February 2010 archive

Dark Days Challenge – Week 14 – Finally Using My Get Out of Jail Free Card!

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I've been putting off this moment for as long as I can but this week I finally gave into temptation and used what I call my "Get Out of Jail Free Card" for my Dark Days post.  We made breakfast for our official Dark Days meal.  

Marcus and I are both exhausted.  We're both still recovering from a cold that will not go away.  We also have a to do list that haunts us in our sleep.  This weekend has been sunny and we've spent both days out in it, soaking up as much sunshine as we can while we have it.  We weeded half our beds, turned our compost and straightened up the backyard.  We also burned the rotten wood from two garden beds we had to dismantle.  Beyond local meat, my local ingredients are getting a bit scarce and I find myself carefully rationing them out so I can make it all the way through next month.  Breakfast is a meal that is easy for us to make local and we can make it almost in our sleep.

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My husband makes biscuits that would make a grown man cry.  They are perfection – light, flaky, buttery.  If there were a biscuit competition nearby, I'd bet money on my boy's biscuits – they're that good. My husbands biscuits are so light and fluffy that whenever he makes them, on the rare occasion we have leftovers, I have to routinely go into the kitchen and clear out all the angels who have mistaken his biscuits for fluffy clouds to sleep on.

We served these pillows of heaven with local eggs, country ham & peach jam.  The country ham was from Benton's and it is some of the best country ham I've ever had.  Too often, eating country ham is akin to eating a slice of a salt lick.  There's very little taste to the meat and dinner must always be followed by IV fluids to rehydrate oneself.  Benton's country ham is almost a completely different animal.  The first thing I notice in comparison to other country ham is that Benton's has real smoke power.  It will perfume your car and the best thing about this smoke is that it doesn't obscure the taste of the ham – it just makes it better.

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The jam was a quick jam I made last summer when we had more yellow peaches then we could reasonably eat.  I was experimenting with lower sugar jams and Pomona pectin.  To add a little more interest, I also added some almond extract to the jam.  On the first real Spring-like day we've had in a long time, this jam was the perfect thing to eat.  A spoonful of it promised us that summer was coming, no matter how many more rainy and cold days we might have.  

Everything in this meal, except the White Lily flour in the biscuits and the almond extract & pectin in the jam was local.  Yes – it was a meal that took very little thought and effort but I wish more people would realize that local eating can be easy.  It's not about killing yourself to eat the localest local meal that ever localed. It's about incorporating these ingredients and recipes into your life so it almost takes no thought.

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Snuggling in on a Snowy Day with Three Cheese Fondue with Champagne and Brie

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The past couple of weeks have been the kind of weeks that make me feel like my hummingbird status (so named by my husband) has been revoked and all that's left is me as a giant dodo bird.  I feel slow, stagnant, frustrated, anxious and overwhelmed.  Part of that is situational – we've recently gotten bad news about Marcus's Dad's health and we've both been struggling with a virus that will not go away.  And part of it is this time of year – late winter is never the best of times for me. I'm ready to go to bed and you can wake me up in April. 

All of this has left me feeling like I'm not me – I feel like an alien in my own body.  Normally, I'm the type of person that can be irritatingly positive.  Embarrassingly enough, I've even been described as perky. I prefer spaz.  I'm usually wildly passionate about life – now, the only thing I seem to be passionate about is a nap.

I've learned through the years that when this time of year comes around, I have to be kind, but firm to myself.  The one thing I try desperately not to stint on is exercise.  Please don't get me wrong – I've never been the type of person who jumps with glee at the thought of exercise.  But I allow myself no excuses this time of year. As crappy as I feel now, I know that I'll feel even worse if I don't make myself move in some way.  I've recently upped the number of yoga classes I'm taking and my husband has been given full nagging rights in order to guilt trip me into going to them.  On the days when I feel worst, I try to make myself go outside and walk, even if it's just ten minutes.

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I've also learned to ask for help.  I had a project that was weighing down on me and instead of turning into a seething ball of anxiety, I asked for help.  I hated to do it but it had to be done.  I've also learned not to pretend like everything is ok. I no longer reply with an automatic "Fine" when someone asks me how I am.  I like to think that giving myself permission to not always be happy and peppy gives other people permission to let down their guard.

Most importantly, I've learned that no matter what I do or what I try, I'm never going to feel full of energy this time of year.  So I'm trying to let that ideal go – with degrees of varying success.  I expect a lot of myself but I also know that setting myself up for failure isn't going to do me any favors.  I'm never going to feel like 100% Kristina this time of year so I let that go.  It's ok to feel the gloom a bit.  Because Spring is coming.

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I wanted to get this posted before Valentine's Day – obviously, that didn't happen.  We didn't even end up eating this for Valentine's Day. Both my husband and I were so sick that we made do with dumplings (for good luck for the Chinese New Year) and egg drop soup from the closest Chinese restaurant.  Instead we made this a few days later while clouds overhead spit down snowflakes and the temperature dropped.  As perfect as it would have been for Valentine's Day, it was even more perfect on a snowy, cold night a few nights later.

This is one of my favorite fondues.  The shallot and champagne give a wonderful depth to the nutty, buttery cheeses. And please don't forget the nutmeg – the nutmeg makes this dish SING! 

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Three-Cheese Fondue with Champagne
(Adapted from Epicurious)

4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/4 cups dry (brut) Champagne
1 large shallot, chopped 
2 cups coarsely grated Gruyère cheese (about 7 ounces) 
1 1/3 cups coarsely grated Emmenthal cheese (about 5 ounces) 
1/2 cup diced rindless Brie or Camembert cheese (about 3 ounces) 
Generous pinch of ground nutmeg(freshly grated nutmeg is wonderful on this)
Pinch of ground white pepper 
1 French-bread baguette, crust left on, bread cut into 1-inch cubes
Anything else you want to dip – we also had pieces of apple & pear, grapes, steamed potatoes, green beans & brocoli

Put bread cubes in a baking pan in single layer.  Put pan in oven preheated to 300 degrees.  Keep in oven until toasted to a light brown. 

Mix cornstarch and lemon juice in small bowl and stir until dissolved.  

Bring everything out and put in place so you're ready to eat when the fondue is done.

Mix champagne and shallot in fondue pot and heat on medium until simmering.  Simmer for two minutes then remove from the heat. 

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Immediately add all three cheeses and lemon juice and cornstarch mixture(give this a quick stir right before adding).  Stir until combined. Cheese will partially melt but you will need to put back on the heat over medium to finish.  

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Heat over medium until the cheese is melted and fondue thickens. 

Add generous sprinkling of ground nutmeg.  For best results use whole nutmeg freshly ground using a microplane grater.  

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Keep over low heat while eating. We needed to keep ours on warm and turn up the heat for about 30 seconds about every 5-10 minutes to keep it nice and melted. Dip in! And make sure to finish off that bottle of champagne!

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Please click here for a printable recipe!

Dark Days Challenge – Week 13 and Discovering Local Elk

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We're under the weather in the McPhelps household so last night's meal was a quick and easy one.  A few weeks ago, I was delighted to find homemade elk summer sausage at Laurel Creek Meats' Market in Maryville.  I was even more delighted to find out that the elk is local.  Elk actually used to be native to this area and in fact, was recently reintroduced to the Smokies and Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area a few years ago.  Tracy Monday is also raising elk on his farm, along with bison and so Marcus and I bought a pound of ground elk and ground bison to try.

I'll be honest.  I wasn't a huge fan of the ground bison.  It was a bit too wild tasting for me which is discouraging because I'm really trying to enjoy local game meats more.  However, it wasn't a visceral dislike – it just was a bit unfamiliar and I'm hoping that the more I eat it, the more I'll grow to like it.  I did fall in love with the ground elk.  It tasted like a wilder version of hamburger – like it came from a cow that scowled a lot, combed it's hair back in a pompadour and often cut out early from Calf 101.  I'd love to experiment more with it.

For a side, we sauteed frozen, grated zucchini that I bought from our local farmer's market.  At the risk of losing my gardening cred, I can't grow zucchini to save my life.  Sure – I can grow all kinds of other tricky crops but zucchini always fails me.  The one pest that plagues us is cucumber beetles – we have problems with other bugs but the beetles are our worst foe in the garden.  I've gotten around the problem of cucumbers by planting County Fair – the only variety that is resistant to Bacterial Wilt that the beetles often carry.  I've also grown Tromboncino squash in the past and they seem to be resistant but the past couple of years I've been too lazy to set up the sturdy trellis that they need to grow straight.  And frankly, I can usually get zucchini from farmer friends for so cheap that it seems silly to worry too much about growing them, especially in our limited space.

I added a little bit of frozen, local onion and Tennessee Redneck to the zucchini and added a small bit of fresh ginger that our local co-op gets in from Alabama – not really local but about as local as I'm ever going to find ginger until we grow it ourselves.  Some tamari sauce finished it off – the only non-local ingredient because we used a small bit of local beef tallow to saute the zucchini.  It was a tasty and quick local meal – the best kind.