Sunday, May 31, 2015

They Are Hungry

This morning I went out to check on the hive.  I had thought that the amount of food I put out yesterday would last them for a few days.  NOPE.  It was all gone.  I needed to refill it.

The video I watched suggested using a turkey baster to refill the feeding dish.  I didn't have that, so I used a condiment squeeze bottle.  I got all dolled up in my gear and opened the hive.  They were definitely more active, maybe even a little agitated, by me moving things around.  But as soon as I got the honey water in there, they started eating.  I did not even try to check on the queen, there was a large clump of bees around her cage so I am guessing she's still in there.  I did see a bee working on the little candy plug in her cage.

What I don't know is, how long until they are able to forage for their own food?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Welcome to Bee Guardianship

For the past few years, I've had it in my head that I wanted to try to have a beehive. Execution of this plan, however, took research, time, and a few resources that I had to procure. It started with the addition of a small piece of land next to our own, with the intention that it would stay wild and undeveloped. While small, it was just enough to protect us from some nearby construction and seemed a perfect spot for a hive. That happened last summer. I expected that I would buy the hive this year, let the construction finish, order the bees in the fall and get them next spring. It didn't seem like this was a thing that could be rushed. In the meantime, I learned about holistic beekeeping. I found a company out in Colorado and purchased a top bar hive. I did a lot of reading, and watching videos. On a whim, about a month ago, I checked out the site of a place in Maine that sells bees, thinking it was too late to get them for this year.

It wasn't.

All of the sudden, my plan spun into motion much faster than anticipated. I bought the bees. Gathered up supplies:  bee veil, hat, overalls, gloves, alcohol in a spray bottle (in case of stings), and local raw honey to use as their food until they could get started. I met some lovely people, including the president of the Boston Area Beekeepers Association, who pointed me to their website, meetup, and a host of other resources. The bee community is large and devoted. And willing to share their knowledge with newbies like me.

Today was bee pick up day. I drove 2.5 hours to Farmingdale, Maine. Picked up my box of bees:  3 pounds plus a queen. Drove 2.5 hours home. Got changed into my bee gear and got to work.

Having read a lot of different literature on holistic beekeeping, I combined a few methods I thought would work best for me. For food, I used local honey diluted with warm water, and put it in a tupperware dish with some twigs in it, so the bees had something to perch on. I will need to feed them until they make food for themselves. From Gold Star, I had purchased a starter kit:  a small piece of old honeycomb and a little lemongrass oil on a cotton ball. This oil was rubbed inside the hive. The honeycomb was wired to one of the top bars. It broke off twice. By the time it broke off the second time, I was already in my gear and the bees were out and about, so it was a lot harder to reattach it. But I managed. Then I put the queen, in her cage, in the hive by attaching the cage to the same top bar that has the old honeycomb. This was placed next to the false back, to encourage the bees to start their brood comb in the front half of the hive. In a few days, I will go and move the false back to the back and, if she hasn't already gotten out, release the queen. When it was time to get the rest of the bees in, I gave their box a hard thump to get them to clump together and dumped them into the hive.
Let me just say:  3 pounds of bees is A LOT of bees. It's intimidating to see how many there are. They were all flying around my head, but didn't seem bothered by me in the slightest. In fact, my sleeve had slipped and I had a little skin exposed, they didn't come anywhere near. I did not get stung. Even when I went back, without any protective equipment, to watch them for a bit, they basically left me alone. One landed on my arm, walked around on me a bit, and flew away when I brushed it gently off. I didn't panic, and neither did the bees. Things may be different when they have a hive to protect but, for now, I'm pretty pleased with my progress. I am now a Bee Guardian.
For the record, I have named the queen bee "Beatrix." I could make bee-related puns all day. I promise, though, that will be the only one.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Duck Liver Pate and Other Flavors

The pate held its form better than I thought it would!
Every once in a while, dinner consists of pate, cheeses, and sometimes charcuterie, with bread and fruit.  Today I made a duck liver pate using this recipe.  In the freezer were all the duck livers (and one chicken liver) from all those ducks we roasted back in March.  I had enough to multiply the recipe by 9 - so that meant 27 oz. of liver, 1.5 cups of shallots, 9 cloves of garlic, and so forth.  I used the Cuisinart to puree it all after it was cooked, and put it all into a loaf pan.  I ended up with a large brick of pate, cut it into 4 equal pieces, wrapped three of them in waxed paper and saran and froze them.  If they're terrible when they are thawed, then I haven't really lost anything.

Spruce puree on duck liver pate. Mmm.
The pate (that wasn't frozen) was terrific and paired well with the spruce puree.  Tonight's cheese selection was an 8 month Manchego served with guava paste (instead of quince), Robiola Due Latte, and a small fresh brie accompanied by local honey.  The honey was a gift from someone I met at the hospital (if you're reading this, know that it went perfectly with the fresh brie, thank you!).

Also, I made another batch of yogurt last night (so the tally so far is 3 batches from one starter culture) but it was a whole gallon of milk to start with so it'll be a while before I make more, I think.  Unless we suddenly eat a whole lot of yogurt.  I will, however, marinate some chicken in the yogurt tomorrow as the 10 year old loves this recipe and has been asking for it.  Anything to improve that one's protein intake!  Speaking of chicken, the other day I made this recipe for chicken satay and it was AMAZING.  We also marinated some beef in the same marinade, also amazing.  The peanut sauce was perfect.  Another win in the ongoing battle to improve the breadth of the 10 year old's diet.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Whole Bottle

One of the nurses at work, after hearing about my culinary exploits, brought in a bottle of champagne for me to make into vinegar.  She said she'd never drink it and was glad to see it get put to good use.  It was in her locker, and she asked me to get it before the end of the day, so it wouldn't be left there.  That would just be weird, right?  I said I would and...

promptly forgot.  Of course I did!

I remembered after I got home, and called her to apologize.  She put the bottle in the desk drawer under my computer and, after 2 days, it was there when I got back to work yesterday.  Thank you!

When I got it home, I poured the whole bottle of champagne into a half-gallon jar and added about 3/4 cup of that cider vinegar with the vinegar mother in it.  I topped it with cheesecloth and it's resting on the counter for the next month or so.  Since it loses about half its volume in the process (evaporation, I suppose) I should end up with about a pint of vinegar.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Now We're Getting Fancy

As I said yesterday, I've been playing around with spruce tips because of this blog: Forager|Chef.  You should really check it out!  Anyhow, today I was able to make the spruce tip ice cream I'd hoped to make.  The instructions are on his blog but, essentially, you make an ice cream base, cool it to room temperature (which took half the morning), blend in the spruce tips and then filter the whole thing to get the little pieces of spruce needle out.  This mixture then goes into the ice cream maker.  I set my ice cream maker to soft-serve and it ran for about 25 minutes.  At that point it was the correct texture and I put it into the freezer to set up some more.

The next thing I did was make a rhubarb crisp, as that is the recommended pairing with the spruce ice cream.  I baked it this afternoon and, after we made dinner, I put it into the warm oven to reheat.  When dessert came around, I scooped the spruce ice cream on top.

It's a complex collection of flavors:  the tart rhubarb, the sweet crisp topping, and the floral-earthy ice cream.  The ice cream is more "spruce-y" than the sauce I made yesterday, but that was OK because the rhubarb crisp was a stronger flavor as well.  The 10 year old was not a fan - although I think more turned off by the rhubarb than anything else.

Now I have a tub of spruce ice cream in the freezer, just waiting to garnish some other tart thing.  Looks like there will be more experimentation in the future!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Walleye with Spring Flavors

So, I've been following this blog for a while:  Forager|Chef.  He's got a nice combination of really beautiful photos, tasty recipes, and foraging tips and I enjoy reading his posts.  Many of the recipes inspire me.  A while back he posted about spruce tips - both as an ingredient in savory dishes and as an ice cream.  The blue spruce in front of my house is covered with new growth so I harvested about a cup of the tips and used half to make a spruce tip puree.  I cut the recipe in half and, even with that, I froze half of the puree since I knew I wouldn't use it up all that quickly.  He said in his blog that spruce goes particularly well with spring flavors.  I came up with a combination that worked very, very well.

We still have several packages of that walleye we caught last summer on Lake Erie, so I thawed one of those.  I also had a bunch of fiddleheads, courtesy of Whole Foods, and some farro.  I went out into the yard and pulled up some field garlic.  Then I set to work:

The fish was baked with just some pepper and an herb mix, 15 minutes at 425 degrees.  While that was cooking, I was simmering the farro with chicken stock.  And warming up a cup of heavy cream with 3 T. spruce puree.  And sautéing field garlic bulbs in butter with the fiddleheads, which had been blanched first.  I also reserved the green parts of the field garlic for a garnish, whole and chopped.

What I discovered is that the fiddleheads were cooked so amazingly well, and they were the anchor of the dish - they held onto the spruce-cream sauce and tied the whole combination of tastes together.  The farro, which I hadn't really intended to mix with the sauce, was nothing without the sauce.  The spruce flavor was subtle but lovely.  I would consider thinly slicing the field garlic bulbs as they were a little bitter when left whole.

Next up, I plan to make that ice cream!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Another Nettle Adventure

One of the recipes which really uses nettles well is this risotto from Hank Shaw.  Every time I've made it, I do something different.  Risotto is very flexible and tolerates variation well.  Sometimes I add mushrooms, sometimes I use different greens.  But, in general, I follow the core of the recipe and it comes out terrific, every time.

I'd blanched all those nettles the other day and set a bunch aside to make a risotto.  The original plan was to make it Thursday night, but I got home late and was tired.  Then, last night, I got home even later, so we ate out instead.  Tonight, I was able to carve out enough time to make dinner and finally got to make this.

Following the general recipe, here are today's changes:  I added sliced shiitake mushrooms when I sauteed the shallots and I used a total of 2 pints of vegetable stock and one pint of duck stock.  I think the duck stock really enhanced the flavor!  Paired with some steak and broccolini, it was just right.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Return to Nettle Wednesdays

Around the stables, the spring greens became abundant in the last week or so.  As I walked around today, I saw curly dock, dandelions, Japanese knotweed, wintercress, oregano, garlic mustard, and a few other greens I probably should be able to identify. Most of the greens had already flowered, making them bitter. But, today, I only had eyes for the nettles.

This week they were easy to find.  Tucked in the back, near the stream, mixed in with an awful lot of garlic mustard. They'd grown fairly high, so I only took the tips. When I was done snipping, I had a full grocery bagful. I thought maybe it was enough for 2 projects but it turns out I can get 3 separate meals out of them.  Likely by next week the plants will be too far gone until the fall, so I'm making full use of what I picked!

Tonight's dinner was sausage ravioli with a nettle and mascarpone sauce. I'd made this before, with spaghetti, but I much preferred tonight's version. Garlic and shallots were sautéed in butter and olive oil, then I added about half a cup of milk, 8 oz. of mascarpone cheese, blanched nettles, salt, pepper, nutmeg, quartered Campari tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. When the ravioli were ready the sauce was spooned over each serving. The dish was finished with a little more freshly ground nutmeg. The nettles went very well with the sausage and the whole thing just looked pretty.

Tomorrow I plan to make a risotto. The third portion will likely be used to make some pasta, so for now it's in the freezer.

Another Bartering Opportunity

A few months ago, I started a new job.  The really cool thing is that I work with newborn babies and their happy families.  It's a breath of fresh air.  An added bonus is that it is at a hospital closer to home, a place I worked at about 18 years ago as a moonlighter.  Some of the nurses remember me from then.  Others remembered me from when I had my kids there.  And then there are new nurses for me to get to know and we often find out we have things in common.

One nurse raises horses, sheep, and chickens.  She and her family have shown the sheep at the Topsfield Fair for a long time.  I'm quite certain I've seen her at the Fair when we went through the sheep barn.  This year, for sure, I'll be making a point to go find her!  As we were talking recently we ended up discussing my jam-making and arranged a barter.  She brought me a dozen eggs and, when I get strawberries in June, I'll bring her a jar of strawberry jam.  A little delayed gratification for her; I got to enjoy the eggs today!

In our quest to get the perfect soft-boiled egg, today I boiled the water and put the (cold) eggs in.  After 30 seconds I dropped the heat to the lowest setting and let the eggs sit in the hot water for another 5 minutes and 30 seconds.  6 minutes total, and they were, indeed, perfect.  And incredibly tasty.

In other news, I used the yogurt I'd made from the powdered culture to make a second batch and it came out with exactly the right texture.  I left it on the heating pad for about 9 hours, maybe those extra 2 hours helped it firm up a little.  Since I'm keeping a tally of how many batches I can get out of one packet, so far we are at 2.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Chocolate and Champagne

Happy Mother's Day!

As most of the petit fours from the other day were taken to work, and as I wanted to try again with different "materials" I made a batch of chocolate petit fours.  Yesterday I made the sour cream chocolate cake recipe and did a few things differently.

1. I lined 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper and spread out the batter in those.  It made 2 thinner cakes, I used one for each type of petit four.  Pros:  the cake layers were thinner.  Cons: the resulting cake is the wrong texture, the parchment stuck too much and broke the cake, and they baked unevenly in my fragile oven, so there were thicker and thinner parts and there were parts that were more done than others.

2. The layers were chilled before I started to work with them.  Pros: easier to work with. Cons: really, none.

3. One batch had Dulce de Leche in between the layers, the other had raspberry.  Pros:  Dulce de leche.  Cons:  the raspberry ones had violets as decorations, not raspberries.  Had I been more prepared I might have managed a sugar glaze to preserve raspberries for the top.  I didn't have that kind of time.

4. I made a batch of dark chocolate ganache, 10 oz. of chocolate and 10 fl. oz. of cream.  This poured perfectly.  I used this batch for the raspberry ones, which were then topped with the last of my candied violets.

5. Since I needed more ganache, I made another batch with another 10 oz. of dark chocolate.  I didn't have enough heavy cream, only about 6 fl. oz. so I topped that off with half and half.  It completely changed the consistency of the ganache so it didn't set up as well.  Even with chilling the petit fours after pouring the ganache.  Also, as the dulce de leche ones were all jagged on the top, the ganache didn't even out the surface.  I topped these with chocolate covered espresso beans.  Lesson here:  don't skimp on the cream.

Overall, they came out reasonably attractive and certainly tasty.  Richer than the white cake ones.  The white cake ones are more typical of petit fours.  Lessons:  stick with the white cake and, if we're going to keep doing this, invest in the correct little pans.

As I was having my parents over for brunch, I made a champagne vinaigrette with the champagne vinegar I made.  It was light and sweet.  Here's the recipe:
Champagne vinaigrette

1/4 c. champagne vinegar
1/2 c. olive oil
2 T. lemon juice
2 T. brown mustard
2 T. honey
salt and pepper

This was whisked up in the blender.  It needed more pepper, and maybe could do with a little spice.  Still, it was a nice use of some of that champagne vinegar I made.

I hope all the mothers out there have a wonderful day!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Petit Fours, or, An Exercise in Frustration

It's Nurses' Week.  I work with a lot of nurses, right?  So I thought I'd make something special for them.  Inspired by the cupcakes with the candied violets (yes, it is ALSO Teachers' Week) I thought about petit fours.  I researched various recipes, got the basic idea, and then set aside a couple of chunks of time today to get these made.

First:  I baked that same white cake I like so much.  I think I've now made this recipe 4 times in the past 2 weeks.  This time it was baked in a 10x10 pan.  Easy peasy.  I left it to cool while I went out to the eye doctor.

For the record, I now need reading glasses.  I am...okay? with this.  Maybe.  It's not like I didn't know it was coming.  But, I digress.

I got home and cut the cake in half.  Then I sliced each half-cake horizontally, to make two thin layers for each.  One half-cake got violet jelly and the other got raspberry jam.  The edges were trimmed off and then the cake was cut into little cubes.  Some were more little than others.  Let's just say that they are not all "bite-sized."  Unless your mouth is huge.

Next, I made a white chocolate ganache.  I had 14 oz. of white chocolate which I chopped up and whisked with 14 fluid ounces of heated heavy cream.  I cooled it, but probably not enough.  It wouldn't coat a test-petit-four.  Frustrated, and sticky, I put the ganache aside.

And made a glaze.  1 pound of confectioners sugar and a bit of water.  And spooned it over the cakes.  And spooned it again, and again, scooping it up from the plate below and pouring it back over.  When I finally got the sides covered, at least for the violet cakes, I went back to the ganache and tried again.  I at least got everything covered, but you can see the cake through the glaze.  I'm not sure I like that.  I am a perfectionist.

The violet cakes have little candied violets on them.  The raspberry cakes have red sprinkles.

The petit fours are in the fridge, chilling.  I think I need to chill, too.

Lessons:  Chill the cakes before coating them, maybe the glaze and/or ganache will stick better.  There is no reason to ever use white chocolate.  Just use dark chocolate.  It's prettier and it tastes better.  Lastly, make sure you have several hours of uninterrupted time, when you don't also have hungry kids and adults trying to get snacks and do stuff on the computer and otherwise breathe all around you.
 Maybe they look better than I think they do.  After all, I am a perfectionist.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Teacher Appreciation Week

This week we celebrate all the teachers and staff in our community!  I volunteered to help set up the brunch at the elementary school this morning, and to bring cupcakes to the middle school tomorrow.  I thought I'd make my new favorite cupcake, from that white cake recipe I used to make the checkerboard cake.

Since this is a rather busy week for me, I made the cupcakes yesterday and frosted them today.  I made a half-batch of the chocolate fudge frosting I like so much, and poured it into a baggie while it was still fairly runny, then piped it onto the cupcakes.  I wasn't so neat so it doesn't look as good as maybe a fancy bakery, but it tastes wonderful, so who cares what they look like?

Oh, except for this:  I topped each one with a candied violet.  Homemade, of course.

The pictures are rather terrible as they are through saran wrap and taken with a cell phone. But you get the idea.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Rite of Spring

It seems that I've settled into a pattern of canning.  Strawberries in June.  Blueberries in July.  Elderberries in August.  Raspberries and peaches in September.  Applesauce in October.  And violets?  Well, violets in the springtime, whenever that may be.

Even though the warmer weather has been a little late this year, the violets have come up in full force in my friend's yard.  Yesterday we were at her house for a party and she'd asked her husband not to mow all the violets, please, knowing I'd like some for jelly.  There were enough to fill about 2 cups.  I steeped them overnight in 2 cups of water and then, as I wanted to make a batch with the powdered pectin and forgot I needed 4 cups of violets, I steeped them again, briefly, with another 2 cups of hot water.  Although the finished product isn't quite the magenta of previous years, it's a pretty lavender color.  It'll do.

Strangely enough, I was able to get almost 8 cups of jelly out of the batch.  Last time, it made only 6.5 cups.

It has been a really long time since I made any jam or jelly, and it felt good to be getting back into the swing of things.