Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

Archive for the 'Challenges and Contests' Category

Agave-Sweetened Spiced Pumpkin Cake

The trees are heavy with apples, the raspberry canes are fading, and the fragrant bushes of basil we enjoyed all summer were sacrificed to the first frosts this past week.

Despite the summery temperatures of the last couple days here in Wisconsin, autumn has arrived. Even though it’s sunny out, the light has a different quality to it. Filtered through leaves of gold and rust, it’s thinner, paler.

It’s the time of year when steaming bowls of soup seem perfect, and the smell of fresh bread and cinnamon warms you far beyond the ability that another sweater possesses. It’s the time of year when the folks in our household start craving baked squashes and the rich texture of pumpkin in casseroles, risotto, muffins, and cakes. As the sunlight grows loses its muscle and the days shorter, the golden and orange colors grow more and more appealing. Our household is no exception. Specifically, I have been given orders from mum to get going on the pumpkin goods and to keep ‘em coming until I hear otherwise. Based on last year, I might hear otherwise sometime in April.

And I might not.

My mom has diabetes, so finding a way to create pumpkin baked goods that actually taste amazing without causing a crazy blood sugar spike has involved some trial and error. At this point, we have a couple keepers: spiced pumpkin cake and mom’s own agave-sweetened pumpkin pie. Both of them use raw agave nectar instead of sugar. I’ll get to the recipe for this pumpkin cake in a moment, but I figure some of you might like some background on agave nectar first.

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Deconstructing the Dark Days Challenge

Okay, so Dark Days been my Sunday post since Thanksgiving…but what the heck was it?

Well,  I first heard about the challenge accidentally—a friend of a friend mentioned it on her blog, and I decided to check it out over at Urban Hennery.

The task: cook at least one 90+% locally-grown meal a week from November through March.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard someone snark that local is the new organic.  First, let me say this: your food consumption should not be determined by fads.  For the love of all that’s holy, eat healthy food you like that doesn’t have huge collateral costs (environmental, human/labor, whatever) and hang the fads!  (Related: the next foodie that tells me that chipotle is “soooo over” is liable to get a chipotle stuffed up said foodie’s nose.)   Secondly, I believe in promoting local agriculture, like many of my readers probably do.  If you want to know what exactly that means to me, read on.

I was drawn to the challenge because it seemed like a good way to connect with some like-minded people.  Besides that, the bar was set achievably low.  Just one local meal a week?  Ha!  A cinch, I thought.  I was all over this one, not least because November through March aren’t terrible growing months for us in a lot of Arizona.  You want harsh?  Talk to me in July and August when it’s 115 and higher for weeks on end here in Phoenix. That’s when the pickins get slim.  I was in, even though I knew I had an unfair advantage thanks to my geographic location.

Yes, I was cocky going into the challenge.  However, sitting here on the other side of it, I sure can tell you a few things.

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The End of the Darkest Days: Breakfast Tacos

Belatedly, due to the constant rush around here these days, I present our featured Dark Days dish: breakfast tacos.

Oh, wait.  Those are kumquats.  We had some of those for breakfast, too.  Seeing as how this was the last day of the Dark Days 08-09 Challenge, we decided to hit the nearby Sunday farmers’ market and see what goodies were for grabs.  I couldn’t pass up these beautiful, sweet, tangy little citrus fruits.  Nor could I stop eating them.  A day later, they were all gone.  As was the bag of blood oranges, which we turned into a delicious and dramatically-hued juice.  But anyway—breakfast tacos.  I know I have that picture here somewhere…  Ah-ha!

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Dark Days Challenge: Fresh-Baked Bread

Last week, we were fortunate enough to get more wheat berries at our CSA pickup.  As you can see in the photo, we get two different varieties mixed together.  I haven’t the foggiest idea what specific types they are, but I decided to try a bit of alchemy and see if they could be made into a loaf of bread for this week’s Dark Days Challenge meal.

As you can see, the first essential step is separating bits of chaff and plant matter from the wheat berries, since we get little baggies of wheat that’s a bit rough around the edges.  It’s a pretty fast sort on a countertop.  Once everything was sorted, I put the wheat in my mighty Vitamix blender.  Using the dry blade, I ground it into flour in about a minute.  (I love me some Vitamix.)  After digging up a new recipe in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible, I was ready to go.

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Dark Days Challenge: Perfect Pinto Beans

One of the most essential skills for anyone interested in making a delicious, low-cost meal is knowing how to make a tasty pot of beans.  Since I’ve decided to focus on basics here for a while, that means I’m about to tell you everything I know about them thar legumes.  Pull up a chair, people.  Get comfy.  Grab some guacamole.

This week for the Dark Days of Winter Challenge, the Unicyclist and I decided on tacos.  We’d scored local pinto beans through our CSA as well as at the Guadalupe Farmers’ Market, and we do so love a good taco.  Typically, we build ours with soft corn tortillas, black or pinto beans, salsa, guacamole, and a hearty handful of lettuce or spring greens.  I’ll give you the Unicyclist’s guacamole recipe later this week (your knees will melt), but let’s stick with the beans for now, ¿qué no?

I learned how to make a good pot of beans from one Afra Llamas, a woman with whom I worked for several years.  She was newly a U.S. citizen, originally from Mexico, and, baby, could that woman cook.  Silky arroz con leche, salsa so fresh and delicious that people would smuggle it out of parties in disposable cups, and pinto beans cooked to perfection.  I’d fussed and bothered over making good beans for quite some time, adding and removing onion, peppers, garlic, cumin, and all sorts of other goodies in order to make something drool-worthy.  Finally, in a stroke of inspiration triggered by a morning potluck catered by Afra Llamas, I had the brilliant idea of just asking her.  It turns out that making perfect beans is less about ingredients than it is about technique.  Remember that, people.  Play with the ingredients if you want, but if you fuss with the technique, I make no promises.
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Dark Days Challenge Week 13: As Local As It Gets

I wish I had some tantalizing pictures and wonderful recipes for this week’s Dark Days Challenge, but the truth is that it’s been a bit busy this week.  As a result, we wound up keeping it as local as it gets: we ate a lot of leftovers.  Black bean enchiladas from last week, black bean soup from the extra beans I made, several salads from our leftover CSA greens, an omelette to use up leftover greens…you get the idea.  Tasty, filling, but not very exciting.  Perhaps next week?

In the meantime, stay tuned for a continuation of out interview with Mangochild, as well as some more garden photos.


Dark Days Challenge, Starring Orange Cauliflower

The Unicyclist and I didn’t get much in the way of fresh produce last week from our CSA share with Crooked Sky Farms.  The farm is not to blame, however.  The Unicyclist was on veggie pickup duty, and he managed to barter and swap our citrus and one set of greens for an important storage items for us: wheat berries!  The Unicyclist knows what’s up, which is why we now have three small baggies of wheat berries to make into flour and expand our local cooking possibilities.

I love the Unicyclist.  Not just for his bartering skillz, but those don’t hurt.

In any case, since he managed to barter some of our fresher goods for other people’s wheat berries, we decided we’d better make a stop by Crooked Sky’s booth at the Ahwatukee farmers’ market this morning to ensure we’d have enough produce to see us through until the coming Thursday.  I am awfully glad we went, because that’s where we discovered this beauty.

That, gentle readers, is Orange Cauliflower.

(I thought it merited the caps.  Don’t you?)

Isn’t it stunning?  Apparently, commercial Orange Cauliflower is a hybrid between a non-engineered mutant orange cauliflower and the standard whites.  It’s also a bit sweeter, a lot higher in beta carotene, and much more striking than its pallid (but also delicious) cousin.

I had to have it.

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Look, Ma! I’m Learning Something!

Hopefully, I’ll do a real post later today.  I have several in the queue waiting to get written: peanut butter updates, the scoop on carrageenan, an interview, and another surprise post that I just haven’t managed to get to.  Thar’s doggies to civilize ’round these parts, food to cook, errands to run, birthdays to celebrate, work to do, and homework to be done.  Ergo, blogging is sparse.

Which is why, in the meantime, I’m letting you have a gander at the homework I just finished for the Photoshop class I’m taking.

So here’s a task for all my faithful readers.  Can you, in the comments below, identify AT LEAST four plants pictured here (in whole or in part) that can serve as food sources in dry climates?  DJ Kimmus is disqualified from this game, as she has an unfair advantage, but everyone else, give it a shot! (I’ll let you play once everyone else has had a fair shot, Miz Kim.  I promise.)


Easier than You Thought: Almond Milk

As I’ve pointed out before, processed and prepackaged foods usually have something in them you’d prefer not to be eating.  In the case of many non-dairy “milks” such as soy, rice, or almond milk, that’s the seaweed-derived thickener carrageenen.  Carrageenen is interesting enough to me that I’ll devote an entire post to it in the near future so you can revel in all the gory details, but for the moment I’ll just say that I have not been favorably impressed with the results of the research on carrageenen.  Because our household attempts to keep dairy consumption as a pretty small part of our diet, that meant that I took some time last weekend to whip up some homemade almond milk.  It’s surprisingly simple, and it does have some side benefits beyond carrageenan avoidance, as you’ll see at the end of the post.

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Dark Days Challenge Recipe: Sunchoke and Mesquite-Candied Squash Salad

Laura over at Urban Hennery decided to make this week a theme week in the ongoing Dark Days of Winter local eating challenge.  Specifically, she told us all to seek out some type of local produce we had either never cooked or never eaten before, figure out what we were going to do with it, cook it up all proper-like, and devour.

I was a little nervous about the challenge.  See, as members of a CSA, farmers’ market fiends, and foragers, the Unicyclist and I have eaten dandelion greens, rapini, turnips and turnip greens, squashes of all shapes and sizes, purple spinach, purple potatoes, golden beets, watermelon radishes, cactus fruit, cactus pads, mesquite pods, daikon, burdock, zucchini flowers, pansies, purple beans, teparies, tat soi, I’itois onions, bok choy, kohlrabi, and a whooooole lot more.  Frankly, although there are probably edible things growing in the Phoenix area that we haven’t yet eaten, finding them might prove to be quite a task.

Fortunately, the fates smiled on us in our CSA share this week, and we got a tiny basket of sunchokes from the farm. While I’ve eaten sunchokes before, the Unicyclist hasn’t.  Best of all, neither of us had cooked them before. Serendipitous much?  I apparently have some good karma stockpiled somewhere.  I just hope I don’t use it all up on produce.

Anywho, I’m sure at least some of you are wondering what the heck a sunchoke is.

Those are sunchokes.

For starters, they’re dirty.

And knobbly.

And just plain weird-looking.

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