Posted on 4 Comments

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.  

Posted on 1 Comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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. 

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on 1 Comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on 4 Comments

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.

Posted on 1 Comment

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.

Posted on 2 Comments

For the Love of Tomatoes

How is it that our favorite vegetable is only available in its perfectly ripened glory for a couple months in late summer? Tomatoes, naturally sweetened by the sun, have a fresh yet unami quality that is hard to replicate in the winter months. Their shortened availability feeds our ubiquitous obsession with the pomme d’amour of all colors and sizes.

Growing Tomatoes

I have grown (and attempted to grow) tomatoes for over 30 years. They can actually be quite a finicky plant to grow well. Many factors go into successfully planting, growing, and harvesting these beauties. They are known to be heavy feeders, so you want to plant them in rich soil. They tend to be susceptible to diseases, especially those that are moisture-related. A number of insects agree with us and think they are delicious. They do best in as much sun as they can get. The stems can break easily, so we’re always looking for the newest and greatest way to support them. This is getting to be a daunting list.

Despite these potential obstacles, tomatoes are the one vegetable around which my garden is organized. My primario. I decide where in the garden I am going to move my tomatoes (because, of course, tomatoes are picky about this as well. They shouldn’t be planted in the same spot year to year, or they will get a blight disease that harbors in the soil). Once I know they’ll be in a spot they fancy and where they’ll flourish, I lay out the blueprint for the rest of my garden.

Choosing Varieties

My first consideration in choosing which tomatoes to plant is always about how I am going to use them in the kitchen. Will they be eaten fresh, in sandwiches, in salads, or as part of an hors d’oeuvre? How much pasta sauce or salsa am I going to preserve this year?

IMG_2549 (2)

That leads me to which varieties are going to serve my needs best. I tend to prefer the complex flavors, shapes and colors of heirlooms, yet I am constantly frustrated by how easily they get diseased and how relatively few tomatoes each plant produces. After years of planting only heirlooms or hybrids, the last few years I have planted a cross between the two. I am hedging my bets, hoping that the best qualities of each will shine through.

I have faithfully done everything my high-maintenance, lipstick-colored orbs require. The soil has been enriched with compost, they have been fertilized, mulched, pruned, staked, nipped, and tucked. Now it’s time for them to start giving back. To earn their keep, so to speak. It’s August, and I have big culinary plans, almost all of which involves tomatoes.

Cooking with Tomatoes

Let’s start simply. The cherry versions often don’t make it out of the garden, nibbled by kids and adults alike. One of my favorite treats is to sprinkle an interesting sea salt on slices and eat these while still warm from the sunshine.

This is when I splurge on great olive oil, as freshly pressed as I can find. I lean toward the grassy peppery flavor tones. This gets drizzled over tomatoes, slivers of my newly harvested garlic, pieces of torn basil leaves, crushed pepper, and a flaky sea salt. When stacked atop a slice of grilled baguette, it becomes a dish I could actually eat every night of the year. I know I can’t, however, thus compounding its allure.

My imagination for their uses is only limited by the available waking hours of the days. I tuck tomatoes into tarts, crepes, tacos, soups, pizza, braises, pasta dishes, salads, and sandwiches. I haven’t included them in my oatmeal or homemade ice cream, so for now, breakfast and dessert haven’t been invaded. I’ll have to work on that. A tomato sorbet might be in my future.

Posted on Leave a comment

Random Beauty: Self-Seeding

It was a cool, late spring afternoon. The sun shone, but there was a slight bite in the air. We were itching to dig outside in the dirt. My kids inspected the garlic patch, which was by now a foot tall. They called out to me, “Mom, we can’t believe you haven’t weeded the garlic. Look at all the weeds coming out of the ground.” I came over to inspect, and then I started to explain each little plant. This one was arugula. That one was fennel. Over here was dill. There was cilantro. These weren’t weeds at all. They were self-seeding plants from previous years.

Self-Seeding: What is it?

Self-seeding happens when a plant is left to flower and then go to seed. In the summer sun, these seeds dry out and drop onto the ground or are blown by the wind. They sink into the soil and stay there until the time is right for them to germinate and grow into a new plant. This is nature’s way of sustaining itself. It’s also how a weed can go from one plant to 300 in no time flat.

Over the past number of years, I have been increasingly intentional about letting my herbs and vegetables produce flowers so the beneficial insects have nectar to eat. On any summer day, fennel, cilantro, arugula, and lettuce flowers are covered with little hoverflies or bumblebees busily sucking in the sweet nectar these flowers provide. As they move from flower to flower, these diminutive bugs play the essential role of pollinating our fruit and vegetable plants.

Why Self-Seed?

Many might say that letting plants self-seed is the lazy gardener’s way of operating. That is true in some respect. It can also be a frugal way to garden. When you let plants self-seed, you don’t have to buy the seed or plant the seed. It just comes up on its own.

I tend to have a favorable perspective on the philosophy of self-seeding. I love the whimsy of a coleus flower poking up in the middle of my radishes or a bachelor button in my beets. Cilantro taking root within my carrots brings me joy. Loveliness arises when a broad, white dill flower stands proudly next to the cucumbers. Order is laced with beautiful disarray.

Ordered Chaos

Yesterday as I was harvesting berries, tucked up under the branches of the mulberry tree which the birds planted years ago, I noticed that the clematis had vined up around a lower mulberry branch. The plum-colored flowers intertwined with the dark purple berries. This simple artistry caught me and drew me in. The intentional encircling the accidental, the fanciful result of order marrying chaos.

Many gardeners set aside a designated garden space for self-seeding plants. Sometimes they combine this with their perennial vegetable garden. Perennial vegetables include plants like asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries, walking onions, thyme, chives, and oregano. If these two categories mix in the same space, technically one never needs to plant these vegetables and herbs again. As the saying goes, “One only plants tomatillos once.” Tomatillos are famous for self-seeding.

Exceptions to Self-Seeding

There are a few caveats in this whole discussion. I do weed extensively in places where I do not want self-seeding plants to grow. For example, a lot of dill came up in a section where I had planted beets. I harvested the dill when it was five or six inches tall, opening up the space for the beets to grow and thrive. A similar thing happened where I planted my Basil Genovese. Arugula was happily growing very tall, shading the tiny basil plants. Guess what I ate for dinner last night? An arugula salad. The dill is going to top a baked slab of fish shortly.

Another point I want to be sure and mention is to not let invasive plants self-seed. As much as the bees go crazy for mint flowers, I am fastidious about plucking them off the mint plants before they can drop their seed and spread around the garden. The same holds true for both regular and garlic chives. Heirloom tomatoes can be included as well simply because if you let tomatoes drop onto the ground and they rot there for the rest of the summer, a tight collection of tomato plants will sprout the next year. These will undoubtedly be planted in the wrong spot and too tightly together. You can carefully transplant a few of them into the intended spots, but the rest will probably go into the compost pile.

Compost Plants

Speaking of compost piles, there’s many a squash or plant that has emerged from its surface because someone discarded their extras the previous summer. Again, the delightful unintended consequences occasionally graced upon us by nature. The idea of something as delicious as squash growing out of the rot of compost is a concept paralleled in many aspects of life. I suppose this is what attracts me to the random beauty of self-seeded plants.

I will savor the cilantro in my mango salad. The radish flowers (a plant I’m allowing to self-seed for next year) are going into a bouquet on my dining room table. The sunflowers and bachelor buttons will bloom and then dry to drop their seeds for another year. Beauty moves forward, magnifying into the future.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Bread of Home

Memory

The heady aroma of fresh bread wafting from the kitchen greets me. We are visiting my grandparents on their wheat farm in eastern Montana. Earlier in the day, my grandmother had scooped a bucket of wheat kernels from their granary. She brought the wheat into her kitchen and ground it in her grinder, the old-fashioned kind with a funnel-shaped top to hold the grain, a drawer at the bottom to catch the flour, and a hand crank that, when turned, transformed the kernels into flour. 

The smells of the freshly ground flour and the loaves turning golden in the oven, the taste of a warm slice smeared with fresh butter and homemade jam. These are ethereal memories. Many layers of meaning arise from this process, and the actual eating of the bread is only a small part. 

Bread as a Symbol

When a loved one lavishes us an act of care and kindness, the smells, sights, and actions of that memory etch into the depths of our being. What started at a young age with my grandmother then continued as baking mentors cultivated and nurtured my passion. As such, the baking of bread has always held a deeper meaning for me.

Bread represents a warm and welcoming home. It tells of the safe and quiet inspiration that grandmothers dole out so generously and displays the skills gained through time-tested experience. The baking of bread and its delectable bouquet evoke love, security, and hospitality.

A Quiet Hour

Each step in the process is calming: softening the yeast, weighing the flour, and culturing the starter in a warm spot on the counter. I am careful when I measure my ingredients, minding the ratios of flour to liquid to yeast. 

With a rhythmic motion, I knead the dough. Understanding the elasticity in the dough tells me when it has been kneaded just the right amount of time. Then with anticipation, I watch the magic of the loaves rising, for there is a sense to knowing when it has risen enough. Finally, precision meets artistry as the dough bakes to a tan crust.  

Baking bread elicits a feeling of home and a sense of family history. Recently I have been making beloved standards as well as venturing into other cultures to discover new techniques and flavorings. With bread I travel from family favorites to European classics, from sweet to savory. We can go from a simple white loaf to breads filled with hearty grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. No matter how ancient or distant the origin of the recipe, they all bring me back home.

Living Bread

The more I bake, the more wild yeast escapes into my kitchen. My dough picks up this yeast and uses it. Over time the amount of yeast I need to add decreases. My kitchen becomes alive. It participates in the act of baking.

Bread can also seed new bread, almost self sustaining. Many seasoned bakers tear off a section of dough and set it aside to incorporate into the next batch. This aged dough not only aids in the rising but adds depth and complexity to the flavor of the bread. In the days before the invention of commercial yeasts, sourdough starters, which pull in wild yeasts from the air or the sharing of bits of soured dough between family and friends, was essential to making bread.

It warms my heart to see the grocery store shelves empty of flour and yeast. We collectively are baking. At the same time that we nourish our loved ones, we are showing them we care. We are demonstrating their importance to us in the act of baking them bread.

IMG_5862 (2)
Challah with sesame seeds

Posted on 2 Comments

Garden Planning to Soothe the Soul

Spring Planting

Seed catalogs litter my couch. I keep pouring over the pages of flowers and vegetables. I have garden tabs open across the top of my computer screen, and I have been driving through town, stopping by garden shops. Amid all this planning, the plants are pulling me in, whispering, “I am beautiful. I am delicious. Buy me. Plant me.”

Planting time is approaching. The days are longer and warmer. We have been cooped up, self-isolating, and our reaction to this seclusion is to get outside. In the face of sickness, we have an inner voice inspiring us to self-improve and do what we can within ourselves to combat the enemy that is consuming our world.

IMG_2406 (2)

We have this urge to grow plants for eating. We want to surround ourselves with beauty, living greenery, and flowers. The desire to eat healthy foods enthralls us. We are exercising more than ever. It seems more important than ever that we plant our gardens. For our soundness of mind, we need to sink our hands in the dirt and bury seeds that soon will produce vegetal plenty.

Finding Garden Plants

Now, where to go to procure these seeds and plants? As local businesses are struggling, it seems more important now than ever to support them. I choose to buy my garden supplies from those I value and rely on during normal gardening seasons. I carefully tuck away the catalogs, turn off the computer, and buy from the shops in my community.

Whether it’s calling on the phone, ordering by computer, or, mask in hand, actually visiting these shops, seeds and plants will come home with me. The plants that fill my garden this year and the flowers that will spill out of my planters will mean more than ever.

IMG_7065 (2)

Planning the Garden

First, I start with a plan. What should I plant first? Second? In a few weeks? My garden map is sketched, pencil on graph paper. I need to place the nightshade plants in a new spot this year. Maybe where the basil was last year.

IMG_3425 (2)

I tend to go a little crazy on tomato plants. My resolution for 2020 is to control myself and carefully choose my favorite varieties. A few heirlooms, some Romas for pasta sauce, a couple sweet cherries, a couple dependable heavy producers, and most importantly, some new interesting colors and shapes. These are going to take too much room. I erase and rearrange the vegetables on my map, trying to squeeze in my indulgences. So many indulgences, so little space… There are simply too many have-to-have tomatoes.

Planning a Timeline

The cool weather vegetables need to go into the ground. Kale, arugula, sweet peas, radishes, lettuces, onions, leeks, carrots, beets, radicchio, Swiss chard.

My attention now turns to planning what I will plant in late May. It is important to purchase them now, as these unusual varieties tend to sell out. Plants include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and cold-sensitive herbs and flowers. After bringing them home, they can harden in my yard for a while before they get planted.

IMG_9795 (2)

Lastly are the vegetables that cannot get planted until the ground is very warm: beans, cucumbers, and squash. I buy the seeds but will hold off planting until early June.

IMG_2820 (2)

With my plan forming, I can already smell the intoxicating scents of the garden. Tall dill that I allow to self seed everywhere (My small contribution to the black swallowtail butterfly). The delicate white cilantro flowers. Marigolds and nasturtium. The distinctive aroma of a just pruned tomato plant. Green fingertips. The yellow finches flitting from coleus to coleus, eating their seeds. This planning process elicits a visceral reaction. This garden is already worming its way into my soul.

The Hope of Spring

While on a walk, I hear the robins chirp as they busily go about building their nests. The squirrels race from tree to tree, busy with who knows what. The buds on the magnolia trees are just appearing, ivory cashmere petals emerging from pale green, velvety calyx.

The cool spring air. I breathe in deeply. Thankful. The soft new grass seems so green. Rhubarb and strawberry leaves push up through the soft, damp earth. The roses and clematis don’t realize there’s a deadly virus afoot. The plum and cherry trees are blithely budding. Nature is seemingly unaware of our current crisis.

This new birth is calming and reassuring. Heading to the garden, trowel and seed packets in hand, I settle in to dig, plant, and water, waiting for the future, waiting for new life to emerge.

Posted on 2 Comments

How to Make a Braise: Basic Comfort Food

The day is cloudy and grey. Our country’s spirits reflect the weather outside. We have been asked as a society to stay home, to limit our tasks to those that are essential. To take care of those around us. To take care of ourselves.

As I consider what those essential tasks actually are at the moment, cooking and eating delicious, simple, healthy meals seems to be a priority. With everything on our minds, simplicity is the theme of the day. The need for inexpensive meals is also looming in the shadows.

The challenge for us is to stock our pantries with a combination of perishable and nonperishable ingredients that when combined in the right way will be delicious and good for us.

When I think about easy foods that are filled with healthy ingredients, I think of soups and braises. They both can have protein, usually in the form of meat, and several vegetables and fruits. The principles involved in their creation are similar.

IMG_6651 (2)
A beef, mushroom, and carrot braise over boiled potatoes

The Braise

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s talk about how to create the basic braise. This is an all-around dinner option that is very flexible regarding which ingredients are included as well as what they are served with. It is defined as a method of cooking food in a closed vessel with very little liquid at a low temperature and for a long time. Typically, the finished product is then served over a starch such as potatoes, pasta, or rice.

Beginning the Process

Only a handful of ingredients go into creating flavor in this dish. The first is the meat. I prefer using tough, inexpensive, less than ideal cuts. Surprisingly, these cuts, when cooked low and slow, become fall-apart tender, all the while creating a rich savory sauce. Cut the meat in two-bite chunks, saute with oil in a heavy-bottomed pot until the pieces are the color of dark caramel. The bottom of your pot will now be turning a medium brown color. This is good. This crust (or fond, as it is called in the culinary world) will help provide the flavor in the final dish.

IMG_6582 (2)
In the process of turning the beef. Notice the browned sides on the right half of the image and the fond developing on the bottom of the pot.

Once the meat is nicely brown on all sides remove it from the pan and set aside for a few minutes. Add vegetables such as onions, celery, carrots, and garlic to the hot pan. You may need to add a little more oil at this point. Check the heat to make sure it’s medium to medium-low. You don’t want the fond to go from brown to black. Saute these vegetables until light brown. If you are adding spices (often called aromatics) to the dish, stir them in at this point. It adds flavor to have them cook for a minute or two before adding liquid.

IMG_6594 (2)
This is the color you are aiming for when you are finished sauteing the meat. Notice the spacing between pieces of meat and the dark fond on the base of the pot. Now I remove the meat and saute the vegetables.

Deglazing

This brings us to the next step in the process. That is the deglazing of this fond. Here we use the second category of ingredients. These deglazing agents usually have an acidic nature to them. Some of my favorites include broth, wine, tomato juice, vinegar, water, sherry or port.

Add your chosen deglazing liquid now. Let it cook for a couple minutes before stirring. This way the fond can soften and start to dissolve before you pull it off the bottom of the pan with your spoon. Once it has softened for a minute, stir and gently scrape the bits off the bottom surface.

Now put the meat back into the pot. Add more liquid (this can be any of your deglazing ingredients except maybe vinegar) and any other vegetables or fruits that you are using in your dish. For this braise specifically, I ended up using a combination of port, tomato sauce, concentrated beef stock, and water. I don’t cover the mixture with liquid but rather have about one-third to one-half of the meat and vegetables showing on top.

Into the Oven

Cook on the stove top until the mixture reaches a simmer, and then cover the pot and put it into your oven at a low temperature. The ideal braising temperatures range between 275 and 325 degrees F. I tend to choose on the low end of this range and bake the dish for a longer time frame. Typical braising time in the oven ranges from one to three hours. For bigger or tougher pieces of meat, allow for a longer bake time. You’ll know the meat is ready when it falls apart easily when you handle it.

When it has baked to your satisfaction, pull it from the oven, and add salt and pepper to taste. If you have used a higher fat meat, the rendered fat will float to the surface during cooking. Skim this off using a large wide spoon. It is now ready to serve, either alone or with your favorite accompaniments.

The Braise Menagerie

Versatility certainly defines a braise. Because of the ability to choose between many types of meat, vegetables, deglazing agents, fruits and accompanying agents, it enables you to make it even with a limited pantry. Do you have small amounts of this or that ingredient? Put it in the braise. For example, do you have dried plums, an onion, a lemon, and a couple of chicken thighs? You can make a braise out of these. How about a lonely piece of beef in your freezer, a can of mushrooms, and some onion and garlic? You can make a braise. Search through your cupboards for your most flavorful deglazing options. Do the same with your spices.

As you look through your kitchen, do you discover something that would be a tasty addition? Maybe something you need to use up? I did. In the bottom of my vegetable drawer were some gorgeous carrots that I had picked up last week. They were chunked up and added to the pot right before it went into the oven. In the end they were a sweet and colorful addition.

Final Braising Tips

A simple creation. A frugal fare cobbled together from the stores in your kitchen, delivered to your dining room table with grace and confidence. You will be amazed with yourself. You can create something very delicious from almost nothing at all. Just remember the key steps to create flavor.

Let the fond develop on the bottom of the pot by not overcrowding the pot when sauteing the meat. Cook it on medium heat, and stir occasionally to sear on all sides. Use the most flavorful spices and deglazing ingredients you have on hand, and bake the whole menagerie low and slow. Tuck into this delectable dinner with the confidence that this simple and economical dish is the healthy comfort food you’ve been craving. Eat well, be well.

IMG_6681 (2)

At this time of crisis in our world, in lieu of offering classes, I would like to extend the invitation for anyone that has questions regarding cooking, creating meals from your pantry, planning and planting a garden for this summer or needs any advice on keeping you and your family healthy through cooking and gardening, please reach out to me via email. I am here to help you and answer any questions you may have.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Winter Blues

It is a hazy day, one of those calm, icy days where our souls can take a deep sigh of relief. Today is a needed respite from the frigid climes we have endured this winter. In the past few weeks, we have seen many twelve degrees below zero double wool sock days. Today, one pair of wool socks will do.

The ice on the sidewalks has been so thick and hard that the ice cleats attached to my winter boots have had a hard time poking through the ice to provide the grip I need when out walking the dog. I end up walking in the soft snow along the edge of side streets rather than chugging through snow banks.

It is mid-winter in the north country. Storms plow through with magnificent force. Snow. Ice. Wind. Cold temps. Blizzard conditions. 

Blue Food

My best defense against this frigid situation is to counter all the dreariness with the winter blues. Using every blue arrow in my quiver, I am replacing what could potentially be a blue season with a blue menu. I am stocked up. Stashed in every nook and cranny of my kitchen is blueberry basil kombucha, huckleberry beer, blueberry açaí ale, lavender melon kombucha, blueberries and deep blue grapes, blue cheese,  grape jam, even blue potatoes. Blueberry pomegranate smoothies are a daily breakfast fare. Bluefin tuna, Blue Diamond almonds, Blue Mission figs. We’ll celebrate with savory and sweet blueberry pizzas. Just to make sure all my bases are covered, I have a blue and white can of Snowstorm beer on hand. 

A Time of Clarity

You ask why I’m fighting white fury with blue bounty? I say why not? For many, this post holiday season can be cold, lonely, depressing, and filled with discarded New Year’s resolutions. Why not do something bold and intentional to make it both fun and interesting? Or use the extra time in your schedule to whittle down the flotsam in your closets? Or do both.

For me, this is a clarifying season. A time to clean, to organize. This is the opportune time to do all those indoor projects I was too busy to do during the gardening or holiday seasons. When my schedule clears, so does my mind. So I take advantage of this to do projects that perhaps take more focus. 

IMG_5963 (2)
Blue foods

Winter Bounty

Let’s get back to food, shall we? The new year tends to be a time of new beginnings for our personal health and well being. We come off a December of feasting and want to corral the beast we call diet. This is actually a great time to start this endeavor. The grocery stores are replete with nutritious winter fruits and vegetables. Ruby grapefruit and blue potatoes, mangoes and kumquats, figs, pears, persimmons, pomegranates, mushrooms of all kinds, microgreens, and sprouts, beets, Brussels sprouts, onions, and carrots. The list goes on. 

IMG_6215 (2)
Roasted blue fingerling potatoes with Maitake mushrooms

All these foods contain nutrients such as antioxidants and phytochemicals. From anthocyanins in blueberries to plenolics and carotenoids found in citrus fruit, winter fruits and vegetables do not play second fiddle to their summer counterparts in the nutrition department. You can walk into the produce section of your grocery store and choose with abandon, knowing that as you choose and eat the rainbow, you are benefiting your health. 

Researchers have studied pockets of centenarians around the globe and examined the practices and circumstances surrounding this phenomenon. Several commonalities have been noticed, including but not limited to a vegetable based diet, stress management, regular exercise, and a priority placed on family and elders. These population pockets have been fittingly dubbed Blue Zones.

Cooking a Blue Meal

Here is my blues interpretation. I am roasting blue fingerlings, sautéing Maitake mushrooms in butter and garlic. Then I toss mushrooms with the crusty potatoes and sprinkle it all with truffle salt and freshly ground black pepper. A fluffy tousle of microgreens makes me wonder if the meal is having a bad hair day. A tapenade of Kalamata olives served on seedy crackers and topped with grape jam and Gorgonzola cheese adds another dimension to the meal. 

Earlier I threw together some pizza dough, and now the creativity flies as I roll out small rounds and dress them up with blueberries, prosciutto, crème fraîche, heirloom tomatoes, pears, shallots, pea sprouts, wild mushrooms, basil, red onions, truffle salt, black pepper, fresh mozzarella pearls, and parmigiano reggiano. Each combination of ingredients piques the palate in a unique way. Once you know the basics of a perfect crust, the art of delicious pizza is just a matter of building flavor with great ingredients.

A Sweet Finale

For a sweet capstone, I’ve assembled personal galettes filled with crème fraîche, pear slivers or plump blueberries, and blue cheese. These freeform tarts start with a buttery, flaky crust rolled out paper thin. I cut these out using a small bowl as a template. After spreading the crème fraîche, I scatter fruit and cheese over top and then sprinkle on vanilla-scented raw sugar to add a little crunch and sweetness. These tarts are always a great option because the ingredients that top them are flexible based on your pantry, the season of the year, and the rest of your menu. The two versions I have chosen are a sweet-savory counter and will be the perfect finish to a celebratory meal. 

To complete the picture, favorite Blues tunes are the musical backdrop. This is turning out to be quite the party after all. So, while the weather outside is frightful, my escapade into fending off the winter blues with the winter blues is delightful. And delicious.

Posted on Leave a comment

Tokens of Christmas Warmth

Spoon Cookies

The night is waning; dawn has not yet arrived. Pats of unsalted butter melt in the saucepan. With a silicone scraper, I stir back and forth across the bottom, watching the butter carefully. First the surface bubbles, and then a thick foam forms. Finally, I smell it, the nutty aroma of beurre noisette or brown butter. I quickly transfer the pan to a sink of cold water to stop the cooking. I am in the kitchen making my favorite and most time-consuming Christmas cookie, spoon cookies. 

IMG_4149 (2)
Beurre noisette or brown butter

Spoon cookies are so named for the spoon that forms their shape. It must be an old silver spoon. These ancient beauties have deep bowls, so they work perfectly for filling with cookie dough. This morning, the favored teaspoon came from my Aunt Ada. Its smooth surface aids in helping the pressed cookie easily slide onto the cookie sheet. As I fill, press, and slide the cookie dough, my mind drifts back to memories of the generation that went before mine. They were children of immigrants, their lives steeped in traditions from the old country. These are traditions I have come to cherish, traditions I try to teach to those in my life.

After placing the tray into the oven to bake, I warm raspberry jam on the stove. Once strained, a smear of this jam will serve as a delicious glue between two baked cookies, forming what in the end looks a bit like a little egg. Each Christmas season, I look forward to the complex taste of the nutty beurre noisette against the sweet jam.

Caramels

Next on the agenda are caramels. Creamy and sweet, these are another labor intensive favorite. Between you, me, and the fence post, they have proved a challenge for me to perfect. Each time I make them, I seem to discover another idiosyncrasy of these delicious candies. This year’s batch, while a delicious and rich confection of sugar, butter, and cream, is a touch on the chewy side, which I of course blame on my ancient candy thermometer. 

Yulekage: Christmas Bread

Next up, Yulekage. A favorite Scandinavian spice, cardamom, enlivens this tender sweet Christmas bread. To amp up the flavor, I always freshly grind my cardamom for this recipe. This distinctive spice together with the mix of golden and red raisins and topped with a crest of luscious frosting makes for a festive bread indeed. Thanks to the magnitude of the recipe, eighteen loaves have already left my kitchen to date, and this bread is my go-to baked Christmas gift. 

IMG_4652 (2)

Lefse

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the ubiquitous Norwegian delicacy, lefse. This potato-based flatbread defines December menus in the north country. It has to be paper thin, soft with light brown spots scattered across its surface, and with tiny dots of Russet potatoes. Lefse-making is a two-day affair that should be embarked on just before your kitchen needs a deep cleaning. Trust me, I know whereof I speak…  

Cookies Et Alia

Other gems that might make their appearance in my comestible gifting include my Aunt Joyce’s thin sugary ginger snaps, my brother-in-law Bill’s butter balls, nutmeg-laden Kranse Kake, and crisp, frosted sugar cookies. The list could go on, but the variety and supply of goodies depends on how much the schedule expands in early December.

IMG_4574 (2)

A Modicum of Our Christmas Joy

Why do we go through these tasks in the holiday season? What is the reason we shop and wrap, cook and bake, and assemble trays and tins to pass out to family, friends, and neighbors? Why do we put in the additional effort to make things extra special? The Christmas season is already a busy time of year, yet we add to it by making such effortful goodies to give to others.

IMG_4596 (2)

There are many people in my life who hold a special place. Some are family, some are friends. It just seems that in this unlikeliest of seasons, the coldest, darkest days of winter, when we grace others with an act of kindness, a small array of culinary delights, we offer them a modicum of our joy. We are saying the world is better because of their presence in it. We are saying you are important to me. In giving something of ourselves to others, whether it’s our time, our talents, created gifts, or purchased items, we are telling them they are significant and special. 

I will always get up before dawn or stay up into the wee hours to create tokens of my affection for those I hold dear.  

Posted on 2 Comments

Apples are Autumn

I step outside, and the clear, cool air of autumn greets me. A breeze rustles the leaves above. I look up and catch my breath at the electric orange and red leaves of the sugar maples that dot the neighborhood. My shoes rustle through golden piles of leaves that have blown across the sidewalk. An orchestral cacophony of geese honk overhead as they head off to the south.  

Autumn is a time for closure. We are cleaning up our gardens and yards. Raking and bagging. Harvesting and canning. Tucking our yard in for a long winter’s nap. 

It’s also a time of beginnings. The school year has begun. The sound of marching bands and football games is our background music as we work outside. Our community has sprung back to life with concerts and theater performances filling the schedule once again. Colleges are back in session. Backpack-laden, Patagonia vested students stroll the campuses.    

The Comfort of Apples

For me, apples are the quintessential definition of fall. Freshly picked from the local orchard, they are crisp and sweet and juicy. In this statement, one could include all things apple. Apple orchards, apple pie, apple butter, applesauce, apple crisp. In fact, the intoxicating aroma of apple butter stewing on the stove replete with cinnamon, cloves, and allspice is something I could live with all year. Waking up each morning to the delightful end product smeared on hot toast brings a perfect start to the day.

IMG_3593 (2)

Apples define home. They are the warp and weft of our autumnal tapestry. We all relate to the saying, “as American as apple pie.” In the north country, the annual family trip to the apple orchard remains a tradition not to be skipped. Getting lost in the corn maze, sipping hot cider, sticky mouths and fingers from finagling with an enormous caramel apple; these are precious memories. 

Apple Cooking Creations

Free form apple tartlets are my go-to dessert at the moment. They are as quick and mindless as they are delicious. I roll out pie crust dough and cut it in large irregular circles. Thin slivers of apples splay in pinwheels in the center of the dough. Over the top I sprinkle a mixture of cinnamon and white sugar, and pats of butter dot the surface. I fold the edges of the dough over in such a way to capture the syrupy juice that develops with baking. When this sweet pleated orb bakes on a hot stone, the bottom is crisp yet flaky, the filling perfectly tender.

IMG_3498 (2)
Freeform apple cinnamon tartlet

From easy to complex, from breakfast to a midnight snack, apples fit the bill. When I want things as simple as can be, I slice then dip the wedges in almond butter. For a special occasion I step up my game and make the iconic French dessert Tarte Tatin. Omelets filled with sauteed apples and cheddar cheese make for a brunch your guests won’t soon forget. Slivers of apples topped with Gorgonzola cheese, local honey, and Durango Hickory Smoked sea salt is an easy hors d’oeuvres that will get you nominated for your neighborhood’s host of the year award.  

This year let us soak in this delightful season. Autumn is not going to be a wedge season. Instead of jumping over the narrow stream called fall, let’s bask in its glorious colors and delicious aromas, creating memories that last. Maple trees as brilliant as a summer sunset will stay etched in my mind throughout the grey light of winter. I am willing time to slow, enjoying every step. When winter arrives, I’ll be refreshed, renewed, and ready for parkas and boots. 

Posted on 1 Comment

A Garlic Obsession

Is it possible to create a new food group? How about an additional nutrient? Maybe it was one of the treasures found in the pyramids of Egypt. Questions fly around such as, “Is it a vegetable or an herb?” Aaahhh, yes, you know I am talking about garlic. In my kitchen there are few things that sneak themselves into my cooking more often than that firm but juicy bulb named garlic.

Cooking with Garlic

I must admit, I have a self-diagnosed and historical obsession with the culinary bulb. As a way of denial, let’s call it a garlic penchant. Garlic has been inching its way more and more into my dishes and menus for several decades now. It started innocently enough back in the mid ‘80s when a little garlic powder sprinkled on my garlic bread was a natural accompaniment to spaghetti sauce with meatballs. When I moved from opening a jar to creating the sauce for the afore-mentioned spaghetti sauce, I realized the value of its culinary pungency. It was uphill (or should I say downhill?) from there.

I seem to regularly make dishes that just happen to have it as an ingredient. Or do I search for dishes that include it? In the back of my mind, I remember, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” In my way of thinking, it is “A garlic clove per day…”

IMG_2904 (2).JPG
Ingredients for a Cambodian chicken curry featuring scratch lemongrass paste made with garden garlic and lemongrass.

Three square meals of garlic per day, you say? That is possible. Garlic for breakfast? Yep. A necessity in mushroom crepes. Lunch? Of course. The classic French oil and vinegar dressing drizzled on my garden greens by all standards Françoise must contain a minced clove. Then from 4:00 p.m. and onward, it shows up everywhere, working its way into every dish. Garlic is an essential part of the tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella cheese crostini I’m currently addicted to. Whether I make a Mexican dish like pork green chili, a toothsome Tuscan garlic and kale soup, a Creole classic Maque Choix, or Spanish paella, they are all rife with garlic.

IMG_2395 (2).JPG
Garden tomatoes, basil, and garlic with mozzarella over French bread.

Growing Garlic

Garlic has been much more easily consumed in my kitchen than grown in my garden. My issues with growing a successful crop has included forgetting to harvest it in a timely fashion (it needs to come out of the ground once about half of the green tops have dried and turned a sandy color and in mid July), overcrowding the cloves when planting, locating the garlic plot in a sunny location, planting smaller cloves (large cloves=large bulbs the following year).

Well, this year I’ve finally arrived! I successfully grew garlic! Last summer I decided it was time I took the time and effort to buy and plant this beloved vegetable properly. After reading up on the specifics of growing garlic, I shopped around online and ended up ordering from Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. I chose the sunniest spot in my garden beds and prepped the soil. Garlic bulbs are heavy feeders, so I added extra compost to the area. In late September I buried them in the ground, layering inches of dried leaves overtop to insulate against our frigid winters. I secured these with battened down cardboard. Lo and behold, they even survived this winter’s Polar Vortex.

About the Bulb

Regarding garlic, it belongs to the onion genus, Allium, which in turn is a part of the lily family. In the garden, it has almost no enemies. I suppose the same odor that, when consumed by you and me, scares away friends and family also keeps away garden pests. As it turns out it is also rather easy to grow (a fact that previously seems to have eluded me). When you give it sun and space, it rewards you first with scapes and then large bulbous heads.

The only catch to success is that you have to plan a year in advance. In the upper Midwest, the bulbs need to go into the ground in the fall nine months before they are harvested. If you have a sunny corner and an interest in growing garlic, it is almost time to plant. You can check your local greenhouses or look at online vendors, bearing in mind that favorite varieties sell out quickly.

Varieties

The garlic that you find in the vegetable section of your grocery store usually is not successful in your garden. There are several reasons for this. First, much of our grocery store garlic comes from China and they treat it with a chemical to prevent it from sprouting. Secondly, most garlic you find in grocery store is soft neck garlic which isn’t hardy north of zone 6. If you live in zone 6 or south and want to try planting these soft-neck varieties, do it in the very early spring while it is still cold out.

The rest of us have to “settle” for the wonderfully interesting hard-neck varieties. These little gems we’re settling for, why do we love them so? I know I’ve mentioned juicy before, but that’s one of their prime descriptors. Juicy and crisp. Very different from your grocery store bulbs that have been sitting around for months before they get to the produce department. And quite honestly, the taste is fresher. Something is delicious about them because they are disappearing out of my kitchen faster than I can say “I am crazy for roasted garlic soup.”

Health Benefits

I know you are asking, is garlic actually healthy for me to eat? There has and continues to be a great deal of research around this bulb and its health benefits. What the holistic community has been touting for millennia the modern scientific community is working hard to confirm. From acting as an antimicrobial to helping to improve lipid profiles to aiding in the prevention of some types of cancer, more of garlic’s attributes are being discovered or confirmed every year.

This really is a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation. Do we love the ethnic foods from every continent because they contain our beloved garlic, or is it because of our preoccupation with this crisp and flavorful bulb that we snatch up all available fresh heads at the local farmers market to work into our evening menu?

Does it matter? I say go forth. Indulge. And if you can’t convince your friends and family to join you in your garlic-feeding frenzy, make sure you have a stash of breath mints handy.

Posted on Leave a comment

Lettuce: The Shoulder Season Crop

My garden is planted. The carrots, beets, and kale are poking through the ground, the strawberries still little green orbs. Tiny flowers adorn the tomatoes and peppers in preparation for their future bounty. The rhubarb is mostly finished, having been transformed into many toothsome desserts. Alas, as far as gardens go, the middle of June is known as “shoulder season.” We are waiting, waiting for the vegetables we have planted to be laden with their bounty. Yet something is ready to be picked and eaten in all its tender beauty, lettuce.

A Time for Lettuce

My garden is bountiful with a host of lettuces. Purple and red varieties, lettuce with red speckles, lettuce with curly edges, and of course, green lettuce. These colorful leaves grace our gardens and plates.

This green loves to germinate and grow in the cool, wet weather of spring and early summer. In fact, it has a hard time germinating in the heat of midsummer. In the early spring and late fall, however, it goes to town.

The ground was barely free of snow when I planted the first seeds this spring. I’ll do this same thing again when the crisp days of fall are on the horizon. Planting in a sunny spot or one that gets a bit of afternoon sunshine will ensure that the plants quickly poke their little heads through the earth’s surface.

The spring rain showers help keep the ground moist. I usually scatter the seeds randomly in a square space. When they come up, they’ll be very crowded. I thin them as they grow, eventually leaving several inches between plants. In this way I get to harvest lettuce for weeks. I always leave a few plants to go to flower and then to seed. The flowers serve as food to the bees and little beneficial insects that drink their nectar. Once they go to seed, these seeds drop to become new plants next season.

Eating Well with Lettuce

We used to think that lettuce was basically just glorified water. We thought it did not have much nutritional value, but we now know this is absolutely not true. Lettuce and greens of all kinds are packed with nutrients, vitamins A and K, folate, and molydenum to name a few. Flavonoids and phenolic acids are just a couple of the antioxidants present that work their magic in you to help prevent diseases and keep you healthy.

If the nutritiousness does not propel you to make lettuce cups for your grilled salmon salad, the fresh crunchy flavor will. The taste of just picked lettuce is unlike any green I have tasted all winter. This is my launchpad into summer garden goodness.

IMG_8869 (2)

Garden lettuce is the first ingredient in any number of salads. It is the thick layer of crispness in my sandwiches. It adorns my platters of hors d’oeuvres. I fill the thicker romaine cups with endless variations of meat or vegetable salads.

Cleaning Garden Greens

One of the deterrents to eating garden lettuce is cleaning garden lettuce. I have found the fastest way to clean a pile of dirt-laden lettuce is to soak it in a sink full of cold water. Stir gently with your fingers to dislodge any soil from the leaves and stems. The dirt will sink to the bottom of the sink so that when you drain out the water, the dirt drains out first. I then refill the sink with cool water and repeat the process until the leaves are clean. This may take two or three rinses.

Finally, I scoop out the leaves and spin them in a salad spinner for a minute until they are dry. You can store it for a few days in the refrigerator by wrapping it loosely in a paper towel and sealing it in a plastic bag. Personally, I upped my intake dramatically once I started washing my lettuce in this way, and I always tend to use things faster that are washed and ready to go in the refrigerator.

IMG_8612 (2)

It is the season for eating lettuce. Just picked leaves of all stripes and colors is waiting for you. I, for one, will thoroughly enjoy waiting for the second wave of produce from my garden as long as I have lettuce on my plate.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Rise of Spring

Awakening Creation

Spring. Warm, sunny days. Cool rains. The green of the budding trees is almost electric, and emerging plants are the same. Their lime color is cheerful yet soothing. I am daily transfixed by the new strawberries poking their leaves up through the caramel mulch. Lily of the valley are slowly uncoiling their leaves. Soon the intoxicating perfume of their flowers will greet me each day.

The garlic cloves I buried in a corner bed last fall have long been up and stretching toward the sky. I cannot stop thinking about the garlic scape pesto I will be creating from the curly scapes that will swirl up from each plant. As I look across my other garden beds, I see the tiny evidence of early spring peas, lettuces, and pak choi.

IMG_7104 (2)
Garlic shoots

Spring Preparation

The time has not yet arrived for planting my summer seeds and plants. In this part of the country, we wait for the soil temperatures to warm up. What I am doing now is collecting. My stack of vegetable seed packets increases by the day. A wide array of pepper and tomato plants are hardening in my yard and garage. Flowers and plants with interesting foliage await being planted into ceramic pots.

IMG_7072 (2)
Collecting plants

Gardens with multi-season plantings bring life to the spring season when we have been without outside color for months. Some of my favorites are the early bulbs such as the subtly-hued Lenten rose, stubby crocuses that almost look like they are laughing at late winter as they push themselves up through the frosty remnants of winter, muscari with its clusters of tiny indigo grape-like flowers standing at attention up and down the stem, and fritillaria whose upside down tulip-shaped flowers look like miniature plum checkerboards. These are of course in addition to the many varieties and shades of daffodils and tulips.

The First Market

Just as I welcome the visual freshness of spring, so I also eagerly anticipate the clean crispness of spring fruits and vegetables. The weekly summer tradition of going to the farmers market began this weekend. Like walking through a seasonal portal, the opening of the farmers market is, for me, the start of my summer gardening season. Catching up with the farmers, scouting their new offerings, listening to the bluegrass band, buying something here, tasting something there. The aroma of coffee beans grinding or pizza baking in a wood-fired oven. It all comes together to lift my spirits. It is saying, “hello spring,” “hello warm sunshine,” “hello cool rich earth!” “Are you ready to welcome and nurture what I’m planting this year?”

IMG_7076 (2)
Farmers market bounty

Cooking for Spring

Of course, I brought home some culinary gems; trumpet mushrooms, Japanese spinach, and bok choy. These formed the components of our evening meal. So upon returning from the farmers market, I had to create in the kitchen. The ingredients called for simple dishes. We needed to hear the crunch of the bok choy and feel the bite of the emerald Japanese spinach. I decided to do an Asian interpretation by tossing in some pistachios and drizzling the greens with a mixture of peanut and sesame oil, Tamari sauce, freshly grated ginger root, minced garlic, and rice wine vinegar.

The just-harvested trumpet mushrooms that I buy at the market are so marvelous that I had to do the classic preparation of sauteing them in butter albeit with the twist of a sprinkling truffle salt. Strips of Ataulfo mangoes topped with coarsely ground pepper and charcoal-grilled chicken thighs marinated in a mixture of Vietnamese lemon curry, sea salt, and black pepper rounded out the dinner plates.

IMG_7139 (2)

I wake up to the multitude of birds chirping outside my bedroom window and go to sleep to the sound of gentle rain. Digging into the chocolate dirt, I carefully place my seeds within. I clean windows, sweep sidewalks, wash off yard furniture, and for the next five months we move our lives outdoors. Yes, spring has arrived. She has flung her bountiful self upon us, and I am basking in her presence.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.