Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Perfect Early Fall Day in Wisconsin: Apple Picking!

 

Last weekend we had one of those picture-perfect, postcard-worthy days that scream quaint Americana.  Like a Christmas-in-Connecticut, except it was early fall in Chicago.  Or rather, and this is the whole point, it wasn’t Chicago.  My husband and I packed up our dog and a few snacks—just in case we broke down before we got to our destined food orgy—and headed out of the city north to Wisconsin.

In Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, really just over the border from northern Illinois, are two places that we make our annual pilgrimage towards come crisp days in September.  We used to think that Oriole Spring Orchard and Harvest Time Orchard—down the road from each other on 128th street in Twin Lakes—formed a single operation.  It turns out instead that they were initially a single family orchard which split off between two of the children in the 1960s.  (This I discovered from Harvest Time’s website.  Click here to get exact location and other information: http://www.myharvesttime.com/page/about/aboutus.html)

In any case, we visit both and are devoted to each for different reasons.  Oriole Springs seems to be a no-nonsense orchard.  No website, infrequent pick-up of the phone even (!), and little frills.  Their concession to technological advances (this just in recent years) is to allow customers to give email addresses for a mailing list instead of having to provide physical mailing addresses.  Harvest Time, on the other hand, has a website, a facebook page with frequent updates, etc.  Oriole Springs has a massive orchard with labyrinthine turns between different types of apple trees.  Harvest Time recently started its own apple-picking in their orchard, but this operation is perhaps better known and visited for their amazing cider donuts, a smokehouse, and a fun atmosphere for the kids. 

Oriole Springs

If you are like 90% of apple-lovers, Honey Crisps might be your favorite apple variety.  (If you haven’t tasted one, it will soon become your favorite apple.)  If that is the case, you need to plan on finding out the exact date that they will first be available for picking each year.  It’s already too late this year, but you will need to call the orchard by September 1 next year to find out when you should make the trek up to Wisconsin.  Honey Crisps and my second favorites Galas tend to be ready fairly early in the season—usually no later than mid-September.

If you aim to pick Honey Crisps, you need to start from Chicago soon after dawn to make sure that you get to the orchard no later than 9:00am (when they open).  You will see that miles of cars have been sitting there, drivers awaiting the opening of the orchard so that they could get their hands on these apples.  The lines notwithstanding, when farmers do NOT experience a too-warm spring and a return of frost as midwest orchards did this year, it’s still possible to get a respectable number of apples by arriving at 9:00am without waiting for hours in the dark.  
 

This year, we knew that practically nobody would get to pick Honey Crisps anyway, so that liberated us to take our schedule more leisurely.  Jonathans were available last weekend, so we went up to pick half a bushel for $22.  (That’s a bargain since you can fill up that half bushel to bursting.)  We picked a few Gold Delicious since they were available as well, but we are not huge fans of these since their texture can tend toward mealy.  After we drove through the maze-like orchard and paid for our purchase, we went further west on 128th St. to Harvest Time. 

Harvest Time


Tip for new-comers: Once you park in the overflow parking lot (most likely), run—do not walk—to the long line to order your donuts.  Unfortunately, when donuts are going to be at their freshest and coming right out the fryer, the lines are enormous and—frankly—a little outrageous.  But the flipside is that shorter lines often mean that donuts you receive will not be freshest.  Sure, they were prepared that morning, but that’s not the same as getting very hot and special cider donuts straight out of the fryer.  At $1 per each greasy donut, they are not cheap.  We try to make waiting in line worthwhile by getting a dozen (for $10).  Our dozen usually consists of 3 vanilla frosted with coconut, 3 chocolate frosted with coconut, 3 cinnamon and sugar, and 3 plain.


Once we have our dozen donuts safely in our hands, we explore the rest of the orchard.  The Cider Barn is fun to visit since you can often see fresh cider being pressed.  They give out samples too! 


The petting area has Nigerian Goats which you can feed with a $1 bag of feed (self-serve). 

Then make sure that you get a number and stand in line at the Smokehouse to get a variety of cheeses and meats.  Our usual order: 1 lb. Nueske’s ham; 1 lb. Nueske’s bacon; 1 lb. smoked Baby Swiss; 2 smoked Pfefferjager sausages (makes a great hiking snack).

Going back


You’re still not done with your visit out to the country.  If you drive south down Zarnstorf Rd., before you get to 173 (Rosecrans), you should see on your left side a sign for “Fresh Eggs.”  Turn right onto a driveway of a ranch-style house opposite that sign and park.  If you walk into the house from the side door, you can purchase—on an honor system of self-serve and pay—some very fresh eggs.  There is a sign that says, “Smile.  You’re on candid camera.”  I should hope that you would want to be honest regardless of the sign…

Once you are done with your rural outing, you have a final important step.  Go home and bake yourself the yummiest and freshest apple pie!


Friday, September 21, 2012

Pan-Fried Rosemary Garlic Potatoes


Perhaps it’s true that many men are essentially meat-and-potatoes people.  As much as my husband Will is open to trying out different and new dishes, he still has a soft spot for the old favorites.  Namely, he loves potatoes of all kinds. 

When I am planning a dinner menu and pondering which vegetable to include, he’ll suggest some type of potato dish.  If I were to decide on sautéed kale and caramelized carrots, he’ll wonder why there isn’t also a potato dish.  He is especially partial to mashed potatoes as his comfort dish.  Garlic, buttermilk and chives, or just very buttery: all are very tasty to him.  He also likes char-grilled potatoes as well as potatoes and red peppers pieces roasted in the oven with lots of olive oil, cracked black pepper, and salt.

Recently though, he has become enamored of another type of potatoes.  I was experimenting with a dish that I could mostly prepare ahead of time, and the result was so appealing—both in the idea and in the taste—that it has become our new go-to potato side-dish when we have guests over.  The crispy exterior with the tender and flaky interior (envision a well-baked potato with crusty edges) and the complementary flavors of garlic and rosemary--along with the complementary fats butter and olive oil--make this a very special dish.

The most attractive part about this dish is that the preparation ahead of time means that I wouldn’t have to mess with the 45-60 minutes necessary to cook potatoes properly during a dinner party.  Besides, it’s distressing to have potatoes get temperamental and decide they won’t cook with their usual timing when the other dishes are on the table and we are all ready to eat.  This dish is 90% ready to go before guests arrive, and I can just spend a leisurely 10 minutes chatting with everyone while I let my potatoes come to a lovely crispy brown.

Here are simple directions with step-by-step photos.

Step 1: about 30 minutes (for water to boil and for potatoes to cook)

You can use Yukon Gold or small red or white potatoes, peeled if the skin is not super-thin.  It’s easiest if you can keep the potatoes whole, but by all means cut them into smaller (similar-sized) pieces if they are too large or if you are short on time.

For smaller potatoes, you would need about 20 minutes of cooking time after you dump them into a large pot of boiling salted water.  Test for doneness, but beware of the fact that flakier potatoes like Yukon Gold might disintegrate if they are cut up and you keep poking them with a fork for doneness.

Once potatoes are fully cooked, drain them in a colander and let them steam to get rid of some moisture.  Cool them fully, either in the colander or on a plate.

Step 2: about 10 minutes (to chop)


Cut up your cooled potatoes into equal sized pieces (about 1-1½ inch is a good size).  Put them in a bowl or on a plate and refrigerate until about 15 minutes before serving time. 


In the meantime, slice up garlic into thin pieces, and chop up fresh rosemary.  Herbs are always “to taste” in my opinion since my ability to consume garlic and basil is quite prodigious, and I find other recipes stint these needlessly.

Step 3: about 15 minutes (to pan-fry)


About 15 minutes before you are about to sit down to eat, heat up a large non-stick frying pan on medium-high heat.  Make sure that the pan is large enough that you can spread out your potatoes in a single layer with enough space in between so that they can fry properly.  Add 1 tablespoon butter and 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and let melt together until the mixture starts sizzling a bit. 


Place cooled and cut up potato pieces and start frying, making sure that they stay put for at least a couple of minutes at a time so that the pieces can start developing brown edges.  When they are lightly brown, salt and pepper the potatoes and add garlic slivers and chopped rosemary.  You shouldn’t add the garlic too early since you don’t want them to get burnt and bitter over the relatively high heat that the potatoes require.


When the potato pieces have most of the cut edges browned, you can take them off the heat and place in a serving bowl.  Eat while crispy and hot.



Friday, September 14, 2012

Peach and Berry Crumble with Almond Meal Topping


Ok, so you made your almond milk (here’s a recipe: http://eatingreadingwriting.blogspot.com/2012/08/almond-milk-vitamix-way.html) and, hopefully, decided that it’s so tasty and so clearly good-for-you that you want to continue making batches of this cinnamon-y yumminess.  For my part, I rarely go a day without either soaking almonds in preparation for milking or actually drinking almond milk.  So then what to do with all that ground almond after it goes through the blender, the strainer, and the cheesecloth?  Here’s a simple solution: Use it!

Drying out Almond Grounds


After you squeeze out as much milk as you can, you will be left with a fairly sizable ball of finely ground almond.  Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees and then spread the almond meal out on a rimmed baking sheet and let some more moisture evaporate while the oven warms up to temperature.  Then place the sheet in the oven and let the ground slowly—and gently—dry out.  You don’t really want the oven to be hot enough to cook or roast the grounds.


After about 10 minutes, take a fork and break up remaining clumps into smaller chunks.  Repeat about every 5 minutes until the mixture feels dry enough.  Don’t let it brown!  The whole process might take about 20 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let cool—and dry further.

Once the mixture is cool enough to handle, scrape all the almond grounds into a mini-processor and pulse repeatedly until the mixture has the consistency of coarse kosher salt.  If you started by soaking 1 cup of whole almonds, you might be left with about 2/3 cup of almond meal for cooking.  The mixture you are left with probably will not be fine enough for recipes like cake batter.  (For a flourless chocolate cake recipe that calls for almond flour or meal, I would use fresh ground or purchased almond meal.)  However, the dried almond grounds are perfectly acceptable for recipes like streusel toppings.


Preparing a Fruit Crumble with Almond Grounds

The website Chocolate & Zucchini offers a recipe for Mango Apple Crumble (http://chocolateandzucchini.com/archives/2006/01/mango_apple_crumble.php) that you could use the dried almonds grounds in.  For the pictured dessert at the top of this post (Peach and Berry Crumble), we modified Barefoot Contessa’s Peach & Blueberry Crumbles recipe to include our almond meal and made a single large crumble instead of individual serving sizes.  While we find Ina Garten’s desserts easy and delightful, we find that we don’t need as much sugar as she normally calls for, so it works well for us to find a balance between Barefoot Contessa’s over-sweet and Chocolate & Zucchini’s almost Spartan recipes.


 If you want to follow what we did, here’s a modified recipe:

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2.  Prepare the fruit.

5 large peaches (or nectarines), peeled and cut into wedges
1 ½ cups mixed berries (defrosted if you are using frozen berries)
1 t. finely grated lemon zest
1 T. fresh lemon juice
½ c. sugar
¼ c. flour

Mix all ingredients together and let sit for a few minutes for flavors to meld.  Pour into a large pie dish (9-10 inches) or a small casserole dish.

3.  Mix the crumble topping.

1/3 c. cold unsalted butter cut into pieces
1/3 c. sugar

Pulse butter and sugar few times in a food processor to mix.

¾ c. oatmeal (quick-cook)
2/3 c. almond grounds/meal/flour
¼ t. salt

Add the above to the butter mixture and pulse a few more times to combine and then sprinkle the mixture over the fruit. 


(Note: We used a little less butter and sugar originally in following the Chocolate & Zucchini recipe, but we found that we wanted a bit more streusel-ly a texture.  You might see in the photo above that the topping looks fairly loose and dry.  If you would prefer it that way, use ¼ cup butter and ¼ cup sugar.)

4.  Bake the crumble.

Bake for about 45 minutes until you have thick fruit juices bubbling up.  Remove from oven, cool slightly, and serve.  Vanilla ice cream is always a nice addition as dessert.  We actually also had this dish in the morning over unsweetened Greek yogurt, and it made an extra-special yogurt parfait!



Friday, September 7, 2012

Supporting Our Farmers and Sustaining Our Bodies: A Win-Win Proposition


Will and I were talking to neighbors a few days ago about the extreme weather we have been experiencing and the plight of the small farm during this season of heat and drought.  Our neighbors—who had been talking to our local farmer’s market vendors—told us some distressing tales about what independent farmers were suffering.  Apparently, the apple crop around the Chicago area is all but nonexistent, not just because of the drought this summer but because of the unexpected heat we had in March.  So many farmers have lost their crops that they have resorted to purchasing produce from other larger farms and re-selling them so that they would not lose their customer base.

Last week when I was picking up my bag of organic vegetables and fruit from our local service that work with area farmers, I asked how farmers in the area were doing.  Again, I heard woeful tales of a shortened farming season, desperately praying for rain, and hoping somehow to survive this harvest season without losing too much.  All this has made me even more determined to buy and eat local produce so that I could do my tiny little bit to help out these stricken farmers.  After all, with so few independent farmers in the United States, what are consumers to do if even more farmers leave the flailing enterprise?

To that end, let me share some of my favorite farms, Community Supported Agriculture operations (CSAs), and produce services we enjoyed:

Angelic Organics

Angelic Organics introduced us to the CSA lifestyle.  One of the oldest, Angelic Organics is still one of the most popular CSAs in the Chicago area.  (Click here for more: http://www.angelicorganics.com/Angelic_Organics___Chicago_CSA/Angelic_Organics___Farmer_John_Productions.html)

Essentially, you purchase a “share” in their farm before the regular season.  By virtue of your early share purchase, independent farms like Angelic Organics can get the financial support they need to thrive in these uncertain farming conditions.  The idea is that they you share in both the “risks” and the “rewards” of farming.  I can honestly say that during the 2-year period that we bought shares with Angelic Organics, we never saw a box not brimming with vegetables.  

The boxes that Angelic Organics provide tend to be hefty, so you might want to split the veggies—and the costs—with others if you are not feeding a very large family.  In fact, Will and I split with two other couples.  There was always plenty of vegetables to go around to all three couples, and we regretted the splitting only once.  There was a week when I could really have used a whole luscious French melon to myself instead of cutting it up three-ways…

Abel and Cole

We had to discontinue our shares in Angelic Organics when we went to live in England for a year.  While we enjoyed our weekly trips to the Cambridge City Market, Marks and Spencer, and Waitrose, we missed having the surprise of an organic box of vegetables every week.  Surely—we thought—England also operates CSAs. 

Abel and Cole (http://www.abelandcole.co.uk/) turned out to be a very nice substitute to Angelic Organics.  While Abel and Cole obviously cannot service those of us in the Chicago area, I wanted to include them in this post because they featured many elements that we really appreciated.  First of all, they delivered to each household but rolled the delivery price in with the purchase price such that you didn't feel the pinch of extra $5-10 for the convenience of delivery.

Perhaps used to smaller households—or just catering to smaller appetites?—Abel and Cole’s delivery options included an actual "small box" that contained the perfect amount of food for two adults.  Their small box of "Fruit & Veg" for 1-2 adults featured a changing list of 3 fruits and 5 vegetables with (this being England) the requisite spud component.  It was during this year abroad that we came to love roasting parsnips more than we had ever done—parsnips were fairly ubiquitous!—and discovered, less felicitously, that eating prodigious quantities of Jerusalem Artichokes produced, well, “gaseous” aftereffects…

Genesis Growers

After we returned to the U.S., we wanted to continue on with a CSA.  But with a move further away from the usual delivery sites for Angelic Organics, we decided that we might need to try a different CSA.  After some investigation, we chose Genesis Growers (http://www.genesis-growers.com/), a farm in St. Anne, Illinois.  Not only did they receive excellent Yelp reviews, but they also had a pick-up location less than 2 miles from our new condo.

We really appreciated the fact that Genesis Growers had fruit included as part of their regular box since we consume at least as much fruit as we do vegetables.  The boxes tended to be full and varied—though the weeks in late fall and early winter tended to lean heavily towards winter squashes.  I can honestly say that I never knew there were so many varieties of pumpkins, and our freezer became a repository for containers of pumpkin and squash purees!

Fresh Picks

When we discovered that we were just not going through enough vegetables to support the smallest box from Genesis Growers, we had to re-evaluate our commitment to CSAs.  We earnestly believed in the mission and absolutely bought into the premise behind them, but we just could not eat so much!  Our now-scattered friends made splitting a share less practicable as well.  Besides which, while we could always attend farmer’s markets during the CSA seasons, it wasn’t clear what we could do during the rest of the year in terms of supporting farmers and consuming organic produce.

During a frenzied bit of research trying to find the Chicago equivalent of Abel and Cole (which really was ideal in terms of convenience, size, and year-round accessibility), I found an operation called Fresh Picks (http://www.freshpicks.com/cms/).  Since it turned out that their warehouse was less than two miles away from our condo, we decided to forego the delivery service (and fee) and pick up our boxes instead.  Like Abel and Cole, Fresh Picks allowed us to dictate when we wanted a box.  (Contents of our most recent box are in the picture at the top of this post.) That flexibility made it easy to bypass being charged during our vacations—or when we were still too busy going through contents of previous boxes.  (Click here for an earlier post describing meals produced from a typical box: http://eatingreadingwriting.blogspot.com/2011/11/csa-box-extravaganza.html)

We might not be purchasing a “share” before the farming season, but we are still supporting many area farms.  Between April and November, we receive mostly local produce—both vegetables and fruits if you opt for that box—and so we feel we are still supporting area farms.  Occasionally I feel guilty when I receive, in the dead of winter, a red bell pepper from Israel or bananas from Mexico.  On the whole, though, Fresh Picks has enabled us to eat organic produce and to support area farmers. 

Hopefully, those of us who participate in CSAs or who order through services such as Fresh Picks are able to help give farmers some measure of comfort and security during these seasons of extreme weather.