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An Ode to My Mother

Chokecherry Picking

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

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

The tradition continues: this year's strawberry jam

Wild Grapes

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

Untamed grapes found in our neighborhood

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

Mom in 2017

Growing Up

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

Mom's wild rice soup

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

Lemon bars

A Seat at the Table

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

Mom's beef and mushroom casserole

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

Making krumkake at Mom and Dad's house

The Gifts My Mother Gave Me

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

Fresh peach pie

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

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

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Vice Principles

Apple Butter Memories

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

The Time for Canning

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

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

Canning and Other Glorious Ways to Cope

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

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

Too Much of a Good Thing? I Think Not.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Inspiration Beside Me

Greeted with Open Arms

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

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

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

Delicious Mastery

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

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

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

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

The Quintessence of Grace

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

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

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

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Farm to Your Table

If it’s Saturday morning and it’s summer, our farmers market is open for business. The center aisle is packed with shoppers. A folk music group serenades us with background tunes. A young couple meanders, sipping their steaming cups of freshly brewed Cherrybean coffee. Others are loaded down with bags of vegetables or a massive bouquet from Alissa’s Flower Farm. The aroma of wood-fired pizza wafts through the air, welcoming us in from the parking lot. We bump into friends, catch up on the latest happenings, compare loot, promise to get together soon, and then move on.

Produce at the Market

I have so many favorite stops. I make it a habit to buy a little something from many. Sunnyside Gardens is my go-to for unique and colorful annuals that make up the flower pots flanking my front door.

John at The Cornucopia was kind enough to bring me a bushel of basil last year when I was binge-making pesto. He carries gorgeous greens like red bok choy and long, curly garlic scapes. He is always ready to tell an interesting story. We know about how he had to harvest his 1400 heads of garlic early because of flooding.

I count on Jensen Sweet Corn for their purple, lime green, and pale orange cauliflower. True to its name, their sweet corn is deliciously sweet.

I have become quite obsessed with the pearl oyster mushrooms from Daniel at Dakota Mushrooms and Microgreens, often making the trip to the farmers market with the intention of picking up some of these tasty fungi. Pearl oyster mushrooms, when sauteed in a little olive oil, finished with sherry and truffle salt, and served with roasted new potatoes is positively addictive.

The middle of August is the time for picking up flats of tomatoes from Carper Sweet Corn and Produce or Seedtime and Harvest. These ruby heirlooms are an essential component to canned salsa, pasta sauce, and tomato basil bisque.

I must not forget to give a shout-out to a recent farmers market addition, Darin at D’s Smoked Nuts. Darin slow-smokes a variety of nuts, then adds some spicy heat. His nuts are almost as good as his quirky videos on his website, or should I say they’re much better.

Cauliflower from Jensen Sweet Corn roasted with green olives and golden raisins

A Rich History

The history behind markets such as these goes back thousands of years to when farmers would bring their wares to the nearest town to sell in a centralized space. This central plaza was the place to be. Business was conducted, and people met to socialize.

In the history of our country, the first official farmers market was located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They actually designed the town around a central lot that was designated as the Central Market. This market continues to thrive today with many of the vendors being multi-generational. From that first market, farmers markets grew into a movement. Today there are approximately 8000 official farmers markets in the U.S. This of course does not include roadside stands and other pop-up markets (originally called “curb markets”) that you come across as you drive our nation’s byways.

Farmers Markets Today

What is it about a farmers market that is so magnetic? Why do we go to it even though we often have our own gardens at home? Perhaps it is the pervasive sense of celebrating community. Or is it about honoring our local family farmers and food artisans? A century ago the average family farm produced over fifty different kinds of crops or products. The resurgence of this sort of diversified farmer with just-picked organic produce faithfully offered each week, rain or shine, is an inspiration.

Supporting their commitment and hard work is crucial to their success. Crafting delicious dishes from these nutritious gems is beneficial for all. In our house, the weekly summertime tradition is such: Saturday morning, go to the farmers market and pick from our garden, then Saturday evening, cook from the bounty.

From cheese that is cultured just up the road to freshly-baked pastries. From hand-made soaps to cuts of bison, eggplants to zinnias, it’s all there at your farmers market. You just need to bring it home to your table.

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Bring Your Own Knives

Learning from a Master

Years ago I worked with a chef named Hosch. He was an extremely talented chef, very quirky, and one of the funniest people I have ever met. I quickly came to understand the meaning of a belly-laugh and laughing until you cry. He kept his coworkers constantly entertained, all the while imbuing us with nuggets of culinary wisdom. His knowledge was vast, standards clear and high. Learning from Hosch was like running through a warm, summer rain shower; delightful.

One year I invited Hosch and his family to join my family for Thanksgiving. Can I just insert here that it is a bit intimidating inviting a chef like him over for a meal? I still remember opening the front door to greet them. There stood Hosch with a rolled bundle in his arms. When he unrolled this bundle in my kitchen, there lay all of his favorite knives.

“I don’t go anywhere without my own knives,” he informed me. This has been a lesson learned for me. Invest in a few good quality knives and sharpen them correctly (Trust me, I have wrecked a couple of very nice knives from sharpening them at the wrong angle). When I first saw Hosch standing at my front door with his own knives, I thought this was both ridiculous and funny. Now, however, I do the same thing.

The Best Knife

If you are going to be doing a lot of chopping, having a sharp knife not only speeds up your work considerably, but it is also safer. A dull knife can be a dangerous thing. Also using a wide blade for chopping is much healthier on your hands and wrists.

IMG_4151 (2)How do I pick my favorite knife? It is a little like picking a favorite flower. I cannot. Each knife has its own uses. A bread knife is perfect for neatly slicing those crusty Breadico baguettes. A paring knife is the perfect size for getting garlic cloves ready to mince. The six inch and eight inch chef knives are what I use for chopping.

That fancy chef knife with holes down the blade is a vegetable knife, and the holes serve to release the suction that can build up when chopping large, wet vegetables. And then there is that monster knife. My friend Tami picked that up on a trip to China. It’s just the right choice for making quick work of cutting up a large roast or anytime you need to cut through bone. The Chinese use this type of knife for cutting through whole, large fish to slice them into steaks.

My takeaways from Hosch: Invest in the right knives for the type of cutting and chopping you need to do, keep them sharp, bring them with you at all times, and infuse laughter everywhere.

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Garden Planning on a Cold Winter’s Day

Thinking of Spring

We are in the midst of a blizzard. Mother nature is dumping heavy, wet snow, yet inside my cozy house the growing stack of seed catalogs is whetting my appetite for summer. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has introduced “the first-ever red-colored Chinese cabbage with full-sized heads.” Park Seed has just introduced a bi-colored Echinacea where “yellow petal tips give way to magenta-red on these large, very abundant blooms.” I once again have zone 5 envy as I read about Spark Bros’ new variety of Honeycrisp/Gala apple cross.

My garden is buried, and the branches of my mulberry tree stark. However, I am starting to think, plan, and drool at the promise of a new variety of tomato. The juicy, sweet German Pink variety ensures greater disease resistance and heavier yields.

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Creating a Garden Plan

These cold, winter months give me time to reflect. What worked last summer? What do I want to do differently? Should I plant more pollinator-friendly plantings? How about more climbing vegetables? I love using my fence for vining peas, beans, cucumbers, and melons. Unfortunately it seems the most interesting seed varieties tend to sell out quickly. For that reason, if there is something I particularly want to try, I need to order soon. These deep, cold temps are essential for many of our native trees and plants, so I do not wish for a warm winter.

The variety of seasons offers a change of pace in our schedules. For me, on this wintry day, I am curled up with a mug of Chai tea with the strains of violin music in the background. A pine-scented candle burns as I nestle up with my garden planning book and seed catalogs.

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My Grandmother’s Spoon

Heritage and History

A parallel exists between beauty, heritage, and function. I received this cherished spoon from my grandmother. It was carved in Norway with the Norwegian art form called Rosemaling. This spoon encompasses the mission and goals of Ripe and Roasted. It works to make cooking and gardening into crafts that pass from one generation to the next.

This spoon remains preserved and treasured three generations after its creation. In the same way, the culture of great food does not easily die out over time.

When families raise their children with an appreciation for freshly canned peach jam, pasta sauces simmering on the stove, meat falling off the bone from being tended at the grill all day, scratch whipped cream atop a handmade pie, these delicacies become a part of what makes each day whole. Each child will carry the light of their heritage of cooking to their children. Thus a family creates a continuum of food across the span of time.

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The Traditions of Our Lives

Rich traditions help to define us culturally, whether they pass down from parents or grandparents or they are something we simply turn into a custom. In our family we prepare foods and dishes that come from the different cultures that compose the patina of our lives. We also hold to traditions that we created many years ago. For example, when my kids were young, we decided that the combination of Chicken Chili and Cinnamon Rolls were a “thing.” So today, if we make Chicken Chili, we are probably going to make Cinnamon Rolls as well.

My grandmother’s beautiful spoon is a symbol of this multi-faceted nature of life. In its great simplicity yet masterfully carved splendor,  it represents the way food, lovingly and skillfully made, can unite family or friends in one moment as well as in all the moments to the end of time.