Thursday, November 29, 2012

for when there is no refrigerator

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on November 7, 2012.
 
***

With Hurricane Sandy threatening our electrical stability, I fixed an enormous pot of red beans, just in case. I thought of the beans because when my husband and I lived in Nicaragua, I learned that cooked beans could be left at room temperature for days, even in the hottest weather. If the power went out and I’d have to keep the refrigerator door shut, at least we’d have beans to eat.

However, the storm hardly affected us at all. After a couple days of waiting for something to happen, we finally emptied our jars of water and righted the trampoline from where we had chained it, upside down, to the swing set. I stopped obsessively flushing toilets and keeping the sink dirty-dish free.

However, it looks like our family with be facing a steady diet of beans in the near future. Starting in January, we will be living in the Central American countryside. From our previous time in Nicaragua, my husband and I already know a little bit of what we’ll be getting into. We are excited to introduce our children the barebones lifestyle, the chicken buses, the colorful clothing, the plate-sized tortillas cooked over wood stoves.

It’s an impoverished area where we’re headed, up in the highlands. At the boarding school where my husband and I will be teaching, we’ve heard that some of the students are too poor to pay the admission fee; instead, they pay their way with beans and corn from their families’ farms.

Like I said, we’ll be eating a lot of beans.

Now we are scrambling to figure out insurances and plane tickets, raise funds, collaborate with the renters, gather a year’s worth of clothes, wrap up our current projects and commitments, and give the kids a crash course in Spanish. It’s wild and scary and wonderful, all at the same time.

Starting now, I will be taking a hiatus from this column. In the meantime, until we return home in October, whenever you cook up a big pot of beans, think of us. For from a thousand miles away, we’ll be doing the very same thing.

With love,
Jennifer


Pot of Red Beans

1-2 pounds of tiny red beans
salt

Rinse the beans with cold water. Put them in a large pot and add enough water to cover by several inches. Bring to a boil, unlidded (or the water will boil over). Reduce heat, place the lid on sideways so some of the steam can escape, and simmer gently for several hours, adding more water as necessary.

When the beans are partially cooked, add the salt. When they are completely tender, taste and season. Serve hot with scrambled eggs, salty cheese, thick corn tortillas, and a cup of sweet coffee.

For when there is no refrigerator:
Boil the beans, eat what you want, remove the serving utensil and bring the pot of beans to a boil again to kill all the germs. Place a lid on the kettle and let it sit at room temperature until the next meal rolls around. By the third or fourth boiling, the bean broth gets thicker, richer, a bit saltier, and the beans become deliciously tender and flavorful.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

sweet popcorn


The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on October 24, 2012.

*** 

Now that autumn is here, I find myself craving all sorts of cold-weather foods: apple cider, thick hard pretzels, hearty soups, and caramel popcorn. We eat the caramel popcorn any time of year, actually, but thanks to my grandmother, in my mind the treat will always and forevermore belong to October.

Every Halloween, my grandmother, a covering-wearing plain Mennonite, handed out little baggies of her caramel popcorn to neighbor kids brave enough to walk the driveway that curved through the spooky woods to her house.

My brothers and I weren’t allowed to go trick-or-treating, but one year, out of the blue, Mom suggested we dress up and surprise our grandparents. We were ecstatic.

I vaguely remember standing on the concrete stoop outside their front door, with a brown paper bag with cut-out holes for eyes jammed down over my head. We rang the bell. Grandpa threw open the door, and Grandma, peering over his shoulder, laughed heartily and declared, “Well, well! What have we here!”

“Trick-or-treat!” we hollered, reaching for our bags of golden popcorn. We pressed into the foyer, shucking our paper bag heads. So happy to see us, Grandma offered us her task. We spent the rest of the evening handing out her popcorn to the witches and princesses that showed up.

The recipe I’ve copied down is smudged and faded. I make the popcorn for church events and parties, and my older son likes to give the popcorn as a birthday gift to his friends. A few months back, he misread the recipe and used two tablespoons of butter instead of the called-for twelve. The next time I made the popcorn, I also misread things, except I added too much butter instead of too little. It turned out to be a fabulous mistake. Now I routinely add an extra pat of butter to the caramel sauce.

I am somewhat careful about how often I make this popcorn, mostly because I am completely helpless in its crunchy, buttery-sweet clutches. I do silly things, such as store the jar on the uppermost pantry shelf, like in the Frog and Toad story “Cookies,” in hopes that I might forget about the lurking temptation. I never do.


Grandma Baer’s Caramel Popcorn

12-14 tablespoons butter
2 cups brown sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 quarts popped popcorn, not salted

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the sugar, corn syrup, and baking soda and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium high and boil gently for five minutes, stirring steadily. Remove from heat and stir in the salt and vanilla. Immediately pour the sauce over the popped corn, tossing to coat evenly.

Divide the popcorn between two greased 9x13 pans. Bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour, stirring every 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Store in airtight containers.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

party soup

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on October 10, 2012.

*** 

Every fall my aunt invites the women in our family for a soiree. For twenty-four hours, I luxuriate in the absence of dirty floors and fussy kids and throw all my energy into visiting, relaxing, and eating myself into a coma. It couldn’t be better.


The schedule is fixed. We arrive at her home at noon on Saturday and eat a many-coursed meal on the veranda. Entertainment is provided in the afternoon—one year there was an ooh-la-la belly dancer, another year we took oil painting lessons, and this year we received professional, full-body massages. In the evening, we eat out at a restaurant. The next morning there is coffee in the sunroom, a walk to the bakery, and a huge, leisurely brunch.

About a week before the event, my aunt starts sending us emails, saying things like, “The beds are made!” or “The delivery man just dropped off three big boxes!”  This year, she wrote, “I grated off the tip of a finger, made two things that totally flopped, and lost my cash card at the grocery store.” (Another aunt promptly shot back, “We'll eat flops as long as they don't have the tip of your finger in them.”)

Despite my aunt’s struggles, when we gathered around the table for the noontime meal a couple of weekends ago, there was nary a flop in sight. This first meal is always extra special because my aunt never tells us what any of the dishes are and she makes everything herself. It is our self-appointed job to guess the ingredients, rave wildly, and devour every morsel.


As we waited for my aunt to emerge from the kitchen, we sniffed the air for clues. When the first course arrived, we scrutinized the dish as though we were world-class connoisseurs. Dark red, with a swirl of sour cream in the middle, the soup smelled both musky and sweet. It had to be red peppers, we all agreed, but what else? Even before we took the first bite, we were already calling out possible ingredients.

Chicken broth! Tomatoes! Paprika! The guesses came rapid-fire.

I put a spoonful of the velvety, smoky soup into my mouth and shouted the first thing that popped into my mind, “Chipotle!”

My aunt, on her way back to the kitchen, turned and smiled at me. Bingo!

The rest of the meal was superb—pulled lamb, grilled broccoli, focaccia, greens with granola croutons, and lemon-blackberry-ginger parfaits—but it was the soup that impressed me most, and the recipe I recreated after I returned home. I’ve been sipping a mugful every lunch.


Roasted Red Pepper Soup
I’ve adapted my aunt’s recipe. She had adapted hers from one she found on My Recipes.

4 large red bell peppers
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
28-ounce can plum tomatoes (or 1 quart home-canned)
1-2 teaspoons minced chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
2 tablespoons smoked (or plain) paprika
3 cups chicken broth
3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt
black pepper
sour cream, for garnish
chopped cilantro, for garnish

Cut the peppers in half, remove the seeds and white membrane, and place on a baking sheet, cut-side down. Broil for 15-18 minutes until the skins are blistered black. Put the roasted peppers in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic. Allow them to steam-soften for about 10 minutes before peeling off and discarding the skins.

Saute the onions and garlic in the oil over medium high heat until translucent and soft. Add the roasted peppers, tomatoes, chipotle pepper, and paprika. Simmer for several minutes. Blend until creamy smooth.

Return the soup to the kettle, add the broth, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Heat through and taste to correct seasonings. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with dollops of sour cream and cilantro.

Yield: one-half gallon

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

making dinner easy

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on September 26, 2012.

*** 

Now that September is here, my days are filled to the brim with the children’s schooling. All the time I’d previously given to cooking vanished in a flurry of math problems, piano lessons, and geography games. In no time at all, we’d run clean out of prepared food. It got so bad that my husband gave up on packing his lunches and resorted to fast food. (And his wife writes a cooking column! Oh, the irony! The scandal!)

After three weeks of suppertime scrabbling, I’d had enough. I declared that the next Saturday would be my cooking day. I would cook food for the entire week ahead. I would cook until I ran out of supplies. I would cook until I dropped.

On Saturday morning, I tore around frenetically from stove to freezers to sink to counter to refrigerator. Pans of meats and veggies thawed on the table, big kettles cluttered the stove top, and wayward bits of chopped onion crunched underfoot. What a royal mess!

To make matters worse, my older daughter, invigorated by the flurry of kitchen activity, decided to give the refrigerator a much-needed dunging out. She emptied the shelves of their contents, and then the fridge of its shelves. And then, because empty space needs to be filled, she climbed into the fridge, just for the heck of it.


With the contents of my refrigerator sitting all over the kitchen floor, using things up became easier than ever. Into my soup pots went the good part of the tail end of a moldy piece of ginger, a solitary keilbasa sausage, a partially-filled jar of raw cream that was banging around the refrigerator freezer, some sour cream, the scrapings from a jar of applesauce.

The kitchen was trashed. The refrigerator crisper drawers perched precariously on kitchen stools. “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” blasted through the computer speakers. Bread flour covered the counters with a white film. The dirty dishes piled up higher and higher.

Early afternoon, exhaustion hit. I pushed through, bagging up the loaves of bread and putting the jars of prepared foods into the sparkly-clean refrigerator before collapsing on the sofa. The week’s meals were made, and the week hadn’t even started yet. Hallelujah.

We ate the curry on Tuesday night. All I had to do was cook a pot of brown rice, set out the condiments, and dinner was served. It couldn’t have been easier.


this picture is from another curry dinner - thus the white rice instead of brown

Golden Chicken Curry
Adapted from The Flavors of Bon Appetít 2000 cookbook.

1 chicken, cooked and deboned
2 tablespoons oil
3 large onions, chopped
1/4 cup minced, peeled fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup plain yogurt
½ cup tomato sauce
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup applesauce
1 pound (2-3 cups) packaged frozen peas
½ cup sour cream
½ cup coconut milk
salt, to taste

Sauté the onions in oil until tender. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté one minute. Add the curry, cumin, cinnamon, and flour and sauté briefly. Stir in the yogurt and tomato sauce and simmer for one minute. Add the broth and applesauce, bring to a boil, and simmer for a few minutes. Add peas and heat through.

Remove the kettle from the heat and stir in the chicken, sour cream, and coconut milk. You may continue to heat, as needed, but do not boil. Taste to adjust seasonings.

Serve the curry over rice, with a smattering of condiments such as cilantro, green onions, chutney, chopped bananas, raisins, chopped peanuts or cashews, and coconut.

Extra curry freezes well.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

to top the professionals

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on September 11, 2012.

*** 

A few weeks ago, on the way home from one of our last visits to the pool, the kids and I stopped by a local pizza shop to claim our free orders of cinnamon breadsticks, courtesy of the library’s summer reading program. When I exited the store with the four large boxes, the kids nearly bounced out of their seats with excitement.

“We’ll eat them at home, not in the car,” I said firmly. I’d borrowed  my brother’s car and wasn’t about to let them sticky it all up.

My husband arrived home the same time we did and joined us at the kitchen table. I poured glasses of milk and passed out napkins.

“Everybody has to give up one of their sticks,” I announced. “Three for your papa and one for me.”

I was acting all cool and aloof, but inside I was nearly as excited as the children. Soft bread! Sugar! Icing!

I took one bite and promptly deflated. The sticks were tough, and the icing, oh my. It tasted like melted plastic spoons. The children were doggedly munching away, scattering sugar hither and yon, but they didn’t seem quite as excited as before. I noticed my younger daughter scraping off the icing. Oh, so it wasn’t just me!

“I should go into business,” I huffed to my husband. I was talking off the top of my head. “To think that people pay good money for this stuff. It’s crazy!” 

“But you don’t make these,” he pointed out.

“Well, I could.” I already had a breadstick recipe I was in love with. The switch from savory to sweet wouldn’t be all that difficult, I thought.

The night before my baking experiment, I was so excited I had trouble sleeping. In the morning, the thought of butter and cinnamon propelled me out of bed.


It was nearly lunchtime when I pulled the breadsticks from the oven. The kids watched impatiently while I sampled one. Then I felt guilty for eating in front of them and gave them each a half. Their cries of delight were loud and unceasing.

“What do you think? Are these any good?” I asked.

“Yes, yes!” they cried, their mouths stuffed full with the sugary bread, their hands sticky.


After lunch, I let them eat their fill. They scarfed down every last one. They even, when they thought I wasn’t looking, polished the plates with their tongues like a pack of motherless waifs.


Cinnamon Sugar Breadsticks

2½ teaspoons yeast
1 cup warm water
3 cups bread flour
3 packed tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup oil
4 tablespoons butter, melted
½ cup white sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
½ teaspoon vanilla
milk or half-and-half

In a small bowl, combine the yeast and warm water. Set aside for five minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, and salt. Stir in yeast and oil. Knead until satiny smooth. Flour the bowl. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a cloth, and let rise until doubled.

Grease a large, sided baking tray. Roll/press the dough so that it covers the bottom of the pan. Cut the dough down the middle lengthwise and then crosswise about 11 times, aiming for about 24 sticks. Cover the dough and let rise for 30-60 minutes.

Bake the breadsticks at 375 degrees for about 12 minutes. Brush the hot breadsticks with the melted butter and sprinkle generously with the cinnamon sugar (you will have some leftover).

Combine the confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, and enough milk to make a runny icing. Drizzle it over the breadsticks. Serve warm.

Monday, September 3, 2012

a sauce to talk about

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on August 29, 2012.

*** 

The words for my next newspaper column weren’t falling into place. Tired of getting nowhere, I finally called up my mom. “I’m trying to write about a pizza sauce recipe, but I’m not sure what my point is.”

“Didn’t you just write about that in the last column?”

“No, that was a spaghetti sauce.”

“Pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, what’s the difference?” my mom asked.

“It’s totally different,” I said. “The spaghetti sauce was made with canned tomatoes. This pizza sauce is made with roasted tomatoes. Roasted garlic, too. A whole head. And it’s fast.”


“There’s nothing fast about roasting tomatoes. It takes hours!”

“No, no! These get roasted for just one hour!”

“Oh, really?” She was listening now.

“Yeah, they caramelize and get blistered black in places.”

“What? You put in black tomatoes?”

“When they’re blended up, they make the sauce look speckled. It’s gorgeous! And really, it couldn’t be easier.”

“Okay, okay,” Mom laughed. “You go to all this trouble and here I am just picking my jars of sauce off the grocery store shelves. I won’t get the mushroom kind and I try to choose something chunky—if you ask me, that’s easy. But your sauce does sound good.”


“It’s incredible!” I gushed. “So flavorful and rich. I get all sorts of traffic on my blog over that recipe—”

“All right,” she interrupted. “You have your column now.”

“Wha—?” I asked, bewildered.


“This phone conversation. Just write it down. That’s your column.”

“Mom, you duped me!” I shrieked. “You did this on purpose!”

“No, I did not! But now you have your column. Go write it.”


Roasted Tomato and Garlic Pizza Sauce
This recipe first appeared on Simple Bites.

12 pounds paste tomatoes, such as Roma
½ cup olive oil, plus extra as needed
salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 head garlic
3/4 cup green pepper, rough dice
1 cup onion, rough dice
1 jalapeño, rough mince
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon each, dried basil and dried oregano
citric acid, bottled lemon juice, or vinegar

Cut off the top of the head of garlic, making sure that the tippy-top of each clove has been removed. Set the garlic, cut side up, on a piece of foil, drizzle it with a bit of olive oil, and wrap tightly.

Wash and core the tomatoes. Cut them in half lengthwise and toss with ½ cup olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt, and the black pepper. Divide the tomatoes between two large, sided trays (put the foil-wrapped garlic on one of the trays) and roast at 400 degrees for 60-90 minutes, rotating as necessary. The tomatoes will blister and blacken a bit—this is good.

While the tomatoes are roasting, sauté the peppers and onion in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil until very soft.

Dump the roasted tomatoes into a large stockpot and add the sauteed veggies. Squeeze the garlic pulp out of the skins and add to the vegetables. Puree the mixture. Stir in the sugar, dried herbs, and more salt to taste—2 to 3 teaspoons.

Ladle the sauce into pint jars. To each jar add 1/4 teaspoon citric acid or 1 tablespoon lemon juice or 1 tablespoon vinegar. Screw on the lids and process the jars in a hot water bath for 20 minutes at a gentle rolling boil.

Yield: approximately 5 pints.

Friday, August 17, 2012

with complete abandon

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on August 15, 2012. 
 
*** 

A few weeks ago, I ran down to the basement to take stock of my canning shelves. Among the sea of empty glass jars, I found a few of salsa, some of tomato juice and roasted tomato sauce, and a whole bunch of pints of chopped Roma tomatoes, some of which were from as long ago as 2007. The jars were caked with dust, the edges fuzzy with mold. I felt slightly embarrassed.

I contemplated tossing the Romas, but the seals were still firm so I crossed my fingers and decided to put them in a sauce. I had found a spaghetti sauce recipe that specifically called for canned tomatoes—it’d be perfect for using up my antiques. But could their age prove deadly?

All my life, my mother has obsessively worried about botulism and salmonella, and even though I am much more pragmatic (no one I know has ever gotten sick from eating home-canned food, and besides, acidic tomatoes are not botulism prone), at moments like these, her death and doom speeches return to haunt me.

“Let’s hope I don’t kill us all,” I thought to myself as I lugged the armful of jars upstairs.

I scrubbed the jars in hot soapy water, popped off the lids, and dumped the tomato chunks into my Dutch oven. They looked and smelled perfectly fine. “See, Mom?” I thought. “There’s no problem!”

One of my son’s visiting friend’s eyes lit up when he saw what we were having for supper. “Spaghetti, yes!” he cheered.

“Hold up your plate,” I said to the boy after we had finished our silent mealtime prayer. He positively glowed with excitement—almost giddy, was he—as I mounded the spaghetti high.

I was slightly anxious that he might turn up his nose at my sauce since it was sure to be different from what he was used to, but I needn’t have worried. He rapidly polished off three servings, maybe even four. By the time he swallowed his last bite, he was groaning.

“Did you see how much he ate?” my stunned husband whispered to me as we cleared the table. “That last serving alone would’ve been enough for an entire lunch for me!”

“That’s how spaghetti is supposed to be eaten—with complete abandon,” I gloated.

But the best part? No one died.

Garlicky Spaghetti Sauce
Inspired by a recipe found in the August 2012 issue of “Food and Wine” magazine.

Despite the emphasis on garlic, the sauce is not overly pungent. The long cooking softens the bite considerably.

3 quarts canned tomatoes
½ - 3/4 cup (1-3 heads) peeled garlic cloves
2/3 cup olive oil
salt
black pepper
1 pound thin spaghetti
lots of freshly torn basil
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

For the sauce:
Bring the tomatoes to a simmer in a large pot.

Measure the oil into a smaller pot and add the garlic. Bring to a gentle boil and cook unlidded for about thirty minutes, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is golden brown and very tender.

Add the garlic and oil to the tomatoes. Using an immersion or regular blender, blend until smooth. Simmer for about an hour until the sauce has thickened a bit. Add plenty of salt and black pepper.

Set aside half of the sauce to freeze for a later batch of spaghetti or to use as pizza sauce.

For the spaghetti:
Cook one pound of spaghetti to al dente. Drain and return to the pot. Add two cups of the remaining hot sauce and cook for another minute. Serve the spaghetti, ladling more sauce over each portion. Garnish with basil and Parmesan cheese.

Friday, August 3, 2012

cake for an applesauce party

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on August 1, 2012. 
 
*** 

This year, we skipped church to make applesauce. The whole day stretched open in front of us, and with the promise of unlimited amounts of warm, sweet applesauce at the end, it felt like a holiday.

Before we started on the actual sauce making, we had to set up the assembly line. My husband cleaned off the porch, attached a utility sink to the porch deck railing, and brought the outdoor cookstove over from the barn. I scrubbed washbasket loads of jars, sorted jar lids (we reuse the undamaged ones), and measured the dry ingredients for the gingerbread, a traditional applesauce-day treat.


Turning four bushels of Summer Rambos into sauce is not an everyday challenge, and the kids were quick to get caught up in the festive atmosphere. They clamored for the best jobs, pretty much any task that involved fire, water, sharp blades, or motors.

They were excited to wash the apples and cut them. It’s always a great deal of fun to use my husband’s whippy-fast apple-cutting system. But then the system broke down due to a faulty handheld apple corer and we had to change tactics. My husband laid a long piece of pine on the picnic table, and I handed the kids a bunch of knives and told them to have at it. They chopped most of the apples themselves. We got out the Band-Aids only three times, I think.

The most coveted task of all, however, was the cranking of the apples through the mill. My husband has rigged up a special bit for his drill so the mill can be run with an easy squeeze of the drill’s trigger—I call the method “Drilling for Sauce”—and each time he ladled more mushy, spitting-hot apples into the mill, the eager-beaver kids crowded round, vying to be first.

Late morning, as the first batches of applesauce streamed from the mill, I finished mixing up the gingerbread and popped it into the oven. Soon the scent of peppery molasses was wafting around our heads, too, along with the fragrant smell of tangy-sweet apples.


To serve the cake, I put the pieces on dessert plates and spooned the warm sauce around each square of gingerbread, like spicy castles surrounded by steamy, pale-green moats. I handed out spoons and told everyone to eat all they wanted. It was, after all, an applesauce party.


Gingerbread
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook

For a gentler cake, omit the fresh ginger.

3/4 cup strong, dark beer such as Guinness
½ teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup molasses
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup flavorless oil such as canola
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger, optional
1½ cups flour
2 tablespoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon each, baking powder and salt
1/4 teaspoon each, cinnamon and black pepper

Bring the beer to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda. Pour into a large bowl and whisk in the molasses and sugars. Add the eggs, oil, and fresh ginger.

In another bowl, combine the flour, ground ginger, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and black pepper. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in three parts, whisking until smooth after each addition.

Pour the batter into a greased 8x8-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes. Serve with fresh applesauce or a dollop of whipped cream.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

come-and-get-it mint tea

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on July 18, 2012.

*** 

Earlier this summer, I made a batch of tea concentrate, decimating the patch of mint growing out by the water pump. Thanks to the record temps, we guzzled most of our stash faster than I expected.


Where to get more mint? I wondered. Probably, there were lots of people with rampant mint patches who would be delighted to let me have some if they only knew I needed it, but I didn’t know who those people were. So I did the only logical thing. I turned to Facebook.

I am a reluctant Facebook user. Back in the beginning, I used it sporadically—on several different occasions Facebook sent me messages checking to see if I was still alive—but gradually, I got hooked.

While I find the commentary and pictures entertaining (though sometimes overwhelming), I especially appreciate Facebook’s power to yield tangible results. Once I whined in my status update that I couldn’t find a brown shirt anywhere, and the next Sunday, a woman from church handed me a new one. Also, I’ve asked for and received movie recommendations, advice on recipes and Broadway shows, and empty laundry detergent bottles for my homemade laundry soap.

So while I might not be the biggest Facebook enthusiast, I’m not stupid. A shortage of mint meant it was time for a new status update.

“Anybody have a boatload of mint they want to get rid of?” I wrote. “I'd take a half bushel, loosely packed.”

Almost immediately, I got a “Come and get it!” response. I barely knew this person but that didn’t stop her from graciously giving me directions to her house. The next evening, my husband and I stopped by.

“Are you sure you don’t want this?” I asked, worried that I was taking advantage of her hospitality.

“No, no! Take it all! It will grow back.”

Maybe she truly wanted to get rid of the mint, but a part of me wondered if she was hesitant to tell a scissors-brandishing strange woman to lay off the aggressive snipping. In any case, I decided to take her words at face value. I filled my brown grocery bag and said thank you.

Back home, as I poured the boiling sugar-water syrup over the sprigs, the heady smell of fresh mint filled the sultry, summer-night air. The next morning, I would strain the tea, add the lemon juice, and ladle the concentrate into pint jars. We would have enough mint tea to last us at least another month or so.

And all because of Facebook.


Mint Tea Concentrate

There are many types of mint—apple, lemon, chocolate, peppermint, and spearmint, and smooth-leafed or fuzzy—all of which can be used for the tea. Keep in mind that mint harvested later in the summer is more potent than the early mint.

enough mint (roughly 2½ pounds) to fill a 12-16 quart kettle
2½ to 3 pounds sugar
1 gallon water
the juice of 3 or 4 lemons

Gently wash the mint and cut off the brown leaves and any flowering tops. Pack the mint—both the stems and the leaves—into a 16-quart kettle.

Combine the water and sugar in a large kettle and bring to a gentle boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour the syrup over the mint, weigh the mint down with a glass pie plate, and lid the kettle. Let steep overnight, about 12 hours.

Strain the tea. I first pour it through a sieve and then, to get out any little remaining bits, through a cheesecloth. Stir in the lemon juice. Freeze in 1½ cup portions.

To serve, thaw one jar of concentrate and add enough water to make a half gallon. Pour the tea into frosty, ice-filled glasses and garnish with a sprig of mint and several frozen red raspberries.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

eating: a French education

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on July 3, 2012.

*** 

When I called my dear children to lunch, my younger son trotted into the kitchen, took one look at his plate with its minuscule mound of salad, and went off like a fire siren. “This is revolting! I hate—.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” I yelled. “Start over! You come to the table and sit down quietly! And no fussing!”

I had nearly finished my latest read, Bringing Up Bébé by American mother Pamela Druckerman, who compares French and American parenting styles. According to Druckerman, the French intentionally teach their children to relish all sorts of exotic foods. They accomplish this by serving meals in courses (there is no snacking between meals), with vegetables being the first course when the children are the hungriest; expecting children to try everything; and actively engaging the children in conversation about what they are eating.

Perhaps I had bought into the belief that kids have more sensitive palates than adults? Could it be that my children might actually enjoy more complex flavors if I merely raised my expectations and spent time educating them?


To test the French methods, I had divvied onto several small plates the lunch I had planned for myself—a salad of red beet greens, quinoa, and zucchini—all foods that my children claim to abhor.

Dropping my voice to normal levels (because yelling at the table is not exactly good French etiquette), I laid out the plan. “We will be having lunch in three courses. First, this salad.”

I listed all the components, detailing ingredients that I previously would have skipped over for fear of an uprising. I even mentioned the lemon and garlic vinaigrette as though I was announcing their favorite ice cream flavor.

“Do we have to eat it all?” my daughter asked, her voice tense.

“No. But you do have to try everything. Now, tell me what you think of the zucchini,” I said, ignoring their ew-grosses and spearing a coin with my fork. “Is it crunchy or soft? Grandmommy gave them to us, you know. They’re sweet, I think, and I can taste the butter and salt. But what do you think?”

My daughter nibbled a piece of zucchini and then boldly popped the whole thing into her mouth and grinned at me.

As I chattered on about the flavor differences between spinach and beet greens, the kids happily poked their salads, tasting a grain of quinoa (“It tastes like pasta!”), a chunk of feta, a bit of the greens. My son gagged on a beet root, but instead of the normal crying jag, he busted up laughing. When I gathered up the plates, the kids were still bubbling with observations and comments.

I had no idea that a simple, no-pressure conversation about food would result in such curious little tasters. No doubt about it, more French-style meals are in my family’s future. Bon appétit!


Zucchini Coins

Put a pat of butter and drizzle of olive oil in a skillet set on medium-high heat. Thinly slice several small zucchinis into coins. Arrange a single layer of the coins in the sizzling fat and sprinkle with salt. Let the zucchini cook, undisturbed, until the bottoms are nicely blistered. Flip and cook on the other side.  Repeat the process with the remaining zucchinis. For a fancier version: add oregano, sliced tomatoes, feta cheese, and black pepper.

Lemon Garlic Vinaigrette
(with thanks to my girlfriend MAC)

In a mortar and pestle, pound a couple thin slices of fresh garlic with some salt into a creamy paste. Add the juice of one lemon, a glug of olive oil, and some freshly ground black pepper. Mix well and taste to correct seasonings.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

inspired salad


The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on June 20, 2012.

*** 

Last week I got an email from my pastor.

“I’m just now eating something so delicious that I had to tell someone,” she wrote. “Who would that be? Well, someone who loves food enough to write about it.” 

And then she proceeded to tell me all about her lunch.

She had noticed her cilantro was going to seed, so she’d harvested it all in one fell swoop and then had to figure out what to do with it.

“I had earlier pulled four pink beets—how can they be so huge already?—and set them to boiling in their skins,” she wrote. “Ultimately, I minced the cilantro, diced the cooled beets, and dressed the salad with olive oil, lime juice and a dash of salt. That’s it, but wow! It’s good two days later and looks pretty to boot.”

My pastor doesn’t usually tell me about her lunches. In fact, I think this may have been the first time. So I did the only logical thing I could do in such a situation. I walked over to the fridge where my grocery list resides and scrawled “cilantro” and “beets.”


Two days later, I went to the farmer’s market and bought some striped beets and a big bunch of cilantro. Back home, I called my pastor at the office (interrupting her sermon writing, no doubt)  to double check on the proportions. However, it wasn’t until the following Monday morning that I actually got around to making the salad.

And then I devoured the whole entire thing right then and there. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet.

I didn’t intend to consume the salad all in one go. I had planned to make it, taste it, and then save it for later. But once I started eating the sweet, juicy beets and pungent, earthy greens, I couldn’t stop. I shoveled it into my mouth via the serving spoon, in great enormous heaps.


The initial feeding frenzy over, I started experimenting with what was left. I added some cooked quinoa that was hanging out in the fridge, and then I tumbled in some crumbled feta cheese. Both additions were lovely, and before I knew it, I had sampled the salad into oblivion.


There’s a moral to the story, of course, and it’s this: if your pastor emails you a recipe, make it. It’s probably inspired.

Cilantro Beet Salad
Inspired by my pastor, Jennifer Davis Sensenig

This is more a formula than a recipe. It seems like a crazy amount of cilantro, and it is, but it’s all good. Trust me.

1 cup roasted (or boiled) beets, cooled and diced
½ to 1 cup chopped cilantro, stems and leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and black pepper to taste
cooked quinoa, optional
feta cheese, optional

Toss together and taste to correct seasonings.

How to Roast Beets
Trim off the stems and leaves. Scrub the beets. Put the whole beets in a baking dish and drizzle with olive oil. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 60-90 minutes or until the beets are fork tender. Cool slightly before peeling. Eat warm, with butter and salt, or refrigerate for later use.

How to Cook Quinoa
Cover 1 cup of quinoa with hot (not boiling) water and let soak for 5 minutes. Rinse and drain the quinoa several times. Both the hot soak and the rinsing help to reduce the bitterness.

Put the quinoa in a saucepan and add 1 ½ (scant) cups of water or chicken broth. Simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the grains are tender.

Friday, June 8, 2012

sweet and tender, toasted

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on June 6, 2012.

*** 

Little footsteps pitter-patted down the hall. A tray clattered. I lifted my head just enough to see who was bold enough to wake me. It was my little boy bearing two pieces of toasted, heavily buttered, store-bought bread and two grease-smeared glasses of water.

I glanced at the clock. It was 7:01, the latest I had slept in three weeks. I moaned weakly and scrunched further down into the pillows. My head was splitting, my whole body nearly sick with exhaustion. At that moment, my day—nay, my life—seemed insurmountable. I wanted to cry and scream and break glass, but I was too tired.

Despite my righteous indignation, I was acutely aware of my boy’s golden sweetness as he bustled about, arranging the tray on the night stand. Scrambling up on the bed beside me, he chirruped, “There was a baby bird in the driveway, Mama. It was trying to walk!”

For the last several weeks, thanks to the community play I was involved in, I had not been around to help give baths, read stories, and do bedtime tuck-ins and kisses. I was home during the days, true, but I was distracted. My little boy missed me. I could hardly fault him for that.

The unappetizing breakfast wasn’t his problem, either. I had all but ceased to cook, and bread baking was one of the first things to go. It was much easier to pop a loaf of sliced air into a shopping cart than to deal with bowls, flour, and a hot oven.

I had, one day, in a valiant effort to be nurturing, tried to make some oatmeal bread—a treat in our house. Fresh from the oven and slathered with butter and jelly, it’s swoon-worthy. It’s sweet and tender, almost dessert-like, and makes excellent toast.

The golden, high-domed loaves had been a peace offering, of sorts, compensation for all the skimpy meals we’d been having. Tragically, they were underbaked, one more casualty of my fuzzy-headed stupor. We devoured the hacked-off crusts before tossing the doughy insides to the chickens.


doughy remains

That morning when my sleep was cut short much too soon, I did eventually get a handle on my roiling emotions and eat my greasy piece of tasteless toast. After swallowing the last bite, I finally turned to my little boy who was hovering close by, watching and waiting.

“Thank you,” I said. And I meant it.

Oatmeal Bread
Adapted from the More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre.

This is the bread that I wouldn’t have had to throw to the chickens if my head hadn’t been in the clouds. Toasted, it’s divine.

1 tablespoon yeast
½ cup warm water
1 cup oats, quick or rolled
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups boiling water
5 cups white bread flour

In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water.

Measure the oats, whole wheat, sugar, salt, and butter into a large mixing bowl. Add the boiling water and stir to combine. Let cool to lukewarm. Stir in the dissolved yeast and the white flour. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, only adding more flour if necessary. Sprinkle the bowl with flour and plop in the dough. Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled.

Divide the dough into two pieces and shape into loaves. Place loaves in greased pans, seam-side down. Cover and let rise until nearly doubled.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until dark golden brown. Remove from pans and cool to room temperature.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

kitchen theater

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on May 23, 2012.

***

I recently spent one entire rainy day alternating between reading to the kids, showing them educational videos, and trying to snooze on the sofa.

I had a good reason for being plumb tuckered out. The week before, my son and I had been cast in a play about an Anabaptist family living in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. My son had gotten the part of a Union soldier and I had been cast as Edith, one of the family’s grown daughters. While I was thoroughly enjoying myself, the late nights and the stress of memorizing my lines and learning to wear a corset were taking their toll. Thus, the lazy day.

But right around 4 o’clock, I forced myself to rally. Rehearsals started at 6:30. We needed to hustle to get the house cleaned and supper on the table before then.

I put my younger daughter to washing the lunch dishes. I told the boys to blitz the downstairs. I assigned my older daughter to making biscuits. In the middle of it all while I sauteed the onions for our soup, I started practicing my lines.

In one of the scenes, Edith, who is known for her dreams and premonitions, tells her husband about her nightmare, which foreshadows the terror to come.

“My throat was burning,” I croaked, clutching at my neck, overdramatizing for memorization’s sake, “and all I could think of was water.”

The daughter on her stool, washing dishes, turned sideways so she could better see me and jumped into the part of my husband. “Edie...” she interjected. 

The boys had all but ceased their straightening up to watch my theatrics.

“And then up in the rocks I found a trickle of pure, clear water,” I said. I recounted how the trickle turned to a torrent. “It tore at my fingers and overflowed, gushing, soaking me, streaming down,” I cried, gasping, my shoulders heaving. “I couldn’t breathe!”

When I reached the end of the dream, the kids begged for a repeat performance.

“That’s enough for now,” I said. “My throat’s sore. We need to get these biscuits in the oven.”

My older daughter mused dreamily as she stirred the cream into the flour and lard, “You help your mama make biscuits in the play, and I’m helping you here.” Was she imagining our kitchen to be a stage set?

“That’s true,” I said. “But we never eat the stage biscuits. Besides, they’re probably hard as rocks from all the handling.”

We had no problem eating our biscuits. Even though I made a double batch, only one was left over. I ate it the next night, split and stuffed with ham, on my way home from rehearsal.


Biscuits
Adapted from Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Small Breads by Bernard Clayton Jr.

2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup lard
3/4 cup cream, half-and-half, or milk
cornmeal, for sprinkling

Measure the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Cut in the lard with a fork. Gently stir in the cream.

Dump the shaggy dough on to a floured surface and knead once or twice. Press the dough into a rough circle about 1/3-inch thick. Cut the biscuits with a biscuit cutter (or a drinking glass), dipping it into flour between cuts to prevent sticking. Repeat until all the dough has been used. But be gentle—extra handling yields a tougher biscuit.

Place the biscuits on a lightly greased, cornmeal-sprinkled baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes until golden brown and sky high.

For more information about the play “Jordan’s Stormy Banks” by Liz Beachy Hansen, visit www. vbmhc.org.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

for the children

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on May 9, 2012.

***

I get a kick out of trying new recipes. Sometimes my experiments are rather wild. One time I served my family fried lemons and parsley wrapped in tortillas. Another time there was a cold cucumber soup that we all agreed was perfectly horrid (though I didn’t tell them my opinion until after we had eaten it, much to their dismay). And my husband still likes to tease me about the time I served him collard greens on top of oatmeal. The cooking flops don’t faze me much. New flavors are thrilling, and more often than not, the dishes are perfectly edible, though somewhat odd.

My children, however, don’t always appreciate my creative efforts. They are quick to grow weary of the steady stream of new ingredients and flavors. No doubt they would be happy as clams if I only ever made their favorite foods.

I do try to be sensitive. Some days they need comfort food, and whether or not I find the dish exciting to cook is not important. The other week, we had one of those days.

On that particular day, the children were grief stricken.

Five days before, they had rescued some baby field mice that were being attacked by our dog. My husband and I had warned the children that the mice probably wouldn’t live, but that didn’t stop the children from doing their best to keep the babies alive. My older daughter, especially, poured her heart and soul into caring for them. She made them a straw nest, heated up a rice-stuffed sock to keep them warm, bathed and cuddled them, and spent hours feeding them drops of milk from a syringe. On Monday morning when she discovered that one of the mice, a girl named Henry, was dead, my daughter was crushed.

One by one, the other mice died, and the three younger children spent the morning crying.

I tried to stick to our normal routine in spite of the sobbing, but it was hopeless. By mid afternoon I was exhausted. Our rest time—a fixed part of our day in which the kids go to their rooms and I sink onto the sofa to drink coffee and write—was ruined because the youngest child couldn’t stop crying. His focus had shifted from the baby mice to his frustration that I had yet to sign up to be his Sunday school teacher.


Finally I threw up my hands in frustration and set a pot of water on to boil for some pasta. I grated a block of cheese and whisked flour into melted butter for a white sauce. Supper would be baked macaroni and cheese, one of the kids’ favorites. Our day had been rough, but our supper would go down easy.


Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Sometimes I spice up the white sauce by stirring in a bit of grainy mustard, hot sauce, pesto, or chopped ham. Though I then run the risk of turning a comforting dish into something new and stressful. More often than not, I keep it safely simple.

1 pound macaroni
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour, rounded
1 ½ teaspoons salt
3 cups milk
8-12 ounces grated melting cheese such as Colby, cheddar, Monterey Jack, or Gruyere

Cook the macaroni according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and cook briefly, stirring constantly. Whisk steadily, add the milk and bring to gentle boil. Stir in the salt and half of the cheese. Taste to correct seasonings.

Combine the cheese sauce with the macaroni and pour into a buttered 9x13 pan. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.

Friday, April 27, 2012

a better brownie

 The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on April 25, 2012.

***

I can get a little obsessed when searching for the perfect recipe. For a while there, it was English muffins—I tried six or seven different recipes and still came up empty. And then there were the brownies.

The recipe from childhood just didn’t cut it anymore, I decided. I started playing around with the amounts of chocolate and butter, and with a variety of add-ins. On the fourth try, I found what I was looking for—a dense, rich, and profoundly chocolatey brownie.


I was thrilled with my little victory. But when I mentioned my triumph to my mother over the phone, she did not share my excitement.

“Good grief,” my mother sighed. “Why are you always trying to change things?”

“Well, um ... because the recipe wasn’t very good?”

“Pooh!” my mother snorted. “It’s the recipes that have withstood the test of time that are the best. You’re just being picky.”

I was momentarily flummoxed, for my mother is queen of pick. But I quickly recovered.

“Okay then,” I said, laughing to mask my rising hackles. “The next time you come visit, we’ll do a taste test. I bet you’ll agree with me.”


So one weekend night after the kids were tucked in, my parents and my husband and I clustered around the kitchen table for The Official Brownie Reckoning of 2012. I placed four anonymous samples, all different, on a cutting board and sliced each one into four bite-sized morsels. Only I knew which brownie was which. I braced myself for the showdown.

My mother stared down her nose at the selection. “I can tell you right now those are horrible.” She jabbed her finger at the brownies closest to her. “Look at them. They’re grey!”

“You have to taste them,” I reminded her.

She popped one in her mouth. “Oh my, these are awful!” She scrunched up her face like a prune and swallowed painfully.

I had planned to stay quiet until all the brownies were tasted. But suddenly I couldn’t bear it. “Mom!” I crowed. “That’s your recipe!”

She paused for a moment, considering. Then she shrugged her shoulders and popped the next sample into her mouth. “So what makes your brownies better?”

“More chocolate, more butter, and no baking powder,” I explained. I had to struggle to put a cap on my mirth. “They’re darker, richer, and fudgier. That’s all.”

You know what though? My mom is always saying it’s the simple recipes that are best, and on that one point she and I stand united. One of the recipes I tried included Nutella swirled into the batter. Other recipes called for pumping up the brownies with toffee bits and cacao nibs. But the brownies that ended up being my favorite were unembellished.


Brownies

If you prefer a lighter brownie, you can dial back the chocolate to 2 or 3 ounces.

½ cup butter
4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
½ cup flour

Melt the butter and chocolate in a saucepan over low heat. Off heat, stir in the sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Gently stir in the flour and salt.

Pour the batter into a greased 8x8 pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. The brownies should look underbaked—still jiggly in the middle and only just beginning to pull away from the sides. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out wet. (If it comes out clean, you’ve gone too far and your brownies will be dry and crumbly.)

Delicious served slightly warm, with a scoop of coffee ice cream and a drizzle of caramel sauce.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

in the midst of chaos

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on April 11, 2012.

***

I love it when my girlfriends come to visit. Good conversation energizes me and is a welcome diversion from the daily humdrum routine. Sometimes, however, maintaining a thread of coherent conversation while simultaneously mothering my little ones can be a feat of monumental proportions.

Such was the case one day in February. A not-often-seen friend was scheduled to arrive for lunch, so I corralled my two younger children (the older ones weren’t home) and briefed them on my expectations for their behavior.

But when my girlfriend glided through the door, oozing charm and goodwill, my children flew into a tizz of happy excitement. A new person is in the house and she’s smiling at us, whee! Promptly they forgot (or intentionally neglected to remember) my lecture. My fantasy of a peaceful meal—my friend and I expounding on all manner of weighty topics and my children sitting as quiet and still as holy church mice—fluttered straight out the window.

While I sauteed the spinach, ladled the thick, creamy lentil soup into bowls, and made a stab at preliminary catch-up talk, the children grabbed silverware out of the drawer. They scraped their stools across the floor tiles. They chattered nonstop. My stress levels shot through the roof.


Then during the meal, the children slyly kicked each other under the table. They picked at the food without interest, impishly stuck their fingers in their water glasses, and clanked their spoons against their bowls. They interrupted. They rocked on their stools. Their behavior wasn’t full-on intentional naughtiness, but in no way whatsoever did they resemble the timid little church mice of my dreams.

I had two choices. I could either disrupt the adult conversation to correct their behavior, or I could ignore them. Since focusing on them would draw attention to them even more, and since I was already discombobulated enough, I chose the latter. Shifting my body so I was directly facing my friend, I tried to pretend my kids weren’t even present. Only occasionally did I shoot them some hairy eyeballs, which they deftly dodged.

Preparing my children for a proper company lunch is hit or miss. Some days they behave beautifully. Other days—well, now you know how those go. Thank goodness I had taken measures with the food so I wouldn’t have to stress over that as well. The lemony red lentil soup, with mounds of sauteed greens, brown rice, and plain yogurt on top, was a smash hit. My girlfriend and I both had seconds.


Red Lentil Soup with Lemon and Spinach

Inspired by a recipe on Heidi Swanson’s blog 101 Cookbooks.

2 cups red lentils, rinsed
6 cups chicken broth (or water)
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon turmeric
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 medium onions, chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons yellow mustard seed
2-3 lemons, the juice of
lots of fresh spinach
cooked brown rice
plain yogurt
black pepper

Put the lentils, turmeric, 1 tablespoon butter, and salt in a large pot and add the chicken broth. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are very soft. Puree the soup using a handheld immersion blender or a regular blender.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet and add the onions, cumin, and mustard seed. Saute until the onions are very soft—about 15-20 minutes.

Add the onions to the pot of pureed soup. Squeeze in the lemon juice. Taste to correct seasonings.

Immediately before serving, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter in a large skillet and add the spinach. Sprinkle with salt and toss until wilted.

To serve: fill the bowls with soup and garnish liberally with scoops of warm brown rice, the sauteed spinach, plain yogurt, and freshly ground black pepper.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

eggs galore

 The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on March 28, 2012.

***

Our chickens have gone gangbusters. For several weeks we were getting only one egg daily, maybe two. And then the chickens laid eleven eggs in a single day. Eleven! Just like that we were flooded.

My kids are head-over-heels excited by all the egg laying. Even though we’ve had chickens for years, the springtime explosion comes as a delightful surprise each time—it’s like a perpetual Easter Egg hunt but without the sugar and plastic grass. The children make countless trips to the coop each day, and when they find two (or six, or ten) eggs, they cart them back up to the house in their shirts.


As they bang through the screen door with their loot, there’s always a report of some sort. Sometimes it’s the number, shouted out at the top of their lungs, but other times it’s an announcement about the impressive size, either extra small or extra large, or the news that one got slightly cracked or one had a bit of blood on it (ouch). My youngest child always sings the first few bars of “Happy Birthday” to me as he piles the green and brown little gifts into the metal egg bowl that sits on the counter.


My younger daughter spends a sizeable portion of her day down by the chicken coop. There is a long skinny door right above the nesting boxes so the eggs can be collected outside the coop. She opens that door and stands there, waiting for the eggs drop. “They’re sticky when they come out,” she informed me once, awe and surprise in her voice.


And the other day my older daughter came running in, brandishing an egg. “I heard a thump!” she squealed. “The chicken laid it right in the sunshine so it was glowing!”

Now that we’re swimming in eggs, once or twice a week we make a Dutch Puff for breakfast. Dutch Puff is an egg-rich oven pancake similar to Dutch Baby or Yorkshire pudding. It’s one of the kids’ all-time favorite breakfasts. Because the batter is mixed up and left to soak overnight, it’s a fairly quick hot breakfast, making it one of my favorites, too.


Some people add sugar and spices to the batter, but I don’t bother. The children drizzle theirs with syrup, and sometimes if I want to make the puff stretch further (one pan is barely enough to feed the four kids), I get a box of berries out of the freezer and mix up a pot of warm vanilla pudding to serve, too.


Dutch Puff

Dutch Puff rises sky-high in the oven but promptly deflates when out. In order to make the best impression, gather everyone to the table before taking the puff from the oven.

8 eggs, beaten
2 cups flour (I use half whole-wheat pastry flour)
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
5 tablespoons butter

The night before:
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Beat in the flour and salt, and then the milk. Cover the bowl with plastic (or a shower cap) and let sit on the counter, or in the fridge, overnight.

Put the butter in a 9 x 13 pan and set aside.

In the morning:
Turn the oven to 350 degrees and slip the pan into the oven. When the butter has melted (watch it closely to make sure it doesn’t burn), take the pan from the oven and swirl gently to coat the sides and bottom. Whisk the batter thoroughly and pour it into the pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until the puff is billowing over the sides of the pan and the edges are a dark golden brown. Serve immediately.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

wholesomely subversive

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on March 14, 2012.

***

Several weeks ago I found myself in a quandary. Every single recipe I had written about for the newspaper was a healthy one.

“It feels dishonest,” I fretted to my husband. “All this talk of kale and raw ginger is going to make people think I’m a health nut.”

“Well, they’d be wrong,” he said flatly.

I certainly didn’t want to mislead anyone. The sweet truth is, I’m no purist. I buy at least four pounds of butter each week, cream by the quart, and sugar by the 10-pound sack.

Once I decided on my solution—a rich berry cobbler—I ran into a second problem. The recipe called for a blend of five whole-grain flours in place of some the white flour, which would totally sully my image to not appear so wholesome.

It was my mother, not my husband, who pulled me out of my pit of despair. “Write about the cobbler without revealing the whole truth. Next time, talk about the blend,” she suggested. “You’ll just have to admit that you fudged a little.”

So, I confess. The flour in that cobbler recipe two weeks ago, the one with the raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, wasn’t pure, lily-livered white. The rest of it was millet, rye, barley, oats, and whole wheat. Can you forgive me?


It’s for the flavor, not for the nutrition, that I add whole grains to my baked goods. Desserts are supposed to be decadent, and the desserts I make are quite lavish. The interesting thing is, I’ve found that whole grains add to the allure of baked goods. Buckwheat lends a dark complexity to apple pancakes. Whole wheat imparts an element of nuttiness to chocolate chip cookies. Corn flour gives a sunny lift to blueberry-lemon scones.

A five-flour blend that I discovered in Kim Boyce’s book, Good to the Grain, yields delightfully light-colored and delicate-textured baked goods with a mildly nutty-sweet taste. I am so smitten with it that I dump it into everything from waffles to breads to cobblers. That I’m using a slew of whole grains to make my desserts even more sumptuous fills me with glee. I’m being subversive and naughty—in a most wholesome way.


Five-Flour Blend

Some of these grains contain less gluten than regular all-purpose flour, so don’t swap in the five-flour blend for more than 50 percent of the total flour amount called for in recipes.

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup oat flour
1 cup barley flour
½ cup rye flour
½ cup millet flour

Combine the flours and store in an airtight container in the freezer. Use the blend in place of some of the white flour in pancakes, muffins, breads, cakes, cookies, and scones.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

using up the berries

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on February 29, 2012.

***

Each summer we grow, blanche, can, and bag until our two freezers are packed full of green beans, broccoli, spinach, strawberries, rhubarb, and corn, our basement shelves are groaning under the jars of applesauce, peaches, salsa, and grape juice, and we’re keeling over from exhaustion.

And every February and March, as seed catalogues fill our mailbox, I run down to the basement time and again to haul up jars to restock our hutch, and plumb the depths of the freezer in a hurry-scurry effort to use up the old to make room for the new.

Now the empty jars are clotting the shelves. The plastic containers are stacked inside each other, piling ever higher.

There are hardly any frozen vegetables left—when I announce I’ve discovered a bag of green beans rattling around in the depths, the children cheer and then snitch the still-frozen beans out of the pot I’ve just set on the stove. I’m swimming in frozen fruit, though. We have a handsome stash of nectarines, sour cherries, peaches, applesauce, rhubarb, and berries—strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, red raspberries, and cranberries. Of all the fruits, the frozen berries seem especially luxurious. They invoke all my hoarder tendencies, so I have to continually remind myself that the fruit is no good to us if we don’t actually eat it.

So the other evening when a child asked if she could make a cobbler for dessert, I said, “Yes, a double batch.”

Her cobbler was still in the oven when we finished our soup and cornbread. While we waited, we washed the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen. But before long, we were pulling our chairs up to the table again.

The kids thrust their bowls up close to the burbling, fragrant pan of berries, and the serving spoon cracked through their crisp, golden brown lid with a hearty crunch and sunk into the scarlet mess of soft, juicy fruit below. We ate our fill of milk-doused, tart sweetness, and when only one serving remained, my husband said, “Good, I get to have some in my lunch tomorrow.”

Recipes like this one can make it really easy to use up all that fruit in the freezer. On the other hand, maybe it’s not so smart to plow through the fruit, because once the berries are all gone we’ll be cobbler-less. That will be a sad predicament, indeed.


Berry Cobbler
Adapted from Recipes for a Postmodern Planet.

This time I used blueberries, red raspberries, and blackberries.

4 cups berries, a mixture, fresh or frozen
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 egg, beaten
6 tablespoons butter, melted

Tumble the berries into a greased 8 x 8-inch baking dish and sprinkle with the lemon.

In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the flour and sugar. Add the beaten egg and stir to combine. Distribute the sandy mixture evenly over the berries. Drizzle the butter over all.

Bake the cobbler at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes or until the juices are bubbling merrily and the topping is a toasty golden brown. Serve warm with milk or vanilla ice cream.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

a cup of comfort

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on February 15, 2012.
 
Lately, it’s been all stuffy noses, glassy eyes, coughs, earaches, and sore throats around this joint. The hot water bottle is in use night and day, and appetites come and go on a whim. My husband bought another dozen cloth hankies to add to our already rather large stash and we still manage to run out with alarming frequency. Somehow, though, despite all the germs swirling through the air, I’ve remained cold-free.

Last week, with a trip to New York City in my immediate future and a panicky fear of getting hit with the sniffles mid-flight, I decided preventative measures were in order. I certainly didn’t want to spend my few precious days in big-time civilization with my nose swelled to the size of an apple. So I fixed myself a quart of ginger lemon tea. I drank the first batch right up and promptly made another, this time doubling the recipe. I made it to NYC and back with nary a sniffle or sneeze, thank the tea, or my lucky stars, or both.

Though not particularly well-versed in the health merits of foods (I eat for flavor), I did know that fresh ginger, honey, and lemon boast a goodly amount of Vitamin C, as well as antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory agents. Furthermore, the convenience of a large jar of tea, always at the ready in the middle of the cold season, couldn’t be underestimated—all I needed to do was zap a cupful in the microwave and the restoring comfort was mine for the savoring.


The other night after the kids were tucked in bed, I poured two large mugfuls—I was on my third batch by now—and my husband and I sat down in front of the fire to toast our piggy-toes. I slurped my tea down straightaway, but my husband let his cool a bit first. He’s kind of a wimp that way.

“This is good,” he said, which was high praise coming from him, a non tea drinker. “It warms me up.”

He was right. The tea is warm, and not just from the temperature. The ginger gives it a zip that starts your beleaguered cells to tingling and sets you a-glow from the inside out. The lemon puckers the mouth a tad, and the honey mellows the tea just enough. The tea manages to both relax and energize.

Which is, I might point out, most pleasing in the dead of winter, cold or no cold.


Ginger Lemon Tea
Adapted from Recipes for a Postmodern Planet

Feel free to swap lime juice in place of some of the lemon, and agave syrup for the honey. If you’re suffering from a cough, a splash of whiskey is a profitable addition, or so I hear.

Fresh ginger can be found in the produce section of any grocery store.

a 1-inch knob of fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1-2 lemons, juiced
1/4 cup honey
pinch of salt
4 cups water

Pour the water into a saucepan. Add the ginger and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, add the lemon juice, honey, and salt, and simmer for five minutes. Strain and serve.

Variation: Fizzy Ginger Tea
Make a concentrate by using only 1-2 cups of water. Mix the chilled concentrate with 2-3 cups of club soda. Serve over ice.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

a quest for salad

The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on February 1, 2012.

One evening, depleted after running a bunch of errands, I stopped by a new-ish restaurant. I was looking for something healthy and wholesome to fill my tank—not my standard starchy choice of bread and coffee—and was delighted to discover a whole case filled with portable and affordable salads. I chose the wheat berry salad—plump grains tossed with fruit and drizzled with an oil and vinegar dressing. It was so satisfying that on my return trips I’ve never even bothered to sample their other offerings.


Every time I’ve eaten the salad (and it’s probably only been three times, but it feels like all the time since I so rarely eat out), I think to myself, “Self, you have got to learn how to make this,” and then I spend a few minutes wondering if I should try to slip a wad of cash to one of the employees in exchange for the recipe. But bribery feels too complicated (not to mention unethical), and besides, the salad, loaded as it is with nuts and dried fruits, seems a bit extravagant, not like something I’d make at home just for any how.


But then, just a couple weeks ago, I bought the salad again, and this time I happened to glance down at the lid where, lo and behold, an ingredient list was printed, plain as day. The solution to my “problem” was so obvious that I may have, there in my van all by my salad-eating self, cackled with glee.


Back home, plastic lid in hand, I trolled the Internet and flipped through cookbooks, and soon I had a rough draft of a recipe. On the first try, the salad was tasty, but the wheat berries were too tough. For round two, I used soft winter wheat instead of hard spring and went out of my way to buy the ingredients that I had mistakenly thought I could do without—wild rice, green onions, dried cherries—and the salad improved dramatically. (Leaving the cherries out, in particular, was a rather foolish thing to do, especially when the word “cherry” had a prime spot in the salad’s title.)


My recipe isn’t exactly like the restaurant version, of course, but it’s pretty darn close. The salad is sweet and tangy, chewy from the fruit and grain, and with a bit of crunch from the nuts and apple. It’s filling, too, and now when I head into town for an evening of errands, I can carry my fortification with me.


Wheat Berry Salad
Inspired by A Bowl of Good’s Mary, Mary, Berry con Cherry Salad

1 cup soft winter wheat berries
1/4 cup wild rice
1 crisp apple, unpeeled, chopped fairly small
½ cup each, dried cranberries and chopped almonds
1/4 cup chopped green onion (or two tablespoons minced onion)
1/4 cup each, dried cherries and currants
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon each, canola oil and olive oil
½ clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3-4 tablespoons orange juice

Put the wheat berries and wild rice in a pan with a quart of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for an hour, or until the grains are tender. Drain.

Put the still-warm grains in a large bowl and add the apple, onion, dried fruits and nuts. The steam from the hot grains will help to soften the dried fruits.

In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to combine. Add more orange juice or vinegar as needed. If not eating immediately, store in the refrigerator. It will keep nicely for at least 3 days.