Friday, May 29, 2009

Peach Bread . . . with Nectarines? (What's wrong with this picture? Nothing!)

Can peaches and nectarines fraternize successfully? Is one more deserving of respect than the other? My opinion? "Yes" to the former, and a resounding "no" to the latter.

There are those among us who cringe at the velveteen-like fuzz of the peach, the same way we recoil at fingernails on a chalkboard (my mother was one of these--she hated touching the fuzz), while others turn up their nose at the poor smooth-skinned nectarine. We always hear the phrase "peaches and cream," but never "nectarines and cream". . . why is that?

Did you know, though, that the nectarine is not a cross between a peach and a plum? That's the old wives' tale I'd always heard growing up. And, experts believe that peaches and nectarines in all likelihood have a "parallel history." Apparently, the two fruits share the same seed heritage. Agricultural scholars inform us that peach/nectarine seeds made their way to Persia from China, then travelled on to Greece and Rome. From there they meandered into the balmier areas of Europe, as seeds, not unlike people, are wont to do. We have the Spaniards to thank for bringing peach/nectarine trees and seeds to the New World via none other than Christopher Columbus. At some point in the 1500's, the trees were recorded as growing in Mexico. And Mexico, as we all know, is snuggled right next to America. Fraternization? Oh, I think so.

So, with that historical foundation firmly established, I feel justified at this point in telling you that this morning I used the fruit of both to make a hearty loaf of what I'll refer to simply as peach bread. I didn't have enough pieces of either fruit on their own for the whole loaf. But that was fine, because once peeled, cut up, and tossed in my bowl, the two fruits yielded the perfect amount, and they mingled together most harmoniously.

Unless you have remarkable children who are dietarily enlightened, this quick bread will probably hold more appeal for the adults in your household. It's not very sweet, and it contains not only a good portion of whole wheat flour but also oatmeal. And, while my intention is not to shock, I feel compelled to inform you that it contains . . . no butter or heavy cream! Just a modest amount of canola/vegetable oil. (You okay? Take a deep breath . . . and another . . . I know I'm venturing outside of the usual Jane's Sweets comfort zone here.)

This recipe is very much like one in the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook called Peach Oatmeal Bread. The differences in my version are the inclusion of a small portion of AP flour, and 25 percent less whole wheat flour; larger-sized chunks of not just peach, but also nectarine, than their recipe calls for; and, more almond extract. I've renamed the recipe Whole Wheat Peach Bread because the flavor of the whole wheat is very evident, and the oatmeal flavor is secondary. I've also simplified the directions a bit without leaving out anything crucial.

I've baked this bread a couple of times before. The first time my fruit was so wet and juicy that the whole loaf, though deliciously flavored, was simply way too moist. The second time I overcompensated, trying to avoid a repeat of the first loaf, and that one came out too dry; I overbaked it and I'd used relatively dry fresh fruit. This time, I tried for a happy medium and I think it worked out well. Though, as I said, this bread contains no butter, it is very tasty if eaten warm with a little butter on it. (It's great toasted with butter on it, in fact.)

Whole Wheat Peach Bread

2 cups peeled, sliced peaches and/or nectarines, cut into 1/2 inch chunks, drained in a strainer if very juicy

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3/4 cup unbleached bread flour
1/2 cup AP flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg (use less if you're not wild about nutmeg; a little goes a long way)
1 cup old-fashioned, or quick, rolled oats

2 large eggs
1 cup milk (2% or whole--either is fine)
1/4 cup vegetable/canola oil
1 tsp. almond extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9" x 5" loaf pan.

Stir together all the dry ingredients--except the oats!-- in a large mixing bowl until well combined.

Now add in the oats to the combined dry ingredients, mix well. Toss in the peaches/nectarine chunks.

Stir to completely coat the peaches.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, oil, and almond extract.

Pour the liquid mixture into the dry mixture, and stir just to combine until the batter is evenly moistened all around. Do not overmix.

Pour the batter into your prepared pan.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 50 minutes, then check the loaf. If a tester stuck in the middle comes out pretty wet, bake another 5 minutes or so and retest.

If the top is overbrowning, at any point in the baking process, cover it loosely with foil. How long you'll ultimately need to bake the loaf will depend in large part on how moist your fruit is, so take that factor well into account. When it's done, let it cool on a rack, in the pan, for at least 15 minutes. It's a dense, heavy loaf so it takes quite a while to cool. Turn it out onto the rack and consider letting it cool almost completely before you slice it.

Makes a nice addition to any breakfast or a good, healthy snack anytime of day. Hope you like it!

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To fertilize or not to fertilize

I garden green. Or...try my very best to. Reuse a lot of pots, plant shrubs and perennials that after the first year just don't need lots of water, etc.

With all of that in mind, why would I suggest fertilizing? First off, try to grasp a fertilizer that is organic rather than bad for the Earth, birds and bees. Second, think of your trees. Now imagine them as 'happy little trees' that perform better than your neighbors. We spend so much time making compost for everything else in our gardens, but sometimes forget our trees. When you fertilize, it makes them healthier, makes them warden off disease and little critters and because of this, makes you smile because they are providing you with lots of shade during the hot, summer months.

There ARE organic fertilizers out there. Shop around at your local nurseries, they should be going organic, too.

We also tried corn glutten this year for our grass. Brian had heard about it. So far, as a weed killer and fertilizer, we've been very happy with it.

My favorite fertilizer that I use is actually an organic foliar spray called Bioform. It's got seaweed, fish emulsion, molasses and other natural ingredients to really make the tree healthy. I also use it on my roses, and they thank me every day! You can also pour it around your trees, just make sure you add's concentrated!

Happy guilt free fertilizing!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Camera cleaning day!

My Monarda patch that has gone haywire this year!

FINALLY, 'Black Lace' Elder is actually doing something!!

Brian calls this the hairy testicle flower.

No name iris brought from Picadilly's gardens.

'Rare Treat' iris, not quite unfurled.

Blaming it on the cats

I went downstairs last night to do laundry and kept smelling a strong odor of pee. Our basement is not finished yet, but we have carpet pieces laying down everywhere, so I checked them all to see if the cats were using them as...uh...comfortable places to relieve themselves. I couldn't smell any pee on any of them. I then take the trash can that is buy the washer outside to the trash and dump it, and the smell (along with liquid!!) comes out in full force. Our smallest darling had decided to use the trash can as a toilet.

With several minutes of extreme protest, he finally admitted to peeing in the trashcan. He first decided to blame it on the cats (which would have been a feat that I would have loved to behold) and then realized that I wasn't going to be mad, I just wanted him to fess up and then not do it again.

Pee smell is gone, kid confessed, I won't be pissed (ha ha) at the cats. Problem solved.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Diary of a Nursery Worker

Had a woman come in saying she planted three shrubs...all of the same, all get the same water and one of them died. She wanted us to replace the shrub at no cost to her. It was, in her words, "a faulty plant". I explained to her that it IS a plant, and that plants can sometimes die. That I can buy the same three plants and one of them dies. It's part of gardening. She said it's, "our faulty plants and she wants another one. I mean, it didn't even root!" I explained to her that it takes a year for plants to become established, and not enough time had passed.


I understand it's money, and wasted. How do you guys deal with something that dies? Do you take responsibility and just know it's a part of gardening, or do you personally attack the nursery you got it from saying it's a faulty plant? Am I wrong to want to backhand this person???

I had a customer that comes in, oh, about once a week with absolutely no idea what she has in mind to buy. We generally spend at least two hours with this woman telling her what will work, won't work, and then plan her gardens for her.

I would like to tell this woman that for a fee, we could come out and design her yard, but I don't think that will go over well since she's already using a designer.

Um. Yeah.

Fail-Safe Oatmeal Cookies

Last week's post on my fail-safe chocolate chip cookie recipe made me think I should likewise share my fail-safe oatmeal cookie formula, so here it is! It's one of those recipes you can confidently customize with added ingredients as you see fit.

My sixteen-year old son likes these with raisins only--he's a minimalist with this kind of food. My twelve-year old son likes them best with big milk chocolate chips--he's not a big fan of raisins. I like them in just about any incarnation and so does the hubby. Today I made a big batch of dough and divided it up before putting in any of the add-ins. Then I made about two thirds of it into the boys' two favorite varieties, and to the remaining third portion I added raisins, toasted chopped pecans, and sweet shredded coconut. Yum.

This recipe makes a lot of cookie dough (you'll get dozens of cookies out of it). If your mixer bowl is not very large, you might want to halve the recipe or be ready to takeover and do the final mixing steps by hand.

Jane's Fail-Safe Oatmeal Cookies

(For a printable version of this recipe click here!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
A few drops of lemon extract (optional, but I think it helps brighten the flavor very subtly)
A few drops of almond extract (optional, but " ")
3 and 1/2 cups AP flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 and 1/4 tsp. salt
1 and  1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
6 cups oats (quick or old-fashioned, either will work)
2 cups raisins, moistened if they are very dry (per recipe below)

Measure the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg into a medium bowl. Combine lightly with a fork or whisk and set aside.

Measure the oats into a medium bowl; set aside.

Measure the raisins into a bowl. Especially if you're using sun-dried raisins, I recommend you spread them out in the bottom of the bowl and cover them completely with warm water, or fruit juice. Let that soak for about ten minutes. Drain the raisins and gently squeeze them with paper towel to remove excess water. Set aside.

Measure out any additional ingredients you want to add in--like walnuts, pecans, coconut, or any type of chocolate chips--in whatever reasonable proportions you prefer, and set those aside.

Beat the sugars, butter, and shortening for no more than about two minutes at medium speed, until well mixed.

Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the vanilla, still at medium speed until well combined.

Slowly add in the flour mixture, on low speed until it's just blended.

Add in any raisins, nuts, chips, etc. mixing on the lowest speed (or by hand if your mixing bowl seems too full).

At this point, if I were you, I'd divide the dough into a few clumps, wrap each in plastic, and freeze or refrigerate them for at least an hour, until firm. Also, I recommend you chill your cookie sheets in the freezer or fridge for at least 15 minutes before using them.

Cover your cookie sheets with parchment and portion the cookie dough about two inches apart. If you want hefty cookies use a no. 24 scoop (that's about a three-tablespoon scoop). Or, just roll the dough into balls with your hands; make the balls about the size of big walnuts, working quickly so as not to warm the dough. If you want smaller cookies, feel free--just be sure to bake them for a shorter amount of time. For flatter cookies, versus a puffier and more rounded-on-top version, press them down a bit before baking--not too much.

Bake for at least 13 minutes, checking as needed to prevent over-browning. The longer you bake them, the crispier they'll be. I like to have partly chewy, versus completely crispy, oatmeal cookies so I always try to remember--not always successfully--to take them out before they get very dark.

Let them cool on the pan for five minutes, then complete cooling on racks.

Now, go get a glass of milk, or a cup of coffee, or a nice glass of iced tea. Sit down, relax, and have a cookie.

(To comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the word "COMMENTS" just below.)

Sunshine...please? and the fun job of car buying.

After 5 days straight of rain (which I won't complain about...really) I'm ready for the sun to work it's magic right along with the nice nitrogen that the rain brought. I won't have to water for a week. I worked half a day yesterday and then literally booked it out the door at noon because Brian and I went car shopping with the boys.

I am not great at negotiating. We weren't really ready to BUY a car yesterday, but wanting to test drive the Mazda CX9. There's a car down in Centennial that seemed to have everything we wanted (gadgets are FUN!) so we all piled in the truck and headed down. The boys loved the car and were, uh, very loud about it. Cardinal rule #1 killed: Never let the dealer know you LIKE the car. Brian had sent an email to the credit union to figure out what kind of loan we're approved for. Cardinal rule #2 killed: Have cash in hand so they can't bug you about financing!

We were so wrecked from trying to keep the boys on good behavior that I didn't get to use my stone face while talking to the dealer. I was pretty much obvious that I wanted the car, but wasn't ready to buy.

In the meantime...we found another CX9 in Longmont that is a year newer and has a lot fewer miles. Now we get to make another trip with the boys and check that one out. I'm working Tuesday, Thursday AND Friday of this week, so I'm not sure when we'll be able to go out, but at least we're really aware of the ins and outs of this car (thank you intrawebs!) and are prepared to give the dealer everything we've got.

In the meantime, last night I cleaned my van for everything it's worth and it's looks pretty good. I'll enjoy it being clean for, oh, a day...until the boys step back into it!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Speaking of Food Movies . . .

Yeah, I love to bake . . . but I also love watching movies.

In particular, I love movies that find ways to feature food in a beautiful way, as well as interesting food scenes in movies that otherwise have nothing at all to do with food. I've noticed that even in movies that fall into the latter category, often the most pivotal scenes occur while the characters are sharing a meal, are about to share one, or while someone is cooking. Examples abound. In The Godfather, for instance, food is not just sustenance. It's gangland fuel, and boy is it ubiquitous. First there's the wedding feast, which sets the stage for just about everything to come. Let's face it, the wedding feast scene entered the American vernacular a long time ago. How many times has my husband--apropos of nothing--smirked at me and, in the nasal voice of Michael Corleone speaking to his girlfriend Kay, remarked, "You like your lasagne?" or, "He's a very scary guy."

Or, remember the scene where Clemenza is showing Michael how to make spaghetti? I love it because it's so extraneous; it does nothing to advance the film, but it's the kind of little clip that stays in your memory. Miniscule, but somehow meaningful. "You start with a little oil, then fry some garlic. Throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, fry it and make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil, you shove in all your sausage and meatballs. Add a little bit of wine. And a little bit of sugar. That's my trick." (And whenever I say, "That's my trick," to my husband--also apropos of nothing--he knows just what the reference is, bless his heart.) The Godfather is classic fodder for this kind of thing. Somebody is always shoving something starchy or bready into their mouth. (Come to think of it, a whole lot of shoving goes on in this movie, most of it the bad kind.) When you're a Corleone, even if death is just about staring you in the face, you know everything's probably gonna be okay because, hey, the bread basket never goes empty. It's a movie that can really make you hungry.

Another film I just love, that has nothing to do with food--except perhaps in the way its very scarcity is played up-- is Pollock. All about Jackson Pollock, the American abstract expressionist painter who made his name in the late forties and sealed his own sad fate in the fifties, the movie is a treasure trove of moments too stunning to forget. Visionary genius though Jackson may have been, he sure knew how to ruin a dinner party.

There's a scene near the start of the film where he's sitting at the table with his brother's family, his odd strait-laced mother, and his new, Bohemian, artist girlfriend Lee Krasner. They're eating a large meal. Lee whispers quietly to him, expressing a bit of shock at the overabundance of homey food that must have taken hours to prepare, "Did you people eat like this all the time?" As the scene progresses and the characters chat, it comes out that Jackson's soon going to be abandoned by his older brother and essentially forced to live on his own--a prospect that apparently terrifies him. He responds by becoming increasingly agitated. The volume of his voice rises along with the blaring music from the radio, and he begins frantically banging his fists and forearms on the table while clutching his utensils like a toddler. It's a disturbing scene but it sure serves to let you know the direction in which the story's headed (that would be to Crazy Town). And that's nothing compared to what he does to the elaborate Thanksgiving meal that's destroyed later on in the film; I won't describe that for you. You really have to see it for yourself.

What's my favorite film that does focus largely on food? That's easy. It's Big Night. I adore this movie. Why? Well, maybe because nothing completely horrible happens in it. There is no violence per se. No death. No sickness. It's just a quiet little story that somehow manages to illuminate the lusciousness of regular life, through relationships, through appetite, through the elemental process of touching food and preparing it for the people around you. The principal characters are two Italian brothers--one more Italian than the other--who are trying to make a go of it in their own tiny restaurant somewhere on the east coast. It takes place in the fifties and the clothing, the cars, the music all lend wonderfully to the atmosphere. You get a sense of the striving-for-sumptousness that went along with that particular sliver of 20th century America.

Some of the food preparation scenes are positively meditative, if you're a food-o-phile. The restaurant's kitchen is spare and organized; it goes hand in hand with the older brother's culinary work, which is clean, inspired, and methodic. As a viewer, you can't not want to sample the dishes, having seen the labor and skill that went into them. You wish you could. It's almost enough-- just the "voluptuousness of looking" at the gorgeously prepared, utterly authentic Italian food. (Some famous poet used that phrase, which I've always loved, but I can't remember who the writer was. I'll let you know if I ever figure out who it was.) The film is by turns funny, sad, charming, poignant, but never conventionally action packed. Definitely worth watching.

So, here's my short list, in no particular order, of favorite movies that happen to have at least one or more great food-related scenes, even if the scenes are short and seem on the surface to be inconsequential to the story:
  • Eat Drink Man Woman (Exceptionally wonderful film, if you're into food and/or cooking; subtitled, just fyi.)
  • Waitress (If you love pie, you gotta see this one; not perfect, but still worth it.)
  • Diner (If you've never watched it, stop what you're doing right now and go get it.)
  • Avalon (Like Diner, this is another great Barry Levinson film, with many huge, loud, ethnic, family dinners.)
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring (Remember the way she meticulously arranges the brilliantly colored vegetables while Vermeer is watching? He knows immediately that he's stumbled upon no ordinary scullery maid.)
  • Chocolat (Not remotely a perfect film, but the chocolate scenes alone are worth the ride.)
  • Tess (That's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, of course, the 1979 version with Nastassia Kinski. Lasciviously fed to her by a predatory cad, she bites into a crimson strawberry with a look in her eyes that tells us she knows it's just been plucked from the Tree of Knowledge. And in another scene she dines on an enormous hunk of bread while resting in a hay field. A visually beautiful movie.)
What are your favorite food films? Comment, and let's talk about it!

P.S. Really looking forward to the movie based in part on Julie Powell's book Julie & Julia, opening in August '09--another good one to add to the list, hopefully!

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The past couple of days have brought lots of rain. With the rain comes the slugs. They are everywhere. I can't even have the satisfaction of throwing them on the street and letting their slimy little bodies fry because it's still overcast out. So...I've been squishing them one by one all morning. Only a fellow gardener would understand this process, and the little thrill of the killing. I'm sadistic today. My Mock Orange looks like a weeping tree at the moment with the heavy strain of rain drops. I do hope it comes back because the only reason we have kept it is for the shade on our west facing porch. It needs to be it's full 12 foot height to be any good for us!

Yesterday Brian came by to get two loads of mulch to finish the backyard. I am hoping two loads will be enough to cover the mud by my vegetable garden. With all of the weeds that have sprung, I also need to add a couple of inches around the rest of the gardens. I do not believe in weed barrier, but heavy mulch to take care of the weed seedlings. I'm thinking I need another two loads. :)

I also have 15 plants to plant today, and hope I can get to them before the BBQ at 1 pm!

I'll be working a half day tomorrow and then going car shopping with my hubby. We have decided to forego our deck this year for a new car. We have narrowed the search down to a Ford Edge, a Mazda CX9 and a Toyota Venza. I cannot fathom spending so much for a Venza, but do absolutely love the ride!!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Berry Shortcake has Arrived . . . Is it Summer Yet?

Memorial Day weekend always calls for shortcake, with berries of one's choice.

And I'm not talking about those rubbery little yellow cakes, shaped like miniature swimming pools, that you can buy in a cellophane package at the grocery store. No ma'am. Those atrocities always seem to surface this time of year, conveniently stationed near the strawberries in the produce department. They're a pathetic and feeble excuse for a true shortcake. When you see them in the store just keep walking--don't look back. Didn't you have to eat enough of those as a kid? I know I did. (What do you suppose our mothers were thinking? Maybe the Apollo astronauts ate them in space?? I don't know . . . there had to be a reason. I know my mom could bake . . . maybe she was too tired to bake shortcake? Is that possible? Guess we'll never know.) Anyway, I digress, yet again. Forgive me.

I've tried quite a few shortcake recipes over the years, some quite good, some mediocre. This one is perfect if you're craving a shortcake that's not too biscuity, not at all sponge-cakey, but rather delicately sweet with a tender crumb. This is the golden ticket.

It hails from a book called In the Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley. I made these shortcakes today and served them with sliced ripe strawberries and big, juicy blackberries. The fruit had been tossed around, an hour or two earlier, with perhaps three spoonfuls of sugar. Topped it off with a generous, soft dollop of Chantilly cream (just a pretty name for whipped cream sweetened with sugar and vanilla).

The process for making these is almost identical to the process for making scones, and it's all easily done by hand. I doubled the recipe in the version you see below, and omitted the author's particular instructions for the fruit, as I think you should use any fresh fruit you like and prepare it as you prefer. I simplified and shortened her compilation instructions too, without deleting any critical steps or meaningful info.

Rich Old-Fashioned Strawberry Shortcakes

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a large cookie sheet (or two smaller sheets) with parchment.

4 cups AP flour (I used bleached)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. baking powder (yep, that does say two tablespoons)
1 tsp. salt
1 cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into small chunks
2 eggs, large, lightly beaten
1/2 cup whole milk
10 Tbsp. heavy cream

About 1 (or more) additional Tbsp. heavy cream, and 1 additional Tbsp. sugar, for brushing and sprinkling on the shortcakes before baking.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients with a whisk.

Cut in the butter with a pastry blender (or use the two-knife method) until the pieces look no larger than, say, cranberries.

In a smaller bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then mix in the milk and the cream.

Pour the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients all at once and combine until the moisture seems more or less evenly distributed. (You can mix it with your hands if you prefer; it'll be real messy but it's kind of fun. Like making paper mache with your kids when they were little.)

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface (a chilled marble board works great).

Using your hands, gently press the dough into a big rectangle, perhaps 14 by 7 inches, with a thickness of about 3/4 inch.

Using the cutter of your choice (round, square, any fairly basic shape that's not too small) dipped in flour, cut the dough into as many pieces as it will yield. Scraps can be gathered together, pressed out again with your hands, and cut with the cutter.

Place the pieces on the parchment on your cookie sheet(s). Brush the tops lightly with heavy cream and sprinkle with granulated sugar.

Bake them on your oven's upper rack for approximately 12 minutes; check them and, if needed, put them back in for a minute or two more until golden and not too soft. Don't overbake if you can help it.

Cool the shortcakes on a wire rack. Serve them warm or cold, with your favorite fruit, cut up and sweetened.

Yummy with whipped cream on top, plain or sweetened.

Delicious any way you decide to try it!

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