Monday, October 23, 2017

Bugged about Dinner?

Grasshopper preparing to fly.
The conventional way that gardeners look at insects and other creepy crawlers is with the question, "friend or foe?"

However, with a subtle change in perspective you can take the word "foe" right out, although I'm not sure that "friend" would always be the right term. I'm a fan of looking at the plant-munching insects as simply critters being themselves and trying to survive. That doesn't mean I don't take steps to prevent them from eating my plants (such as squishing them), but changing my attitude makes a difference in how I approach that task.

Recently, we've begun to describe these critters -- in particular, the grasshoppers -- by another term; "lunch." Or perhaps "dinner," or "breakfast."

Human beings all over the world routinely consume insects as part of their normal diet. Let me add, they intentionally consume these insects, in some cases considering them delicacies. Insects and other creepy crawlies contain many nutrients, including amino acids (proteins). The critters add diversity to the diet and supplement other protein sources. In some areas they might even provide a significant portion of dietary protein. Even some vegetarian peoples will eat the buglies even if they eat no other animal proteins. In Mexico they eat roasted grasshoppers seasoned with lime and chilies. They are called chapulines.

Here in the U.S.A. however we have a general aversion to bugly critters of every kind, regardless of the benefits they provide. Eating creepy crawlies is simply out of the question. People even get hysterical when they learn that food processors can allow a certain amount of bug parts in the foods they package.

We've all eaten plenty of bugs without knowing it. I'm sure that not all of the aphids get washed off my lettuce and kale. Occasionally I find tiny caterpillars in my steamed greens, so certainly I've eaten a few. Why not take the next step and intentionally eat some of these critters?

So we've taken to hunting grasshoppers and crickets. You definitely want to cook these critters. The grasshoppers turn an interesting red color when you either saute in butter or boil them. No, they don't taste like chicken. They don't have much flavor at all, and the texture is sort of crispy. The key to catching grasshoppers is to speak calmly to them and not think about the fact that you intend to eat them. On these chilly mornings they move very slowly, but can be difficult to find. You don't need to hunt your own as you can go online and find sources for ready-to-eat bugs. An easy way to get some bug nutrition in your diet is to buy some cricket flour and add some to your favorite flour-based recipe.

Moving bugs into our diets has been touted as one way to provide protein to the growing human population in a more sustainable manner. A couple of thousand bug species are edible and routinely consumed. Here are a few common ones.

In my research I ran across Web sites describing recipes high end chefs created for using bugs. I'm intrigued by the stink bug (yes, stink bugs), which another Web site described as tasting like apples. I say "no" to the tarantula and dragonfly dishes. Not because they're creepy, but because I like spiders and dragonflies a lot in a non-culinary sort of way. I would never intentionally eat them.

One chef who has written a book of buggy cuisine piqued my interest with his description of wax moth larvae, which destroy honey bee hives by eating honey and honeycomb wax. That sort of diet sounds like one that would create some sweet meat. He said that when baked into cookies they taste like pistachios. He gave tips on cooking with insects in this 2013 interview.

I think I'd be up for some wax moth cookies. And I'm eyeing those green stink bugs with a different attitude. It seems like it wouldn't take much effort to gather enough for an intriguing stir fry. For now though, it's crickets and grasshoppers. Bon appétit.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Drawing In and Roasting Squash

Little yellow crookneck squash you're going to get roasted.
For the last couple of weeks I've been drawn more inside. Even when the weather is gorgeous, as it was this afternoon, I feel more compelled to do indoor chores. The garden still presents plenty of things to do, but I feel no urgency to do them. And when the mornings are chilly, as they have been the last few days, I focus inside.

It's just part of the cycle. Autumn arrives and things move inward and downward. Perennial plants begin pulling their energy into the roots. Leaves turn colors and fall to the ground. Late annuals pull out all of the stops, flowering and setting seed at a rapid pace to live up to their biological destiny: reproduction. Then they droop and drop.

And I am drawn inward, literally and figuratively. I spend my mornings on household tasks. And I feel like cooking! It's not that I hate cooking, but during the summer I try to avoid kitchen time as much as possible. Now I start my day in the kitchen -- and not just on breakfast.

During the summer I did spend my share of time in the kitchen. What am I supposed to do with all of that summer squash, after all? Green beans, long beans, peppers, and so on. I race through the snapping, chopping, steaming, roasting, etc., so I can get back outside. Today I take my time in the kitchen.

A couple of posts ago I promised to instruct you on how I make Roasted Summer Squash with Apples. So here it is. The squash was really, really, I mean Really productive this year. I made a lot of this stuff (and even froze some), as well as other squashy things.

Ready for the oven.
Use a shallow glass baking dish, such as the one above. It is about 10.5x15 inches and about 2 inches deep. Print on the bottom says it's 4.8 quarts (4.5 liters). You can use any size dish, depending on how much squash you have.

Summer squash (zucchini might work, too)
Medium size red onion
Apples (2 to 3 medium size ones for this size of dish)
Avocado oil or high quality extra virgin olive oil

Cut up vegetables and apples and place in dish. Do no fill much more than half full. If the baking dish is too full, it will take longer for the vegetables to cook and you won't get that nice, roasted flavor. It will be more like steamed or boiled.

Coat vegetables with oil. I like to just drizzle some oil over the vegetables in the pan and work them with my hand until the vegetables are well coated. Or you can dump the vegetables into a large bowl, drizzle with oil, toss with a wooden spatula until well coated and then place back in pan.

Add salt and pepper. Place in a preheated 400-degree oven for an hour or a little longer if you want them super soft. You should see some browning. Stir every 15 minutes, scraping vegetables off the bottom and sides.

Remove from oven. Serve hot, or keep in refrigerator to eat cold or reheat. Add toasted pecans for a special touch.

You can also roast the squash without the onions and apples. That's how I started doing it. Then I thought, "I'll bet that would be really good with onions. Ooo. Oooo. And apples!" You can vary the amount of onion and apples, and even add different seasonings as your whim desires.

You can roast just about any vegetable. Okra, eggplant, celery and tomato. 
While I roasted the above pan of squash and apples today, I also roasted up some okra that's been languishing in the refrigerator, with some summer's end eggplant, chopped celery, and a few golf ball size Black Vernaisse tomatoes that were sitting on the counter. I seasoned it with oregano, smoked paprika, and a hint of cayenne. Prepare it just like the summer squash, but it only needed about 30-45 minutes in the oven.

While I was processing the summer squash this summer, I also simply steamed some (for 6 minutes, stirring halfway through) and froze it to use later in stir-fries and other dishes. But most of the squash got roasted, or dehydrated.

The dehydrated squash is like chips -- addictive. I thinly sliced the squash (about 1/8 inch thick), salted the slices (I believe this not only enhances the flavor, but draws out water and makes the dried squash crisper), and placed in the dehydrator until crispy (135 degrees F. if you've got one with a thermostat). I bet you can't eat just one.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Apples of my Eye

Recipes; who needs 'em?

At least I didn't need one to make some awesome apple butter.

Three bags of apples in the refrigerator needed to be used pretty soon, before their already rotten spots ate the whole apple. I've already stuck plenty of baked apples with cinnamon and other spices in the freezer to thaw later, and bake again with a crust. Or just thaw... or not. That stuff is really good frozen, too. But enough is enough.

So how do you cook down three bags of apples with a minimum of fuss, and a significant reduction of volume?

Slow cooker apple butter.

I cut up apples until my 6-quart slow cooker was slightly overfull, set the lid on (it didn't go down all the way, at first), plugged in the slow cooker (this is a really, really important step), turned it on low (another important step) and walked away for 16 hours or so. I did stir it a few times, but not while I was sleeping.

The resulting thick, buttery goo was oh so delicious.

I wanted to can this amazingly simple, single ingredient wonder, but wasn't sure if I needed to add a bit of acid first, so I started looking for recipes for canning apple butter. Most of the Web sites that had apple butter recipes didn't say anything about adding vinegar or some other acid before canning. However, all of the recipes from places that are supposed to know food safety (like Extension, you know, the Web sites with the .edu at the end) said to add vinegar, quite a lot of vinegar in my opinion.

Meh. That much vinegar would really affect the flavor. I knew that you can substitute concentrated lemon juice for vinegar when canning, and my notes indicated that I could use half the amount of bottled lemon juice as vinegar. I didn't have any lemon juice. So I froze most of the first batch (except for a pint to spread on the grain-free breads I've learned to make) and started a second batch, filling not only the 6-quart slow cooker, but the 3-quart one, as well. And my delightfully helpful husband picked up some bottled lemon juice when he went into town for some appointments.

But you know what else I had "forgotten" in my first batch of apple butter, according to every single recipe I came across? Apple juice and sugar. Sugar? Apples are sweet enough fresh and raw, you go cooking them down, concentrating all that flavor and natural sugar, and you have lots of sweetness. Why in the world do you need to add sugar? Are you people addicted?!?

Take a deep breath, girl.

OK. I'm better. But really, why add so much sugar to something already so sweet? And the apple juice, forget it. I cooked all of my apple butter without one drop of apple juice, except that which came out of the apples. It was fine. And I didn't have to leave the lid slightly off (as all of the recipes said to do) so that the extra liquid would evaporate. I didn't have any extra liquid. Some might think that adding the apple juice or cider gives extra flavor. But my homegrown apples of several varieties needed no extra flavor. This stuff is ambrosia.

So I canned the second batch. The lemon juice did not ruin the flavor, but actually gave it a nice little zip.

So here's my recipe for apple butter.
1 slow cooker

Cut up the apples until the slow cooker is full. Put on the lid, plug in the slow cooker and turn it to low. Go do something else. Stir it. Go to bed and sleep all night. In the morning look at it, stir it, and go do something else until it is the consistency you want. Grab your immersion blender and blend that ambrosia to a smooth consistency, or not. Eat some of it while it's hot. Eat some more when it's cold. Put it on toast. Put it on ice cream (dairy or non-dairy). Put it in yogurt (ditto). Or just eat it all by itself. But be careful. That's a lot of apple on that spoon.

So you want to can it.
I used 3/4 to 1 cup of bottled lemon juice for the 6-quart cooker. (If your cooker is a different size, just do a little simple math.) The volume of apple butter was less than half the volume of the cut up apples. You can add the lemon juice while the apple butter is still bubbling in the slow cooker. The butter must be hot when you can it. But I had to wait for the lemon juice, so I refrigerated it and reheated it to boiling the next day. Be careful; this goo is like lava. The butter wasn't even getting warm when the first bubble rose up and splattered apple butter with a "bloop!" Fortunately, I had the lid on. Use a lid and carefully lift it and stir, often, to prevent the lava explosions and to prevent scorching.

Start heating the water in the canner before you start bringing the sauce to a boil. Have clean jars, new lids, and rings at the ready. When the canner is boiling hard, fill the jars (leave a half inch "head space" at the top), wipe the rims clean, put the lids on and screw the rings on tightly. Set the jars in the rack and lower them into the boiling water, replace the lid, and process for...

...the first recipe said five minutes for pints, but if you process for 10 minutes or more you don't need to sterilize the jars first. So I processed my pints for 15 minutes, just to be sure. Food safety first.

Remove the jars from the canner and set on a clean dish towel on the counter to cool. No sound is so sweet as the "tink, tink" of the lids as the jars seal. Yay! 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


Grimes Golden, Enterprise, Tydeman's Late Orange, Freedom, Liberty, Haralson -- all tasty apple varieties from our trees.
We are less than two weeks past the Autumn Equinox and the season is in obvious decline. A scattering of leaves litters the ground and summer vegetables have significantly slowed production.

All but two of the tomato plants have been retired. They looked puny and were no longer setting on flowers, so I picked all of the useable tomatoes, green and red, and pulled out the vines. The remaining plants look fairly lush yet and continue to produce, so I will leave them until frost, or they start looking really bad, whichever comes first. Mixed feelings filled me as I pulled the tomatoes. On one hand I love the dried tomatoes and roasted tomatoes I've put away, and part of me wants to keep collecting more. On the other hand, it's one less thing to do. I can focus on other tasks. Ditto with the summer squash.

One of the beds of summer squash has been cleared -- between the squash bugs and powdery mildew the plants were dying. The second bed of squash has been significantly reduced, as I've cut off most of the worst looking leaves and dead vines. But the plants continue to set on tender squash, so I will leave those in place until they die off more. Later today I plan to do another batch of roasted squash with apples. (Instructions in a later post.) This simple way of doing the summer squash will work nicely with winter squash and sweet potatoes.

It's apple time here in northeast Kansas, actually well past apple time on our farm. The trees have been cleaned of fruit by the joint efforts of me and the neighborhood squirrels. I picked the apples a little earlier than I would have prefered because the fruit started to disappear. We had a really good crop of apples and I am selfish. I did not want them all to go to the squirrels. The good news is that they were ripe enough that after some time in the fridge, the apples have sweetened up. Numerous batches of spiced baked apples have been put in the freezer for later dates. Many jars of dried apple slices line the pantry shelf. Sometime in the next few days I will pull out the crock pots and cook up some apple butter, which will go very nicely with the grain-free breads we've recently learned to bake. And, of course, more apples will go into my roasted summer squash pan (and future sweet potato roasts).

Even in the state of decline, the garden continues to produce abundance. Although their leaves are tattered by the munching of various insects and their larvae, the morning glories continue to be glorious. Their morning displays will continue until frost. The recent cloudy, cool mornings extend the time of bloom, so they don't close up until after noon. The nasturtiums, which struggle during hot weather, are blooming profusely. Spicey blossoms for my meals. Some of the leaves will go into my mixed greens ferment, as soon as I get around to pulling it all together. It was a mighty tasty ferment last year.

And the sweet potatoes... the vines are lush and have grown through the protective fencing and onto the path. I've noticed where the deer or rabbits have nibbled off leaves, and that's fine. Soon I will cut back the vines and dig the orange roots, and some purple roots too. I love sweet potatoes. A few years ago, a dedicated group of market farmers had October declared Sweet Potato Month in Kansas. Events were scheduled and a fun time was had. I have not seen any events planned this year yet, but the Celebrate Sweet Potatoes - Lawrence, Ks., Facebook page remains active. So I have hopes.