Monday, November 30, 2009

Reusable and Disposable Meet Halfway

I think the best way to get your coffee to go is in your own thermos. But for the sake of argument, let's say you don't like carrying around a travel mug or don't want the trouble of another dish to wash. So you get your coffee in a paper cup. While the cup is not recyclable (because of the waterproof finish on the inside), that cardboard sleeve around it usually is. And recycling is great, but reusing is even better. After all, we do have to burn fossil fuel to power those recycling plants. Now, you could hold on to the same old cardboard coffee sleeve and keep reusing it, or you could get a stylin' coffee sleeve made of fabric, like these from Caribou:

They're a neat idea for you paper-cup junkies, and they're easier to carry around than a whole thermos. And I got to thinking, you don't even have to buy one: You could just cut a cuff off of a ratty sweatshirt or sweater, and voila! Instant coffee sleeve, if you don't care much about the stylishness. Or maybe the tops of tube socks around coffee cups will be the next fashion trend...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pie Pumpkins Aren't Just for Pies

It’s easy to forget that pumpkin is really just another kind of squash, we’re so used to it being a dessert food—pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin spice latte. But this fall, Len and I have been tasting a full range of rich pumpkin flavors. If you think you don’t like pumpkin, maybe you just don’t like sweet pumpkin things. This seasonal staple tastes quite different under different circumstances, and I encourage you to try some savory recipes before you completely write it off.

Yes, I had the pumpkin latte from Starbucks. We didn’t even wait until Thanksgiving to eat a wonderful pumpkin pie because Len already baked one from scratch. He also made pumpkin bread. And, of course, we carved a jack-o’-lantern for Halloween and toasted its seeds. (And you know we saved some seeds for the garden, but that’s not relevant to food... Yet.) But our first more adventuresome pumpkin dish this fall was a pumpkin and Swiss chard lasagna recipe from I was in love after the first bite. More recently, a friend passed a stuffed pumpkin recipe around the office. Len was skeptical when I first showed it to him, but after tasting it, he has added pumpkin to the grocery list so we can make it again.

Stuffed pumpkin is a centuries-old and easy comfort food. You can make the stuffing very simple with bread and butter, or you can jazz it up with garlic, onions, sausage or fruit. We went simple and got a delicious, soul-warming pumpkin dinner. It could also be a side dish, but it’s heavy, so I would suggest a very simple meat entree.

All you need:
  • A pie pumpkin or any small orange pumpkin (ours was 4 lbs.)
  • A flavorful melting cheese like Gruyere, grated or cut into small chunks (I used a mixture of goat cheese and asiago just because they are what I had in the fridge)
  • Some stale bread, cubed (or some toasted cubes of fresh bread)
  • Cream or evaporated milk (I used about 1 cup for our 4-lb. pumpkin)
  • Seasoning: salt, black pepper, white pepper and nutmeg

Preheat your oven to 375. Cut a lid out of the top of your pumpkin and set it aside. Scrape out the seeds and strings from inside the pumpkin. Lightly season the inside with salt and pepper. Then toss the bread cubes and cheese into the pumpkin in rough layers. Press the layers down a little to really stuff it! In a bowl, gently mix the cream with a little white pepper and nutmeg, then pour it over the bread inside the pumpkin. Set the pumpkin in an oven-safe dish, put its “cap” back on, and bake it for about an hour and a half. The pumpkin will become soft to the touch, and its skin will brown. Take its top off and bake it about 15-20 minutes more, so the cheese inside gets nice and bubbly.

After you remove the pumpkin from the oven, it will keep its heat for awhile, especially if you put its lid back on, so you can serve immediately or let it stand while you finish up any other dishes.

To serve, cut the pumpkin into wedges and serve each wedge scooped with some of the stuffing. The pumpkin’s skin will peel right off. Don’t forget you can eat the cooked flesh on the underside of the lid, too!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Winterizing the Apple Trees

It has been a very busy autumn so far, canning apple butter, freezing pears, sprouting cherry seeds, baking all kinds of goodies, driving through the natural grandeur of northern New Mexico... Plenty of things we haven’t yet taken the time to blog about. We've been percolating blog post ideas, for sure—I've got vertical farms and cat litter (not together) on the brain lately—but tonight, I’m focusing on our apple trees.

Remember the little seedlings we were growing in six-inch clay pots? We've since re-potted them, and here is the largest of the five, standing waist-high in a ten-gallon crock. Another is behind it in the square container. With the onset of colder temperatures and less sunlight, it and the others are losing some leaves, and we will have to protect them from the Chicago winter. Last winter, they were inside the house. They were just babies then, had only been growing since the fall. But now that they have been outside all summer and are getting accustomed to the change in weather, we might actually kill them by bringing them inside. (And I'm not too keen on the idea that they might bring some bugs in with them.) They're big enough to safely go dormant—a healthy thing for a tree to do—but being in the containers instead of in the protection of solid ground, they are vulnerable to frozen roots—a very unhealthy thing. Like, fatal.

So, here's our plan. And, stay tuned for a post in the spring about whether the trees are alive and budding.

The smallest two trees, which are in temporary plastic containers about twice as tall as the six-inch pots and not much bigger around, are staying outside for the winter. The stems, or trunks if you will, are exposed to the elements, but the roots (still in their pots) are safely buried under some nice, insulating mulch. I dug holes for them in the front yard (sunniest and therefore warmest place) against the edge of our porch, behind some bushes, so they are also somewhat shielded from the wind.

The larger three seedlings (or are they saplings by now?) are in larger containers; digging holes big enough to keep them outdoors just isn't practical. These three will stay out on the front porch, adjusting as trees do to the change of season, until they lose all their leaves (meaning they are fully dormant) or temperatures consistently hover around or below freezing (meaning there's a risk their containers could freeze through, killing the roots, so I'm considering them close enough to dormant), whichever happens first. At that point, we will move them into an interior corner of our garage—the idea is to protect them from the wind and the coldest of the cold temps. I have already piled mulch over the dirt in the containers, insulating from the top. But we will also surround each container in layers of slightly crumpled newspaper and an old blanket or two, creating a bundle that will hopefully prevent the soil around the tree's precious roots from freezing all the way through. If we were in a rural or less-packed suburban area, I would just put the trees against a side of the house and pile hay or dead leaves over them as their winter coat. But I think our homeowners' association here would consider that not up to the neighborhood's aesthetic standards. So, newspaper in the garage it is.

You might be thinking that this is an awful lot of trouble for a few little seedlings that won't produce apples for years and even then might produce some weird, inedible variety. Well, maybe it is. But it's a long-term experiment that really doesn't take much of our time or resources, and I'm curious and optimistic. If we grow ourselves an orchard, I'll be sure to invite you all over for picking.

In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed for us, will you?

UPDATE: We have now planted two and are still annually winterizing one of our apple saplings as of Winter 2012-2013! Click here to read a recap of our apple tree experience.