Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rhubarb Jam with Lime and Ginger

You were looking for a little project this weekend anyway, weren't you?

In my garden, I have lots of rhubarb. Three massive plants, to be exact, all started from splittings of a rhubarb plant on the farm of the grandmother of the mom of the family we bought our house from (whew). It's a plethora of rhubarb. A profusion of rhubarb. What Led Zeppelin would kindly call a whole lotta rhubarb. 

So with this overabundance, I don't often dally around with rhubarb recipes that call for just a cup or so of those lovely tart pale pink/green stalks. I'm looking to use POUNDS of rhubarb. 

Enter rhubarb jam, stage left. Much like the wine we occasionally brew in our basement and hand out to friends and family, I like to can jams not only to preserve the harvest, but also because they are so great to give away. Going to a summer bbq party? Grab a jar of homemade rhubarb jam, cut a little piece of fabric to cover the lid, tie a piece of twine around it, and you've got an awesome hostess gift. Give a jar to your neighbors as a thank you for putting up with your all-natural yard, dandelions and compost pile included. Take a jar of jam and a nice piece of cheese to a friend's house, just because you miss her company and it's been too long since you've last gotten a chance to chat.

This jam is really sweet. If you're the type that likes a little tartness in your rhubarb jam, it may be ok to reduce the sugar a little - I wouldn't change it too much as it may affect how it sets up (I'm not a food chemist, just a hunch). The ginger and lime are great additions, but subtle - it didn't taste odd spreading this stuff on my morning bagel. Also, notice there is no pectin in this jam. That means you are going to get a soft, almost pourable jam, rather than a stiff gelatinous Welch's Grape Jelly type of product. I prefer that softer jam texture anyway. The key is cooking is thoroughly until it's hot enough to set; otherwise, you're going to have seven jars of chunky rhubarb syrup. But hey, I think I'd enjoy that too. Pancakes!

Rhubarb Jam with Lime and Ginger
Basically straight off the Fine Cooking website, check out original recipe here, although I added a little extra rhubarb to mine. I can't help myself. 

5 lb. rhubarb, trimmed, stalks halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2" pieces (about 16 cups)
6 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from 1-1/2 medium limes)
4 (3-inch) strips lime zest (use a vegetable peeler)
1-1/2 Tbs. minced fresh ginger

In a large bowl, combine the rhubarb, sugar, lime juice, lime zest, and ginger and stir to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for at least 6 hours, overnight preferably. 

Put the rhubarb mixture in a fine sieve over a large bowl and let the juice drain completely. Discard the lime zest and set the rhubarb aside. Pour the juice into a 6-quart pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until the sugar has dissolved, about 5 minutes.

Add the rhubarb and return to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, skim any foam from the surface, and simmer very gently until the rhubarb breaks down and thickens, 40 minutes to 1-1/2 hours; check frequently to prevent overcooking.

To test for doneness, chill a small dish in the refrigerator. Put a small dollop of jam on the dish, let cool briefly, and then run your finger through it. If the mark stays, the jam is ready; if it doesn’t, cook the mixture for a few more minutes and retest. Cool completely and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks, or can the jam for longer storage.

To can the jam, divide it among sterilized pint or half-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Wipe the rims clean and attach the lids to the jars with the screw bands, turning them fingertip-tight. Put the jars in a large pot fitted with a rack and add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, and then boil briskly for 10 minutes.

Transfer the jars to a rack and let cool for 12 to 24 hours. Test the seal by removing the bands and lifting the jars by their lids—if the lid holds, the jar is sealed. Store in a dark place for up to 1 year (you don’t have to screw the bands back on). If a seal fails, refrigerate the jar and use the jam within 2 weeks. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

No-Recipe Rhubarb Crisp

I have to laugh at those articles on how to compost. The directions will usually tell you to build or buy a compost pin, chop up your veg matter before adding it to the pile, balance the "green" and "brown" matter in your compost with correct ratios, water it, turn it, massage it, pamper it...

You can do all of that if you want, but here's how I compost:

Step #1: Toss leftover veg/fruit/tea/coffee/eggshells/garden clippings/dried leaves into the garden.  Aim for the same general area with each toss.

That's it. That's all I do. Compost professionals call this "slow composting," since I don't generate a lot of heat in my pile to break things down quicker. Since I only actually use my compost once a year in the spring, slow is ok by me. Sure, my garden doesn't look quite as neat and tidy as my neighbor's. And I do spontaneously get pumpkin vines and sunflowers sprouting around from seeds that regenerated from the pile. But I don't mind it.  In fact, I kinda like it. 

The same approach I take to composting often follows me into the kitchen. Take this rhubarb crisp. There are a million crisp recipes out there, and a million chefs who will tell you the "correct" way to do it, but why fancify something that is meant to be humble and simple to start with. So here's a "recipe", if you will, for rhubarb crisp. And if you are pulling rhubarb straight out of your garden, just leave the clipped off leaves on the ground. I call it mulch. 

Rhubarb Crisp
Fill a baking pan with cut-up rhubarb; coat with sugar to taste (less is more for me). In a bowl, mix equal parts butter, flour, brown sugar, and rolled oats, however much topping suits your fancy (more is more for me). Sprinkle topping onto fruit, bake at 350ish until bubbly and golden brown.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Upin Thai

If you are looking for Thai food in western North Dakota, you have two options:
1) Upin Thai
2) Upin Thai

Ok, so you have one option. But cowboys and oil riggers rejoice - it's dang good. 

It doesn't look like much from the outside...well, let's be honest, it looks scary from the outside, an old brick building with a sign for "aifoo d." 

However, coming inside, the bright orange walls, bright plastic flowers, smiling Buddha and friendly owner all reassure customers that all is well, and all will continue to be well, forever and ever namasté.

Upin Thai is in Dickinson, which is the gateway to the Badlands, the spot where rolling plains of wheat fields stops and rugged country of cattle ranches begins. I have no idea how or why a Thai restaurant opened at the gateway to cowboy country, but sometimes treasure shines brightest when found in the most unexpected places. When going to Upin Thai, it's important to know a couple things: 

1) Everything is cooked to order, so be prepared to wait 15 minutes. 

2) The food is meant to be consumed as take-out.  There is no seating except for a few stools along a narrow bar along the window. 

I ordered up some curry and egg rolls.  There really isn't anywhere to sit in Upin Thai, except for a narrow counter along the window.  After waiting for my order to be cooked up, I headed to my car with my styrofoam clamshells filled with tasty treasures and frankly, just couldn't wait.  I cracked them open right there on the passenger seat to bask in the wonder of Thai food, a rare sight indeed for this North Dakotan.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dandelion Salad

Dandelion salad.  Puts a whole new twist on the term "weedeater," doesn't it?

I don't mean to brag, but I'm pretty darn good at growing dandelions. Those little spots of yellow in my lawn do me no harm, and I'm a bit mystified at the all-out war that's been declared on the little flowers. I happen to live in a neighborhood where instead of little yellow flowers, folks like to put up little yellow signs from the local fertilizing company, proudly declaring that their yard has been sprayed with a host of chemicals in dandelion defiance.

My neighbors may have a perfect green lawnscape, but those folks are missing out on the spring delicacy of dandelion salad.

I'll admit my husband was a little shocked that I was planning on eating dandelions. Dandelions are a pretty useful plant, though.  Dandelion wine, dandelion tea, roast the dandelion root and make dandelion coffee. In my mind, a simple dandelion salad is just dipping the pinkie toe into the world of dandelion cuisine. The greens are bitter, similar to arugula or endive, and they are a nutritional powerhouse. You can eat them raw in a salad, sauté them similar to cooked spinach, fold them into eggs - I'm picturing dandelion frittatas.  

Around these parts, you are not going to find dandelion greens in the store, so if you're going to set about harvesting them yourself, a few tips:

1. Never eat dandelion greens from an area that's been sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals. I'd avoid dandelion greens pulled from areas directly next to roadways, as well.

2. I found healthier-looking dandelion greens in shadier areas of my yard, like near the base of shrubs and bushes. Dandelions greens plucked from full sun areas may be more shriveled.

3. A spade is fine to use in dandelion harvesting, but if you want to go for the glory, pick up one of these tools at your local hardware store. It works like a charm, often pulling out dandelions with the root, and is actually pretty fun to use.

I found a fancy dandelion salad recipe in a cooking magazine and improvised with what I had on hand to make a more down-home version. While I was taking the picture, the only thing you can't see is me telling Ben to "just wait, don't touch, hold on, just wait Ben, one minute, Mom wants to take a picture..."

He couldn't wait.

Dandelion Salad
Original recipe here. Remember to wash the dandelion greens thoroughly.  I triple-washed mine and rolled them in a clean dishtowel to dry, keeping them in a fridge for a few hours still wrapped in the towel until I was ready to eat. Worked like a charm. Serves 2 heartily, or 4 sides. 
2 large eggs, at room temperature 
1 bunch dandelion greens (about 1/2 lb.) 
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil 
2 slices bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes 
4 oz. sliced ham, sliced and roughly chopped 
1/2 medium clove garlic 
1/4 tsp. anchovy paste 
1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice 
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 

Bring a 1-quart pot of water to a boil over high heat. Gently add the eggs, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 8 minutes. Drain immediately and run under cold water until the eggs have cooled completely. Peel and set aside.

Meanwhile, trim the stems from the dandelion leaves and cut the leaves into bite-size pieces. Wash in cold water and dry by rolling in a clean dishtowel (or spin dry).

In a heavy-duty 10-inch skillet, heat 1/4 cup of the oil over medium heat until shimmering hot. Add the bread and stir with a slotted spoon until the croutons are golden-brown and cooked through, about 2 minutes. Transfer the croutons to a plate lined with paper towels and set aside.

Add the ham to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until browned and starting to crisp, about 3 minutes. Transfer ham to the paper-towel-lined plate.

Chop the garlic, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, then smash the garlic to a paste with the side of a chef’s knife and transfer to a large salad bowl. Add anchovy paste and lemon juice. Slowly drizzle in the remaining 2 Tbs. olive oil, stirring constantly with the wooden spoon. Add the dandelion leaves to the bowl and toss well. Add the croutons and pancetta and toss again. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cut the eggs into wedges and arrange them on the salad. Serve.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Monkey Cake

I'll be the first to admit I got overly excited about my child's birthday party this year. He turned two, which rhymed with zoo, which was enough incentive for me to capture the moment and have a party at the local zoo.

For those familiar with the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, birthday parties used to be held in the little depot next to the snack bar where the little train picks up passengers.  At least that's what I remember.  So I was pleasantly surprised to show up and find us instead in a huge, gorgeous room in the new Discovery Center with warm wood decor and big windows looking out into the cottonwood trees.  

Of course, with any zoo party, you have to go with the theme.  I ordered zoo invites from Shutterfly with matching zoo address labels. I found these cute animal masks on Amazon for the kids along with little zoo rubber duckies. And yes, even the cake was to have some zoo appeal. 

When I read this post on Smitten Kitchen with the banana monkey cake, I knew I wanted a monkey cake for my little monkey.  I also knew that I have a full-time job, a full-time child, and a big dislike of cake decorating.  Combine those factors and this monkey cake looked like a pain in the keester to actually assemble. I'd rather just make banana cupcakes and stick plastic Curious George faces on them and call it good.  

Oh look, Amazon has plastic Curious George faces too.  Click - in the cart. 

However, when I told my wonderful amazing talented mom about my plan, she insisted that she wanted to try making the cake.  The whole cake, with the pinned-on ears, homemade frosting, the whole kit-and-caboodle. "Ok, go for it, but seriously, cupcakes will be totally fine.  Don't trouble yourself, it's just a little get-together, really." 

Yet magically, right before the start of the party, the monkey cake appeared and it was delicious - rich and thick like only homemade cakes can be, with a distinct banana flavor and a sweet chocolate frosting that just screams "BIRTHDAY" to me.  But in the end, as yummy as it was, the monkey cake was just a side note to the real star of the show: my now-two-year-old little monkey. 

If you want to tackle your own monkey cake, check out the original post on Smitten Kitchen here.