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The Story Behind the Mountain Wildflower Collection

Wildflowers of My Life

Mountain wildflowers have been part of the formative memories in my life. Not only did they proliferate on the dry mountainside of our Colorado home, but they have been ubiquitous on our mountain hikes and backpacking trips. Whether it was Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, or New Mexico, the native flowers that have been a part of my life are both tenacious and beautiful.

The Blue Hue of Lupines

Wild lupines transport me back to Montana, when in the early summer, cerulean violet lupine flowers begin to cover the mountain valleys. They form a luscious carpet. The meadows surrounding my family’s cabins take on a blue hue as all these iconic flowers come into bloom. 

Many years ago, my dear aunt Joyce even named her cabin after them, Lupine Lodge. When I think back on lupines, I remember all the summers spent in Montana from the time I was a young girl to now. 

The Bitter Chokecherries of My Youth

It is somewhat of an oxymoron to pick a fruit as bitter and poisonous as the chokecherry only to cook it into something as delectable as chokecherry jam.

I first encountered chokecherries in the days of my foolish youth, when my parents, siblings, and I would stop along the road and pick the Montana berries. We would fill ice cream buckets and then haul them back to the log cabin nestled in the backwoods of the Absaroka Beartooth mountain range. There we would begin the long process of transforming these bitter berries into luscious jams and syrups. 

Backpacking with Thimbleberries 

Likewise, thimbleberries have been part of many a mountain hike. The day typically goes like this: we’re walking along the trail, maybe having just crossed a hot sunny rockslide. We progress into a shaded area, and there’s a small mountain stream that runs next to the path. 

Billowing among the undergrowth are thimbleberry bushes. Of course, we stop, nibble on some for a few minutes, take a big swig of water from our bottles, then start moving again. This scenario could repeat itself over and over depending on how much of a hurry we’re in. 

Thimbleberries to me represent a refreshing pause for a fatigued body. They are a fresh respite to a hot day and a touch of nourishment to our increasingly hungry stomachs. 

Beauty on the Edge of a Mountain

Our house sat just back from the edge of the steep Rocky Mountain foothills of Colorado. The hills were stony with clusters of scrub oak and prairie grasses. Cacti poked their thorny faces out from the rocky soil, just asking you to step on them. 

As I made my way down to the valley below, I couldn’t help but marvel at how so many varieties of wildflowers seemingly thrived in such harsh and adverse conditions. The soil was very poor, and the hillside faced southwest, so it got a beating from the afternoon sun. What moisture did come either evaporated off or ran down the incline. 

Indian Paintbrush

In this unwelcoming xeriscape, wildflowers dotted the hillside, cheerfully beaming their colorful faces. Darling little burgundy Mexican hats, Indian paintbrush, ruby colored penstemon, yellow potentilla, and rudbeckia scattered across the dry slope. 

These wild beauties have adapted to the conditions of their environment. Many of them have long roots that drill down to the moisture and nutrients that are deep below the surface. Indian paintbrush thrive despite the conditions. Being a hemiparasite, this flower piggybacks off the surrounding grasses. They attach themselves to the roots of nearby grasses, which are already burrowed deep in the soil.  

A Flower’s Inspiration 

Is the Indian paintbrush’s stamina and unexpected beauty a metaphor for life? When one fights hard for something, the result becomes particularly striking. Over time, these flowers have figured out not only how to grow, but they’ve learned how to flourish in adverse situations. In fact, for these flowers, their environment isn’t adverse; it’s the norm.

Joy from Wildflowers and Berries

I find wildflowers to be inspiring. When I am huffing and puffing up a mountainside, I look over the steep slopes or high mountain meadows, and I see spectacular beauty in the wildest environments. How can I not breathe easier in their delicate elegance? 

My eyes light up when I see wildflowers in bloom against the stark and vast background they call home. Then the wild berries come as a rare gift in the wilderness when tasted on the edge of a remote trail.

As I sit here, painting within the bleak January landscape, I wait for next summer. I hope my family’s trips into the mountains coincide with the bloom times of our favorite flowers or the ripening of our favorite mountain fruits. 

Until then I draw them, and I paint them, and I offer them for you to enjoy on art prints and cards as well. This is so you can dream along with me. We can wait together for warmer days, for summer mountain wildflowers, for buckets full of chokecherries, for bushes alongside high mountain trails that offer up what little they have so that the fleeting visitor might be refreshed. 

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Persimmon – The Unsung Holiday Fruit

Holiday Memories

As I dipped my spoon into the steamy rust-colored persimmon pudding, the rich, spicy aroma wafted from the dish. A little of the accompanying cream ran into my spoon and mixed with the pudding. The flavor of this unique fruit and dessert signify the holidays for me. 

For many years my sister-in-law, an Indiana native, has given me the gift of a tub of Indiana wild persimmon paste. It usually arrives in the fall, typically just before Thanksgiving. My favorite thing to do with this paste is to turn it into persimmon pudding. I have tended to make this delicious pudding as one of the desserts for Thanksgiving dinner. When served warm with a bit of fresh cream overtop, it is divine. 

What is a Persimmon?

American persimmons are native to southern Indiana and ripen in September and October, making them the perfect holiday fruit. When ripe, their flavor is nicely sweet in a complex sort of way.

Unfortunately for me, I don’t live in a part of the country where persimmons grow, so I pick them up in the grocery stores, which are currently carrying both the Fuyu and Hachiya varieties.

This year I’ve decided to branch out and mess around with using persimmons in other ways. The Fuyu variety I purchased this year is still firm when they are ripe, so I figured they would hold up well when roasted or broiled. The oven heat will serve to concentrate the flavors and amp up their already sweet nature. 

Roasted Persimmon Salad

I start by slicing one of the persimmons into thin wedges. Then I brush the wedges with olive oil and roast them in a high heat oven (425 degrees F) until they turn brown on the edges. 

While these are roasting, I whisk together a citrus/olive oil vinaigrette, slice some roasted beets and a clementine. Once the persimmons are ready, I arrange all the components on plates. I add Lacinato kale and microgreens and then drizzle vinaigrette over the top. Crushed black pepper and chunky sea salt round out the dish. This gorgeous deconstructed salad will serve as the first course at one of my holiday dinners. 

Broiled Persimmons

Let’s now move on to my next idea, broiling them much like I would fresh plums. For this I take slices of a crusty baguette and top each slice with a piece of soft triple cream cheese. I then place a thin sliver of fresh persimmon on top. I again brush the persimmon with olive oil. 

To add a little sweet crunch, I sprinkle on a bit of raw sugar. I place them under the broiler, and a few minutes later out come the prettiest crostini I have seen in a long time. The sweet roasted fruit proved to be a great counter to the pungent cheese. A new go-to hors d’oeuvres is born.

Spilling Persimmons Over Goat Cheese

The inspiration keeps flowing with my next plan for my persimmons. I love warm spilling fruits. For this I usually take fruits like plums, pears, peaches, or berries and combine them with sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla. After gently simmering them for a few minutes on the stove, the fruit breaks down and forms the most delectable sauce. 

I can use these spilling sauces over a myriad of dishes including pound cakes or olive oil cakes, cheesecake or panna cotta, goat or brie cheese, or prosciutto on a savory tart. I can also use it as a marinade and dipping sauce for roasted pork or chicken. 

It turns out that persimmons lend themselves perfectly to this application. When simmered with a little sugar, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt and then pureed with the stick blender, the persimmons make the prettiest and most delicious sauce. I spoon some over a log of goat cheese and serve it with baguette slices. What a perfect start to my holiday culinary journey.

So the Creating Continues 

Persimmons, a seemingly forgotten fruit, prove to be versatile, delicious, and beautiful. They have definitely earned a place in my holiday repertoire alongside the other winter fruits such as pomegranates, oranges, pears, and grapefruit. They have even made an appearance in my newly released holiday card collection. I’m sure I’ll be dreaming up other dishes with this fruit soon. Dehydrated persimmon chips, persimmon salsa chutney, fruit leathers, persimmon jam, persimmon sorbet, persimmon cocktails… Persimmon prosciutto pizza, anyone?

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Art from the Garden

My Love for Art

In my kitchen hangs a painting of a sprouting potato. An unassuming thing, but it brings me joy. Its creator was Betty Strand, an artist and family friend. I’ve always been enthralled by art. Drawings, watercolors, sketches, weavings, batiks, pottery; the list could go on. My walls certainly reflect this passion, and art takes up residence in every possible area of my home.

As you all know, my fascination with cooking and gardening is all-consuming, and a day doesn’t go by that I’m not dreaming about freshly sliced heirloom tomatoes or something of the sort. So why not tie my love for art with my love for all things food and garden? Thus an idea bloomed.

My original sketches when forming the idea to create garden art. You can see I carried some of my original designs into my later finished pieces. 

As I thought about what I could offer you, my mind went to the passion I have for drawing and painting. If only I could give you a taste of the garden within the home, a reminder of the daffodils and crisp sweet peas of spring when you are surrounded by a January blizzard. The garden and kitchen bring me such contentment, and I hope they will bring you the same. Whether you hang my creations on your walls or send them as a greeting card to a friend, I hope they will brighten each blustery day.

Why I Love Paper

Over the years, as I have wandered through little boutique shops on lazy Saturday afternoons, what always catches my eye is their fine art paper and supplies. I don’t quite know why this is, but I have always had an odd obsession with beautiful, high-quality pens, pencils, and brushes of every ilk.

Don’t even get me started on art paper. Sheets of all sizes and colors stacked in cubbies that line an entire wall. Paper hung in large sheets on racks. The thicker the better, I say, and ideally it has some great texture, as well. Paper is such a simple thing, but I love high quality, thick paper, paper with frayed edges, and envelopes in unique shapes that tie shut with little leather strings.

I no doubt leave the boutique a poorer but happier woman, loaded down with a stack of thick cotton vellums, rolls of paper, several pens, and brushes of various sizes and thicknesses. 

The finished card sets. How do I show paper in a still image? Just rest assured, the paper I found passes the Cami test. Thick, linen-textured, faint ivory color, divine. 

The Creative Process

Drawing and painting is an activity I have come back to time and again over the years. It’s in my bones, a part of who I am. I started off this project by sketching. Then I painted. They were small at first, and then they evolved to larger, more refined paintings that can stand the test of time.

Left: my original artwork as well as some of the original, smaller designs. Top right: close-up of a few of my original ideas. Bottom right: the finished card sets. 

There have been many iterations along the way, and I am sure there will be more. It is my pleasure to introduce you to my initial three collections, selections of favorite fruits, vegetables, and garden flowers. I am excited to continue creating more designs as well.

As we tread in the new water of this artistic endeavor, I hope you appreciate my lovingly painted watercolor art. I also wish for you to find meaning in the prose that I crafted to inspire and teach about each plant. I hope these designs printed on thick, beautiful, linen cardstock will make charming, classic greeting cards. Finally, when these pieces of art adorn your walls in frames, I hope they provide an elegant reminder of our collective love for plants.

I am excited to launch this new venture, and I look forward to hearing your suggestions for future designs.

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The Autumn Garden’s End

One Dreary Autumn Day

It had rained overnight, so as I stepped out the door, a fresh layer of fallen ochre-colored sugar maple leaves greeted me. Like gemstones, when strewn on the wet gray cement, the autumn leaves were almost luminous.

Oak and maple leaves in the fall with the play between the yellow, orange, rust, and wine colors, continue to inspire me. As the world around them is shutting down for winter and is becoming brown and gray, they shine in their brilliant splendor for all the world to see. 

Autumn bounty from the garden

Autumn Animal Visitors

I watch as a squirrel carries a large walnut in his mouth over to a spot in the lawn where he starts to dig. Nope, not quite the right spot. He moves a few feet over, then moves again. Finally he finds what he deems the perfect location to bury his precious nut. He starts to feverishly dig, into the hole drops the nut, and it’s quickly buried.

A mama cardinal lands on the fence and sits, looking over the situation before flying into the feeder to get an afternoon snack. It seems that all the birds are back in our yard. They’ve been out in the bushes, trees, and prairies all summer, but now they’re back at our feeders. It’s good to see them, the little nuthatches, the red-breasted woodpeckers, the slate-colored juncos, the chickadees, and of course the cardinals. 

Kale and green tomatoes from the garden.

Clearing the Garden

I turned away from my little friends. There was a laundry list of things to get done, and I had to get busy. I needed to harvest the last of my vegetable garden before the temperature drops. Working outside in the cold, I picked the season’s final tomatoes. It has been a great year for tomato production, but the vines started to turn brown. I pulled them out of the ground and stacked the cages. 

Next, it was on to digging up the carrots and beets. Then the leeks and onions, Then the peppers, eggplants, and cucumbers. My baskets filled up, and yet there was more to do. I dried the beans to shuck at a later time, so I laid those out on a tarp in the garage. I clip the herbs and store them in freezer bags for me to use this winter.

Autumn bounty from harvest time.

Planting for Next Year

The final task of the day was planting my garlic in my newly empty garden bed. I chose some interesting varieties of garlic this year, and I’m excited to get them planted. There are a couple of purple varieties, one that grills up nicely, and a couple that will be sweet when eaten raw. I picked all of them for their lasting quality, as I hang them in my kitchen to use throughout the winter. First I dug holes in my rich dirt, buried the cloves, labeled the spaces, and covered the bed with piles of the dried oak and maple leaves. At last my work was done. 

Top left: onions from the garden, bottom left: more garden bounty, right: kale leaves from the garden.

Transition to Winter

It’s almost as if I just finished up reading a riveting novel. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the journey and now am in the final chapters. I don’t want the book to end. But end it does. Such has been this summer, the greenery, the garden bounty, the profuse flowers, the long, idyllic evenings. The chapters in this summertime novel are long and have captured my heart. Closing the cover to this book is bittersweet. 

With late autumn we move our lives indoors. We take the piles of vegetables on our counters and create rich stews and braises. We don sweaters and light candles. Soon the lovely scent of fireplaces burning will permeate our neighborhoods. The next novel, a wintertime one, is at my doorstep, and I’m ready to begin reading.

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An Ode to My Mother

Chokecherry Picking

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

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

The tradition continues: this year's strawberry jam

Wild Grapes

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

Untamed grapes found in our neighborhood

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

Mom in 2017

Growing Up

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

Mom's wild rice soup

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

Lemon bars

A Seat at the Table

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

Mom's beef and mushroom casserole

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

Making krumkake at Mom and Dad's house

The Gifts My Mother Gave Me

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

Fresh peach pie

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

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

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Roasting as a Pastime

Roasted Italian Memories

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

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

Roasting Beets

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

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

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

Roasting Cauliflower

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

Roasting Eggplant

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

Adding Complexity with Sauces

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

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

Vegetables Galore

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

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

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

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A Lemony Life

Dreaming of Lemons

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

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

Fruit of Spring

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

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

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

Lemon Feasts

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

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

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

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

A Savory Twist

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

Above: Risotto al limone

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

Above: French lemon cream custards with candied lemon zest

A New Lemon Drink

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

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

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

Spring Awakening

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

Above: Risotto al limone

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

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My Kind of Bowling

A Bowl for a Chilly Night

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

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

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

Asian Bowls Aplenty

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

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

Hot and Cold Varieties

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

Hot Bowls

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

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

Cold Bowls

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

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

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

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Grapefruit for Breakfast

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

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

A Little Citrus History

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

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

Pomelos

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

Grapefruit

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

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

Meyer Lemons

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

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

Blood Oranges

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

Kumquats

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

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

Cara Cara Oranges

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

Fingered Citron

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

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

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An Unconventional Holiday: Pies, Tarts, and Crusts

A French Thanksgiving

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

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

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

Allspice cinnamon scented custards with sweet potato crumbles.

Our Minimalist Holiday

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

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

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

Allspice cinnamon scented custards with sweet potato crumbles.

Understanding Pie Crust

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

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

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

The finished plum, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola galettes.

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

Making the Pie Crust

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

Allspice and cinnamon

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

The Next Steps

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

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

Cami’s Pie Crust

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

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

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

New Thanksgiving Pie Fillings

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

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

A Thanksgiving for Trial and Error

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

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A Year for Beans

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

Too Many Kinds to Count

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

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

A Beneficial Legume for The Garden

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

Companion Planting the Beans

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

The Health of Beans

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

Harvesting and Storing

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

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

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

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

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

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Vice Principles

Apple Butter Memories

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

The Time for Canning

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

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

Canning and Other Glorious Ways to Cope

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

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

Too Much of a Good Thing? I Think Not.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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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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.

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Challah with sesame seeds

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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 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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.