Looking Back on Vegan Month

We ate strictly vegan for the entire month of April. K talked me into it; he thought (correctly) that if we didn’t go all out, we’d make do with half measures and wouldn’t try really new things. He was also partially inspired by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who goes vegan for a month every year at Serious Eats, and by the fact that we’ve recently seen some vegan chefs whip up deliciousness out of very little on cooking shows. We only slipped up a few times, and by accident; once I absentmindedly put honey in my tea, and he ate a couple of chips before realizing that they had dairy ingredients. We continued to cook meat for the kids, but washed out the pans and utensils before using them to cook our food. It’s been a couple of weeks since vegan month ended, and these are my takeaways:

– I thought I would miss steak and bacon. Instead, I missed eggs and tiny fish. I found mushrooms and tofu to be meaty and flavorful enough, and smoked paprika was a pretty decent flavor stand-in for bacon, but there’s no substitute for a perfectly runny egg or the briny punch of an anchovy. When the month ended, the first meat protein I ate was a single smoked sardine, right out of the jar.

– That said, I found that our vegan dishes tended to be incredibly flavorful. Maybe this was a function of how we cooked, but we’ve found that meat tends to provide a shortcut to deliciousness, whereas it needs to be coaxed out of vegetables a little more. When vegetables show up with flavor, though, it’s absolutely killer.

image: portobello cap with Brussels sprouts, sauteed greens, and mashed potatoes; two mixed green salads with roasted cauliflower, mushroom, and tomato; cauliflower and chickpea curry over rice.

– On weekends we cook for the week ahead; in the pre-vegan times this meant having cooked meat, cooked veg, and starch in the fridge ready to assemble and reheat. Obviously this had to change for vegan month; after some less-than-successful attempts to recreate the previous system, I found that I loved seasoning and cooking elements separately (mushrooms, cauliflower, sweet potato, tofu, etc) and then just having the little flavor bombs sitting in the fridge ready to go. All we had to do was put a few spoonfuls of each onto rice, salad greens, or beans, and the combination immediately became complex and savory, new flavors in every bite.

– Trying vegan dessert recipes was a disaster; generalizing from the two (well-reviewed!) “vegan dessert” recipes I tried, anyone writing dessert recipes from a vegan/health perspective doesn’t know what real dessert is supposed to taste like. Instead, I took my brother’s advice: start with normal recipes and substitute accordingly. I used sticks of plant-based “butter” in place of actual butter; almond or coconut milk instead of dairy; and flax meal and water for egg. Those substitutions managed to turn out delicious cookies, cakes, muffins, enriched breads, and filled bao (with char siu jackfruit filling) without having to make further compromises. Also, meringues made out of aquafaba (chickpea water) turned out amazingly well.

4 images: cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies, char siu bao and scallion flower roll, aquafaba meringues

– DUMPLINGS. What a game changer. In the past I’ve only ever wrapped dumplings with a pork-based filling, and it was always a little nerve-wracking; I’m super germ-conscious, and very careful about washing my hands, sanitizing surfaces, and segregating items that touched raw meat away from items that haven’t. However, with a dumpling filling based on tofu/wheat gluten/mushrooms/cabbage, well-seasoned and even cooked beforehand, I felt all my worries melting away. I made dumplings with gleeful abandon. It was so freeing. I may never make raw meat dumplings again, I am completely serious. It’s not worth the stress, especially when there’s so much flavor in the vegan ones.

image: a hand holding an unwrapped dumpling; vegan filling in the background; a line of filled, folded dumplings waiting to cook

– Overnight oats! I am an overnight oat convert. K made Alton Brown’s overnight coconut oats and they were so good, we didn’t even try any other recipes even though I’d bookmarked a bunch. I found them kind of weird and cold and goopy at first, but the recipe we used was so fragrant with coconut and almond that it drew me in. My grab-and-go breakfast used to be a baked item (bun, croissant, muffin) and a boiled egg; I would usually be quite hungry by lunchtime. Now I actively crave overnight oats, which I serve myself with frozen berries and a sliced banana, and I’m only slightly hungry by noon. All hail overnight oats. We’ve continued eating them well past the end of April.

image: a bowl of overnight coconut oats topped with sliced banana, frozen blueberries, and oat-and-seed crunch

Now that we’re well into the post-vegan-month period, I think some changes have staying power; when cooking a quick weeknight meal, I used to reach for eggs as an easy protein, and now I reach for tofu or chickpeas instead (I’ll save the eggs for the good stuff). This past weekend, I made a typical weekend brunch (pancakes, eggs, bacon, fruit), and then felt that it was incomplete; after adding a hash with potato, onion, and diced colorful peppers, the meal looked and felt a lot more appealing.

When cooking ahead for this week, we made a big dal tadka (cooked lentils flavored with spicy onions and tomatoes, honestly it’s kind of like a beany Indian congee), sauteed some chickpeas with spinach and peppers, and grilled up a bunch of asparagus, mushrooms, and tofu. We (really, K) also grilled a single steak, which we’ve shared among the four of us, and we also made some soy sauce chicken drumsticks for the kids. The fridge is also well stocked with roasted sweet potatoes (halved and roasted with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika, they are amazing), which go with anything. In the past we would have cooked up a big meat-centered dish and all the vegetables would have been dutiful afterthoughts. I’m definitely happy with how things have evolved (and so are my taste buds). Well done, K.

image: sauteed chickpeas with spinach and peppers; grilled asparagus, mushrooms, and tofu; a bowl of dal tadka

Vegan “milk” bao (and other stuff)

On Saturday night the little one asked wistfully when I was next going to make cinnamon rolls, which reminded me that I wanted to try King Arthur Flour’s new recipe for cinnamon rolls (it’s the Perfectly Pillowy Cinnamon Rolls, their 2021 Recipe of the Year, and their instagram has been all over it). I had already been a fan of their previous cinnamon roll recipe that also used a tangzhong, so I was eager to try the new and improved version; her request was the excuse I had been looking for.

So Sunday I dragged myself away from my library book and mixed up the dough. Then, while it was rising, I thought hey, I could make more bao (it’s become a regular thing during the pandemic) so mixed up a basic bao dough and put it aside to rise. It’s a relatively new version; last month we decided to go entirely vegan for a month, and I found out that our preferred bao recipe actually veganizes (is that a word?) pretty easily, so easily that I’m just going to use it going forward. Dough is adapted from Woks of Life’s milk bread recipe:

Vegan “Milk” bread bao:

1 2/3 cups of coconut milk (or one standard 13.5 oz / 400mL can)
1/4 cup (50g) sugar
1 Tbsp flax meal + 3 Tbsp water (this is a substitute for 1 egg; I like to use the water to rinse the dregs of coconut out of the can)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup (70g) cake flour
3 1/2 cups (500g) bread flour
heavy pinch of salt (supposed to be 1 1/2 tsp, I just grab some from the salt cellar)

Shake up the coconut milk in the can (sometimes the cream inside is separated). Combine coconut milk, sugar, flax meal, water, and yeast in a bowl; stir it up and then let it sit for a while until the yeast wakes up and it starts looking frothy. Then sift in the cake flour, bread flour, and salt. Knead until the dough is smooth and firm (I like to knead dough right in the mixing bowl, it’s less messy that way) and then cover the bowl with a towel, put it someplace warm, and let rise for 1 hour.

After the 1 hour rise, you can shape it. Flour or lightly oil your surface (I like to use a big cutting board) as well as your hands, so the dough doesn’t get too sticky. Knead it a little bit to get rid of air bubbles, then portion it out and shape it however you like. Sometimes I roll it into balls and space them out a little bit in a pan; they’ll rise and press against each other and make for great tear-apart rolls. I’ve also rolled the balls into disks and then wrapped them around filling, pinching firmly to seal; another idea is to roll them into twists with raisins or dried cranberries. You can also roll it flat like you’re going to make cinnamon rolls, smear the flattened rectangle with seasoning (mayo + pork floss and scallion worked well this time, shallot oil has also worked well, next time I want to try chili oil), roll up and slice like cinnamon rolls. It’s a super flexible dough and shapes well.

After shaping, cover with a towel and let rise for another hour. Halfway through, preheat the oven to 350F. After the dough has risen nicely, bake for 20-25 minutes, checking towards the end of baking time (the smaller your shapes, the quicker they’ll bake).

Let cool until they’re safe enough to handle, and enjoy!

May be an image of food and indoor
It was a busy Sunday morning.

This round’s bao are the two pictures on the top. The left ones are shaped like cinnamon rolls, but with mayo + pork floss and scallion filling; the right ones are dried cranberry twists (with varying degrees of success in shaping the twist) and bao painted with shallot oil, rolled tightly, and pinched shut.

Underneath those are the cinnamon rolls; unfrosted on the left, frosted on the right. I ended up rolling the dough more tightly, and cutting them smaller, than the size specified by the recipe; I wanted to keep the serving sizes small, since our smallish children do not need giant cinnamon rolls. I also iced them with the remnants of our vegan cashew buttercream instead of making more icing from scratch. I was pleased with the result, but the little one complained that they weren’t as stuck-together, or as generously-iced, as her preferred cinnamon roll: the cinnamon rolls from Ikea.

No matter how I try, I will never equal the Ikea cinnamon rolls. The Soft Cinnamon Rolls from King Arthur came closer though, and was about as much work. I’m glad I tried the new recipe, but we’ll be going back to the old one next time.

A quick note on the bottom two pictures: halfway through baking, I realized that I was getting hungry because it was close to lunch time; I cooked pasta and quickly wilted some spinach, mixed it with chickpeas and chopped bell pepper and olive oil and lemon juice – it’s basically Padma Lakshmi’s super-quick chickpeas and spinach tapas recipe. It went well on the adults’ pasta; the kids had buttered pasta with mushrooms, and plain pasta with baby tomatoes, respectively, which are their preferred pasta treatments. Life lesson: eat when you’re hungry, the bread won’t suffer it it rises for a little longer than needed.

Oh, and second life lesson: when you make cookies, scoop half the batch into rounds and freeze them. That way you’ll have a bag of unbaked cookies in the freezer, ready to pop into the oven whenever it’s warm. There’s nothing like a tray of freshly baked cookies to brighten one’s day. (These were also vegan! Cook’s Illustrated Thin, Crisp Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, with vegan butter, flax “eggs,” and dark chocolate chips.)

As a bonus, I had warm cookies to eat with my library book, when I finally got back to it.

If at first you don’t succeed, maybe try something else

I actually do have a lot of pictures of coffee and croissants stored on my phone, but it seems really sad to post them now, when those shops are empty and closed, and the thought of wandering into a coffee shop on my way to work seems weird and alien. Heck, after almost two months of holing up at home, the thought of walking to work at all seems like an action belonging to another lifetime.

Now I brew my own coffee every morning and make my own baked goods, and even though every now and then I’m tempted to try making croissants, it’s hard to think of sinking so much precious butter into a single recipe.

Most of our cooking now revolves around the fun intersection of “what do we have in the pantry/freezer” and “what will the kids eat?” We’ve been making a lot of comfort food, and knowing that K loves coconut (I’ve been learning to love it), I decided to use up some of our shredded coconut and coconut milk with a coconut cream pie.

Then all of our bananas from Costco overripened practically overnight, and I thought: how about banoffee pie? A friend of ours had made it a couple of months ago and the flavors had been delicious. How about a coconut cream banoffee pie? With coconut in the pie crust, dulce du leche and bananas on the bottom, topped with a fluffy coconut cream custard, piled high with whipped cream, and (because why not overdo it) toasted shredded coconut sprinkled on top?

Things actually went pretty swimmingly for the most part despite my mucking about with the concept – the crust slipped down into the pan during parbaking despite the pie weights, I’m blaming the coconut in the dough – until I got to the whipped cream. I had some coconut milk left over from the custard, and decided to fold the rest of it into the whipped cream.

The cream did not whip. I tried all my tricks. I hit it with an immersion blender, whisked it by hand, added more sugar, chilled it and tried again, added a bit of sour cream for stability, put it in the stand mixer, basically dirtied half the dishes in the kitchen, and after dinner only managed to get a sad slump of soft cream onto the pie. In my distraction I even forgot the toasted coconut (which I’d managed, miraculously, not to burn.)

K, being a gentleman, pointed out that the pie was still delicious, but I was determined to get this right. After consulting the internet (which I should have done in the first place), I found that canned coconut milk tended to have stabilizers to keep it from clumping up in the can, and I should have gotten some mythical “full-fat coconut milk without stabilizers” to whip up. Oh well. Instead of trying to whip it up again, I cut my losses and used the sad creamy mess in place of cream in my favorite cream scone recipe (they baked up quite nicely, and the hint of coconut was a really neat touch). The kids gave them such rave reviews that I barely managed to snag a few for a photo.

The nice thing about making a recipe that you’re quite familiar with is that you know what consistency of dough you’re going for; the mixture was a little wet but I added in enough flour to get it where it needed to be.

Then I whipped real cream with nothing else in it, and finally was able to top the coconut banoffee cream pie as it deserved.

Comfort foods are extra comforting when they turn out perfectly.

Neither of the kids liked it, by the way, so they’ve been eating Jell-O and Easter chocolates. Figures. More pie for us!

summer/fall CSA, week 23

This was the last week of this year’s Breezy Willow CSA. It’s like a picture of what’s awesome about fall.

Huge heads of cauliflower and broccoli, brussels sprouts, Golden Delicious and Fuji apples, sweet potatoes, onions, spinach, Cacoctin Kettle Korn, eggs, and bread (Breadery ciabatta).

And that’s it until the spring. [sniff]

Week 23 was actually two weeks ago, and we’ve now eaten all of the stuff in the pickup except the sweet potatoes, which are currently still waiting patiently on the dining table. They’ll get roasted up sometime this weekend, I’m sure.

Today is the final day of a three-day workweek, which meant that I got to pack only three days’ worth of lunches this past Sunday night. I was pretty excited about having the week mostly taken care of on Sunday. Check it out: three days, twelve lunches.

K and I have chili over rice with spinach; the Little Prince gets rice with green beans, chicken, and a smidge of bacon (bribery), the Little Princess gets pancakes, spinach scrambled eggs, and bacon (breakfast foods are good finger foods), and you can also see the Little Prince’s fruit sides (mandarin orange segments with dried cranberries); I only made two but it was easy enough to make the third last night.

It takes a lot of prep for everyone in the family to get homemade meals every day, but if you do things in bulk, it pays dividends in time on busy weeknights.

I’m really looking forward to our multiple Thanksgiving meals this weekend (two local families = two Thanksgivings and no arduous travel! We’re really lucky). The best thing about Thanksgiving is the potluck nature of it all; if you do things right, you only need to make one or two dishes out of several, and then you get to stuff your face with family and friends.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone.

summer/fall CSA week 21; dark chocolate buttercream

Guys, guys! The trees outside are all beautiful colors, the weather is incredibly mild, the fruits of the harvest are rolling in. Let’s just ignore the fact that I haven’t posted in, um, apparently ten weeks? Instead, let’s just admire last week’s beautiful pickup from Breezy Willow:

summer/fall CSA, week 21

That’s an absolutely enormous cauliflower, a pound of kale, brussels sprouts, a spaghetti squash, white mushrooms, red-skinned potatoes, two kinds of apples (Golden Delicious and Stayman, I think), and the usual eggs and bread (Breadery ciabatta).

I’m eating one of the Golden Delicious apples as I type and although it’s a tad mealy, the flavor is so sweet and refreshing, I still love it.

Let’s also check out this gigantic sweet potato that Casey brought in from the field (and apparently decorated).

this huge potato is such a sweetie

Yes, it’s as big as a loaf of bread. Crazy, huh?

The Little Princess turned one this past weekend, which means that K and I have been able to keep two kids alive simultaneously for an entire year. We threw a party to celebrate, with plentiful food. We stuffed three pumpkins (bacon & cheese, chard & cheese, wild rice & mushroom) and I made a cake, horse-shaped for my little Year of the Horse girl.

horse cake for a Little Princess

Eyes and ears are made of white chocolate, with dark chocolate scribbled on top to provide details. I’m pretty proud of the cake, even though structural instabilities meant that the head fell off halfway through the party. It’s okay; it was all edible, so we just gave the head to the Little Princess to eat. And that dark chocolate buttercream was darn tasty, if I do say so myself.

And now, of course, post-Halloween, the house is full of candy, which I’m using to bribe my son to finish his dinner. Whatever works, right?

Happy fall, everybody! It’s my favorite time of year.

Easiest Dark Chocolate Buttercream

Food processor buttercream is my new favorite thing. Forget separating egg whites; forget running the stand mixer over and over again to beat in sugar in batches. Just dump everything into the food processor and let it whiz until buttercream miraculously appears. For an adult note to the flavor, add a pinch of sea salt.

To get the contrasting color, you can make a non-chocolate batch by omitting the cocoa powder and 1/2 stick of butter.

This makes enough frosting to cover a horse-shaped cake 7″ long and 2-4 layers tall from back to front, as well as two dozen cupcakes, so it’s a LOT of frosting. Adapted from smitten kitchen.

12 Tbsp Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder (I’m sure you can use regular, but then you won’t end up with Dark Chocolate buttercream)
1 cup + 4 Tbsp (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3 3/4 cups powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
4 tablespoons half-and-half or whole milk
2 tsp vanilla
pinch of sea salt (optional)

Dump everything in the food processor, cover it up, and start spinning it. I like to pulse it a few times to get everything mixed up before letting the processor really rip. You’ll have a beautiful thick buttercream in no time at all.

winter bread and bones

With the snow piled up high and thick outside, it’s hard to believe that Breezy Willow’s spring CSA starts up next week. It really feels like I need the CSA to prod me into posting. Every year I promise myself that I’m going to post during the winter break, talk about Thanksgiving frenzy and Christmas cookies, not to mention the soups and scones and winter braises that are filling my kitchen… and yet I never seem to get myself together enough to even log onto the site. Too easy to put it off, I guess.

The biggest news: over this past winter — just about a week after the last time I posted on this blog, actually — our household expanded by one new member. With the new little girl, we have now returned to gender parity. Since there’s now more than one kid, I’m promoting the boy formerly known as “the kid” to his new title, “Little Prince.” He kind of behaves like one anyway…

His new baby sister (little princess?) is a good eater so far. I look forward to introducing her to purees in just a couple more months; too early for the new spring/summer fruits, but there should have plenty of cold storage apples and carrots to mush up for her.

Everyone’s sick of winter by now but I confess I still love it. I still love wrapping up in scarves and soft knits to go outside, and I love looking out the window into a winter wonderland, all the trees and branches outlined, a simple palette of brown and pine and gorgeous, fluffy white.

Since daycare was closed for yesterday’s snowstorm, we all stayed home. We had some marrow bones from our Wagon Wheel Ranch cow in the freezer, so we roasted those up for a nice post-shoveling treat. Roasting marrow is so easy: set the bones cut-side-up on a pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper, put them in a 450 degree oven until the marrow starts to bubble – 20 minutes or so. Once it’s cooked you can just scoop it out with a spoon… or a piece of bread.

We went with the Speedy No-Knead Bread. Easy as anything, and perfect for a snow day: mix flour, water, yeast, and salt in the morning, let it rise 4 hours, dump it onto an oiled pan and fold it over, let the dough sit half an hour more, dump it into a preheated pot (the pot has to be fiery hot, or your bread will stick) and bake for about an hour, uncovering the pot halfway through. It creates a rustic, round loaf with a toasted crunchy exterior and a chewy, bubbly interior, and we ate the entire loaf in a day. Four common ingredients and a heated pot, barely any work, and out of that you get a wonderful loaf of artisan bread. Baking is like magic.

After scraping out the marrow bones with bread, we dumped the empty bones into a stockpot full of water to extract a rich, fragrant stock. It simmered late into the night, and then I just put the entire covered pot outside on the patio to cool down. Winter: nature’s freezer. We’ll bring in the pot tonight, skim off the fat, strain out the solids, and pack the resulting stock into the freezer for later.

And as a bonus, the hot oven (450 F, for both bones and bread) heated up the inside of our house quite nicely, and the simmering bone stock on the stove filled every room with a delicious beefy scent. Really, winter is the best.

summer/fall CSA, week 20; fall salad and pizza

Last week’s CSA was a beautiful fall assortment.

summer/fall CSA, week 20

We got two shares of apples, spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, yellow onions, carrots, carnival squash, and apple cider, as well as the usual eggs and bread (Breadery sourdough).

We ate the apples pretty much as is; the kid gets half a sliced apple in his school lunch every day, and K and I both eat an apple apiece at work daily, so apples go fast. In the next few weeks I’m probably going to go nuts on the apples at the farmer’s market, too, so I can put some up as applesauce and pie fillings for the winter. Bread was sliced up and eaten that very day, and the cider disappeared quickly as well.

As for everything else…

what happens to CSA veggies

We had some items left over from last week (top right in the collage), so I mashed all the remaining ingredients into two items. I made a fall salad with roasted sweet potato, squash, Brussels sprouts, and kale; I also sautéed spinach, mushrooms, and onions for pizza. The weather right now is perfect to have the oven on, and these made great leftovers for lunches all week.

Fall Salad: everything roasts at different times, which is actually perfect because you can cut up the next thing while the previous thing is roasting. Set the oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease two pans with olive oil (I used a 9×13 rectangular pan and a 9″ pie pan).

Carnival Squash: slice this one up first. Don’t worry about peeling; peeling winter squash is not to be taken lightly and if you can avoid it, do so. Just put the slices in the greased pie pan and stick it in the oven. These need to stay in for an hour or so, depending on how thick you’ve cut your slices.

Brussels sprouts: rinse and cut in halves; toss in the 9×13 pan with some salt and pepper; stick in oven. These need to cook for 35-40 min.

Sweet potatoes: peel and cut in chunks; toss in the 9×13 pan with some more salt and pepper, stirring the Brussels sprouts around as you do so they don’t burn. Put the pan back in the oven. Sweet potatoes need to cook 25-30 min, or until soft.

Carrots: peel and cut in chunks; toss in the 9×13 pan with the potatoes and sprouts. These need to cook 20 min.

Throw in some peeled garlic cloves while you’re at it. Garlic is always nice.

While the root vegetables are cooking: strip kale from stems, tear into pieces, and rinse; blanch the kale in boiling water to soften it. Then drain it so it’s not soggy.

By this point, your roasting should be done! Toss the kale with the roasted root vegetables. The squash should be done at this point too; just cut the cooked flesh from the peel and toss it with everything else. Squirt some lemon juice over all (adds a nice bright note) and drizzle it with good olive oil. Voila, fall salad. Reheats beautifully, too.

As for the pizza, I used the lazy pizza dough recipe from the Smitten Kitchen blog; I put it together Saturday night and let it rise overnight and well into Sunday. It was a bit touch-and-go as the dough was very wet after its long rise, and tore easily; still, having made it, I smacked it down on the pans and pressed it out and hoped for the best.

I had previously sliced and sauteed mushrooms and onions in olive oil, and I had also wilted down some spinach on the stovetop. K had also pan-fried some sausages and cut them into thin disks, so those went on the pizzas as well. I spread jarred tomato sauce in a thin layer over the dough, then strewed the toppings around and covered it all in shredded mozzarella cheese. They went into the oven at a ripping 550 degrees for about 15 minutes.

They turned out amazing. The crust was lovely and the vegetables took on a wonderful roasted texture. Plus, served alongside the fall salad, it made enough for several meals. Definitely doing this again.

CSA week 5, and carrot cupcakes

Summer CSA week 5: green beans, spinach, broccoli, green peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, red and white potatoes, blueberries, eggs, and bread (Great Harvest challah). I also picked up a handful of thyme and sage.

summer CSA, week 5 pickup

Interestingly, a friend who makes her Breezy Willow pickup at a different site on the same day reported that she got cabbage instead of broccoli. I’m relieved to have been in the broccoli crowd; it’s a vegetable the kid will actually eat. (He picks the beet greens off of his pasta; he would likely be completely unimpressed with cabbage.)

What we’ve cooked so far from the pickup: absolutely nothing! We had a long Independence Day weekend but we ended up just having cookouts and going to other peoples’ houses. We have a lot of grilled meats left over though so my plan is to just cook all the CSA items up separately (well, definitely the beans, spinach, zucchini, and broccoli) so that we have it available for sides for the meats. The cucumbers will probably get pickled, and the peppers and potatoes will be frozen for later (thanks to the Unmanly Chef, I know how to freeze root vegetables! My world will never be the same).

As for the blueberries, what we didn’t eat right away has been portioned off for the kid to take to daycare in his lunch. I’m sure he’ll be delighted.

Although I didn’t make much of a dent in the CSA pickup this weekend, I did manage to get in the kitchen to make some cupcakes. It was K’s birthday weekend, and he loves carrot cake and coconut flavors; I poked around the internet and came up with this combination:

Take 5 Carrot Cupcakes courtesy Food and Wine

Candied carrot cupcake toppers from Food Network

…and a cream cheese frosting, fairly standard: 1/2 block of cream cheese creamed with 1/2 stick of butter, then mixed with 2 cups powdered sugar and a dash of vanilla until smooth.

Honestly the most annoying part was grating the carrots; we grated one and a half carrots by hand until I finally figured out where we’d stashed the grating disk for the food processor. Man, I love technology. Once we had the food processor fired up, I think it took less time to grate all of the remaining carrots and wash the resulting dishes than it would have to grate the rest of the carrots by hand.

I also toasted coconut flakes in the last 5 minutes of cooking, to have coconut to sprinkle over the top. I set up my decorating station so that any mess I made would be contained on top of a baking mat. Those things are so easy to clean.

all set up for decorating

That was when I found out that a plain old cupcake, no matter how badly it’s frosted, will look amazing when you have candied carrot strips and bits of coconut to sprinkle over the top.

cupcakes: decorated!

They were phenomenal, by the way. The cupcake recipe makes an almost magically moist and airy cake, and the rich cream cheese frosting, punctuated by toasted coconut and crunchy candied carrot, is a perfect accompaniment.

And K liked it, which is really all that matters. Happy birthday, K!

spring CSA week 4, and awesome lamb pot roast

Last week’s pickup: potatoes, green beans, apples (six Stayman, six “Red”), three beets, three grapefruit, mushrooms, eggs, a bag of spinach, eggs, bread (Breadery sourdough), and a bonus item. I picked apple butter. The other choices were horseradish mustard, salsa, or applesauce.

spring CSA, week 4

In previous years, Breezy Willow offered a bonus item (usually preserves, honey, or cheese) once a month, in place of eggs. This year it’s along with eggs. I’m pretty happy about this, because we really got in the rhythm of a certain number of eggs per week, and the monthly egg interruption threw us off a little every time. Also, yay for a true “bonus” item.

Last night I threw a bunch of CSA root vegetables in a Dutch oven with a big hunk of lamb from Wagon Wheel Ranch (unfortunately I didn’t look at the label, so I’m not sure what cut it was), some Guinness, and lots of stock and flavorings. It turned out phenomenal, so much so that I burned my tongue going back for second tastings straight out of the oven. Great for cold-weather cooking. Hey, if it’s going to snow outside (at the end of March!), I’m going to turn on the oven.

Snowy Sunday Lamb Pot Roast

A good hunk of lamb, bone-in, I think it might have been leg?, 4-5 lbs
1 gigantic carrot, cut into chunks
2 small yellow onions, chopped
5 stalks celery, chopped
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
5 medium white or yellow potatoes, cut into chunks
1 1/2 cans of Guinness, about 28 oz
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice
1 cup lamb stock, though beef or chicken would do fine
1 beef bouillon cube
generous pinch dried thyme
generous pinch dried rosemary
2 bay leaves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Pat the lamb dry with a paper towel, and season all available surfaces with salt and pepper. Sprinkle flour over entire chunk of lamb. Coat the bottom of a large Dutch oven with olive oil and warm over medium heat. Add the roast and sear each side for 4 to 5 minutes, or until nicely browned. Remove the roast to a large plate.

Add more olive oil to the Dutch oven. Add the carrots, onions, celery, and garlic, more salt and pepper, and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until carrots are cooked but onions aren’t browned. Add the potatoes and Guinness and bring to a boil. Add the tomatoes, stock, bouillon cube, herbs, and bay leaves. Bring it back to a boil, put the roast back into the pot, and cover. Put the covered pot in the oven for 2 1/2 hours, turning the heat down to 250 F after about an hour, until the meat is nice and tender, with an internal temperature of over 140 degrees. (Mine was 200 degrees when I finally checked it, but it was almost meltingly tender.)

Granola bars! and this Sunday’s shopping

I think I snapped sometime last week, when I dug yet another tasteless supermarket granola bar out of my work drawer. It tasted like cardboard and chemicals, a mockery of the big chunks of chocolate and round red cherries on the plastic wrapper. I grumpily ate it anyway (I was hungry, after all), but promised myself I would find a better way.

The internet (specifically, Smitten Kitchen) came to the rescue! I won’t copy her recipe over because I barely changed it, but if you want to click through, I recommend doing so. The recipe takes almost zero time to come together, it’s easy as anything, and you’ll never eat a supermarket granola bar again. (Well, you might. But you’ll resent it.)

On top of the oat base, the recipe calls for 2 to 3 cups of dried fruits and nuts. All we had in the house were Craisins and chocolate chips, so I used 1.5 cups of Craisins, 1/3 cup of chocolate chips, and 1 cup of Rice Krispies cereal to pad things out.

granola bars

They turned out amazing. Yes, even though I messed up and forgot to add the melted butter until the very end (and, in my haste, tried to melt said butter in the microwave and it exploded, leaving greasy streaks everywhere). Anyway, they’re dreamy creations, peanut buttery and oat-y and sparkling with fruits and chocolate. It’s like eating an oatmeal craisin cookie in bar form.

I made them this past Sunday, and we’re already practically halfway through the batch. I used a 9×9 Pyrex dish, but I think next time I’ll use a 9×13 to make an even thinner granola bar (closer to supermarket size). And I’m looking forward to using dried cherries and cashews for the next batch. (Oh, Ann’s House of Nuts, how I miss you.)

We also went to the farmer’s market in Oakland Mills on Sunday. I went for strawberries and bread, and came away with thyme and radishes as well.

Sunday market haul

That’s Popeye bread from Great Harvest (spinach in bread = no guilt about breakfast sandwiches), and both French and English thyme. I’m horrible with plants, but I think if I plant the thyme outside, Mother Nature will take better care of it than I can. And I love thyme on chicken in the summers.

The strawberries lived up to my expectations, by the way; they were wonderfully sweet, juicy, and dark red all the way through. Every year, I’m amazed anew by the taste of ripe strawberries. There’s really no comparison to supermarket ones.

(And if you send your kid to daycare with strawberries to snack on, he’ll smell deliciously sweet when you pick him up in the afternoon. He might even have sticky red streaks on his cheeks, perfect for kissing. It’s adorable.)

Ahem. Anyway. We also made a stop at Linda’s Bakery for assorted cupcakes, since we were going to see family later that day. The people manning the counters are always so patient with me while I dither around figuring out what flavors to get. (Really, I’m just trying to convince myself that I don’t really need to order one of everything.)

Linda's Bakery purchases

Since I hadn’t tried the passionfruit macarons before, we got a couple to sample. (Verdict: very sweet, not terribly passionfruity.) And as a bonus, next time I go in there, I’ll get a free cupcake! They have a frequent buyer card with which you can get a free cupcake after every 10 cupcake purchases. I’ve somehow miraculously managed to hang onto the same one since I started. On the other hand, I must have five or six frequent buyer cards from Great Harvest floating around the house. Someday I’ll find them all and have a bread party.

Anyway, it’s great to live in a place where such good food is so easy to find.