Utensils Update

I may have fallen behind on my blogging schedule a little bit, but I didn’t miss revisiting my kitchen utensils, exactly 4 months after this post, as promised.

Four months after marking these items with blue tape, they had not been used once.

Four months after marking these items with blue tape, they had not been used once.


The pile of pieces with blue tape remaining was substantial. I honestly thought it would be even larger!

Upon assessment, I decided I couldn’t get rid of everything. The one slotted wooden spoon that hadn’t been used? Way too useful. The seafood cracker? It made sense that we hadn’t necessarily needed it in a four-month period, but I wanted to keep it around for the future. Lobsters have been dropping in price, you know. And I had, in fact, enjoyed shellfish such as lobster–just away from home.

The lobster and I wore the exact same color; how embarrassing!

The lobster and I wore the exact same color; how embarrassing!


Toss the pig spatula? No way! That belongs in a separate category for my pig collection anyway.

My husband was doubtful that I would get rid of anything. But he was wrong! I gathered up the unwanted pieces and…offered them to his sister as a birthday present. (Hey, I didn’t hide that they were used. And she even seemed excited!).

For the record, all of our tools still don’t even fit in one holder…or two…plus two drawers. So life is just a little simpler now.

Winter Greens Pizza

It’s been awhile since I mentioned a pizza recipe. I don’t want you to think I have a one-track pizza mind. The truth is, among all the random recipes I try, pizza is on the menu almost every week. Yes, part of the reason is that, as previously mentioned, my husband often does half the work for me by pre- making dough. Then topping the pizza is so darn easy and good! Like soup, it is a wonderful vehicle for using up what is in the fridge.
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This recipe is unusual for its unusual toppings: earthy greens, raisins, and anchovy fillets. It’s not the gooey tomato-saucy crunchy Neapolitan pizza you (or I) fantasize about. Don’t turn up your nose, though, because it provides a rather healthy concentration of vitamins and nutrients in one tasty package!

Winter Greens, Asiago, and Anchovy Pizza
Barely modified from Cooking Light via myrecipes.com

Cooking spray
1 Cup red onion
, sliced
3 Tablespoons raisins
3 garlic cloves
, minced
2 canned anchovy fillets, minced
3 Cups loosely packed tender greens, such as spinach, chopped if large (about 3 ounces)
3 Cups chopped turnip, beet or other winter greens (about 5 ounces)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 thin pizza crust
, either your own, with some pre-baking, or a Boboli Italian-flavored crust
3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Asiago cheese

I had anchovies on hand because I have I have a giant parsley plant out front, and my related recipe searches keep leading me to pasta Puttanesca. I have yet to make said pasta, but the rest of the can of anchovies awaits!
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For my greens, I used mostly the CSA swiss chard and a combination of spinach and arugula.
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Preheat oven to 400°. This was when I was still oven-less (it’s fixed now, hooray! What a new motherboard can do…). I heated up the grill instead.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add red onion, and cook for 10 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Add 3 tablespoons raisins, garlic, and anchovies; cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently, as the anchovy melts into the mixture.
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Add greens; cover and cook for 4 minutes or until they wilt. Uncover and cook for 3 minutes or until liquid evaporates.
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Stir in 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper. Cool slightly.

Place crust on a baking sheet. Sprinkle crust evenly with mozzarella; top evenly with greens mixture. Sprinkle Asiago evenly.

Gotta love it when it calls for cheese under toppings under cheese!

Gotta love it when it calls for cheese under toppings under cheese!


Bake at 400° for 12-15 minutes or until cheese melts and begins to brown. Cut pizza into wedges and serve.
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One Year

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my first blog post! Happy anniversary Make Haste Not Waste! Thank you to everyone who tunes in to hear/see what I’m up to.

Yesterday was also the day I heard a story on NPR about the National Resources Defense Council’s latest report on food waste.

I know I haven’t devoted much space yet to the issue of food waste on a national or global scale. It is a serious subject that involves the environment, economics, politics, social justice, and more. If you are tired of reading and want a quick overview in the form of video/infographics, watch this:

If you want more context, check out one of the NRDC’s extensive reports here, or their blog.

I made it my goal, starting last year, to reduce my contribution to the waste. While I haven’t yet started weighing my garbage and my compost (don’t count that out as a possibility! I’m waiting for Leanpath to make affordable home units), I can look at changes in my food spending.

I have been using a program for about 6 years now in which I try to track and categorize my spending. My husband used the same and we merged our tracking together when we married 3 years ago. Other factors are involved, of course, so I add the caveat here that this is not perfectly scientific:

Dates: January 1 – September 18  
  Grocery Expenditure Dining Expenditure
2011 X (Baseline) X (Baseline)
2012 X + 1% X + 10.3%
2013 X – 9% X – 1.9%

This drop occurred in the face of rising food prices: according to the USDA Economic Research Service, the Food Consumer Price Index increased 3.7% in 2011, 2.6% in 2012, and is predicted between 1.5 and 2.5% for 2013.

See? It pays to not waste!

Yesterday’s report addressed a specific issue of food labeling–the confusing “Best by” and “Sell by” dates that aren’t necessarily being used correctly, responsibly, or sensibly. Date labeling is almost completely unregulated, and “best by” or “use before” dates might simply indicate the manufacturer’s idea of peak freshness. The suggestion was that there be a clear, standardized system for consumers, more useful information, such as safe handling instructions, and transparency about methods for selecting dates.

I think about the progress that can be achieved in one year, in terms of increased awareness and policy change, and I’m not sure change is happening as quickly as it should. I applaud the NRDC for its efforts to break the problem down into parts. Imagine if the consumer started seeing a “Freeze by” date on all of their perishables–perhaps that would help shape a culture of planning and preserving. But these parts still need action and effort and advocacy. The UK did it: the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) started an initiative called Love Food Hate Waste (sound familiar?) and measured in 2011 a reduction in avoidable household food and drink waste of 18% since 2006/2007.

Change in the United States would probably require our politicians to take on these subjects–difficult, perhaps, when they are stuck fighting over the debt ceiling. Can things change? I sure hope so. And I know it is hugely challenging. But if you think about it, only in the past century or less has our food waste has become so rampant. Maybe it will take 100 years to get things under control!

Love Affair with Zucchini

I could barely contain my excitement when I came across coveted squash blossoms while visiting the Ithaca Farmer’s Market last weekend.

These lovely, edible, light orange flowers of the zucchini plant are a delicacy, for sure, because as far as I know, they are only available for a short time in the summer. There is something special about eating a flower, especially when it has the potential for preparation as a feature in a meal, rather than a garnish.
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I had to wait a day to cook them, so they did wilt a little bit. But I already had ricotta in my fridge, planning ahead for this very time when I would get to stuff the flowers.

Rather appropriately, I also had zucchini itself in my fridge. I added it to a Smitten Kitchen recipe I saw a few weeks ago, “One-Pan Farro with Tomatoes.” I had been dying to make this recipe, mostly because I stinkin’ LOVE farro. (So chewy and yummy…shaped kind of like orzo pasta but with a denser texture, as a grain. Barley is somewhat similar). But also because Deb gave a very useful guide for one-pan cooking, based on her reliable testing. You see, most people (including myself) expect that the grain gets cooked in its own pot, and then the vegetables sauteed separately in second pan. Not her!

Full disclosure: I did use a second pan to saute my zucchini, since I thought it might benefit from a little sear and pre-softening, in case it became soggy when dropped directly into the main pan. I had looked over one of Smitten Kitchen’s other recipes with zucchini first for inspiration. That recipe has the squash ending up in a tart, and it does call for using a saute pan. At least I used that same saute pan for frying the blossom, which made me fairly efficient at minimizing the dishes pile in my sink!

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Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Ricotta

adapted from Gourmet on epicurus
Can be served with your favorite tomato sauce for dipping.

1 Cup ricotta, freshly made is best, and whole-milk is better, but part-skim (I used) is fine
1 large egg yolk
1/4 Cup fresh mint or basil or a combination, finely chopped
2/3 Cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
12 to 16 large zucchini squash blossoms
1/2 Cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3/4 Cup chilled seltzer, club soda, or beer
Vegetable oil for frying

Equipment recommended: frying/candy thermometer.

For the filling, stir together ricotta, yolk, herbs, 1/3 cup parmesan, and 1/8 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.

You may end up with extra filling, so feel free to scale it down to match the approximate number of blossoms you have. Yes, I realize that involves using part of an egg yolk–you could cook and eat the rest (why not?). Otherwise, I think that eggs are inexpensive and biodegradable enough that you aren’t being too wasteful if you discard a portion.

I used a combination of fresh spearmint and fresh basil from my garden.

I used a combination of fresh spearmint and fresh basil from my garden.


Carefully open each blossom and fill with ricotta filling, gently twisting end of blossom to enclose filling. I wouldn’t recommend using a spoon. The process will be so much easier if you can get your hands on something with a tapered tip which you can insert into the flower. Some reviewers did use the Ziplock bag-with-a-corner-snipped-off method.
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Whisk together flour, remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and carbonated liquid in a small bowl.
I didn't want to open a new bottle of seltzer to use only a small portion! But opening and using up a beer? That could be arranged.

I didn’t want to open a new bottle of seltzer to use only a small portion! But opening and using up a beer? That could be arranged.


Heat 1/2 inch oil to 375°F in a heavy skillet sized to fit half your blossoms. Meanwhile, dip blossoms in batter to thinly coat.
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Fry coated blossoms in batches, gently turning once, until golden, 1 to 2 minutes total.
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Transfer with tongs to paper towels to drain. (Check the temperature of the oil so it comes back up to 375°F between batches.) Season with salt. Serve alone or with tomato sauce.
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Farro with Summer Garden Vegetables
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1.5 Cups water
3/4 Cup semi-pearled/whole farro
1/2 medium onion
(I used about 3 ounces)
2 cloves garlic
4 ounces grape or cherry tomatoes
4 ounces zucchini
, diced
1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt
Up to 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (to taste)
2 teaspoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
Basil leaves, cut in chiffonade, for serving
Grated parmesan cheese, for serving

Place water and farro in a medium saucepan to presoak while you prepare the other ingredients.

Add a little olive oil to a saute pan over medium-high heat. Add diced zucchini and cook until slightly softened, about 3 minutes.
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Add to saucepan with farro.

Cut halved onion in half again, and very thinly slice it into quarter-moons. Add to pot with farro. Thinly slice garlic cloves and add to pot.

Halve tomatoes and add.

Fresh from my front-yard garden!

Fresh from my front-yard garden!


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Add salt, pepper flakes (to taste) and 1 tablespoon olive oil to pan.
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Turn on heat to medium-high and set a timer for 30 minutes. Bring UNcovered pan up to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally. Check the farro’s texture after 30 minutes–it should be tender, but will be still chewy, and most of the water should be absorbed. If you let your heat get too high and the water boils off, you may have to add extra liquid.

Transfer to a serving bowl. Drizzle with additional olive oil, basil and parmesan.
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It’s a zucchini + pasta/grain craze! Melissa Clark of the New York Times also used zucchini and tomatoes this week in her recipe.

Having the plant and the flower together!

Having the plant and the flower together!

Sourdough Carrot Cake

Have I mentioned that I am in possession of living culinary matter, matter that demands nurturing and care, also known as sourdough starter? I know I have mentioned my husband’s love of bread, and that is what led me to give him the starter as a birthday gift years ago. That same starter survives today, supplying tang to our breads, pizza doughs, and waffles, and this time, our cake.

The care I’m referring to is the regular “feeding.” Sourdough starter is kept in best tip-top shape by feeding it every week with some new flour and water. First, you dispose of, or use, 1 cup. And I will confess that we probably dispose of that cup more than 50% of the time, especially since many recipes call for FED starter.
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The latest King Arthur Flour catalog arrived, and one of the recipes that caught my eye was the Sourdough Carrot Cake that used UNFED starter! This recipe is a great example of my ability to cook my pantry with the addition of very few specially purchased grocery items. This time, that special item was crushed pineapple.

I followed this recipe almost exactly–I was surprised by how much oil it called for considering the pineapple added so much moisture, so I think I put in a smidge less oil than it called for, which I modify in the version below. This does make a generous amount of cake. It could also be served in a more bread-like form, similar to zucchini of banana bread. It would make at least two loaves. I completely eyeballed volumes with the various containers I used in an attempt to make cute little layer cakes. My output was the six ramekins (which puffed up) plus a full loaf pan.

Bonus: I ended up with little carrot cake cookies, when I sliced the top off these!

Bonus: I ended up with little carrot cake cookies, when I sliced the top off these!


Sourdough Carrot Cake
From King Arthur Flour

1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
2 Cups sugar
1 Cup sourdough starter
, right from the fridge, not fed
3 eggs
1 Cup (8 oz.) crushed pineapple
, mostly drained
2 Cups grated carrots
1/2 Cup chopped walnuts
1/2 Cup shredded coconut
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 Cups Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
Cream Cheese Frosting
(optional)*

Grease desired baking pans – suggested single size is 9 x 13-inch – and sprinkle with flour. Set aside.

Combine oil and sugar, and stir in sourdough starter. Mix in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Fold in pineapple, carrots, walnuts, coconut and vanilla.

I was feeling lazy and used the food processor.

I was feeling lazy and used the food processor.


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In a separate bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, salt and baking soda.
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Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, stirring just to combine.
I tried to capture the whir of the KitchenAId with my camera...haven't quite figured it out.

I tried to capture the whir of the KitchenAId with my camera…haven’t quite figured it out.


Spoon batter into pan. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean. Remove cake from oven and cool completely before frosting.

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*The frosting made the cake totally decadent, but I don’t think it is necessary. Feel free to half the below recipe, to incorporate with some but not all of the cake.

Simple Cream Cheese Frosting
1/4 to 1/2 Cup (1/2 to 1 stick) butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 1/2 cups (1 pound) confectioners’ sugar
milk, as needed for consistency

Combine butter, cream cheese and vanilla; beat until light and fluffy. Add sugar gradually, beating well. Add milk, a little at a time, until frosting is a spreadable consistency.

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Perhaps this recipe is irrelevant to you because you don’t have sourdough starter! Well, if you’re interested (and local), I’d be happy to get some of my starter in your hands. If you’re not interested in taking on such responsibility, King Arthur Flour has another similar, highly-rated carrot cake recipe.

Chicken Tikka

Still facing a mountain of leftover rice, I decided it was time to throw something saucy over it.

I sometimes shy away from Indian food because the overly spicy-hot dishes scare my digestive system. But my husband loves it, and we both really enjoyed a chicken tikka pizza I made about a month ago, from Cooking Light. I was struck by how this recipe gives just the right amount of heat so it is pleasant and neither bland nor sweat-producing. Here’s a look at how it turned out.
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This time, I easily made it workable for an entrée over rice. For a side, I made another fairly universally liked Indian recipe, cucumber raita. It just happened to work out that the cucumber crop is one of the few that is currently thriving at my CSA farm!

Chicken Tikka
adapted from Cooking Light

12 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
1/4 cup plain greek or regular low-fat yogurt
2 teaspoons garam masala*
, divided
Cooking spray
5/8 teaspoon kosher salt
, divided
1 (14.5-ounce) can unsalted diced tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh ginger
, peeled and grated, which is easily done with a piece kept in the freezer
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
3 garlic cloves
, minced
1/2 Cup red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons half and half, cream, or milk — whatever you have should be OK

*Although I have a fairly broad span of spices in my pantry, garam masala is not one of them. Instead, I have many of the ingredient spices that go into a freshly ground garam masala. One of the reasons I have some of these whole spices is that last Christmas/Hanukkah I decided to make homemade mulling spice bags as gifts to some of my family. Here’s the recipe I followed for garam masala, with some substitutions — I didn’t have whole coriander seeds, just ground, and no black cumin seeds, so I just increased the regular cumin seeds. My cardamom was also green, not black. The fact that is still turned out well leads me to believe that you could also fudge this a little bit and still make it tasty! You could also just buy the garam masala, I suppose–preferably from a place where they sell it in bulk by the ounce.

Preheat broiler to high. Cut chicken in half horizontally. Combine chicken, yogurt, and 1/2 teaspoon garam masala. I let mine sit in the mixture for about 15 minutes while I prepared some of the other ingredients, and raita, so it would marinate a little bit.
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Place on a foil-lined baking sheet coated with cooking spray; sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon salt.
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Broil 5 minutes on each side.

Add diced tomatoes to a food processor, blender, or mini chopper and pulse until almost smooth.

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala, ginger, red pepper, garlic, and red onion. Cook 1 minute.
DSC_5036Stir in tomatoes; simmer 4 minutes. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and cream. Cook on low for 1 minute.

Cut chicken into pieces. Add chicken to pan and mix.

Cucumber and Yogurt Salad
Adapted from Food Network

1 1/4 Cups 2% Greek yogurt, or regular plain yogurt strained a bit
1 Cup cucumber, a combination of chopped and coarsely shredded
1/4 Cup carrots, shredded
1/2 large clove garlic, finely minced, about 1 Tablespoon
a few springs of fresh cilantro, finely minced to make about 1/4 Cup
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoons raisins
Freshly ground black pepper

I followed the original recipe for this recipe pretty much exactly one time before, and it was a hit. This time I modified it a bit because I had some carrots that were starting to languish, and some reviewers said that you can use any vegetables. Also, cilantro and mint are apparently interchangeable for this. Lastly, I ran out of golden raisins, but I remember that the burst of sweetness they provided was especially tasty, so I had to try it with regular raisins.

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Careful not to add TOO much garlic to this recipe, as it can really "bloom" as it sits.

Careful not to add TOO much garlic to this recipe, as it can really “bloom” as it sits.

Whisk the yogurt until smooth. Add the rest of the ingredients, grinding a little black pepper in to taste.
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Stir, chill, and serve.

I found a great list of variations on raita from The New York Times online. Some of them seem so crazy to me I may have to try them someday!

Serve chicken tikka mixture over basmati rice with cooling yogurt salad on the side. Top with a few fresh cilantro leaves.
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Get Pot-lucky

Last weekend was a full weekend. On Saturday, we had a friend in town visiting so we went to a Yankees day game. On Sunday morning I was participating in the Color Run and then in the afternoon had a party to which I was expected to bring something. When we arrived home on Saturday evening, I still didn’t know what I was making.

A peek into my pantry revealed that I had some neglected sweet potatoes. I wondered about making potato salad with sweet potatoes, and with a little research I settled on this. From the time I started brainstorming to the time the salad was done was probably just 45 minutes. The parsley was in my garden and everything else was in my pantry or fridge. Score!

This salad has a lot going for it. There’s potential for substitutions, it develops flavors overnight, and it can safely sit out and be eaten at room (or outdoor) temperature. My vegetarian friends liked it, but I bet it would have been even tastier with bacon or prosciutto! (Check out this recipe for a fall or winter sweet potato dish, with prosciutto, that will knock your socks off).
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Summer Sweet Potato Salad
Adapted from a recipe by “NINABSLOAN” on SparkRecipes
Serves 6-8 if it is a main side dish, and many more at a potluck

1.5 pounds sweet potatoes or yams (about 2 potatoes that are on the large size)
1/2 C dried cranberries
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1/3 C pecans, chopped
2 Tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

Dressing:
4 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
salt and pepper
to taste

Set a pot of water to boil. Peel and cube sweet potatoes.
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Add potatoes to water and boil until tender but still firm. Meanwhile, prepare remaining ingredients:
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Combine with drained sweet potatoes and then toss with dressing.
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Chill and serve. Could it get much easier?

Even better in a festive bowl!

Even better in a festive bowl!

And so it begins

This past week, I picked my first of 26 weekly shares of vegetables from Golden Earthworm Organic Farm.

I started this writing in this blog, in earnest, after my CSA farm share season had ended last year. But this regular supply of truly fresh, unique, and beautiful produce is a major source of inspiration for “Make Haste Not Waste.” Each week, I feel compelled to take advantage of every vegetable.

I knew that the beginning of the season meant that I would be faced with at least one thing I wasn’t excited about: radishes.

It’s not that I hate radishes — there are very few foods I truly hate — but they don’t do much for me. They are more likely to elicit “ehhhhhh” than “mmmmm.”

In advance, I started collecting every recipe I can across that used radishes in an interesting way: I have recipes for radish butter, chicken, arugula, and radish pizza, and sesame cucumber and radishes. My hunch was correct: radishes were included in this first share.

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The first time around, I went with a salad recipe that would utilize lettuce greens that were also included in the share and which have a shorter shelf life.

Radish Salad with Goat Cheese
adapted from Cooking Light, April 2013
2 servings

2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1.5 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 – 1 teaspoon honey
– I like my salad dressing a little sweet, especially when dealing with the slightly spicy/bitter flavor of radish
1/8 teaspoon of salt
1 cup radishes, sliced lengthwise into 1/4-inch wedges, leaving on root and 1/2 inches of stem
1.5 teaspoons fresh oregano, chopped
2 cups mixed lettuce greens, or baby spinach
4 tablespoons goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground, or to taste

Combine first 4 ingredients in a medium bowl, stirring well.
Add radishes and oregano; toss to coat.

Divide lettuce between 2 plates. Using a slotted spoon, top each plate with 1/2 cup radishes. Sprinkle each with 2 tablespoons cheese and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Drizzle remaining dressing evenly over salads.

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You know what? I was fine with the radishes in this dish. The assertive flavors of oregano and vinegar stood out more. In fact, I think my reaction to eating this salad might have been closer to “mmmm” than “ehhh.”

Still, I’ll probably be keeping my eye out for a recipe that hides radishes in a cake 🙂

Decomposing

Today was a special day. A rare event. A momentous occasion.

Today I used compost in my garden for the first time.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m being overdramatic. I’m exaggerating. I don’t think so. This compost came from my backyard rotating composter, which is made up of kitchen scraps and plant debris that had been deposited over three years. Ever since I received the Envirocycle off my wedding registry from my sister Brenda, I had been transferring to the bin my egg shells, kale stems, potato peelings, onion skins, broccoli stalks (when I don’t use them for a soup), etc., through the spring rains and winter snows. I kept telling myself, one of these days I’m going to have to use some of this stuff. I honestly thought it might become urgent, because the bin would become too full to spin and mix. But that’s what is amazing about the biodegradation process: the mass kept shrinking down!
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The composter is one of those things I have to put very little effort into. The one stipulation, which I didn’t follow religiously, is that you are supposed to maintain a ratio of 50% “green” (the kitchen scraps) and 50% “brown” (dry leaves, grass, sawdust). Perhaps that is why my compost was so wet. Still, I am confident that composting has made a significant different in reducing the garbage output of my house. It is something I recommend to anyone–anyone, of course, with a house and a little yard space (though I suppose it is possible to store one on an apartment deck or patio. There are also places, like Greenmarket in NYC, that take your food scraps and compost them for you).

I decided that this spring, the second one at our house, would be the time to harvest at least some of the rich, fertile matter. So today I attempted to “sift” out some usable dirt. Here it is, eggshells and all!
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And here is my tomato garden as of May 27, 2013. Just you wait until the picture from August 27!

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Top Chefs

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the fact that my blog title can become oxymoronic in certain contexts. For example, it takes much less time throw away meat scraps and partial vegetable packages and leftover rice than to preserve them safely before putting them to good use. Home cooks might find the day flying by, but in general, we can afford to spend a few minutes finding a plastic bag or sealed container and adding a label. In restaurants, however, minimizing waste is a low priority.

Two weeks ago, I participated in a faculty and staff cooking competition at my place of work, organized by the food services division and held for an audience at the on-campus conference center. We had applied in teams of three, and upon arrival each team was given a different basket of several items with which we were to make an appetizer and an entree. There was also an extensive pantry of fruits and vegetables as well as spices and oils. The clock was set for 90 minutes. At the 45 minute mark, we had to present our appetizer, and at the end, our entree, to three judges.

Our basket contained: pork tenderloin, bacon, shrimp, fennel, brussel sprouts, spaghetti squash, and purple potatoes. Our setup was a table with two nice gas burners, two frying pans, a cutting board, some utensils, a couple of sheet pans and mixing bowls, and two tubs underneath the table, for trash. The ovens were nearby at a different table, and there were grills and a sink outside for washing pans and dishes. Conference center staff was walking around to provide us assistance with equipment, and to make sure no one got hurt.

A portion of the “pantry” of additional ingredients.

The 90 minute challenge might be fairly easy for experienced cooks or chefs. But when the clock started, I was stressed. Eventually we figured out what to do, starting with an apple-fennel slaw and marinated shrimp in an endive spear. Then I took on the pork, which I wanted to rub with spices and roast in the oven to keep it tender. The package had two pieces, and I knew the judges’ plates only needed one slice each, seeing how with appetizers and entrees from four teams, they might only be taking one or two bites anyway. What was I to do with the other loin? I felt a serious twinge of discomfort putting the perfectly good piece of meat in the garbage bin. I had no real time to ask questions, because part of our score was station cleanliness. So perfectly good shrimp, a quarter of a bacon package, and two-thirds of a piece of fennel were quickly dumped in the bins underneath the table, mixed with our used tasting spoons, dirty dishes, and other garbage.

Sharing a cutting board and contemplating brussel sprouts.

Sharing a cutting board and contemplating brussel sprouts.

It reminded me of the story I heard on NPR last November, which mentioned the waste reduction efforts of a company called Leanpath.  The idea is that food waste is harmful in several ways: it fills dumpsters, then fills landfills (food is the number 1 material there) where it generates millions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas, and it wastes millions of dollars, both money and resources spent to grow the food, and money to buy it.  Your $100 grocery bill?  Go ahead and throw $3 in the trash.  These are alarming statistics, many of which are nicely laid out by Leanpath here.  Leanpath works to save restaurants money by having them monitor their food waste using a scale and tracking software–a definite investment in time. The company’s featured successes have been at colleges and medical centers, but in the NPR story, the Chef at Lupa Osteria Romano, a restaurant in Manhattan, decided to abandon the system to save time for the kitchen staff.

A grainy picture of me with my team's entree offering, which didn't look fantastic even in better lighting!

A grainy picture of me with my team’s entree offering, which didn’t look fantastic even in better lighting!

Like Leanpath, I am holding out hope that food waste tracking becomes a priority for restaurants. I won’t count on being given extra time at my next cooking challenge.  But perhaps customers will start to understand the extra minute or two they wait to receive their fresh pasta.