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An Ode to My Mother

Chokecherry Picking

We stained our fingers deep red, and our buckets mounded high with the chokecherries we’d been gathering all morning. My mother, my children, and I had driven down to a large thicket on a side road along the mountain river. It was a forgotten spot, a little traveled place where few went. Here the chokecherry bushes billowed over the ditch on the edge of the gravel. We felt like we held a precious secret in knowing where this stash of bitter berries grew. The berries grew abundantly, and we picked with abandon.

Now as we looked at our haul, we knew the work was far from over. We needed to turn these currently inedible berries into the sweet and delicious canned goods we treasured all winter long. My mother, a native of Montana, had grown up around these wild gems and knew the secrets to pulling out their flavor. We followed her lead as she patiently instructed us on how to clean and cook them and then extract the meat from the inner seed, resulting in a thick liquid. This deep, garnet-colored juice became the foundation for our jams and syrups. 

The tradition continues: this year's strawberry jam

Wild Grapes

Not long after this, my mom and I went through a similar process again, this time in Minnesota. It was early September, the time of year when the wild grapes ripen. We picked on the fence lines that bordered the freeways in spots where birds had planted the grape seeds years before. Once again buckets filled the kitchen table, and as we looked upon the bounty we had just gathered, we knew we had hours of work ahead of us. Undaunted, my mom pulled out the big pots from the cupboards, filled the sink with cool water, and we began the tasks of sorting and cleaning the grapes and then creating the delectable wild grape jam we treasured so much.

Untamed grapes found in our neighborhood

I am grateful that my mom taught me how to go out into the woods and pick wild berries, be it wild blueberries, wild plums, wild grapes, or chokecherries. The concentrated nature of wild fruit results in an unusually flavorful jam. I grew up eating these delicacies, so they became a part of my cherished memory.

Mom in 2017

Growing Up

My mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants who had homesteaded land in eastern Montana. Life on the prairie had not been easy for my grandparents as they worked tirelessly to tame the land and carve out a ranch. Cold, heat, grasshoppers, an overall lack of resources, the Great Depression, and more all worked against their success. I’m not sure that my mom or her siblings ever noticed, however. The spirit in the home was one of resolve, humble tenacity, and a calm graciousness. They crafted niceties from scraps, making intricately embroidered linens, dinners for neighbors, and warm loaves of bread baked in a coal-fired oven. 

Mom's wild rice soup

You see, it was a part of my mom’s inner soul to create sweet delicacies from sour grapes. It was who her parents had been and their parents before them. Eeking out beauty from scarcity. Hospitality bubbled up from a natural interest in others and their wellbeing. This graciousness was ingrained in her fiber as she welcomed family, friends, and strangers alike into the home. They often stayed for just a cup of coffee and a piece of something sweet, but sometimes they stayed for years.

Lemon bars

A Seat at the Table

From an early age, my mom modeled many things for me. She was an effortless hostess. That generation didn’t fuss for guests. You see, a tin of homemade goodies always sat in the freezer waiting to be enjoyed. Sometimes it was a lemon bar or a piece of apple crisp. Other times she treated us to was a plate full of hamburger mushroom casserole or a bowl of Minnesota wild rice soup. Sometimes all we needed was her listening ear. Other times it was a warm bed and a shower. She spent her days thinking about others. When people came to visit, my mom feted them and welcomed them wholeheartedly.

Mom's beef and mushroom casserole

The two constants were the tables. One was in the kitchen, the other in the dining room. The first greeted you on frosty mornings with a hot mug of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal topped with bananas, or crispy toast smeared with the jam du jour. The other table became the site of prolonged story telling by hosts and guests alike as dinners and the accompanying conversations ran late into the evenings. The food always remained simple, hearty, and home cooked. Soups, stews, casseroles; food to feed a crowd of hungry stomachs. We came, hungry for conversation and nourishment, and we left sated on all fronts. 

Making krumkake at Mom and Dad's house

The Gifts My Mother Gave Me

Even as the years passed and age began to get the better of her, hosting her dear family remained my mother’s favorite pastime. I like to think I inherited that from her. Whether we arrived early or came in after dark, the windows of the house would be glowing with a warm yellow light, the porchlight welcoming weary travelers.  My mother greeted the family with open arms, cozy beds, and fresh towels laid out for us.

Fresh peach pie

What remains today are the memories, the inner pull to emulate the gracious ambiance for others that she so faithfully created for me. An ambiance that pulled people toward her, that made them feel in that moment that they were the only ones that mattered. She wasn’t one to jump to a decision, but she carefully weighed the options. Mom gave me her measured thoughtfulness. She gave me the gift of time, her time. Such a precious and rare gift this is. It’s simple yet seemingly increasingly unavailable. She gave with no expectation of reciprocation.

A listening ear, a cup of coffee, a piece of pie, a jar of chokecherry jam, a couch on which to sit and chat awhile, a quiet wisdom; these are what I’m bringing with me into the future. These are the gifts my mother gave me.  

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Roasting as a Pastime

Roasted Italian Memories

The evening was stormy. Cracks of thunder played overhead. As we hurried up the old cobbled street, our feet danced around the growing puddles and streams. We were staying in an ancient hamlet buried in the hilly Umbrian countryside. Upon stepping into the trattoria, we took in the aromas of roasting meats, pizzas, breads, and vegetables.

A gorgeous and massive medieval pizza oven took up one entire wall of the kitchen. Stacks of olivewood sat neatly stacked to one side. This was my first exposure to the unabashed, divine nature of roasting. The cozy warmth on a cold and rainy night. The taste of a perfectly charred beet, halved garlic heads drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, wild mushrooms and fennel bulbs. They pulled me in. I was hooked and haven’t looked back. I relegated the taste of bland canned beets and garlic powder from my childhood to the cobweb-filled attic of my memory bank. Going forward, it was roasting or nothing. This was a sort of genesis, a new horizon. I moved from steamed carrots to roasted carrots, from boiled baby potatoes to toasted wedges.

Roasting Beets

Let’s take beets. It seems simple enough. I slice the freshly scrubbed beets into wedges, toss them in olive oil, sea salt, and coarsely ground black pepper. Next I spread them in a single layer on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, placing them in a hot oven to roast (400 F). After cooling the beets, I drizzle red wine vinegar and a good quality olive oil and then add sliced green onions and toasted pumpkin seeds. I lightly toss the mixture and lay the salad over a bed of arugula.

As we tuck our forks into this ruby salad, a refreshing sweetness greets us. Roasting the beets has concentrated their sugars and given the tips of the wedges a slight crunch. The overall result is delicious.

Roasting vegetables produces a depth of flavor one doesn’t get with the other types of cooking. An almost caramel tone develops in them.

Roasting Cauliflower

Let’s look at cauliflower. Take a whole cauliflower, steam it for a few minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, after taking it out, rub it all over with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place it in a very hot oven (475 degrees) for 20 minutes or until toasty on the top surface. This version of roasted cauliflower is absolutely scrumptious served with a cool yogurt cilantro sauce.

Roasting Eggplant

Another vegetable that benefits immensely from roasting is eggplant. Roasting transforms the interior of eggplant into an almost buttery consistency. I recently made an iteration of an Israeli staple where I roasted the scored and oiled halves of an eggplant until they became nicely browned. Then I topped each half with a citrus, pomegranate molasses, and tahini mixture and broiled those halves for a couple minutes until they turned caramel in color. I covered these halves with dollops of a yogurt cucumber mixture, sprinkled toasted pistachios, slivered mint, and Italian parsley.

Adding Complexity with Sauces

The dry heat of an oven amps up the flavor of what can normally be a rather plain tasting vegetable. Roasting adds the char on the edges and a caramel-like sweetness. With a bit of creativity accented by fresh herbs and cool flavor filled sauces, roasted vegetables move from the ordinary to the deliciously sublime.

Using whole-milk yogurt as a base and adding refreshing ingredients such as lime, lemon, cilantro, Italian parsley, basil, dill, cucumber, scallions, and spring greens like arugula, sauces and dips can compliment the depth of flavor in roasted vegetables. It’s the savory counter to ice cream on a slice of pie. You can definitely do without it, but oh, its addition is so wonderful!

Vegetables Galore

We are about to enter into the season of ubiquitous vegetables. Tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, beets, carrots, onions, cabbages, and squash of all varieties will soon be at our fingertips. Try roasting these.

When garden produce is starting to pile up on my counter, I pull out a sheet pan, lay down parchment, spread out any variety of vegetables, drizzle them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and add whole garlic cloves, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Then I place the pan in a very hot oven (400 F). Simple prep, yet it yields a divinely complex result.

However you end up using the vegetables in the end, roasting first will give a new dimension of flavor to the dish. Be it a salad, a soup, a side, an hors d’oeuvres, or a braise, roast and then combine. You won’t have any regrets.

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A Lemony Life

Dreaming of Lemons

I have always wanted a row of lemon trees in my yard. You know the look; fruit trees planted in massive pots along a pathway, or better yet along the edge of a garden that is overflowing with lavender, basil, and San Marzano tomatoes. As I walk down the aisles of this imaginary garden, my feet crush the tiny purple blossoms of creeping thyme, releasing its intoxicating scent into the air. 

I even have gone so far in this wishful wonderland of having purchased a massive (and I mean massive) tiled terra cotta planter that would house my first lemon tree. Of course living up in the hinterland, the bliss of smelling blossoms on my way to pick basil has obviously not materialized. My funky and sizable pot has instead held red twig dogwood and curly willow branches. I guess in the north country, this is the best I can hope for with a lemon tree pot, and I must rely on the local grocer to obtain my harvest.

Fruit of Spring

The fresh cheerfulness of lemons signal for me the onset of spring. The dance between spring and lemons is as natural as that of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They were meant to dance with each other. Spring days are crisp, and a slight breeze rustles through the branches. The cool refreshing taste of lemons mirrors the weather outside, delightfully zippy. Whether creating a sweet or tart dish, this fruit can nourish and bring joy. I have in my hands something that will be used to create delicious beauty.  

Whatever the reason, it’s at this time of year that I want to move away from rich, dark, heavy braises and into using early spring greens, vegetables such as spring sweet peas, and newly harvested baby bok choy. These create a bed for grilled lean meats. I top everything with a lemony crumble, and I marinate or drizzle with abandon a dressing that includes lemon juice as a key ingredient.

Left: Chicken with lemon, mushrooms, dried plums, and green olives. Right: Grilled salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, Italian parsley, salt, and pepper 

Lemon Feasts

Forget the tradition of ham for Easter dinner. At our house, our custom is lemon for Easter. This year it appeared in many forms. Appetizers included garlicky crostini topped with a lemony Tzatziki sauce. We tossed shreds of Napa cabbage with a ginger lemon Szechuan pepper dressing to serve as a base for marinated and grilled flank steak. Then just so dessert wouldn’t feel excluded, we served little ramekins of lemon pudding cake topped with macerated strawberries and dollops of whipped cream. Did all of this meet my need for all things lemon? 

Left: Lemon pudding cake, Right: Lemon cake with a lemon glaze

Nope. Just as spring marches on, so does my need for more lemony quests. French lemon custard, caramelized onion, Ricotta, and lemon galette, risotto al limone, and Greek egg lemon soup are among my favorites. I love lemony chicken with green olives over cheesy polenta or grilled lemon slices scattered on charred slabs of salmon. For dessert, lemon gelato or curd, lemon blueberry muffins, and lemon olive oil almond cake come to mind. From hors d’oeuvres to desserts with beverages in between, I fill my menus as well as my life with this fruit.

Left: Caramelized onion, Ricotta, and lemon galette, Right: Grilling the salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper

A Savory Twist

Let’s talk a little about the use of lemon in savory dishes such as in risotto al limone or Greece’s egg lemon soup. It seems counterintuitive to add such a bright flavoring to an otherwise rich, toothsome dish. Take risotto, for example. A typical risotto is creamy with the predominant flavor being that of salty Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. When you add lemon, it’s almost like the dish changes lanes on a freeway. The lemon zest and juice transform it into something very refreshing.

Above: Risotto al limone

A similar thing happens with egg lemon soup, otherwise known as Avgolemono in Greece. This would have a fairly typical “cream of chicken soup” flavor if not for the addition of lemon to the pot. As with the risotto, the addition of lemon elevates this soup from commonplace to splendid. Such is the beauty of the lemon.

Above: French lemon cream custards with candied lemon zest

A New Lemon Drink

The most recent lemony addition to my beverage repertoire is switchel.  My current favorite variety is lemon ginger. Switchels are a beverage with a rich history. They are a beverage based on vinegar, most commonly apple cider vinegar. Switchel was to our early colonists what soda pop is to us today. Basically, it was ubiquitous. It was (and still is) seen as both refreshing and healthy.

Apple cider vinegar was available in the northeastern states and thus became the tang in the recipe, which consisted of water, cider, a sweetener like molasses, honey, or maple syrup, and a flavoring like ginger and/or lemon. Switchel, also known as Haymaker’s Punch because of its refreshing nature, became the refreshment for those working long hours out in the hot sun. However, it was not only consumed by ordinary folk but was always available on the floors of our early Congress, reportedly with a liberal flavoring of Jamacian Rum. This, shall we say, fortified switchel, probably “flavored” a few of our country’s famous and formative oratories.

Left: Switchel, Right top: Salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, Right bottom: A lemony spring spread

Spring Awakening

Tender green buds unfold on the trees. Plants poke their first leaves up through the cool earth. Nature is waking up, opening its eyes, and soon will show its full, adorned glory. Meanwhile, my sweet pea seeds have been tucked into the earth along the fenceline. Tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings are moving into adolescence under the grow-lights in my basement. The vegetable seed packets have been arranged and rearranged as I impatiently wait to plant them in the garden.  

Above: Risotto al limone

Warmer days are on the horizon. Evenings spent outdoors with dear friends will be here soon.  At the moment, though, I’m trying to decide, do I make marmalade or preserved lemons with the extras taking up space in my fridge? Such is the sweet conundrum of a lemon-filled spring. 

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My Kind of Bowling

A Bowl for a Chilly Night

It was the evening of Valentine’s Day. The temperature outside hovered around 20 degrees below zero as the coldness sunk into the cellar. We couldn’t bring ourselves to venture outside to dine in a restaurant. It was just too cold. We needed a hot meal in steaming bowls to enjoy in the coziness of our snug house.

As I considered what to make that would be both a special meal and fit the warming requirement, my mind went to a spicy Asian noodle bowl I’d been wanting to try for some time.  This recipe overflows with my favorite ingredients: lemongrass, ginger root, turmeric, garlic, and chicken thighs. I started to chop, sauté, and stir. Soon the rich aromas filled the kitchen, satisfying my soul like the temperature outside could not. 

The steam swirling off the bowls at the dinner table was intoxicating. The first sip, pure pleasure. In addition to the temperature, it held just enough spice to heat up our mouths as we slurped and swallowed. The mix of herbs and spices created a complex and simply divine flavor. On that frigid eve, this bowl hit the spot.

Asian Bowls Aplenty

What is it with Asian soups and bowls? They have become all the rage, and for good reason. Whether they come from Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, or Singapore, they burst with flavor and are simple to prepare. In many parts of Asia, people eat these soups for breakfast. I can see why. They are nourishing and contain just enough kick to wake you up.

Serving food in bowls has been a tradition in many parts of Asia for centuries. The bowls serve a dual purpose: they retain the heat, and because they are pretty much a one-dish meal, clean-up is a dream. The artwork on them reflects the culture’s love of beauty.

Hot and Cold Varieties

To me these bowls of food seem a bit schizophrenic in that they can be either hot or cold. In hot bowls, the broth carries the bulk of the divine flavor. The cold versions contain similar ingredients, except they are mostly fresh or raw with the dressing and marinades holding the flavor. The hot versions are perfect for a cold, wintry night. The cold serves as a quick, refreshing meal on a hot summer’s evening when you have all those garden herbs and vegetables available.  

Hot Bowls

One thing I have noticed about most hot bowls is the ease of preparation. You simply sauté the aromatics and spices in a little oil, and then you add water and meat to the pot. Leave it to simmer for a while, making an unctuous broth. Meanwhile, prepare any toppings, such as cilantro leaves, scallions, or lime wedges. When the broth has finished cooking, add the fresh vegetables, cook the noodles in a separate pot of hot water, drain them, and you’re ready to eat.  

Depending on the country of origin, the meats and other ingredients can vary. Some of my favorites include a Vietnamese soup that has little meatballs made of ground pork, scallions, and spices. Immediately before serving, add a couple handfuls of watercress for a lemony freshness. Another hails from South Korea. It includes small strips of pork tenderloin and Napa cabbage kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine. The spicy kimchi juice adds a complex heat to the final dish.  

Cold Bowls

The cold versions don’t take much more time to prepare. I usually include some kind of starch, either rice or Asian noodles. I leave room in the bowl for many of the fresh vegetables to which I’m partial: sweet pea pods, strips of red and yellow peppers, julienned zucchini and carrot, Romaine lettuce leaves, and bean sprouts. The meat can be anything from chicken to shrimp, tossed in garlic, ginger, and chili and then sautéed. I’m particularly partial to the accompanying peanut dipping sauces or any sort of dressing made of flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, or mint leaves. I could almost drink this stuff it’s so delicious.

For years, I have thought these bowls are better left to the experts in Thai or Vietnamese restaurants. I had no idea how simple it is to develop their complex flavor given a few key ingredients, a sharp knife, and a little creativity.

The next time you are thinking of making chicken noodle soup, pivot. Add some grated ginger root, curry powder, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and you have a soup such as what millions wake up to everyday. It is so tasty, it may even inspire you to give up that bowl of daily oatmeal you enjoy so much and replace it with Laska, a shrimp and chicken noodle soup eaten for breakfast in Singapore.

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Grapefruit for Breakfast

The icy wind freezes on my face as I make my way through the neighborhood on my early morning walk. The middle of winter greets us with frigid temperatures, icy roads and sidewalks, and cloudy, shortened days. Bringing winter clothing fashion to new heights, we layer on woolen sweaters. Soft, thick mittens and hats keep our fingers and ears warm. As I come into my kitchen from the stark outdoor greyness, the fresh yellows, oranges, and greens that emanate from the citrus bowl greet me.

It is citrus season, and its arrival could not be more welcomed and appreciated. I have been collecting as many varieties of citrus as I can find. Their colorful freshness adds a much needed sparkle to my menus.

A Little Citrus History

Many kinds of citrus find themselves into my kitchen each winter. These varieties are for the most part hybrids from the three original species, pomelos, mandarin oranges, and citron. The common citrus fruits that we consume every day such as lemons, limes, oranges, and clementines are all hybrids from these three parents.

Citrus originated in Asia, which has the perfect climate for it to thrive. As we have moved down through the centuries, both intentional and accidental mutations and hybridizations have caused the wide variety of citrus fruits we enjoy throughout the world today.

Pomelos

Recently I tasted one of these grandparents of the citrus family, the pomelo. I was surprised at its sweetness. When I included halved sections in a couscous salad, the pomelo added a cool, sweet counter to the toothsome couscous. The pomelo is so large that the meat from a single fruit is enough to meet the needs of the entire recipe.

Grapefruit

Grapefruit are a hybrid developed from an accidental cross between the pomelo and the sweet orange. Juicy ruby grapefruit sections are most often enjoyed unadorned with breakfast. However, I try to find as many ways as possible to include this delicious winter fruit into my winter cuisine. Some of my favorite uses include grapefruit sections in a salad of mesclun greens, squeezed for juice, or made into a grapefruit curd.

I probably received my love of grapefruit from my father. Every morning, like clockwork, he would meticulously carve out the sections of an entire grapefruit and enjoy them with his breakfast. This is one of the many favorite memories I have of him. He always had a large bag of grapefruit taking up space in his refrigerator, hardly leaving room for his other culinary obsessions, French cheese and pickled herring.

Meyer Lemons

Another seasonal favorite is Meyer lemons. They are juicy and sweet with tender, edible skins. I slice them into hearty braises, where they add a refreshing brightness.

Meyer lemons are delicious when slivered into paper thin slices for relishes or marmalade. Strips can be candied and used to garnish the top of sweet confections. Recently I made a relish with fresh lemon, crushed red pepper, red onion, chives, and Italian parsley. This made for a delicious embellishment on savory meat sandwiches. The season for these is not long, so if you see them in the grocery store, snap them up when you can; or wait until next year.

Blood Oranges

Moving on to yet another citrus jewel, blood oranges. Blood oranges are a mutation from a sweet orange and originally grew in Italy and Spain. The red meat of the orange is caused by the water-soluble pigment anthocyanin. I first discovered these beauties in Italy where one is seemingly able to buy fresh squeezed blood orange juice anywhere and often in the most unsuspecting places, even in the roadside convenience stores. It has always seemed so lavish to me that this delicacy is so pervasive and easily available. In the US, I have occasionally found blood oranges in the grocery stores in the winter, so keep your eyes peeled for them. Blood oranges are beautiful when made into a salad with shaved fennel bulb and red onions or simply fresh squeezed into juice for a very unusual and special breakfast juice.

Kumquats

The most recent addition to my “favorites list” are kumquats. Kumquats are small ovals, about the size of a large green olive. They are completely edible. Some enjoy popping these little orbs into their mouths, eating them whole and raw. I prefer to create a sort of spilling fruit compote to spoon on top of a round of Camembert or Brie. The sweet/savory contrast makes for an hors d’oeuvres that will never disappoint.

To make this, simply saute slices of kumquats, onions, and garlic in sizzling butter until soft. Add a little brown sugar, white wine, a pinch of red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Let this cook on low for a few minutes to thicken. Spoon the warm sauce on top of a round of room temperature cheese and serve with a crusty baguette. Eh voila, you have just made a gorgeous and delicious yet very easy appetizer.

Cara Cara Oranges

A citrus that looks a bit similar to the blood orange is the Cara Cara orange. These have pink flesh, thanks to the carotenoid lycopene. They are a relative newcomer to the citrus world. Discovered in 1976, it is believed they were a mutation from the Washington navel orange. The pink flesh of the Cara Cara oranges makes the most luscious pink orange marmalade. Paddington bear would even approve.

Fingered Citron

One of the weirdest looking types of citrus that I’ve come across is the fingered citron, or as it’s called in southeast Asia, Buddha’s hand. When grated, its fragrant skin makes for pungent zest. When used in breads, muffins, and cakes, it results in a fruit-forward lemony flavor. Another trait similar to citron is that fingered citrons have no pulp or juice. Rather, their assets lie in their ability to make you think your kitchen is a lemon grove because of their aromatic zest. Recently I used its zest in an Italian lemon almond cake, and it resulted in a delightful lemony flavor.

In this bleak midwinter, we have a refreshing recourse at the ready. A nutrient-packed collection of citrus fruits to enhance your menus, be it beverages, desserts, main dishes, salads, vegetables, hors d’oeuvres, or breads. Their fresh taste is certain to elevate everything they touch, your food as well as your spirits.

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An Unconventional Holiday: Pies, Tarts, and Crusts

A French Thanksgiving

The year was 1977. My parents, brother, and I were spending the year in Strasbourg, France. As the end of November neared, we started to think about how we were going to celebrate Thanksgiving. In discussing with friends, we realized something we should have already known, that Thanksgiving is American. No other country celebrates this holiday. In France the fourth Thursday of November is like any other Thursday in the calendar year.

The simple act of purchasing a turkey proved futile. As it turns out, turkeys are an American phenomenon. We located cranberries (also a North American thing) and pumpkin, and so a Thanksgiving feast was cobbled together.

In an unconventional situation, we made the intentional decision to pivot, to do our own version of this meal, Alsatian style, and use what was available in the bountiful French markets. A plump chicken became the entree. We filled in with locally available items. That year was an adventure, and the Thanksgiving holiday was in keeping. We had great fun making up our own French version of a meal that typically remains rather set in stone.

Allspice cinnamon scented custards with sweet potato crumbles.

Our Minimalist Holiday

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I can’t help but remember that meal in France. This year, we are being asked to do something very different, to scale back our Thanksgiving celebrations. We must pivot and create a different sort of holiday.

In this spirit of minimalism, the idea of small bits or portions becomes an enticing concept. By creating small desserts just for you and those in your home, you can explore untried recipes. Consider venturing outside your comfort zone. Since this isn’t the year you are feeding 20 at the dinner table, experimenting is in order.

Single serving items such as mini pies or tartlets can be both fun to make as well as flexible for a small group. The individual nature of these desserts also make them ideal for sharing with others, be it neighbors, a family member, or a friend who is isolating and can’t be with loved ones this year.

Allspice cinnamon scented custards with sweet potato crumbles.

Understanding Pie Crust

Let’s take this opportunity to talk about how to make a tender flaky pie crust. The crust is the foundation of any pastry. I’ve obsessed for decades to perfect the flakiest and most tender pie crust. Let me begin by explaining flakiness. In any baked good, it’s the fat that makes for tenderness. When making cookies or cake, the softened fat incorporates into the mixture so that the particles are very evenly dispersed throughout the dough. This causes the end product to be evenly tender.

Plum, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola galettes ready to go in the oven.

With a baked good that needs to end up flaky, you need to take some specific steps in the process of making the pastry dough. In this situation, you want the fat to stay fairly firm. You do not want it to be evenly dispersed but rather to remain in small pieces. Thus, when rolled out, it forms long, flat strips in the dough. There are variations to this dough, but this greater category is called laminated dough, meaning the fat is laminated throughout the dough. The same general concept applies to all flaky pastries, including croissants, puff pastry, turnovers, and of course, pie crust.

The finished plum, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola galettes.

Much discussion remains in the pie crust baking world (this, most likely, consists of a very small contingent of people), about which type of fat to use, lard, butter, and/or shortening. For several reasons, I fall into the “all-butter” camp. Butter makes for a very flaky end product. This is because when baked, the water that is in the melted butter creates steam inside the dough, creating the characteristic flakes in your pastry. Secondly, butter tastes like, well, butter. And who can argue with that?

Making the Pie Crust

To achieve this flakiness, there are several steps that have to be taken. First, make sure that your butter is firm to the touch. Leave it in the fridge until just before you start to make your pie dough. The next essential step is to fill a bowl full of ice water. I do this at the beginning so the ice cubes can start to melt, making the water as cold as possible. After you prepare your water, mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Slice the larger portions of butter into tablespoon-sized pieces.

Allspice and cinnamon

Add these to the flour, mix with a pastry blender, two knives, an electric mixer, or even your fingers. Watch out on this step. Only mix until the fat is in pea-sized pieces. This can happen very quickly and you don’t want to over-mix. Next, add the ice-cold water. Again, be careful on this step to not over-mix. The dough should be just coming together, very “piecey” at this point. Tip the dough out onto a floured surface and with your hands, bring it together into a ball. There should still be visible pieces of butter in the dough.

The Next Steps

At this point, I rest the dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This resting allows the gluten to relax, making it much easier to roll out. To do this, I divide the dough into the amount I’ll need for rolling out later. Usually a single recipe makes 2 crusts, so you would divide the dough into two balls. I flatten these balls into disks and wrap with plastic wrap. Place them into the refrigerator. You can also freeze the dough at this point for use at a later time.

When it’s time to roll out the pie crust, simply place the disk on a floury surface, using a rolling pin, roll, starting in the center of the disk, working out in all directions. As you roll out the dough, you should see the little pieces of fat flatten into strips. This is what will produce flakiness. Here is my recipe:

Cami’s Pie Crust

Note: the water used can fluctuate by a tablespoon or so, depending on whether the dough is being mixed by hand or by machine.

Ingredients:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons granulated sugar, if desired
1 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons butter, chilled, divided into pieces
6 tablespoons (approximately) ice water, as needed

  1. Mix flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl.
  2. Working quickly, mix in the pieces of butter using a pastry blender until they are small pea-sized pieces throughout the dough.
  3. Sprinkle in the ice water several tablespoons at a time, working the water into the dough. Don’t overmix. Gather the dough into a ball, working in a circular fashion, form two disks. Wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  4. Roll dough out on a floured surface, working the rolling pin from the center of the disk out toward the edges.
  5. Once the crust is rolled out, use it as desired, following the directions of the pie or tartlet recipe you are making.

New Thanksgiving Pie Fillings

The frosting on the cake, so to speak, for pies, is the filling you choose to put into your amazingly tender flaky crusts. I tend to gravitate toward the fruits that are in season at Thanksgiving. Many of these are unheralded, the reasons for which are beyond me. One of my favorites is pears. Pears are at their peak in the end of November with many varieties from which to choose. They create a delicate, creamy flavor when baked. Versatility is a key attribute as they move easily between hors d’oeuvres and desserts.

Other fall picks you can include are apples, plums, quince, persimmons, cranberries, figs, kumquats, sweet potatoes, or squash. Just like pears, these all move easily across the spectrum of a meal. They are as perfect used in an appetizer, as a compote for a roast, as a topping or filling for a dessert. These cool days also lend themselves to the richness of nuts. Currently, I’m particularly fond of hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and chestnuts. Incorporating one of these into a chocolate tart will solve most of the world’s problems. At least it will be a delectable distraction. I could go on, but you get my point. The options are as endless as your creativity. This is a golden opportunity for you to try some of these lesser known ingredients. You’ll be pleased and surprised at the ease at which you may usher a new favorite into your repertoire.

A Thanksgiving for Trial and Error

I’m not sure where the saying, ”As easy as pie” came from, probably from a grandmother who had been making pies for 50 years. It’s not actually the most accurate statement. A more honest saying would be, “Pie isn’t easy at all. It’s only a success if you have taken the necessary steps and perfected the art of the flaky crust”. That’s a less than inspiring saying and quite the mouthful. That said, this is the year to practice, to experiment, to pivot, to go out of your comfort zone. Your audience will probably be small, quite accepting of your creations, and possibly rather forgiving if you fall short of success.

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A Year for Beans

“Never ever ever mess around with my greens. Especially the beans!” My sentiments exactly. This line from the musical Into the Woods echoed through my mind as I watched the beans twist and curl their way up the fences. This summer was, for me, an adventurous journey into the world of funky, heirloom beans. 

Too Many Kinds to Count

There were so many varieties, each with distinctive patterns and colors. White beans inside yellow pods, black or brown beans in green pods, pink stripes, purple stripes, deep purple; these are just a sampling of this summer’s collection. Even multiple continents made an appearance. There were beans from Italy, Ireland, the U.S., Germany, France, the Netherlands, and even a bean developed in good ol’ Minnesota. 

I used the forgotten spaces of the fenceline to plant the pole bean varieties. I tucked the bush beans into open areas or spaces previously used by early spring vegetables like radishes.  Because beans need to be planted once the soil is warm, you can inter-plant them with plants like sugar snap peas and radishes that bear quickly in the spring and then are done. Beans mature much later than radishes or peas, so by planting them in the same space, you are maximizing your garden yield. 

A Beneficial Legume for The Garden

Beans are part of the legume family. Legumes are a beneficial type of vegetable to plant throughout your garden because legumes fix nitrogen. They pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air, and then the bacteria attached to its roots convert the nitrogen into a form usable as a nutrient for the plant. When the plant is done, the usable forms (ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites) are available in the soil for the nearby plant roots to use. Biological nitrogen fixation is an example of nature using its own plants to fertilize itself. 

Companion Planting the Beans

This concept is also referred to as companion planting, where plants mutually benefit each other when planted next to one another, a practice that has been done for centuries. Native Americans mastered this age-old practice when they would plant a combination of vegetables they named “the three sisters.” First they buried corn kernels into the ground in the shape of small rings, and then they surrounded the corn with beans. Lastly, they planted squash in the spaces between the corn/bean rings. The beans fertilized the soil for the corn and squash, using the tall corn stalks as a trellis to climb. The squash formed a high thick carpet on the ground that cooled the roots of the beans and corn, allowing them to thrive. The squash’s thick prickly leaves also served as a deterrent for animals that might want to come and nibble on the crops. 

The Health of Beans

Beans are not only good for the soil; they are likewise good for your health. A wonderful source of the B vitamin folate, they are also high in fiber, protein, iron, and magnesium. As a nutrient-packed, low fat, and very inexpensive vegetable, let’s just say their return on investment is huge. For each single little bean buried into the sweet summer dirt, you will reap a hundredfold in harvest.

Harvesting and Storing

I began harvesting the long, thin French varieties in July. They add a delightful crunch to salads. You can steam them with a touch of butter and lemon or steam and quickly cool them to dip into aioli on an antipasto platter. The wax and purple varieties came next. These went into stir fries, soups, and casseroles. Finally, a breakpoint arrived where I halted harvesting them so the remaining could mature and become dried beans for this winter. 

This is where I find myself now. I have brought all the beans in from the garden. I have threshed the driest of the bunch to get the beans out of the stiff, dried pod. The rest find themselves spread out in the basement until they are also ready for threshing. 

I have pulled out a select few from each variety to plant again next year. I will store these in a cool spot until early next summer when I will plant them. The remaining dried beans are awaiting incorporation into our winter menu of hearty stews, casseroles, bean salads, and dips.

Garden grown beans offer a welcome consolation in these cool, dreary, autumn days. Whether it’s a cassoulet or a bowl of ham and bean soup, these are the gifts summer has given to winter. The memory of delicate purple flowers gracing the tips of vines exploring their way up and over the fenceline. Tiny little bean pods transforming into delicious adult counterparts. I taste these memories as I bring a spoonful to my lips. 

Yes, as the fairy tales have claimed, beans are certainly magical. And they are not to be messed with.

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Vice Principles

Apple Butter Memories

The apple butter is bubbling thickly on the stovetop. Bubbles the size of quarters is what I’m shooting for. The rich, sweet aroma steaming out from the pot is the definition of autumn for me. Whiffs of apple and cinnamon remind me of Saturdays spent chasing kids around orchards, their fingers sticky from holding caramel apples, their cheeks sugary from devouring piping hot apple doughnuts. Oh, how they loved to run through corn mazes and agonize over the best pumpkin to bring home to our front porch. This is the essence of canning apple butter, the essence of fall.

The Time for Canning

I realize as I painstakingly stir this pot that lately I have been doing a great deal of harvesting and “putting up,” as they used to call canning. This practice is one of the ways I’ve found joy in these less than ideal times. It has been a bounteous gardening year. In spite of the stores experiencing a run on canning supplies, I have managed to preserve several hundred jars of jams, jellies, salsas, pasta sauces, soups, pickles, etc.

However, it’s more than just the chore of preserving garden-plenty. This is my happy place. The rhythm of harvesting, cleaning, chopping, cooking, pouring into hot, sterilized jars, and hot-water bathing the filled jars seems as natural as breathing. The act of sharing with others, whether a random act of kindness or an intentional gift, confirms that both gardening and cooking are meant to be communal. Garden vegetables and canned goods both unequivocally yearn to be given away. (Always befriend a gardener; you’ll never need to garden yourself!)

Canning and Other Glorious Ways to Cope

My mind wanders to the other things that have kept me occupied and content, which leads me to think about vices. This word, vice, has a negative definition and connotation in every dictionary I could find. The most positive spin of the meaning is the word idiosyncrasy. For purposes of this discussion, I’m going with this meaning because vices are not always evil. They can be a way to cope with life’s circumstances.

My idiosyncrasies have been key in adjusting to and then enjoying this summer of relative isolation. I have been taking the time to smell the basil, the marigolds, and the tomato leaves (I can’t “smell the roses” because my sole rose bush decided not to flower this year). Savoring that early morning cup of French press coffee, watching the robins splash water everywhere as they spiritedly bathe in the birdbath, meandering through pristine college campuses as our sweet dog and I go out for our evening stroll, or the snaps and pops of paella grilling over hardwood coals. These have become my vices, my idiosyncrasies. These are how I remain content and bring this contentment to others.

Too Much of a Good Thing? I Think Not.

As we have slowed down and created new space in our lives, we can let either the bad habits or the good habits rise to the surface. I have chosen jam making, bread baking, garden weeding, book reading, sock knitting, and backyard nibbling with my pack as my vices. I’m not yet sure if they are good or bad. I think I might have overdone the jam making. My stash of socks and baby booties has gotten much too large. Can gardens be too weed-free? Possibly. One thing I know is that I can never have too much time nibbling with loved ones in the backyard. Can one bake too much bread? Hmmm. After all, I do need somewhere for all that jam to go.

Have our habits reset? Have some hobbies become fine-tuned? Has some of the unnecessary fluff in our schedules disappeared? Do we possess increased intentionality? If even some personal improvements have occurred, this is score one for the winning team, you.

Joy and contentment are choices we make not dictated by the circumstances that surround us. Consider adopting some vices. In these odd times, choose a couple of health-producing vices, choose joy, choose to spend time on those things and with people that are important to you. It’s a well known fact that negative circumstances often result in positive outcomes that you could never have imagined would be possible. This is one of life’s more interesting juxtapositions.

Are you having trouble deciding which vices are right for you? Well, you can have some of mine. I probably have too many anyway.

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The Inspiration Beside Me

Greeted with Open Arms

We had been driving all day and arrived at the cabin just before dinner. What greeted us was beyond the scope of our imagination. My sister, Margit, and brother-in-law, Bill, had been working for two days to create a feast for us. Not any old feast, a Chinese feast.

They had been preparing Peking duck with all the trimmings and accompaniments. Peking duck is basically an extremely delicious Chinese duck soft taco. It is almost impossible to find in the United States because it takes so long to prepare. Yet at a little cabin deep in the rugged wilderness of Montana, they had made this amazing meal for us. The emanating aromas pulled us inside. If you have ever been on the receiving end of a labor of love, you know it warms your being with a sense of belonging.

Another time we were welcomed to their home with a meal of slow roasted cassoulet. This is also a meal that is two days in the making. And then it was grilled seafood paella. Then it was fish tacos using rock fish they had just brought back from a fishing excursion on Puget Sand. We would regularly wake up to French press coffee and hot-from-the-grill sourdough pancakes (another multi-day affair). Bill’s homemade Worcestershire sauce goes on everything. The list continues.

Delicious Mastery

Margit and Bill have not only set an impossibly high bar for exquisitely crafted meals, but they have modeled for me the increasingly rare gift of hospitality. To be welcomed with a glass of perfectly aged Willamette Valley Pinot and creamy country pâté is a treat rarely enjoyed these days.

It is a privilege to say that I have not had to go far to find culinary inspiration or knowledge. A phone call always produces an answer. “Bill, tell me where I can find duck pâté.” “How do I perfectly roast a standing rib roast?” “Do you have a good recipe for chimichurri?” “How about a made-from-scratch horseradish sauce?” “Demi-glace, would you ever share the recipe?” Questions asked. Questions answered.

Apart from the technical side of cooking, there is the more nuanced rhythm of entertaining. Margit is a fantastic cook, but also she is a master at the presentation and flow of an evening. It starts at the curb with beautiful landscaping and flowers spilling from planters. One is guided inside, accompanied by string quartet music and burning candles. Vases of daffodils and ranunculus, a tray of tasty hors d’oeuvres, perfectly decanted red wine, an inspirational atmosphere; this is how one embarks on the evening.

To receive guests, whether friends, family, or stranger, with a warmth and generosity of spirit, a table spread with lovingly-made dishes, and delightful conversation; those are the lessons I have learned from my sister and brother-in-law.

The Quintessence of Grace

It takes a certain selfless grace to master the gift of hospitality. It requires you to slow down and look outside yourself to find how you can create a welcoming and genial event. The meal and accompaniments can be simple; it is the thoughtfulness to create a special time and space that speaks. Margit and Bill have developed this into an art form.

My final meal with Bill exemplifies this. It was a warm August evening in Montana. A dinner of short beef ribs, slowly baked in a tawny red wine, eaten outside under a grape-laden pergola. Strands of Edison bulbs and chunky candles provided the lighting. A warm plum galette serving as the capstone. This poignant night is forever etched in my memories. Selfless grace. A fine-tuned culinary wisdom camouflaged by an ease of service. Craftsmanship belied by hospitality.

These two culinary and hospitality muses have been right beside me along my life journey. They have gifted me with not only heartwarming memories but also an appreciation for what makes life truly sublime.