Friday, April 29, 2016

Eating Around the World - Peru

Often, when I start planning our weekly international menu, I search "National dish of ___" as a starting point. When I found out that the national dish of Peru was ceviche, a spicy raw fish dish, "cooked" only by marinating a bit in lime juice, I was skeptical. Surely, we could find something more accessible to the kids. The more I looked, the more I realized ceviche was actually probably our best option. It certainly would be easier to procure and prepare than guinea pig.

So, after reading about the safety of raw fish, I followed the recipe and then let it marinate a good hour. As dinner approached, I tentatively tried a bite... and found the chewy texture singularly unappealing. Maybe I tried the wrong kind of fish. Maybe I'm just a midwestern girl with an unsophisticated palate. I do, for example, greatly prefer Korean kimbap to Japanese sushi - largely because kimbap doesn't involve any raw fish.

Anyway, when Collin walked in the door, he echoed my concern. So I threw the whole bowl into a hot skillet for a minute or two, and cooked it just until the fish started to taste flakier than chewier. That flash in the pan made a huge difference, even if it softened the vegetables a little more than was desirable.

I served the ceviche in cups made from corn tortillas, baked in a muffin tin. I just sprayed the muffin tin with oil, pushed in a warm corn tortilla (or two halves, since mine were largely broken), sprayed them with oil again and baked them about 10 minutes. They weren't perfect, but they made an otherwise not-so-kid-friendly dish fun to eat. We had roasted sweet potatoes on the side, as well as popcorn. 

Popcorn? As a side? Well, yes.

A common accompaniment to ceviche is toasted corn kernels called cancha. From what I gather, it's kind of like corn nuts, and kind of like the popcorn kernels that fail to pop. I didn't have the right kind of corn, but I did have this beautiful Indian flint corn I grew last summer. It pops, but leaves a lot of partially-popped kernels in the bottom. So, I popped a big bowl of half rainbow corn, half conventional popcorn, and separated out puffy from the crunchy kernels. The rainbow corn tastes a lot better toasted than conventional popcorn, but I'm sure the texture is still pretty different than Peruvian cancha.

So, in the end, we had both kinds of popcorn for dinner, and it was a fun, if unusual, side dish.

Toward the end of the meal, Jenny pulled the whole bowl of popcorn over to her place, and ate handful after handful. Popcorn for dinner was just fine with her!

For dessert, I made arroz con leche, or rice pudding. I followed this recipe, except I used a can of evaporated milk for part of the milk, and then filled the measuring cup the rest of the way with whole milk. One cup of dry rice makes quite a large pot of rice pudding, and I might have made a half batch if I'd known how large it would end up.

Collin loves rice pudding, and it's one of those things he's always asking me to make and I never make enough to satisfy him. So, before digging in, he had to take a moment to inhale the sweet smell of milky rice topped with cinnamon and cloves.

After that, he shared a bite with Eliza. She quickly realized it was THE BEST THING SHE HAD EVER TASTED. Then it was all Collin could do to get a mouthful in between sharing with Eliza, and keeping her hands out of the bowl at the same time.

She does look pretty adorable with a rice pudding mustache.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Eating Around the World - Brazil

This is going to be short and sweet. The national dish of Brazil is Feijoada (Pronounced fey-zhoo-ah-dah, but said kind of fast so it all runs together). It's a pork and black bean stew, eaten with rice and served alongside greens. It's straightforward, easy, and delicious! You can even cook it in a slow cooker, and anticipate the deliciousness all day. Here's the recipe. I served it with a fresh kale salad, dressed with an orange balsamic dressing, tossed with sun dried tomatoes, dried cranberries, and almonds, and topped with orange wedges. Boom. Done.

Eliza found the tender pork pieces irresistible. She's a total omnivore.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Eating Around the World - Argentina

Argentina. It's a huge country, with breathtaking scenery and varied landscapes. From frigid Patagonia to tall mountains ranges, to the grasslands of the pampas. I think Argentina was one of the countries we studied this year that I knew least about, and one that has now moved a lot higher on my list of places I'd love to visit. But, one thing I knew before this week was that Argentina was famous for its beef, and that we'd have to have asado for our meal.

Beef is expensive, and we almost had pork instead. In fact, we hardly ever eat beef at home, although we like it a lot. But just in time, chuck roast went on sale at the grocery. That's far from the choicest cut, but we rolled with it, serving it alongside a large array of grilled vegetables. We had grilled eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and mushrooms with our beef, and it was delicious.

Of course, we doused every bite of meat or vegetables in chimichurri sauce. Or, to be more accurate, Collin and I did. The girls each tried a little dollop, and begged not to have to finish it. Chimichurri sauce is a bit spicy, and a lot green, so I didn't really expect the girls to enjoy it. But I loved it! It really was a perfect grilling condiment.

It was a beautiful evening, so we ate our asado as a picnic in the back yard.

Eliza loved the picnic, because she could crawl around and steal food off everyone's plates. The girls certainly didn't protest when she took their peppers or zucchini away.

Dessert was the best! We had alfajores, which are tender buttery sandwich cookies, filled with dulce de leche, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It would not be an exaggeration to say this was one of my top favorite new recipes from our whole geographical culinary adventures this year. Each element is familiar, but together they're just about perfect. 

Honorable mention does have to go to this dessert, however. I saw these chocolate and dulce de leche cups mentioned in a roundup of Argentine food, and they looked amazing. On closer inspection, however, I didn't see anything to say that these were actually an Argentine recipe. But it was too delicious to ignore, so I tried it out on another night. And it was marvelous. A lot like the inside of a truffle, actually. And so easy to make, especially if you simplify the instructions and simply melt dark chocolate chips right into the cream and milk in the microwave. Argentine or not, you should definitely try this one.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Eating Around the World - Antarctica

This week we spent learning about Antarctica, and just in time for our weekly geographic meal, we got a spring snow shower. I'm all for making the atmosphere realistic, but I was also glad not to have a picnic outdoors as Collin suggested.

Antarctica doesn't have much of a distinctive cuisine, but we did our best. This page from Cool Antarctica had the most helpful information, as well as a recipe for these sledging biscuits. They... weren't very good. But the girls loved them (they love anything in the bread family), and I'm sure they taste a lot better after a long hard haul in sub-zero temperatures.

I briefly thought about making pemmican, but it sounded both expensive and unappetizing, so we had a small bag of beef jerky, along with cheese and butter atop our sledging biscuits. For our main course, we had penguin stew, which on other days would be known locally as chicken noodle soup. I did steer clear of fresh vegetables for the evening, which would be hard to come by on the South Pole.

And for dessert, we had glacier ice cream. This was vanilla ice cream that I layered with blue raspberry jello, and from a culinary standpoint, it wasn't a home run. I'd like to try it again with a thick blue raspberry syrup rather than gelatin, because the jello did weird texture things when frozen. I was trying to get the swirled look of an Antarctic iceberg, which do look good enough to eat.

We enjoyed our iceberg ice cream in floats with blue soda pop. The only uncaffinated blue soda I found happened to be coconut flavored, which worked strangely well with our iceberg ice cream, even if the flavor was far more tropical than polar.

Cheers! And here's to leaving the frigid temperatures for some warmer climates, both in our geography study and as spring comes to stay in Indiana.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Garden Seed Organization System

If you've been gardening for a while, you might be able to relate to this problem. Every year in late winter, when it comes time to plan your summer garden, you pull out all your old seed packets, and try to make an inventory. And, if you're an enthusiastic sampler of many plant varieties, after a while that seed collection can get a bit out of control. Until recently, our seed collection was housed in a motley collection of cardboard shipping boxes and manila envelopes. Some of the seeds were rubber-banded together in loosely associated groups, but there was very little method to the madness.

Last spring, my husband asked if I could do something to bring some organization to the mayhem, but after looking around on the Internet a bit I didn't come up with any great ideas, and forgot about it before long. Fortunately, my husband has a short memory, and he did too. In the mean time, we added another manila envelope of seeds to the collection, and by the time we were ready to place our 2016 seed orders, things had only gotten messier. 

This spring, I was ready to tackle the problem. And I was ready to tackle it in time for my husband's birthday present. I should've taken a nice "before" picture for you so you could see how disorganized our lack of a system was, but by the time I'm ready to tackle a project I just want to get on with it already. Like I said, if you're a gardener reading this, you probably can imagine. Dozens of seed packets, no rhyme or reason.

Here's our pepper collection. Seeds in all different size envelopes and plastic bags... time to make them a folder!

I looked into what other gardeners have done, and found a few interesting options. Some slip seed packets into binders or photo albums, some use clear photo cases or re-purposed cassette tape boxes. There were even cute Pinterest-y ideas like saving seeds in Tic Tac boxes or test tubes that made for great photos but questionable practical ideas. Looking at all the ideas, this seed file box really stood out to me as the best fit for our needs.

I bought a blue photo box and 4x6" index card dividers from Amazon to get started. I made a list of the general seed categories I'd be sorting the seeds into, and printed the labels off in 24 point font. Next came the most fun part! I searched for images of vintage seed packets and seed catalogs to illustrate the seed varieties for each folder. So many of these images were so beautiful or off-beat hilarious that many times I wanted to show my husband what I was working on, but somehow managed to keep the secret until his birthday.

Each folder was made of two dividers, taped together on the inside with packing tape, with a 1/4" or 1/2" strip of cardstock in between, depending on the number of seed packets I estimated each folder to need to hold. The outside of each folder was covered with clear contact paper, for strength and protection.

The outside of the box was just as fun to decorate. My decoupage skills are sadly lacking, so I just glued the cardstock printed pages to the box, and hoped for the best. The top and bottom of the box are covers of a seed catalog from 1894 that I found on the Smithsonian library's website. Front cover on the top...

 And back cover underneath!

The sides were mostly illustrated with vintage Victory Garden posters. I loved these!

Putting an image of a vintage seed cabinet on a modern seed box felt kind of meta.

"Can Vegetables, Fruit, and the Kaiser too." I love it!

Those propaganda posters are doing their job. I feel energized and ready to take on the patriotic duty of gardening!

My 6 and 4-year-old girls illustrated the inside with gardening pictures. 

This is Daddy, digging in the garden.

And here is a desert garden on one side, and colorful grasses on the other.

Inside the lid I pasted three growing season charts that I've admired for a long time.

Amazingly, although this was a fully collaborative project with our 6, 4, and 3 year old daughters (the baby didn't contribute much), they kept it a secret until Daddy's birthday! And, I think he liked it. That night we finally filled it with seeds, and clipped each folder closed. Ahhh. Organization. It looks so much better.

So, that's our seed organization system! I'd love to hear about yours. Do you have a good way of keeping track of your garden seeds?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Eating Around the World - Papua New Guinea

It was cold today. I think the high was 15, and despite the glorious sunshine, the cold still hit you like a wall when you stepped off the porch. And inside, the furnace was working almost nonstop to keep things at a comfortable 68. As a matter of fact, as I write this right now I'm sitting in my favorite spot in the house, the large heat vent in the kitchen.

I bring up the weather outside because we spent this week learning about Papua New Guinea, an island nation close to the equator. As I'm writing, it is 7 degrees and snowy here in Indiana, and 79 degrees in PNG's capital city, Port Moresby. So, trying to recreate Mumu, a tropical dish that is cooked in a pit in the ground with hot stones and banana leaves came with some real challenges.

Using two blog posts and this video as a guide, I did my best. First I layered sweet potatoes, acorn squash, a plantain, and a green banana in the bottom of my large Dutch oven.

Next I sprinkled on frozen corn, and chicken seasoned with salt, ginger, and lime zest. Then I squeezed the lime juice over everything, and threw them in the pot for good measure. A layer of fresh pineapple (not pictured) followed.

I asked Collin if there was any chance of getting some banana leaves to wrap our dinner in, but he said the two trees he has growing at the university aren't nearly big enough to spare any. So I had to settle for the nearest equivalant I could come up with: collard greens. It probably wasn't very equivalent at all, but whatever.

Finally, I poured a can of coconut milk over everything, put the lid on the pot, and put it in the oven to cook for a few hours.

Today the amaryllis growing in my kitchen window bloomed! It was so big and cheerful and red, it made me enjoy spending the afternoon in the kitchen that much more. Also, it was kind of fun to have a giant red flower open just in time for Valentine's Day.

Oooh, and now the mumu is done! peel back the layer of not-banana leaves, and there's a whole bunch of tropical goodness ready for our dinner. 

Since the banana trees couldn't come to us, we decided to take our dinner to the banana trees. That's them, right straight back in the window of the greenhouse behind Laurel. The tropical room of the greenhouse at the college was the closest local setting we could find to a New Guinean jungle, so we brought our dinner over as a picnic.

This is our pineapple bowl with the baby pineapple at the greenhouse! I'm a little bit proud of that pineapple plant, because I started it from the top of a grocery pineapple myself. Collin and a whole bunch of students have done most of the work keeping it alive for the past two years, though. And now it has a baby pineapple that, from what I've read, will take up to six months now to mature to an edible fruit. Tropical fruits sure like to take their time ripening!

Annie and Laurel eating their picnic dinner with the banana trees. Annie liked the corn and sweet potatoes, and the pineapple was universally popular.

The plantains were surprisingly starchy and less generally popular. Kind of one of those "I'm glad we tried it, and it was kind of cool, but I'm not going out of my way to eat it again" things. Although, I'm guessing we'll be using them in other dishes in future weeks, and we might like them better in another preparation. Everything tastes good fried, after all!

Eliza and Collin, trying new flavors. 

As it got dark outside, we packed up our picnic and prepared to leave our tropical retreat.

Collin gave the room a final spray-down to raise the humidity back up in the greenhouse overnight, and we left for our own home. Where the girls had ice cream for dessert. I guess the illusion of a tropical getaway lingered a little bit after we returned to winter in northern Indiana.