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Showing posts with label winter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label winter. Show all posts

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Winter Birdseed Cakes

 



I hope I don't need to state that this is not intended for human consumption. All that being said, I can't stop you, if you are so tempted. Live your life, right?

The holidays are coming and a lot of people are joining the "Support Small Businesses" movement! While this is incredible, it's still going to be a difficult holiday season for many humans on this planet. Not only have many lost loved ones, have come down with a chronic illness, are isolated from what we all used to view as a normal life...and let's not forget the financial hardship that has kissed all of us full on the lips this year. I'd love to tell you to buck up, to hold on, to stay optimistic...but I won't. I'll just tell you that I'm with you, I understand, and that it's okay to do a handmade holiday this year. 

Although I am an incredibly social person, I have enjoyed the last few holidays with only my husband and myself. Thanksgiving, especially, was lovely, as we got to enjoy all the stuff we wanted without a large family, screaming children, drunk uncles, and pants. (Yes, pants. And bras, for that matter, which I frankly don't see having a comeback after 2020.) The point is that, although this year has been exceedingly and extremely difficult for me and my family, it has been oddly freeing. So, no, I have no problem sending out handmade cards and gifts this year for the holidays! I don't think you should either...

This birdseed cake project is frugal gift-giving at its finest. I do this whenever I have something like fried chicken or doughnuts and I have to clean out my pot of oil and fat. I usually dispose of the fat in the garbage pail, but don't scrape it clean...because I'm using it to make these cakes.

And, hey, all you really need is a fancy ribbon for it to be #PinterestWorthy.

Winter Birdseed Cakes
yield 1 doz muffin-sized cakes

  • The remains of a greasy oil-filled pot, usually 6 or 7 Tbsp of fat
  • 1 c steel-cut oats
  • 1 c whole dried corn*
    • I owe my friends at KC Farm School at Gibb's Road for this particular corn, that's been dried in my pantry!
    • I'm using corn in my recipe because I have a lot of jays in my area, but please feel free to substitute this for dried fruits, depending on the kinds of birds you have in your area.
  • 1 2/3 c birdseed mix
  • 1/4 c flour
  • 4 Tbsp sugar or honey
  • 2 Tbsp unflavored gelatin bloomed in about 6 Tbsp cold water
  • String or ribbon, as you like
  • **A wooden skewer or a chopstick, as well as a muffin tin
Bloom your gelatin and grease the muffin tins with oil. Heat your oil leftover from your last deep-frying adventure (which will probably have some goodies in the bottom of the pan) and add the oats, corn, and birdseed mix. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a spatula to ensure you get absolutely everything off the bottom of the pan. This is a great way to also get rid of bacon grease or schmaltz from the bottom of a pan, even if you aren't deep-frying anything. A little fat is good for the birds, because birds are carnivores, and they eat bugs...which do have some fat on them! 

Add in your oats, corn, and bird seed mix, and stir gently. The idea of this step is to make sure that your granules are coated with your fat. Sprinkle in your flour and add the sugar or honey, and continue to cook on medium-low heat for about 3 minutes. Make sure you're scraping the bottom and the corners well with your spatula!

Add your gelatin and turn off the heat. Stir well to make sure that the gelatin melts and everything is incorporated. Next comes the fun part that also takes the longest!

Portion the birdseed mix in the greased muffin tins and pack down well to ensure that everything is as dense as possible. You can do this with a spatula, of course, or you can wet your hands and press it down tight with your fingers. As little air as possible could be in this seed cake! Remember, it has to stand up to being outside in the wind and rain, and being knocked about by birds, squirrels, and other woodland creatures that would like a nibble.

Use an oiled wooden skewer or a metal chopstick to poke holes near where the top would be for each cake. This is essential to do now, before it sets, so you can hang the seed cake outside on string later. Set these in the fridge or on the counter, in a cool place, for at least two hours. While we wait, I'd like to talk a little about how birdwatching has nurtured my soul in this troubled and uncertain time.

I was certainly never what one would call a bird watcher, or bird enthusiast. Backyard birding seemed to be the hobby of someone's great aunt that you talk to every so often, that has books about it and sits in the park every weekday and feeds the birds. Being stuck inside for 8 months, however, helps you explore your inner old auntie and set her free with all the wild abandon you would imagine that person to have. Looking back on my first spring indoors, I was quite grateful when my husband's late grandmother gifted us her two encyclopedias on backyard birding when the pandemic hit. I was safe at home and able to watch from my huge windows and cozy couch. 

My cat appreciated all of the snuggles, too.

Sitting at my window, watching the birds, and sipping my coffee was a meditative act that I could easily do when I was feeling restless and anxious. I told myself that when I started there may not always be birds, but - to my surprise - there were a lot more birds than I expected. I'm fortunate enough to live near a forest and to have four mature trees on my property, so there is plenty of nature to be had. From my couch, I've watched puffy red cardinals fluff themselves up to keep warm, and small groups of starlings glitter in the morning light. I've laughed over Blue Jays and how much they scream and fight with each other. I've even had the pleasure of seeing baby rabbits wander across my yard in the early morning. If you've ever had the opportunity of gazing into the eyes of a wild animal, you'll know how oddly exhilarating and humbling it is. 

The birds have been integral to my backyard permaculture endeavors, as well, with my victory garden. I'm aware that birds are usually considered a pest when it comes to gardening, but I have appreciated their presence when it came to insect and pest control. Jays are aggressive, so they keep stray cats away from my garden. The finches, sparrows, and coal tits have been wonderful to watch from my office window, as they perch on my Giant Sunflowers and eat the seeds, which is a worthwhile investment for entertainment alone. When the seeds were gone, they turned to the nasty beetles and grasshoppers when they noticed I had a reliable food source. Did they eat the odd strawberry or tomato? Certainly. But did I have considerably less pests this year, now that I'd taken an uber-organic approach to the garden instead of spraying everything with neem oil and calling it a day? Yes, absolutely!

I know this is getting preachy, but believe me when I say that the birdfeeders I now have hanging from my roof have brought me peace in a way I didn't believe they would have. I live in the Midwest of America, so that means I get to see cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers, golden orioles, starlings, sparrows, mourning doves, falcons, and more. Giving myself permission to sit lazily and watch these animals go about their day has given me a strange sense of peace and connection to nature. I hope this will encourage you to at least try hanging up a birdfeeder near your window, just to see what will happen. 



To remove, all one has to do is give them a rather strong knock when you turn the tin upside-down, but you may use a spatula to get the cakes out of their hiding places. String them on ribbon or twine and double-knot a square knot at the top to get your loop to be tight. I like to let these air-cure on a cooling rack for at least a day at room temperature before I set them outside, but this step isn't absolutely necessary if you're living in a dry climate. 

And there you have it! A thoughtful, attractive gift for the bird-lover in your life. These thrifty things are excellent stocking-stuffers, or the perfect "Just Because" gift. They can be made any time you deep-fry something and happen to want to clean out the bottom of your pan in an economical way, and they store for ages so you can keep them in your cellar or pantry for a quick gift on the fly. I know that my birds appreciate it, especially in winter when their diets have to change. Remember, not all birds migrate, so if you play your cards right, you're going to have some wonderful winter entertainment if you invest your time in making these. 

Please be safe this holiday season.

Thanks so much! Happy cooking, happy eating, and happy gifting!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Cushaw Pumpkin Soup

I don't even need a filter for this gorgeous-ness
I am not vegan. I just happened to make a lot of vegan recipes because we're quite strictly dairy-free in this house. I feel like I should say that before we go any further, just so no poor, unsuspecting vegan follows my blog or twitter or instagram and then gets freaked out when they see a whole brisket on my feed.

Last summer, I grew my new favorite pumpkin, the noble and wondrous Cushaw pumpkin, to whom all other pumpkins should bow. I mean, come on.



Look at this magnificent thing. Look at the size, the lovely shape. Look at this gorgeous color.

So I had a ton of plans this weekend (some of which I didn't actually get to do) and one of them was to clear out at least a good portion of the #garden. Out of it came this monster. It is by far the biggest pumpkin I have ever grown and I'm kind of dumbstruck at it. It's called the #crookneck #pumpkin, or a #Cushaw pumpkin, and it is excellent for #pie, #soup, and pretty much every other classic pumpkin application you might think of. It's definitely one of the lesser-known varieties, but I don't know why. It's extremely prolific as a plant, and the #fruit itself is really cool-looking. Imagine that I would have had a lot more had the weather not been so weird, and I had not been battling squash beetles the entire season. I managed to get rid of a good portion of them today, so that was good. Anyway. Phew. #homestead #midwestlife #wannabgourmande #cheflife #foodiechats #foodblogger #KansasCity #localvore #gardening #heirloom #bakerseeds
A post shared by Chef Kolika (@wannabgourmande) on


And just look at the color of the flesh! Let's not forget about the flavor, which is - by the way - out of this world. It's so mild and gentle, like an autumn breeze. If Pumpkin Spice, the flavor, was a person who got up in your face and made you take selfies with them, dragged you out to pumpkin patches and feed you apple cider and made you hold their phone and take a million photos of them playing in the leaves for their Insta, then Cushaw is your actual chill friend that wears flannel because it's warm and plays the guitar for fun, and loves nothing more than to curl up alone at home with a good book while they watch the leaves fall from inside. Pumpkin Spice has her place, but she's so in your face sometimes. Cushaw just wants to have a good time. Pumpkin Spice is Gryffindor, while Cushaw is Hufflepuff. See the difference?



As you can see, I processed it so I could save it. It was too big to use my oven at home, so I used the oven at a wonderful commercial kitchen I know. I roasted it with oil and just a touch of salt at 325 for about an hour and change, until it was fork-tender, almost spreadable, like butter. Once cooled, this made it rather easy to scrape the flesh out of the skin and puree it in a food processor.

Yum.
Cushaw pumpkin's flavor is deliciously mild, and has a fresh and sort of tangy note, almost reminiscent of cheese. It doesn't smell fermented, of course, or especially sweet, but when pureed, it tastes of the most-amazing pumpkin cream cheese you could ever imagine, all smooth and luxurious, like a warm cashmere sweater or socks fresh from the dryer. It honestly tastes to me how velvet feels. That's how much I love cushaw pumpkins, and I didn't even know it.

When the pumpkins were growing in my garden, they were taking over, and growing bigger and bigger every day. I wasn't sure exactly what they were, especially because I hadn't ever seen a pumpkin that size or shape or color before, and was concerned about it. Nearing the end of that summer, I went to a local farmer's market and inquired about it. I showed a picture of the pumpkin to the woman running the squash stall and she sort of laughed.

"Yeah, that's a cushaw," she said. "The farmer's best kept secret."

"'Best kept secret?'" I said, feeling a bit like I'd struck some kind of lottery. I had gotten the Cushaw seeds at a seed exchange that hosts locally, but by the time I had planted them I'd already forgotten what kind they were, only that they were recognisable as pumpkin plants. "I take it they're tasty, then."

Mine was actually quite small as cushaws go, and I'm just a
home gardener! 
"Tasty and prolific," she said. She then went on to explain that the cushaw, in her opinion, had a much better flavor than your typical pie pumpkin did, and was a gem because it was so incredibly versatile. The flavor was sweet and mild, she said, but was gentle enough to be used in both sweet and savory applications. She liked them best because they were extremely prolific, and that it was a shame that nobody sold them. When I asked why, she said simply: "nobody knows."

We ended up talking for a long while about the cushaw pumpkin, and other pumpkins, for that matter, and what would fetch a good price at the market. People do want unusual pumpkins, but seldom for eating and more for decoration. She said that in recent years it'd gone up to 50/50 for decor vs. eating, and that the cushaws weren't a high-dollar pumpkin. Something funny-looking like an Australian Blue would fetch a minimum of $7 at a grocery store, and more at the local farmer's market. The cushaws go won't sell nearly as much, because they're not as visually interesting, and frankly don't look like the American idea of a pumpkin anyway. They often get too big for the regular oven, too, so most don't buy it because they don't want to spend the afternoon processing it.


I asked her how to preserve it best, and she said that I could just let it be. It'll get sweeter as it sits in the pantry anyhow, as the sugars will develop during the steady warmth of your house and produce a much better flavor. It is, she said, better to let a squash sort of 'cure' in the home for a month or two to really ripen up. She even told me that she's harvested cushaws in the fall and kept some until January or February and it was completely fine. That being said, she recommended freezing it, as canning could result in the stuff souring, and there's always the risk of botulism with canning when not done in a professional facility. Simply roasting and pureeing the stuff and saving it in the freezer simply was best. When I asked what she used them for, she simply shrugged and said "anything."

Anything? I thought. Pumpkin butters? Yes. Pies? Yes. Pasta and soup? Yes and yes. This variety is hardy, prolific, and versatile, and that's what made it the best-kept-secret of the Midwestern farmer. I personally think this squash is highly underrated and that we, as a society, need to recognize its superior quality among others. I am having a moment with Cushaw, and I think you should, as well. You can buy the seeds for them right here.

The thing about pumpkin is that it's rather fibrous, and while that's great for a lot of things, it's not 100% the best thing when using it for the kind of applications I'd be using it for, especially in its most raw form, and especially saving it. I passed the pumpkin through a tamis strainer(pronounced like "Tammy"), which looks quite a bit like a tambourine with a very fine wire screen over the drum bit in lieu of goat skin. The tamis is a wonderful tool that a lot of chefs adore, as it's the key to creating fine purees and silky smooth sauces. A chinoix is nice, sure, but you can't pass things through with good pressure like you can with a tamis.

Want a nice and smooth aioli? Tamis. Looking for a silky smooth avocado puree for a splash of color on your toast, perfect for instagram? Tamis. Itching for the smoothest and creamiest mashed potatoes you've ever had in your life? Tamis. I bought mine at the Sur la Table on the Plaza, but you can get yours on Amazon.

Passing the pumpkin puree through the tamis not only smooths it out like crazy, but you catch all of the bits of skin and whatnot that you may not have noticed before. It's an excellent tool and essential, especially, if you're going to be pureeing fruits and vegetables for applications such as baby food. Yes, you can make your own baby food; in fact, people have been doing it for centuries, likely at a much lower cost than buying at the grocery store, and with significant less waste in those glass jars and plastic containers.

I took the puree and froze it in quart-sized freezer Ziploc bags. Out of that one squash, I got about fourteen bags of puree for my freezer, all pretty and orange-yellow, so deliciously tasty. A quart is equivalent to roughly two cans of pumpkin puree, so there you go - ready for making twice as many pies as you normally might make. It really is a winning situation all around; I highly recommend that you make your own pumpkin puree for pies, cakes, muffins, etc. You won't regret it.

On to the soup.

Vegan Cushaw Soup
yields about 3 quarts

  • 1 quart Cushaw puree
  • 1/2 white onion, cut in chunks
  • 3 orange carrots, peeled and cut in coins
  • 4 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 1 small cayennetta pepper, crushed(or 1/2 tsp cayenne powder)
  • 2 Tbsp vegan butter substitute(we all know I love Earth Balance)
  • 1 cup almond-coconut milk blend(or soy, if you prefer)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 Tbsp white miso
  • Salt & pepper to taste
Heat the "butter" in a soup pot to melt, then add the onion, carrot, and garlic along with the crushed dried pepper. I had some dried peppers from my garden, but you can use a pinch of cayenne instead. Sweat it on medium-low heat for about 15 minutes. Add a pinch or two of salt and pepper, give it a good stir, and then add the water, milk, and miso paste. Bring to a boil and reduce it to a simmer, then allow to cook for about 15 more minutes, or until the vegetables are quite soft. 

Add in your pumpkin puree. If you're working with fresh, awesome. If you're working with frozen, thaw just a little by sticking your bag under running water, just enough to soften it, which shouldn't take long. If you pop the stuff into the pot while it's par-frozen, it's not the end of the world. The trick is, however, to let it cook quite gently so as not to destroy the mild flavor of the pumpkin and scorch it. 

Once everything is quite smooth and soft, pour your soup mix into the pitcher of a blender and blend for 30 seconds to a full minute, ensuring everything is velvety smooth. Return your pureed soup to the pan, correct the seasoning, and bring up to heat once again, only to about 190 degrees F, stirring constantly to ensure that your soup won't scorch. It's also important to check the consistency of the soup, and if it's a bit too thick to simply add another splash of whichever milk substitute you've been using and gently bring up to heat again.

Serve immediately and garnish with either parsley or some vegan parmesan cheese(I like Follow Your Heart's brand of parmesan). This is also a perfect soup to dip a grilled cheese in. Save whatever leftovers you have in either the fridge or freezer. Oh yes. You can freeze soup in tupperware containers, pop them in the microwave, and BAM instant dinner. See? Meal prepping can be easy. Your freezer is your best friend.

Thanks for reading. Happy cooking and happy eating!