I had very concrete plans to spend my 30th birthday sipping flat whites and beholding the beauty of the Sydney Opera House. However, life happened, and plans changed unexpectedly. Though I still long to…
There’s so much to learn about these foods we eat: what they look like as seeds, how they first sprout through the ground, how their leaves change during their infancy, how they put so much energy into a beautiful bloom and then attempt to spread their seeds. Carrot seeds are tiny and iridescent. Okra leaves boast dark, burgundy veins and patterns. Rainbow chard just keeps on giving. Cilantro flowers could fill a bouquet subtly, much like baby’s breath, while squash blossoms would sing dramatically but for a fleeting moment.
I’ve only just begun to understand the connections between flowers and the foods we eat, how we often have to sacrifice the alluring blooms in order to arrive at the food on our plates. The Urban Farmer plucked the first crepe-paper-like squash blossoms to conserve the plant’s energy for food production. As the broad, leafy greens emerged like a tropical forest cover, the female blooms grew again and gave way to the crookneck squashes. Those first signs of yellow and green meant the flood gates had been released. Summer squashes are in full swing, and there’s no looking back!
The Urban Farmer’s CSA recipients have received three weeks of crookneck squashes. If you frequent your local farmer’s market, you too have probably begun to see squashes and zucchinis, growing larger by the week. Once these gourds start, they don’t seem to stop, so it’s time to be creative, lest we be bored by the bounty.
I like to imagine eating these squash boats by the glassy blue Mediterranean Sea, where the adjacent cliffs are speckled with the white, building-block homes, where old grandmas prepare traditional meals for hours. These squash boats are merely an interpretation of that distant cuisine, a way to savor the fragrant dill, its flowers and dollops of thick, tangy Greek yogurt.
For this dish to taste its best, be sure to find local celery, local dill and local squashes (or zucchinis). Once you take a bite of crisp, locally grown celery, the store-bought version seems like eating a rice cake when you could be feasting on a pastry! The celery greens not only make a fanciful garnish, but they add a lot of flavor too. Chop them up and mix them into each bite. Take advantage of the here and now of squashes, herbs and stalky greens. Let your mind wander to the seaside, to summer breezes, to the bluest blues above the mountains and to the glassy waves washing onto your toes.
Bon voyage & Bon Appétit!
Roasted Crookneck Squash with Quinoa, Lamb & Greek Yogurt
About This Recipe: Spelled out, this recipe looks complicated, but let the above images be your guide. Now is the time when squash flows, so take advantage and tweak this recipe several different ways. Use a zucchini instead of squash, or brown rice instead of quinoa. The idea is flexible. I used lamb because I was dreaming of Greek food, but you could use ground beef or chicken or even a seafood option.
If life imitates art, some of my life is starting to imitate Groundhog Day. I sit at the same table, at the same coffeeshop, writing, editing photos, trying not to hunch my neck and shoulders into Quasimodo-esque subluxations, while listening to the baristas’ same rotation of old country classics and modern grunge. Sometimes, routines can be comforting. Sometimes, routines can be lazy. Sometimes, routines can be spicy, pickled and delicious!
I could eat a variation of a bánh mì sandwich every day, and with the quantity of vegetables the Urban Farmer is poised to harvest and pickle, we very well may be eating bánh mì sandwiches every day!
A bánh mì is a traditional Vietnamese sandwich, an edible relic of French influences on bold Vietnamese flavors. As much as I may follow certain routines and respect history, I’m also one to break rules and toy with traditions. To change up my original interpretation, I replaced the very namesake bread with a hearty olive slice, added jalapeños to the pickle mix and experimented with an avocado oil mayonnaise.
If you’re feeling a little routine, or need a change of pace, spice up your life a bit, and take a gamble on this jalapeño-laced sandwich. If all else fails, go do something wild to your hair!
Change it up!
Imagine going to the grocery store, fending off the oblivious shoppers and crying children to stake your claim at the dairy cooler, agonizing over food labels, arriving at the purest choice, and investing a small fortune in a gallon of the most earth-friendly, wholesome milk on the shelf. Then imagine returning home, unloading your groceries and promptly pouring half of that milk-of-the-gods down the drain. You wouldn’t do that with your milk, and yet, we as consumers probably discard a lot of valuable ingredients without a second thought.
The Urban Farmer lives and breathes the word “permaculture,” and the principles have begun to permeate our kitchen too. As the movement’s co-founder Bill Mollison described, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation, rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” (Check out this short video of Bill Mollison to learn a little more). In simpler terms, learn more, and waste less.
If we go back to that grocery store analogy, dumping a half-gallon of milk down the drain seems preposterous, but most of us, myself included, have tossed valuable greens into the compost, at best, or worse yet, straight to the garbage pail. These leafy greens offer a world of flavor beyond the pre-packaged produce aisle varieties, as well as many nutritional benefits. Inspired by the Urban Farmer’s permaculture interests and the latest CSA shares, I channeled a classic savory snack as a way to take full advantage of the seasonal turnips- chips and dip!
If you have a mandolin slicer, you’ll be able to mimic the thin crispness of store-bought chips, but being a rustic, knife-slicing type of gal, my “chip” consistency landed somewhere between a roasted potato and a potato chip. However, the extra depth soaks up the spices and delivers waves of flavor, especially when paired with a thick dollop of dip!
Accented with fresh, fragrant dill, this Turnip Greens Dip is reminiscent of the party spreads we all know, but this blend of raw turnip greens, garlic and thick and creamy Greek yogurt replaces guilty snacking with a clear conscious. This is wholesome, conscious eating that works to waste less and enjoy more.
We all affect the environment with our choices, but what I find inspiring about permaculture is seeking how my individual influence can be a positive force for the world, how I can add and contribute, rather than resisting and combating. You attract more flies with honey, as they say, so whether you’re a gardener, an old hippy, an “earth cruncher,” or just a plain old salty-snack lover, take advantage of the whole turnip, and share this savory snack with someone who might not understand your fixation with soil and seeds.
Baked Turnip Chips and Turnip Greens Dip
About This Recipe: If you’re a gardener or CSA member in planting zones 5 or 6, you’re probably seeing lots of turnips, radishes and herbs in your produce shares or at the farmers’ markets. These two recipes work together to use all of the turnips. The dip is also delicious on pasta or sandwiches, or any place you might use a pesto. The thickness of the turnip slices will alter baking time, so watch the turnips carefully when in the oven.
Like a dancer rehearsing tirelessly for a performance, the Urban Farmer has worked and worked for this day. Excitement, jitters, second guesses, strokes of confidence and last minute preparations culminate in today’s performance. Today the Urban Farmer delivers his very first CSA!
A CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) is the consumer’s way to invest in a farm. It’s a way to support principled farming practices with dollars and cents. It’s a way to share in the highs and lows, the bounties and the dry spells. It’s a means to understanding the seasons, the gambles and if all goes well, it’s a way to understand one of the best gifts of locally grown food: fresh, intense flavor!
Much like an Iron Chef challenge, a CSA arrives weekly with surprise ingredients. If your glass is half empty, the lack of choice and control will be a burden. What am I going to do with kohlrabi?! If your glass is half full, the array is a creative challenge and just the motivation you need to break with culinary monotony. Hopefully, you’re the latter.
The Urban Farmer could eat radishes (and just about anything from the ground) like grapes, but for many of us, the spicy, bitter and crisp radish is more perplexing. These bright red beauties emerge with a bouquet of greens, which we often overlook, tossing them into compost piles without a second thought. With so many radishes emerging from the field, my creative challenge was to harness more potential from these French Breakfast varieties: enter pesto!
In true S.A.T style, when I say “pesto,” your immediate association is probably basil, and the word nerd in me wondered, why is this? Is it a rule? Are pesto and basil inextricably linked?
In an intense research effort, I consulted Wikipedia, and I found my excuse to break with basil traditions:
The name [pesto] is the contracted past participle of the Genoese word pestâ (Italian: pestare), which means to pound, to crush, in reference to the original method of preparation, with marble mortar and wooden pestle. The ingredients in a traditionally made pesto are ground with a circular motion of the pestle in the mortar. This same Latin root through Old French also gave rise to the English word pestle.
I respect European traditions enough not to assign names sacrilegiously, but Wikipedia permitted me to extend the idea of “pesto” to the ingredients of the very first CSA and fulfill my radish challenge. Whether you’re receiving the Urban Farmer’s very first CSA or a fresh bunch from another farmer, here’s to new ways of using the freshest, local offerings.
Radish, Chard & Leafy Greens Pesto
About this Recipe: Crunchy and garlicky, use this farm-fresh pesto wherever you would use the traditional basil version. The chard and large, leafy greens yield far more than their basil equivalents. Whether I used broccoli or cauliflower greens will be determined soon, when more of the vegetable protrudes from the ground. You can use turnip greens, kale or more chard as a substitute if need be. The main objective is just to use as much of the vegetables as possible. I left the texture of my pesto rather coarse, preferring to add more oil based on the application. The thicker consistency works well for these chèvre, back pepper and radish crostini. I skipped the cheese, preferring to add cheese with the application as well. The result is a vegan-friendly pesto with lots of healthy raw nutrients!
Wanderlust can be an excuse sometimes. In dreaming of distant adventures, foreign tongues and exotic foods, it can be all too easy to overlook the finer details of what’s close to home. In lamenting a lacking budget, it can be all too easy to feel lost in day-to-day routines and to visit the same old haunts. I’ve been guilty of this. Life is full of trade-offs, and when I took some creative leaps and financial risks, my passport began to collect dust, and I began to collect excuses.
My rootedness made my head spin, questioning if I were on the right path, if there were a light at the end of this tunnel, etc (i.e.: I should probably just take a yoga class and exhale these anxieties away). But wanderlust doesn’t come with a mileage requirement. I had failed to plan. I had failed to explore. I had failed to wander within my means, so I decided to cut through my own bullshit. Luckily, I had friends right there with me.
I tried to approach my city and my region like a complete outsider, and like a clipboard-toting cruise director, I made a list, with headers, bullet points and links. I tried to recall all the “Oh! What’s that? We should go there!” moments and let Google fill in the gaps. One such place to make the list was the Sri Venkateswara Temple.
Perched atop a hill, this Hindu temple is visible from a busy Pittsburgh highway, but no matter how many times I’ve traveled that route, the temple has always shocked me. It was as if my eyes were playing tricks on me, as if an acre of India had somehow dropped onto available real estate in Western Pennsylvania. I had traveled past the temple so many times, it was high time to explore it!
With very little understanding of the visiting procedures, we made our way to the beacon of white, and much like the observation required of traveling abroad, we had to look, listen and imitate so as not to offend or overstep our boundaries. Photography isn’t permitted inside the temple, so I had to look and listen all the more.
When I stepped into the temple, the coolness of the floor hit my bare feet, the bright white of all the details radiated light, and I felt this immediate calm. Guided by the layout, we unknowingly performed the ritual circumambulation. The priests’ chants formed a relaxing background as we watched the rituals unfold. My friends and I sat close to one another, silently appreciating the sacredness all around us, and then we worked up the nerve to join an Archana in a shrine.
The priest walked with a lit flame on a silver lantern/urn of sorts, and we cupped the smoke toward our faces, followed by a turmeric-dyed water and another silver urn placed quickly and gently on our heads. We didn’t understand the significance, as the ritual all happened in what I assume was Hindi, but the process was very humbling and quieting.
Walking through the temple and joining the rituals made us appreciate the more philosophical elements of religion and the more universal messages- clear your mind, clear your heart, humble yourself, be present, be the light. I recalled a similar feeling when I sat in a Parisian Catholic church to escape the rain. I spoke French well enough to understand the priest, but if I let my mind drift, the verses were simply beautiful sounds strung together. There was something about the architecture and the ritual that combined to stir my emotions in a profound way. Some might attribute that feeling to a deity, but I prefer to linger in the agnostic and cull together the attributes that touch me the most.
With a new level of calm, we departed, found a park and enjoyed an Indian inspired picnic.
I often explore the way a journey inspires a recipe, but this day-trip and picnic were an example of a recipe inspiring a journey. I had received a packet of Rose & Chai spices in my RawSpiceBar subscription, which arrives like a souvenir, with stories, recipes and even a patterned paper from the spice’s land of origin. Receiving the package in the mail feels like a ritual unto itself, so I wanted to share the food in a special way as well. Knowing I was going to bake these Chai & Rose Nankhatai Cookies was the impetus for visiting the temple at long last.
I might never have thought to have an Indian inspired picnic if it weren’t for my little elephant chai cookies, but the menu turned out to be perfect picnic food so much so we coined the term piknir.
Nina packed several traditional Indian dishes in her authentic, stackable Indian lunch tin and paired them with a few varieties of naan. Kara provided the iced chai and fresh mango. Didi provided chutneys and the mint & fennel combination Indian restaurants serve after a meal. I added the chai cookies and a curry roasted sweet potato salad.
In a tribute to the spiritual calm we felt from the temple, we made our own picnic basket shrine to Ganesha, complete with the bananas we received after completing the Archana. Ganesha is widely revered as the remover of obstacles, so we shared our individual obstacles. These topics may never have emerged on a typical picnic, but sharing these vulnerabilities was really comforting and inspiring. We were able to hear each other, to relate, and to boost each other as well, and that may never have happened if it weren’t for a cookie recipe!
Here’s to cutting through our bullshit. Here’s to exploring. Here’s to observing. Here’s to gleaning the philosophies that make us better beings, and here’s to cookie inspired journeys!
Curry Roasted Potato Salad for an Indian Inspired Picnic
About This Recipe: Be loose with this recipe! It should come together fluidly, tasting as you go and trusting your spice instincts. The addition of greens means you take in more veggies than a traditional picnic potato salad. I suggest kale or a heartier green for texture. I added hemp hearts for a slight crunch. They’re available at Trader Joe’s, but if you can’t find them, you can substitute flax or the chopped nut of your choice. I spiced my version heavily with turmeric, which adds a mild, warm, peppery flavor but a bright color and a variety of health benefits.
Without any regard for my presence, just across the regularly traversed street, he emerged from his home, with a lawn chair and a bare chest. His gut bore the brunt of years of overeating, while his sporadically tattooed arms remained relatively thin. He set the chair on the sidewalk, one of the main sidewalks of this neighborhood, and he sank into his seat. He cinched up the ends of his nylon sport shorts so as to allow more sun exposure on his upper thighs, which also boasted random tattoos. The tan-line-threatening socks and killer 80s-style high-tops seemed to confirm the rumors of his return from jail and a lingering ankle bracelet. As he settled into his sun worshipping routine, I heard a sound I haven’t heard in ages- the spritz spritz of what I can only assume was tanning oil and not sunscreen.
It was noon, which meant the early spring rays were shining directly on his already bronzed body. He closed his eyes and sank into the chair without a care for his appearance or what the neighbors might think. As the sun traveled through the sky, he rotated his chair, and with closed eyes, he positioned his head toward the warm rays. It was as if he had emerged from 1980, when tanning didn’t cause skin cancer, when perhaps this street was more neighborly, when he didn’t have a record. In some ways, this soon-to-be leathery, ex-con was enviable. There he was, idling away a spring afternoon, giving zero fucks about the ozone layer, his waist line, nosy neighbors, recent fashion trends or the discomfort of pedestrians in his vicinity. Maybe it was his alleged time behind bars, but this neighbor was really soaking up the spring moment.
I’m not adding this man to my heroes and role models list by any means, but this indifferent sunbather did reiterate this goal: bask away an afternoon and just forget everything else! This goal is why I host Sunday brunches. No lines, no wait, no stressed service industry, no surprisingly bad menu items, no sending back an undercooked egg, no thoughts for Monday, etc. Just brunch, conversation, a thoughtful menu, and in the case of this early Cinco de Mayo celebration: a little outdoor time with some sunshine…
…and with a cocktail that won’t cost you $14!
When it comes to brunch cocktails, I like an elixir that uses the palate as the guide, not a complicated recipe of ratios. I infused mango nectar juice with (de-seeded) jalapeño pepper slices, pomegranate seeds, chunks of pineapple and mango and served the spicy, fruity combination with additional limes and tequila for the taking. I salted the rims of the glasses with Pink Himalayan Sea Salt for an extra colorful touch.
The menu consisted of these Baked Tortilla Egg “Nests” with sour cream and guacamole (recipe below), as well as tropical fruits and a Whole Wheat Chocolate Banana Tres Leches Cake for dessert (recipe to come). There was plenty of iced coffee, and Bess kept the drinks flowing! Progressively, the tequila portioning became more pronounced, as it should on a zero-fucks Sunday brunch.
Relieved of her farming duties for the day, Julep was all about a relaxing Sunday with the ladies.
The right weather, and the right friends with their quick wits and sarcastic humor, made me feel a little like the bronzing neighbor. Worries and cares seemed to slip away with each sip of Mango & Tequila. The Chocolate Tres Leches Cake was just the right sweet indulgence, as we exchanged tales of awkward crushes, gossip, goals, plans, progress… all the topics you want to hit with good friends on a Sunday. Each of these creative friends is a mover and a shaker in her own right, so there’s always lots to discuss (Dane, Kelly and Bess), and I’m grateful for the ways they each support me too.
Inadvertently, here’s to the bronzed neighbor with the questionable past, and here’s to good friends gathering for a re-appropriated holiday, tequila cocktails, crispy tortillas and rich chocolate conclusions.
p.s: If you want to create a similar celebration, the handcrafted, Nepalese garlands and pinwheels are available at Roxanne’s Dried Flowers. The vintage, industrial trays and wooden crate are available through Toll Gate Revival, a new favorite salvage & vintage purveyor of mine.
Tortilla Egg Nests/Huevos Rancheros Cups
About This Recipe: These nests combine all your favorite Huevos Rancheros flavors, but baking them makes them a perfect brunch option, since you pop them in the oven and can focus on other details. The recipe below uses a frozen, Fire-Roasted Sweet Corn from Trader Joe’s. If you can’t find that variety at your local TJ’s, you can use regular frozen corn, and roast it with the sweet potato. The idea behind these is loose and flexible. Add other taco favorites or meat for a different variety. I used a pineapple salsa for these cups, but use whatever salsa you love. There may be extras of some of the filling, as the portioning is pretty loose. Depending on your menu, plan on most guests eating two of these.
In an anthropomorphized world, Billy Buttons would be the wide-eyed boy with a dirty face, a dangling overall strap, a slingshot in his back pocket and tussled hair. His very traditional and formal mother would insist on calling him by his given name, Craspedia, but all the other children would chant and cheer, “Billy, Billy Buttons is here!”
In reality, Billy Buttons are these silly, globular flowers, like lollipops or sugary gumdrops on sticks. When I saw these deep violet and chartreuse preserved billy buttons (available here), visions of a purple and green brunch filled my head. When your grocery list is “purple” and “green,” the grocery store becomes a totally different shopping experience and a challenging assignment for guests who ask what to bring.
This purple and green inspired frittata took center stage with slices of heirloom rainbow carrots, asparagus spears and new-to-me purplish kale sprouts (when a kale and a brussels sprout love each other very much…). Always keep a frittata in your proverbial back pocket as a brunch host. A frittata serves a full table of friends, it’s a blank canvas for colorful and seasonal ingredients, and it’s a comforting crowd pleaser.
My green and purple shopping list led me to Trader Joe’s Pesto Gouda, and my old time favorite- blueberry chèvre. Pesto Gouda is a worth buying even when you’re not on a strict color mission.
We toasted blackberry juice mimosas with fresh kiwi and blueberry garnishes.
It wouldn’t be a With The Grains brunch without a little something for the sweet tooth. This gluten-free, frozen dessert was a nod to the emergence of spring and warmer temperatures, topped with homemade whipped cream and juicy blackberries, blueberries and fresh mint. With the lavender crust and frozen fruit layer, the dessert is light, floral and the perfect touch for a spring brunch.
Behind every styled table and fork clanking on a plate, is this pair of pumpkin seeds waiting hopefully for fallen morsels of brunch…
As the colors disappeared from the table, we switched to a completely different palette: neons! This brunch took place on Easter morning and transitioned to an Easter Egg Hunt! “Were there kids there?” asked the Urban Farmer’s mom. Nope, just a bunch of adults, hunting for bright, plastic eggs on a farm. More on that to come!
Stay tuned for our Easter Egg Hunt adventures and the recipe for the Purple & Green themed frozen berry dessert!
Here’s to Colorful Menus!
p.s: If you like my fern centerpieces, check out this DIY I did for Roxanne’s Dried Flowers.
Carrot, Kale Sprout & Asparagus Frittata
About This Recipe: The vegetable component of this frittata recipe is really flexible. The portions I list below are a loose guide, as I was very fluidly creating this version while setting a table, brewing coffee and whipping cream for brunch. Roast, sauté and combine according to your cravings and what’s in season. The main ratios to mind are the egg mixture proportions. I found the Kale Sprouts at Trader Joe’s. If you can’t find them, you could easily substitute kale or brussels sprouts (cut in halves).