July 19, 2011

Garden Fun!

It's mid July and the garden is coming along! In early June, the beds were up- we got the dirt delivered- a lovely blend of compost and good soil- my husband's father, aunt and uncle were so sweet- they came over one morning and helped us haul it up to the beds! So kind! The plants have been in there for several weeks and they are definitely coming along. To keep the pests out (rabbits, birds, squirrels and chipmunks) I added these 10' long 1/2" pvc pipes- that was an amusing trip to Lowe's for mommy and baby- I don't know why I thought I could handle six 10' long poles and a toddler in a cart?! Anyhow, they eventually got home and on to the beds- then we have added this black plastic hardware cloth (not the metal kind), attached to the pipes with zip ties. The zip ties only go about halfway down, the hardware cloth lifts up from the bottom to give you access to the beds. Down the center I have tomatoes and vine plants. Each has a large tomato cage- they were slightly too tall, so I had to saw off all the legs with a small saw in the garage- and the garage gets 10 degrees hotter than outside so it was like 110 in there- like a hot yoga class!

So far, we've gotten a few strawberries and a bell pepper (so delicious!), and one jalapeno plant has three peppers coming along. The lemon cucumber has a nice sized cucumber, and the regular cucumber has about 10 small cucumbers growing. Surprises have included- hey, the chives are all dead! What are these crazy caterpillars? Two poblano seedlings died, as did a sweet orange bell pepper. And, one of the hardware cloth sheets wasn't totally secure and overnight something crept in and ate an entire tomatillo plant. Seriously, the whole plant. The bottom of the hardware cloth sheets are tied with ribbon strips that I untie when I want access to the plants. Finally, the two most exciting things happening in the garden are, first, the French melon plants are literally insane, you can watch them grow before your eyes and second, three of the five tomato varieties have started to flower! I'm so excited, I may have my very own tomatoes soon!

La Dolce Duchessa will be taking a short break. I will be back in early August with wonderful new ideas for you! (Seriously, there are two posts upcoming that are SO EXCITING- I've gotten permission to share with you a recipe for homemade butter (courtesy of the fantastic Ricki Carroll, Cheese Queen and the force behind the New England Cheese Making Supply Company) and Liqueur 44- an unbelievably delicious homemade aperitif courtesy of Susan Loomis, who, if you haven't heard of her yet, you should, she's an incredible cook- has several wonderful books including the French Farm House Cookbook and On Rue Tatin, and, she has a cooking school in France which is definitely on my list of future trips! Until then, enjoy your summer and thank you so much for reading!!!

July 12, 2011

Favorite Baby Books and Equipment!

As a new mom, or even a non-new mom, do you ever feel like there isn't time to do the research you'd like to? Like about baby food, sleep training, crib tents, swim lessons, etc., this list could be endless! I remember feeling like I had to understand how all this equipment worked before I had the baby, and it was so exhausting, figuring out how the diaper genie worked, installing the mobile above the crib- how do I collapse the #$%^ pack 'n play again? Forget even talking about the breast pump and all the rules about breast milk!

What I found I ended up doing was asking friends- friends that I felt had a similar point of view (about food, behavior, breast feeding) and it was so incredibly helpful. Before I had the baby, I also went over to two different people's houses who had small babies and spent a few hours with them, seeing how they interacted with their baby, how they disciplined, and what it was like. Before I had our baby, I had literally never changed a diaper (now I am fast- even impressing my own mom!) This post is inspired by a conversation I had recently with a dear friend with a six month old who is just starting solid food. She and I share a similar point of view- we both wanted to make our own baby food, we wanted to breast feed for as long as possible, etc. It occurred to me that some of the blog readers might be interested in these resources also!

Here's my absolute favorite book on caring for infants and toddlers, The New Basics by Dr. Michel Cohen: http://www.amazon.com/New-Basics--Z-Modern-Parent/dp/0060535482/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1310484250&sr=8-3
Here's why I love this book- it's set up like a dictionary, you just look up the topic you're interested in and read that entry. The entry will cover the topic from different ages if need be. Also, and probably the most important, this book doesn't make me feel guilty. It doesn't tell me I should be giving the infant a massage every day. (Let's be realistic here, Mommy is the one who needs the massage)

Solid foods- we started at 5 1/2 months and we loved the Beaba Babycook: http://www.amazon.com/Beaba-Babycook-Baby-Food-Maker/dp/B001LQCOIS/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310484414&sr=1-1

and also this wonderful baby food cookbook, Top 100 Baby Purees: http://www.amazon.com/Top-100-Baby-Purees-Healthy/dp/0743289579/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310484474&sr=1-1
Some of these are really delicious, when you've made them, take a taste and see!

Moving farther down the development line, we have in the last few months moved from a high chair to a booster seat and now little baby boy sits at the table like a big person. Here's the mat we have in front of him on the table: http://www.diapers.com/p/Summer-Infant-TinyDiner-Blue-21410
It's also easy to take with you when you travel or go out to eat.

Our most recent baby related purchase is due to a recent 'escape' by baby boy- this past Sunday, early in the morning, my husband was taking the dog out in the morning and when he came back in the house, there the baby was, sitting half way down the stairs, pleased as punch! He'd climbed out of his crib (the first time), opened the gate of the nursery, come down the stairs into the family room and had started down the stairs behind the kitchen. So, crib tent it was! http://www.onestepahead.com/catalog/product.jsp?productId=309775&cmSource=Search

July 8, 2011

Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Stuffed squash blossoms... yum! Have you had these? They are delicious- their flavor is vegetable and peppery, and yet still quite subtle. We learned about stuffed squash blossoms from an Argentine friend before our first trip to Italy. We ate them often- they are usually stuffed with a soft cheese, then lightly breaded and fried, they are fried just until the outside is golden brown and the inside is deliciously melted- such a treat!

We went earlier this week to a farmer's market and when we saw a stand with squash blossoms- $4 for 12 (although it was late in the day so he gave us 24 for $4), we snapped them up! We asked how long we'd have to stuff them- he recommended within two days, otherwise, they'd get fairly wilted and hard to open. If that happened, he recommended using them as a pizza topping, which sounded great. Well, I didn't get around to it until today, so that's three days later, and the majority of them were ok to open, just a few more wilted flowers. I plan to put them on a pizza :)

Let's get started- you are going to love these. They can be made ahead of time (apart from the final breading and frying), and are so elegant and impressive. I will definitely be serving these at my next dinner party!

Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Herbed Goat Cheese
Squash blossoms (fresh and closed) (for an appetizer, 3 per person is probably a good estimate)

11 oz. goat cheese
1 tsp. sea salt
freshly ground white pepper
bunch of thyme
2 Tbsp. milk

1 egg, beaten
flour, mixed with a dash of salt and pepper

canola oil

Let's start by making the filling- this is a lot of filling, so you'll probably have a fair amount left over. You can use it as a spread on crackers or bread, it's just a lovely herbed goat cheese. It will be easier if your goat cheese is a little soft, so let it sit on the counter for a few minutes. In a medium sized bowl, combine the goat cheese, salt and white pepper. The thyme amount is something you'll just need to eye ball- I'd recommend more that you think you'd want- the cheese has somewhat of a strong flavor and thyme is not overpowering, so enough that you know it's there. I try to take the small thyme leaves off the hard stems by going backwards up the stem with two fingers pressed together. That will work until the stem is soft and young, then it will just break off. The younger softer stems are fine to include, you'll just want to chop them up finely. It's the harder woodier stems you want omitted. Add the thyme and the milk to the goat cheese and using either a spatula or a spoon, mix until well combined. Taste it and decide if you want more thyme or more pepper.

Who knew the cake decorating class I was taking would come in so handy? Using a disposable frosting bag is a great way to fill these squash blossoms. Fill the bag about 1/3-1/2 full of the filling. Rinse your squash blossoms- be very gentle when opening the flowers, you don't want to tear the sides, otherwise your filling will fall out. Take your bag of filling and using your hands on the outside of the bag, move the filling down toward the tip of the bag. Across the top, where the filling stops, twist your bag tightly. Snip the end off the tip to allow the filling to come out. Place the tip inside the first blossom and with your hand squeezing the bag where the bag is twisted, fill the flower about 1/2 full. You want to fill the part that still has sides, the top area where the ends of the petals twist around each other is not filled. Slightly twist the end of the blossom and place aside, repeat until all your blossoms are filled.

On the stove, heat about 1" to 1 1/2" of canola oil over slightly higher than medium heat. This may be a little higher on your stove, it was a 6 out of 10 on my stove, but on a very large gas burner. While the oil is heating, beat the egg in a small bowl and place the flour in a separate small bowl, add a pinch of sea salt and a few grinds of pepper. Take the first squash blossom, dip it first in the egg, coating it well, but allow it to drain, either holding above the bowl or shaking off the excess. Roll in the flour until it has a light coat, also shake off the excess. Place in the hot oil, and using tongs, turn over once the color has become slightly golden brown. They don't cook for very long, it's really a visual indicator. Place on a plate lined with paper towels and allow to cool for just a few minutes before serving.

Enjoy! These are a wonderful way to enjoy the freshness of farmer's markets- you could use squash blossoms and goat cheese from your local farmers!

July 1, 2011

Cast Iron Seared Steak and Salad with Bacon Dressing

Mmmm... Salad with seared steak... We had a particularly delicious wine class this past weekend- it was a tour of the wines of Spain. I truly, truly, am not knowledgeable at ALL about wines of Spain. I couldn't even tell you what makes a rioja archetypal- until now! Great class, my favorites were the mencia (so delicious and dramatic, unfairly tasted with an archetypal rioja) and a very crisp and refreshing txakolina (pronounced 'chocoli'). So... after wine class I thought- we need a great meal!

Cast Iron Seared Steak and Salad with Bacon Dressing
NY strip steaks (1 per person or a little less)
4 Tbsp olive oil
sea salt
freshly cracked pepper
2 garlic cloves (through a press or finely minced)
large zip lock bag

3 pieces bacon
2 Tbsp white balsamic vinegar
4 Tbsp olive oil
freshly cracked pepper (black or white)

mixed greens or another lettuce of your choice, mache would be delicious
1 plum tomato
1 ear of corn
avocado (optional, my husband doesn't like avocado)
Gorgonzola crumbles

Let's talk cast iron skillets for a second. Do you have one? They might seem like a superfluous item (outside the South perhaps), but they are quite useful- for searing things on top of the stove at a high even temperature. Maybe you don't feel like lighting your big green egg or BBQ, maybe it's too cold, or the mosquitoes have taken your backyard hostage... Not a problem! Just fire up the cast iron skillet :)

First, let's get our steak ready. This is a cinch- just put those two beautiful strip steaks in a large zip lock bag, add the oil, sea salt (two or so generous pinches), freshly ground pepper, and the garlic. Seal the bag with a relatively small amount of air, and then, from the outside of the bag, use your hands to work the marinade over the meat. You can do this a good bit ahead of time, and put them back in the refrigerator, or just a few minutes while you heat up the cast iron skillet- they will be DELICIOUS either way, I promise. So fire up the cast iron skillet.

We're not cooking the steak first, though, we're going to take care of the bacon dressing- AND leave some bacon grease in the pan to cook the steaks. Nice. Bacon fat and steak. Could it get any more right? Ok- so once the cast iron skillet has been heating for a while at medium high heat, add some canola oil (not olive oil- you want something that withstands heat better than olive oil), and then place the three raw strips of bacon in the pan. They will cook fast at this heat, so pay attention and flip them over when they are crisped nicely on one side, and when both sides are nicely done, remove the bacon from the pan and put aside on a plate to cool. Now, without emptying the pan of the bacon grease, get those strip steaks in the pan- I cook them about 3 minutes each side at medium high heat- cook them to your desired doneness, this will vary depending on several factors, your burner, your pan, the temperature of the steaks to begin with... Be conservative, you can always cook longer, but once overcooked, you can't do much except chew chew chew. Ok! Once your beautiful steaks are done- place on a plate and let sit. You may cover them with foil if you like. Just let them sit at least 5 minutes before cutting them into slices.

In the meantime, take that gorgeous bacon, chop it into small pieces, and place in a small ball jar. Add the vinegar (use white wine vinegar if you don't have white balsamic), olive oil and pepper. Why no salt? Your bacon is made primarily with salt and pork belly, so you already effectively have salt. Close the jar and shake to mix thoroughly- congratulations, you have made bacon salad dressing- yum!

Ok- assemble that salad- washed mixed greens, some ripe plum tomato- cored and cut into small pieces, and with the ear of corn- this is how we did it in the summer salad recipe with chicken- husk the ear, then, cut in two. Cut off the 'handle' end. Hold one half vertically against the cutting board and using a small knife, cut off the kernels going toward the cutting board. This is so great- it's fast and easy, and the corn doesn't need to be cooked. It's sweet and delicious and just wonderful.

Arrange this salad on plates, sprinkle with gorgonzola crumbles, avocado is optional, then top with thin slices of steak. Using a spoon with the salad dressing, spoon dressing and bacon bits over the top. Just delicious- this will be a weeknight favorite for you, I promise. And, since you had a salad for dinner, have some CAKE!!!! Yes, cake decorating is still going on. Yum, yum!

Cleaning your cast iron skillet- we bought ours 'preseasoned.' What does that mean? It means that it already has some grease / oil worked into it, which is what makes it so great. Here's the deal- a great cast iron skillet has grease and oil in all the little tiny cracks and holes on the inside of the pan. That's what makes it useful to cook with and also imparts great flavor. How do you clean something that you want to stay basically, well, greasy? Well, pour off the excess grease. Then, using a stiff brush, and running water, scrub the large pieces off the bottom of the pan. Don't use soap. Then, wipe out with paper towels (they'll get dirty, so don't use a dishcloth). Store, then use again for something delicious.