May 31, 2009

palak paneer

With the amount of spinach at the farmer's market right now, we are finding that we need to change up how we eat it - not just in salads, not just on sandwiches, not just steamed. An Indian spinach stew called palak paneer happens to be one of Julie's favorite dishes. Palak paneer is deliciously creamy and smooth. If you are thinking of trying Indian food for the first time, this is a good dish to start with.

Palak refers to the spinach and paneer refers to little cubes of soft cheese. Palak is often made with heavy cream, whole milk and ghee. Apparently, cashews can be used instead of milk products to add creaminess but they traditionally are used only for special occasions because cashews are expensive. Well, since we can afford cashews for more than just special occassions and since we wanted our palak to potentially feed our vegan friends, we made ours with cashews. Being the make-it-from-scratchers that we are, we made the paneer from scratch. If you are making this dish vegan you could easily replace the paneer with tofu.

Serving Size: 6

Paneer Ingredients:
1/2 gal. whole milk
3 T. lemon juice
2 layers of cheesecloth, approximately 12"x12" squares

Palak Ingredients:
1 lb raw spinach
1/3 c. (~50g) cashews
1/2 onion, minced
3 oz. tomato paste or 1 tomato
2 T. earth balance margerine
1 T. frozen cilantro
1 t. frozen ginger
1 t. turmeric, ground
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 t. ground cayenne
1/2 t. cumin, ground
1/2 t. corriander ground
salt to taste

For the paneer, I followed instructions from Indira's blog titled "Mahanandi". I also found helpful comments at the blog "food and other musings".

Basically, boil milk in a tall pot. Try to keep it at a rolling boil for at least 5 minutes. Stirring a lot and having a tall pot helps to keep the foam from spilling over. Then, remove from heat, add lemon juice, and stir for 3 minutes. Curds will form. Let it sit for 10 minutes to get more curds.

If you don't get many curds, you can just boil it again and try adding lemon juice a second time. Reading the comments on the blogs mentioned above really helped--I'll summarize what I think are the most important points below:
  • Both pasteurized and raw milk will work.
  • Ultra-pasteurized or ultra high temperature (UHT) milk will not work.
  • Cow, goat, sheep, horse's all good.
  • Whole milk works best. 2%, 1%, and skim may work, but will yield less cheese.
  • Use the tallest pot you got.
  • Boil the milk for at least 5 minutes, stirring to prevent the foam from spilling over.
  • You can use any acid to promote curdling: lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, yogurt.
  • When the curds form, a translucent, yellowy liquid (whey) will remain.
  • When the curds do form, it is like magic.
Strain the curds through the cheesecloth, saving the whey (you can put it in shakes or make ricotta). Flatten the curds on a plate to 1/2" thickness. Press between two plates for at least 20 minutes to squeeze out more whey. Refrigerate overnight.

For the palak, I used Indira's palak recipe as a starting point.

In medium pot over low heat, melt 1 T. margerine and add the cayenne pepper and spinach. A pound of spinach may sound like a lot, but it cooks down dramatically. Feel free to use fresh green chilis instead of cayenne pepper. When the spinach is wilted, let it cool (you can add ice cubes if you're in a rush) and blend it in the food processor. Mix in half of a 6 oz. can of tomato paste. If tomatoes are in season, boil and mash a fresh tomato instead of using tomato paste. Set aside.

Dry-roast the cashews. Then blend the cashews to a fine powder in a food processor. Set aside. Use the already dirtied food processor once again to mince the onions.

Saute the onions in 1 T. of margarine until translucent. Add in the ginger, cilantro, garlic, turmeric, cumin, and coriander. Cook for a few minutes. Add in the wilted spinach, tomato and cashew powder. Mix well and salt to taste. Remove the paneer from the fridge and cut it into cubes. You can fry it first or add it to the palak as is. Serve with rice, rotis, or naan.

Side Notes:
Saag is pretty much the same thing as palak except that palak is exclusively spinach while saag can have mustard greens. I bet garlic mustard would make a great saag!

If you have raw milk, you can skip the boiling step and simply form curds and whey by letting it "spoil". Do not do this with pasteurized milk because it skips the curds and whey step and goes straight to bad. Bad meaning bad, not bad meaning good.

Indira's blog is one of my new favorites--the photos are great! Go here for the most recent posts!

May 30, 2009


Well, we transplanted seedlings into our self irrigating planter. In one planter we have 1 tomato, 2 dwarf peas, 2 basils, 2 chives and 1 marigold. When the plants are a little more established I think I will add some red clover for ground cover. Here's hoping for the best!

May 27, 2009

self irrigating planter

We live in a 550 sq.ft. apartment in "downtown" Boulder. We like the location. We can walk or bike to anywhere we want/need to go. Of course, I would love to own instead of a rent and I would LOVE to have a yard but that is just going to have to wait. In the mean time, I am trying to figure out container gardening.

I do not have a green thumb but I desperately want one. It is a good thing I have an entire life to make mistakes and learn!
The last few years, I have half-heartedly tried to grow annuals like cabbage and squash in containers. I have killed said annuals in an assortment of ways. For example, I have forgotten to water them, left them out in huge storms, given them too dense of soil, let them get eaten by bugs, etc, etc. Basically I neglect them at some point and for a container garden that is definitely NOT COOL. This year, since I am finally free of school, I promise not to neglect my container garden.

Water management is one of the trickiest things to container gardening. The soil in containers dries out much quicker than that in the earth. Annual crops that are grown in containers require water at least twice a day! That's a lot of human input! No wonder I end up messing things up. So, just in case I get flaky or I choose to go away for the weekend, I built a self irrigating planter.

A self irrigating planter stores water at the base of the container so that the roots pull it in as needed. Stores sell pre-made self irrigating planters but it will cost you since it is a specialty item. Many people build their own out of things like rubbermaid storage containers and 5 gallon buckets. Check it: Self Irrigating Planter Resources on Homegrown Evolution

I like the thrift of these designs but for myself I want to explore the possibilities of plastic planters that are terra cotta colored. Why? Because I want our DIY self irrigating planters to blend in with all of our other standard pots which are terra cotta. Also, the terra cotta aesthetic is cleaner and warmer which is important since I want my apartment neighbors and landlord to like what I am doing.

18 in. (at top) round plastic planter, terra cotta colored
12 in. (at top) round plastic planter tray
empty earth balance container
12.5 in (at base) round plastic laundry basket
18 in. long, 1 in. diameter irrigation pipe
zip ties

Put the planter tray inside the planter. It should perfectly nest at the base of the planter. The planter tray that we chose will hold 10 cups of water. Overflow water will fall over the sides of the planter tray and through the holes in the base of the planter.

Leave an air gap above the water so that plant roots can breathe. Drill 4 small holes in the planter just above the planter tray to supply air to the air gap.

Find a plastic laundry basket at a thrift store that will nest inside planter a few inches above the base. The laundry basket will hold the soil above the water resevoir and air gap. Drill small holes in the laundry basket so that the roots have access to air. Cut out holes for the wicking chamber at the center and irrigation pipe on the perimeter. Remove most of the side lattice of the laundry basket.

The wicking chamber connects the soil to the water. Create a wicking chamber by drilling holes in a margarine container. Attach it to the laundry basket with zip ties.

To supply water to the resevoir at the base of the planter, provide an irrigation pipe that goes through the laundry basket to the base. Cut the base of the pipe at an angle to ensure water flow.

This design is untested so I will report my observations throughout the season!

The tomato plant photo used in the diagram above came from flickr's "sameold2008"

May 18, 2009

oatmeal cookies topped with rhubarb compote

Thanks to rhubarb, pie season has begun! I love pies but I love crumbles even more. I was planning on making a crumble, but when I got to the kitchen it felt like a good day to experiment. With an open mind, I gravitated towards making oatmeal cookies with a rhubarb compote topping. The results were very yummy and, of course, I had fun.

Yield: 12 mini cookies

Oatmeal Cookie Ingredients:
3/4 c. rolled oats
1/4 c. whole-wheat flour
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/8 t. baking soda
1/8 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. nutmeg

2 T. earth balance margarine, melted
2 T. applesauce
2 T. honey
2 T. sorghum molasses
3/4 t. vanilla extract

Rhubarb Filling Ingredients:
1 1/2 c. rhubarb stalks, chopped fine
3 T. honey
1 T. frozen orange juice concentrate

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Mix the dry cookie ingredients. Mix the wet cookie ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir until just combined. Form the dough into 1" diameter balls. Place the balls on an ungreased baking sheet. Press your thumb into the center of the balls until you just about touch the baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes at 375 degrees. Let the cookies cool on wire cookie racks.

In a small saucepan, combine the rhubarb, honey, and frozen orange juice concentrate. Simmer over medium heat for five minutes until the rhubarb is tender. Scoop the rhubarb filling into the thumb imprints on the cooked oatmeal cookies. Serve fresh or pack them for lunch!

May 8, 2009

garlic mustard pesto

10:48 PM hi eric
10:49 PM got garlic mustard?? make pesto. i did; it was delicious!

I got this late-night chat from my mom. The next day, I looked up what garlic mustard was, and happened to see it growing behind a bench by the library. So, what did I do? Uprooted it and brought it home to make pesto! Julie is very familiar with this invasive species from her prairie restoration days and I had no clue about it. But who knew it made a great pesto? My mom, that's who.

Yields: 1 1/2 c. pesto

1 1/2 c. garlic mustard
6 cloves garlic
1 c. olive oil
1 t. salt

The 1 1/2 cups were from a single, large, garlic mustard plant. Just use the leaves, not the stems or flowers. Blend everything together in a food processor. With lots of olive oil, this makes a thin pesto. You can add pine nuts or walnuts if you like for a more traditional, creamier, pesto, but this was delicious as is. The taste of garlic mustard isn't very strong, so adding regular garlic is a good idea.

Here's an article (with photos) about how bad garlic mustard is as an invasive species and here's how you can make it good:

Garlic mustard pesto grilled cheese! We used "Young Tom" cheese (a little like munster) from Windsor Dairy and home-baked bread, with a bit of local wheat flour fresh from Farmer John's mill. I made a vegan version with hummus and it was excellent also.

May 3, 2009

asparagus pasta with buttery mushroom sauce

Someday when we have a small patch of land, we will create a dense permaculture garden that features perennial fruits and vegetables, one of which will be asparagus. Until then, we will do our best with container gardening.

Asparagus takes three years to establish itself. Once it is established you can harvest spears in the spring until the weather gets warm. Last week, a friend of ours shared baby asparagus spears with us while we were touring his garden. They were so tender and delicious!

This week, asparagus made its debut at the farmers' market. We decided to make a pasta with asparagus and mushrooms. We really wanted the asparagus and mushrooms to stand out, so we just made a simple buttery sauce. We actually still have dried mushrooms left from our winter stockpile, but because it is a fresh new season we decided to use fresh mushrooms from Hazel Dell Mushrooms.

Serving Size: 4

1/2 lb rigatoni pasta, dry
1/2 lb asparagus
1/2 lb tiny cute as a button mushrooms, whole
4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 c. (3.5 oz) yellow onion, finely diced
1/2 c. "earth balance" margarine
1/4 c. mirin or white wine
1/4 c. water
2 T. rice vinegar
2 T. all purpose flour
1 T. tarragon (dried or fresh)
1 T. canola oil
1/8 t. black pepper
salt to taste

Start the onions sauteing in canola oil and add a pinch of salt. Add 3 of the 4 garlic cloves, mushrooms, 2 T. margarine, black pepper, and another pinch of salt. Cook on low/medium heat.

In the mean time, bring water to a boil in a medium pot. You can boil the pasta and steam the asparagus at the same time (deliciously efficient). Boil the pasta for about 10 minutes or until cooked. Steam the asparagus spears over the boiling pasta water for 5 minutes or until they are bright green. Rinse the asparagus spears in cold water so they stop cooking themselves and cut 1 inch segments.

When the mushrooms are soft and golden, add the tarragon and the remainder of the margarine. When the margarine is all melted, mix the mirin/wine, water, flour, the last garlic clove, and another pinch of salt. I like adding garlic at different stages to get different flavors from it. Add rice vinegar and remove the pan from the heat. The vinegar helps to release all of the butter from the pan and adds some zing to the sauce.

Top the pasta with the mushroom sauce and asparagus. Grind black and cayenne pepper on top to taste!

Side note:
If you can't find any tarragon, you can substitute anise or fennel. Here's a nice quote about tarragon:

"I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around." --James Beard

boulder crop calendar

One month until we eat strawberries!!