2020 gardening report card: a very small hill of beans

This year has given me more time to garden than any other in my adult life. Now that the gardening season is officially over, courtesy of multiple below-freezing days and the season’s first snowfall, I’m once again grading myself on how well I did at growing some of my own food–and I’m left wondering how I didn’t make better use of that extra time to play with plants.

(For your reference: my 20192018201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Beans: A-

The pandemic arrived in the middle of both planting season and my realization that we had a lot of leftover bean seed packages lying around. So we went a little crazy–in addition to planting seeds in the usual spots in the shabbier raised bed in the side yard, my wife and I repurposed a few random pots we had laying around for bean-growing purposes. For a while, we had more beans than we could eat; although the bean plants in the raised bed didn’t make it past summer, most of the others kept growing through fall, if at a slower pace.

Arugula: B+

I can usually count on two growing seasons for this salad green, but most of the seeds I planted in September got washed out by heavy rains, and then the survivors failed to yield more than a few tiny plants. So I wound up spending more on lettuce at the farmers’ market than I’d hoped, which was somewhat frustrating.

Herbs: B

Flat-leaf parsley once again grew like crazy all spring and summer, enabling me to make multiple batches of parsley-walnut pesto, but then it failed to resume growing in the fall. Rosemary made a comeback: After last year’s rosemary died, I planted a fresh batch in a new pot, and those plants are still going strong. Mint was also its usual reliable self. But the sage plants died sometime in late summer, and basil underperformed, if not as badly as last year. I did finally get thyme to grow–indoors, in a pot in a sunny corner of the dining room.

Spinach: B-

I enjoyed modest success with this in the spring–by which I mean, some of last year’s plants hung on until then, and not all of the seeds I planted this year vanished into the dirt.

Lettuce: C+

See the above entry for spinach, but make everything 20 percent worse.

Tomatoes: C-

Unlike last year, I was able to treat myself to the sublime pleasure of a BLT sandwich made with a just-plucked-off-the-vine tomato. Well, once or twice.

Taking stock, one set of leftover bits at a time

I needed a week to cross off a big item on the post-Thanksgiving to-do list: making stock from the remaining parts of the bird. In my defense, the three of us took that long to make enough of a dent in our half turkey before it was worthwhile picking the last meat off the carcass.

Making stock from scratch isn’t hard, but it does demand some time and cleanup. (If you homebrew beer, you may recognize some similarities.) Most of the time, I simplify this procedure by only making vegetable stock, and that’s where I’d recommend you start.

As the Washington Post’s Joe Yonan wrote several years ago, that starts with rerouting vegetable scraps to the freezer instead of a compost bin. Every time you’re chopping up veggies and have some bits you don’t want to eat–like the ends of carrots and onions, the greenest parts of leeks, or the woody stems of cauliflower or broccoli–toss them in a quart bag in your freezer. Once you have a quart’s worth, simmer them with a quart and a half of water for 30 minutes, then cool, strain and use now or freeze for later.

Turkey stock is more involved, and I decided to further complicate it Thursday night by following the advice of Serious Eats and roasting the carcass first. That proved to be an excellent idea, first because it made the kitchen smell amazing and second because it turned the last bits of turkey skin deliciously crispy and crackly.

I sauteed some leftover vegetable bits from the fridge in a pot, added the re-roasted turkey parts, threw in the most recent bag of frozen vegetable scraps and poured in enough water to cover everything.

And then I let the pot simmer for the next couple of hours while I wrestled with Christmas lights on the front porch. Straining it yielded about a quart of stock that after refrigeration, as predicted by the Serious Eats recipe, had set into a gelatinous state. I will admit that the results may look a little gross that way. But I’m sure they’re going to taste great.

Thanksgiving almost entirely from scratch, and on short notice

More than three decades after I moved out, I finally cooked Thanksgiving without parental help. This was not my original plan for the holiday, but the pandemic led us to scrap that a week before the holiday–giving me just enough time to shop and plan a downsized meal.

The turkey was the first item to cross off the to-do list. I thought about buying just a turkey breast, but when I realized that Virginia’s EcoFriendly Foods had half turkeys for sale, I picked up one at the Arlington farmers market on Saturday. FYI, it is significantly easier to carry less than 7 pounds of half a bird–yes, I lived up to local stereotype by buying a left-wing turkey–than 14 pounds of a complete one.

I also came home from the market with a few pounds of potatoes, leaving surprisingly little shopping for other ingredients over the next few days: sweet potatoes, fennel, and stuffing mix.

Thanksgiving itself started a little before 9 a.m. with mixing dough for two baguettes. Julia Child’s recipe from The Way To Cook spans five pages and requires three rises; it’s far more effort than the no-knead bread I’ve done in previous years, but a complete baguette freezes better than half a loaf.

As the dough rose, I made the crust and filling for pumpkin pie from my usual recipe; getting dessert finished before 1:30 p.m. was a good morale booster. The baguettes went into the oven next (accompanied by a head of garlic), while on the stove top I boiled the potatoes.

But what about the turkey, the entree that my brother’s wife had handled when we had family Thanksgiving here last year? I had been tempted to follow Kamala Harris’s advice about wet brining but didn’t get around to that Wednesday, so I limited myself to rubbing butter on the bird and then seasoning it with salt, pepper, herbes de Provence and some diced rosemary from the garden.

I mostly followed the roasting directions in my go-to cookbook, Mark Bittman’s How To Cool Everything, except that I cooked it at 450 degrees instead of 500 for the first 20 or so minutes before backing down to 350 degrees. I stuck the temperature probe for a ThermoWorks Dot into what seemed the thickest part of the bird and set the alarm on that remote thermometer to 165 degrees.

Meanwhile, my daughter helped mash the potatoes as I threw too much butter and some of the roast garlic into that pot while my wife handled the stuffing and crafted some tangy cranberry sauce from scratch, using a recipe she’d looked up that afternoon.

After about two hours in the over–another advantage to getting half a bird–the turkey was done and looked and tasted amazing. Folks, this doesn’t have to be hard; like many other areas of cooking, throwing butter at the problem works. Speaking of which, I whipped up some gravy from the drippings in the pan. I will admit that the results were lumpy, not that anybody cared.

The only real misfire in this entire cooking production was the roast vegetables–putting that dish of sweet potatoes, carrots and fennel on the top rack in the oven meant that I didn’t see it when I took out the turkey and so left them a bit overdone. But roast veggies are pretty fault tolerant, and everybody ate enough of everything that we had to walk around the neighborhood to check out the earliest Christmas decorations before indulging in dessert.

Thanksgiving was not the same with relatives only visible on an iPad’s screen, but at least we did dinner right. And now we’re going to see how long Thanksgiving leftovers last with only three people around to eat them.

How I got Amazon Prime almost for free

Last summer, my appetite for quantifying my finances intersected with my food-procurement habits to yield a math exercise: How much of my Amazon Prime membership was I chipping away with these discounts at Whole Foods?

The Seattle retail leviathan’s 2017 purchase of the Austin-based grocery chain consolidated a large portion of my annual consumer spend at one company. It also gave me a new set of benefits for the Amazon Prime membership my wife and I have had since 2011: an extra 10% off sale items except beer and wine, plus some Prime-only deals.

(Personal-finance FYI: Amazon also touts getting 5% cash back at Whole Foods on its credit card, but the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offers 6% back on all grocery stores. That higher rate combined with Amex Offers for rebates at designated merchants easily erases the card’s $95 annual fee and returns more money than I’d get from Amazon’s card.)

So on my way out of Whole Foods, I created a new Google Docs spreadsheet on my phone and jotted down the Prime savings called out on my receipt. Then I did the same thing after subsequent visits. If Whole Foods and Amazon were going to track my shopping habits (which I assume they could from seeing the same credit card even if I didn’t scan in the QR code in the Amazon app at the checkout), I ought to do likewise.

Aside from $10-and-change savings during last July’s Prime Day promotion and again on roses for Valentine’s Day, most of these 41 transactions yielded $4 or less in Prime discounts. But after a year, they added up to $118.14, just 86 cents less than the $119 Prime annual fee.

To answer the obvious question: No, I did not step up my Whole Foods visits because of this tie-in. That place does happen to be the closest almost-full-spectrum grocery store to my home, but there’s a Trader Joe’s barely further away that trades a smaller selection for cheaper pricing on staples like milk and flour. And thanks to this dorky habit of mine, I can tell that I’ve shifted more of my business from WF to TJ’s the past few months.

Home cooking when you don’t leave home

When I used to say “I love to cook,” I was saying that with the understanding that I’d only be cooking half the dinners in the week. Work events and social outings would have me out of the house most of the rest of the time, so I would never feel stuck in a rut.

Well, I’ve now gone three and a half months in which I’ve had every single dinner at home. And while we have treated ourselves to takeout or delivery once a week or so, I’ve cooked most of the other dinners.

What have I learned, aside from profound respect for my mom who did that work for far longer and for a larger family?

The importance of leftover-friendly recipes–soups, stews, chili, stir-fries, risotto, quesadillas–is even more obvious. But cooking a main course that can become a side (risotto, again) helps a lot, and so does making sides that I can use up later on.

It’s also important to have one extra-easy-but-still-homemade option, which for somebody of Italian ancestry like me means pasta. This time of year, that becomes a canvas for whatever herbs I can grab out of the garden and throw into a garlic and olive oil sauce.

But the one thing I didn’t quite expect was how much I would still want to try something more challenging once a week–in terms of ingredients I haven’t used, a cooking technique that’s new to me, or a particularly challenging set of directions. So I’ve tried my hand at deep-dish pizza, hollandaise sauce, and chicken parmesan, among other recipes from which I’d shied away in the Before Times.

And I still look forward to that challenge, which suggests I’m not burned out on home cooking. That would be good, because a return to my old lifestyle seems farther off than it did three and a half months ago.

After the jump: Some recipes from the Post’s Food section that I’ve found particularly useful since March.

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A new bread-baking hack: tangzhong

I’ve been baking sandwich bread about every week since 2004, and two weeks ago I learned that I’d been missing out on a fairly simple technique to make softer loaves that stay fresh longer.

It’s called tangzhong, and I learned about it from a tweet from science journalist Erin Biba. I read the introduction she shared from King Arthur Flour’s blog, then that blog’s explanation of how to work this into a standard sandwich-bread recipe.

“Tangzhong” is either Chinese for “soup starter” or “flour roux,” depending on where you read, and it’s a way to incorporate more water into bread dough without it evaporating and making the bread stale as fast as usual. You do that by cooking a small amount of flour and water in a pan until they form a slurry–as if you were making roux for homemade mac and cheese–that locks in the moisture, Then you combine this with  the rest of your flour mixture before adding your yeast mixture and proceeding as usual.

The King Arthur directions started simple: 3 tablespoons flour and half a cup of water in a pan over medium heat until the mixture thickens. But then math intruded, in the form of calculations to determine how much water to add to the rest of the recipe to ensure that the water added up to 75 percent of the weight of the flour.

The first try, I spent so much time weighing ingredients–a somewhat irritating step when you’re putting flour and then water on a scale in measuring cups already labeled to tell you how much of something they contain–that I forgot to add the weight of that initial half cup of water back in and instead poured in almost a quarter of a cup more water into my yeast-and-water mix. The result was an unmanageably soupy dough that I couldn’t work with until I’d added maybe another half cup of flour above the 3 1/2 cups in my standard recipe.

That left me with more risen dough than I’d need for one loaf, so I broke off a bit and formed that into hot dog rolls and hamburger buns. All were delicious, if done at least half an hour behind schedule. The bread was notably softer and fluffier–more like the pre-packaged sort I renounced buying 15 years ago when I was just embarking on baking hipsterdom–and kept fresh longer, freeing me from wanting to relegate the last couple of slices to toast or a grilled-cheese sandwich.

The second try, I decided to wing it a little and not add any water beyond the half cup in the tangzhong and the 1 1/4 cup in which I normally pour yeast and honey to start. I also saved myself some complexity by putting all of the flour in the stand mixer’s bowl, then taking out 3 tablespoons for the tangzhong. But once again, I still had dough too damp to work, so I added a little more flour and once again got some bonus rolls.

On the third try, I used only 1 3/4 cup of water to start the yeast, leaving me with 1 1/2 1 1/4 cups of water in the total recipe. As in, close enough to not too far below the proportions the King Arthur recipe had specified, if only I’d paid more attention the first time, but also the same amount of total water as in my usual bread-baking practice.

On this iteration, the dough came away from the sides (if not the bottom) of our stand mixer like usual, and the finished loaf was fantastic like the others. As I write this, I am already looking forward to tomorrow’s sandwich for lunch.

Updated 5/16 to correct totals for the third iteration.

The quesadilla assembly line

I’m in the middle of my longest stretch of home cooking in years, so I’m falling back on one of the recipes I always make before heading out of town for work.

Quesadillas check off several critical requirements in family cuisine: cheap ingredients, simple to prepare, most picky-eating kids will eat them, most grownups like them too, easily reheated, freezer-tolerant.

I won’t call this recipe authentic; I can’t object if you label it cultural appropriation, given my absence of Latino heritage. It is, however, an affordable and low-stress way to put together dinner for multiple nights. So I hope this helps some of you trying to avoid total dependence on takeout and delivery.

  • 1/3 onion
  • 1/2 bell pepper
  • 2 tbsp. cooking oil
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. cumin
  • 1/4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 15-oz. can black beans
  • 1 ripened avocado
  • 1/2 lb. Monterey jack cheese
  • 10 8-in. flour tortillas

Dice onion and bell pepper. Warm 1 tablespoon oil in a pan over medium heat, then sauté the vegetables until softened while adding the salt, cumin and chili powder.

Slice the avocado in half and remove the pit, drain and rinse the black beans, and divide the cheese into 10 portions. Place a nonstick pan or griddle on the stovetop over no more than medium heat.

Put a drop of vegetable oil on aluminum foil or another clean and washable or disposable surface and swab it with one side of a tortilla. Take one heaping tablespoon of avocado and mash it on half of the other side of the tortilla. Add a dangerously-heaping tablespoon of black beans atop the avocado, then a tenth of the sauteed veggies. Dice one of the one-tenth portions of the cheese and scatter that over the other fillings.

(This is also your opportunity to add any other random ingredients that could suit this context: a tomato diced up, leftover BBQ, chopped spinach or arugula from the garden or remaining from a grocery-store purchase, diced cilantro, etc.)

Fold the quesadilla over into a semicircle, then cook it on the pan or griddle until browned on each side while frequently pressing down on it with a spatula to ensure the ingredients meld. You should be able to do at least two at once, but move them often to avoid them lingering on any cool spots in the pan or griddle.

Serve as is or with salsa or sour cream. Try to save some of the batch for leftovers.

Housework when nobody leaves the house: The dishes are never done

We’re now wrapping up two weeks of staying at home together as a family. It feels more like a month, and I mostly blame the dishwasher for that.

I’m no stranger to housework after almost nine years of working from home full-time. But having everybody else in the family cooped up at home to avoid the coronavirus is a different thing. The biggest surprise, as I suppose many of you have been learning, is how often you run the dishes when everybody eats every meal at home.

For the three of us, that’s at least nine sets of utensils, glasses and plates or bowls each day. Running the dishwasher that we’d idly thought of replacing because of how long it takes has become an every-three-days proposition at best. And now I really hope this appliance that conveyed with the house almost 16 years ago does not pick this season to break on us.

Laundry, meanwhile, has become surprisingly easier. Why? When I rarely leave the house and never do so to meet anybody for professional reasons, I might as well wear the same pair of pants at least twice before washing them. I’m also finding myself okay with getting two days out of a shirt while the temperatures stay below the 70s.

And as long as I don’t work too hard gardening during what are supposed to be brief breaks from work. Fortunately or unfortunately, my seasonal outdoor distraction from my occupation is even stronger this spring. Because removing some plants and moving others around to make our house look better seems like one of the few things I can control in my life right now. 

2019 gardening report card: the persistence of parsley

Winter has yet to bring more than decorative amounts of snow to the D.C. area, but it’s already inflicted enough hard frosts to put a period on my kitchen-gardening efforts. So it’s once again time to evaluate how my attempts to grown my own food have worked out.

(For reference: my 2018, 201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Arugula: A

This most reliable vegetable once again came through with spring and fall crops, although the latter didn’t measure up to the former. As I’ve written in earlier posts here: This is what you should try to grow before lettuce or spinach–the most fault-tolerant vegetable outside of parsley.

Parsley harvestHerbs: A-

So about that: Flat-leaf parsley remains my flagship herb, yielding so much in the spring and fall that I was able to make repeated batches of parsley-walnut pesto. Sage came in second, even before getting extra credit for flourishing in a garden bed I basically ignored after half of the wood framing was well into rotting apart.

The other herbs I attempted to cultivate, however, dragged down this category score. Basil did better than last year, in that I got one great batch of pesto sauce out of it, but it would have lasted longer had I put in more effort. Mint was fine and dill grew adequately, but everything else evaporated.

Lettuce: B

Even getting two months’ worth of lettuce from one packet of seeds beats buying the same amount in a grocery store or at a farmers’ market.

Spinach: B-

This was great in the spring, but my attempt at a fall crop petered out before I could pluck any leaves to throw in a sandwich or an omelette.

Tomatoes: F

The plants I bought got as far as flowering but never showed a single tomato. You can imagine my frustration as a native New Jerseyan, especially after last year’s moderately impressive harvest.

Green beans: F

I planted seeds that yielded nothing in the neglected garden bed that I should rebuild in the spring. At least I tried, which I can’t say for cucumbers or bell peppers.

 

Is it even Thanksgiving if you don’t travel?

For the first time more than three decades, I didn’t have to travel anywhere for Thanksgiving–my brother and his family and my mom came to our house this year. So what did I do with all the time I didn’t have to spend traveling up and down the Northeast Corridor?

I worked until about 5 p.m. Wednesday. Of course that was going to happen. And then I got dinner on the table stupidly late because I thought I’d try a new Instant Pot recipe that wound up introducing me to that device’s dreaded “burn” error condition.

Fortunately, the really important dinner came together fine Thursday, with an enormous amount of help from my extended family. With my sister in law taking charge of the turkey, I didn’t have that much more work to do than I would have in an away-from-home Thanksgiving. My two Thanksgiving standbys, almost-no-work bread and pumpkin pie, were outright easier because I didn’t have to think about where to find utensils and ingredients.

In the bargain, we finally got to break out the good china (after washing it to remove years of accumulated dust), and now we have all the leftovers. I am thankful for that.

But the downside of having people come to you for Thanksgiving is that they’re spending their own money, miles or points to travel and may decide to compromise their schedule to reduce that hit. For my brother and his family and my mom, that meant flying here Tuesday and going home today. So after three days of having five extra people bouncing around our house, the place now feels too empty and too quiet.