Category Archives: From the Kitchen

home is where the hearth is


Since today is the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneer author who (along with my parents and grandparents) first kindled my homesteading spirit, I thought it would be an appropriate time to write about my recent explorations into hearth cookery.

One of the things I've always loved about summertime adventures is the opportunity to cook outside over a wood fire. There's nothing that beats the flavor (and enjoyment) of preparing food in this simple and rustic way. For years I've thought about bringing the same fun indoors for the winter and cooking in the fireplace. But since I only have a traditional 50's era residential fireplace and not some kind of spectacular colonial walk-in hearth (or even Alice Waters' fancy wood-fired oven), I thought it would be a cramped and awkward mess.

But as is sometimes the case when it comes to my passions, my enthusiasm overruled my concerns this winter and I decided to embark on a series of Friday night suppers cooked in the open-hearth. The first few weeks the kids wanted the campfire basics–hot dogs, S'mores and their favorite grilled cheese sandwiches cooked in my vintage Toas-Tite. But I had my sights on serving up real homesteader meals.

I got out my cast-iron dutch oven and made baked navy beans with molasses and salt pork right in the coals. I upgraded the kids from the Toas Tite to real pie irons and let them bake their own cornbread to have on the side. After that easy and hearty hearth meal we were all hooked.

Next I decided to invest in a cooking grate to expand our cooking possibilities. In keeping with our Laura Ingalls prarie inspiration, the next meal was pan fried trout breaded in corn meal and cooked in salt pork drippings (a nod to On the Banks of Plum Creek), fried potatoes and the kids made apple turnovers in their pie irons. The pie crusts on the first few turnovers were a bit charred (we're still working out the heat and timing for the pie irons) but the trout and potatoes were wonderfully delicious.


Now I'm looking forward to expanding our repetoire with larger cuts of roasted meats and more baked goods. I also want to set up my firebrick from my makeshift pizza oven and see if I can get a good wood-fired pizza made in the fireplace. Can it be long until I start contemplating a full-fledged rotisserie?

But besides the culinary upsides of cooking around an open fire, I also think the act of gathering the family around the hearth to prepare a meal in a slow, deliberate and communal way has further-reaching emotional benefits. It not only brings the kids closer to the idea of their food and how it's cooked but it's warm and cozy and the kind of thing that memories are made of.

For anyone interested in getting into serious fireplace cooking, I highly recommend reading The Open-Hearth Cookbook: Recapturing the Flavor of Early America by Suzanne Goldenson and Doris Simpson. It gives a great background on the history and implements of early American hearth cookery as well as recipes specifically adapted for cooking in this way. The coals await!  

UPDATE 12 February 2011

Last night I tried out the pizza idea. I placed one of my pizza stones on the grate and surrounded it on three sides by firebricks. Then I balanced another pizza stone on top. It created the perfect little pizza oven right in the fireplace. I tried to measure the temperature with an oven thermometer but couldn't get an exact reading–just that it was over way over the maximum 600 degrees. Yay! I was hoping for something in the range of 800 degrees and think I might have gotten close. We were able to cook a series of tasty winter broccoli raab and potato pizzas each in about five minutes time. They had a wonderfully crispy crust (as always, thanks to Peter Reinhart's fantastic dough recipe) and a smoky wood-fired taste. Quick, easy, tasty and fun! This is something I'll definitely be doing again soon.


sausage fest

In the same way many people have rediscovered the wonderful qualities of heirloom fruits and vegetables, they are also seeking out the almost forgotten goodness of heritage meats. Just as you can’t compare a mealy factory-farmed hothouse tomato to the robust flavor of a vine-ripened heirloom tomato (they hardly seem to even be the same species!) there’s a big difference between standard feedlot meat and pasture raised heritage breed animals. Once you’ve tasted the succulent buttery flavor of a meat like Berkshire pork it’s hard to believe it comes from the same animal as the CAFO pork that is sold in most stores (not to mention the horrendous difference in ethical treatment). Fortunately, we have companies like Heritage Foods that are making many kinds of humanely-raised heritage meats available. 

Back in November of 2008, I wrote a post about my first experience eating Mangalitsa pork. Mangalitsa is a Hungarian breed of lard-type pig directly descended from wild boars and which has a rich woodsy flavor that, in my opinion, is unequaled in the US. (The only pork I’ve ever enjoyed more is the ham from the acorn fed Ibérico in Spain). Thanks to our friends at Wooly Pigs we have a source for getting the wonderful Mangalitsa meat so last week I did a big pork buy and invited a few pork-loving friends over for a sausage-making party.

We started with three ten pound butts, skin on, bone-in. The first step was removing the skin to be saved for making Chicharrón (the subject of a future post.) Next we removed the back fat (some to be added back into the sausage mix, the rest to be saved for making lardo–yet another future post!)

Then we cubed up the beautifully marbled meat and seasoned it with a mix of spices–sweet Spanish paprika, black pepper, toasted fennel seeds, sage, kosher salt, and raw sugar. Although there’s a long history of sausage-making in my family (my Italian grandparents routinely made their own salami and more) we weren’t using any old family secrets this time but instead were primarily following Michael Ruhlman’s recipe for Italian sausage from his book, “Charcuterie,” with some influence from Paul Bertolli’s, “Cooking by Hand” as well. Both are excellent references for sausage-making.


After mixing the cubed pork with the spices we chilled the meat overnight both to let the spices permeate and also to have the meat at a good temperature for grinding.


The next morning friends arrived and the sausage-making swung into high gear–rinsing out the hog casings, grinding and mixing the meat (we used the grinder attachment for the Kitchen Aid mixer), and stuffing and linking the sausages. None of the steps are particularly difficult but they are labor-intensive and time-consuming, so it’s nice to have a lively group of friends to share the work and the fun. (Note: sausage-making lends itself to a lot of silly off-color humor!)

While we were working we took time out to snack on fresh soft-boiled eggs straight from the chicken coop with a salad of crisp dandelion greens picked from the garden. The perfect taste of spring! We also did the first sampling of my homemade Nocino which I had put up last July as well as enjoying some of last year’s Limoncello which is always a crowd-pleaser. And of course we also did quite a bit of sausage taste-testing as we went along.

At the end of the day everyone went home with a sense of accomplishment, a big bag of sausage and the feeling of having had a fun (if tiring) day. The succulent Mangalitsa pork nearly guarantees delicious results, but the added satisfaction of knowing exactly where your food comes from and taking part in many of the manual steps for the final outcome makes every bite just that much more enjoyable. 

(Note: All photos in this post courtesy of Rich Dahlgren.)

the hunter’s moon

After last week’s sunrise excursion, it seemed only fitting that we should bookend the experience by watching a moonrise. And in perfect timing the full moon, specifically the Hunter’s Moon, fell on Monday. This time we took a picnic dinner and arrived just as the faintest trace of the moon was showing against the blue sky. Then the sun set, the moon rose and the hazy sky was thick with intense pinks, blues and lavender. So much color it was almost sickening!

There’s something about a new moon that always makes me want to take a moment, stare at the sky and contemplate my place in the universe. According to Stephanie Gailing at Planetary Apothecary this particular Scorpio/Taurus Full Moon was supposed to be a time to evaluate what makes us feel good–mentally, emotionally and physically. Even before I read her words I happened to be having these same thoughts. I guess it’s always good to reflect on what makes us feel safe, secure and affirmed but it’s nice to have the moon to remind us!

cherry tomato bonanza

There are two varieties of cherry tomatoes I plant in my garden every year–Sun Gold and Sweet 100. They are both so sweet and tasty, fun to snack on right off the vine and wonderful tossed into pasta. The one thing they are not so good for is making sauce (too sweet, too seedy). So at the end of summer when they are growing faster than we can eat them, I’ve found the best way to preserve their delicious flavor is to slow roast them and then store in olive oil.

Last week I tackled the surplus of just the Sun Golds (I’m hoping to get to the Sweet 100s this week). After picking several baskets full I sliced them all in half, spread them out on trays lined with parchment paper (until I ran out and switched to foil), misted them with good olive oil and sprinkled (very lightly) with salt. Some people like to add in herbs or garlic too, but I like mine plain and simple.

Then I put them in the oven at 220F for a couple hours until they were shriveled up but still had a little juice left inside (chewy as opposed to crispy). Then I crammed them into jars and covered in olive oil.

Now when we’re in the dark days of winter we’ll still have memories of the fresh taste of summer.

limoncello and the lunar eclipse

I’ve written before about my relationship with full moons, whether in the garden or just in my own head. But tonight is a special full moon because it’s also a lunar eclipse (the final of this season’s three eclipses).

According to Stephanie Gailing at Planetary Apothecary this is a period when things come to fruition. It’s the time to let go of something that is outworn–a possession, a habit, or a relationship that doesn’t serve your highest good. She says that during this event we have the ability to perceive our own unique gifts and qualities in a way that helps us close one chapter of our lives so that another one (which will more gracefully align with our heart’s desires) can emerge. Oddly enough, I had a very clear awareness of exactly that just yesterday before even reading her write-up. Apparently very fitting words for me right now.

So while musing on Stephanie’s insights and waiting to see the moon this evening, I decided to sit in my garden and have my first sampling of the limoncello I made this spring. It was the perfect fresh (and strong!) taste to accompany thoughts of a new chapter in my life.

Then I watched a beautiful moon rise up through the clouds. Since the eclipse happened earlier in the evening I wasn’t able to witness it but I definitely felt it. A magical sky for a meaningful transition.


sorry squirrels

I've written before about the old walnut tree in my yard and how I usually leave all the nuts for the squirrels to enjoy. That was until I discovered a recipe for Nocino, an Italian liqueur made from green (unripe) walnuts on Elise Bauer's blog, "Simply Recipes."

Since I recently bottled my spring batch of limoncello, all my glass canisters were empty and ready to be filled up with a new cooking project. It was either this or a big batch of pickles (which frankly would not have been a bad idea either since I'm drowning in cucumbers.) But of course I never can pass up trying something new.

So this weekend I harvested several buckets of walnuts (I actually did leave quite a few on the upper branches to ripen for the squirrels) and set up a Nocino work station outside on my garden table. I love any opportunity to prepare (or eat!) food outdoors.

In Italy, Nocino is typically made in late June when the nuts are still very soft and easy to cut. But like everything in my garden this year, I seem to be running almost a month behind. My walnuts were starting to develop a bit of a shell inside, but luckily it was thin enough that I could still cut and quarter them with my cleaver. It was actually quite a bit easier than zesting all those lemons for the limoncello!

After they were all cut up I put them into my glass canisters with vodka, sugar and spices. I followed Elise's recipe (which she had originally gotten from David Lebovitz' book Room For Dessert) but varied the spices slightly and added in a little star anise for fun.

Almost immediately the green color started to leach out of the walnut skins and into the vodka. Fun science! Apparently it will continue to get darker and darker over the next six weeks until it's a very dark brown.

When I was researching Nocino I also came across recipes for French green walnut liqueurs, green walnut wine as well as pickled green walnuts. Has anyone tried any of these?

I hope I like the outcome of this experiment because the preparation was unbelievably quick and easy. If it's really good, the squirrels are going to be in big trouble next year!

chicken with basil

I’m posting this (deliberately misleading-ly titled!) photo solely because I haven’t been giving the pullets much press as of late. There just hasn’t been much to say since I’ve worked out the details of their diet (here and here) and they are not laying yet (though I suspect Tuesday, the Plymouth Rock is getting very close.)

This past weekend I made my first big batch of pesto from the garden (for the recipe, see my pesto post from last summer) and gave all the basil stalks (with the small leaves I couldn’t bother to pull) to the girls. I was fantasizing about how wonderful their eggs would taste if I could get them eating basil all the time. Unfortunately it wasn’t a big hit. They pecked at it a bit and did eat some, but not the way they do other greens. Maybe I need to add some Italian chicken breeds (like the Ancona) to the flock!

stuffed mystery squash

I notice in the winter I tend to write a lot about food and cooking and in the summer more about gardening and the outdoors. Most of the reasons for that are fairly obvious–when it’s cold we stay indoors, around the hearth and our bodies crave more calories. In the summer we’re outdoors, there’s more gardening to do and less time to be fussing over a hot stove.

But that’s not to say my interest in food or cooking wanes in the summer (far from it!) It’s just that I find I have less to say about it. The produce of summer really requires so little culinary intervention in order to be wonderful. A simple sliced tomato with fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of good olive oil needs no grand preparation to be sublime.

In the past few weeks I’ve been eating many delicious meals straight from the garden, but most have involved so little actual cooking it seems silly to write about them. But occasionally I have a new insight or twist on something that I want to make a note of.

This past weekend I was trying to get a grip on the squash overload again (it’s gotten to the point where anyone who visits me is not allowed to leave without taking at least one squash home) but didn’t have much time to cook and wanted to whip up something quick and easy with ingredients I had on hand. I’ve been making a lot of stuffed zucchini lately because the kids love them and they are so versatile–great served hot or cold, at a picnic or at the dinner table. So I decided to make a variant on that using my cute round grapefruit-size squash instead.

A digression about these squash. Sometimes I’m a very meticulous gardener–carefully documenting what, when, where, how I’m planting. Other times I get impulsive and whimsical, planting this and that here and there and thinking, “Oh, I don’t need to make a note of this, I’ll remember what I did.” And then of course I inevitably forget and as seeds start sprouting I find myself staring quizzically at the leaf shapes trying to discern what these plants are. This year I’ve had a couple instances of this, including with these squash. I’m almost positive I planted the “Rond de Nice” variety. But as far as I know these squash are always green. Yes, most green squash will mature to orange but these are starting out that way. Any thoughts on this out there? Is there an orange “Rond de Nice” or is it something else?

Anyway, back to cooking…I started with my typical stuffed zucchini formula (saute onions with the squash interior then add bread crumbs, grated parmesan, herbs and eggs) but because the size of these squash made a larger portion, I decided to make it more of a hearty main course by also adding a little of my homemade breakfast sausage which I had in the freezer from this past March. Then I roasted them for about 40 minutes.

I thought the results were very tasty and the presentation looked cute too. The only thing I didn’t like was that unlike zucchini, the skin on these was a little too tough and strong-tasting to eat. But there was still plenty to enjoy with just the filling. Now if only I could identify what squash these actually are!

the summer squash glut begins

I can't believe it's only been two weeks since my first zucchini harvest and already I'm starting to have that panicky "I can't find enough ways to cook squash" feeling. After so many years of growing summer squash, I don't know why I'm still amazed at how fast and furiously those plants produce. By fall I will have run through a crazy number of recipes for them (including a surprisingly wonderful chocolate zucchini cake) until I can't even look at another squash. But for now I'm still happily enjoying the typical savory dishes.

Last night I made a delicious zucchini and potato gratin (with the Yukon Golds I harvested at the end of last month). The recipe is from one of the food blogs I read regularly, 101 Cookbooks. Besides being a great way to showcase my freshly picked squash, the recipe also includes a tasty and versatile parsley-oregano sauce. I made a double portion of just the sauce so I could have more on hand. Today I drizzled it over an open faced tuna sandwich for lunch and then also added some to a white bean and red pepper "hummus" that I made this evening.

Any other favorite summer squash recipes out there?

fried zucchini flowers

For the past few weeks all my interesting and adventurous cooking projects have fallen by the wayside as I've been completely focused on the garden. But yesterday the balance shifted back to where the garden starts to return the time by making cooking easier and more inspired.

When I got home I had no idea what I was going to make for dinner until I noticed that there were about five zucchinis ready to harvest. Even better, there were also plenty of male blossoms–one of my favorite treats of summer!

When I was a child my mother used to fry up the blossoms straight from the garden which instilled a lifelong craving. I know it's downright cliche to talk about how much better tasting home grown food is than the usual market fare, but in the case of of zucchini blossoms it's really the only option. The flowers are so delicate that the time off the plant and transport really damages them. When I've ordered them in restaurants I've always found them over-handled and overworked, often stuffed (with ricotta or another cheese) or in a heavy batter. I just don't think there's any version that's as fresh and delicious as when they are picked and fried, as is, within minutes.

So yesterday the boys and I harvested our first zucchini of the year and (of course) the coveted blossoms and headed straight for the kitchen. I made a quick flour and water pastella (very light batter) and fried everything right up. The boys sat at the kitchen counter and gobbled the flowers and zucchini slices as fast as I could make them. Perhaps the beginning of a new generation with a lifelong zucchini blossom craving?