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Monday, January 18, 2016

Everything But the Squawk

Nature determines not only what the menu shall consist of in any given region, but often as well what selection will be made from the various possibilities and how they will be prepared. 
 -      Waverly Root, The Food of France   

While the rich and noble were enjoying their rarefied existence, the country people lived off what they could grow, rear or barter. Throughout the vicissitudes of French history, away from the capital city, Frenchwomen sought to feed their families, and especially their children, as best they could by relying on their own inventiveness....  
Most of these recipes therefore belong to a feminine tradition....  
-      Jean Ferniot, French Regional Cooking
The traditional French country kitchen was a frugal place. Nothing was wasted.

In peasant life, from time immemorial, where the means to keep body and soul together must be won from Nature through great physical effort, frugality has been a necessary way of life. A similar way of life is thrust upon others the world ‘round, not all of whom off the land or even in the country. Anyone whose livelihood is lean and uncertain had best be frugal. It occurs to me that something like what is said of greatness can also be said of frugality: some women are born frugal; others have frugality thrust upon them.

My grandmother, I think, would be proud of my ways with a chicken.

A second-generation American, my maternal grandmother came from mixed European peasant stock and married the poor Irish immigrant to America who became my mother’s father. (Not yet a citizen, that immigrant nevertheless served in the U.S. Army in World War I.) Following the early end of that marriage (facts shrouded in mystery), my grandmother made a love match with another poor man, a Florida “cracker,” and the two of them moved around the country from job to job, from one town to another, from coast to coast during my young mother’s toddler and little girl years until finally, when my mother was an adolescent, they settled on a small plot of land outside Springfield, Ohio.

What my grandmother called their “farmette” was certainly no more than five acres and quite possibly less. To the child I was when staying there, no doubt it seemed to me much larger than it was. They had space enough, anyway, to keep a cow for milk and to raise chickens and fruits and vegetables, the cow and hens my grandmother’s, orchards and gardens my grandfather’s domain.

Their house was modest in the extreme. Two small bedrooms (and only two, though the family produced a younger brother and sister for my mother during the Ohio years) had nothing but sheets hung in the doorways for privacy – no doors that could be closed. At the end of a long brick path through the backyard orchard -- the bricks laid out in a herringbone pattern and the path shaded by trellised grapevines in summer -- stood the wooden outhouse, a place of terror for my next-younger sister, with its spider-hung interior and outside eaves decorated with nests of wasps and hornets. While the house had no modern indoor plumbing, a hand pump raised to counter height in the house’s shedlike kitchen annex saved my grandmother the bother of going to an outdoor well for water. This, by the way, was in 1950s postwar America.

The road that led to the house was unpaved, and all the children who lived along the road, black and white, went barefoot all summer long. How many had shoes at home, I have no idea. I was happy enough to be shed of mine! Everyone had dogs and cats and gardens, however, one or two families had ponies, so how could I see the neighborhood as disadvantaged?

When my next-younger sister (she of outhouse trepidation) and I were left with my grandparents for an entire month one summer, I felt as if I’d gone straight to heaven. In the road and driveway, clay dust as fine and soft as talcum powder caressed my feet, and, little sensualist that I was, I squiggled it happily between my bare toes. Trees to climb and leafy branches to hide in were everywhere! My grandmother assigned me chores, but helping to feed chickens and string beans and setting the table for dinner left me plenty of hours to run joyously “wild,” alone or with the neighborhood children. Much of my time, in fact, was solitary, but never lonely, thanks to an imagination as wild as coltish legs and grasping monkey hands. Never in my life, I think, have I felt as free and as thoroughly myself as during those weeks of what many would see as rural poverty.

The land put food on my grandparents’ table directly and, through my grandmother’s sales at the city’s farm market, indirectly, augmented by my grandfather’s labors at a daytime factory job. My grandmother was a master of “slow cooking” because that is what cooking was to her. She knew better than anyone that ingredients could not simply be thrown together and heated, that they needed time to “get good.” I can close my eyes see her, standing at the stove, spoon in hand, tasting to see if her goulash was “good” yet.

As a child of six, seven, eight and nine years old, I gave little thought to frugality, but with so little money in the house and many mouths to feed, my grandmother obviously had to be frugal. When my sister and I were part of the household that summer, we also couldn’t help noticing that certain people from the neighborhood, usually single men, often dropped by just as dinner was coming to the table. My grandmother always set another place, quickly, no questions asked.

“Why would she do that?” someone who is no longer part of our family (!)  once asked in offended self-righteousness as my sister and I were recalling childhood vacations in Ohio.  The questioner saw in the story nothing but lazy freeloaders taking advantage of hard-working people. “Why? Because they were hungry,” my sister answered. Wasn’t it obvious? Turning someone away was not my grandmother’s way. She was frugal, not stingy.

Winter is a lean season for a bookseller in a summer resort town. When I buy a whole roasting chicken at the grocery store, I think of my grandmother culling one from her flock to bring to table, and I think she would admire my resourcefulness: stuffed roast chicken, leftover roast chicken and stuffing, chicken noodle soup, chicken sandwiches, chicken pot pie, more chicken pot pie, and the last of the chicken soup. That’s a week’s worth of meals from one bird. (There was gravy, too.) The pie takes the most time to prepare but is also one of the heartiest meals of a chicken week, with whole wheat crust and generous filling of cubed chicken, onion, mushrooms, green peas, sliced carrots, and cubed sweet potato in a Béchamel sauce. And it smells so good coming from the oven!

Cooking in Paris apartments is not always what it used to be. There are stores now, right in Paris, that stock nothing but frozen foods, including entrees and desserts. Do such stores exist in the provinces, too? I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve known one or two French refrigerators that held yogurt in multiple, very tiny individual-sized containers, rather than one large one.  As for making yogurt? Well, I did that a few years ago (in Aripeka, FL, and posted on Books in Northport, but do you think I can find the post?), and maybe should take it up again this winter. I still have the little yogurt maker, and just thinking about it I’m feeling inspired. The point I started out toward, however, is that making their own yogurt isn’t something many household cooks are doing these days, either in Paris or in the French countryside. In that way, as in so many others, my “Paris kitchen” is not all that French.

Well, I have made a ‘mishmosh’ of this post, as M.F.K. Fisher wrote often in letters to friends – my Paris kitchen, Parisian and French provincial cooking, my grandmothers’ country life and ways, my own winter meals. But I did have a theme: FRUGALITY! So in closing let me say that pinching pennies need not be a “dismal science” but can be an inspiring and enjoyable challenge to the cook, whatever the size of her kitchen.

[Note: In the final sentence above, please note I am using the generic ‘her’ to indicate her or him.]

Monday, January 11, 2016

Des Fruits et des Légumes en Hiver (Of Oranges and Green Beans)

On the rue des Martyrs, Paris, France

Well, we are not in Paris, France, but still here in northern Michigan, and we have now entered the long, glistening white tunnel of winter. We will be in the tunnel for many weeks to come, barring another stretch of unseasonably warm weather, so on a cold, wild Sunday of blowing and drifting snow it’s a great comfort to have the luxury of staying snugly home, with pot after pot of hot tea and fresh-cut sections of juicy oranges. I tell David we must eat citrus fruit while we can, since depredations of alien insects in the Florida and California groves, not only spoiling crops but actually killing trees, may put the price of oranges and grapefruit and lemons beyond our reach before too long. I hope not. Anyway, for now we have oranges in winter -- oranges in the snow, as it were. A princely delight!

On a cozy day at home in winter my food thoughts yearn toward the foods of Africa. Quite honestly, though? I’d prepared well in advance for today’s kitchen adventure. For one thing, I had to make a trip to the specialty spice shop in Suttons Bay for fenugreek seed, and then it took several visits to the grocery store before Tom’s Market had green beans nice enough to satisfy me.

Here is the inspiring cookbook: The Africa News Cookbook: African Cooking for Western Kitchens, published by Penguin in 1985. The recipe that caught my eye over a week ago is called green bean atjar, or green bean pickles, but these are not at all like pickles my mother and grandmother made. No vinegar. They are, rather, spiced green beans, packed in oil and refrigerated before serving. According to the book, they will last up to a month in the refrigerator without processing, and so I imagine my beans as one dish in an African dinner sometime in the near future.

Two notes from my kitchen: 
(1) You might think I would want to make this dish in summer with fresh beans from garden or farm market. But why sacrifice the freshness of summer vegetables to oil and spices? No, to my mind this is a perfect winter dish. 
(2) The recipe does not specify what kind of oil to use. I decided on peanut oil, because it is used all over Africa and, also, the oil in this recipe is brought to a boil – not a happy fate for olive oil, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Here is an odd kitchen tool. I have no idea what it is called or where this one came from, but I use it all the time. It is so much easier than a pot lid when water is to be drained off vegetables and quite handy on occasions when a big colander would be overkill.

Sometimes, of necessity, kitchen activities expand beyond the confines of the tiny kitchen. This is another reason for making certain dishes ahead and not trying to do everything on the evening a dinner is to be served. The dining table, tablecloth whisked away, becomes a staging area, especially important as Sunday is bread day, too.

The proof of my South African spiced green beans will be in the eating, a story for some future post. Meanwhile, “Bundle up, campers! It’s cold out there!” Now who recognizes that movie quote?

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Going to the Dogs

Parisians love their dogs – those who have dogs, that is. Dogless Parisians often have a very different view, and I find it hard to imagine having a dog in Paris myself. But I'm sure those spoiled little Fifis in their smart little coats eat quite well, whatever the size of the owners' kitchens. 

When puppy Sarah first came home with us in January of 2007 from the Cherryland Humane Society in Traverse City, after only a single night in the shelter, she had already had the benefit of a good start in life. Her former owners, who could not take her along when they moved, had taught her to Sit, Stay, and Come! on command. She never chewed a book or a sock or a shoe or a slipper. I called her the Practically Perfect Puppy. The naughtiest thing she ever did, though, was a chewing incident: alone in the car, she gnawed the knob of the gearshift lever down to a little nub of nothing. (Also, truth be told, if we left a newspaper in the car with her, we would come back to find that completely shredded. In general, as a puppy she found it hard to be left alone in the car.) But how could we get be angry at anyone so obviously happy to see us again? And she grew out of the problem quickly.

[And here I am intensely frustrated because I can't find the cute picture of puppy Sarah with her happy face yearning toward us through the car window after the naughtiest act of her life. I came upon it yesterday but can't find it again today. Have to make do with a cute one of her on Waukazoo Street with an old friend.]

One of the first lessons I wanted her to learn about living in our house was that the kitchen is off-limits to dogs. There isn’t room for a dog underfoot in my tiny kitchen. There’s no room for her food and water dishes in there and therefore no need for her to cross the threshold at all. She was a quick study! Second food-related lesson for the new puppy was not to rush her food dish. One of us put the food in the dish and set it on the floor, and Sarah had to sit and wait politely until we gave her the okay. She’s still good about it, too, even when I sometimes forget she’s waiting until I notice her lying down with chin resting forlornly on the floor next to her dish. What a great dog!

We’re pretty good to Sarah, too. For example, it’s rare for me to go anywhere without her. And yet I wouldn’t say she’s spoiled. And I do not, as a general rule, cook for the dog.

Okay, one year I did. Sarah is a healthy girl but has a few allergies, and cheap dog food did not agree with her. So when I was the recipient of a large bag of frozen enison scraps, given to me by a fellow dog-owner who had been given more than she could use by a hunter friend, that launched nearly a year in which I prepared Sarah’s meals from scratch. Meat, garlic, brown rice, carrots, and brewer’s yeast were the usual mix, with occasional green vegetables or rolled oats thrown in. Then life got busier, I started buying more expensive prepared food for her, and she’s been fine with that.

But for Christmas my mother’s gift to me (I wondered a little if it was meant more for Sarah) was a book of recipes for homemade dog biscuits. And on Thursday Sarah had to submit – it could be postponed no longer! -- to having her toenails clipped. While I am always very careful not to cut into the quick, Sarah has always had certain “issues” when it comes to her feet, and the terrors she suffers turn what would otherwise be a quick procedure into an ordeal for us both. The other day, however, she  was not as resistant as she could have been (and often is), so I decided she deserved a treat afterward. 

Quite honestly, I needed a break from routine myself, having spent most of the day on the odious tasks of bookkeeping and filing, especially painful with last year's figures indicating a drastic drop in sales along with higher-than-usual costs. Yes, I’ll make something special for Sarah! Escapism, yes!

I looked at several recipes but in the end cobbled one together from those ideas and ingredients at hand: cooked sweet potato, peanut butter, brown rice flour, rolled oats, an egg, and a dash of molasses.

For dogs -- garlic, yes; onions, no

Baked at 350 degrees until – what else? – golden brown.

Sarah seemed to know they were for her, but I’m doling out these treats one at a time. Cooking for the dog is going to remain a special occasion for the cook, as well as for the dog, not something we do every day. David and I still come first.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A New Year 1, 2, 3

A small kitchen is necessarily kept simple. There is no room for a dishwasher, for instance, and nowhere to stack all the bowls and utensils for one big wash-up later on. Instead the cook is motivated to keep dishes washed up, a few at a time, by hand, during the food preparation and cooking process. Washing dishes by hand can be meditative. For me it’s often time to begin planning out a blog post, writing and rewriting in my head before sitting down to look at words in sentences.

Limited counter and storage space keep electric appliances to a minimum. Having dishcloths, towels, spices, and utensils close at hand is a higher priority, and often, from years of simple habits, I reach automatically for a hand whisk rather than hunt up the electric mixer.

But there is no substitute for a waffle iron.

My mother, my earliest teacher of kitchen wisdom, knows this well, and it was she who gave me my waffle iron. Most of the time, it’s hidden away in the back of a cupboard, but a couple times a year, on special occasions, out it comes, and New Year’s Day morning was one of those special occasions. A holiday, of course, meant a relaxed morning at home, but besides that, I’d fallen behind in my bread baking over a stretch of unusual holiday scheduling at the bookstore. No eggs without toast for David! But he loves waffles.

For some home cooks, simplicity means mixes and frozen entrees. For me it usually means cooking slowly, from scratch, with fresh and organic ingredients, but I have to admit that on New Year’s Day I had a box of pancake mix in my cupboard -- pancake mix, not pancake and waffle mix, though. So out came my oldest and most trusted cookbook, because I was going to be improvising and needed to check several recipes, both for pancakes and for waffles, to see what I would need to add to the mix. And if not for that need to improvise, I would never be writing about my New Year’s Day waffles at all. From a mix? Please!

The most basic difference between pancakes and waffles is that the eggs are separated in the making of waffles, the egg whites beaten stiff and gently folded into the other ingredients at the very end. A bit of shortening is also called for in waffle batter. So I melted a couple tablespoons of butter and separated three eggs (I was flying by the seat of my pants, but two just didn’t feel like enough), and also substituted whole milk for the water called for on the pancake mix box. It all seemed reasonable, but would it work?

The moment of truth is opening the waffle iron to take out the first waffle. It is an anxious moment! Will the hoped-for waffle stick to the iron? Will it tear apart? Or will it retain its integrity but be disappointing in texture or taste?

Practically perfect! The kitchen new year is off to a good start!

Number 2 kitchen project of the day was hoppin’ john. Good ham, chopped finely, cooked up with chopped onions. (How can any dish fail when it begins with an onion?) Chicken broth from the freezer. White and wild rice. Organic (yes, canned) black-eyed peas from a company right here in Leelanau Township.

Black-eyed peas always make me think of my mother’s stepfather, who grew up in northern Florida. Wild rice carries my mind up to the Upper Peninsula, the birthplace also of the maple syrup on the morning’s waffles, gift of a writer friend. And of course I’d already been thinking of my mother, who gave me the waffle iron. So you can see, what with all those memories, it was pretty crowded in my tiny kitchen on New Year’s morning. Fragrant, too.

We were invited to a neighborhood party in the late afternoon, inspiring me to undertake NYD kitchen project #3, sour cream pumpkin cake, made entirely from scratch, with no canned ingredients or mixes. I had frozen the excess cooked, mashed pumpkin from my Thanksgiving Day pie and had everything else in the refrigerator or cupboards.

I rarely bake cakes. Pies, yes. Cakes, seldom. Consequently, every cake project is a learning experience for me, and one lesson I learned the last time around was that mixing cake batter by hand with a whisk or wooden spoon is more than I can successfully manage. My arm would fall out of its socket before the batter achieved desired smoothness, the necessary prelude to a light finished cake. 

Out came that electric hand mixer, after all. Oh, my god, the roar! I felt as if I were standing on a helicopter pad, in a war zone, surrounded by menacing airborne machines! The front of the mixer even looks menacing, doesn’t it? 

But the batter grew smoother by the minute.

I love the moment, not captured here on camera, where cake batter is poured into a pan, falling from bowl to pan in a series of graceful folds. That is a moment of grace, full of promise. And then the pan goes into the oven. A twist of the timer. (Simple, in the Paris kitchen!) [photo of timer] And gradually a spicy aroma emanates from the tiny kitchen and fills the old farmhouse. Waiting, writing....

The toothpick (test for doneness) comes out clean. The cake smells delicious. It looks a bit pale and plain, but I don’t feel like making streusel topping. Perhaps a dusting of brown sugar? Or cinnamon sugar? Let is cool and sift on powdered sugar? How about sifted powder sugar and cinnamon. I think I’ll go that last route.

Well, it’s been a good morning in the kitchen. Now it’s early afternoon and time for tea.

Postscript: Was that cake not strangely pale? Oddly flat? When it was cut into at the party (luckily, I had also taken my hoppin’ john), the peculiar texture was not at all what I’d hoped or expected. People liked it anyway, most for being “not too sweet.” But what went wrong? Baking powder too old? Around 5 a.m. the answer came to me. I remembered photographs, in that oldest of my cookbooks, of popovers at different oven temperatures. I must have bumped into the dial on one of my passes through the doorway. Oven temperature too low would give exactly the result I got.

Which goes to show that no kitchen is so small that it will not yield failures as well as successes. In that the kitchen is a microcosm of life. And in the kitchen, as in life beyond it, failure usually has something to teach. Good reminder for the first day of a new year, which will no doubt bring new challenges on many fronts.