Season of Soup

Some parents’ newly-adult children continue to come home for monetary handouts or a place to do laundry.  My daughter returned to graze from the big pot of soup I always had simmering on the stove.  Soup is my staple.  My life.  It’s the natural expression of my inner low maintenance and generally uninspired chef.  If I lived alone and never had visitors the only utensils I’d own would be a couple of spoons and a large, glass bowl.

Although I admit, in the last couple of years since we stopped using air conditioning and turned to the whole house fan at night for our summer cooling, I’ve reluctantly turned towards cooler foods like salad with miscellaneous grilled things on top.  It’s an oh-so elegant alternative to soup since it can  also be served in a bowl.  But when the sun finally, finally! starts it’s slanting descent–when I sense the first hint of autumn chill on the wind–I breathe a happy sigh, get down on my knees, and drag the cauldron out from the back of the cupboard again.  The season of soup is returning.

This shift from summer to fall cooking is like my version of migration; a genetic impulse surfacing from a lost and lazy ancestor in the past, a distant grandmother who cared as little as I do if the different food groups touch each other beforehand.  Clearly, she was not from a Mediterranean climate with its joyful people who eat for love and beauty.  No, she came from someplace cold and dark, with long winters and fur shoes.  A far northern locale with scarce and unimaginative food like root vegetables and frozen meat.

She would have had the northern lights in lieu of cuisine, though, and she would have loved them.   I got that from her, too.  I’d trade a rich sauce for the Aurora Borealis any day of the week.  Here’s a Youtube video that explains why.  (For the genitalia-averse, please beware the explicit educational ad for condoms tucked in amongst the tile display of ads afterwards.  But for anyone still mystified as to proper application, this ad is probably for you.)

Today it’s in the 30’s outside and I have a cozy fire burning in the woodstove and eight or nine overripe bananas sitting on the countertop.

Traditionally I would’ve used them for banana bread but the hubster and I have recently started a diet and sweet breads, while allowed, are challenging from a portion-control perspective.  (Forgive me, but half a slice?  Really?  Whoever thought that up must have been tongueless.)  So instead I’m considering an exploratory foray into some kind of a sweet soup.  Perhaps mixed with chicken broth, caramelized (which I used to call burned-because-I-was-distracted) onions, butternut squash, cream (damn…I mean nonfat milk) and lime pieces?  Or should I go with a spicy red curry stew, with onions, pumpkin, peas, and coconut milk (damn…I mean lite coconut milk mixed half and half with nonfat milk)?  It all sounds so exotic, so gourmet, I know…until one realizes I’m driven solely by a depression-era hoarding instinct (also inherited from cold and hungry forbears) that disallows the waste of a crumb.  I could no more throw away a banana than I could eat my own child.

But oh how good it feels to be cold again.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

(Ha ha!  Written in under two hours!!  Progress is made.)

Right Up There With the Discovery of Fire

And now, a brief break from dying to tell you about a discovery I made last year that, in my humble opinion, was nothing less than a huge leap forward for mankind.  (Or at least for the part of mankind that gardens or cooks.)  But first a couple of garden-related shots:

I spent a glorious afternoon yesterday planting garlic, spreading compost, pulling up the bedraggled remains of marigolds and pepper plants, laying in some straw, and harvesting my first-ever crop of Brussels sprouts.  There were eight plants and this is what I got.

It wouldn’t feed a duck.

There should have been a bumper crop of carrots as well but Dane the mangy rescue mutt discovered where they were planted and that, as they say, was that.  He pretended to be sorry as I dragged him over to the scene of the crime, pointed at the ravaged soil, and yelled No!  Dammit, no!! but he wasn’t really.

Dane’s long established motto is, “Better to ask forgiveness than permission”, and secretly he was feeling smug.  He also showed great interest in the garlic I planted yesterday so that bed now has a top dressing of wire mesh across the top.

The cold frames are full of lettuce in readiness for colder weather and now all I have left to do is build a compost pile from the autumn debris.

There.  Enough of that.  Now for the meat.

What I really wanted to share here is no less than one of the greatest discoveries of my lifetime:

Powdered vegetables in baked goods.

That’s right, my friends.  I’ve found something that could change the world.  It may well rival the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel.  You know all those baskets of extra cucumbers every year that you don’t know what to do with?  Or the zucchinis that get away from you and morph into baseball bats over night?  Well, I’ve discovered a way to turn them into something that’s not only edible and nutritious, it’s scrumptious.

Impossible, you say?  Too good to be true, you exclaim?  But au contraire, I waggle my finger in front of your face.  Please read on first, then decide.

I figured it out last year when I was struggling with the biblical flood of pickling cucumbers coming off the six (six!) vines I’d planted.  (Please, please, in the name of all that’s good and holy, don’t ever, ever plant six cucumber vines for two people.) Their yield thrilled me in the first month, daunted me in the second, and swept me out to sea by the third.  I had north of fifty jars of pickled products by the end of the summer and the little abominations were still coming on.  The neighbors refused to take anymore.  Even Dane wouldn’t eat them.  So I began desperately combing the internet searching for new ideas.

I came across a backpacker’s forum of all places, with numerous testimonials swearing to the edibility of cucumber chips.  Simply slice and dehydrate them for a light weight, refreshing, nutritious snack on the trail, they said.  Delicious! one backpacker claimed.  Better than potato chips! sang another.

A day’s effort later and I stood looking down at a large, plastic bowl full of the nasty little things.  One bite and I realized too late that these were backpackers for godsakes; hungry, dirty, tired people with no access to real food.

However, I was desperate.  While I had no idea what I’d eventually do with the things, dehydration at least preserved them.  It bought me time until I could figure out something else.  So dry them I did until the first freeze finally, finally! came and killed off the mother ships.  Then later, because the bags of dried chips took up so much frigging room, I decided to put them through a coffee grinder (beware of cucumber dust!) and store the resulting powder in jars for the sake of efficiency.  At the time I had vague thoughts of making salad dressing with the stuff, or flavoring vegetable dips or cold soups.  It actually took another month for the lightning bolt to strike.

It came to me on a night that I’d made soup for dinner and needed a fast bread.  I was too tired to make biscuits or cornbread, didn’t have time for muffins or a real loaf.  So I opened the cupboard searching for another option and there they were; a jar of freshly ground cucumber powder and a package of whole wheat pancake mix, sitting side by side.  Suddenly, a brilliant light shone down from above, angels burst into song, and I heard the voice of God:

Yo, He boomed.  Check it out…a flour alternative.

And that was that.  History officially began.  I made my first batch of pancakes substituting cucumber powder for a third of the mix.  I fried the batter in olive oil, we dipped the patties in our bowls of lentil soup, and they were…I kid you not…out of this world, drop dead, fantastic.

A year later and I’ve expanded the vegetable repertoire to include zucchini, yellow squash, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, winter squash, and what would have been a lot more carrot powder had Dane not been such a successful root predator.  I’ve used the powders in pancakes, muffins, cornbread, the bread machine, biscuits, and I plan to try it out in pretzels, crackers, cake, and cookies as well.  (Cucumber and zucchini are quite sweet.)  The finished products are a little more dense than usual, and additional liquids are required as the powder sucks up moisture like a sponge, but the nutritional value is superior to canned goods and, for those seeking regularity, the fiber content is off the charts.  (Just sayin’.)

Final note:  I actually discovered a few months ago that I’m not the first human being to figure this out after all.  Bummer.  Long before coffee grinders were invented people used mortars and pestles to grind stuff.  In a fascinating book called The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide by Linda Runyan, she describes how during her years of homesteading she used to regularly grind up dried, wild plants and use the powder in breads and other dishes.  However, my disappointment in learning I was not the first was mitigated by the knowledge that there’s a whole helluva lot more edible stuff out there than just the fruit and veggies I grow in my garden.  You wouldn’t believe it!   The weeds growing in the lawn alone are a veritable buffet; clover, dandelions, crabgrass, and more are all edible. (Only those you haven’t first tried to kill with chemicals of course.)  So there’s plenty more experimentation available in the years ahead.

Bon apetit.

copyright Dia Osborn 2010