and facilitates cooling. Try adding some of these to your diet in the summer months.

Cool drinks A glass of ice water costs almost nothing, and can cool you down more effectively than just about anything, short of submerging yourself in cool water. Consciously schedule cold drinks into your daily routine. If you work outside in hot weather you should have a cool drink anytime you feel thirsty, or at least once every hour. Even if you don't do physical labor, you could trade up your morning dose of caffeine for a cold version: iced coffee or iced tea. Sun tea is particularly cheap to make, and once brewed can hang out in the fridge for a few days as you drink it down. No fussing with brewing it every single morning. Same goes with regular tap water. Keep some in the fridge so you don't need to run the tap until the water gets cold. However, beware water intoxication - the overloading of your body with far too much water. This can be fatal. Make sure some of your beverages include some electrolytes, and use common sense, and you'll be fine.

Ceiling fans go a long way to making you feel cooler than the air temperature would suggest. You can run a ceiling fan all day and not use up the same amount of electricity as you would running an air conditioner for one hour. If your fan has a switch to change the direction of the spin, be sure it's set to turn counterclockwise as you look up at it during the summer months. The clockwise spin forces warmer air downward, and so is intended for the winter season.

Put your feet in a basin of cold water. If you don't have your own pool and you don't want to pay for the privilege of using one, you can still cool off by submersion. A basin of water just big enough to fit your feet in will provide a surprising amount of cooling power. I've been told that this method can actually prevent heat stroke for those who lose power during a heat wave, though I haven't seen any formal studies on this claim. I have tried it myself and been very impressed by how much cooler I feel just by soaking my feet. Of course, if your neighbors have a pool and offer to let you use it, dive right in.

Get a summer haircut. You know you can lose a great deal of heat through your head, which is why your mother always told you to wear a hat during the winter. If you've worn your hair long for many years, even if you usually wear it up, you may be stunned at how much cooler a short haircut can be. Even if you typically save by cutting your own hair in a simple style, one short professional cut in late spring will probably let you slide well into late summer if you plan to just grow it out for winter. Guys, for you, buzz cuts are the way to go, and you can save by doing them at home.

Wear as little as possible.
If you're in the privacy of your own home, you can pretty much do whatever feels comfortable. Tank tops are my sartorial choice when at home in hot weather. Many women also swear by skirts made of light fabrics - cooler than any sort of pants or shorts, and these can be worn outside the home almost anywhere.

Hit the library for some free AC.
You pay for it through your taxes, so you might as well take advantage. If you're letting your body adapt to warmer temperatures though, be aware that this may set back any adjustment it's already made. You can let your body handle the early days of summer, and save the library for an hour or two during the most scorching days.

Sleep as low as possible. If you have a multilevel home, sleep downstairs if you can. The lower rooms of the house are naturally cooler, since hot air rises. Sleeping on an air mattress on the floor will also help a little bit if you have only one floor. An air mattress holds less of your body heat close to you than a conventional mattress will. So if you've got one of these for guests, consider breaking it out when the hottest weather strikes. If you cool your house for more than a couple of months per year, you might even break even on the purchase of a new air mattress the first year, providing you really do run the AC less often.

Install an attic fan. This is one of the most cost effective house cooling measures out there. Attic spaces can easily reach above 100 F on a day that is sunny but merely warmish. Removing that hot layer above the living space will dramatically lower the cooling needs for the rest of the house.

Cook outside, or not at all. Summer is a great time for salads and lighter fare that needs little or no cooking. So steer clear of the boiling vats of water for pasta dishes, or an hour-long oven run for casseroles. Raw foods won't heat you up, nor the house. When you want a cooked meal, think about what you can do with a grill or a solar oven. It may take a little planning to cook this way if you're not accustomed to it. But if you make it a habit, it'll become as routine as anything else in your life. Remember that grilling doesn't necessarily mean a plate full of meat. Eggplant, peppers, asparagus, summer squash, large mushroom caps, and corn on the cob all make fantastic grilled fare. If you have an outdoor electrical outlet on the porch, you can plug in a crockpot or a rice steamer outside. Or you could run an extension cord outside if there is no outdoor outlet. No sense in heating up your kitchen if you don't have to.

Unless you're in the southern hemisphere, there's really no Alternative Action Item this month. Wrong season for you? Check out Staying Warm with the Thermostat Set Low, which in many ways is a mirror post to this one. If you're in the midst of summer and all of these suggestions are already old hat to you, then your Alternative Action Item is to add a new cooling tip in the comments!

Stay cool, everyone.

New to these Frugal Action Items? More here:

January: Compact Fluorescent Bulbs & Hot Water Pipe Insulation
February: Kitchen Competence
March: Rein In Entertainment Spending
April: Go Paper-less
May: Solar Dryer
June: Increase the Deductible on Your Auto Insurance
August: Repair It!
September: Insulate
October: Preventative Health Care
November: Frugal Holiday Wish List
December: Plan Next Year's Garden