Stacking Functions Garden


Recipe: simple crock-pot borscht

Back to school at our house means I have to start contributing a bit more to meal planning and preparation than I did during the summer. Naturally this leads to panic, which leads to soup.

borscht with bread

(Doesn’t this picture remind you just a bit of an Inn at the Crossroads picture? They are hands-down my favorite new blog of 2011.)

6 lbs beets
2 med. onions, or 1 large
1 qt beef or chicken stock
juice from one lemon
1 tsp. dill weed (or several sprigs fresh)
salt and pepper to taste

1. Peel and roughly chop the beets and onions and place in crock pot.

2. Add stock, then enough water so that beets and onions are just barely covered with liquid. To enhance flavor and nutritional value, you could use 100% stock.

3. Cook all day on low, or 4-6 hours on high. When the beets are soft it’s done, but you have quite a bit of wiggle room. It’s fine if they get a little overdone.

4. Add lemon juice and dill, then mix with an immersion blender until smooth.

5. Salt and pepper to taste, and you’re done!

We served each bowl with a single boiled potato and a dollop of sour cream, both highly recommended. This is a very light soup, so the potato and bread made it into a meal. The best part: this makes a TON of soup. Our family of 4 ate heartily, then we had 5 pints of leftover soup to freeze:

These are so great for lunches. I have 4 different flavors of soup in the freezer right now!

Variation: this is adapted from Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian recipe. He roasts the beets first, which alters the flavor of this a bit (and shortens the cooking time dramatically). I like it both ways.


1 Comment

Book Review: Build Your Own Earth Oven

So it’s been over six months since my last book review (and my last few reviews were pretty lame).  I went on a total fiction binge this year.  I can now say I’ve completely exhausted any need to read about vampires for a very, very long time (at least until the sequel to The Passage comes out).

Anyway, so here’s a little non-fiction book that I picked up on impulse from the library a few weeks ago:

Build Your Own Earth Oven
A low-cost, wood-fired, mud oven simple sourdough bread, perfect loaves
by Kiko Denzer with Hannah Field

Ever since I tasted pizza from my friend Robin’s wood-fired pizza oven, this idea has really intrigued me.  But why build it out of mud?  Well, firebrick is pretty expensive — $2-$3 a piece.  Denzer’s ovens use a handful of firebricks for the oven floor, but they are mostly built out of mud.  He gives seven basic reasons to use mud: it’s fun, fast, artistic, cheap, builds community, is adaptable, and finally — the most compelling reason of all — it turns to brick through the heating process.

Not just any old mud will do, however.  You need mud that has high clay content.  This generally involves digging down a couple of feet past the topsoil.  The easiest way to tell if your soil has enough clay is to pick up a handful, roll it around in your hand into a ball, then squeeze it into a snake shape.  The longer and smoother “snake” you can make (with no cracks), the higher your clay content.

Most people (theoretically) should be able to find soil with high enough clay content for cheap or free, even if they don’t have it in their own yard.

So you build a foundation (Denzer gives multiple options here), lay a couple firebricks, and build a mud-based (also called “cob”) dome top.  While that dries you make a nice neat little oven door.  And… you’re done.  Denzer claims the whole thing can be done in a 1/2 day.  I am skeptical.  Up here in the north country you also definitely need some sort of shelter to put this in: nothing fancy, just a simple structure to keep the rain and snow off.

The chapter on sourdough baking (with recipe) was interesting, but I’m not ready to pick that thread up again for a while.  There are multiple right ways do bake sourdough bread — I just have to [someday] figure out the one that works for me.  Maybe someday if I am lucky enough to retire from full-time work…

If we ever get around to building a wood-fired oven, I will check this book out again.  These things are way cool, and they churn out some really delicious pizzas and breads.  They can also be a neat work of art — here’s some inspirational imagery for you.

My ultimate fantasy: to have a building that somehow incorporates a root cellar, a chicken coop, a garden toolshed + potting bench, and a sheltered but open area with an earth oven.  And then to be able to play there all day every day!  (In my fantasy world, obviously, winter doesn’t exist…)


The perfect is the enemy of the good

This phrase has been in my mind lately — I read it in reference to farming several times over the past few months. It makes sense: there are many really great family farmers out there who may not be certified organic but are still doing right by their animals and their land. Many of them can’t afford the lengthy and expensive process to become certified organic.

In my own life, it has become painfully obvious that I have really overstretched myself lately.  The Master Gardener program + starting a new job + trying to get my own garden efforts for 2010 underway + parenting two two-year-olds is really taking a toll.  I have been really short-tempered lately and my heart is just not in everything I’m doing (at least, not as much as I’d like it to be).

I usually try to be as positive as possible on the blog, but on the other hand I don’t want you all to think it’s constant sunshine and lollipops around here, either.  Here are two recent big FAILS and the silver lining in the second one:

Firstly, this pizza.  What a disaster.  We had some bread dough in the refrigerator that needed to be used up.  Adam was not around and I tried to make pizza with the same method I’ve seen him use: assembling the pizza on the wooden peel and then sliding it onto the hot pizza stone into the oven.  Well, it stuck to the peel and the only way I could slide it off was to fold it up and turn it into this horrible-looking calzone.  Which I then baked and served anyway, even though it was super doughy in the middle.  Nice to know I can be relied upon for a simple meal when Dad’s not at home, eh?

Next up on my walk of shame:

Last fall, when I pruned out all my dead raspberry canes, I must have been completely brain dead afterwards because it seems I put the entire giant pile of them into my compost pile.  Many of them were very thick and woody — these things do not break down quickly or well.

So after the entire winter, this part of the compost bin, which should have been completely full by now of beautiful, dark, rich, compost… was full of… soggy sticks.  However, when I pulled out all the sticks and put them somewhere else, I did manage to find a little bit of good stuff:

I’m going to try and plant the garden this week!  We’re having such an early spring, there’s no reason not to get a jump-start on some of cold-tolerant veggies like peas, cabbage, and radishes.

My goal for this week (aside from getting my garden in) is to be kind to myself.  Silly that this must be a conscious goal, yes?

Leave a comment

Food nights

We’ve been really busy.  It’s hard to make time to make foods from scratch when you are packing so much into your day already.  So one or two nights a week, Adam and I have been having a “home-cooked” night where we break out a bottle of wine after the kids are in bed, and then proceed to cook a bunch of foods at once to get us through the next few days.  The other night we made yogurt, bread, granola, and a bean sandwich spread.

Adam put orange zest in the granola, and it was really elevated to new heights by that simple addition.  He used our basic recipe but sweetened it with a little brown rice syrup, and added orange zest and craisins at the end.  YUMMY!  My bean dip turned out really good too; I used the “a little for you and a little for me” method with my glass of red wine and it really elevated the recipe quite a bit.

As for the bread, I’ve moved on to a new experiment: making more recipes from Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day but using 1/3-1/2 the amount of yeast they call for and greatly increasing the initial rise time — letting the bread rise overnight.  This week’s batch turned out great.

I have a whole bunch of books that I’m in the middle of and hope to review this week.


Recipe: easy, no-knead 100% whole wheat bread

A few weeks ago I had great success with this recipe, but I really wanted to nail down a version of it that was 100% whole grain, and that would be more in line with a Nourishing Traditions-style bread (where the grain is soaked, fermented, or sprouted).  So after a bit of tinkering, I present you:

Easy, No-knead, 100% Whole Wheat Nourishing Traditions Bread
3 3/4 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/3 c. buttermilk
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. honey (optional)
Scant 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
1 1/4 tsp. salt
Cornmeal for dusting

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add buttermilk, oil, honey, and 1 c. water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky, almost more like a very thick cake batter than bread dough. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap. Let dough rest 18 – 24 hours, at warm room temperature.

2. After a good rest, the dough should have expanded and should be releasing occasional bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice — if it’s really wet you might not be able to handle it like normal bread dough.  If it seems really hard to handle just use a scraper to scrape it into something resembling a pile. Don’t worry about it if it seems gooey and weird. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; scrape your dough up into something resembling a ball and put it down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise/spread for about 2 hours.  If your dough is still really wet at this point, the towel will absorb some of the water and it will start to look a lot more like bread dough. When it is ready, dough will be roughly double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. Around a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 5- or 6-quart heavy covered pot in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove the now-hot pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 20 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned — keep an eye on it during this last part because it can vary.

Make sure you cool it completely on a rack so the crust can fully develop.

This bread is good, but honestly don’t expect it to be quite as tasty as my other recipe for no-knead bread.  The fact is, the more white flour you use, the more palatable the end result will be.  So I guess I would call this version more of an every day version, and the other version could be a special occasion type of thing. This is not really a sandwich bread.  More of a dipping in soup or mopping up lentils type thing.  You could make sandwiches with it, but the crust is quite thick and chewy, so be aware of that.  YUM.

For quite a lot more about the whole no-knead bread baking phenomenon, read my original post and recipe.  More information than you will ever need, really.

Note for the NT people: notice that I don’t call for freshly-ground whole wheat flour.  I have not had good luck AT ALL with using that for bread.  My flour mill is a lower-end one, and I think it just doesn’t grind the kernels finely enough.  So for our bread-baking we’re using store-bought organic flour from the co-op.  For now.

Update, January 21, 2011: So, our lives just keep getting crazier and crazier, and I’ve adapted this recipe even further.  Here’s the version I’ve been making lately:

7 c. whole wheat bread flour
1 scant tsp. yeast
1 scant T. sea salt
2 1/2 – 3 c. water
1 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. honey
1/2 c. olive oil

This will give you a dough that’s less wet, and therefore more suitable to other methods of baking.  The original recipe above is very wet and can really only be baked with the hot cast-iron pot method.  This adaptation is firm enough to be shaped into a free-form loaf or used for pizza crust.  It also makes a lot more.  So now I mix up this recipe about once a week and we can make regular loaves of bread or pizza, all from the same bucket.  I just let it rise at least 8 hours or overnight, then stick it in the fridge and we grab a handful of it as we go.  (This is all very much inspired by Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, which I highly recommend.)  This makes around 3 small loaves, or 3 pizzas.

1 Comment


Our lives are changing rapidly right now, so I decided we needed a new header as well.  The images are (left to right): hoar frost on my mother-in-law’s crabapple tree, our kitchen, my snow-covered raspberry canes, Anneke peeking at some pumpkin muffins, and the best bread I’ve ever baked.

This won’t be a surprise to friends and family, but for the rest of you kind readers: after eleven years I have decided to leave the Star Tribune and pursue an opportunity with the Minnesota Orchestra.  I’ll still be doing web design, but I am going to dip my toe into the non-profit world and see how much I like it.  I’m very excited!  I’m sad to say goodbye to my friends at the Strib, but the time felt very right to make this move.  The new job starts March 15.

The same week I got my job offer, Adam also found out that he will very likely be able to go full-time at his school next year.  So thus ends our 3 year experiment in having at least one parent be home part-time.  I’m nervous about the change, but I’m also grateful that we had as much time as we did.  Our financial situation won’t dramatically improve with Adam working full-time, but it definitely will ease up a bit.

My hope is that all the richness we’ve built up in our home over the last 2.5 years can continue, even when our lives become a little bit more hectic with both of us working full-time.  We have until September to find out, so for now I will focus on my new job, the start of biking & gardening season, and continuing with the Hennepin County Master Gardener program.  2010 is going to go down in history as my craziest year ever…


Recipe: Easy, no-knead whole wheat bread

A couple weeks ago, I was reading the comments on a blog post about bread, and there was a link to an old NYT article by Mark Bittman, describing a baker in New York who had developed a really easy, no-knead method for baking bread.  The article describes his method, and includes his recipe.  There’s also a video tutorial on youTube.

I can’t help but wonder if this very article is what got the “Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day/Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day” people thinking, since this article pre-dates those books.  Jim Lahey, the NY baker, has a very similar method to the one outlined in that book, with one key difference: he uses significantly less yeast, and lets the dough sit at room temperature for a very long time, until it starts to naturally ferment.  Bittman explains it all very nicely in the article.

The recipe included in the Times called for white flour, so I modified it, made it my own, and now present it to you: the very best bread that has ever come out of my oven (I know I said that last week too, but this one beats that one).  It’s almost all whole wheat, it’s soaked (therefore it is more Nourishing Traditions/Weston A Price-friendly than most breads), it requires little to no special equipment, and best of all it is EASY!

Easy, no-knead whole wheat bread
2 3/4 c. whole wheat flour or whole wheat bread flour
1 c. white flour or white bread flour
Scant 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
1 1/4 tsp. salt
Cornmeal for dusting
2 c. water, room-temperature

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 2 c. water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest 18 – 24 hours, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles (more white flour = more bubbles). Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice.  Don’t worry about it if it seems gooey and weird. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise/spread for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6-quart heavy covered pot (I used our Lodge enameled cast-iron one) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove the now-hot pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.  Just look at this beauty:

Make sure you cool it completely so the crust can fully develop.  Wow, was this delicious.  I love that the only equipment you really need is the heavy pot — as much as I would love a le creuset one, our Lodge one works just fine, and we got it for around $50 at Fleet Farm.  (And we use it for lots of other things besides bread.)  Here’s the bread after cutting:

Oh my.  I think I will be adapting more “Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day” recipes and baking them with this method.  Their way is good, but this way is even better.  Here is all the original information that inspired me:

The video of Mark Bittman and NYC baker Jim Lahey

Bittman’s 2006 NYT article describing the process

The original recipe (makes a white loaf)

My next bread-related post will be a 100% whole grain version of this.  Might take a couple weeks, but I promise I’ll get to it!

UPDATE, March 18, 2010: Here it is, a 100% whole wheat version of this recipe.

Leave a comment

This weekend

Why does it seem like we had a super busy weekend, but really we didn’t do much of anything?  Oh well, with my Master Gardener class starting Tuesday maybe a little downtime was a good thing.  I had the opportunity to cook supper for the family tonight, and here’s what I made:

The bread: Vollkornbrot (German for “whole kernel bread”), recipe from Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day.  It was pretty good, but not quite as good as the “master recipe” bread we made last week from the book.  I tried soaking all the ingredients for a solid 6 hours before I added the yeast, in order to give it the Nourishing Traditions treatment.  Result: it was hard to work the yeast in, I ended up adding more liquid, and as a result the dough was very difficult to work with today.

The bread itself was quite heavy, and some of the wheat kernels were kind-of difficult to chew.  Has anyone ever had authentic German Vollkornbrot?  Is it supposed to be this heavy?  Maybe.  I liked it, but wouldn’t want it every day.  This might be a dough that gets better after it sits for a couple of days.  (Confused?  See my “Healthy Bread” synopsis.)

Then there’s the soup: Smoked Haddock Chowder (from a restaurant called The Spotted Pig in NYC).  Jason Kottke linked to it from his blog, and was so excited about the recipe becoming available that I couldn’t help it; I had to try it.  It took a long time to make — especially to dice all those vegetables, but boy howdy.  This is, hands-down, the most delicious thing I’ve ever cooked.  The only thing I did different from the recipe was that I couldn’t find smoked haddock and used smoked whitefish instead.  Wow.  It wasn’t super difficult, but it took a kitchen novice like myself a long time.  So worth it.  Next time I need to impress someone, I will whip this recipe out.  Highly recommended.


Book review: Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Healthy Bread in Five
Minutes a Day

100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-free Ingredients
by Jeff Hertzberg & Zoe Francois

I was very excited when I first heard about last year’s Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, but I was really disappointed when I brought the book home from the library to find only one whole-grain recipe in the whole book.  I must not have been the only one, because the authors quickly followed it up with this gem of a sequel.  For the first time in a long time, I can say, I am buying this book.

The book is pretty much exactly what you expect: almost 100% whole grain breads, 100% whole grain breads, flatbreads, pizza crusts, rolls, pretzels, etc.  There are options for unusual grains like quinoa and spelt, and many options that include fruits and vegetables (including one for Peppery Pumpkin and Olive Oil Loaf, which looks amazing).

In the short time I had this book out from the library (it’s on a waiting list so renewals were not allowed), we only had time to try one recipe — the Master Recipe.  Like Artisan Bread, this book has one basic recipe that they’d like you to master before moving on to the others.  A nice bonus: there are at least 7  simple variations using the exact same dough, but just baking it in different ways.

If this whole concept is completely new to you, here’s the basic premise: you mix up a large batch of very wet bread dough, very quickly, without kneading.  Let it rise once, then transfer it to the fridge (without punching it down).  Take chunks from this over the next 1-2 weeks and bake it.  Towards the end of the lifecycle of the dough it begins to ferment just a bit, giving your bread a sourdough flavor.

I have to say, I really love this concept.  Especially when you can do so many different things from one bowl of this dough.  You could bake bread, pizza, hamburger buns, you name it.  The dough is right there waiting for you in the refrigerator.

Here’s how it went for us, making the Master Recipe:

It calls for 7 cups of flour (5 wheat, 2 white), so I quickly realized the amount was too great for our mixer to handle.  As it turned out, mixing by hand took about 3 minutes and was no trouble at all.

Here’s what the dough looked like.  Next: cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a nice warm place.  I turned on the oven for a while, so that the surface of the stove would get nice and warm, and set the bowl there.  It rose in roughly one hour (rising times can vary).

Here’s the dough, fully risen (approx. double in size), right as I set it in the refrigerator.

The book says when you’re not used to making bread this way, let it chill a good 24 hours before baking with it.  It’s easier to handle when it’s cold.  When baking time comes, scoop out about a grapefruit-size portion of the dough and quickly shape it into an oblong loaf.

Place on a flour- and/or cornmeal-dusted pizza peel or wooden cutting board, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 90 minutes.  This part is the most disheartening, because it means you have to be home 2 hours before mealtime in order to have fresh, hot bread.  It works fine for us, since Adam’s a teacher and gets home at 3:30 p.m., but not everyone has that luxury.  I suppose you could always make it the night before, though.  Or on a weekend.

Thirty minutes before baking time, place a pizza stone in the middle rack of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees (the book recommends a special baking stone but our old pizza stone worked fine).  Put an empty broiler tray on the rack below it.  Paint the top of the loaf with water and sprinkle with a mixture of seeds (we used sunflower, caraway & poppy).  Make some slash marks across the top.

Slide it from the pizza peel onto the hot stone in the oven, pour 1 c. of hot tap water into the broiler tray, and close the oven.  Bake for about 30 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.  Believe me, it tastes as good as it looks:

I thought the whole pizza peel, stone, and hot water thing sounded like a huge hassle.  I wasn’t home when Adam baked the bread, but he said it wasn’t nearly as complicated as you might think, and that by the second time he did it he actually found it pretty easy.

This is, hands down, the very best-tasting bread we have ever made at home.  No bread machine or even stand mixer is required!  The effort really is minimal, considering the final product.  The only tricky part is needing to plan so that your timing works out.  The book says you’re supposed to let the bread cool completely before slicing into it.  Yeah, right!  Here’s another loaf Adam baked today:

It turned out unintentionally heart-shaped.  Good stuff.

Now, for the Nourishing Traditions aspect of this recipe.  NT says that most grains are not good for you until they’ve been soaked or sprouted for a certain amount of time, to break down phytic acid and make them easier to digest.  I think this recipe could easily be adapted to do just that, and as soon as I buy the book I will begin experimenting.

Any NT fans out there: do you think simply soaking in water (& yeast & salt) in the refrigerator for a good 2-3 days is enough to break it down, or does it need to have an activator in there, such as buttermilk or lemon juice?  Also, does this need to take place at room temp. in order to work?

I’m going to do a little investigating.

Update, 1/4/2010: We tried to make a bigger loaf yesterday and it was harder to work with than the small ones they recommend doing in the book — it ended up a bit flat.  Still tasted great, though!  So, a word of advice: keep the loaves small at first.  Also, the dough might look a little gray when it starts fermenting — this is normal (if you’ve ever attempted to make sourdough bread it will look familiar).

Update, 2/1/2010: I’ve posted a recipe for an adapted version of one of the recipes in this book.  I adapted it so that it would have a much longer initial rise, to make it more “Nourishing Traditions” -friendly.  Check it out here.  I think the basic principle could be applied to just about any of the recipes in that book, and I plan to try exactly that in the coming weeks.