Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Recipe for a Bag?

I don't like getting rid of useful things. It gets to be a problem sometimes: the dark side of being good at coming up with things to do with all the leftover wrapping paper, wine corks and egg cartons that life throws at you is ending up perpetually torn between untenable clutter and unending guilt at getting rid of useful things to the point where you seriously consider pouring one out for the last forlorn wedge of cabbage that you had to chuck after it got weird or the armload full of office paper you recycled that was only printed on one side.

If any of that resonated with you, what I'm about to describe will either be exciting or exacerbate the issue: you know those knit-mesh bags that onions, clementines and other produce are often packaged in? A few minutes of crocheting (even if, like me, you're not much of a crocheter) turns them into awesome, reusable produce bags. You can wash produce right in these bags and then hang the whole thing to dry. They are extremely light and compact but strong and adapt to hold a variety of shapes and quantities.


  • one mesh bag (see below for details about different kinds of mesh)
  • ~8 yds strong twine (I use #15 or #18 nylon mason's twine)
  • crochet hook, size H-J

Types of Mesh

There's a couple of different types of mesh that these bags are made of, and each type has its advantages and disadvantages. These are the three main types you will see:
Knitted Mesh
This is easily my favorite, as it's the most flexible and adaptable. However, it also requires the most careful construction; the loops that make up the top of the bag can come undone under stress, so it's important to crochet a few rows down from the edge to avoid this.
Woven Mesh
Harder to come apart than knitted mesh, but much more stiff. Woven mesh will still fold up small, but does not adapt to the shape of its contents as well as knitted mesh or diamond fused mesh.
Fused Mesh
This type completely avoids the problem of things coming apart, since the whole thing is one piece, but it's also more rigid than the other types of mesh. There are two kinds here: square fused mesh and diamond fused mesh. Diamond fused mesh has many of the same properties as knitted mesh, while square fused mesh is much like woven mesh.


Note: Click any stitch name to see an instructional video for it. These are videos I found already on YouTube, rather than ones I made.
  • Double Crochet three or four rows down from each opening in the top row.
  • Join with a slip stitch when you get all the way around.
  • On the next round, chain two stitches, and do a single crochet into every other stitch all the way around. That's (ch 2, sc) all around for those of you who speak crochet.
  • Join with a slip stitch again, then cut your twine, draw through the loop and weave in the end.
  • Next, add a drawstring. Cut a piece of twine about two feet long and thread it through the gaps made by the skipped stitches.

Update (9/6/14): due to a single quotation mark out of place in my coding, the juicy part of step 3 was not visible until now. Apologies to anyone confused.

Hooray, it's a bag!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Peanut Noodles with Spring Greens. And an Egg.

For what it's worth, I wasn't complaining about the cold in February. Complaining about the dark, maybe. I save my temperature complaining for when it's hot out. It pairs well with my cantankerous stubbornness about air conditioning. Today peaked at 95°. Certainly not as hot as it can get around here, but just as certainly beyond comfortable.

Regardless of how warm it was today, here or where you were, we all have those days where the mere thought of turning on the stove makes you want to get another icy drink out. I've been realizing how much peanut sauce is a hot-weather staple for me recently: Fresh summer rolls dipped in it, drizzled over lettuce-wrapped rice (with or without anything else), or even just a bowl of veggies and a jar of peanut sauce.

This has been the recipe I've come back to more than others recently. Here, the peanut sauce dresses up cold buckwheat noodles tossed with long, thin cut cucumber or summer squash (inspired by zucchini noodles) and the piquant blend of greens I've been gradually thinning out of my garden. And ,just for good measure, an egg on top. Since discovering steam-cooked hard boiled eggs (a method which I can't recommend heartily enough), I've been putting them in all kinds of things. I'll let The Food Lab go into detail about the method, but by way of my recommendation, it is faster than other boil methods (since you only have to wait for ½" of water to come to a boil), and I have had an almost perfect peel record with it. The closest thing to an imperfect peel I've had since starting to use it is actually in the photos of this dish, and I'm pretty sure that one was my fault.

It's pretty good without the egg, too, though, and is totally vegan without it. If you're not eating eggs for whatever reason, the peanut sauce does provide a little protein, but I've also made and enjoyed this with crispy-fried bits of tempeh.

Peanut Noodles with Spring Greens

2 servings
  • 100 g soba noodles (one bunch)
  • 1 cucumber or small summer squash/zucchini
  • ¼ c. peanut sauce (see below)
  • 2-3 c. mixed baby greens (1-2 good handfuls per serving)
  • 2 eggs, boiled (or steamed!) to your preference (I like about 8 minutes here)
  • optional but nice:
    • scallion, sliced thin
    • a few sprigs of cilantro

Start by putting on water to boil the noodles and cook the eggs (if you've got time, you can use the same pot and do the eggs after the noodles). While the water is heating up, peel your cucumber or squash. They're both very tasty here, and bulk out the noodles with cool fresh flavor. If you've got a spiral slicer or julienne peeler, good for you. You know what to do, so go to town. Otherwise, use your vegetable peeler to peel thin slices off of the cucumber or squash until you get down to the seeds. If you prefer, you can slice these strips thinner to blend in with the noodles more.

Once the noodles are cooked, make sure to run cool water through them until chilled. Toss the noodles and cucumber/squash in the sauce until well coated. Divide up into bowls and toss with a handful of greens, then top with an egg.

Peanut Sauce

vegan, gluten-free depending on your soy sauce
makes about 1 cup of sauce
  • ¼ c. peanut butter (Mine is creamy, natural & salted. Yours will work too, but you might have to add more or less stuff)
  • 1-2 Tblsp. sugar
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. minced fresh ginger
  • ½-1 tsp. thick chili-garlic sauce like Sriracha or sambal oelek
  • (or more, to taste)
  • 2 Tblsp. soy sauce
  • ¼- c. water
Add all ingredients except water. Add water a tablespoon or so at a time, stirring until thoroughly combined before adding more water. If you add too much water at once, the suspension will break and you'll get weird thready peanut-butter bits in seasoned water. If this happens, add a little more peanut butter and stir until smooth. You'll have to add more water later. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Don't Step on the Grass...

But no, not that grass in the lawn. And, no, not that either.

You may know it as asparagus, but come mid-May around here, it's simply grass. Hadley grass, to be specific. Hadley, on the rich floodplains just across the Connecticut River and hair north of here, is world-renowned for its asparagus. Or at least it was, up until the 1970s, when a soil-borne fungus more than literally decimated Hadley's asparagus production. In the decades leading up to that, Hadley farmers would pick and prepare up to 50 tons of asparagus each day of the fleetingly brief few weeks of the season. Hadley grass reportedly turned up in chic European restaurants and even at springtime feasts held by the Queen of England.

Although local asparagus production doesn't take on the epic proportions it did forty years ago, there are still a handful of asparagus farmers in full-scale production and many backyard growers with extra to sell. The town still takes pride in this element of its history, honoring the tender green spears with a major community festival and, I kid you not, an ice cream flavor. And, as it's an ingredient where freshness is especially rewarded, it's still worth trawling the back roads in Hadley and the surrounding towns this time of year for hand-written signs that simply read "Grass." Or, if you're me, quietly coveting the asparagus in the adjacent community garden plot and settling for taking many pictures of it and then buying a bunch from the stand just up the hill.

So, why simply grass? One variant, based on a folk etymology of the word, dating back to the 17th century, was sparrowgrass. The name held on until late in the 1800s, and, according to a 1791 pronunciation dictionary, calling it "asparagus" implied "an air of stiffness and pedantry." I can't say for certain why it stuck around here, but even aside from a desire to avoid stiffness and pedantry, it was grown in sufficient volume that it was almost as common as that grass in the lawn.

Asparagus being as versatile as it is and asparagus season being as fleeting as it is, I've been chowing through it every which way since the first local asparagus came in about two weeks ago. I was thinking of writing about asparagus and chèvre risotto or lemony shaved asparagus salad, but today's cool, rainy weather put me in a soup mood so I put together a creamy, smooth asparagus soup, accented with dried shiitake mushroom and white wine and topped with the asparagus tips, toasted with slivered garlic.

Creamy Asparagus-Mushroom Soup

gluten/grain-free, optionally vegetarian
  • 1 lb. asparagus
  • 1 onion, small dice
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 6-8 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1¼ c. dry white wine
  • ½ c. cream
  • 2 c. chicken or veggie broth
You have two options with the dried shiitakes: you can grind them up and add them as a powder, or you can simmer them in the stock until they're soft enough to blend. If you're simmering them in stock, start that first. Break up the mushrooms coarsely with your hands and put them in a small saucepan with the broth and bring up to heat over medium-high heat. The mushrooms will need to simmer for at least 15-20 minutes to soften. If grinding them up, run them through a spice grinder until fine and set aside.

Dice onion. Melt butter with olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat, then add onion, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, peel and mince two cloves of garlic and prep the asparagus. Snap off both ends of the asparagus (this is a good job for earnest helpers of all ages and abilities). If you're running short on time, you can cut off the top and bottom inch of the spears in one fell swoop. Scrap the cut ends, but put the tips aside to put on top later. Cut the stalks into pieces about an inch long.

Once the onion has started to get clear and soft, add the garlic, salt and asparagus. Stir until the garlic gets fragrant, then add a cup of wine. If simmering mushrooms, add the mushrooms and broth, too. If using ground mushrooms, whisk with the stock and add to the pot with the asparagus. Let simmer until the asparagus is soft, 10-15 minutes, add the cream and remaining wine, then blend until smooth.

Sliver the other two cloves of garlic and saute in a little olive oil with the asparagus tips and salt and pepper. Serve soup with garlicky asparagus tips on top.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tortilla Soup: Great Sick Food or Greatest Sick Food?

In 2000, Dr. Stephen Rennard of the University of Nebraska set out to design a study to examine if and how chicken soup might actually help people suffering from the common cold. In the study he started with his wife's recipe, handed down from her Lithuanian grandmother. Results from Rennard's study suggested that chicken soup may actually help fight colds by inhibiting the movement of a particular type of white blood cell that defends against infection. Rennard's team (and other scientists who have replicated the study since then) found similar results with other chicken soup recipes as well, though they couldn't identify which ingredients were key to the soup's immuno-supportive qualities. You can see Dr. Rennard's article, Grandma's recipe and some adorable pictures of him and his wife cooking soup together at the University of Nebraska Med. Center website.

When I ended up with a cold a couple weeks ago, I had very little energy, a fridge full of forlorn, half-eaten rotisserie chickens, and a craving for spicy food. There are always a few roast chickens languishing in the fridge; most weeks, Tom takes full advantage of the Friday two for $10 deal on them at the local supermarket, eats the breast (at least most of it) and then leaves them in the fridge. I'm not too big into plain roast chicken, but I hate letting something like that go to waste (my generalized guilt about wasting food is multiplied when an animal died to become that food), so I am constantly trying to find ways to sneak this leftover chicken into things. In this case, spicy chicken soup provided the answer to all of these queries.

I used tortilla soup, a chile-spiked, chicken-based soup with origins across Mexico, as a jumping off point. I spent a while curled under a blanket with a box of tissues and the laptop reading many recipes for inspiration. This recipe might take a little while, but it's one where there's not a whole lot of active time, which means there's time to stop and take a nap between steps. You may not have all of the ingredients that I did (nor the plague of half-eaten chickens) so for many of the ingredients here, I provide a few alternatives.

In the end, what I came up with was good enough to eat for several more days without getting bored and to make again even when I wasn't sick.

Chile Chicken Soup

gluten-free, dairy-free, optionally grain-free


  • 2 half-eaten rotisserie chickens (You can use 1-2 lbs of fresh/frozen chicken and simmer in 2-3 qts of chicken stock instead of water)
  • water to cover (3-4 qts)
  • 2 tsp. light-flavored oil
  • 2 small-medium onions
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 6 Dried Anaheim chiles, toasted* (or about ¼c. paprika, see note about chiles)
  • 2 chipotle chile (or 1-2 tsp. chipotle powder, scaled to taste, or ½-1 tsp. cayenne)
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2-3 bell peppers, fire-roasted (I used a combo of red bell and cubanelle)
  • 1/2 can crushed tomatoes
  • salt to taste
  • handful cilantro
  • 2 T masa harina made into a slurry with about 1/4 cup water, stirred in close to the end (optional, adds body)
*About Chiles I used California Anaheim and chipotle peppers. California Anaheims are milder than the already fairly mild New Mexico Anaheims. I buy them in a big bag as "California Chiles" at my local international market. They add a lot of rich chile flavor with virtually no heat. That's (part of) what the chipotles are there for. Chipotles are smoke-dried jalapeño peppers and add both heat and a rich, smoky flavor. I'd actually prefer to use a blend of these with dried pasilla chiles (also called chile negro), which are somewhat spicy and have a slightly darker flavor, but I didn't have any on hand. Anchos (dried poblanos) would also be good here. Additionally, you can replace these with about ¼ cup sweet paprika and about ½ tsp. of cayenne.

    Topping suggestions:

  • tortilla chips (if you want to be fancy, fry your own tortilla strips)
  • avocado
  • lime
  • more cilantro
  • sour cream
  • shredded jack, cheddar or queso blanco cheese
  • chili sauce

Before we get started, let me introduce you to my spice grinder. This is one of my best friends in the kitchen. It's not that I'm a fresh-ground spice purist (I'm not), it just allows for so many more options: getting to make chili powder out of whichever dried peppers I like, pulverizing the dried shiitake mushrooms I like sneaking in all over the place, not having to buy both whole and ground versions of spices I use in both forms. Yes, it does say über super coffee grinder on the side. You can buy devices labeled "spice grinders" but many comparisons I've seen say you're better off with a small, blade-driver electric coffee grinder unless you are regularly grinding very large quantities. Additionally, little coffee grinders are cheap. You can reliably buy them new for under $20, commonly find them at thrift stores or tag sales for <$5, and sometimes find them for free at the dump swap shop, if you are lucky enough to have such a thing, or from someone who is moving, giving up coffee, or getting rid of it for some other reason. I used to have two, one for coffee and one for spices, but the one which had served as spice grinder for nearly a decade gave up the ghost this winter, so the coffee grinder got promoted.

On to soup, though. If you're using leftover roasted chicken(s), break apart chicken carcasses just enough so they fit in stockpot well. Leave any remaining meat intact. Add any languishing veggies (got half an onion? some sad, floppy carrots? half a shriveled beet? throw them in!). Add water to cover, simmer for 1 hour, let sit for 1 hour, then pick the meat off of the bones (it will fall off). I find that with 4 quarts of water, I end up with about 2½ quarts of stock with the evaporation that happens. Sometimes I cook the stock down a little further. If you are using fresh meat, pour about 2 qts of stock over 1-2 lbs chicken and simmer for about an hour and sit for about an hour. Either way, strain the chicken over a bowl shred the meat with your fingers or with two forks if it's too hot to handle. Add the chicken to the reserved stock or the other way around, whichever fits better, to use the stockpot to get the next part ready.

Next, roast the sweet peppers. If you have a gas range, you can put the peppers right on the burner grate over a medium flame and turn every minute or so until the outside is blistered, peeling a little, and has some lovely blackening on the skin all around. Then, place them in a covered dish so they can finish steaming from within. If you have an electric range, you can check out some of the suggestions offered here. You can also elect to simply chop up your peppers and cook them with the onions and garlic, but roasting them brings out their sweetness and adds the depth that only light charring can bring.

Dice the onions, slice the garlic, cook in light-flavored oil in stock pot over med-low heat, stirring frequently until well-browned and tasty smelling. Add non-chile spices to onion/garlic and stir until fragrant. Take a handful of cilantro, cut (but keep!) the stems. Finely chop the stems and roughly chop the leaves, then add to the onions, garlic and spices, then return chicken + broth to pot.

If using whole chiles, toast them over the stove as well. Either grab them with tongs one at a time and wave them over the flame until they get fragrant and a little puffed or toss them in a dry cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat until a similar effect is achieved. Tear them up, remove the stems and grind. I can only fit one or two in my grinder at a time, so it takes a few batches. I just dump them right into the pot as they come out.

Take stems & seeds out of the sweet peppers, if you didn't add them with the onions and garlic. Either chop them finely or run them through food processor. Add chopped peppers and crushed tomato to soup. A nice, but not essential touch here is to take a few tablespoons of masa harina (the specially-treated corn flour used for making tortillas), mix with some water and add the the soup. It gives the soup a hearty, satiny body, but it's not worth buying masa harina just for this. The soup will be plenty tasty without.

Adjust the seasoning. I usually serve with some assortment of tortilla chips, fresh cilantro, avocado cubes (don't skip these!) and lime wedges. Other people reportedly like adding sour cream or shredded mild cheese. Regardless, let diners add their own flair. As much as the tortilla bits give the soup its name, it's pretty good without them, too, if you don't have them or aren't eating corn for whatever reason. I also like to put out some chili sauce, so that diners can adjust the spiciness to their liking.


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