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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Kitchen Memories and a New Specialty From the Oven


Winter arrives, and the kitchen beckons. Holidays approach, upping the ante. Holidays increase both a slightly anxious pressure and the happy or bittersweet weight of memories. The other morning, the first text of the day from the younger of my two younger sisters was this: “It’s been three months, sisters.” Three months since our mother died, that is. That loss, still sharp, is now accompanied for us by all our family memories of holiday kitchen projects: cookies we helped make and decorate from the time we were little girls; our mother’s amazing marzipan; her special coffee cakes; those intricate, magical sugar cube houses that sat on the sideboard, nested in a bed of cotton “snow” and surrounded by candles in the shape of pine trees; her inimitable peanut brittle; and so much more. I get out her old, old cookbook and turn the pages, where the most meaningful recipes to me are not those cut from magazines and taped in but the ones she copied out in here own hand. Handwriting on paper! How could anything “digital” hold so much of a person’s essence?



My only actual baking this year, however, came from a recipe on the inside of a box as, for only the second time, I set out to make peanut butter cheesecake brownies. On the first trial, a few months back, I had baked the brownies in muffin tins and was happy enough with the results that I wanted to experiment further in that direction. Hence the mini-muffin tins, with individual cups the perfect size to duplicate bite-sized cheesecake brownie treats (well, more like three bites each) that I’d discovered in a grocery store bakery in the Southwest.

(Measuring spoons for scale)
The recipe on the box was clearly written for people in a hurry, because it told me to melt the chocolate and butter in a microwave oven. Call me old-fashioned (you won’t be the first), but I prefer to use a double boiler, especially with the other changes I was making to the process. While chocolate and butter were melting, you see, I had time to grease my muffin tins. Of course, the recipe people had not foreseen the use of muffin tins so cannot be faulted, I suppose, for trying to rush the process. 



*** Excuse me, though, because here I have a thought that is a complete digression from memories and brownies but important enough that I want to interrupt myself to get it in. All these “quick” recipes that call for “instant” mashed potatoes and “instant” oatmeal? Please, please, please don’t do that! You might as well just sit down and eat a bowl of sugar! You think “it’s good for them in a casserole or a cookie”? No, not that pre-digested stuff: it leaves your digestive system nothing to do and does nothing for you but prime your system for more sugar. End of lecture. ***

Baker’s Chocolate instructions were at first somewhat confusing to me when it came to the eggs. They called for five eggs, “divided.” I never heard of “divided” eggs. Did they mean separated? Well, clearly not, because further along the eggs, not egg yolks and egg whites, were to be added — but not all at once to the same bowl. What the recipe had intended to forecast was that four eggs would be added to the chocolate mixture and one to the cream cheese and peanut butter mixture. Okay, that's settled!


Then there was the matter of swirling the peanut butter and cream cheese and sugar mixture (2-1/2 cups of sugar were also “divided,” 2 cups going into the chocolate/butter mix and 1/2 cup into peanut butter and cream cheese) into the chocolate mixture that also had flour added last. In a pan, swirling can be done with a knife, but in the tiny muffin tins only a toothpick would do the job. 



Do they look messy in the pans? I had moments of doubt at this stage.


Time in the oven for the different variations had to be adjusted by guess and by gosh, since brownies in the large muffin tin did not need to bake as long as those in a traditional cake pan, and those in the mini-muffin tins baked fastest of all. A watchful eye, initial short baking period, and an additional five minutes here and there seemed the recipe for success. It would depend on your ovens and your pans. 

In the end, all variations produced acceptable results, and though my mother never used this basic recipe, as far as I can recall, I could easily imagine her sitting at the table nearby, following the entire procedure, getting up to examine the brownies as they came out of the oven, and eventually giving them the taste test and pronouncing them “Very good, sweetheart!” 

My sisters and I returned to our morning text-fest, remembering a year when our grandmother was with us for the holidays and we had an old-fashioned taffy pull in my mother’s little kitchen. Small, that is, but not as small as the one I call my “Paris” kitchen. Still, my mother’s kitchen was probably good training for not letting lack of space get in the way of cooking and baking. 


My mother and grandmother are with me still when baking season comes around, as they are with my sisters, and we are fortunate to have memories to share.




Thursday, August 16, 2018

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

"Is It Worth It?"


Back in June
That was my husband’s question, when I told him I have an idea for next year’s garden and how I can combine straw bales with the first stage of raised bed constructions. “It’s worth it to me,” I answered, and he did not push me further. 

Before the olives
I tell the dog, as I choose vegetables from the garden,  that my Greek salad contains “all things bright and beautiful.” Cucumbers are soft green, peppers soft yellow and bright orange, tomatoes as red as red can be. Since we don’t live in the south of France (let alone in Paris), I’ll need to buy olives at the store in town, but it pleases me to look at my own garden’s bounty in a bowl. In the garden, stiff training supports that held heavy peony heads earlier in the summer now bear aloft fat purple fingers of eggplant. A few of those split in two and brushed with olive oil can go on the grill next to a couple of chops, and with salad on the side, that will be dinner.

eggplant this morning
Yesterday’s forecast of “scattered showers” for Wednesday and Thursday has been downgraded to “partly cloudy,” with hope for rain pushed back to next Monday. Having to water my garden every morning and evening, though, keeps the daily status of that riotous jungle clear in my mind.

“Is it worth it?” 

In terms of what? Given the cost of plants and straw bales and fertilizer and the time spent watering, am I saving money over buying the same vegetables at the store or the farm market? Well, they wouldn’t be the same vegetables, would they? Not to me, they wouldn’t. It is worth it to me to feel that I am inhabiting my own life, rather than simply commuting to and from a house and visiting the country as a tourist. I am living, here and now, on my home ground. 


The piper must be paid in any life. Is life worth living, with all its work and troubles and woes? I say yes. 

Home

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

From My Michigan Garden to My Paris Kitchen

A few little organic holes don't bother me
My home version of “farm to table” requires no transportation by air, sea, or land, unless you count walking from the garden into the house. If my tiny kitchen were in Paris, France, my only “garden” would be a row of pot herbs on a windowsill, but in Leelanau County I am not that limited, and the vegetables are doing well this summer in my garden's straw bale beds. Above, with parsley between the two plants, you see chard, glorious chard! Years ago I discovered chard as the answer to my problems with growing spinach. Spinach doesn’t work for me, chard does. Our grandchildren adored it, too, baked in a cheesy cream sauce (music to my ears: “Is there any more chard?”), which I have done again this season. Grated Parmesan sprinkled on top, baked until brown — but I didn’t photograph it, and you don’t need a recipe for anything that simple. 

Nightshade family but very edible
Eggplants are still small but coming along, as are their garden neighbors and near botanic relatives, the peppers. Acorn squash look promising. We’ll see if the tiny melons make it to eating size before frost. I hope they do.


Growing

Lots of growing to do!
I’m not finished this summer with tabbouleh, but you’ve seen that already, so here is something else to make with cucumbers: a refreshing cold summer soup. Pick the cukes while still tender (before large seeds develop), and peel, cube, and puree in a blender with as much chopped fresh onion as you think you’ll like, plain yogurt (I prefer yogurt made with whole milk, because what is the point of vitamins if the fat that makes them soluble has been removed?), and enough chicken or vegetable broth to achieve desired consistency. Curry seasoning is transformative. Chill in the refrigerator until serving time, and when serving garnish with fresh nasturtium blooms, parsley sprigs, chopped chives, or any other attractive, edible, summer-appropriate note.


Cold cucumber soup with nasturtium garnish
The flowers in my garden give me as much pleasure and satisfaction as the vegetables — purple stars preceding eggplant, large yellow squash blossoms and smaller, lighter yellow blooms on the melon vines. My straw bales are arranged in a square, with entry on two sides, but most of the weeds inside the square are safe from me, because — why remove them? They’re not in the bales, competing with the vegetables for water and nutrients. Besides, wild clovers attract and feed pollinators, and the beautiful milkweed beloved of monarch butterflies — how could I uproot and toss aside such a banquet for beauty?






Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Personal Best

This is going to be your personal best tabbouleh, the perfect summer lunch to take to work. Get up early and add ice cubes to yesterday’s leftover coffee. Your caffeine jolt doesn’t need to be hot to get you moving on a warm, still morning. Last night you poured boiling water over the bulgur and let it sit, so that’s ready. Now add olive oil, chop cucumbers and tomatoes and onions (use a good, sharp knife — don’t saw!) and stir them in gently, then squeeze fresh lemon juice over everything and stir again. The vegetables are all from your own garden or the farm market, of course. 


Now go out to your garden while everything is cool and beaded with dew and gather nice, big, beautiful, dark green parsley. Chop and add. 

There’s only one ingredient missing now, so on your way to work (tabbouleh packed in a cooler, with a container of yogurt on the side), stop by a swiftly running stream and gather fresh mint. When you get to work, you’ll rinse the mint well, chop it and add it to the mix, then refrigerate everything until lunch announces itself. Hunger is the announcement. 

When you get home after work later in the day, finish mowing grass and have leftover pizza from the night before as your evening meal. (You had your salad for lunch.) Check the garden for more ripe cucumbers before you turn in for the night. Tomorrow you can make a cold cucumber soup to serve and enjoy with meat from the grill.

I used the silly word “leftover” twice above. Edit that out. Planning ahead makes life easier. You don’t throw out good coffee when you can have it the next day over ice. You order a medium pizza rather than a small for two people so there will be enough for another evening. Because if you didn’t plan ahead, how would you ever keep up with and survive the busy summer season?

“Time goes on slippin’, slippin’ / into the future….”


And eggplants are coming along. Those will be good on the grill, too.




Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Chestnuts Won't Be Rushed

It isn't home without a little clutter


The Artist and I no longer travel on holidays, not wanting to chance heavy traffic and possibly treacherous driving conditions. My son and a couple old friends were with us for Thanksgiving, which was very pleasant, but December brought winter in full strength, and all I wanted for Christmas Eve and Day was time at home in front of the fire. So after our holiday breakfast of waffles, and after I’d treated Sarah to a morning holiday bath (“Some treat!” she seemed to say with her eyes) and settled her in front of the fire with a good, fresh beef bone, and after I’d made the cranberry-orange relish and stashed it in the fridge for later, I settled down to work with chestnuts.

If there is a faster way to prepare fresh chestnuts for soup or purée, I don’t want to know about it. The slow, repetitious cutting with a knife of that little x on each nut, very carefully, one at a time, and then moving them, again one at a time, from the waiting bowl to the x’d bowl, ready for roasting, can be either meditative or sociable, depending on what’s going on in the cook’s immediate surroundings. In my case, on Christmas Eve, I was very aware of the Artist cheerfully working away in the bathroom to replace a faucet washer (he was wonderfully good-natured about it!) and our dog lying contentedly on a towel in front of the fire with her bone. I felt surrounded by and filled with love and contentment. Who would want to rush on from such a feeling?



While chestnuts are roasting in the oven, and afterward, while they’re cooling, the cook is free to do something else for a while -- and if it’s a holiday, and the rest of the family doesn’t need her attention or assistance, she may just pick up a book and read! Because, just as there was no rushing the preparation for the oven, so there is no rushing the roasting or cooling processes, either. It takes the time it takes, that’s all.

Peeling can be a little messy, but it can be done sitting at the table, and again there is no hurry involved. It’s interesting to see variations in color as roasted chestnuts emerge from their shells. Some are like ivory, veined with brown, others darker all over as if by a deep stain. The nuts are buttery soft, even before boiling.



Looks like a squirrel has been at work here

Finally, as the nuts simmer in chicken broth (simmering almost always gentler for anything than boiling, unless “a full rolling boil” is explicitly called for), the water gradually turns a soft brown, almost a cocoa color, and this will be the color of the eventual soup or puree, lightened with the addition of cream.



Somehow I neglected to photograph the final chestnut product in white china bowls. Instead we move from empty bowls to main dish prep to plated shrimp and sesame noodles. The important thing is that it all came together as planned, despite the leisurely pace of the day, and that made it an ideal holiday for the cook.








Saturday, November 11, 2017

Memory's Lasting Perfume



When snow arrived this week, I brought my rosemary plants into the house. Rosemary is a tender herb, native to hot, dry climates like Provence, and will not survive a winter outdoors, so one of my Friday projects was to strip the fragrant leaves from the longest stems for winter drying. Because the resident Artist, in his home office, has the only south-facing window in ou4 old farmhouse, that is where the remaining trimmed plants are resting for the time being.

My friend Helene referred to her dining room windowsill of plants, fresh herbs and a few pots of blooms, as her garden, and early on during my stay with her we established our mutual love of growing things. Years later (and years into our transatlantic correspondence), when I came to live here in the farmhouse, I would sometimes sit out by my vegetable garden at sunrise and write a description of the scene to my faraway friend, who was kind enough to praise my laborious essays — truly, attempts — in French. 


At last one year I received no answer to my last letter for a worrisome length of time and got a disturbing recording when I called her phone number. I telephoned her downstairs neighbor, heart pounding. Yes, Helene had died. She was then, after all, 90 years old by that time and had had health issues for all the years I’d known her, but the shock was no less painful for being unsurprising. And Mme. Lamy could not help telling me, over and over, that Helene had “suffered terribly.” Each time she said it, I recoiled from the painful stab of that awful phrase. But Mme. Lamy also told me, several times, how happy Helene had always been when the mail brought a letter from me, and I take comfort still in knowing I gave her some little bit of joy now and then. 



Rosemary is good for flavoring vegetables and meats, especially suckling pig, veal, lamb and game. It keeps its pungency well when dried. Use this herb with moderation, as it has a very strong aroma and flavor. - Ginette Mathiot, in I Know How to Cook

Never in my life have I prepared suckling pig or veal, but I do love lamb, and there is no cooking or even living without vegetables. 

The New Putting Food By (not that “new,” actually, as my third edition has a 1982 printing date) cautions that rosemary must not be dried at higher than room temperature and dries best away from light. Just as well. Moving the rosemary-drying operation upstairs means not adding one more project to our crowded downstairs living space, where my apple-drying project continues in full swing evening after evening. 


Rosemary is one of the flavors (un des parfums) in the beloved French mixture called “herbes de Provence,” which sometimes includes lavender, too, along with other herbs. It was in Paris that I came to know and love and require herbes de Provence in my cooking on a regular basis, and so for that reason, along with my memory of my friend’s windowsill garden, Helene is very present to me as I handle these sharply fragrant leaves.




Is there someone in your life whose day would be brightened by a letter from you?


Her letters brought joy to me, too