Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Are you a worm expert?

It's funny, I've composted at home for a handful of years now, and tried my hand at worm composting at least twice, with mixed success. But to the 1st grade FoodPrints class I was assisting with at SWS this morning, I seemed to be one of the authorities in the room.

"Are you a worm expert?" young Isabelle asked me as she crumbled coconut coir into our homemade, two-level bin. I tore up some more paper bag scraps as I considered this new title.

"Well, I know that worms breathe through their skin," exclaimed her table mate, Evan, "so that makes me kind of an expert!" He had a point.

I wonder what makes someone an expert at anything, really. I mean, I am pretty darn good at changing flat tires. And improvising ways to lash an inordinate amount of stuff to my bicycle. I can prepare a meal out of seemingly incompatible ingredients -- take my chicken, chickpea, peanut, and coconut milk stew I tossed together last week for some personal chef clients: delish!

I suppose by the time I got through working with the fourth group this morning, I was a worm expert. I could talk about slimy skin and a lack of teeth and not letting the bedding get too wet with the best red wiggler authorities out there. Especially if my colleagues are 6 years old.

I can't wait to start a bin with 1st graders at Tyler Elementary in a couple of weeks. Viva la vermiculture!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Had your fill of phyllo?

I have a funny feeling that phyllo dough will play a role in my afterlife somehow: if I end up in heaven, I'll be eating it; if I end up in hell, I'll be cooking with it....

This weekend marked my dad's 80th birthday. (Before you say it, I know he doesn't look anywhere close to 80. But it's true.) The past few days have mainly been spent cooking, eating, drinking, and laughing as a result. As it was a significant milestone --one only turns 40 twice, after all -- I wanted to be sure the food I was preparing was of a significant caliber and volume. So I broke out the recipe from my friend Jenn up in Brooklyn, memories of the flaky cheesy goodness she made for us for dinner one night when I was visiting this summer still lingering in my memory. Doesn't that just look delicious? And in this shot it hadn't even been popped into the oven yet to become crispy, creamy perfection!

Now, I recall phyllo being a bit of a challenge to work with, back when I was making baklava in Mexico. No need to get into the soggy and overly sweet disaster that was that little experiment. Let us just say that I knew not to over-butter each sheet this time.

I honestly think phyllo dough is God's little joke on food lovers. It is so tantalizingly delicious, and so tempting to think that this time one knows what one is doing, and will not make the same mistakes that resulted in the last attempt's imperfections. Keep the dough cool. Keep it moist. Not too moist. Work quickly.... Anyway, despite my best efforts, the brand new, cool but not too cool, barely moistened with a kitchen towel, paper-thin sheets of heaven fractured as soon as I attempted to unroll them. Armed with a glass of wine and no shortage of muttering, I forged ahead, patching the strips together with (you guessed it) plenty of butter. And you know what, it came out just fine. Especially if you pre-slice it before baking.

Adapted from Jenn's meticulous following of the spinach pie recipe in Amy Sedaris' hilarious cookbook, "I Like You." The changes are mostly due to my failure to read the original directions closely enough, but the result was still delicious.


  • 5 eggs
  • 1 1/2 to 2 lbs cooked spinach, excess moisture pressed out by smooshing in a colander
  • 8 oz neufchatel or cream cheese
  • 6 oz feta cheese, crumbled
  • 8 oz small curd cottage cheese
  • 2 bunches scallions, chopped
  • 1 small bunch dill, chopped (comes to 2-3 TBSP)
  • 1 stick (8 TBSP) of butter, melted
  • 1/2 box (8 oz) phyllo pastry


  1. In a large bowl, beat the eggs until fluffy, then add everything else except phyllo and butter. (You can make this filling ahead of time and store for an hour or a day.)
  2. Using a pastry brush, butter a 9" x 13" baking dish.
  3. Line the bottom with one sheet of phyllo (or a bunch of individual strips of it if your day is looking like a phyllo-hell day, but don't worry, it will still work out!). Continue layering -- phyllo, then butter -- until you use about half of the phyllo dough.
  4. Add spinach filling and spread evenly.
  5. Place the remaining phyllo on top, again buttering between each layer.
  6. Pre-cut the spanikopita, cover with foil, and place in the freezer for about an hour.
  7. Preheat oven to 350F.
  8. Remove foil, baptize the top of the spanikopita with a little water, and bake until brown and crispy (45 minutes to 1 hour). If the top layer of phyllo starts to get too brown, cover with foil.
  9. Enjoy!

p.s.- Dad, in case you are inspired to try your own masterful hand at this recipe , have at it. I left some extra spinach and the other half of the box of phyllo in your freezer. I recommend at least one glass of wine to steady the nerves while working with it. Happy birthday!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

May you have a thousand flats

I said a lot less polite things under my breath the entire bike ride home from school today, my semi-detached rear fender rattling and squealing as I rode with an overloaded pannier filled with cooking supplies for tomorrow's class lashed to Ollie's front rack.

Why? you ask.

Because some... jerk... decided to take my rear bike rack for himself. And took bolt cutters to my fender in the process. In the middle of the day, on a somewhat busy street corner near the Waterfront metro station, from a bicycle -- with both wheels locked, thank god -- right in front of an elementary school. Sure, it's a $30 part, but I feel violated. I mean, who walks around with BOLT CUTTERS that isn't up to something shifty. (I guess nobody.) And I won't have a chance to get to a bike shop to buy another rack for a couple of days due to a packed teaching schedule, so I'll be hauling stuff around in a backpack for the next little while. (Riding home with loaded front panniers was dicey at best. I'm not going to try it during rush hour.)

Some people clearly were unloved as children. I mean, seriously, a rear bike rack -- who does that??

I guess I should be glad that this mouth-breather didn't try to take my front rack as well or I'd have been really up a creek trying to get stuff home. My landlady pointed out that they didn't steal my seat or cut the bike chain. That's something, I guess. I checked the brakes and they seem intact, if in need of adjustment, and they didn't steal the two spare spokes on Ollie or the pedals. That's something. And that something is a low bar.

Bike vandals, I wish the wind in your face as you ride and a thousand flat tires.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I am a professional

But, as I tell my students, everyone messes things up sometimes, too. Life is a learning experience.

I've been canning for about four years now, but until yesterday, I'd never broken a jar. I am, as you might guess from my obsession with equipment sterilization, a bit of a stickler about technique. And yet somehow, I managed yesterday to break not one, not two, not even THREE jars while canning. Four jars. Now in pieces in the recycling bin. Embarrassing, but true. Three perfect pint jars and one beautiful quart of tomatoes exploded over the course of one solo canning session as I rushed to get things wrapped up before heading to a Nats game. I'd poked around the jars with a chopstick before sealing them to clear out any potentially explosive air bubbles. Apparently not well enough.

Some days, you just need to throw in the towel. Or rather, you mop your brow with a kitchen towel and fish out the tender, floating tomato bits in the canning pot and make tomato sauce (with lots of red wine...in the sauce, and also for the person making the sauce) and try again.

Maybe, I thought, it was the equipment. Or maybe, I reconsidered, as the equipment has not changed much since last time I canned tomatoes, my canning mojo was just off. Maybe I needed help.

And help I had. Today, Kenton came over this afternoon. After treating me to a lovely brunch, he assisted me in disposing of the 5 FLATS OF AMAZING HEIRLOOM TOMATOES I picked up from McLeaf's Orchard. A few caprese salads eaten, a few pounds given to my landlady (share the wealth, right?), 24 pint jars of tomatoes cooling, and with 6 jars of (non-explosion-induced) savory tomato sauce processing right now, we're done. The glass of wine tonight was just for good measure. After all, I am a professional.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The cycle of stuff

A few months ago, my landlady and I determined that my homemade Oscar the Grouch composter was too small to accommodate the quantity of food scraps the two of us were producing. It was a sad day. I loved that can. Remember when we first started composting?

Through the winter months as the lid was periodically in danger of popping off due to overstuffing, we tried everything we could think of: adding more browns, adding outdoor worms... In the end, I agreed that we needed a bigger can. (We were certainly not going to cook less, if that's what you were going to ask.) Oscar was retired on a sunny afternoon in April. He sat there out in the backyard, rinsed out and forlorn for months, casting langorous looks at our super-sized new compost bin as his own fate hung in the balance.

Then a couple of weeks ago, while scarfing down some delicious grilled food at their place, my friends Katie and Joey mentioned that they wanted to start composting at their home in Fort Totten. They had a huge yard, and more than enough food scraps and leaves to get started, they insisted, but they needed something rodent-proof. Within days, Oscar was installed in his new digs.

"Here are some pictures of your can's new home," Katie wrote, "and Eliza participating. Tried to get her to help me collect leaves. She mostly tried to eat them, but then liked dropping them in the can. Fun teaching moment -- thank you!"

No, Katie, thank YOU for giving Oscar a second life. Happy composting!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Parks and Rec

Many thanks to my friend Josh, who invited me to teach a Garden Cooking class this evening at the Deanwood Rec Center. It was a lot of fun, and part of DPR's Community Garden program: a whole season of free classes on everything from building compost bins to designing a forest garden to beekeeping to inoculating mushroom logs. My assignment was to teach folks tasty and inexpensive ways to cook the bounty of produce one can grow in a DC-area home or community garden plot (or at least find at local farmers' markets -- we're no purists).

We started out with about 5 participants, but after I finished blah-blahing and we got to cooking, the numbers steadily jumped to about 15 people. It was my favorite kind of class: low-key with a mix of ages and experience levels, but with enthusiasm across the board. After a round of hand washing, I introduced the recipes, then let folks self-select which group they'd like to work in (oh, what a change from teaching a classful of 5th-graders).

The crowd favorite may have been my favorite massaged kale salad, with well-beaten purple kale and double the usual goat cheese. That kale was massaged to within an inch of its (delicious) life by a very enthusiastic masseuse:

No, maybe the favorite was the basil-chard-pumpkin-seed pesto pasta salad, in which some attendees tried sauteed chard stems for the first time (and loved them, thank you very much):

Then again, one of the aspiring young chefs told me on her way out that she was definitely going to make the peach-tomato-black-bean salsa at home. I mean, who can resist late-summer peaches?

For your cooking pleasure, I offer the latter, one of my newest favorite recipes, here....

Tomato, Peach, and Black Bean Salsa


  • 1-2 cups cooked black beans (see below)
  • 1 small red onion, diced small 
  • 2-3 tomatoes(of any color and shape), diced small 
  • 2 peaches, cored and diced small
  • ½ small chili pepper, seeded and minced
  • Handful of herbs (mint, cilantro, and/or parsley), chopped
  • ½-1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • Juice from 1 lime (optional)
  • Pinch of salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and toss thoroughly.

VARIATION: Leave out the beans and plop spoonfuls of this on slices of baguette for a fresh bruschetta!

TIP: How To Cook Dried Black Beans (courtesy of www.thekitchencaravan.com)
  1. Take 1 cup dried beans, place in a bowl, and cover with about double their amount in water. Soak for at least 4 hours or overnight.
  2. Drain the beans of their soaking liquid and transfer to a pot. Cover again with at least 2-4 inches of water and bring to a boil.
  3. Turn the heat down and simmer covered on very low heat until the beans are cooked through and soft (about 1 hour).
  4. You can add cumin, ginger, or garlic to the cooking liquid to add flavor. Ginger and cumin both help with the digestibility of the beans, reducing gas.

Oh, heck, they were all delicious. And luckily I didn't need to schlep any leftovers back home. Now THAT is the sign of a successful class.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Chocolate sweet potato truffles

One of my favorite pastimes these days is taking on too many things at one time. Take today, for instance....

Things started bright and earlier than usual with a 5th grade team meeting across town, followed by an impromptu curriculum planning meeting. By 10am, it was time to continue on to check on the garden at Tyler after the long, rainy weekend, then head to Whole Foods to shop for the cheffing gig I would spend the rest of today cooking for...sorry, I couldn't end that sentence with a preposition. In the midst of all this, I've been trying to keep up with the women's quarterfinals and men's round-of-sixteen of the U.S. Open. It's no surprise that this week's cheffing dessert wound up being something quick, easy, and shaped like a tennis ball....

Chocolate Sweet Potato Truffles
Recipe adapted from http://www.livehealtheasy.com.

1 large sweet potato
2 TBSP honey
2 TBSP coconut oil
½ cup almond flour
¾ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
for dusting: ½ cup or so of shredded coconut, ground nuts, and/or cocoa powder

  1. Wrap sweet potato in foil and bake at 400F til soft (I did about 45 mins, then let it cool in the foil, where it continued to steam and loosen the skin for easy peeling).
  2. Peel cooled sweet potato, then mash with coconut oil and honey.
  3. Stir in almond flour, cocoa powder and mix well.
  4. Refrigerate until dough is a little more of a playdough consistency – at least 30 minutes.
  5. Put your “dusting” ingredient(s) in a small bowl.
  6. Use a large spoon – I used a Tablespoon – to coop out sweet potato mixture and use your fingers to gently roll your chocolatey blob around in the dusting bowl until it forms a ball-like shape.
  7. Place rolled truffles on a plate or tray lined with waxed paper and slide them into the fridge for at least 1 hour to set (or into the freezer for 20 minutes if you happen to be a poor manager of time while as you watch the U.S. Open while trying to keep up with an ambitious personal cheffing schedule…).
  8. Enjoy!

Did I mention these are gluten-free? Yep, that means no back pain, no matter how many I eat. Luckily this batch should come out to at least a dozen or so....