When I’m not working on my own designs for classes, I like to have several interesting seasonal projects to choose from. I call them my “treat projects”. I like to work on something fun, but also moderately challenging and one where I get to do something I have not before, a new stitch, technique, or type of yarn.  Right now one of my projects is the lovely Water Lily Shawl by Lisa Naskrent in the Spring 2016 issue of Interweave Crochet.

This is a well written pattern, which is a good thing, as I would be lost if it wasn’t! I would also be having a hard time if I did not apply best practices in pattern reading. More than just comprehending the pattern, having a methodical approach to using the information provided when starting a new project from a pattern makes for much less frustration and a happier experience all around. 
My first rule is, for a professionally published pattern, remember that there is no extraneous information. There is nothing written there that should be disregarded or ignored. Do something differently if you have a good reason, it’s your project, but know the rule before you break them and know why you are breaking them. If it’s well written and edited all of the info you need is there. You just have to read it and apply it. It’s quite a feat to deliver this kind of complex instruction in writing to perfect strangers. It’s an equally impressive feat to sit down and interpret them successfully.

That brings me to my second rule, sit down and patiently read the whole pattern through before you do anything else. You don’t have to be able to visualize each step necessarily, but look for things you don’t understand and make some notes. If there are stitches or instructions you don’t recognize, get those figured out first. If there is something you really don’t like to do and you can’t see how to work around it, maybe it’s not the pattern you are looking for. Better to find out now, than half way through and after buying a bunch of yarn, that you have no idea how to 6tr cluster or really don’t care for holding two strands of yarn together while stitching. It’s also helpful to have a sense of what direction you are working the piece in, and if you will be working in sections that you join later. It’s generally easier to prevent a directional mistake than fix it.

The third rule is check for errata before you get started. If you are having trouble with a pattern that just isn’t working, it might not be you. Despite everyone’s best efforts, mistakes get published. Publisher’s websites generally have areas with errata. Look up the Ravelry page for the project; sometimes the designer will post corrections. Look also at other people’s notes on the project, they may note otherwise unpublished errata, as well as clarifications and photos of tricky parts. 

Melanzane in Teglia

March 15, 2010

I love eggplant Parmesan, so when Lidia suggested that her readers who love that Italian American classic try her baked eggplant dishes I knew that would be one I would try soon. So on Saturday 3/13/10, I went shopping for some eggplant. I went with this recipe because the other baked eggplant dish required a lot of fresh tomatoes and basil. I’ll revisit that idea when both are locally abundant.

Some looking around on the internet for Melanzane in Teglia recipes suggests that this is classic homey dish that has as many variations as there are cooks. It is near and dear to the hearts of Italian home cooks. After trying this dish, I understand why.

The recipe is essentially disks of eggplant layered with enhanced tomato sauce and Parmesan and Pecorino cheese and baked until the eggplant is creamy and the cheese is brown. It does take a while to make, but most of the work happens with little attention required. First I made the sauce, I went with Lidia’s Salsa di Pomodoro, a tomato sauce with carrot, celery and onion as the flavor base. This was a nice change of pace from the garlic based marinara sauce that I usually make. While this was cooking, I sliced and salted the eggplant. The salting removes some of the extra liquid and keeps the eggplant from becoming bitter while it cooks.

The sauce is then enhanced with oil cured black olives, thinly sliced peperoncini, capers and basil. I don’t know that I had ever tried oil cured olives before this and I think their flavor, so distinct from the brine cured variety, are definitely important to the dish. I need a better source for peperoncini. I bought the only brand in the supermarket that didn’t have yellow # 5 in it and they aren’t very good eating on their own. I’ve definitely had better peperoncini in the past. I used basil I had dried from my garden, which still has good flavor and aroma and some parsley, instead of fresh basil, which was really expensive in the market for some reason.

Then it was a simple matter of layering everything in baking dish and letting it bake for 45 minutes or so. Meanwhile, I cooked up some saffron quinoa to serve it over.

The result was divine. The creamy eggplant was coated in a sauce that combined flavors that I don’t think I have ever quite put together before, that were subtle and well balanced while they were unique. I will definitely make this again.

From here on out, I’m referring to eggplant as melanzane. That’s a much nicer name.

Spinaci alla Genovese

March 14, 2010

Vegetables alla Genovese are cooked up with garlic, oil, anchovies, sometimes with raisins as a counterpoint to  the savory flavors. Before cooking Lidia’s recipe for Spinaci alla Genovese, I had not had spinach, or anything else cooked this way. It was a recipe that was on my mind to try and when I saw fresh local spinach in the market last Friday, I knew the time had come.



The lovely mineral taste of the spinach is complimented by the salty anchovies and the garlic and then all of this is set into contrast when the raisins burst through. The pine nuts added an interesting crunch, but I think it would be just as good without them. I am looking forward to trying this with other veggies, mixed braising greens especially. I also think this would be a good way to cook frozen spinach and give it some life.

The recipe is reprinted here.

This strongly flavored dish went really well with my new favorite way to make risotto.

On 2/28/10 I was looking through Lidia’s book to find the next thing I could make, preferably without having to buy too many ingredients. I found a recipe for Torta di Patate e Funghi con Lenticchie: Potato Mushroom Cake with Braised Lentils. The only thing I had to buy especially for it was mushrooms and leeks, since I had everything else on hand. I used French lentils (the variety known as du Puy) rather than the traditional lenticchie di Castelluccio. I was also intrigued by the idea that the sauce was a braise of lentils—I had a feeling that this would be a useful recipe within a recipe that I could use elsewhere.

The recipe is constructed in two parts that are then brought together at serving. Finely chopped onion, celery and carrot are cooked with garlic in oil, along with tomato paste to form a base for the lentils, which can easily be eaten on their own as a soup. (The recipe left me with extra lentils and they made a lovely lunch.) Potatoes are boiled until just tender and sliced and combined with browned mushrooms, parmesean and leeks to form a rustic cake. I strayed from the recipe a bit, in that I finished the dish in the oven, rather than flipping it over to cook on both sides (I use a cast iron skillet, which is heavy so that makes that whole flipping business a bit precarious).

Torta di Patate e Funghi con Lenticchie

Torta di Patate e Funghi con Lenticchie

While this did take a while to make because of the separate cooking steps involved, a lot of it was able to happen with minimal attention from me, while I stayed nearby and attended to other business. The final dish was wonderfully complex–the browned mushrooms played beautifully against the lentils which is a combination I will have to remember. The vegetables provided sweetness, and the potatoes were very tender and velvety by the time they were done and provided a wonderful base for the other flavors. They also absorbed some of the sauce after being plated in the best possible way. Another success!

Canederli al Cumino

March 1, 2010

The next recipe from Lidia B’s collection I choose was Canederli al Cumino: Potato-Celery Root Dumplings, which I made on Saturday 2/27/10. I had actually seen the episode where these were made and this was one of the first recipes I looked for when I picked up the book. It comes from Trentino-Alto Adige in the north of Italy, which I have to say I’d never heard of before watching that particular episode.

I really like celery root and I also like any sort of little fried cake, so this recipe was a natural. It was also a good excuse to pick up that potato ricer I had been meaning to get. Passing the vegetables through this device made for a light and and almost fluffy dough, not at all what I would have expected from root vegetables.

An interesting technique in the recipe called for frying the cakes in a lttle oil until golden, draining and then finishing them in the oven. The result was light and delicious and not the least bit oily. I served them with salsa verde. Salsa verde in Italian cooking is a sauce of green herbs. The version I like best comes from Cook’s Illustrated and is very simple: Stale bread, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, capers, anchovies and lots of parsley whirled together to form a paste. It was the perfect condiment for the dumplings.

Sadly I have no decent pictures to share. This was another great recipe. It took a bit of time to cook, but I do think I will make it again.

Riso alla Lombarda

February 28, 2010

For some time now I have watched Lidia Bastianich cooking on television and really appreciate and admire her approach. Every time I watch, I think “oh that looks so good”, but I had not tried any of her recipes. Even though it is by no means a show dedicated to vegetarian cooking, many of the recipes are vegetable based. Last week I was browsing in a local bookstore and saw her book “Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy” and started flipping through it. I had the idea right there in the store to cook my way through the book and really learn some authentic Italian dishes.

I know, it’s been done. The thing about that whole Julie/Julia Project…it’s a really good idea for learning someone’s approach to a particular type of cuisine. Lidia’s book is arranged by region, so it is also an interesting way to get to know a bit about the different regions of Italy.

Arborio Rice

Arborio Rice

On Thursday 2/25/10 I took the plunge into the Lombardy region with the recipe for Riso alla Lombarda (Rice Lombardy Style). It was a revelation. First, it was wonderful to know that a risotto style rice dish could be made without the constant stirring, allowing the cook to multitask and make the other dishes for the meal. Second, the technique of adding a paste of olive oil, egg yolk and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano which added such wonderful creaminess and color was a surprise—I will file that away for future application.

The Paste

The Magic Paste

Instead of water, I used as my liquid another recent cooking revelation: the Herb and Garlic Broth from the book “Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen”. This flavorful liquid has rapidly become indispensable in my kitchen and I find myself making it nearly every week.

The final result came together in less than 20 minutes and was silky, full of flavor and just plain delicious. I paired it with a crisp green salad, with some thinly sliced carrots onions and celery and garbanzos in a balsamic vinaigrette.

Riso alla Lombarda

Riso alla Lombarda

This was such a wonderful start to this adventure. Not only were the results perfect, I found a new recipe that I know I will use often. Thanks Lidia!

Simplest Dill Pickles

July 5, 2009

To me, July means the opening of pickle making season. The Valley has many farms that produce abundant first-rate pickling cucumbers. My garden produces plenty of dill and garlic. (Hopefully this year, I will have some of my own home grown cukes as well.) Pickles are the natural result of all of these riches.

I have been making a variations on a basic dill cucumber pickle recipe for many years. It all started when we had to go gluten-free in our kitchen. We missed good vinegary pickles, so I resolved to make them myself. Like so many people, I thought this was going to be a hard thing to do. I soon learned that with quality ingredients, it’s pretty easy to make good pickles. You also don’t have to make 3 dozen quarts at once. I have a routine down for 4-6 quarts at a time, which works out well. I do this a few times while cucumbers are locally available, and in this way have a nice supply for the year.Cucumbers and Dill
Pickling is associated with canning. Canning involves processing the caning jars full of pickles or what have you in hot water to kill any microbes that will spoil your food under non-refrigerated storage. Processing the pickles freaks a lot of people out and I was definitely one of them (I was haunted by vague unsettling visions of dangerous pressure cookers.) It can also go badly if you do it too long, resulting in mushy pickles, which are pointless. The good news is, there are many types of pickles you do not have to process, as long as you keep them refrigerated. I do not process these pickles in hot water after I make them. Once the jars are cooled, they go right in the fridge, where they will keep for over a year and still be quite tasty.

I’m not a pickling expert. Quite frankly, my experiments beyond my basic dill pickle recipe have been mediocre at best (and sometimes just awful). However, I have hope that this summer’s experiments will work out better. I have a new guide: The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich. This revised edition came out this past spring. In addition to covering the basics, it is an excellent overview of all sorts of different types of pickles from many cultures. She conveniently includes many recipes on a smaller scale, so you can just make a couple of quarts of something, or even reduce her recipes to make just one quart if you like.

Pickle Ingredients

Pickle Essentials

Simplest Dill Pickles

6 quart sized canning jars (aka Ball jars or Mason jars) with screw on lids, spotlessly clean and scalded (dunked in boiling water)

6 lbs of freshly harvested pickling cucumbers no larger than 2.5 inches, scrubbed clean,(you really do need to look for cucumbers labeled for pickling for the best results)

Ice water to cover the cukes and a container to hold it all ( I use a cooler)

1 garlic head (about 8-12 cloves) peeled and chopped course

12 large dill heads, plus all of the sprigs of dill removed from the stalks, divided into 4 equal portions

6 tbs of pickling spice (1 scant tbs for each jar). If the pickling spice does not include hot peppers, I like to add half a small dried hot pepper (such as arbol) to each jar as well. Sometimes I make my own pickling spice. I can’t give exact measurements, but I can tell you the order by proportion, starting with the largest amount: yellow mustard seed, dill seed, whole coriander,  whole peppercorns, celery seed, dried hot pepper, whole allspice, whole cloves, whole cinnamon stick (cut in chunks).

3 1/2 cups of cider vinegar (Get the best quality that you can find — it makes a difference whether you use the good stuff instead of the generic. Some orchards that make apple cider also make excellent cider vinegar. Lately, I like the vinegar made by Dwight Miller Orchards, just up the road in Vermont.)

6 cups of water–filtered is best

1/2 cup pickling salt (Picking salt is a finely granulated plain salt that has none of the added iodine or stabilizers that table salt has. These additives will form a whitish sediment in your pickles that won’t spoil them, but will look funky. )

Approximately 24 hours before you want to make your pickles, slice about 1/16 inch off the ends of each cuke and put in ice water. Add ice as needed during the 24 hours to keep cold. If you use a cooler, you’ll probably only have to add it once. This step really is the secret to crispy, full flavored pickles, don’t skip it. I am sure there is some scientific explanation for this.

Bring vinegar, water and salt to a boil, stir to make sure salt is dissolved. Keep warm over med heat, covered. While it’s boiling, put one dill head, dill sprigs portion, garlic portion and spice portion in each jar. Then you can slice your cukes into spears or halves as you like.  Pack cucumber vertically in each jar, as many as will fit in one layer. Don’t be afraid to squeeze them in, they will shrink a bit as they sit in the brine. Top with another dill head.

Ready for the brine

Ready for the brine

I like to put the jars on a cooling rack, because they do get hot when you add the brine. Ladle the hot brine into each jar to cover the contents, but only as far as the bottom of the ring on top of the jar.

Practically Pickles Already

Practically Pickles Already

Top with screw on lids and let cool for about 10 minutes. I suggest writing the date on top with a sharpie, plus anything else you want to remember about the batch.  Allow to cool completely before refrigerating. Wait at least 2 weeks before eating for best flavor. The flavor gets better with time.

Dated and ready for the fridge

Dated and ready for the fridge

June and early July mean harvesting lots of lettuce and spicy greens from the garden. I do make a lot of simple green salads with meals. However, I really enjoy having garden fresh greens to use in one of my favorite meal concepts “the Big Salad.” I put together mixes of tofu or tempeh, cheese, cooked veggies, raw veggies, beans, grains and herbs with the greens and suitable dressing for a complete and delicious meal. The trick is not to use too many things, or else the greens get lost. You also want to choose things that will harmonize. For example, vegetables cooked in with Asian style seasonings (soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil) might not go so well with balsamic vinaigrette and sun dried tomatoes. Within these basic guidelines, anything goes!

Spicy Greens

Spicy Greens

I first discovered the Big Salad concept about 15 years ago in the cookbook that really got me going on creative vegetarian cooking “The American Vegetarian” by Marylin Diamond. I’ve been playing around with it ever since. In the winter, when salad greens are mediocre, it helps enhance that dose of fresh greens that we need. In the spring and early summer when the greens are great, it makes for a delicious meal. I look forward to the “salad days” all year.

Lately, I’ve been inspired anew by the eating at the Candle Cafe and by their cookbook. Their fabulous salads and their recipes reminded me of a technique I had sort of forgotten about: marinating tofu and tempeh. Tempeh and tofu treated this way make a great component to a big salad.

Here is one flavorful way that I like to prepare tempeh to use in these salads.

Tempeh for a Big Salad

This is more than you need for a big salad for two, but it is so good as leftovers it is worth it to make extra.

2 8 oz packages of tempeh

1/2 cup of soy sauce, tamari or bragg’s liquid aminos

2/3 cup of apple juice

1/4 cup of agave syrup, or honey or other sweetner

4 tbs of chopped garlic

3 tbs of grated ginger

1 tsp dried chile flakes

fresh ground pepper to taste

Grated Ginger

Grated Ginger

Combine all of the ingredients except the tempeh in a shallow baking dish or other container. This is your marinade. Cut each package of tempeh into 4 equal pieces and place into the marinade.

You can now do a couple of different things with this. Both methods make for flavorful tempeh.

A. If you made this in a baking dish, you can immediately put the whole thing into a 350 degree oven and bake for one hour, cool slightly and slice for salad.

B. Leave the tempeh in it’s marinade for a couple of hours or overnight. You can then bake the whole thing as above. You can also take the tempeh out of it’s marinade, slice it and saute until slightly browned.

Marinating Tempeh

Marinating Tempeh

The big salad pictorial continues here.

One of the things I love best about having a garden is having a seemingly endless supply of top quality fresh herbs to cook with. I do try growing them inside in the winter, and I certainly break down and buy them from time to time when they aren’t garden fresh (because the inside growing never works for long). Nothing can replace freshly cut herbs that have been happily growing outside with plenty of fresh air and sunshine. They just taste amazing.

Sage (Salvia officinalis Icterina - Gold Variegated)

Sage (Salvia officinalis 'Icterina' - Gold Variegated)

So when I was thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, I took a good look at my herb patch and decided to harvest sage, thyme, oregano and a lot of garlic chives (aka garlic grass, Chinese chives, ku chai). I already had a decent selection of veggies in my fridge, and plenty of grains and beans in my pantry.

At home I looked through my various cook books and was inspired by various recipes for ratatouille, stewed veggies and the like. I decided to do my own version with my fresh herbs and some of the veggies. I decided to skip the tomato base common to these recipes. Since I had some good fresh tomatoes on hand (thanks to those freaking hydroponic visionaries up there in East Thetford, VT that have somehow managed to bring us good tomatoes at the end of May in western Mass), I thought I’d just chop them up and serve them along side, rather than loose their good flavor and texture by cooking them. I settled on quinoa as my grain of choice. We needed the protein for this meal, and I knew I could start cooking it when the veggie dish was halfway done. I decided to mix in garbanzos and garlic chives with the cooked quinoa to make something of a pilaf.

You could vary this every which way depending on what you have on hand. I noted what I did so I could write about it here. Like the many recipes I looked at this afternoon, I hope that this will provide inspiration.

Roasted Veggies with Fresh Herbs

Preheat oven to 400 (F).

2 med zucchini, chopped coarse (aprox 2 cups)

2 small (italian) eggplant, chopped coarse (aprox 2 cups)

1/2 a med cauliflower, chopped into florets (aprox 2 cups)

1 large red onion, halved and sliced into crescents (aprox 1 1/2 cups)

1 head of garlic, broken into cloves, peeled, larger cloves split in half

Fresh herbs of your choosing

Today, I used the following:

3 tbs of minced fresh oregano

2 tbs of thyme leaves (I just stripe ’em off the stems, I don’t bother to mince them)

2 tbs of sage leaves (about 5 large) cut into thin ribbons

1 tiny sprig of rosemary ( an inch long)

copious amounts of good olive oil (maybe 1/4 cup?)

lots of kosher salt and fresh ground pepper–enough to coat everything

1 large tomato, diced (optional)

grated parmesan reginato to taste

Oregano,Sage, Thyme stems

Oregano,Sage, Thyme stems

Put all of the cut vegetables, garlic and herbs in a baking dish deep enough to hold it all, preferably one with a lid. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, toss to coat. Feel free to add more oil, salt and pepper if you think it is needed.

Seasoned and oiled and ready for the oven

Seasoned and oiled and ready for the oven

Cover and bake for about 30 minutes and stir. (Start cooking the quinoa if you’re making it, after stirring the veggies.) Cover and bake for another 30 minutes or so until veggies are very tender.

Taste, and add more salt and pepper if you like. Top with tomatoes and parmesan (and more olive oil if you want) and serve, maybe with the quinoa dish that follows or with some good bread.

Quinoa, Garbanzos and Garlic Chives

1 1/2 cups of quinoa

2 tsp of olive oil

2 1/2 cups of liquid to cook the quinoa (water, stock, wine, what-have-you)

1 15 oz can of garbanzo beans, drained

minced garlic chives to taste, today I had about 1/3 cup (regular chives, scallions or shallots would work fine)

salt and pepper to taste

Garlic Chives

Garlic Chives

Rinse the quinoa in a strainer (it tends to be bitter if you don’t). Drain well.

Heat olive oil over med-high heat in a medium sauce pan. Add the drained quinoa and toss to coat with oil. Cook, stirring frequently until the grains start to toast and smell nutty, about 5 minutes. Add the cooking liquid and stir. Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium. Simmer, uncovered, until all liquid is absorbed, about 15-20 minutes. Fluff with a fork and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Stir in the drained garbanzos and chives. Taste, add salt and pepper if you need it, and serve.



Rhubarb, straight from the garden

Rhubarb, straight from the garden

Rhubarb is another early treat from the garden that I love for its strong acidic taste. I never tasted it until I was an adult and a neighbor gave me some of their surplus. Not knowing what to do with it, I looked through my cookbooks and came up with a recipe for rhubarb crisp. It became an instant classic in our kitchen.

Oddly enough, I have not yet planted it in my garden. Somehow, through the generosity of other gardeners, I always have enough, and I forget to get crowns for planting in early spring. Maybe next year.

At this point, I can pull this dish together without looking at a cookbook and so I just eyeball everything. I’ve done my best on the measurements.

Rhubarb Crisp

4 cups or so of sliced rhubarb

1 tbs of tapico flour or cornstarch

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 to 1 1/2 cups of sweetener ( I like a combo of rice syrup and agave or honey)

1 cup of gluten free flour mix

3/4 cup of date sugar

1/8 tsp of salt

3/4 cup of butter, cold, and cut into 10 pieces

3/4 cup crushed corn flakes, fruit juice sweetened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

When you are preparing the rhubarb, keep in mind that many of the stalks have a skin that is rather fibrous and is best removed, similar to the way you remove the strings from a celery stalk by pulling them away with the edge of your knife. If you have very slender stalks it may not be necessary, but the very large stalks from mature plants seem to always have it.

Prepping the rhubarb

Prepping the rhubarb

Place the sliced rhubarb in a 9×13 glass baking dish or pan of your choice. Sprinkle with the tapioca flour and toss to coat. Sprinkle with cinnamon and the sweetener and toss again to coat.

Sweetened Rhubarb

Sweetened Rhubarb

Place the flour, date sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a few times to mix. Add the butter, and pulse until the butter in mixed into small pieces. Add the crushed corn flakes and pulse a few times to combine. (If you don’t have a food processor, you can mix the flour and sugar together in a bowl and cut in the butter. Then stir in the cereal.) Spread this topping over the rhubarb.

Ready for the oven

Ready for the oven

Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes (check after 30 minutes). The top should be browned and the filling bubbly.