Day 79–Easy Lemon Bars

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon.

It is only March, and already the temperatures are in the 80s here in North Carolina. I’m not sure what that means for summer, but for now, it feels great. We spent the weekend working outside, getting our raised beds ready for planting and watching basketball (Go NC State!). Ok that last one involved being inside, but we did have the windows open.

In the winter, I love to bake and bake and bake, but once the weather turns warm, I want to be outside. My menus turn to quicker meals, grilled foods and all things lemon. Organizing the refrigerator yesterday, I noticed that we had a ridiculous collection of cut lemons. We’ve had several dishes lately that called for lemon zest, but not the juice, leaving us with the equivalent of two lemons that were begging to be used. And since one of our goals is to not waste the food we have, I called on a familiar recipe to turn lemons into…well…lemon bars!

Lemon bars are one of those wonderful, southern desserts that combine creamy, sweet custard with tangy lemon flavor. Next to a lemon pound cake, and Italian limoncello, I think lemon bars are a perfect complement to sunny, southern days. These are pretty effortless, so if you are intimidated by making a custard, this is a great dessert for a first try. Note though, that these lemon bars will not be a bright yellow color like you see in restaurants or from a box mix. I don’t use food coloring because really, I don’t care how yellow it is as long as it tastes lemony. So these squares will be a delicate, pale yellow, but still pack plenty of sass. If the light color bothers you, add a few drops of yellow food coloring to the filling and you will be happy.

We used whole wheat pastry flour from a local farm for this recipe, but if you don’t have whole wheat on hand, unbleached all-purpose flour will work as well. We also use our yummy local farm eggs in the filling. While lemons are, of course, not local to North Carolina, we do buy organic lemons, especially if we are zesting them since that is the portion of the lemon in highest contact with pesticides.

Easy Lemon Bars

Crust

  • 1 c. whole wheat pastry flour (or all-purpose flour)
  • 1/3 c. organic confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 stick of butter, cut into pieces and chilled

Custard Filling

  • 1 c. organic, granulated sugar
  • 3 large farm eggs
  • 3 Tbsp. whole wheat pastry flour (or all-purpose flour)
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. organic, grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice from organic lemons (about 2 large lemons)

Topping

  • 1/4 c. organic confectioners’ sugar (optional)
    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
    2. Lightly coat an 8 x 8 baking pan with cooking spray or oil.
    3. Make the crust by combining all the dry ingredients for the crust in a medium bowl. Add the chilled butter and incorporate using a fork, pastry cutter or your fingertips until the crust has the consistency of course meal.
    4. Add the crust mix into the baking pan and press into an even layer along the pan bottom.
    5. Put the pan in the freezer for 20 minutes, then cook for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
    6. Remove the baking pan from the oven and reduce the heat to 300 degrees.
    7. Make the filling by combining all the filling ingredients in a medium bowl and mixing with a wisk until smooth.
    8. Pour the filling over the warm crust and cook for about 20 minutes or until the filling is set.
    9. Remove the pan from the oven and cool for about 30 minutes. Cut and serve or (I like mine cold), pop the pan into the refrigerator for another 30-45 minutes.
    10. Cut into 9 large bars and put bars on a serving platter.
    11. Just before serving, sift confectioners’ sugar over the bars.

Happy spring baking!

Day 69–The Prodigal Son and Crunchy Granola

Cosmo, our Prodigal Son

Our household is fairly small. Two grown ups, one young person who thinks she’s a grown up, a dog and a cat. We have a peaceable kingdom in our home–even the animals get along like buddies. So when one of our small unit goes astray, it throws us all into a tailspin. Such was the case yesterday, when our young, indoor cat, Cosmo, decided to take an unapproved field trip into the suburban wild. All day. And all night. After searching the neighborhood for hours, I was sick with worry and my daughter was sobbing.

In situations like this, my husband is the voice of eternal optimism. I, on the other hand, am a worrier. Neither of us are pessimists, but there is definitely something in my Catholic upbringing that tells me if you don’t worry, God might think you don’t care and move on to someone who is a little more focused. Worrying is rewarded, while joyful optimism is punished with rainy wedding days, warm beer and locusts. This is all, of course, absolutely ridiculous. Even so, it is clear that no amount of Buddhist meditation will erase the worry gene from my being. So now I prefer to see my “what ifs” as the Yin to Tom’s “it will be fine” Yang–we balance each other in our peaceable kingdom. In the end, after a rainy night and morning, Cosmo returned to us. Lured by the smell of breakfast cooking and the sound of the ice maker (truly, he begs for ice cubes and plays hockey with them all over the kitchen), he came inside. He’s filthy. He’s wet. He’s tired. But our kingdom is complete again. And like the Prodigal Son, we celebrated him with extra food, hugs and the warm blanket he loves so much.

When I’m worried, I either eat like a linebacker or I don’t eat at all. Proper worry-eating requires crunchy, sweet and salty food, especially if it can be popped in my mouth quickly. Since this is not a healthy habit, I try to focus on eating things that are more virtuous than potato chips and cheese doodles. Granola is a favorite food of choice. Here is a great recipe by Creative Noshing (http://creativenoshing.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/maple-pecan-granola/) for delicious granola. Keep it on file for those worry days. Or really, why wait for worrying? It would be great any day, especially with some Greek yogurt. Happy baking.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to go have a little “conference” with Cosmo…

Day 25–Oprah and Coco Chanel In My Kitchen

Paula Deen (in any iteration) has never been in my kitchen, but I do have help this week from Oprah. That’s right–Oprah. And Coco Chanel, too. These two ladies are helping me make one stylin’, yummy vegetable quiche this week (see recipe below). In fact, they’re helping me get dinner on the table without hardly a feather ruffled. For reals.

You see, Oprah and Coco Chanel are hens who have the pleasure of residing with Eric and Lisa Forehand of Water Oaks Farm in Durham (www.wateroaksfarm.org). In addition to heritage breed chickens, Lisa and Eric also love their miniature donkeys and Eric makes a wicked variety of homebrew. I don’t think I have ever seen chickens get so much love and care (I’m pretty sure Eric puts that much love into his beer, as well). If you are a doubter (in which case, I don’t know why you’re reading this blog to begin with), go and see their Chick Cam. Go on! Watch! I’ll wait…

See? When the big ol’ reincarnation happens for me, I want to come back as a chicken or donkey at Water Oaks Farm. Except I want my name to be Angelina Jolie.

Happy chickens laying happy eggs. If you’re not all about “happy,” but you are all about health, consider buying locally produced cage free eggs because:

  • They taste better. WAAAAAAY better.
  • They have more protein than mass-produced eggs because the hen’s diet is richer.
  • You will support your local economy, not an agribusiness.
  • You may help perpetuate heritage breed fowl, which keeps our genetic population of chickens healthier and more diverse.

Here is my “go-to” recipe for quiche. It is by far and away the best quiche recipe I have ever made and is much more like a traditional French quiche (light and custardy) than most dense restaurant quiches. The trick is to use vegetables that are dry, so cook veggies ahead and squeeze the dickens out of them before adding to the quiche. Bon Appetite!

Spinach Quiche

  • Pastry dough or 1 frozen deep dish pie crust
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 8 oz. swiss and Gruyère cheese mix (check Trader Joes on this)
  • 1 bag spinach or other greens cooked and squeezed of all excess water
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  1. Prepare pastry and refrigerate until ready to use.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Heat olive oil in a pan and cook onions over medium heat until soft and slightly browned (about 5 min.). Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.
  4. Add spinach to pan and cook until very wilted. Toss spinach frequently to keep from scorching. When greens have collapsed and are fully cooked, remove from pan and put onto a towel or paper towel. Roll the towel up and squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the greens (if you use frozen greens, you will need to do this as well once the greens are defrosted). Do NOT skip this step.
  5. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs, cream and milk until blended. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add cheese and stir until combined.
  6. Take the pastry crust from the refrigerator and arrange the onions and spinach on the pastry.
  7. Pour the egg mixture into the pastry.
  8. Sprinkle nutmeg across the top of the quiche.
  9. Bake at 350 degrees about 30-40 minutes–until top is golden and puffy and the quiche does not “wobble” in the center when gently moved.
  10. Serve immediately. Bow and accept the culinary accolades from your family. Make sure to thank Oprah and Coco Chanel.

Day 6–The Winter Farmer’s Market, Part 1

The winter farmer's market still has plenty to offer!

Assumptions. I know better than to make them, yet I still do. In my mind, the winter farmer’s market was a place of leftover collard greens, cabbage and sweet potatoes. Sad. Lonely. Bereft of good eats. I should just give up and head to the grocery store, right? Wrong!

I decided to check my assumptions at the door and visit the State Farmer’s Market on my lunch hour yesterday. I am so glad I did!

Not only was the State Farmer’s Market busy, but I was really amazed at the variety of fresh vegetables and fruit (apples) that were still available. Thanks to a very mild winter (at least in NC), farmers are still growing and harvesting white potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes (mostly locally grown hothouse), salad greens, turnips, kale, spinach, green peppers, apples, fresh beans, broccoli, collard greens, beets and more. And the prices were definitely lower than the grocery stores on just about everything.

Wilmington-based Scott Smith of Heaven On Earth Organics

I was glad to find Scott Smith of Heaven On Earth organic farm at the market. He was awesome! He and his wife have a farm outside of Wilmington and they love organic farming. Farmer Scott let me taste test my way though his vegetable stand so I could discover the difference between dino kale and curly kale (dino kale is thicker and spicier), how turnip greens with a little bit of yellow (from frost) are sweeter than the bright green leaves (the frost brings the sugar to the tips of the leaves) and more.

In the end, I did buy vegetables, including the dino kale (the name alone makes it interesting). Scott suggested that the dino kale makes terrific kale chips, something I had heard of, but hadn’t tried before. OH. MY. GOODNESS. They were devoured by my family and my pre-teen daughter (who eats vegetables grudgingly) decided they were amazing. Light, crispy and salty, these are the perfect antitode to potato chips. The recipe is below.

Kale Chips! Crunchy little antioxidant chips--howgreatisthat?

  • 1 bunch fresh kale (we used dino kale, but any kind would work)
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. vinegar (we used balsamic)
  • Kosher salt to taste (we used about 1 Tbsp.)
  1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
  2. Wash and dry the kale.
  3. Cut off the lower woody stems and compost.
  4. Cut the kale into pieces about the size of potato chips (2-4″ or so).
  5. In a bowl (or a plastic bag, if you don’t want your hands oily) put the chopped kale and add 1 Tbsp of the olive oil.
  6. Toss the greens with the oil until leaves are covered. (If you use the bag, massage the bag until the leaves are covered).
  7. Add the vinegar and toss again to coat.
  8. If needed, add the remaining Tbsp. olive oil (depending on the thickness of the leaves, you might not need this).
  9. Carefull place leaves on an oven safe baking rack or on a cookie sheet (I used a rack). Don’t overlap leaves.
  10. Sprinkle leaves with salt.
  11. Put rack/baking sheet in the oven and roast leaves for 20-30 minutes (this will depend on how thick your leaves are, so check on them after 20 min.)
  12. Remove from oven and enjoy immediately!

Next post, local meat producers at the farmer’s market!