Chai-Spice Parsnip Cake

Among all the winter vegetables there are, mostly of the root variety but some above-ground goodies (like cabbage, Brussel’s sprouts and the ubiquitous winter veggie, kale), some of my favorites have to be parsnips. I only discovered parsnips a couple of years ago and have fallen in love with their sweet, nutty I-am-so-not-a-carrot disposition.

They pair so well with spicy dishes like garam-masala stir-fries, crisped up and served with pinto beans and maple syrup, and as a delightful addition to root veggie roasts.  As a plant, they are freeze-hardy and can be harvested among the early spring vegetables that overwinter well – and actually taste better, sweeter after a good hard freeze or two.  Their greens are totally toxic, so consumption of them is not recommended.  And another surprising place they perform well in, is the starring role in a cake show.

As mentioned before, they are so-not-carrots, but deliver a deliciously nuttysweet taste and dense, moist texture as a cake, and since they pair so well with spices, (and since it’s my favorite winter warming tea) a Chai-Spiced Parsnip cake was soon to be born.

To make this a SOLE food meal and part of the Dark Days challenge, I used locally-milled flour from Bellingham’s Fairhaven Flour Mill (100% whole grain pastry flour), local parsnips from Nash’s Organic Produce, and local eggs from Solstice Farm B&B.

2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
and a mix of spices (cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg)
make up the dry mix

3 eggs
1 cup of honey

1 stick of butter
1/2 cup of strong-brewed chai tea
and 1 tsp. of vanilla
account for the wet ingredients

First, as with any butter cake, you cream the butter and sweetener til smooth and emollient.  Add the eggs and vanilla and beat the heck out of it some more (but not to the ‘peaking’ point.)
After you’ve whisked the dry ingredients together, you then add them alternating with the chai tea til just mixed in and smooth. And of course, for the final touch (and whole point of the cake):

Take 2 cups of grated parsnips
and stir them in til incorporated.  Pour batter into a greased pan of your choice (I used a bundt pan, you could use a 5X8 loaf pan, or a square pan, or 9″ springform pan, but a 9X13 or a 10″ round would probably be too big for the batter.
Bake at 350F for about 50 minutes, depending on how thick your cake sits in the pan, til the edges are brown and the middle isn’t jiggly anymore.

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Eating Through the Dark Days (and the pantry supply)

For the next installment of Dark Days’ cuisine (to catch you up, this is a challenge I’ve joined to cook a SOLE food meal each week from Dec – April – the hardest time to find local food, much less local sustainable organic and ethical food) here’s a way to eat squash that many people may not have heard of:

No, that’s not pasta, that’s spaghetti squash.  Just like any other winter squash, slice it in half, scoop out the seeds and pith, spread on some butter, salt and pepper and bake it up til soft in a hot oven.  Altogether unlike any other winter squash, if you use a fork to scrape down the length of the insides the fibers separate and fall off to drape your plate like freshly boiled spaghetti noodles (with a few clumps here and there……..)

As you may have noticed, the possibilities are almost limitless with pasta – much the same with these squash noodles.

I still had a good supply of 2009 produce that I had put up (dried, canned and frozen goods) and in wanting to use up some of this excess, I decided on some dried green beans and tomatoes.  Some fresh local leeks rounded out the dish (as did a good few gallops of California pinot noir) to provide a steaming hot plate of local veggies in a very unconventional presentation.

First I flash-sauteed the leeks in some of my local lard; once golden brown I poured in the red wine and let it simmer down with some local thyme and salt and pepper.  Meanwhile I had been rehydrating the tomatoes and beans in some of the wine and once plumped up the excess went into the simmering leek pan.  After the wine had reduced by about 3/4, I added the tomatoes and beans to cook up nice and creamy and all this was ladled on top of a plate of the scraped spaghetti squash “noodles” and made for a unique-tasting, economical (the squash is about $2 a pound and the other veggies were procured from the farm I worked on) winter Dark Day Delight.

Dark Days Island Soup

My family is normally one that sticks to its holiday traditions.  Every year we’re known to watch ‘Scrooge’, the British musical version of Charles Dickens’ classic; eat navel oranges and tangelos (that my mother always bought from some friend of the family’s highschool band fundraising student) along with port wine cheese and crackers and wash it all down with my mom’s zesty spiced Russian tea; end a night together decorating the house and tree with our storage-room-load of ornaments and festivities while listening to Nat King Cole’s Christmas CD to ring in the season; throw an assortment of (usually 3) themed Christmas parties, and; attend our church’s Christmas Eve candlelight service.

This year marked the year to end all traditions. (Or at least break or shift them slightly.)

For a few years now, my family has cruised down to the Outer Banks the week between Christmas and New Year’s with another family and an assortment of friends and cousins to spend a holiday week at the beach.  Well this year, with my younger sister being off at college and me living on the complete opposite side of the country, as well as my dad’s long-planned, leap-of-faith called retirement from his career of 26 years, my family felt zero binds on the normal Christmas plans and decided to spend Christmas at the beach.  So my sister and I arrived home within a few hours of each other, arrangements were made to have extended family get-togethers a week early, we threw one, smaller Christmas party and packed our bags and the dog the next day for the 10-hour drive to Ocracoke Island (with a close friend of mine in tow who was also in tradition-breaking mode and decided to spend Christmas with our family.)

One locally-crafted ‘crab pot Christmas tree,’ 3 tins of cookies and one Liberian handmade nativity scene later, and we’re at Christmas Eve on the island.  No Nat King Cole, no tangelos and no church service.  How did we make festive use of the eve of Christ’s celebrated birth?  Local fish and squash soup at the family supper table – oh, and 2 candy-cane Christmas candles, to set the mood.

On the way to the island my parents had stopped at a local fishery and picked up an assortment of scallops, shrimp and some big filets of mahi-mahi. I had a delicata squash from some friends who own a farm just east of Asheville and some collards I had picked up at the market the day before we left.  The mahi we smoked until flaky and just pink, it was sauteed with an onion (from South Carolina – so at least regional) and the baked squash flesh was scraped from the skin and stirred in with some Celtic sea salt (packaged by a local company in Asheville), adding water to reach the desired thickness.  This made for a fantastic-smelling kitchen and a dash of nutmeg did just the trick of tying together the salty and earthy sweet of the rest of the ingredients.

Meanwhile, in the oven I had flash-roasted some collard leaves and the reserved seeds of the squash and once dry and crisp I crumbled them up in a small food processor along with a pinch of Celtic sea salt.  A nice, crunchy and colorful sprinkling for the soup.

How’d ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? I’ll wager a lot more if you could have tasted this SOLE-ful soup!

SOLE Food Meets Soul Food: Hashbrowns

Growing up, hashbrowns equated to tater tots for me.  Specifically that bag out of the freezer from which we’d spill a good layer onto a cookie sheet and warm in the oven til they acquired a decent tan at which point they would accompany such meals as sloppy-joes, breakfast-for-supper or fish.  I don’t think I even had a hashbrown proper until some time in my teens – that is, if McDonald’s serves a ‘proper’ anything.  In fact, it may be that hash browns are a by-product of the popular French-fry; when the potatoes go through the fry-slicer, the little shredded bits and odds and ends need somewhere to go to.  We always just had our potatoes mashed (well ok, and as flakes out of a box for the most part), in fact, I don’t particularly love potatoes. 

I think potatoes are a great and reliable crop to plant and cultivate, it’s fascinating that there are over 4,000 different varities from all around the world, and one of the best dishes I’ve had as a dinner guest was a pan of olive oil and rosemary new potatoes.  Other than that, I could pretty much take them or leave them (sweet potatoes are an entirely different story – both for flavor reasons and the fact that they aren’t even remotely related.)

So where did this craving for hashbrowns come from?  Actually, from the fact that I had both a rutabaga (from Red Dog Farm – 4 miles away) and some Jerusalem artichokes (Nash’s Organic Produce – 30 miles away) waiting for me in the fridge.  Jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes) are usually compared to potatoes when being explained to people unfamiliar with this indigenous food, but that really doesn’t do justice to the ‘choke; they’re much more like a water chestnut when raw, crunchy and thin-skinned, and when cooked gain a sweetness and intensity of flavor that comes forward in a meal, rather than play a creamy but supporting role like potatoes do.  Not overpowering, but not demure either. Plus, because they’re a native food to our country, they are adapted to the climates nationwide and are one of the best foods to rely on during the winter – they can last all winter underground and are usually one of the only remaining fresh foods in the early spring when crops are being sown and last year’s food stock is becoming depleted.

Rutabagas, being in the brassica family, have a taste similar to cabbage and a texture similar to sauerkraut when shredded. They’re in season right now and are a good root vegetable to last you the winter, either in the ground covered with mulch, or root-cellared. Why not shred both together and create a neo-hashbrown? 

This was so quick to make – the longest part being grating by hand the two veggies.  They browned nicely and still maintained a pleasant crispy-ness while the flavor of the rutabaga really melded well with the eggs.  After offering a taste to my housemates, our minds immediately went to omelettes (of course made with the local eggs we get every week from Spring Rain Farm – 4 miles away); beside, or even in which they’d be wonderful.

Sounds a bit odd ball, but try it – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Neo Hash Browns
1 medium rutabaga
2 small or 1 medium Jerusalem artichoke
2 eggs
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter

Grate/shred the veggies, beat 2 eggs and mix in along with salt and pepper for flavor.  Melt half the butter in a cast iron skillet.  When hot enough to sizzle a dash of water, scoop in half the mix and press into a pancake form to cover the bottom of the skillet.  Let cook for a good 5 minutes on one side before flipping in pieces to brown the other side, which will need about 2-3 minutes of cooking.  Fold onto a plate and melt the remaining butter and cook the rest of the hash browns.

Though the butter wasn’t local, it was organic and from a co-oped organization of farmers; with the eggs being from chickens I’ve helped raise, water, feed and house and the veggies coming from the farmer’s market, soul food can (and by definition should!) be SOLE food.

Winter SOLE Food, take 1

As part of an international challenge this year among the blogosphere (meaning mostly Americans and one Australian, that I know of) I will be posting about once a week focusing on a meal constructed nearly 100% of local food; meaning within a 100 mile radius of where I live.  Nearly 100% local meaning that things like salt, spices, chocolate, sugar and some beverages like coffee and tea are exempt, but are still expected to be housed under the SOLE acronym of Sustainably produced, Organically raised/grown, Local within 100 miles (some grant locality to 150-mile radius, especially in the winter) and Ethically raised and handled.

The purpose of this challenge is to raise awareness through personal experience and second-hand online reading of how to eat seasonally even through the doldrums of winter when the days are representative of doldrums, darkness and dormancy.  Though this time is seen as a seeming antithesis to the harvest and bounty days of the splashing, sticky and sunny days of summer, there is, in fact, quite a lot to be eaten and enjoyed as the days are growing ever shorter (and then hey! they start to get longer again!)  Some crops even benefit from the freeze-thaw cycles, growing sweeter, crisper or more tender.  Kale, Brussel’s sprouts and arugula are just 3  crops that are known for their hardiness, texture and outstanding taste – and each of these characteristics becomes more pronounced after a freeze or snow.

So without further ado here is meal number one, which is fittingly, a scrumptious breakfast:

Backyard-herb Frittata and Pumpkin Pie Smoothie

Despite the heavy, 6-inch snow and sub-20 degree nights we had last week on the Olympic Peninsula, the herb garden in the back yard is unfazed, bearing dark green and lush oregano, purplish-hazed sage plants, some minty-cool rosemary and vibrant green thyme.  These I picked and diced before adding to 2 local eggs from the farm down the street where I’ve been volunteering (the eggs came from one of the farm’s breeds of brown-egg layers: Black Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, Red Stars, Barred Rocks and Black Stars.)

Heat up a non-stick fry pan over med-high heat and add 2 well-beaten eggs with a smattering of crushed, chopped fresh herbs.  Let settle into shape and cook up until it holds well (about 4 minutes) then flip quickly to the other side for about 20 seconds before cutting off the heat.  Fold or lay flat onto a plate and enjoy with another topping of herbs (alternately, you could sprinkle some shredded local cheese or a pat of butter on top.)

The idea for the pumpkin smoothie came from a friend who’s always browsing recipes both online and in her collection of cooking magazines and books.  And being a pumpkin from the same aforementioned farm, it was local, organically grown, and as fresh as the shelf life inherent in winter squash (they can keep from 2 months to 8 months and beyond).  I had baked the pumpkin whole in the oven the day before and scraped out the pith and seeds while saving the flesh in a container in the fridge, so it was ready to go for anything from soup to pie to smoothie.

Take about 1 1/2 cups baked pumpkin and place with a couple of ice cubes in a blender.  Pour in about 1/2 cup of milk (*admittedly, I used boxed almond milk, because I’m dairy-sensitive, but local milk would be the prime choice for most – and I intend to find some local grain or seeds to make milk with at some point in this challenge).  Add a dollop of nut butter (I know that hazelnuts and chestnuts are grown in my region, I haven’t seen any nut butter products made using them, but again, this is something I can hopefully tackle before the challenge ends in April.)  And season with spices to your taste: cinnamon and ginger are nice, and instead of cloves or nutmeg, I opted for allspice since it is indigenous to the Western World, a native of Central America and Mexico, and therefore comes much closer to being local than something grown in the East.  Add a dash of local honey, in this case, also from up-the-road-farm, and blend to your heart’s desire. 

This smoothie is so simple and straightforward, yet so creamy and tasty it could easily sub for a milk-shake fix (no, really!)

Start your day off right with SOLE food!