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Friday, March 25, 2016

"Mixing It Up" on a Snow Day

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Nothing at all Parisian about it: A spring snow day is pure Michigan! Yard and fields and orchards and woods white again, driveway drifted over, landmarks obliterated, winds battering farmhouse and outbuildings. It took us only about ten seconds to decide to stay home for the day.

All the best meals start with an onion – or in today’s case, three onions, since two of them were already exhibiting plant life’s “force that through the green fuse” ever strives to reach again for the sun. I cooked up the onions before fixing on their ultimate destiny. Maybe onion soup, but then again maybe not....

A session of bookkeeping brought on a virtuous glow, and I wanted a reward. I wanted cookies! The trouble was, I didn’t really feel like making cookies -- but they don’t make themselves. At last I found a recipe that would do, with modifications, for a non-shopping winter-spring day. It is very seldom I have sour milk on hand, and having it that day is what turned the tide. I knew it would come in handy for something.

The cookbook called them “rocks,” the recipe calling for a cup of chopped nuts. My modification was golden raisins and a handful of mixed dried fruit (cherries, cranberries, and blueberries), with whole wheat flour substituted for one cup of the white. Cinnamon and ground cloves deepened the color of dough already featuring brown sugar, and the sour milk made the cookies puff adorably in the oven, with slightly crispy bottom edges.

Tea time!

The snow day was not a gourmet day in my Paris kitchen or our old farmhouse. It was a comfort food day. As it happened, the freezer yielded up a previously cooked chicken breast, the pantry shelves a can of stewed tomatoes, and fresh ginger, garlic, and spices from the Middle and Near East gave character to the developing dish that had begun, so modestly, with three onions.

At last, served on brown rice with chopped cilantro, our mixed-up blizzard day dinner came to the table.

We had had primarily an indoor day, spent with long books (one for each of us) and only occasional sorties out into the wild storm. Soon enough, the rushing spring and summer seasons will be upon us! And so, in northern Michigan a spring snow day is a special gift from Fate, and rather than culinary challenge, I took the storm as an opportunity for comfort and indulgence – one last retreat from strenuous activity before the nonstop season of work begins.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Senses in the Kitchen, at Work and at Play

No doubt synesthesia was born long ago in the wild past of our early evolution, but it is just as surely reborn in the kitchen. When you see fat leeks in the grocery store produce section or smell the earthy freshness of dainty wild ones in the woods, don’t you already feel their smoothness in your mouth? What about the color? My eyes see green, but my mind reads purple, the smooth purple of an eggplant, and my ears hear the rich, dark music of a bassoon or a cello.

Leeks, along with daffodils, are associated by the Welsh with the Feast of St. David on March first. I missed the day again this year. The first of March is too early to look for leeks and daffodils in northern Michigan. So let’s come back indoors, back into the kitchen, and sift through memories and towels.

I am hopeless when it comes to sewing. My mother loved to sew – sewed new dresses for my sisters and me all the time when we were little -- and couldn’t understand how trying to follow a pattern could reduce me to tears. I was proud of my skill in threading the machine, both top and bottom threads, but had not joined 4-H in order to make aprons and skirts! In my mind, 4-H membership was the first step to getting a horse!
Horses = Heaven!
Sewing = Heaven’s Opposite!

Not realizing the difference between farm clubs and city clubs, I was in for a big disappointment. Anyway, it’s impossible to sew and read a book at the same time. I’m talking about real books, with pages to turn. So other than replacing the occasional button, I don’t sew.

And yet, I adore fabric. Beautiful fabric with a good “hand”  attracts and pleases me. I love those very thin, very lightweight cotton shirts that feel like silk against the skin, and I love soft cotton tea towels and much-washed tablecloths. Old-fashioned potholders and “dishrags” made by friends cleverer than I am with their hands increase my pleasure in the kitchen.

Kitchen work, I believe, is such joy because it engages all the senses, along with the hands and the mind. (Somehow I don’t resent putting down a book to work in the kitchen.) Fresh ingredients and finished dishes delight the eye, and anything sizzling in a skillet calls the ears into play, as does the plop-plop-plop of cranberries in a saucepan. Aromas, ah! There are even smells other than those of the food: my electric blender, for instance, gives off metallic whiffs I associate with our old family electric train of childhood.

As for taste, that hardly needs to be mentioned, does it? But touch, too frequently given short shrift in kitchen writing, is for me a principal element of cooking’s joy. Touch comes into play most obviously in the making of bread, as kneading bread dough brings together the work of eyes, nose, and hands. Piecrust requires a lighter touch, but the rolling out of the dough, folding and lifting and fitting to the pan, and finally the fluting of the crust’s boundaries with fingers and thumbs all call for direct unmediated contact of hands with material. 

Besides handling food, washing dishes in hot, soapy water and taking up a soft cotton towel to dry them bring feelings of deep luxury and an opportunity for peaceful meditation that would be ruled out by a dictatorial dishwashing machine. Fortunately, there’s no room in my little Paris kitchen for such a machine.

And let’s bring Paris into our musings before we part company for the day. Do you eat asparagus with knife and fork? Next time, try picking a spear up with your fingers for that first bite from the tender tip. You may dip in melted butter or lemon juice of Hollandaise – or nothing at all! My dear Parisian landlady and friend gave me permission to eat asparagus with my fingers at one of our first dinners together, and with that gesture we celebrated our common peasant heritage. I do it now both for the tactile pleasure and in memory of my old friend.

Once in my presence a little French boy was reprimanded for eating with his fingers, “like a wild tiger,” as his mother put it. The phrase captivated me. Moi, je mange comme un tigre sauvage!

There is still snow on the ground, but soon we will have wild leeks and fresh local asparagus again....

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Scrimping and Splurging

Vietnamese meal in Bisbee, Arizona

We don’t eat out on a regular basis, but when we do, I skip the salad bar. For me the luxury of a restaurant meal is having other people do everything for me – cooking, serving, and cleaning up afterward – while I sit at leisure, glass of wine in hand, enjoying conversation and surroundings. I know couples who consider restaurants a terrible waste of money, but they’re only comparing the cost of the ingredients in their meal to what they could prepare the same meal for at home. They put no value on service. I wonder if they’re lousy tippers, too. I figure if I can’t afford to tip well, I can’t afford to eat out. And yet frugality, of necessity has, always been a way of life for me.

There are items I purchase at the store only when they’re on sale, including all paper products and a wide range of canned goods. On the other hand, I don’t think twice about paying more for top-quality organic milk, butter, flour, grains, and fresh vegetables. I scrimp at one end to be able to splurge at the other.

I’ve been dwelling more than usual on the question of meals and how much they cost while re-reading Jim Harrison’s old book of essays, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. Oh, my! I have been repeating myself terribly in the kitchen this winter, relying on tried-and-true successes rather than taking chances with “adventures.” The African spicy green beans were an exception, but already I’m planning to make them again, sometime this spring when friends come for dinner, rather than moving on to another experiment. Am I playing it too safe?

Fall-back, never-fail broccoli salad

One-crust chicken pie

As for wine, what pikers we are! My uneducated palate distinguishes three basic categories: undrinkable (and I mean, pour it down the sink drain!), drinkable, and “Hey, that’s good!” (There have been a few notable, really memorable wine experiences in my life, but so few that I collapse them into the third category, out of respect for sample size.) Moreover, I am married to an artist (his chosen field, in autobiographical terms, is surely relevant here) who delights in good cheap wine. We were on our way to a friend’s house for pizza when we stopped to buy a bottle of wine and found big bottles with this astounding price:

David opened the bottle with some trepidation when we arrived at our friend’s house, but it was better than drinkable, which prompted an immediate return trip to the store to pick up another couple of bottles.

But frugal doesn’t always have to mean cheap. I reach no further than last night’s chicken soup supper (meal #3 from the latest chicken sequence) for an example of frugal luxury. I’ve always loved cornbread, hot out of the oven, while David has always given it a lukewarm reception. Well, at last I have turned him into a believer! “This is the best cornbread I’ve ever had! In my whole life!” The key to the thrill is Bob’s Red Mill corn grits instead of the more familiar packaged yellow sawdust. Try it! You’ll think you’ve never tasted cornbread before! And as luxuries go, I’m betting you’ll find this one quite a bargain.

I grew up in a frugal household, but we ate well, too, when I was a child. My mother was quite an adventurous cook for those times. During that postwar era of packaged mixes, she taught herself how to make homemade pizza from scratch, before pizzerias became ubiquitous across America, long before it was served in suburban school cafeterias, and she wasn’t even Italian! (But I probably don’t have to say that. I guess if she’d been Italian, her mother would have taught her how to make pizza, right?) Besides homemade bread and cakes and jams and jellies, she made absolutely heavenly cheese souffle, so light there was practically nothing to it but the delicious taste, and we were probably the only family in the neighborhood occasionally enjoying lamb chops for dinner. But when my mother served “steak,” it was broiled round steak, and it took me years to learn about better cuts of meat, let alone how to cook a steak.

So let’s be honest with each other. One person’s “throwing money away” is another person’s “money well spent.” Right? Don’t you skimp in places and splurge in others? Years ago – press me on this, and I’ll admit it was decades -- someone asked me, with the scrinched-up face of negative judgment, “Why would you bother making coffee when you could have instant?” I felt then as I feel today: Why would I ever settle for instant coffee unless I were stationed in the Antarctic and nothing else was available?

Café au lait chez moi