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,

Pot of Red Beans

1-2 pounds of tiny red beans

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.