Zucchini for the Freezer

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‘Tis the season of zucchini – the time of year when gardeners are tired of the zucchini bounty and are happy to give friends, neighbors and random passersby their extra squash. I got so tired of my plant taking up most of my garden space that I took the whole thing out and planted a fall garden. More on that in another post.

I have mentioned dealing with all the zucchini in several posts. Can you tell that zucchini has been preoccupying me just a bit? Some of the harvest played a starring roll in lemon zucchini muffins and some featured prominently in pasta dishes or side dishes. And then the rest of it…

Most of the harvest ended up in the freezer, in the form of bags of shredded zucchini. Ready and waiting for me to make zucchini bread and muffins or to sauté to make a quick batch of zucchini pesto for pasta. When I’m not so tired of the blessed vegetable.

DSC_0349I have a ready stash now, stacked in the freezer in ziplock bags. Over the years I have develop a process that works for me and makes the most of precious freezer space. First, shred the zucchini, either by hand or with a food processor. For ease of filling, line a glass or other straight-sided container with a quart-sized ziplock bag, folding the top edge back over the glass. Fill the bag with about two cups of zucchini shreds. You can measure the first one and then fill the others to the same height as the first. I use two cups because that is what most of my recipes call for, and it fills the bag nicely.

DSC_0359Press all the air out of the bags and seal them tightly. Flatten the bags as much as possible, spreading the zucchini shreds out to the very edges of the bags. Label each bag with the contents and the date. Don’t skip the labeling or you will be stuck puzzling over the contents in January, when the contents are frosty and your memory is fuzzy. Freeze the bags flat, and then store them on their sides, like books in a shelf.

When you are ready to use the zucchini, the bags thaw in just a few hours on the counter. Or dip the sealed bag briefly in hot water until the zucchini is thawed enough to use. Or throw the frozen zucchini block right into boiling soup or pasta sauce.

What is your favorite way of dealing with garden abundance?

Peach Overload

DSC_0350I realized last week that I was well into canning last year at this time. I have been so preoccupied with zucchini and the start of school that I haven’t made any peach butter or plum jam this year. I have almost finished my stash from last year and I definitely need to lay in a supply of toast topping for the next year.

I had time last Friday, so I thought I would head to the local farm and see if they had any peaches. Usually they have their blemished and bruised peaches for half price, but the supply goes fast. I was in luck and they had enough that I had my pick of the baskets. I bought two, which worked out to twelve pounds of peaches. I had all afternoon free and I figured I could cook and can peaches for a bit and then work on other chores around the house. Oh, the best laid plans…

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I blanched the peaches, since I had so many. I wanted them to be quick and easy to peel. I must not have left them in the water long enough – they were not easy to peel. The skins came off in little pieces instead of just sliding off the peaches. I should have re-blanched them, but I had already dumped the water and didn’t feel like waiting for more to come to a boil. Not the best decision I have ever made.

I had enough peaches for a double batch of peach butter, and I still had only used half of them. I got those cooking and tried to decide what to do with the rest of my bounty. Since I had already blanched them, I couldn’t really put them off to another day.

I had bought a box of low sugar pectin a few weeks ago, so I pulled it out to see how many peaches would make a batch of peach jam – four and a half cups. Okay, fine. That took care of a few more peaches. I figured I would peel and dice the rest and decide what to do with them after that.

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About the tenth pound of peaches I decided that maybe the afternoon wasn’t so fun anymore. I was hot, sticky and royally tired of peaches. I diced the last peach and tossed it into the measuring cup. Grand total – eight cups. Perfect for a pie. Another day. I tossed the diced peaches in a zip lock bag and froze them.

I still had to can the peach jam. And can the peach butter. And wash all my sticky dishes. I forged ahead, water bath processing the filled jars while I cleaned up the messy kitchen. I had the realization at that point that the actual canning process isn’t the arduous part – it’s the peeling, dicing and cooking that come before the canning.

Once I finished it all, I collapsed onto the couch in the much cooler living room and vowed not to move, or to look at another peach, for a very long time. From my vantage point I could see the beautiful jars of peach jam and peach butter cooling on the counter – all fourteen of them. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.

Summer Days and School Days

School started this week in our area. Calvin started ninth grade this year – the dreaded and exciting high school. Though he has been in the same school district since kindergarten, and he has always started school this early in August, it still seems insanely early to me.

School, when the summer cicadas and katydids are still singing? School, when it is still blazing hot? Well, not this year, but I’m not complaining at all about the beautiful weather. School, when we are still eating summer produce in all its glory?

DSC_0053Though the school year is in full swing, and our activities feel like fall, I am hanging onto summer at least a few more weeks. The fall spices, pumpkins and apples can wait a while, as far as I’m concerned. Summer is still here and I’m hanging on to it – long days, garden vegetables, lemonade and all.

Summer cooking for me has involved a lot of zucchini this year, and not quite as many tomatoes as usual. It all comes down to what is doing well in the garden. We have had spotty success with tomatoes for the past few years, so this spring we decided to give the soil a rest from tomato plants and raise them in pots.

Well, that was a failure – we had a grand total of eight cherry tomatoes and one larger one. The plants just never took off in the pots, and the deer took care of most of the fruit we did get on the vines. To top off the season, a deer ate two of the plants down to stubs. I bagged the whole experiment in mid July. I am trying a second, fall crop of tomatoes, but in the garden this time, behind the lattice fence that was supposed to keep out the rabbits. It seems to be doing a fine job deterring the deer too.

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We have had good luck with zucchini this year, at least. I have one plant, count it, one. It currently is taking over the garden. We have had several huge zucchini that escaped our notice under the insanely huge leaves. One weighed three pounds and the other was over four. There really was nothing to do with those but shred them, since they were so big. They found their way into zucchini tots, lemon zucchini muffins and the freezer. We have had a lot of smaller zucchini too, using those on pizza, and in zucchini chips and zucchini planks.

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Calvin’s first week of school is just about over. I think it calls for a celebration, which in our house usually means something special from the kitchen. I wonder if he’d go for zucchini cake? Probably not. Guess it’s time to break out the chocolate.

Family Vacation Fun

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We just got back from a week long vacation to Washington, D.C. Usually we visit family for our summer vacation, but this summer we decided to take our first nuclear family vacation. We have done weekend trips as the three of us, but never a full-on road trip and sightseeing trip.

It was a wonderful week and we hit most of the sights in our nation’s capital, along with a good portion of the eastern U.S. And I mean a lot of it. A road trip really drives home the size of our great country. It took us a little over fourteen hours over two days to get to Washington, via Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. On the way home we drove for another fourteen hours through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. Beautiful country, but it started to pall just a bit after delays for construction, rain and about the twelfth hour on the road. I think we’ll fly if we go again.

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The trip was a first for all of us. Not sure how Rich and I missed out on visiting the capital until now, but it was a great adventure to discover it all with Calvin. We feel like we did it all – or at least a good portion of it. And we did most of it on our own feet – our biggest day, according to the pedometer on Rich’s phone, clocked in at ten miles of walking. Count them, ten. We felt it just a bit, at the end of that day. And by a bit, I mean a lot. It was hard to walk without limping or groaning. In our defense, the ten-mile day followed two seven-plus mile days. Foot rubs and a little lie down were in order that evening. And we all slept really well.

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We worked our way through the Smithsonian museums, hitting American History, Natural History, Air and Space and Native American. We saw the Capitol, the White House, the Library of Congress and the National Archives. We walked the length of the National Mall, from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, stopping at the Washington Monument in the middle. And it is a long, long way from one end of the mall to the other, especially when it is hot and sunny. We also hit the not-to-be-missed Spy Museum and Newseum while we were at it.

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It is hard to pick out the highlights after seeing so many cool things. Tops on my list are seeing the actual Star Spangled Banner, Julia Child’s kitchen, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And the Spy Museum was a great combination of camp and intrigue mixed with a dash of real history.

I can’t forget the food. I polled a few foodie friends and former and current D.C. residents for restaurant recommendations before we went. We hit a few of those, and found a few gems of our own. We managed to find stellar cupcakes, wood oven fired pizza and calzones, burgers and shakes, house-made pop tarts along with a few salads to offset all the goodies. With all of our walking we didn’t feel too overindulged, but it was good to get back to home cooking. Somehow, most of our meals since we got back have featured vegetables, fruit and whole grains.

It was nice to have a break from cooking and baking, but by the end of the week I started to get the urge to bake something. Of course, with our vacation treats still a recent memory, I am more in the mood for fruit than cookies. But I think a few more days of healthy eating will have me in the kitchen again, flinging flour and creaming butter and sugar with abandon.

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Blueberry Cream Scones

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Blueberries are everywhere these days, at least in our part of the country. They are at the grocery store, at the farmers’ market and at farm stands. I wonder if there are new varieties that can withstand our hot Midwestern summers? Or if farmers are realizing that people will pay a premium for local blueberries? Either way, I am enjoying the steady supply of fresh blueberries.

We had friends over for breakfast last Saturday and I wanted to make something a little different. I also wanted to make something easy, or make-ahead, so I could sleep just a bit later that morning. I settled on blueberry cream scones – easy and make-ahead. And it would use some of our bounty of blueberries in the fridge. Did I mention I overbought at the grocery store just a bit? I can’t resist blueberries, but we have eaten just about all the blueberry pancakes and fresh blueberries that we care to.

Cream scones couldn’t be easier – no cutting in butter or anything even remotely complicated. If you can measure and stir, you can make cream scones. Throw in a handful, or two, of blueberries and you are set.

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To make these even easier, you can stir them together any time and freeze them to bake at just a few moments’ notice. I made mine on Thursday, when I had time. Then I froze the raw scones on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet. When they were frozen hard, I peeled them off, popped them in a ziplock bag and stashed them in the freezer to wait for Saturday morning.

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On the day of the breakfast, while the oven preheated, I brushed the frozen scones with a little cream and sprinkled them with sugar. They needed a few extra minutes to bake because they were still frozen, but they came out of the oven golden brown and bursting with blueberries. I was able to get my beauty sleep and still pull hot scones out of the oven in time for a relaxed breakfast with friends. Perfection!

Download or print the recipe here.

Blueberry Cream Scones
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 12 small scones

You can make the scones ahead of time and freeze them until you are ready to bake. See the end of the recipe for directions on the process.

¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose flour)
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup granulated sugar
I cup fresh blueberries (see notes)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup heavy cream (see notes)
2-3 tablespoons cream or milk, if needed (see notes)

Topping:
Cream or milk
Coarse, pearl or granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet, or line it with parchment paper.

Stir together the flours, baking powder, salt and sugar. Stir in the blueberries. Add the vanilla extract and about ¾ cup of the cream. Stir gently. If there is still a large amount of dry flour, add the remaining cream. If the dough is still very dry, add more cream, or milk, a tablespoon at a time, just until most of the flour is wet, turning and mixing the dough with your spoon. The dough will be moist, but not particularly sticky. There should be only a small amount of dry flour, if any.

Use a medium cookie scoop or a spoon to dollop the scones onto the prepared baking sheet. Wet your fingers and flatten the tops of the scones. Push any errant blueberries back into the scones and make the sides even and straight.

Brush the tops of the scones with cream or milk and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake scones for 10-12 minutes, or until just golden on top and darker golden on the bottom. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Scones keep at room temperature for up to two days, though they really are best soon after baking. Reheat leftovers for a few seconds in the microwave before serving. Freeze the scones for longer storage, thawing overnight at room temperature, or in the microwave for about 30 seconds.

Notes: You can make these with frozen blueberries if you prefer. Add the still-frozen blueberries right before you mix in the cream and mix quickly. If the berries thaw your scones will have purple streaks, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.

If you use all-purpose flour instead of the white whole wheat flour you will probably not need as much cream to get the dough to come together.

Make-ahead directions:
Do not preheat the oven, as you won’t be baking the scones right away. Prepare the scones as directed, placing them on a parchment lined baking sheet or pan that will fit into your freezer. Do not brush the tops with cream or sprinkle with sugar. You will do this when you are ready to bake them. Freeze the scones, uncovered, until solid. Once scones are frozen, peel them off the paper and place in a ziplock bag or airtight container. Keep frozen until ready to use.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove scones from freezer and place on a lightly greased or parchment lined baking sheet. Brush tops with cream and sprinkle with sugar while oven preheats. Bake 10-15 minutes, or until golden on top and golden brown on the bottom. If scones are pale or seem under baked in their centers, give them a minute or two longer in the oven. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Back to Basics – Whole Wheat Bread

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Whole wheat bread is our favorite around here. Rarely do I make white bread and I usually throw at least a little whole wheat flour in just about every baked good I make. To the uninitiated, baking with whole wheat flour can be fraught with issues: dry, dense bread and crumbly loaves. There are a few tricks in the trade that can make the difference between stereotypical dense, dry whole wheat bread and light, soft bread that tastes mildly of nutty whole grain goodness.

If you have never baked bread before, check out my post on white bread first. Baking with whole wheat can be just a tiny bit tricky and it helps if you are already familiar with yeast and the steps of making bread.

White whole wheat flour
When I first started baking with whole wheat, way back in the early 90s, I only had access to standard whole wheat flour. It was dark and strongly flavored and if I wasn’t careful it made heavy, overly wheaty bread.

Then I discovered a new product: white whole wheat flour. It is a different strain of wheat from regular whole wheat and it was a revelation. White whole wheat is basically albino wheat. And its flour has all of the nutrition of regular whole wheat flour with none of the bitterness. It is usually ground as finely as all-purpose flour, which helps make baked goods come out with a texture similar to white flour products.

That said, if you have traditional whole wheat flour, as long as it isn’t stoneground, your bread will turn out very similar to mine. It will, however, be a little darker and have a stronger flavor.

A word on stoneground flour
Don’t get me wrong, stoneground flour is a wonderful product. And if you are used to baking with it, it can produce lovely baked goods. But if you are a novice baker, you probably want to wait to use stoneground flour until you have at least a few loaves of bread under your belt. Stoneground flour requires a little more liquid, a longer rest time and a light hand with flour during kneading.

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Bran and its challenges
The problems most people have with whole grain baking (not just whole wheat) stem from the bran in the flour. Whole grain flour is the whole grain, ground into flour. That sounds a little obvious, but stick with me. Because you have the whole grain, you have the bran and the germ, along with the rest of the kernel (called the endosperm). White flour contains only the endosperm. The germ has lots of nutrition and a little fat (the good kind) and doesn’t really affect the texture of the bread. The bran contains most of the fiber in the grain (which we all want to eat more of) and is what can cause problems when baking with whole wheat flour.

Bran absorbs liquid slowly. This can cause an issue if you mix your whole wheat bread dough exactly as you would mix white bread dough. If you don’t build in extra time for the bran to absorb the liquid you can end up with heavy, dense bread.

One simple trick solves all, though: a rest period. Mix up the dough, including all of the whole wheat flour, and then stop. Cover the bowl and do something else for fifteen minutes. It doesn’t matter what. Wash the dishes. Start a load of laundry. Or take a rest yourself. While the dough is resting, the bran will have plenty of time to soak up all the liquid it wants. When you come back, your batter-like dough should have firmed up just a bit. Now you can proceed with the rest of the recipe without worry about adding too much flour.

That’s pretty much it. Start with white whole wheat flour, which you can find in any grocery store. Take a pass on stoneground flour until you have a little baking experience. And give the dough a rest. Now all that’s left to do is get your ingredients and your bowl ready. Just think, in about two hours you can have your very own loaves of warm, soft whole wheat bread. The butter is waiting.

Download or print the recipe.

Basic Whole Wheat Bread
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens
Homemade Bread Cookbook
Makes 2 loaves

If you don’t have 9 by 5 inch loaf pans, you can use a large baking sheet. Follow recipe directions for shaping and simply place the loaves on a lightly greased baking sheet, far enough apart so they have room to rise. Bake as directed, but for only 20-25 minutes.

2¼ cups milk
3 cups whole wheat flour (white whole wheat or regular)
2¾-3½ cups all-purpose flour, approximately
1 package instant or active dry yeast (2¼ teaspoons)*
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon butter, room temperature

*Be sure you don’t buy rapid rise yeast. That particular yeast only works in recipes written specifically for it. Look for instant or active dry yeast packets in the baking aisle of the grocery store.

Heat milk until very warm (120-130 degrees). It will feel very warm if you test it with your finger. If it is hot, let it cool a little before you use it. Combine the 3 cups whole wheat flour, yeast, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add butter and warm milk. Stir vigorously until well-mixed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest for 10-15 minutes. This will allow the whole wheat flour to absorb more of the liquid and help guard against adding too much flour during kneading.

Add 2½ cups of all-purpose flour gradually, about a cup at a time. The dough will become stiff and hard to stir. Continue to work in flour until the dough is firm enough to knead. You might need up to an additional cup of flour, but try not to make the dough dry.

Lightly sprinkle a kneading surface with flour. Turn dough out of the bowl onto the flour. Flour your hands and start to knead, adding sprinkles of flour as needed. If you are used to baking with white flour only, the dough might feel a bit rougher to you and not quite as bouncy. It is supposed to feel like that.

Knead gently at first: pull the far side of the dough toward you and fold over, pressing it away from you with the heels of your hands. Turn dough a quarter turn and repeat. When dough is less sticky, you can be less gentle. At first you might need to scrape your kneading surface with a rubber spatula if dough sticks. Add flour as necessary to the dough and your hands to prevent sticking. Try to add flour gradually, only until the dough doesn’t stick to your hands. Knead the dough 5-8 minutes or until it is no longer sticky. It will become smooth and elastic.

Lightly grease a large bowl (at least 3 quarts). Place the ball of dough in the bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. You don’t want the dough to dry out while it is rising. Let dough rise in a warm place until doubled, about 60 minutes. I like to use the turned-off oven with the light on. It gets surprisingly warm.

While the dough is rising, lightly grease two 9 by 5 inch loaf pans.

If you aren’t sure if your dough is doubled, poke your finger into it at the edge. If the hole doesn’t fill in immediately, your dough is ready. Turn the dough out onto your kneading surface and knead briefly to press out any large air bubbles. You shouldn’t need any flour.

Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, flatten the dough into a rough rectangle about 9 inches wide (as wide as your pan is long). Starting from one 9-inch side, tightly roll the dough into a cylinder. Pinch the seam and the ends closed. Roll the top side against the surface to smooth. Turn seam side down and fold the ends under slightly. Place in pan, seam side down. Repeat with the second half of the dough.

Lightly cover the loaves with a sheet of parchment or waxed paper. Let rise at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or until the middles of the loaves are about 1 inch above the tops of their pans.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees while the loaves are rising.

Bake the risen loaves for about 30 minutes, or until they are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped with your finger. Check the loaves after 20 minutes, and tent loosely with foil if the tops are browning too fast.

Remove loaves from the pans and cool on wire racks. Try to wait at least a few minutes before cutting into the loaves. Ideally wait until they are fully cool before slicing. You are going to want to sample your bread before it cools. I know you are. That is fine, but be very gentle when you slice the warm loaves or you will crush them.

Store at room temperature in an airtight container or ziplock bag. Homemade bread dries out much faster than commercial bread. Slice loaves and freeze if keeping for longer than a couple of days.

Recipe Detail – How Much is Enough?

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I was making my buttermilk waffles the other day and I started thinking about how different recipes are written. Some lay out absolutely every step, down to getting out bowls and utensils. Others assume you know how to do everything and just give you bare bone instructions. And most are somewhere in between.

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I like to write detailed recipes, without talking down to the reader, but I wonder how much is too much? Or how much is enough? For instance, in my recipe for waffles I call for melted butter in the ingredients, as well as separated eggs. I assume you know how to do both of those things and you will do them as you are gathering your ingredients.

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I go into greater detail with some recipes, especially ones where doing certain prep steps in a certain order makes things easier, or helps with timing. I include more steps and hints with things that everyone might not be familiar with, like yeast dough or pie crust.

Which do you prefer – details galore, or just the basics?