Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Novice, the Mentor and The Bees

Nearly a year ago I was reacquainted with a high school friend who had taken up beekeeping. I had a visceral desire to keep bees but lacked the where-with-all to empower myself to take up beekeeping. Suddenly the world had possibility and Kathy agreed to mentor me. I didn't realize that one of the most important lessons of this endeavor was underway. I come to the beekeeping with lofty hopes, hopes to be tamed, with the idea that somehow the art of beekeeping and the bees will empower me to be more mindful, more deliberate, more contemplative and allow me to slow down. My work life is intense, managing critically ill children in the hospital. I am the person families turn to in their most intimate and vulnerable moments. While I love my work it spends me in a way I can articulate. I am also exceptionally good at what I do, an expert and the mentor. It has been a very long time since I was the novice. The lesson of the novice have gotten lost in my life. This past year, I have been in the throws of that lesson, humbled by the simplicity of learning how to ask for help and navigate this journey with others. None of my usual tactics worked to avoid having to ask for help. Three comprehensive beekeeping classes, reading book after book, and still, I needed help. I say all the time, no question is without merit but still, it is hard for me to ask. You see I don't like to appear as though I have not done my homework or am unprepared. But this beekeeping business, well it is beyond academics, it is all learning in the field and not fit for a solo journey. In order to master this I have to ask questions and I have to have help. It is not easy to ask someone to take three hours out of their day to join me at my apiary , to help me with my hive inspections, to point out the difference between the workers and the drones. I am overwhelmed with the graciousness of my mentor, not just for the time and the assistance but for the process of this lesson, for helping me understand that it is also a gift to be the mentor.

The bees, they are lessons in themselves. We have two colonies, a hive of Italian honey bees and a hive of Carniolan honey bees. The Italian honey bees are thriving, building comb, full of brood, bringing in nectar and pollen, doing exactly what they should be doing. I get very jazzed up when I open the hive and see the wonder of collective work unfolding in front of me, revealing another lesson I hope to learn about, collaboration.

The Carniolan hive, well that is a different story and perhaps we will learn more about beekeeping from this hive and it's struggles than the Italian hive will teach us. It is difficult to know exactly what is going on with these bees. They have struggled from the get go. When we picked up the packages there were a fair amount of dead bees in the bottom of the Carniolan package, way way more than the Italian package. In retrospect I wish I had noticed this at the pick up and requested a different package. We had trouble getting our Queen in this hive and we are having trouble determining if she is there or not, or if maybe the hive has already requeened itself, all very complicated issues. We have had good but different input about what to do about the hive. Opinions vary. I have struggled with making decision about how to manage the hive. I want to be a responsible beekeeper and do what ever I can to help manage the hive. I want to make good, informed decisions. I think I have finally settled on an approach that is comfortable for me. Last evening during my field beekeeping class at the U of M the professor, Dr. Marla Spivak, a bee geek to be sure, made the following statement, "If you don't know what to do, don't do anything. The bees have a remarkable way of sorting themselves out and can make themselves right. Just let them be, they will figure things out." Another lesson since I like to meddle!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

For my friend Colleen

As promised those T.V. dinner recipes are going eventually make it here. This recipe for Halibut Fillets with a Coconut Milk-Mustard Seed Sauce is out of this world. The delicate but rich sauce is perfect for smothering firm-fleshed halibut fillets, especially served with rice to mop up all the sauce. Of course you could use any firm-fleshed fish to pair with the succulent sauce. While Indian food is somewhat labor intensive I find doing some of the work ahead of time is a great way to break up the work. You can easily make the curry for this dish ahead of time and then simply throw the dish together at the last minute! I served this recently to my life long friend Colleen and her son Wil who came to visit a few weeks ago. I have known Colleen since I was about four years old. We lived across the street from each other for years and went to school together from kindergarten until 12th grade. There simply isn't anything like someone who has know you and your family for that amount of time. In some ways Colleen knows me better than I know myself. I am grateful to have a life long friend and I am simply crazy about her son Wil, a delightful young man who just puts a big smile on my face. So Colleen, this post is for you!

Halibut Fillets with A Coconut Milk-Mustard Curry Sauce
Adapted from 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer

1/2 teaspoon ground tumeric
1 1/2 pounds skinless pieces of halibut fillet (2-3 inches thick)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds (I used black)
1 tablespoon skinned split black lentils (cream-colored in this form, also called urad dal)
1 cut finely chopped red onion
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk (I tried to just use the solid milk from a large can)
2 teaspoons sambhar masala (see below)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
10 fresh curry leaves (I did not have these on hand and simply used more cilantro)
1 large tomato, cored and finely chopped

Dust halibut on both sides evenly with turmeric, pressing into the flesh. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer.

Heat 1 teaspoon oil in small sauce pan over medium high heat, add the mustard seeds, cover and cook until the seeds stop popping, about a minute. Add the lentils and stir-fry until they turn golden brown, 30-60 minutes or longer, don't burn! Add onion and cook 5-7 minutes. Add the coconut milk, cilantro, masala, salt and curry leaves if you have them. The coconut milk should start to boil at which point you will lower the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato and cook just until warmed through but tomatoes remain firm, about 2 minutes.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a medium size skillet over medium heat. Add halibut fillets and sear until light brown on each side, 2-3 minutes per side. Pour the curry sauce over the fillets , scrapping the bottom of the skillet to release any bits of fish and incorporate them into the sauce. Cover the pan and poach the fish, basting frequently with the sauce, until the fillets are barely starting to flake, 6-8 minutes. Serve.

Sambhar Masala

1/2 cup firmly packed medium size fresh curry leaves (You will need to find and Indian grocery store to supply these!)
1/2 cup dried red Thai or cayenne chilies, stems removed
1/4 cup yellow split peas (chana dal)
1/4 cup coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
1 tablespoon black or yellow mustard seeds (I use black)
1 tablespoon white poppy seeds
2 cinnamon sticks, each 3 inches long, broken into smaller pieced
1 tablespoon unrefined sesame oil or canola oil

Combine all the spices in a medium-size bowl, drizzle the oil over them and toss, coating the spices evenly.

Preheat a medium-size skilled over medium-high heat. Add the mixture and roast, stirring until the curry leaves curl up and appear dry and brittle, the chilies blackened slightly, the split peas turn dark brown, the coriander, cumin and fenugreek turn reddish brown, the mustard seeds pop, swell up and look ash-black, and bobby seeds are tan, 3-4 minutes.

Immediately transfer the pungent, nutty-smelling spices to a plate to cool! Don't let them sit in the pan, they will continue to cook and take on a bitter taste. Once cool grind the spice mixture in a spice grinder in batches until it resembles that of finely ground pepper. If the spices are completely cool they will acquire unwanted moisture from the heat of the grinding and become cakey. Transfer the blend to an air tight container.

A well ventilated kitchen is a must for making this blend. Roasting the large quantity of chilies may cause a coughing fit.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Box Lunches

I have been quite busy lately and it seems like May is just slipping away! My bees are changeling me in way I did not expect. Our contract negotiations are not going well and it has been a very disheartening process. As I write this post, I am preparing for another informational picket this afternoon, wondering if I will be part of large labor strike in a few weeks. We are still celebrating Tina's appointment and busy with end of the academic year activities! My friends Mara and Miryam are still in crisis mode so I have been delivering food to sustain them every Tuesday. Today I made lunches for my upcoming work weekend. It took less than two hours total to put these together and I can assure you my colleagues are going to be salivating when I dig into these gluten-free meals. I have been cooking out of Grill Every Day by Diane Morgan, she is simply genius. Every single recipe is a winner and I am working my way though each and every one of them. I have never prepared polenta by scratch or using the precooked tubes, nor have I had polenta very often. The photo of this dish looks so good I had to try it and decided to pair it with a Middle Eastern Chickpea Salad. I love chickpeas and figured if the polenta dish failed at least I would have the salad. Both are wonderful.

Grilled Polenta with Sweet Red Peppers and Onion Wedges

serves 5

1 tube, 18 ounces precooked Polenta (I used San Gennaro)
olive oil
kosher salt
2 red bell peppers, or any peppers of your choice, quartered, seeded and deribbed
1 large walla walla or other sweet onion, cut into 1/2 inch thick slices
1/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Prepare grill.

Trim off the irregular ends of each, slice the polenta into ten half inch thick slices. Arrange on a rimmed baking sheet. Generously brush slices, both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, add any other herb you might like. Brush peppers and onions with olive oil and season them.

Oil the grill grate. Arrange polenta slices directly over the hot fire and grill, turning once, until they have grill marks etched across both sides, 8 - 10 minutes total. While the polenta is grilling, arrange the peppers and onions over the fire and grill, turning once, until the edges begin to char and they are tenter but still firm, about 6 minutes.

To serve, cut the peppers into thin strips, slice the onion rounds in half, arrange 2 polenta slices, slightly overlapping them on each plate and top with some peppers and onions. Sprinkle with the cheese and serve immediately.

Chickpea Salad

6 tablespoons meyer lemon olive oil
freshly grated zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoons ground pepper
1/8 teaspoons cayenne pepper

2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 can pitted ripe olives, halved (I used Kalmata)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

To make the dressing, in a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper and cayenne.

In a large bowl,combine the chickpeas, olives, tomatoes, parsley and feta. Add the dressing and toss gently to combine. Set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to develop. Alternatively, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days, remove from fridge and allow to sit for 30 minutes before serving.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sweet Potato Curry

I get very confused about the difference between a sweet potato and a yam. While this recipe calls for sweet potatoes I always use the darker orange fleshed potato when I make this which might be a yam, or at least labeled as such in the store. Quite frankly I am not sure it would matter what you used, including pumpkin. This is a tasty South Indian dish. The recipe below is adapted from Betty Crocker's Indian Home Cooking by Raghavan Iyer, my Indian cooking mentor. While quite an oxymoron, this is one of the best Indian cookbooks ever! The original recipe calls for 1/4 teaspoon asafetida, also know as hing. Asafetida is a spice which has a pungent, unpleasant smell in the raw form, powder or block. Once cooked it delivers a smooth flavor similar to leeks. Asafetida is never gluten free! In the powdered form it is laced with wheat flour to keep it from clumping. Some speculation has been made that in the brick form it might be GF. According to Raghavan, who did some research for me and translated the ingredients on a number bricks, it is not GF. I asked Raghavan to look into this for me after getting very very sick from eating something made with brick hing.

Sweet Potato Curry

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds (I always use black)
2 tablespoons yellow split peas, chana dal
1 pound sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
8 fresh karhi leaves or two tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon Tangy Sambhar Powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water

Heat oil and mustard seed in a deep 12 inch skillet over medium high heat. Once seeds begin to pop, cover pot and wait until popping stops. Add split peas, stir-fry for a minute or two, until the peas are golden brown. Add remaining ingredients except water; stir fry 1-2 minutes. Stir in water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 5-7 minutes or until sweet potato is tender.

Tangy Sambhar Powder

1/2 cup dried red thai chilies
1/4 cup dried yellow split peas, chana dal
2 tablespoons sesame seed
1 tablespoon tamarind pulp or grated lime or lemon peel
1 tablespoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Heat 6 inch skilled over medium high heat. Place mixture in skillet and roast 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly until seeds crackle, spices turn one shade darker and mixture has a nutty yet pungent aroma. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely. Place roasted spice blend into a spice grinder in batches, about 3 tablespoons at a time. Grind until mixture looks like the texture of finely ground pepper. Store in an airtight jar at room temperature for a month. After a month or so it starts to loose its full flavor.

T.V. Dinners

While I may have eaten my share of Banquet style t.v. dinners growing up we didn't actually have a t.v. until I was about 12. My parents did a fair amount of socializing so weekend evenings always featured some frozen dinner in an aluminum tray that my mother heated in the oven. My favorite was the fried chicken with a dollop of instant mashed potatoes, frozen mixed vegetables and a spoonful of warm applesauce, chicken potpies, or Salisbury steak in some kind of gelatinous gravy with macaroni and cheese. We had 6 kids so this kind of convenience food defined my mother's cooking. We sat around the kitchen table, eating our dinner until the babysitter showed up, not realizing that these dinners were meant to be enjoyed in front of the t.v. My parents eventually got a small black and white t.v. but it was reserved for news and The Laurence Welk Show. My mom would tuck the T.V. cord into her purse, which plug into the t.v. as well as the wall, and off they went leaving us to other activities. It didn't take long for us to discover the blender cord was a viable substitute and we moved our t.v. dinners into the family room to watch Hogan's Hero's, The Brady Bunch and Bewitched.

I have redefined the 1950's style t.v. dinner! Gone are the aluminum trays, replaced with a microwavable tray and a delicious home cooked meal. I do a great deal of cooking for other people, delivering meals in times of celebration or crisis. I know most of my friends are very busy shuffling children here and there or taking care of elderly parents. I love to deliver a meal to ease the stress or help in celebrating a special event.

This week I delivered Indian inspired dinners to friends overwhelmed with an unexpected stressful event. Fried chicken and instant mashed potatoes are out! These dinners feature halibut fillets with a coconut milk-mustard seed sauce, greens with garlic and raisins, sweet potato curry and lime-flavored rice with roasted yellow split peas. The beauty of Indian food is that it saves well and is easily reheated, even gaining some flavor over time. Recipes coming in the weeks ahead.