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As a serious cook, and growing more concerned with the quality of my food and its sourcing, not to mention being a child of the ‘ecology movement’ from the 70s if only by my association with that generation, should you be surprised that I’d eventually want to grow my own vegetables?

This is a project that took place over the course of several months, to be honest. While I did my part often to diminish my carbon footprint on the world through biking rather than driving, my wife tackled the water aspect of conservation by doing two things:
1) saving the initial water runoff when she starts her showers and…
2) nagging me constantly enough that I don’t run the water in the kitchen sink like crazy till it gets warm

My wife some months ago got the notion to buy a vertical garden. Yes, you may well wonder what the hell that is. It is, in essence, an approach to gardening or greenery that involves stacking pots, training plants to vertical directions, or in myriad ways putting more plants, be they vegetables or flowers or trees, on top of each other. Look here for some cool urban concepts of vertical gardening.

So my wife ordered this item some months ago for about $250 or so, and it gathered dust in our backyard during the winter months till just this spring when I gradually approached the big ol’ thing and considered what to do with it. She bought this thing at the vertical garden project and finally, some months later, it’s coming into reality of our property.

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In essence, because our property has little area that receives anything like adequate sunlight to grow vegetables or herbs, it was necessary to grow as much as we could on as small a spot as possible. Turns out it is our southeast corner of the house.

I built and laid out the vertical garden in the right spot…and let it sit for a few weeks. When we had a car for the weekend, I dropped off and bought three large bags of outdoor potting soil. A week later, I bought some red wriggler worms from a local bait shop and actively started saving vegetable scraps from my cooking to contribute to the compost bin of the vertical garden; a central tube where the veggie scraps, egg shells, etc can prove to be hearty fare for our composting worms.

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These cuties are then put into the central tube along with the veggies scraps and 2-4 times a year, I’ll let slip the wing nut at the bottom and receive a big old pile of worm-eaten scraps, shed worm skins, etc that mightily aids in the quality of your soil. It all goes in here.

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No, wait–that last shot is some kim chee I made (heh heh). While that is also a fermented item, it is much more tasty and edible than the kind of fermented vegetable scraps you desire for your garden.

In any case, I’m hopeful that this will work out well and that my second attempt at gardening proves more successful than my last one when we first moved into this house in 1994– not that the last one was a failure, but I wasn’t really into cooking as much then but more into simply being a homeowner…and homeowners apparently had vegetable gardens.

Over the days to come, I hope to show some of the results of my little garden project, and of course, show you their results in my own cooking. Right now it’s just a big ol’ white plastic ‘thing’ but hopefully in a few weeks, I’ll see a pile of green and actually have something to harvest, if only small lettuces.

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Not sure where this is a going, my friends; saw this recipe in Olive magazine, a British publication at the Bowl which intrigued me. Called for pork sausage mixed with Sage, rolled into balls and fried, then introduced into an onion and butternut squash mix cooked with broth.

OK, I decided to use some Aidell’s chicken mango sausages because…well, the wife likes mango and she’s not a fan of pork sausage, at least those that are flavored Italian-style with fennel (more pity that). So how this whole shebang is gonna turn out is anyone’s guess. Mango and chicken go nicely with Sage…supposedly, but how it will all work out?

Start by browning the sausage with a bit of minced Sage, remove and cook up the minced onion. Add the butternut squash and brown. Add back the sausage and some chicken broth, cook till soft and tender. Sprinkle some fried sage leaves, crumbly over the whole thing.

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I wondered how it would turn out. Wife rather liked it–and I thought it was certainly ok. Not crazy wonderful, but more than adequate for a weeknight.

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With the remainders of the baking dish that had roasted the duck legs, I scraped together the drippings and rendered duck fat which I thought might make a nice addition to a morning omelet. As it turned out, I had a few small fingerling potatoes so I opted to make a morning tortilla Espanola of eggs, potato, and onions in my smallest cast iron skillet; a 5″ wide puppy so perfectly seasoned that it puts to shame any nonstick out there.

Cooked beautifully but–agh! Incredibly too salty! Even for me who will muscle through due to hunger…couldn’t finish more than a bite or two. All of which makes me nervous about the duck legs I roasted. The actual salt used in this marinade wasn’t even quite as much as what I usually use, but now I’m concerned that those duck legs perhaps sat in the marinade too long. At least a day longer than preferred. Did that extra marinating time allow for too much salt to be absorbed? Will those duck marylands be inedible? Stay tuned.

For dinner I dropped in quickly at Mi Tierra groceries and bought a half-pound of tiger shrimp, peeled, with the thought of making gambas al Ajillo in the typical Spanish style. I sautéed sliced garlic, then added the shrimp, lemon juice, and sherry and cooked till pink. Seasoned with salt and pepper and minced parsley.

Absolutely perfect; and served in little cazuelas for a nice visual touch of authenticity. The shrimp were succulent and flavorful. Had to make up for the horrendous morning salt explosion.

Still nervous about the duck legs. Will have to try one out tonight.

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Regular readers know I have a thing for duck. This morning, as I have about six breasts in the freezer, I pulled one out to thaw through the day and while on my break at work, figured out what sauce to make.

As wifey had been belaboring me for days about putting some tropical elements like ginger etc. into my cooking, I thought that a Mango Coconut Reduction for a sauce might serve. Starting with some rendered duck fat, I added some minced garlic and shallot, followed shortly by a bit of minced ginger, and then nearly a cup of coconut milk. A small splash of lime juice followed.

Sauces for duck breast typically follow with some basic ingredients–a fat, some strong spirit, something sweet and something acidic. I added the Frangelico to the mix in the skillet and just continued to cook it down while the duck breast rested.

In another pan I seared the polenta in some remaining duck fat, and then sliced up some heirloom tomatoes unadorned onto the plate. For wine the remainder of a Stone Cellars merlot which was competent enough for a weeknight but otherwise unmemorable. But it suited, as who wants to drop $10 every other night or more for a weeknight dinner. Certainly not me.

Wifey was mildly confused by the flavors, and I knew she wasn’t a polenta fan, but she found that the mango coconut sauce worked nicely to make the polenta more palatable to her. Yes, Chris–don’t forget to add polenta to THE LIST.

Interesting to note that while chewing down tonight, I had four Maryland duck legs roasting away in the oven at a low temperature. Beautiful Muscovy duck legs! Quite huge compared to Pekins. They’ll be ready in another hour and then will remain in the fridge for a few weeks, sitting nicely preserved in their own fat for an occasion.

We’ve been meaning to ask a couple of my wife’s cousins’ kids over for dinner one night, one of whom is a line cook in SF at the Universal Cafe. Maybe Atid and Bruno will be able to make it, as well.

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Here’s where some amazing tastes get started. My stovetop, with a bunch of cast iron pots. The small 10″ cast iron skillet was for the steak, the smaller Scanpan (not castiron) for the morel sauce, and the Dutch oven in the background for the sautéed spinach.

Of course, it kinda got started on Friday when I saw those gorgeous morel mushrooms at the Berkeley Bowl West produce and thought that they would go nicely in some form of sauce on a steak.

I got a nice pound steak of London Broil, a cup of morel mushrooms, a nice fat yam, and a head of spinach. I seasoned the steak.

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While the yam baked in the oven, I started on the sauce with butter and leeks, and soon the salt, pepper, nutmeg and parsley. White wine, reduced, and then some Dijon mustard and a bit of heavy cream.

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While the sauce reduced, I started on the steak, and plopped it in a hot skillet beside the reducing sauce.

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Then the steak browned nicely. Woo. (Secret fact; London Broil is best served pretty rare and the extra five minutes I allowed it in the oven wasn’t a good thing—but the morel sauce saved it thank god)

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Thankfully, other than the steak was slightly too cooked for its cut, was a big hit with the picky wife. I was really happy with how it all came out–creamy yam with a whisp of butter, moist spinach, and a very tasty sauce on a nice cut of steak…best served rare…but I’ll get better at cooking new cuts.

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It starts with a walk home.

I had bought a nice cut of London Broil, enough morel mushrooms to make a nice cream sauce for it $36/lb for the #%$@ing mushrooms), a bunch of spinach, and a yam to make some purée. And it had been a long day.

“Do you want this steak dinner with spinach and yam without dessert or would you like a couple of tacos from Casa Latina and leave me time to make dessert?”. She looked at me and said: dessert.

“I bought some Afghan bolani and some sauce”, she said. “Make dessert”.

So we walked home and I started on dessert. I had only three apples so I decided to make a slightly smaller width tart than the 9-10″ the recipe called for. The basic highlight of the Classic French Tart Tatin is the fact that the bottom layer of the tart is essentially apple sauce, minced apples with lemon and sugar cooked and then topped with unbaked apples, thinly sliced and fanned out prettily. How cute!

To begin, here is the actual unbaked tartshell filled and ready to bake.

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And it follows with a simple apricot glaze. Flavor wise, it was nearly perfect; flaky crust, appley tart, and sweet. Wifey thought it was almost too sweet, even after I reduced the sugar amount. Very tasty. Success.

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Its Friday, my favorite day of the week, because I’m not working and I get to do things for myself, maybe sleep in (well, not today) and if I’m lucky, take the time to make food.

There are no scheduled dinners this week (and I long for the days when friends simply ‘dropped over’ and you would throw an impromptu dinner. Will they ever return? Could there be a time when Astrid or Janet could simply call or text three hours before and say–we’re in the neighborhood, we’ll bring some wine and bread and ourselves; could you throw something together for us all?

There is heaven…right there. I miss the casualness of life, and the constant planning of events and scheduling…bah.

Yes, just like kids having ‘play dates’, it’s not that different for the grownups. Well, enough whining.

This morning before I left to bike to run some errands, I put together a quick new marinade for duck confit (new attempts at old standbys make my Dear One crazy), which is composed of thyme leaves, salt, sugar, garlic, and pepper (nearly all the ingredients I’ve used before, she’ll be thankful to hear), and rubbed it all vigorously into the duck legs. It will remain in the fridge for no more than 48 hours, and then will be slow-roasted for about 2-3 hours in the oven at low temperature, probably on Saturday night. This will provide us with four legs of duck confit ready for the skillet and a final sear anytime in the next couple of months. Swaddled in its congealed, protecting layer of duck fat, these legs can be used for all kinds of dishes, from simple skillet preparation to cassoulet to…to you name it.

I recently purchased this book… Duck, Duck, Goose (Ten Speed Press) by Hank Shaw, which has a complete pedagogy (thanks to Stephanie for that word) on all things duck and goose, whether wild or domestic. Its a how-to for preparing all kinds of duck, from cooking to cutting, from full bird roasting to their individual pieces.

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If you like duck or want to learn more…buy. This. Book.

Not to sit on my laurel leaves, I also chose today to make goat cheese. Yes, the cheesemonger of Berkeley Bowl West is moving from mongering to maker…just because it seems like a fun thing to do.

While I’ve made butter and even paneer in the past, stepping up my game to a cheese that required actual rennet and citric acid didn’t seem too daunting. The goat milk, two quarts, was about $11 total, and the citric acid and rennet not all that much. I had a colander, cheesecloth, and the requisite pots, so we will see.

The goat’s milk is heated to about 185F, and then citric acid is introduced mixed with a cup of water. A bit more stirring, and 30 seconds later the rennet dissolved in a quarter cup of water is added. Stir.

Turn off the heat, cover, and wait ten minutes. Check the curd to see if its formed.

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Indeed it has. Now, carefully scoop the curds out of the whey the liquid left over in the milk, and put them in the colander lined with cheesecloth to let them drain some more. After draining you will add cheese salt to the curds.

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Put the curds into your mold, tamp them down a bit, and put it in the refrigerator to chill and set. Two hours minimum.

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Now, go to downtown Berkeley to meet your wife, have dinner, and go to that movie about the photography of Vivian Maier. Come home, have a margarita, and check out your handiwork!

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Ahh…progress. The recipe calls for the cheese to be rolled in herbs de Provence…which I have, but I think I’ll refrain. It just…looks so cool. At this point I have no idea how it tastes but really…at this point I hardly give a damn. It formed. It worked.

Will I become a cheesemaker in my retired life? The story will continue to unfold.

As for the remaining whey, I think I’ll refrigerate it to see what I might make with it. Supposedly it goes quite well in soup stocks. No need to waste it.

Ahh. I MADE CHEESE!!!

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I left work early today at 530 so as to get to Magnani’s Meats over on Hopkins Street before they closed at 630. Our own store hasn’t had any duck legs now for about three weeks despite the best efforts of the buyer, so off I went by bike.

While there I met up with Jason, lately employed in the Berkeley Bowl Cafe and now a handy butcher. I ordered a set of duck breasts and also four complete duck legs for another evening, no doubt soon. Across the street I got a few ingredients I’d need to poach a couple of those duck legs, as well as thyme for the duck leg confit I also planned to get started.

For tonight, I split the two breasts in the middle at the skin and prepared it for a simple meal tonight of maple and balsamic/lime glazed duck breast, accompanied by fingerling potatoes in duck fat and herbs de Provence. And it occurred to me that I was using one of the very first sauces on duck that I ever tried. I did duck for the first time last year for my brothers-in-law.

I started by seasoning the duck breast on both sides with salt and pepper, heating up an iron Dutch oven, and parboiling the potatoes, all cut small so that they would cook quickly and evenly when sautéed. For the duck breast, 8 minutes for the skin side and about 4 minutes for the other, then into the oven at 250F for about five minutes while I prepared the salad and the duck sauce.

As the salad was simply a beefsteak tomato sliced thinly, salted lightly, with a simple EVOO and lime juice vinaigrette and capers, I put my attention on the duck sauce. Leaving a scant teaspoon of the rendered duck fat in the Dutch oven, I added the lime juice, elderberry balsamic vinegar, and maple syrup to the pot and heated it up a bit.

Delicious sauce, nearly perfectly cooked duck, nice potatoes, and great, simple salad. Wifey found the duck slightly drier than usual, though I didn’t find it as dry as she did. Still, overall, quite nice for a Wednesday night,

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I prepared all the dry ingredients for standard blueberry muffins last night after doing the dishes, measured out the liquid ingredients, and put them all in the fridge in anticipation of making them in the morning.

A closer look at the recipe showed that I should have creamed the sugar with the butter…which I didn’t, but the results were none the worse for this failing. I simply creamed the butter alone in the mixer, added the wet ingredients, and proceeded normally. All went swimmingly.

Of course, note that I adjusted the menu a bit. I replaced the sour cream with low fat yogurt, the milk with almond</st milk, and used egg replacers with zero cholesterol in place of the two eggs. I also used less sugar than it called for.

Picky wife thought that they were ‘dense’ but still, quite delicious, then had to run out the door at 745AM to catch BART for work.

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What? Another way to cook oatmeal?

No, of course not. It’s not how to cook but how to plan. See, I got home from a movie with a couple of friends and as it was just about 10 PM, I started thinking about breakfast for tomorrow. Oats, yeah, plenty (organic as it turns out…not that I overly care for organic vs commercial) Mangoes? Yeah, wife had taken a couple, removed the flesh, and frozen it for later use. But…what else?

Mango is tropical…which invites coconut milk at least, and maybe even some dried coconut. Soo…thus far we have mushy oats for a base texture, mango for some sweet fruitiness, and what else? Something with a crunch, don’t you think? Almonds? Sure. And…pistachios? Yeah, I think so.

Am I done yet? Oats, mango, almonds, dried coconut, pistachios, all in a nice mix of almond milk and coconut milk? How does that sound for breakfast? I think it sounds pretty damn good.

Ok, no coconut milk for the record. I didn’t think it necessary and you know how it is–crack open a container of that stuff and if you don’t use it all in a few days, all the rest won’t make it more than a few days.

See, that’s planning. Start off from a simple thread like…oats. Look in your fridge of pantry for something to associate it with, and you can get on a roll. I started out by toasting the nuts for about 10 minutes at 350F. Toasting brings out the flavor, keeps them crunchy when mixed with the softer oatmeal. (Quick fancy fact; the pistachios cooked a bit more quickly than the almonds and I had to toss about a dozen of the pistachios because they were a bit…overdone. No worries, still enough left to work.)

Let me also let you in on a little secret–you don’t have to figure out flavor pairings all by your lonesome. I often refer to The Flavor Bible once I get a flavor combination like oats and mangoes in my head. Looking up ‘oatmeal’ and ‘mangoes’ gives you a lot of suggestions as to what has worked well historically or traditionally with those food ingredients. An invaluable tool.

You can find it here or, if you like the notion of actually going to a bookstore and buying it yourself, then try here as well. I have nothing against Amazon per se, but I also like to support my local independent booksellers as much as possible.

For that matter, your local library is a great source, as well. You can borrow cookbooks, photocopy the recipes you really like without guilt (unlike going to bookstores and taking camera phone hi-Rez pics of your discovered recipes and saving $25-40 on the cost of a book). For that matter, many of the recipes available each month in Bon Appetit, Saveur, and Food and Wine are regularly available online as well–often for free.

My wife cogently notes that I often get my recipe ideas online, rather than from books. All I can say is–I like books.

So…mango, pistachios, and almonds with coconut milk oatmeal. Add some flax meal if you want to pump up your anti-cholesterol fight, add a bit of maple syrup for sweetness if you’re inclined rather than white sugar, and if you throw some fresh blueberries in with this, no one will chastise you.

Do note that if I hadn’t had the frozen mango, this dish would have probably been simplified to blueberries and oatmeal with flax meal and some random toasted nuts. Which would have been fine, but let’s face it–what makes cooking interesting is the play aspect, don’t you think? As a kid, didn’t you put sugar in water, try to cook an egg on the sidewalk on a hot day? Or at least…heard the stories. So play is important.

Now it’s practically springtime! Get up early! People who get up early with the sun statistically have a lower BMI than those who don’t. In other words, getting up early can help you keep your weight down.

SPECIAL ADDED POSTBLOGSCRIPT:

Before leaving for work today, I pulled out a couple of nearly boneless trout (and if there are bones in the fish, just like an errant eggshell in an omelet, it will end up on her plate rather than mine–god only knows what tiny little karmic transgressions she did in her life or earlier to deserve this, but that is her karma and I am her instrument) for a late dinner tonight. That was planning, or at least thinking ahead. My flavor bible says that manchego goes well with trout so this evening, in the interests of cutting back on fats (beneficial as they are), the trout will be served en cocotte style in parchment along with aromatic vegetables like shallot, some herbs, and maybe some greens in garlic on the side. I’ll buy some cooked rice at the deli for carbs.

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