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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!