Thursday, January 28, 2021

Butternut-and-Broccoli-Leaf Lasagna


I said in my last post that one of the upsides of receiving a boxful produce in the mail is the challenge to more purposefully work fruits and veggies into your meals. It's an upside if you enjoy looking up new recipes, trying new flavor combinations, and getting creative with substitutions -- which I do.

Getting creative is another valuable tool for not wasting food. What can you make with what you already have on hand, without having to go to the store?

I already had this pumpkin lasagna in my repertoire and, it just so happens, a box of lasagna noodles in my pantry. What came in my Misfits box that is like pumpkin? Like Swiss chard?

Butternut squash and broccoli leaves weren't the only substitutions I made. We didn't have any heavy cream on hand, but I did have two-percent milk and cream cheese. Let's walk through the recipe and see how my riffs panned out. 

While sautéing the onion, I tossed in a paremsan nub. Here, I was riffing on a tip from Lydia Bastianich. On her recommendation (via one of her cookbooks), we keep a zipped baggie of cheese rinds in the fridge. 

While I wasn't making a sauce or broth, I hoped it would still add some depth of flavor. It certainly added that distinct aged-parmigiano aroma to the kitchen.

As mentioned above, instead of chard, I chopped the broccoli greens from Misfits Market and added them to the pan at the appropriate time. The parmesan rind was still in the pan with the onion, greens, and spices, toasting away.

I roasted (technically, steamed) one of my three butternut squashes in the microwave for time's sake. Looking back, I think I should have roasted two of them. The one just barely got me to three loosely filled cups of cooked squash, and, while it was enough to coat the pasta, doubling the squash would have made for thicker, more distinguishably squashy layers in the lasagna.

I let the squash cool and then just used my hands to squish it out of its skin. Where the recipe called for heavy cream, I mixed in milk for the needed liquid and about three ounces of cream cheese for the creaminess. In addition to standard grated parmesan from a plastic canister, I freshly grated what I could from that nub I'd been sautéing with the onions.

When layering everything into the baking dish, I used even more milk than the recipe called for, because the squash didn't cover the noodles like a sauce so much as dress them. I hoped the extra milk would make up for the moisture that would have come from a more uniform spread of squash and fully cook the noodles during the bake. It worked OK. The noodles are on the chewy side, and the corners are crispy, which I kind of like, but it's not the expected cooked-pasta texture.

You can see in the finished product how the lasagna noodles are quite visible beneath that top layer of squash and cheese. 

It turned out delicious. Not as gooey and thick as you'd expect of a lasagna, but that comes down to the amount of squash in the layers and the fact that it doesn't ooze with melted cheese. If you're looking for a new flavor profile in baked pasta, This combination of sweet squash and onions with savory greens and aged cheese with earthy nutmeg and sage is excellent. 

I thought my improvisation made a great side dish, and we had some tomato-basil chicken sausages in the freezer, which went well with it. With a heartier amount of squash -- as I've had when using canned pumpkin and following the original recipe -- it would have worked as an entrée.  

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Reducing waste and trying new things


Fun delivery this week!

2 cucumbers, 6 pears, 2 rutabagas, 1 large turnip, 1 tiny turnip (hidden behind the big one), 2 mangoes, a ton of ginger, 2 big bunches of cilantro, 7 limes, 4 Anaheim peppers, 6 kiwis, 3 buttnernut squashes, 2 bunches of broccoli greens, 4 small sweet potatoes

One of the Christmas gifts we received this year was a gift card to Misfits Market. If you haven't heard of them, their taglines sum it up like this:

    Always affordable, occasionally funny-looking. 
    Always delicious, sometimes normal.

They're describing the organic fruits and vegetables they sell in subscription boxes. It's much like a CSA (community-supported agriculture) box you'd get from a local farm, but the produce is not all local. Gasp! 

Yes, I'd argue the extra shipping is the downside. The produce first came from somewhere and arrived at wherever else before it then traveled again to my house. It has a variable carbon footprint that cannot compete with the farmers market. But, a lot of people are having groceries shipped to their houses these days. You think that case of soda wasn't on three or four different trucks criss-crossing the country before arriving at your doorstep? 

OK. So, if you're having groceries delivered anyway, there are a couple of distinct upsides to a service like Misfits.

  1. The main upside is Misfits Market's main mission -- reducing food waste. These fruits and veggies are called misfits because they're the perfectly good ones that just don't look perfect. They would normally be thrown out just because they don't fit some shape and/or size norm for general grocery display. You're saving good, valuable food from the garbage.
  2. It's certified organic produce at -- I think -- not-necessarily-organic prices. I got their "Madness" box, which they say is a week's worth of produce for 3-5 people. It's 14 types of produce (I actually received 13 in this box), with 2-4 portions per type (not sure if "portions" and "servings" are the same thing, as I received more squash and way more ginger than I expected). With shipping and tax, it cost $41 and some change. I'm just eyeballing here (I didn't think of weighing everything until it was all already separated and put away), but that seems like a reasonable spend for that much produce. 
  3. I'm also pleased that the packaging was primarily all brown paper product -- recyled and recyclable.
The other upsides are not unique to Misfits. It's conveniently delivered. There's an element of surprise. You get to try a variety of foods. It challenges you to more purposefully work fruits and vegetables into your weekly menu. It's fun to get a big box of fruits and vegetables in the mail.

I almost ended this post here, feeling the importance of reducing food waste goes without saying. Then, I thought it about. And thought about it some more. And, I thought, someone may very well read my saying the main upside is reducing food waste, and react with a big, fat—
So, what?

So, according to the USDA, our nation's "food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply." What!?

There's food lost at every link in the food supply chain, whether crops are damaged by insects out in the field or yogurt expires in the back of your fridge. Besides spoilage, market demand is another reason usable food becomes uselessly trashed. Remember the stories in early 2020 about dairy farmers having to dump milk because they couldn't sell it? How about when there's a report of contaminated lettuce? Suddenly, no wants any salad for awhile.

Consumer expectations practically demand waste. If your grocer's produce section isn't burgeoning with gleaming fruits and vegetables, you perceive some lack in quality. Guess what? No one will actually buy all those apples on the bottom of the pile, because they'll have bruised under the weight of their picture-perfect buddies on top. However, I've noticed more grocery displays that are just a single layer of fruit on a slanted or tiered surface to evoke that image of a mountain of food without actually burying any of the product. It's a good trick.

The store will also have received only produce of perfect shape, size, color, because that's what you want to see. Not all of the "irregular" fruits and vegetables are just thrown away. Many of them are made into something else -- chopped and frozen, dehydrated for a soup mix, made into dog food, or cooked into a prepared dish that's sold ready-to-eat (but a lot of that deli potato salad gets tossed, unpurchased and uneaten, at the end of the day, too). This is where services like Misfits Market come in. They're taking the cosmetically imperfect -- but otherwise perfectly safe and delicious -- products and finding a good home (ideally, your stomach) for them. 

As individual consumers, we know we can plan our grocery lists more effectively and actually eat all of our leftovers to help minimize food waste at our end of the chain. But, there's a much bigger picture. I'll leave you with a few resources -- not just on how food is wasted, but what we as an entire population can do about it:

A 2012 report (dated, but thorough and still relevant!) from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #5 - TV and Movie Cakes, Part 3


Did you know? Little kids are into cartoon characters. So, I am again continuing the collection of TV- and movie-themed cakes I've created in recent history... (Parts 1 and 2 here and here, respectively.)

Paw Patrol Cupcakes

We've experienced a variety of birthday celebrations (and non-celebrations) during the pandemic, including this "walk by," front-yard party in May. Everyone got their own individually packaged Paw Patrol cupcake.

The adventure here was more in finding the packaging than it was making the cupcakes. Cake mix, white icing, and two Paw Patrol cupcake decorating kits, (bone-shaped sprinkles!) and... an online order of cupcake boxes that disappeared.

Other searches online brought up containers that didn't seem the right size, or seemed awfully expensive for just a single clamshell, or wouldn't arrive in time, or came in a pack of, like, a thousand.

Ultimately, we went to GFS and bought plastic cups with lids. A little on the tall side, but otherwise perfect cupcake packages. 

Important consideration: Use the lid as the "plate" for the cupcake, and the cup itself as a lid. So, it's upside down, got it? Otherwise, if you drop the cupcake into the cup and use the lid as a lid, the cupcake recipient will have to reach their fingers way down into the cup to pull out the cupcake or otherwise dump it out into their hand frosting-first. 

Another Ninja Turtle Cake

This one was a simple round cake with the face of the birthday boy's favorite turtle, Raphael.

Nothing to it!

Superman-Secret-Batman Cake

You've seen the Batman-Spiderman cake. This was a Superman cake, with a hidden secret Batman symbol inside!

For the Superman icing, I piped a simple outline and then filled everything in using a star tip.

The secret Batman on the inside required much more work behind the scenes. Here's a rundown:

First, bake a chocolate, single-layer sheet cake. I added black food coloring to the chocolate to make it even darker. When the chocolate cake is cool, use a bat cookie cutter to cut out a whole bunch of bats. 

A note: Check the size of your cookie cutter against the pan for the outer cake. For this particular cake, you're going to stand the bats up inside of a round cake pan, so they need to be shorter than sides of the pan, or else you'll have bat ears--if not entire bat heads--sticking up out of the top of your yellow cake.

And, a lesson learned: I mistakenly thought a super-moist chocolate cake would be important for this step, because this chocolate cake will be baked again, and I didn't want it to dry out. However, the moisture that makes a decadent chocolate cake also makes the cake fall apart--not ideal for trying to hold an intricate shape. I had a rough time cutting out the bats and then keeping their bat-shape. A genoise sponge might work better. And, it won't dry out during the second bake, because it's surrounded by more cake batter.

Next, make a "wreath" of bat cut-outs in a circular cake pan. Stand each bat upright, standing on his wingtips, place another one next to him, and so on, making a line of bats that circles back on itself. 

Note: I then did a little extra cutting and smushing to fill in gaps, because, unless your cut-outs are already wedge-shaped so you can put the skinny side toward the center of the circle, there will be a space between each bat around the outer edge of your circle. Gaps are not the end of the world, but the luck of your cake-cutting may reveal a small break in the bat pattern.

Last, pour the yellow cake batter over and around the wreath of bats to fill in the rest of the cake pan. Bake slightly less time then the directions for the size of the pan you're using, because about half of the actual volume of the pan is already baked.

And then, you'll just have to wait until your start cutting it open at the party to see how the secret bats inside turned out!

Another Frozen (movie) Cake

While an ice-cream cake would have rounded out the theme in the best way, this is just an ordinary round cake sitting on top of an ordinary square cake. There were two fun new (to me) cake decorations, though.

We found pre-printed sugar sheets at a party store (the image of the movie characters as well as the snowflakes on the bottom tier). It's a lot like prepared fondant. Smooth some buttercream on your cake and place the sugar sheet on top. Fold, wrap, smooth, trim it however you need. It's an excellent shortcut to mimic the cake-printing a bakery can do for you.

And, sugar glass. Rock candy in sheet form. You can find many recipes and instructions out there, and they typically involve white sugar plus corn syrup, water, cream of tartar, and, of course, food coloring if you want. We made some blue and some clear.

After boiling your ingredients, pour the molten sugar into a lightly greased sheet pan and let it cool and harden. Then, pick up the pan and drop it on the counter to shatter. Fun.

Note: Humidity is the enemy of your sugar glass. A hot and humid kitchen will cause the candy to sweat. If you're sticking the shards of sugar glass into the cake like we did in reference to Elsa's castle, do it as near to presentation/serving time as you can, because the moisture from the cake itself will begin to soften the glass. 

Multi-Hero Cake

Six superheroes are represented on this rectangular cake, thanks to some card-stock stencils my sister made on her Cricut.

Maybe you don't need stencils. Maybe you can draw these superhero icons freehand. I didn't trust my own precision. If I remember right, I piped only the spiderweb and the lightning bolt freehand.

We applied the icing as though we were screen-printing, one layer of color at a time, letting it "dry" before applying the next layer so the colors wouldn't bleed together. First, we made the six solid-color squares and then chilled the cake in the fridge for a few minutes or more, however long needed so the buttercream "crusted," or solidified a bit. Do a touch test. Can you gently poke a dent in the buttercream without it sticking to your finger?

Using Iron Man as an example, we lay the stencil of Iron Man's helmet on the yellow square and gently dabbed and spread in the red portions. Then, we carefully lifted the stencil straight up off of the cake and put the cake back in the fridge so the red icing can harden. The next step was laying the stencil back on, lining it up with the red sections already in place, and then dabbing and spreading in the white piece. Ta-da! 

We did something to each square each time the cake came out of the fridge. It was not necessarily the same color being applied to every square, but rather working in whatever layers made sense for that particular image. Example: At the same stage we stenciled in Iron Man's red outline, we made the outer red ring of Captain America's shield and the red portions of Superman's S. But, we also made the yellow oval for Batman's symbol, the white circle for the Flash, and the black spiderweb for Spiderman.

Then, to finish and cover up the borders between each square, I piped a flat gray ribbon and added rivets for a cool, welded metal thing.

Oh! I almost forgot. And a red fruit roll-up cascading off the corner for Superman's cape. Now, ta-da!


Thursday, January 7, 2021

Homegrown, home-roasted sunflower seeds


 One of my favorite things to do in our 2020 summer garden was to stand face to face with our sunflowers and watch the bees work on them. There were frequently large bumble bees but also several smaller types of bees, all of them busily focused on their tasks, not minding if I leaned in close to get a better look at the packs of pollen bulking up their little bee hips.

And now, we are enjoying the fruits of those bees' labor. Sunflower seeds!

With daily vigilance this past fall, I checked the drooping sunflower heads for signs the seeds were mature. For example, on the mammoth sunflowers, the seeds start out white, but then the telltale gray stripes appear as they ripen. Another sign that the seeds are ready? The squirrels and birds start going after them. 

The critters got most of our sunflower seeds (in fact, I watched a squirrel drag a whole sunflower stalk up a tree), but I did manage to save three of the mammoth sunflower heads and a couple from the smaller varieties, whose seeds I'm saving to replant next year. So, when the flower heads had drooped, the outer petals had wilted and fallen off, the calyx (the back of the flower) had begun to dry out, and the seeds looked ripe, I cut off the flower heads along with a handful's length of stem.

The next step was to rub away the remaining tiny petals that covered the seeds. This is easily done with your thumbs, and your hands will smell like flowers afterward. But, careful! There are also some prickly parts of the sunflower -- especially along the stem. I had a few spiny splinter-things to pull from my fingers later.

Then, I put my flower heads in a large paper grocery bag, which I hung from the basement ceiling, where they could finish drying out in a cool, dry, dark place away from dust and (eek!) mice. And there, I let them dry out for... a couple of months! Because I just left them there until we finally got around to dealing with them.

In late December, I finally harvested the seeds. That meant more thumb-rubbing to loosen the seeds from the flower head. I'm saving some seeds for planting next spring. Those went straight from the flower into an envelope. Most of the mammoth seeds we roasted to eat.

This is my first time harvesting and roasting homegrown sunflower seeds, so I Googled around. The method I tried called for soaking the seeds in salted water overnight, letting them air dry, and then roasting them at 300 degrees for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Easy. Except... 

What do I do with all this extra chaff that came out with the seeds? Is there an easier way to get rid of this stuff than hand-picking every little speck? 

First, I tried putting the seeds 'n' stuff through a salad spinner. No go. Only the smallest bits of chaff came out, and so did some of the seeds. There is, however, a simple, easy way to separate the seeds from the chaff, and it's been done since the begining of humans' harvesting things.

You spread the seeds and junk out on a cookie sheet, shake it around, and blow on it. Lightly, now. It's easy enough to blow the seeds right off of the tray, too, so the trick is to whiff away the chaff but make sure the slightly heavier seeds stay put. You can also set up a fan to blow the air for you. You'll have to give the tray a few more shakes, blow again, shake again, blow again. Ever so lightly.

It works pretty well. Oh, and makes a giant mess. Do this outside or over a really big sink.

The end result? Tasty.