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Friday, March 10, 2017

Eat Hearty When Winter Roars Back

One side done!

When balmy, 50-degree weather gives way to fierce winds, blowing snow, and a bare sixteen (yes, 16) degrees above zero, it’s time for the Paris kitchen to serve up a hearty, Midwestern American breakfast. Not just any old pancakes, either, but stick-to-your-rib griddle cakes.

They start with cornmeal, and cornmeal for me is corn grits from Bob’s Red Mill, an employee-owned company (since Bob's 81st birthday) producing some of the best food products in the United States. You can order directly from them online, but I don’t. Their products are carried at Tom’s Market in Northport, the Leland Mercantile, and of course at Oryana Co-op in Traverse City. Buying local preserves local jobs and keeps money circulating in local communities. This goes for food, books, and anything else that is available where you live.

The best! And so versatile!
My corn griddle cakes started with a cup of boiling water poured over a cup of corn grits, and while that was calming down (the recipe said to let it sit 10 minutes), I sifted flour (1/2 cup) and baking powder (2 tsp.) in one bowl and mixed milk (1/2 cup), an egg, and 2 tbsp. sugar in another. That is, I'm pretty sure about those proportions, but you might want to check your cookbook, because I didn't bring mine to work with me today.

About that sifting. I learned to sift flour in my mother's kitchen, and the lesson was reinforced in junior high home economics, but then for decades I pooh-poohed sifting. And got by fine without it. Now, however, I have a little sifter and take pleasure in using it. Little things can give a lot of pleasure in a little kitchen. Besides, even a hearty corn griddle cake should be as light as it can possibly be.

I preheated my old griddle well, not wanting to sacrifice the first cake to the dog, despite her pretty, pleading face. (She always gets the last little bite on my plate.) Having the griddle hot is important for good griddle cakes, as is not overmixing. Mix just enough and no more.

Perfection! So elusive!

Leelanau syrup! Last spring's!
When they come off the griddle, slather on more (organic) butter and some good local maple syrup. If you make the cakes large, as I did this morning, one will be enough for breakfast, but the rest can go in your lunch box. You’ll need them on a day like today!

It is not spring yet this year in Leelanau County.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Household Apple Harvest

Apple trees. Pie apples. Apple blossoms, apple pie, an apple for the teacher. Iconic fruit of temperate climates, the apple was my childhood icon, as well.

When I was growing up, we had a pear tree, a raspberry patch, and three apple trees, the largest of them our backyard shade tree and my personal fantasy world, a world whose nature changed with the seasons and my daily moods and fancies. Sometimes it was a tropical island, surrounded by ocean, and my little friends and I had to venture out to sea (“swimming” our arms through the air, which in our play was water) in search of sustenance. Another day the tree might be a rocket ship that Jimmy and I took to the moon or beyond, little green apples stuck on broken twigs (broken for the purpose, mind you) serving as control knobs and levers as we passed beyond the rule of adults in defiance of gravity.

Some of the sweetest times in the apple tree, though, were times I spent alone with a book. Stretched along a high, sturdy branch, hidden in greenery, high above the heads of anyone wondering where I was, I would lose myself in a story, the bare tree better than any treehouse could possibly be. A treehouse would be suspected of harboring a missing child, but a quiet, still child alone in a tree could be happily solitary for hours.

My mother made the backyard tree’s fruit into pies. Another tree downhill in the side yard was harvested for applesauce. As for the third apple tree, it was more notable for blossoms than for usable fruit, and while the side yard trees were climbable, they were too small to serve as solitary getaways.

Then there was the dreaded task in the fall of picking up fallen apples. The yard could not be raked, nor the grass mown, until the apples were picked up, and that job fell, naturally, to the children. Bushel baskets came out of the garage, and we were put to work. My sisters and I had to pick up not only good, sturdy fruit for kitchen and pantry – we didn’t mind that -- but also soft and rotten apples, apples gone to worms, apples stepped on and turned to repulsive brown mush.

Neither of my little home apple trees today would support the weight of much more than a robin, but they do bear fruit, and I also harvested apples from wild trees in the neighborhood, where the fallen brown fruit on the ground is winter food for deer and other wildlife. Last fall’s apples that did not become sauce went into the Paris kitchen farmhouse food dryer, which was, I must say, a great success. I did not dry a quantity sufficient to try making dried apple pie, but we have enjoyed for months now dipping into the big glass jar for a few slices to accompany afternoon tea. Some slices are thicker than others, some pieces rather than rings, but I've found that none of the differences affects the taste or the keeping quality of the fruit. Exactitude is not a requirement, it seems, when the project is drying apples, and I like that. 

In a world of rigorous demands, I like a “forgiving” project, one that tells me I’ve done a good enough job.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Winter Fare: Gophers and Stone Soup

Stones at mouth of Hurricane River

I was just kidding about the gophers. What I mean is waffles.

Warming plate while waffle iron heats

In Paris, France, waffles are street food. Hot gaufres are served up by vendors in parks who sell their food out of little carts, small mobile kitchens. Like ice cream cones, gaufres are favorite treats of small children but enjoyed by adults, also, perhaps especially by visitors from the American Midwest, to whom street food is a novelty. A favorite French waffle topping – there are many, but this was my favorite -- is almond paste, smeared on like peanut butter on crackers, then sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Out of curiosity, I checked in my French cookbook to see if it even contained a recipe for waffles. Would anyone in Paris ever make them at home? Well, there was a recipe, in fact, but in the section on cakes, on the page opposite fruit cake and jelly roll. It calls for fresh yeast rather than baking powder and also, to my surprise, includes rum, an addition that would never have occurred to me.

Last yummy bite!
For Americans at home in our own country, waffles are breakfast food, but they are a sweet treat here, too. The small, square depressions produced by the iron form a dozen or more tiny receptacles for melted butter and syrup. Jam is a delicious variant topping, and then no fork is needed. Dreaming of Paris, one can pick up a waffle section with fingers, confident of capturing every last morsel of confiture de pêches (thank you, Ed!) or, when that’s gone, good old Michigan strawberry-rhubarb jelly.

We are not talking here about an everyday breakfast, of course. Not the beginning of an ordinary workday. It’s holidays and Sundays that call out for the extra sybaritic excitement only waffles can bring to an otherwise cold, bleak winter morning.

Outdoors the temperature rests, stubbornly, well below the freezing mark, and wind blows fresh snow into blinding drifts. A frigid Sunday morning in January! What better day to stay home by the fireside with dog and books and movies?

Beautiful, beantiful beans!

More stones
Meanwhile, in the big cast iron pot that rested overnight on the cold porch is the bean soup that will be the evening’s hearty peasant supper. On Friday night, as I first covered the colorful beans with water to begin soaking, I thought again, as I have so often before, that they are as beautiful as wave-washed stones on the shores of Lake Superior. Stone soup? Why not? Dry beans lose their bright colors when cooked, but the flavors that develop are worth the trade-off.

Slow cooking. David is always encouraging me to use an electric slow cooker for dishes like bean soup or stewed chicken, but I resist. There is something about that ceramic pot and the way its unlifted lid -- one is instructed rather severely not to lift the lid during cooking! – the way, I say, that lid holds in all the dish’s moisture that, to my way of thinking, prevents precisely the rich, concentrated flavors that are my goal. -- Oh, dear, my italics are running away with me, escaping from foreign words and phrases to the equivalent of a raising of the voice! Yes, it’s true, my emotions are involved!

Where was I? Ah, yes, concentrated flavor.... And besides that, I like to lift the lid! I like to stir the contents of the pot! Stirring the pot makes me think of my grandmother at the stove, and I love remembering my grandmother! I even like to leave the lid off for periods of the cooking process as the bean liquor thickens and steam rises and an alluring aroma fills the old farmhouse. These are some of the joys of winter in Michigan: tastes and smells and leisurely activities mingled with memories.

Far from Paris, you see, I carry that city in my heart, along with the U.P. and Ohio and the Illinois prairie and the Arizona cow country and every other place I have ever lived and cooked and eaten, and in my mind’s eye I see again long-vanished scenes and am warmed by thoughts of family and friends and even strangers who shared those bygone days.

What is the point of having a day to spend at home if I am to deny myself the pleasure of stirring the pot?

Well-stirred bean soup

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

One Saucepan, Two Skillets

We spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home, watching a movie we’d seen a few years before, “Temple Grandin,” with Claire Danes in the lead role. It was every bit as wonderful as I remembered, if not more so. Moreover, this time around, in light of our three months in southeast Arizona in early 2015, the ranch and feedlot scenes with horses and cattle were familiar and set me to dreaming of the high desert, and after the movie David and I reminisced about Willcox (which I always call fondly “my little cow town,” to differentiate it from Dos Cabecas, “the ghost town” where we lived), wondering what had transpired with this or that residential or commercial building, fondly recalling coffee on the front porch at Beverly’s, and in my drowsy, go-to-sleep, after-midnight thoughts I “sang” myself a mental map of a lullaby, sketching in my mind the main arteries of Willcox and the roads leading north to Bonita and Safford and southeast to Dos Cabezas and Chiricahua and remembering the scenery along those familiar ways. We even woke to a sunny new day and year with Arizona thoughts still in our heads, finishing each other’s sentences as the listener immediately pictured the speaker’s subject.

So it was late morning on New Year’s Day before I turned my attention to my compact little northern Michigan Paris kitchen. We were going to a party in the neighborhood later in the day, and I planned to take, as I had the year before, a big casserole dish of hoppin’ john. Not a last-minute project but one that needs time to “get good,” as my grandmother used to say.

Full disclosure: Besides a single saucepan and two cast iron skillets, there was a rice cooker involved the night before. I’d decided make rice for our Chinese shrimp and vegetable dinner, with the idea that a big enough pot of rice would give me a head start on the next day’s hoppin’ john. My only problem was having failed to check the household rice supply first. Oops! Not enough for a very generous casserole on Sunday! And so, improvisation had to come to the rescue, as it so often must do, in kitchens of any size. Luckily, I had a goodly supply of the rice-like pasta called orzo and so, deciding that could be mixed with the rice as an extender, my first step of the morning was to set water to boil in a saucepan.

Second step was to dice a big onion; third, cube several slices of good ham; fourth, put first the onion in one iron skillet to sizzle in butter and olive oil and then add the ham to same.

Here’s where the second skillet comes into the story. I had intentionally cut up more onion and ham than the hoppin’ john would need, and now, in the second skillet, went diced redskin potatoes and sliced and diced red pepper for a good, hearty, New Year’s Day breakfast hash.

Orzo cooked, I drained that and mixed it in the saucepan with the rice. Time to add the black-eyed peas -- thinking fondly, as I always do in connection with black-eyed peas, of my maternal grandpa, my mother’s stepfather from Tallahassee, Florida – and a little chicken broth, too, so the rice and pasta and beans don’t get too dry. 

This, by the way, is what I generally use for chicken broth in my little kitchen, and I didn’t start with dry peas, either:

Now we’re cookin’!

Little pieces of ham are getting nice and crisp. Potato cubes are browning nicely, too. Stirring and turning and taking deep breaths of the wonderful aromas, I am careful not to rush anything, but at last the moment comes to divide the cooked ham and onion, stirring about two-thirds of it into the potato and pepper mixture and the remaining third (along with a little more chicken broth) into the rice-orzo-bean mix.

The finishing touch to the hash was to crack, very carefully, three eggs on top and then put a lid over the skillet so the eggs would cook through. They cooked to perfection! Like an illustration in a cookbook! But I must have been too excited about my rare achievement of perfection – and also, admittedly, nervous about getting hash and eggs from the pan without breaking the yolks, which turned out just fine, thanks – to photograph the hash and eggs, so you must just imagine that picture, as you must imagine, too, the final presentation of the hoppin’ john in its casserole dish, ready to go to a party.

A lot of people toward the end of December couldn’t wait for the year 2016 to be over. I wasn’t one of those people. I felt the new year looming like a dark cloud and was not at all eager to plunge into it. But I can say now, gratefully, that in our old farmhouse and our peaceful winter neighborhood, 2017 got off to a lovely start. I hope yours did, too.

Bonne année à tout le monde!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Je n’ai pas envie de cuisiner

10 novembre 2016

Vraiment, je ne veux que pleurer. Le temps fait beau, la vie quotidienne roule, comme toujours, autour de moi et en moi, et rien n’a changé, et tout a changé. Que Dieu nous protège! Il faut ne pas pleurer. Je ne veux que pleurer.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Because Winter Is Coming Again

For the second year in a row, the countryside failed to yield up much in the way of wild grapes. Grapevines, yes. Everywhere! But grapes? One measly cluster along a road where I've gathered grapes by the bagful in past years. 

The usual berry-picking spots around our farmyard held back fruits, too. And so – no 'blackstraw' (my blend of strawberry, black raspberry and wild blackberry) or mixed fruit jam this year. In fact, no jam at all.

But it’s been a plentiful apple season, I’m happy to say, and I’ve gotten in a good couple sessions of peeling, slicing and drying apples for the winter. 

My son visited, and we harvested apples together
Five such layers deep
Without sulphur, they brown slightly. Fine with me!

Applesauce, too, has appeared regularly on the farmhouse table. Purée de pomme, the French would say, but I generally leave mine chunkier, in keeping with its rustic origin: wild apples or those from my farmyard trees, gathered in a basket or string bag, and brought back to my tiny country Paris kitchen. Nothing fancy.

Friends of mine have recently returned from a trip to France, and I am eager to hear their stories and see their vacation photos. They visited many bookstores, I’m happy to say, and brought back treasures in book form. While they were in the capital, I’m sure they noticed that French provincial cuisine is as common as the haute variety. The population of Paris, like that of New York, has always drawn from throughout the country and around the world, so Paris restaurants and Paris kitchens are often not fancy at all. Not big, either. Modest, like mine.

Bookshop my friends visited in Paris, France

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Leaving the Kitchen Behind

Balmy air and soft breezes pull me outdoors on summer evenings. They inspire me to pile charcoal briquets on the grill, if only for a couple of pork chops or a small cluster of burgers. On tired and/or hot evenings, however, a skillet in the kitchen and dinner on the porch work out fine, too, as did salmon cooked in a pan, accompanied by yellow rice (courtesy of a friend), and chopped fresh salsa over all.

The rice and salsa worked with chicken thighs and curried yogurt the following evening. That was easy.

And yet sometimes the most dedicated Parisian cook (and we established long ago that I am not that dedicated) wants to do nothing more than sit outside in the fresh air at a cafe table. That's how David and I spent part of Wednesday afternoon in Traverse City while Bruce manned the bookshop counter back in Northport. 

Table in the shade by the side of the Boardman River
Iced peach tea, coffee, and chocolate and lavender "morsels"

View across the Boardman and highway to Grand Traverse Bay

Leaving the kitchen behind does not always demand leaving town. On Thursday, in Northport, at midday, a friend stopped in on her way to the Garage Bar & Grill, right next to Dog Ears Books, and she did not have to twist my arm at all to persuade me to put a sign on the door and lock up for half an hour. We were in heaven! Stella! That took me back to Paris!

Susan had a burger; I had roasted sweet potato. We both had sunshine!
The last day of August, the first day of September: perfect days to relax outdoors, in the shade or in the sun, and let someone else do the kitchen work for a change!

Forager eager for leftovers