Thursday, April 30, 2009

Oodles of Green...Noodles!

So, I gave you a peek of the sausage tradition in Len's family, and Len posted his latest bread recipe. Now here's some good food from my side of the family.

My mom and my sister made spinach lasagna noodles (and then later the whole dish, of course)from scratch.

There's my sis spreading the sheets of rolled-out dough:
If you like to play with your food, homemade pasta is for you. It's very hands-on. My great grandma was Italian, and she used to tell me that she could never roll her ravioli dough as thin as her mom could (isn't that always the case?). I've tried rolling pasta dough with just a rolling pin. It's much easier with a manual pasta maker, which has a knob to adjust how close together the rollers are, so you can keep feeding the dough through, rolling it thinner and thinner.
The dough is basically eggs and flour. So far, I've only used all-purpose flour, but many recipes call for semolina, and now that we have some in the house (see Len's aforementioned bread recipe), I'm going to try it to see the difference. I'll keep you posted, so to speak.
For the spinach pasta dough, Mom and Sis cooked, drained and pureed some spinach and incorporated it into the dough. Voila! Green noodles.
To cut out the individual lasagna noodles from the thin sheets, they used a special pasta cutter (think pizza wheel meets pinking shears).
The result:

Another great thing about fresh, homemade pasta is that it needs less time to boil than dried pasta. Yes, that benefit is countered by the time it takes to mix, roll and cut the dough, but those steps really are easy and don't take very long (if you make pasta a lot, you could probably do it in the time it takes a large pot of water to boil). Besides—and here's the whole point—it's fun!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Adventures in Edible Gardening

It's chilly and rainy again. (I told you these Chicago winters were everlasting.) I'm itching to get my veggie seedlings in the ground—if it ever gets warm enough! I love having fresh produce in the yard. It's satisfying, it's cheap, and it makes healthful eating easier. I like to start my plants from seed when possible, so to get a jump on a short growing season, I start most of the seeds indoors in mid to late March. I'm still learning how to time things right.

This year, I'm embarking on a bigger gardening adventure than usual. It will be interesting to see how we get all this food to grow in our yard; you'll see why a in a little bit. Here's what we have going for Growing Season 2009:

Started from Seed Indoors
Cucumbers (small seedlings)
Pumpkins (lots of large gangly seedlings)
Cherry Tomatoes (teensy seedlings)
Yellow Pear Tomatoes (barely sprouted)
Bell Peppers (thought I saw a sprout... maybe not)
Chives (nothing yet; didn't sprout well last year either)
Cilantro (barely sprouted)
Sweet Basil (barely sprouted)
Flat-Leaf Parsley (barely sprouted)
JalapeƱos (nothing yet; seeds may be too old)
Marigolds (nothing yet; seeds may be too old)
Green Chilies from New Mexico (nothing yet, etc.)
Green Beans (nothing yet, etc.)

Sowed Directly Outdoors
Snow Peas (in a container; tall seedlings)
Butternut Squash (in starter cups; nothing yet)
Buttercrunch Lettuce (in a container)*
Romaine Lettuce (in a container)*
Chinese Cabbage (in a container)*
Spinach (in a container)*

*Of these four lettuces, I think three types have sprouted, maybe all four. But I can't remember which seeds I put in which section of the rectangular wooden box, and they're all too small to identify right now.

Already Growing Outdoors
Shallots (planted the heads last fall; "green onions" tall already)
Raspberries (planted the bush last fall; new leaves are out)
Grapes (planted the vine last fall; new leaf buds visible)
Strawberries (also harvested last summer; a few new flowers out)

We are going to cram all of these tasty things into our tiny, north-facing backyard that is approximately 25' x 10'. Or we hope to, anyway. (There may also be the option of a plot in a neighborhood garden, but that's another story.) A few things are going into containers on or near the front porch, which faces north and is sunny all the time. The strawberries and grapevine are pretty unobtrusive in the ground right against the porch, and Len found a pair of wooden barrels that nicely flank our little sidewalk—I'll put the tomatoes in those. And I'm experimenting with hanging baskets on the front porch for the snow peas. Since they like to climb, I will try to train them to drape from one basket to the next. It might look pretty.

But there's hardly room for everything in front (the front yard itself is pretty much a row of bushes and a strip of grass that I'm sure our homeowners association wants to look pristine). In back, only a strip of ground closest to the alley gets sun almost all day in the summer; that is where we have dug out a rectangle in the ground and also placed the rectangular wooden box I mentioned earlier. The rest of the yard only gets full sun for a few hours at midday, and most edible things don't thrive in that much shade. So, we're planning to squeeze things in here and there. For example, the raspberries and shallots are in the sunniest part of the shady part of the yard (does that make sense?) and doing OK so far.

I'm trying to think three dimensionally to make the best use of all the space around us, not just the space on the ground. We'll see how it goes.

At any rate, I'm already tired of nursing these seedlings and can't wait to put them outside for good. At this point, they've experienced some of the nicer days outside on the porch but have to come back inside for the damp, chilly nights.

Wish me luck, and check back later for the next installment of Adventures in Edible Gardening.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Eighty Pounds of Tradition: A Sausage-Making Adventure


Yes, this is the Polish sausage. I could tell you the recipe, but then I'd have to kill you, if my in-laws didn't kill me first. It's a generations-old family secret. We still use Len's grandpa's handwritten recipe, along with his old measuring spoons and the same plastic mixing tubs that Len's dad, aunts and uncle remember from their days as little helpers on annual Sausage Day. The past three years, Len and his brother have taken over their dad's and uncle's jobs of mixing and stuffing (under the close supervision of my father-in-law, of course). I've had the privelege of helping my mother-in-law by measuring the spices, rinsing the casings, and tying off the ends.

I can't share the recipe,
but maybe you can
figure out the spices in
this picture.

Do the seasonings make
it Polish, or is it the
hands that mix it?

The homemade Polish sausage is a staple of Len's family's Easter dinner, but since we only make it once a year, we make so much more than just a holiday's worth; we make enough to have hearty Polish dinners year round. Eighty pounds to divide among us, this year. Open our deep freezer now, and you'll get a blast of frozen garlic breath. Oops! Just gave away one of the major ingredients. Well, that wasn't a hard one to guess. If there's anything in this sausage, there's garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. And maybe some of my brother-in-law's wrist hair (see photo above). Mmm.

Boil, then brown.

A tasty end result.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Everything's Greener

Oh, today is a beautiful day! I'm wearing my most comfortable, light-weight capri pants and one of my favorite T-shirts, the windows are open... Ahh.

It's mostly cloudy here, but the air is warmer than it has been in years (really, about six months, but Chicago's winters seem infinite) and is, in my opinion, very comfortably humid. When the weather warms up, everything's greener. Well duh, you think, but I don't mean just the buds on the trees and the grass in the backyard (which actually looks mostly dead again!). We are greener, too.

Today we ran our first bicycle errand of the season, and man, it felt good. The gentle hills on the way home were a tad challenging, once our baskets, backpack and the Croozer were loaded with groceries, but I was pleased to find out that I'm not entirely out of shape. And it's nice not to have to rely on the car for little trips like this. In fact, biking to the store is my favorite way to multitask: Running an errand, working out, enjoying this perfect weather and being green. When it's cold outside, we can only run errands. In the car. Pbth. When it's pleasant out, the vegetable garden gets going, I stir the compost pile more often, we walk or bike most places instead of driving, Len completes a bunch of household projects (little improvements, often repairing or making new use of things that would otherwise be trash), we shut off the furnace! It's green, it's great.

So why am I inside, blogging, when it's so nice outside? Just to share one of our small, everyday adventures. Oh, and to drop a reminder: Earth Day is this Wednesday, April 22! This year, try to reduce your impact on the environment by doing something you don't normally do. That could mean not doing something, like driving unnecessarily.

As the plants outside find it easier to turn green with the warm weather, I hope you do, too.