Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hive beetles, beware

So I may mutter unkind words as I swerve around cars double parked in the Q Street bike lane -- ahem, bike lane, not parking spot! And I have been known to let certain gentleman callers know about my propensity for headbutting lest they get any funny ideas about putting a hand somewhere inappropriate on a first date. But overall, I'm a lover, not a hater. I love people, and plants, and animals. Even bugs, so long as they are not cockroaches. (Ick.) And yet there are some critters that have been getting a little too comfy in the beehives I've been helping to tend this year.... I'll give you a hint: it's not the bees that have gotten into my bonnet.

My beekeeping mentor, Kevin, suggested this past fall that we keep an eye on the hive beetle numbers, and squish any of these pernicious pests that we came across while inspecting hives. We also periodically refilled the hive beetle traps with baby oil. (Weird, right? But it works. Drowning in baby oil, what a way to go.) The beetle numbers dropped somewhat, but after finding one hive significantly weakened this spring, Kevin decided we needed to take more aggressive steps. Enter nematodes -- my kindergarten students would be SO excited, but these are different than the nematodes we found in class -- and diatomaceous earth.

I am learning so much about organic pest management this year, I tell you. A key piece of managing pests is understanding their life cycle. (Wow, that sounded very professional. Don't be fooled: I'm still a total novice at this.) Anyway, I learned from Kevin that hive beetle pupae -- the stage after those little jerks hatch -- need soil to burrow into so they can grow into adults, and messing with the soil underneath the hive, where pupae drop down after feasting on honey and bee brood, is the best place to take them out of commission. First, we cleared all debris from around the hives. Then we sloshed a solution with millions of microscopic assassins -- yep, the beneficial nematodes -- all around the base of the hives. Any hive beetle pupae foolish enough to drop down out of THESE hives would die a horrible death. (I won't describe it here in great detail lest I give my readers nightmares, but the short version is that the nematodes enter the pupae, release toxic bacteria, and the pupae turn to goo inside of about 48 hours, at which point the nematodes eat the goo and lay eggs in the corpse. Okay, that was maybe a little detailed. Sorry. Read the comics or something before bed tonight.)

Of course, in order to even get to the soil, the loathsome beetle pupae need to make it past the diatumaceous earth we scattered around the hive. What's that? You haven't ever heard of diatumaceous earth? Basically, it's ground up, fossilized phytoplankton. But the important thing to know about it is that, according to one fairly graphic source I discovered, "When sprinkled on a bug that has an exoskeleton" -- or, like the hive beetle pupae, without a skeleton -- "it compromises their waxy coating so that their innards into teeny tiny bug jerky." Take THAT, hive beetles. And if you make it through, well, we've got some nematodes dying to meet you....


And you thought The Sopranos was violent? Try beekeeping.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Chocolate Rabbit Torte

I came home from work the a few days ago to find a little easter treat from my landlady, left for me on the steps up to my apartment:


One is never too old to enjoy a chocolate bunny and jelly beans. And tulips -- I adore tulips. (I do think I'm a little old for easter egg hunts, so I'm glad mom hasn't planned one for this year. My brother and I almost injured ourselves and each other the time she organized one in the back yard a few years ago....)

As I explained to a friend recently, Easter is everything I love about Thanksgiving, but with better weather and no football. It just might be the perfect holiday. Now, home from the annual easter festivities, I have a 7oz bunny to attend to. In what delectable form will he be eaten? I'm thinking a variation on the classic chocolate torte... nibbled on with a bottle of the recently ready coffee bourbon porter homebrew.

Chocolate Rabbit Torte

Ingredients

  • 7 oz milk or dark chocolate rabbit -- I'd break it into pieces
  • 12 TBSP butter, cut into pieces
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • a splash of vanilla
  • 5 large farm fresh eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Brush an 8 or 9-inch cake pan with butter and dust with flour. Alternately, you can use parchment paper in place of butter/flour coating.

Melt chocolate and butter in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently.

Remove from heat and whisk in cocoa powder and vanilla.

Let cool for about 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs and sugar together until thick (6 minutes or so) with an electric mixer.

Gently fold chocolate mixture into the egg mixture until just mixed (uniform color).

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 40-45 minutes.

Cool in pan, run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen if needed, and then turn out on a wire rack or plate to slice.

Now, which grown up kids-at-heart can I invite over for dessert?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

It's all (deliciously) Greek to me

Many years ago, when working downtown for a global health nonprofit, my friend Jeanne came into the office one afternoon with the most divine smelling takeout container ever. Rich, lemony, chicken aromas wafted through the office as my colleague strolled past my desk with her pint of soup from the Greek deli around the corner.

This was my first encounter with avgolemono soup, and it was love at first scent. I believe this was in 2006. I've been in love with this soup for ten years. And just tonight, I perfected making it.

Oh, there were some bumps along the way. Nothing ever ended up being completely inedible, mind you, just odd textural disasters that I did not foist on dining companions. I ate lots of that over the years. But tonight's velvety, lemony victory was pure bliss. And a good thing, too: what's this freezing rain coming down on the first day of spring? Did Mother Nature not get the memo?

I think the secret to tonight's gustatory awesomeness was the homemade chicken broth (where I usually used delicious but definitely different veggie stock). And the fact that I kept the heat low enough while cooking was key for tempering the egg yolks. Upon reflection, I suspect that the latter is where I strayed during earlier batches. Live and learn.

Right. You want the recipe, eh? Well, here you go:

Easy Avgolemono Soup for Two
(or for one, with leftovers)

Ingredients

  • 1 TBSP butter + a good glug of olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 2 handfuls cooked brown rice
  • 1-2 handfuls shredded, cooked chicken (optional - I had some left from making stock)
  • 1 quart or more of good chicken stock, warmed
  • 2-3 cups freshly chopped spinach
  • Juice from 2 lemons
  • 2 egg yolks
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Saute the onion in butter/olive oil until soft.

Toss in the garlic, rice, and chicken bits and stir well.

Add the chicken stock, spinach, and lemon juice, and simmer over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. (Don't bring it anywhere close to a boil! This is where I went amiss...repeatedly... usually when I was starving and trying to make this soup quickly and thus ended up with lemony eggdrop soup.)

In a small, heat-proof container, beat egg yolks. While whisking, slowly dribble about 1/4 cup of the warm soup broth into the yolks. Then slowly whisk in another 1/4 cup. And another. Now you're ready to slowly whisk the tempered egg/broth mixture back into the main soup pot. So whisk it, carefully, and over low heat.

Taste, then add salt and pepper as needed.

Voila! Your velvety, lemony, nourishing pot of deliciousness is ready for immediate consumption in less than 20 minutes from start to finish.

Now I just need to find a charming, single Greek man who can appreciate my cooking skills.... Know anyone?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Stop stealing my stuff!

I'm starting to lose my sense of humor here. Who are these people who never learned that it's wrong to take other people's things?

I finally bought a decent bike light about two months ago. Within a month: stolen... when Ollie was locked up right next to the farmers' market!

So I bought another of the same light. Within a month: stolen. When locked to a tree in the courtyard at one of my schools!! (And a week later, both my bungee cord and my extra bike lock cable were stolen...while I was at the farmers' market again!! Now, that's just rude.)

I went without a front light for about a week, in a silent protest that really only seemed to make me more unsafe, until I relented and bought -- you guessed it -- that same bike light a third time. And now I take it off every single time I am not on the bike. Even when I lock Ollie up to go into my apartment for 10 minutes between errands. You can't be too careful in this city full of kleptos....

Monday, March 7, 2016

Downright fun

It's been too long since I've been part of an elaborate dinner gathering. (Oh, don't worry, I've still been eating well, between lots of cooking at home and with kids in schools, and out and about on dates.) Last night, in celebration of the series finale of Downton Abbey, my landlady threw a wonderful dinner. It all started with me needing an excuse to make some cocktails with the starfruit I'd pickled....

What's that? You're surprised that I enjoy the at times staid, at other times melodramatic PBS drama? I was an English teacher for a time, and retain a soft spot for all things Victorian/turn-of-the-century. No, it has not led me to catch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in the theaters...but mostly because the trailers looked terrible. (The book was actually pretty good.) But I digress.

Last night's dinner was superb. Our neighbor Michele made these adorable little cucumber finger sandwiches. Sarah assembled a big green salad. I boiled up some farmers' market potatoes and parsnips, which were later tossed with butter and fresh parsley. I was also in charge of the asparagus. Kate brought some great red wines. But the stars of the show were Jacky's from-scratch Beef Wellington -- finally, a way that I can enjoy pâté! -- and Kathryn's stunning Charlotte Russe for dessert.


Here's Jacky carving the Wellington. I should have taken more pictures. I blame the good company and irresistible food and drink.

We sipped on limoncello tonics with pickled starfruit and nibbled on some nice cheeses as the final bits of our main meal came together. This was the moment when Kathryn helped me save the hollandaise from the brink of disaster. Should you find yourself in a similar state of panic -- the sauce was so smooth and velvety one minute, then a separated puddle of butter moments later -- I offer Kathryn's brilliant solution: rewarm the sauce over the lowest heat setting, and whisk in a touch of dijon mustard and a few spoonfuls of cold water until the velvet texture of the sauce returns. Voila!

Because I can't seem to resist sharing recipes these days, here's the base recipe for the hollandaise, based on Julia Child's. With Easter -- and asparagus season -- just a few weeks off, you'll want to keep it handy.

Hollandaise Sauce

Ingredients
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon cold water
Juice from 1 lemon (or just 1/2 lemon if you're not a lemon fiend like I am)
1 1/2 sticks of butter at room temperature, cut into Tablespoons
salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

Whisk the yolks, water, and lemon juice in the saucepan for a few moments, until thick and pale (this prepares them for what is to come).

Set the pan over moderately low heat and continue to whisk at reasonable speed, reaching all over the bottom and insides of the pan, where the eggs tend to overcook.

(In retrospect, I bet this would work really well with a double boiler. Note to self....)

As they cook, the eggs will become frothy and increase in volume, and then thicken. When you can see the pan bottom through the streaks of the whisk and the eggs are thick and smooth, remove from the heat if things start looking funny.

By spoonfuls, add the soft butter, whisking constantly to incorporate each addition. As the emulsion forms, continue whisking in spoonfuls of butter until fully absorbed.

Season lightly with salt, pepper, and a dash of cayenne pepper if you're feeling spunky, whisking everything together well.

Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding droplets of lemon juice if needed. Serve.

(If your sauce starts to fall apart, see Kathryn's tip above.)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Ready to ride


Yeah, I KNOW this is not the way I'm supposed to mount a child seat onto a bicycle. Geez! Obviously it is meant to not be lashed on with bungee cords. And be right side up.

For heaven's sake, I was just picking it up this afternoon in Columbia Heights so my brother and his wife, who found it on Craigslist, can take the world's cutest niece out for rides this spring. (Is it spring yet?? Sure felt like it last weekend.)

Ah, Elena. Look, she's all hydrated and ready to go:


We've got a child bike seat. Now all we need is a nice afternoon....

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Pierogi in the sky


I grew up, like many American kids of the 80s, on boiled Mrs. T's potato and cheese pierogis. I have fond memories of tossing boxes from the frozen food aisle into the grocery cart in middle school. And I liked them. Then, a couple of months ago, during our annual Slow Food DC board holiday dinner at Boundary Road, my tastebuds were rocked by the real thing. (Or at least what I imagine being the real thing, having not ventured to Poland. Yet.) Light, buttery, rich pierogis that melt in your mouth. Oh god, they were good. I've been obsessed with the idea of making them ever since.

I'd considered making some for my birthday dinner in late December, but then got distracted preparing tajines and curries and ran out of time. I'd contemplated making them with more daring gentlemen sous chefs (I mean, er, dates) in January and February, but, well, it seemed extreme for someone who was just starting to know me to be subjected to 3+ hours of solid cooking and my friendly but firm reminders of "Don't overknead the dough!" So when my dear and daring foodie friend Kathryn suggested we get together to cook yesterday, I knew exactly what we were going to make.

Initially we were going to simply have different fillings, but after some online research we couldn't decide which dough recipe to try... so of course we decided on 3 different doughs, each with a different filling. (Don't you lecture me about the Scientific Method! I know!!) We figured that if one of them resulted in total, inedible disaster, at least one of the others would turn out, right? And if all of them failed, well, we still had a nice growler of Hellbender scotch ale and things to nibble on.

We started with what appeared to be the simplest dough, and the most traditional filling:


As the dough rested, I riced some of our boiled potatoes before stirring in some mashed celeriac and sauteed cabbage, along with the not-at-all-Polish addition of garlic for the second filling. Then it was time to boil some sweet potatoes to mash, before stirring in freshly grated nutmeg and slices of quick-seared guanciale for our third filling:


Oh, the guanciale? Don't worry, there is going to be a whole post soon about this much-anticipated first attempt at curing meat sourced from Farmer Bev over at Eco-Friendly Foods. For now, I hope you're content with knowing that the public debut of the cured pork face was delicious and that nobody got food poisoning. Meanwhile, here's Kathryn working her magic on doughs 2 and 3:


In the blink of three hours, we were ready to start cooking our homemade pierogis!


Luckily Kathryn's husband showed up just in time to help finish filling the final dozen pierogis, and taste test our final product, washed down with ample ale. (Yes, yes, I know, it would have been more authentic to sip on potato vodka, but I'm using all of mine in the current batch of limoncello.)


Delicious. Thanks, Kathryn and Chris, for participating in this cooking adventure! And for those of you who want to try making your own, I recommend dough #1 or 2 from this site, and fill them with whatever your heart desires. (Mine desires more guanciale.) Don't worry, mom and dad, I saved a few of each in the freezer for the next time I see you. :)