Category Archives: Cooking

A Neighborhood Farm: Trogg’s Hollow

You’d never know you were in a residential neighborhood.

Last year, I stumbled upon Trogg’s Hollow, a local farm nestled in my neighborhood. I joined their Community Supported Agriculture program, tempted by the prospect of weekly fresh veggies. I split a share with a neighbor and reveled in the challenge of using veggies I had never tried. Or, in some cases, heard of. (Beets? Check. Kohlrabi? Check. Kale, kale and more kale? Check, check, and a miserably failed attempt at kale chips.)

This year, they offered a half share, which is a much easier option than trying to split a full share into roughly a third. Some things just don’t split well. I think I’ll get more veggies than last year, but since I’m done with school, I actually have more time to cook. (In theory, anyway.)

When I first learned of Trogg’s Hollow and looked up the address, I routed a run past it – and didn’t even notice it. During subsequent runs, I spotted it but never realized  just how much farm land was tucked behind the houses on a rather ordinary residential block.To kick off the season, the fine folks at Trogg’s opened up their yard for a little meet-and-greet, a chance to break bread with fellow shareholders, tour the greenhouses and walk the rows of sprouting goodness.

Farmer Chris in the fields, with a carrot.

When I arrived for the meet-and-greet, I followed a child down the winding path – and marveled at the little farm barely a mile from home. Chris and Marcy beamed as they explained their philosophy and how they decide what to grow. The veggies may be uglier than the genetically modified grocery store variety, but I’d rather have ugly, local and delicious than pretty, imported and tasteless.

Since the season started, I’ve gotten so many types of greens, carrots, radishes, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, zucchini, beets… the list goes on. I’ve been happily

Picking up my first batch of veggies at the Downtown Elgin Harvest Market

devouring salads, sauteeing kale with garlic and onions, baking Swiss chard with shrimp, adding spinach to chicken scalloppine and stir fries, and snacking on purple carrots. I roasted beets and carrots for a salad, and hummed the Fraggle Rock song as I diced radishes and cabbage for Banh Mi Salad.

I can’t wait for the tomatoes to start.

What’s your favorite summer veggie?

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Peachapalooza!

Twenty orbs of summery goodness.

Last week, I split a half bushel of peaches with two neighbors. The fine folks at Trogg’s Hollow, our ultra-local neighborhood farm, took orders and went to Rendleman Orchards in downstate Alto Pass.

We had anticipated that a half bushel would give us each 10-15 peaches – a slightly daunting challenge for a person living alone, given the fleeting perfection of summer peaches, but I was excited by the possibilities.

When Jody called to let me know she had picked up our half bushel, she cautioned that there were more than anticipated. I brought my basket over and loaded up, walking home through the neighborhood with several pounds of fragrant fresh fruit. Twenty peaches in all.

I started eating the first one before I had even closed the door behind me. It was delicious – about a day from perfection, so I left the basket on the counter overnight. The next morning, the kitchen smelled divine, and I ate one with breakfast. The juice dribbled down my chin and tasted warm and sunny, like summer.

Thursday night, it was Iron Chef: Peaches at my house. I started by making peach daiquiris, blending a peach with rum and a squeeze of lime juice. Divine. I made peach crisp and peach-oatmeal-blueberry bread and muffins. While it was all in the oven, I retreated to the hammock in the backyard and sipped my daiquiri under the stars.

But there were still more peaches, and despite eating them for breakfast and snacks, they were starting to turn. Somewhat frantic, Sunday night I pureed three with some yogurt, added ginger and lemon juice and poured them into popsicle molds. After they were partially frozen, I added some crystalized ginger, which definitely tempers the sweetness a bit.

And yet, there were still more peaches! I had one for a morning snack today, and eyed the last two suspiciously. They had started to shrivel just a bit, but cooking could salvage them. So how to close out my week of peaches?

I’d heard that grilling peaches really intensifies the flavor, so I decided to try Jenn’s grilled peaches with balsamic glaze. The grill was already nice and hot for my eggplant caponata, so it was a cinch to slice the last two peaches and throw them on the heat. The balsamic glaze was easy. They were fantastic, though I think I don’t even need the glaze. I have two halves left in the fridge for later in the week – perhaps I’ll just warm them up and add a little dollop of vanilla ice cream? And there’s still another serving of crisp, which will be great after a late night of class tomorrow.

What’s your favorite way to eat peaches? And is there a fruit that better epitomizes summer?

Eating Alone

Over spring break, I borrowed What We Eat When We Eat Alone from my local library.

The concept intrigued me, as I eat alone more often than not. So what might others have to say about the ritual or the reality?

I was sorely disappointed. Most of What We Eat was about what people eat in the rare instances that they eat alone. The majority of the book involved tales of saltines and sardines or cottage cheese, and the joy of not cooking when there’s no one to cook for. The recipes were odd and strangely old-fashioned, heavily reliant on canned goods and tinned fish. I had to check the copyright at one point to make sure this wasn’t a reissue of a book from the 50s, with talk of “batching it” and painfully outdated gender roles. Women eat salad and men eat meat, right?

There was a single, thin chapter given to people who habitually eat alone, but it was told in almost a pitying tone, as if chronic eating alone is a transitory state that should be avoided. While the book celebrated beer and popcorn as an acceptable “eating alone” dinner, that’s not sustainable in the long run.

Looking for topic salvation, I picked up Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, and found much tastier food for thought. This compilation of 26 essays from foodies, writers and food writers spanned a wide range, from those who have eaten alone for years to those who do so only rarely. And while the latter share some of the same features as What We Eat, the stories felt more honest and interesting.

Most telling, though, was the split among the chronic alone-eaters, between those who philosophized about how cooking for yourself can be nurturing and empowering, and those who look at cooking as a burdensome means to an end. This resonated with me, as it’s a dilemma I face frequently.

Until about a year ago, cooking was a chore. I didn’t think I knew how. Cooking meant finding the quickest way to fill my growling belly after a long day at work, which often meant pre-packaged foods, pasta or grilled cheese. (Not that there’s anything wrong with grilled cheese.)

I’ve since grown to love cooking, as it keeps me healthy and fuels me so much better than the old stuff ever did. When I have the time, I love being in the kitchen, chopping and prepping and experimenting. Since joining a CSA, I’m enjoying planning my meals around the weekly baskets (though stumped by this week’s head of Chinese cabbage).

The reality is that I don’t always have the time to cook. In a packed day, sometimes I can’t take 30 minutes to cook, let alone eat, because I need to be out the door in 20 minutes and I’m not dressed yet. I try to cook proactively – and abundantly – so I have a ready selection of nukeable sustenance. That doesn’t always happen, or I’ll burn through my stock quicker than it can be replaced. And that’s when I have peanut butter and jelly or granola bars or piles of raw veggies.

I went through a phase where I religiously ate every meal sitting at my dining room table, pouring water into a real glass, rather than drinking from one of my omnipresent steel bottles. I’ve relaxed that – if I nuked leftovers or have a big salad or pizza, why not eat on the couch? And this time of year, I eat as many meals as possible outside at my little patio table.

What do you eat when you eat alone?

Greens, Greens, Greens! My First CSA Produce

Midway through last summer, I discovered that some lucky people get boxes of produce delivered to them every week. These Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes include a variety of whatever is at the peak of freshness. And buying a “share” at the beginning of the season helps the farmers by ensuring they’ll have enough income to work throughout the year.

It really sounded like a win-win situation. Supporting local farmers, buying locally AND getting the freshest veggies? Sign me up! I’ve always made frequent stops at farmers’ markets, from Chicago’s Daley Plaza, Elgin’s Downtown Harvest Market, or my own local Klein’s Farm Stand. But the during-the-week markets can be tough to get to. (In the case of Daley Plaza, it’s a truly fantastic market – the mind reels with possibility – but it’s tricky transporting delicate produce home via train.)

Over the winter, I discovered Trogg’s Hollow, a very, very local farm. Their field is barely a mile from my house, in the midst of an older neighborhood like mine. They were sold out of shares by the time I found them, but then a neighbor got in from the waiting list. The shares are designed for four people, so she offered to share her share with me. Serendipity!

After a cool spring, I finally got my first batch of produce: lots of lettuce, spinach, a radish and beet greens.

So how to use those veggies?

Part of the reason I signed up was I wanted to branch out beyond what I usually buy and cook. It’s easy to get in the trap of buying the same things every week. For me, it’s usually a bunch of spinach, a couple of bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and whatever a recipe requires. (On the fruit side, it tends to vary more, based on what’s on sale and in season.)

The lettuce and spinach are easy. As soon as I got home with my bag of veggies, I made a giant salad, and I’ll have several more over the coming days. I also add spinach to scrambled eggs.

I had just found a recipe for spicy stir-fried eggplant and beef that called for radish greens, something I had never  considered existing. But suddenly, I had some in my fridge, so I made the recipe last Thursday. (And wow, was it fantastic!) I ate the radish itself while I made dinner. (For some reason, radishes always make me think of Fraggle Rock.)

The beet greens posed a bit more challenge. My cooking guru, Jenn, suggested sauteeing them with garlic and onions, and the Trogg’s Hollow newsletter suggested a similar treatment. Easy-peasy. But tonight’s dinner was a clean-out-the-fridge type meal, so I managed to work the greens into a skillet of Italian sausage, new potatoes, bell peppers, onions and garlic. I added some fresh parmesan – divine.

And just in time, as I’ll get my second share tomorrow.

Maiden Voyage: Whole Foods

For the past two quarters, my professors have assigned giant projects that use Whole Foods as a case study. (This quarter, it’s the final project for my Finance class.) And though I’ve spent months talking about value drivers, compound growth rates and competitive strategy (this quarter) and consumer attitudes towards organic foods (last quarter), I had never set foot inside a Whole Foods.

One opened last year in quasi-nearby Schaumburg, but I have a strong hatred for Schaumburg  on weekends. I knew I really should go, but I hadn’t made the trip yet.

But last Saturday, after spending five hours discussing performance ratios with my group at an Andersonville Starbucks, I realized I was actually pretty close to a Whole Foods and I might as well stop in.

So I navigated myself to the Sauganash store, parked and checked in via FourSquare.

Since it was an impulse trip, I had no list, no plan and no idea of what I actually needed. I was trying to think through my fridge and pantry, and meals for the coming week, but I haven’t been on a real grocery trip in a month – just quick stops to pick up dairy and produce.

So I wandered, somewhat aimlessly, noticing the huge array of relatively pricey produce. Everything looked so fresh and good, though, it took some willpower not to start loading my cart with things I thought I had at home.

I ambled through the store, somewhat afraid a security person would stop me, as I probably could have been profiled as a shoplifter. I was picking up dozens of items and reading labels, but putting little in my cart.

The other big limiting factor to my trip – other than the lack of preparation – was the damn pantry project I announced last week. While I wanted to stock up on things, I already have quite a stock at home that I should use up. This proved especially tempting at the grind-your-own nut butter station.

Then I stumbled on the Larabar selection. I love Larabars, and I’m lucky that my local Meijer stocks a couple flavors and occasionally puts them on sale. But Whole Foods had several flavors I had never tried – banana bread, carrot cake, ginger snap, PBJ – and they also had the mini versions. I ended up grabbing a box of minis and about 6 or 7 regular size bars, not really violating the pantry project because they go in the cabinet, not the pantry.  (This was a loophole I should have exploited more.)

Then, I rounded the corner and discovered the famous bulk foods aisle, just as I got a tweet from a friend insisting I must visit said aisle. I marveled at the variety – every kind of grain, for dirt cheap? All kinds of granolas and dried fruits? Sign me up! But again, restraint prevailed. I ended up getting a couple pounds of oats, since I was due to make granola bars again, and some cous cous, which I was out of. I also got a bunch of dried figs. If I had regular access, I would definitely take advantage of this aisle.

I was hungry after a day of caffeine and sugar, and the prepared foods area smelled divine. But I hadn’t cooked in a week and craved my own home cooking – and had chicken thawing in the fridge – so I passed by with a wistful sniff. I investigated the cheese section, marveled at the wine and beer, and grabbed the milk (cheap for organic!) and eggs I needed.

Overall, it was a good first trip, and I have a better understanding that may help my project. I will definitely go back, prepared with a list, after pantry project month is over.

I think it might even be worth braving Schaumburg on a Saturday.

While I was wary of the “whole paycheck” moniker, I actually didn’t spend that much, in part due to my restraint. The total damage was only $37, of which about half was Larabars. The rest was spread among milk, eggs, oats, cous cous, figs and a bag of fingerling potatoes that I ended up using for dinner. I’m sure if I had grabbed meat or cheese, that number could have been far higher.

What’s your favorite grocery store? If you go to Whole Foods, what are your must-buys?

The Pantry Project

I’ll admit it: I’m a borderline hoarder when it comes to pantry goods. Taught by my mom, I tend to stock up on things when they’re on sale. That’s all well and good, but six weeks later, when canned tomatoes go on sale again, I buy another five cans to add to the eight I bought last time.

It’s good to be well-supplied, but it’s not like I could ever really get cut off from food supplies. There’s a fully stocked (and freshly renovated) grocery store just a 10 minute walk downhill, and, if things get dire, a gas station on the corner. And besides, it’s just me. Unless we have some sort of nuclear holocaust, I don’t think I’ll need to rely on my pantry to sustain me for weeks on end.

My hoarding impulses used to be kept in check by a lack of space. I lived in a couple apartments that had virtually no kitchen storage whatsoever, and my current kitchen is pretty small. But when I realized that I could turn part of a hallway closet into a pantry, I started moving some canned goods off the cabinets’ bowing shelves.

And here we are, with two big shelves full of canned tomatoes (really, the only veggie that’s ok canned), soups, brown rice, oats, flour, nuts, various dried fruits, soy sauce, coffee, olive oil… you name it, I’ve likely got it.

The packed part of my pantry. This doesn't do justice to the depth of the shelves. The shoe box is full of coffee.

When unloading groceries the other night, I stopped and wondered how much money I have invested in all that food. True, with my eating habits, I spend a lot on fresh produce, dairy, meat, etc… and in the summer, a lot of that never gets reflected in my budget, as it’s cash spent at farmers’ markets.

And then I wondered how long I might be able to go without buying any more pantry staples? Surely a week, but how about a month? I think it’s completely feasible that I could go a month and buy only produce, dairy and meat.

So let’s do it. It’s March 2. Can I go the rest of March without buying any additional pantry goods? Can my grocery trips involve just fresh produce, meat, dairy and household goods? Can I do a little pantry spring cleaning?

My meals may get interesting by the end of the month, but let’s see what happens.

Ritual Caffeine

I keep hearing an ad for 5-Hour Energy that touts the product as a better caffeine-delivery system, without the “making, waiting and hassle” of coffee.

But I rather like that “hassle.”

For years, I didn’t drink coffee. I drank tea. I enjoyed filling the kettle, wandering off for a few minutes, and being summoned back to the kitchen by the high-pitched whistle. Then I measured out my loose leaf tea into the little ball. As I poured hot water into the mug, you would smell a hint of the tea to come, an aroma that grew and blossomed over the next 5 minutes until I was ready to settle in with a mug of warmth.

I started regularly drinking coffee about four years ago when I realized that the occasional latte really helped me focus and power through work, so why not switch to coffee in the mornings? A friend gave me a coffee grinder and a bag of beans and recommended I buy a French press. I was in heaven. I could follow the same ritual – filling the kettle etc – and pour the water over freshly ground coffee. The aroma was heady and intense. Growing up, the smell of coffee meant morning, as it wafted upstairs in the wee hours before I had to get up.

Of course, life has gotten busier, and I welcomed the Keurig single cup brewer I got for Christmas a year ago. It really is much quicker than the kettle/French press method, with less clean up required. I got a refillable k-cup that I can fill with my freshly ground beans.

But on weekends, when I have time, I still fill up the kettle and break out the French press for my favorite cup of coffee of the week.

Since school started, my caffeine consumption has roughly tripled, but I still enjoy the ritual of every cup of tea or coffee. And when I get home from class, late at night, there’s something soothing about starting the water, changing into my pajamas, and curling up on the couch with a mug of mint tea while my brain slows down for the night.

What’s your caffeine ritual?

Feeding the Soul

2010 was the year I really learned to cook. So when the 12/26 prompt asked, “Soul Food: What did you eat this year that you will never forget? What went into your mouth & touched your soul?” several answers popped to mind.

I ate really well this year, better than ever before. There were fantastic meals at great restaurants that I remember fondly, but it was the casual lunch I ate alone in Coronado that is seared into my memory. After a morning of walking along the ocean, barefoot despite the chill (but oh-so-warm for a Chicagoan in February), watching the waves crash into the shore, I put my shoes back on and walked along the quaint little strip of downtown Coronado. I wanted fish tacos, and I wanted to sit outside, since I was returning to a snowy Chicago that evening. I passed a couple places that looked rather touristy and finally settled into Miguel’s Cocina, just off the main drag near the Hotel del Coronado (thanks, Mint.com for helping the memory). It was noon on a Friday, and I was the only one sitting outside – it was “chilly” by San Diego standards so the other patrons were all indoors. The sun felt so good on my winter skin, and I ordered a small pitcher of sangria to go with my tacos. The salsa was mild with just a hint of spice, and the chips were fresh and warm. The tacos were delicious – exactly what I didn’t know I was craving – well seasoned, perfectly portioned. They tasted like summer, as did the sangria. I people watched and planned and thought, and was very sad when I had to leave and grab a cab off the island, especially given that the evening meal was fast food at the airport.

But beyond the restaurant meals, learning how to cook and balance flavors and textures and high-quality ingredients has taught me how to feed the soul on a regular basis. In years past, cooking for myself meant soup and sandwiches and rice-a-roni, with the occasional venture into tacos or chili made from spice-packet recipes. As I’ve branched out, the things I cook now are truly nourishing and help provide some much needed balance and nutrition on busy days. I really look forward to dinner time when I have something good to eat. Looking at cooking as part of the entire eating experience – from planning, experimenting and execution to sitting down at the table with a glass of wine – is so much better than the nuked Trader Joe’s burrito eaten on the couch. It’s creative, and, when done properly, gives me multiple lunches and dinners for days when I don’t have the luxury of time.

How about you? What feeds your soul?

This post is part of #Reverb10, a month-long project to reflect on the year nearly gone. Read all my #Reverb10 posts, or learn more.

Gardening Fail

My first year of vegetable gardening didn’t go quite as planned.

I had lots of early success, but when it came to the fall harvest, I fell sadly short.

So sad... no caprese

I got a handful of tomatoes, but they never got much larger than golf balls. I left them on the vine, hoping they would grow, but most of them shriveled up and died.

I saw four small eggplants, and hoped they would keep growing, but I finally harvested them after the frost and tried to roast them, but they were just too small.

Good thing I wasn't planning on making carrot cake.

Good thing I wasn't planning on making carrot cake.

The carrots? I waited until the tops were 8 inches tall before excitedly pulling them from the ground… and got a handful scrawny little carrot bites.

The beans started off well, but I think I planted them too late, as they like the cooler weather. They wilted and scorched under the July sun.
I had several peppers start, and one got a decent size before falling to the ground, where some animal got to it. (Or perhaps the critter knocked it off the vine? All I know is it was just about ready to pick one day, and on the ground with gnaw marks the next.) But the rest never got very big, despite my waiting. At the end of the season, while removing the last of the tomato cages, I found two decent sized peppers – with gnaw marks. Damn squirrels.

Anything that got much bigger than this got eaten by the local wildlife

The cucumbers and zucchini sprouts did very well on the driveway, but once I transplanted them into the ground, they really didn’t grow much. I had a couple squash blossoms, but no fruit.

Meanwhile, the cherry tomatoes and basil in planters along the driveway did very well, and the zinnias, begonias and nasturtiums out front thrived in their full sunlight.

So what did I do wrong? Plant too late? Reading labels, it sounds like I should have started these plants earlier, like late April or May, especially the cooler weather veggies like beans.

Not enough sun? I watched a couple days, and while the backyard definitely gets far more than the 0 hours of sun it used to, is 4 hours of full sun and another 1-2 of partial sun enough? The tomatoes stretched to reach the sun, but perhaps the lack of solar power stunted their growth.

Do I need to do more than just water and weed? Should I fertilize? Mulch? Use Miracle Gro?

So, gardening friends – help me out. Alternatively – does anyone have a good local CSA they recommend for next season?

Tastes Like Fall

As the days turn colder and darkness creeps in earlier, I’m finding comfort in cooking comfort foods. I’m really starting to enjoy the soothing ritual of taking a pile of fresh ingredients and turning them into dinner (and two or three lunches, and another dinner). Plus, in the hectic whirl of work, classes, neighborhood commitments and more, it’s nice to be able to eat real food, and not live on canned soup, cereal and frozen food.

Here are some of my recent favorites:

Turkey Pumpkin Chili – Is there any better fall food than a simmering pot of chili? I love chili and adore pumpkin, so when I stumbled onto this Whole Foods recipe on Twitter a few weeks ago, I had to try it. And it was divine. The pumpkin added a hint of sweetness and a creamy texture. I cut back on the jalapenos and chili powder, since I don’t like heat, and added more tomatoes instead of the beans. I devoured the results over the following days, and I’m very glad I stashed a couple servings in the freezer.

Pumpkin Cranberry Bread – After I made the chili, I had half a can of pumpkin left, so bread made sense. I’ve been eating more whole grains, so I searched until I found a recipe that didn’t involve  the more exotic flours. Instead of chocolate chips, I spiked my loaf with Craisins. Yum. Although I did learn that I really shouldn’t make bread like this if I’m planning to work from home.

Roasted Chicken, Fennel and Parsnips – I bought parsnips and fennel because they seem like fall vegetables, and I’m trying to branch out. Monday night,  my stomach was growling and I had no dinner ideas, nor a lot of time as I had a paper to finish. I opened the fridge and saw the fennel, parsnips and a random package of chicken thighs. I flipped through my Bittman bible and found a simple recipe that combined the three. Essentially, you thinly slice the fennel and parsnips (I added carrots for some color) and roast them in olive oil at 450 for 10 minutes. Next layer the chicken (with sea salt and ground pepper) over the veggies. Roast everything together for about 30 minutes, periodically spooning the pan juices over the chicken, until the chicken is cooked through. The house smelled fantastic, and this really tasted like fall, with warm, rich flavors. I garnished with fresh parsley and the fronds from the fennel bulbs. I think this would be great with eggplant, too.

Butternut Squash Tacos – This recipe on Jenn’s fantastic blog intrigued me – squash as a basis for tacos? – but I’m so glad I took the plunge. The squash and caramelized onions are just a bit sweet, and the chipotle puree adds definite kick. (Again, I reduced the amount of heat.) And Butera carries several varieties of cotija cheese, which I’m now adding to everything from eggs to chili.

Granola Bars – One of the oddest transitions to school has been figuring out when (and what) to eat so I’m alert during class but not ravenously hungry late at night. In the old days, on a “typical” weekday, I would eat lunch at noon and dinner about 8, with a substantial snack around 3:30 or 4 that fueled my evening workout. But when I have class, I have to eat dinner at 5 – or after class at 9, or not until I get home at 11. Ugh. Enter granola bars. I had always heard they’re not hard to make, so I tried Jenn’s recipe (seriously, her blog will teach you how to cook!). I will never again buy a commercially made version! I used dried cherries, walnuts and almonds in my first iteration, but I will surely try other combinations. These provide just enough fuel so I’m not gnawing my arm off by the time I get home.

I have a whole pile of other things to try. What have you been cooking lately? What tastes most like fall to you?