Saturday, May 26, 2012

Rhubarb and Chutney

I had a very nice day in the kitchen yesterday. It started with rhubarb which, fortunately, Joe loves as much as I do. Unfortunately, it's difficult to impossible to grow in southern Arizona. I know. We've tried. But every spring it appears in the market, and brings back memories of my grandparents' rhubarb that grew more or less untended out beside their garage.
When I was a kid my friends and I actually pulled up stalks and ate them raw - and we liked them, sour and puckery as they are (my friend Angie and I also went through a phase of eating mustard on our toast - go figure). We only ate the stalks; the leaves are poisonous. And we incorporated the plants around us into our play, too. I remember that one day a few of us put my biggest doll in my wagon, surrounded her with Grandma's flowers (Grandma wasn't real happy about that), and paraded slowly and solemnly down the road in a funeral procession, waving rhubarb leaves over her like the big fans wielded by slaves in an old black and white movie about ancient Egypt. (We did stop short of burying my doll.)
     I found some tasty-looking rhubarb recipes at the Land 'o Lakes website: Just search "rhubarb." My other Grandma made an amazing Rhubarb Crunch; the recipe involves a Jiffy cake mix and strawberry Jell-o, and since Jiffy mixes can be hard to find these days, I'm going to try to come up with my own version and will post it when I'm successful (notice I say "when," not "if"). But I had another, more pressing kitchen project yesterday, so I chopped up and froze most of the rhubarb in zip-lock bags.
I did make some simple rhubarb sauce with: 
     2 cups chopped rhubarb, 
     1/3 cup sugar, and 
     1/4 cup water. 
Just put it all in a saucepan, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and let it simmer about 5 minutes or until the rhubarb gets nice and mushy. Don't worry that you won't have enough water; the rhubarb releases a lot of liquid. 
     The resulting sauce, delicious over a custard pudding or in yogurt or just by itself, is a lovely pink (the redder the rhubarb, the prettier the color) and a nice blend of sweet and tart. Add more sugar if  you think it needs it, but start with just the 1/3 cup - if you get too much, you can't take it out.
     The bigger project, one I'd been looking forward to for some time, was making tomato chutney. Most of the recipes I'd seen were for green tomato chutney, and they really meant green! Supermarket tomatoes were fine for this as they are rarely perfectly ripe and more often quite unripe. I found these Romas at a nearby market, many more green than they look in this picture, and at a ridiculously low price - so I bought 5 pounds. 
The recipe I decided to use comes from Nigel Slater, who writes for The Guardian. It's at He uses a mix of green and ripe tomatoes, but since mine were neither one nor the other, I just threw them all in together and figured the end result would be about the same. I also multiplied the recipe by 2.5, since Nigel's is based on using just 2 pounds of tomatoes. But I was laying in a supply for the winter (even though it's only May - we love curry and go through quite a bit of chutney, not just with curry but in other applications, like cheese sandwiches - chutney on Cheddar? Divine!). 
     The Guardian is a British paper, so some of the amounts in Nigel's recipe are metric, but you can find a handy conversion calculator at You might want to bookmark this calculator; it's easier to use than any I've seen. Here are the ingredients and amounts I used, multiplied and adapted from Nigel's:

Tomato Chutney
5 pounds unripe but not terribly green tomatoes
2 pounds onions, chopped
9 ounces raisins
1 pound 5 ounces muscovado or dark brown sugar
3 medium sized hot red chiles (I used a scant 2 T. dried red chile flakes)
1 T. kosher salt (don't use iodized salt when pickling or canning)
5 tsp. yellow mustard seeds
3 1/8 c. cider vinegar

Nigel says to just halve the tomatoes and rough chop the onions but I prefer both chopped a little finer - not fine, just not quite such big chunks. If you're using truly green tomatoes, do as Nigel did and put them in a big (very big, if you're making as much as I did) pot with all the other ingredients except the red tomatoes and bring to a boil, then simmer 1 hour, add red tomatoes and simmer another 25 minutes. 
     I just threw everything in together, as you see here,
 and let it simmer about an hour and 20 minutes. Here's how it looked after about 30 minutes.
 Stir fairly often so it doesn't stick (a nonstick pan helps with that). Then ladle it into sterilized canning jars and process in a water bath for 10 minutes. Aren't the little pink-checked lids cute?
I got 8 jars; most of them were 12-ounce jam jars but there were a couple of pints. The canning kettle only holds 7 jars so one got designated for immediate consumption. Joe didn't mind that at all. He'd probably eat almost anything if it had chutney on it, and I might too.  
     If you've never canned anything, it's far less intimidating than many people think. There's a pretty good video on YouTube (probably more than one, actually) at and instructions/tutorials at a number of websites, including Of course there are also any number of excellent cookbooks that focus on food preservation.
     Go ahead! Make some chutney or rhubarb sauce (you can also can rhubarb sauce) or something else that, when you open it up in the dead of winter, will remind you of spring! I'm pretty sure you'll be happy you did.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

when the work gets in the way

I really like my job. I really like my life. However, there just never seems to be enough time for . . . whatever it is we want the time for!
     Several weeks ago I got an invitation to a baby shower for a former student I'm very proud of and very fond of, but I couldn't go because I already had another  commitment I couldn't get out of - I felt bad but then I thought "okay, there's still time to make a nice gift." As I said, this was weeks ago! One good thing was that I've gotten to know both her siblings (both of them have been my students) and would soon be going to a graduation celebration for her younger sister, another wonderful and extremely talented young woman. So I knew I could just take the baby gift with me to that party.
     And so I did, but even with the extra time I thought I had, wouldn't you know it? I still wound up finishing it that morning - where does the time go? Anyway, I just wanted to share this picture of the completed quilt. I didn't intend to let Cosmo near it, but he jumped up there and looked so darned cute I had to let him stay in the picture.
     The quilt is bigger than some baby quilts, more than 50" x 50", but as a mother I always liked them big enough so that if you spread them out on the floor, the baby would have enough room to roll around and crawl around a bit.
     And yes, it's a boy, due in 6 days (and mama was getting pretty impatient when I saw her at the party a few days ago).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

oh, the cleverness of you!

My title today comes from Wendy's remark to Peter in the wonderful live-action 2003 film of Peter Pan (vastly superior in every way to the animated Walt Disney version so many of us grew up with). The perpetual child, Peter doesn't really get irony, and actually, I don't mean it ironically - I just really like the line!
     What I'm talking about specifically is this wonderful low-tech fountain Joe put together on our patio, from 2 pots - one very large and deep and one fairly large but low and shallow - and 3 saucers, along with a couple of corks, a currently unused plant stand, and a metal cachepot for bailing. It provides an hour or more of the relaxing sound of trickling water without the hassle of pumps and electric wires (we did have a nice water feature with an inexpensive solar pump a few years ago, but it was an illustration of the saying that you get what you pay for - we didn't pay much for the pump and it didn't last long).
He used, or rather re-used, a wine cork in the low flat pot at the bottom to keep the water from leaking out and a champagne cork in the larger hole in the larger pot at the top to let just a trickle through. It did involve some fiddling to get just the right angle and position of the cork to get the desired effect, but when he was done, it trickled just right into the very small saucer underneath, then the larger vessels below that. When all the water's out of the big pot, you just pour what's in the bottom two containers back into it - the large saucer in the middle is heavy and awkward to move, so that's where the little green cachepot comes in - it's perfect for bailing. The three wide containers at the bottom are positioned/tilted so the water flows slowly and gently from one to the other. It's very nice and it was a lovely Mother's Day surprise.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

oh, the cleverness of us!

I mentioned the wonderful cookbook Dolce Italiano in a previous post It truly is one of the nicest, most thoughtful gifts I've gotten (thanks again, Patrick and Rita), but I'd been neglecting it. Yesterday, however, I took it off the shelf and turned to the frozen dessert section and decided to try making the almond gelato. Amateur Gourmet has posted DePalma's recipe on her blog, so rather than re-type it, I'll just direct you there (she's put up lots of pictures too, which are helpful) .
     I'm in love with the ice cream/frozen yogurt maker we got last year - it's definitely in the running for favorite kitchen machine of all time. Here it is, and my fingerprints all over it show how much I love to use it. (I didn't realize there were so many till the camera pointed them out.)
It works like a dream. Here's the gelato churning away!
Now, there are two points I want to make about this recipe:
      The first is to really watch the almonds as you're toasting them - some of mine got too toasty so they wound up in the compost and I had to toast more.
      The second is that after the almonds have infused much of their flavor into the cream/milk mixture, the recipe tells you to strain them out and discard them. But as I stood there gazing at the strainer full of soft, nutty deliciousness, I just couldn't. Almonds are good for us. They're not cheap. My grandmother taught me not to be wasteful.
     So I asked Joe what he thought. I was considering just churning the gelato with the almonds, but then he suggested putting them in oatmeal. Brilliant! So I put them in the refrigerator and next morning made a big pot of oatmeal (2 cups old-fashioned oats, 4 cups water) and added about 3/4 of a cup of quartered dried apricots and a teaspoon of cardamom while the oatmeal cooked. The almonds got plump and juicy and I stirred in the almonds at the end. This is what it looked like.
That's a spoonful of dark brown sugar on top. I like my oatmeal the traditional Irish way, with brown sugar and buttermilk. The combination of almonds and apricots is wonderful, and although it turned out to be a lot of oatmeal, we don't mind heating it up in the microwave for a couple or few days after it's made - it's certainly better than that instant stuff in the envelopes, which is like the dust swept up from the floor of the oatmeal factory with a few artificial ingredients tossed in to confuse and mislead consumers who can't wait 10 minutes for the real thing. This breakfast is an example of real food and waste averted. My conscience and my stomach are both happy.
     And the gelato that started it all is also fabulous!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Elvis Has Left the Building

Okay, not exactly, but the remaining dove hatchling has left the nest, well and healthy and within the 11 to however many days the Sibley Guide to Birds said is normal.
      There are, however, now 16 quail eggs in the fern in the front entryway and no sign of either of the parents, also not unusual according to Sibley. Given the time that's elapsed since the last eggs were laid (nearly a week) and the parents' absence since then, I think it's safe to say they've abandoned the nest, either by choice or by mischance. Though you'd never know it by looking around the neighborhood, quail don't have a very high survival rate. I've written about that before, in a poem called "Borrowed Days," from which these stanzas are excerpted:

Here in the desert, in these borrowed days before the heat,
we plant and hope for a brief flowering.
Here our flowers are red, yellow, orange, the hot colors. 
Here birds nest and mate frantically.
Some of their young, got in these borrowed days,
may even survive the summer. 

It does not pay to watch too closely, to count the tiny quail,
to watch their numbers shrink as the heat grows.
It shrivels the heart and urges us to tears.
We cannot spare the water.

But the summer, hot as it is, provides beauty, as in the crops we grow during this time. The greens are gone now, except the chard, which is more resilient than it looks. We'll have to buy our lettuces - I pulled out the last plants the other day. The aphids of April arrived right on schedule to take over the kale, and the beets, parsnips, and rutabagas are crowding the refrigerator, soon to be joined by the last of the carrots.
     This morning, very early, before work, in one raised bed I planted Armenian cucumbers, which tolerate our temperatures, and two kinds of melons - Kazakh, which I've neither grown nor tasted, and the Spanish Piel de Sapo, which I grew successfully a few years ago. They're delicious, and apparently if you say "melon" in Spain, that's what people assume you mean. In the other I planted my two favorite winter squashes, the Italian Marina di Chioggia, big, blue-green, and warty, and the French Muscat de Provence, which looks like Cinderella's pumpkin (but should not be confused with the Rouge Vif d'Etampes pumpkin, which is brighter-colored on the outside and according to some sources less tasty, though I don't actually know about that, having never seen or tasted one). 

Tomorrow I'll plant grey zucchini, which are sold here in the markets as Mexican zucchini; I think they have more and better flavor than the regular dark green ones.
Then we'll plant tepary beans along the trellises in the west garden. I've written about those amazing beans before Even though many people flee northward at this time of year, I'm looking forward to it. I'll just have to make sure to get up early to do whatever needs doing outdoors in the cool of the morning!