Monthly Archives: December 2010

DIY Compost Bin for City Folk with a Little Yard Space

If you’re not already a card carrying green freak environmentalist, start off the new year upping your green street cred by creating a compost bin.  If you live in cold climates, starting this in the winter may be a poor idea that does not soon yield results.  I recommend in such a case to wait until spring or recognize that winter composting for the novice will hold extra special challenges, like freezing food scraps suspended in dirt rather than a bin full of hot organic decomposing materials that smell of sweet earth.

In the country, making a compost bin is a non-issue.  An outside bin isn’t even necessary most of the time as there is enough space to create a general compost pile or compost fenced in area.  I live in the city and have a “yard” that consists of a four foot by five foot patch of dirt underneath a fire escape.  If I’m going to compost I need a bin impervious to rats, opossums, skunks, raccoons, and the other critters of my alleyway.

The town of Brookline offers the EarthMachine Composter for $40 which is about $30 more than I’d hope to invest in starting my own compost bin. I also looked into vermicomposting, but lack the dedication to ensure I properly feed and care for my worms.  My three plants are lucky they’re still alive; I don’t want to be responsible for the lives of hundreds of worms as well.

A little internet searching confirmed that I could make an effective bin out of a regular trash barrel by drilling it full of holes and using bungee cords to keep out the raccoons.  The holes allow for air to circulate.  The Happy Housewife blog has great step by step pictures.

The most important thing about a compost bin is providing a hospitable environment so the good organisms (worms and certain microbes) move in while the “bad” (like mice and maggots) stay out. There are whole websites dedicated to educating people on how to compost, like http://www.howtocompost.org/. I hope that so long as I keep any wet-rotting stuff buried underneath sufficient “browns” of leaves, paper, and dirt that I won’t have any smells or problems emanating from my bin.  Done properly, compost should always smell earthy and never rotten. This flyer, new-compost has a handy trouble-shooting guide for how to make your pile happy. There are a number of fridge friendly bulletins to help you keep on task if you’re new to the composting game.

In my kitchen I now have a plastic ice cream pail set up to hold all my compostable kitchen scraps in to facilitate their collection and transfer into the compost bin on the side of my patio.

Instructions:

  1. Acquire a dark colored trash bin (a black bin will bake in the sun more, which is good for the organisms making the composting magic happen).
  2. Drill 10-15 holes (no bigger than 1/2 an inch) into each “side” of the bin.
  3. Drill additional holes into the lid.
  4. Drill several holes into the bottom of the can as well so that worms can find their way into your bin.
  5. Fill the bottom of the bin with several inches of dirt.
  6. Cover the dirt with your first “green” materials followed by a layer of “browns” and a little more dirt.  Moisten everything that was put into the bin.  Snap down the lid and bungee it into place.  You’re ready to go.  Regularly add to it, turn it with a shovel or roll it around, and after a while (depending on season, temperature and contents) you’ll be blessed with beautiful rich organic compost.
  7. Set up a bin with a lid in the kitchen to hold all your scraps to make transferring materials to your bin easy-peasy.

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Apple Banana Muffins

I had a couple of apples leftover from making apple pie the other day so I decided to make muffins. I also had a frozen banana or two laying in the freezer that I wanted to add to the fray.  A google search helped lead me down the path to the bread recipe I adapted into some delicious muffins.

These ended up being slightly dense, yet still moist and light tasting due to the sheer volume of apple chunks contained in each muffin.  The batter was so thick I had to use my finger to coax it off the spoon and into the lined muffin tins!

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tbsp sour cream
  • 1 overripe banana, mashed
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 apples, peeled and chopped into chunks (varying the size of the chunks will lead to smaller ones “melting” into the muffin while larger chunks will be tasty fruit bites)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cream the butter and both sugars together.
  3. Add the eggs and stir until fully combined.
  4. Add the sour cream, mashed banana and vanilla; stir to combine.
  5. Mix the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon) together in a bowl.
  6. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, stirring until just combined.
  7. Fold in the apple chunks and chopped walnuts.
  8. Spoon the batter into 12 lined muffin tins (they will be about 3/4 of the way full).
  9. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into a muffin comes out clean.

 

 

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Gram’s Apple Pie

A 3 pound bag of Macintosh apples was calling my name late on a Saturday night.  I pulled out my recipe box and realized in a frantic panic that I had “Gram’s stir and roll pie crust” but did not have the recipe for “Gram’s apple pie.”  I’ve watched my grandmother make it nearly every time I’ve gone to visit and I’ve watched my mother make it numerous times.  Despite this extensive firsthand experience with how to make the magic happen, I’d forgotten half the important details.  I couldn’t recall if it was only brown sugar that was used, and how much, and precisely how long and at what temperature the pie should be baked.

Fearful that it may already be too late to salvage my plans to make pie that night, I called my mother.  She sounded groggy (it was midnight after all) but she fortunately had enough wits about her to tell me all the important details.  I’m sure I’ve called for this pie recipe several times before.  This time I’ve written it down.

Apple pie is one of those recipes that takes longer to type out the break down 0f the steps involved in assembly than it takes to make.  My recipe says: “cinnamon, br sug 1/2c-1c, let sit a while, lil flour if soupy, 400 degrees, 45m-1h, pan under for drippings.” This was the boiled down essence of my conversation with my mother and I know precisely what this means.  Unfortunately it does not translate well to others.  D would chide the fact that “apples” are not listed.  I’d argue it’s an apple pie, of course there are apples so there’s no need to write it in (just like my hummus recipe does not list chick peas).  How many apples? It’s also irrelevant to list exactly since it is as many as you need to over stuff your pie shell, which is equal to an eyeballed guess while filling a bowl as to how many you think you can squeeze in there before you’ll have problems.

Ingredients:

  • pie crust (See previous post for easy stir and roll crust recipe)
  • 2 1/2 to 3 lbs of apples (equal to roughly 8-10 apples)
  • 1/2 to 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 to 2 tbsp flour

Directions:

  1. Peel the apples and slice into bite size chunks into a large bowl.
  2. Add the brown sugar to the apples and stir well.
  3. Add the cinnamon to the apples and stir well.
  4. Let the apples sit for at least half an hour and up to several hours, stewing in the cinnamon, sugar, and their own juices.  This is what makes the pie extra yum!
  5. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  6. Prepare your pie crust (this will depend on the type of crust you’re using).  Frozen crusts work in a pinch, but nothing beats the taste of homemade.  A decadent butter crust would be awesome, but the easy stir and roll recipe from my previous post is a good standby, no frills, “I want pie now” type crust.
  7. With the stir and roll: mix all the ingredients together. Use your hands to press the dough together and ensure the ingredients are evenly distributed and incorporated.  Squish it into a ball and cut it in half with a knife.
  8. Flatten 1/2 the dough into a hockey puck disk between two sheets of wax paper. Roll out the dough until it is large enough to cover the bottom and sides of the pie dish.
  9. Remove the wax paper from one side of the dough, slide your hand underneath the other sheet of wax paper and plop the rolled dough into the pie dish.  Remove the other sheet of wax paper from the top of the dough.
  10. Using the tines of a fork, poke holes around the bottom and sides of the bottom pie crust.
  11. Check the apple mixture.  Give it a good stir to see how much soupy liquid has accumulated.  Stir a tablespoon or two of flour into the apple mixture if it’s soupy.
  12. Pour the apples into the waiting pie crust, mounding them towards the center.
  13. Roll out the other half of the pie crust as before.  Plop it on top of the pie. Cut off any excess that overhangs the sides. Use your hands to pinch the top crust to the bottom crust, then go around the perimeter with a fork, pressing the crusts together.  Cut some air vents in the top of the pie.
  14. Place in the oven, with an empty baking pan underneath to catch any drippings.
  15. Cook at 400 degrees for 40 minutes to 1 hour until the top is beautifully browned, the mixture is good and bubbly and the apples are tender.

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Easy Stir and Roll Pie Crust

This is a nice easy pie crust that I use for my apple pie.  It’s quick to make and assemble which is a plus when the sudden urge for home made pie strikes and you don’t have time to wait around for butter to freeze.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup cold milk

Directions:

  1. Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl.
  2. Add the milk and oil together to the dry ingredients.
  3. Use a fork to mix them together.
  4. Use your hands to finish pressing the ingredients together.
  5. For a top and bottom crust: form the dough into a ball and cut in half.
  6. Shape one half into a hockey puck and use a rolling pin to roll it out between two sheets of wax paper.
  7. Once rolled to size, remove the top sheet of wax paper, slide your hand under the bottom sheet, and invert the crust into the pie dish.  Discard the remaining piece of wax paper.
  8. Press the crust into place.  Cut off excess pieces and use them to patch any holes in the crust.
  9. Use the tines of a fork to press holes in the crust before adding whatever filling.
  10. Roll out the top crust between sheets of wax paper, as instructed above.

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Failures in Pasta Making

A while back I tried my hand at homemade pasta.  Several cookbook authors and bloggers praised the ease and glory that was home made pasta dough, so I gave it a whirl.  I had grand visions of the culinary delight that would be made out of my butternut squash and pile of flour and eggs.  Instead, I ended up with a frustrating time-consuming experiment gone bad.  It did not sour me from the kitchen, but it did momentarily quell my adventurous urge to cook new things in the kitchen.

This fiasco reinforced several lessons I’ve already learned about cooking.  When trying a new technique or food item beyond your comfort zone, it is helpful if you have someone more experienced to shadow or watch do it first.  If relying on pictures and blogs and books, you have to be aware that it may not turn out correctly the first time.  As you go through the process, be mindful of what you’re doing so that in the end, you can assess what went wrong, where it went wrong, or (even if everything went right) how you can improve upon it for next time.

My butternut squash ravioli ended up as large square pasta pockets cooked in cloudy squash laden water.  Halfway through the ravioli making and cooking process, I quit trying and thinly cut up the rest of the dough into linguini-esq bits and shapes.

My dough itself tasted yum. The trouble started in rolling it out and making raviolis completely freehand with no special equipment and no previous experience.  Making raviolis out of wonton did not prepare me for this.  Rolled out, the dough overtook the several feet of counter space that I had to work with, leaving me with almost no room to set down everything else I needed.  My dough started drying out too quick which meant that I couldn’t get the stupid raviolis to seal.  If they seemed sealed they came apart later in the cooking water.  The whole process of fighting with the dough and filling to form the squares took much longer than anticipated, which added to my frustration.

Looking back, I now see a number of things that I could have done differently.  For one, instead of trying to roll out all the dough at once, I should divide it into smaller manageable balls.  Only my working ball should be left out while the others are kept tightly wrapped and possibly refrigerated.  My butternut squash filling was delicious but it also was a bit soupier than a basic cheese filling.  Until I’ve got ravioli making down, I should keep with a firmer filling that would be more forgiving of flawed assembly technique.  Pasta, even fresh pasta, increases in size during cooking, so its important to keep in mind that those nice seemingly perfect sized manageable squares will puff up to overtake a plate.  If there is any question about the quality of dough seals it may be wise to consider changing the cooking method. Instead of a boiled ravioli disaster it can be a baked ravioli success, for instance.

Cooking is like anything in life.  You win some, you lose some, you’re sometimes on your game and sometimes not.  Having occasional disasters and great failures is part of the process.  The important thing is to learn from them so that you do not succumb to the same disasters and failures a second time (they can be new failures and disasters).

I don’t plan to attempt fresh pasta again in the near future.  The taste obtained was not worth the heartache and suffering caused on my end.  I may revisit fresh egg pasta making in the future but next time I will make something simple, like lasagna noodles.

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