A Gray Spring Day: Perfect for a Tomato Soup with Farmer Kev’s Vegetables

IMG_8281Today is a gray day, but I am not sorry for the misty weather because truth be told, I am a little achy from the sudden burst of outdoor activity. Over the past few days I have been sweeping, removing leaves from flower beds, picking up sticks from the backyard, and hauling outside furniture up from the cellar.

Even though I regularly ride the exercise bike and take the dog for a walk almost every day, my body was, ahem, unprepared for all the outside work. So a day of rest is a good thing. When the next nice day comes, I’ll be ready for more outside work, which I really do enjoy. It’s funny how working in the garden is so much more satisfying than, say, dusting or vacuuming. I suppose it’s because I’m outside, with the sun on my face and the birds fluttering and singing in the trees overhead.

On this cool day, homemade tomato soup is on the menu for supper tonight. I made the soup on Monday, and we’ll be eating the last of it this evening. In fact, we’ve pretty much been eating it all week, but it’s such a good soup that Clif and I haven’t minded the repetition one bit.

Basically, as is the case with so many of my soups, this tomato soup is a variation on a theme, and I’ve made many a minestrone following this template: tomatoes, water, onion, garlic, vegetables, chicken sausage, chickpeas or white beans, spices, and some kind of pasta added to the bottom of each bowl before the soup is ladled on top. (Pasta added directly to the soup tends to swell and swell until it becomes truly alarming.)

However, this time when making the soup, I did something a little different. In my pantry, I had a can of crushed tomatoes with basil—Muir Glenn, a little more expensive but worth it. I also had a can of Muir Glenn diced tomatoes. I often buy fresh basil for my minestrone soup, and I thought, why not try the crushed tomatoes with basil? Somehow, I had never done this before. I’d always just used diced tomatoes.

After tasting the finished soup, I wondered why in the world I hadn’t used the crushed tomatoes sooner. This definitely comes under the category of an old dog learning a new trick. Not only did the basil give the soup a lovely taste, but the crushed tomatoes also gave it a smooth, rich texture. (The diced tomatoes are important, too. They add a satisfying chunk to the soup.)

For vegetables, I used Farmer Kev’s frozen string beans and yellow squash, perfect for this kind of soup and for many other kinds, too. I had two cups of chickpeas in the freezer, so out those came to thaw and go into the soup.

This type of soup is perfect for the slow cooker. Basically, just chop, add, and stir everything in. Bring the ingredients to a simmer, and let them bubble until the flavors have mingled.

Biscuits are always a nice addition to soup. They are quick and easy to put together, and I plan on making some tonight, using a recipe of my mother’s. (Oh, she was quite the biscuit maker.)

As we Mainers might say, biscuits and soup on a cool, rainy spring night make the finest kind of meal.

 

Smooth and Chunky Tomato Soup

(Note: This makes a lot of soup—10 or 12 generous servings. My large slow cooker was filled to the brim. To make a smaller batch, use small cans of tomatoes and cut back accordingly on the other ingredients.)

1 (28) ounce can of diced tomatoes
1 (28) ounce can of crushed tomatoes with basil
42 ounces of water. (I used the empty cans—1 1/2 cans of water.)
4 cloves of minced garlic
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup of summer squash, chopped
1 cup of string beans, chopped
1 (12) ounce package of chicken sausage, cut in rounds and then cut in half
2 cups of chickpeas (White beans would work well, too.)
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes (or more, to taste)
Salt, to taste

Put all the ingredients into your slow cooker, and let ‘er simmer until your house is fragrant with the smell of tomatoes and spices. On high, the soup will take about four hours. On low, seven or eight hours. Cook some pasta, if you like, to go in the bottom of each bowl and then ladle some soup over the pasta.

 

 

Patio Update: In Which Laurie Impatiently Waits for that Last Patch of Snow to Melt

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about how like magic the snow was melting from the yard at the little house in the big woods. I also told of how Clif and I each had made a prediction about when the patio would be snow free. He said Friday, April 17, and I said Wednesday, April 15. As it turned out, we were both wrong.

Late yesterday afternoon—Wednesday, April 15—as I was sweeping the patio, there was just a bit of snow, but the sun was behind the trees, and I knew that the melting was pretty much done for the day.

April 15, still a little bit of snow
April 15, still a little bit of snow on the patio

Did I want to take my broom and get rid of the last of that pesky snow so that my prediction would be right? You bet I did. I even grazed the clump of snow with my broom. It would have been so easy to push it over the edge of the patio, and I itched to do so. Clif would have been none the wiser. Indeed, he expected the snow to be gone when he came home from work.

But I didn’t. Somehow, even though nothing was really at stake—we had made predictions, not a bet—it didn’t seem fair to brush the snow away. Besides, I doubt I could have kept a straight face when Clif spotted the bare patio.

Today, then—Thursday, April 16—became a waiting game with the snow. At 10:45 a.m., there was just a smidge of snow.

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At noon, there was still a little spot. That stubborn snow! But I figured I might as well have my lunch and check when I was done.

Just as flowers unfurl when you’re not looking, so did this snow melt while I was at my desk. When I got up to check on the patio—at 12:55 p.m.—the snow was gone. There was only a wet spot where the snow had been.

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Soon, I will be having lunch on the patio. Soon, Clif will be making his legendary grilled bread for family and friends. Soon, we will spend evenings on the patio and listen to the night sounds, the loons and the owls.

Oh, the goings on at the little house in the big woods.

Abracadabra: The Strange Case of the Disappearing Snow

I have lived in Maine for fifty-seven years, and never have I seen a spring like this. Until last week, we were still in the grip of winter. The little house in the big woods was surrounded by snow, and while the weather in April wasn’t as cold as it was in, say, February, it was mighty brisk. Even though it was officially spring, I had to push myself to take the dog for a walk.

Then there was the little surprise we got last Thursday—a snowstorm that left four inches of snow. Clif actually had to take out Little Green to clean the driveway before he went to work. In the morning, when I looked out my front door, I saw a winter wonderland. This made Clif and me a little grumpy. How tired we both were of snow and winter.

Then something miraculous happened, and it could be compared to the miracle of the loaves and the fish, only in reverse. Last Saturday, a wild wind blew into central Maine, and apparently it chased away the cold weather. On Sunday, the temperature reached 60 degrees and on Monday, 70 degrees. The snow shrank and shrank, so much that it was as though I were looking at time-lapse photography, only in real time.

Yesterday, the temperature was in the mid-60s, and it was warm enough for me to turn off the heat in the house for the afternoon. A great feeling, after the heating bills of the winter.

However, most exciting was the progress made on the patio. On Sunday, the snow had melted enough so that I could bring a chair and a little table outside. By Monday, the snow receded even farther, and yesterday—Tuesday—I swept the patio for the first time this season. There was just the barest edge of snow.

On Monday, Clif and I made predictions about when the patio would be completely snow free. In a burst of optimism, I said Wednesday (today). Clif, who tends to be more cautious with his pronouncements—he is a Yankee, after all—chose Friday.

Well, as the clichéd saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case a series of pictures. (Many thousands of words?)

Here was the patio on Monday, April 13.

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Here it is today, Wednesday, April 15.

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I’m tempted to go out this afternoon and shovel off that last bit of snow. But that wouldn’t be fair, would it?

Here are two more pictures that illustrate how fast the snow is disappearing.

The view from the front porch on Thursday, April 9.

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The view from the front porch today, April 15, less than a week later.

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I rest my case.

National Library Week: My Library, My Lifeline

IMG_8059This week is National Library Week. I know. It seems that every week, indeed every day, celebrates something or other, from popcorn to donuts to libraries. But it’s my guess that National Library Week, first sponsored in 1958 by the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Book Publishers, got the jump on most of the current weekly and daily celebrations. In a few years National Library Week will be celebrating its sixtieth birthday.

And how did National Library Week come about in that faraway time before computers, mobile phones, and the Internet? According to the ALA website, “In the mid-1950s, research showed that Americans were spending less on books and more on radios, televisions and musical instruments. Concerned that Americans were reading less, the ALA and the American Book Publishers formed a nonprofit citizens organization called the National Book Committee in 1954…In1957, the committee developed a plan for National Library Week based on the idea that once people were motivated to read, they would support and use libraries.” The theme for the first National Library Week was “Wake Up and Read.”

As a child, nobody had to tell me to wake up and read. Books were an integral part of my life, and lucky child that I was, my parents took me to two libraries—a tiny one in East Vassalboro, which served all of Vassalboro, where we lived, and a larger one in Waterville, the small city nearby. Every week, books came into the house, and books went out of the house. While I grew up in a comfortable, middle-class family, there was no way my parents could have afforded to buy me all the books I wanted to read. For a child who lived in a small, rural town, those libraries were a lifeline, giving me access to the broader world of stories and ideas.

Today, fifty years later, the library continues to be a lifeline for me. I still live in a small rural town—Winthrop rather than North Vassalboro—and both could certainly be considered the hinterlands of the hinterland. My husband and I live on a modest budget, and, as was the case when I was young, there is no way we could afford to buy all the books I want to read. Thanks to the library and interlibrary loan, I can get nearly any book I’m interested in, from classics such as Middlemarch by George Elliot to newer books such as Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam.

As the ALA likes to remind people, libraries are more than books, and all the DVDs Clif and I watch come from the library. The DVDs range from the highbrow—Shakespeare—to the lowbrow—television series such as The Americans. As with books, pretty much anything we want to watch is available to us.

Winthrop’s library is supported primarily through town taxes, and I expect this is true for most town libraries in Maine. Not surprisingly, I consider it money very well spent, and I don’t begrudge one penny of  property tax money that goes to the library. Our library is open to all residents, and it doesn’t matter who your family is or how much money you make. As long as you return the books you borrow, you are welcome to take out more books.

A friend of mine is moving to a small seaside town in Ireland that doesn’t have a library. (She will have access to a library in a larger town nearby.) She is a reader, and she says she is up to the challenge of living in a town with no library.

I have thought of this off and on for the past couple of days. Which would I choose, a town with a library or a town by the sea? This would not be an easy choice for me because I love the seaside nearly as much as I love books and libraries.

It would be a tough call, but I know that in the end, books and libraries would win.

The Baby, Spring, and Other Things

Last weekend was quite the eventful weekend. On Saturday, I went to Piper’s—aka Darling Baby—first birthday party.  I know all babies are cute, but it seems to me that Piper is especially cute, and she had a wonderful time being the center of attention. She even led the guests on a round of birthday claps.

Here she is with her auntie,

Piper with her auntie

and with her birthday cake.

First birthday cake

After a couple of fun hours, I bid the birthday girl adieu and headed home. On the way back, I spotted Canada geese on the ice and stopped to take pictures.

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Then, on Sunday, spring finally came to the little house in the big woods, and for the first time this year, I was able to hang laundry on the line.

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The receding snow has revealed things both good and bad—a forgotten pot and emerging irises.

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By mid-afternoon, the temperature in the backyard was 65 degrees, and even though there was still snow, I decided to haul out a chair and a little glass table so that I could have afternoon snack on the patio.

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I know. I’m rushing the season. But what a sweet end to a sweet weekend.

Southwestern White Bean Soup to Make on a Reluctant Spring Day

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Farmer Kev’s vegetables, frozen then thawed

Clif and I love soup, and living in Maine gives us the opportunity to eat soup nine months of the year. (I’m counting June, which is often rainy and cool.)  Soup has so many things in its favor. A bowl of soup is warm and filling and comforting. It is forgiving and lends itself well to improvisation. Soup is often low in calories and usually can be made in a slow cooker. As if all this weren’t enough, most soups are very economical to make. Yes, indeed. There is a lot to like about soup.

Thanks to Farmer Kev and his winter CSA share, I have packets and packets of frozen vegetables in my freezer. Soups are the perfect way to use frozen peppers, beans, and zucchini, and over the winter, I’ve made quite a dent in those packets.

Last week, I was in the mood for a Southwestern soup. I had everything I needed—dried white beans, Farmer Kev’s frozen vegetables, onion, garlic, spices, tomato paste, and soy sauce, which I put in many soups to give them more of that coveted umami flavor. I also had some chicken sausage and chicken broth.

I seldom use canned beans, which always taste tinny to me. I much prefer the flavor of beans I cook myself, and since I am home all day, I have ample time to soak the beans overnight and then simmer them the next morning. For this recipe, I soaked two cups of white beans, which gave me about six cups of cooked beans. ( If time is of the essence, then by all means use canned beans. The soup will still be good.)

Basically, I chopped the vegetables into small bits, browned the sausage, and threw everything, including beans and spices, into the slow cooker. By the time Clif came home from work, the house was fragrant with the smell of bubbling soup—-another point in soup’s favor that I forget to mention in my opening paragraph.

I made a huge slow cooker full of the soup, thinking I would freeze some if we grew tired of eating it. However, this didn’t happen. We gladly ate the soup for three nights—Clif always has seconds—and didn’t mind one bit.

Soup, soup, soup!

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Southwestern White Bean and Sausage Soup

Makes 9 generous servings

2 cups of water
1 (32-ounce) box of chicken broth
1 cup of diced carrots
1 cup of green beans, chopped small
1 cup of zucchini, chopped small
1 cup of chopped green peppers
1 medium onion, chopped small
4 cloves of minced garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons of chili powder
1 teaspoon of oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons of cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon of salt
6 cups of white beans ( I mashed two cups to give the soup a thicker texture.)
3 tablespoons of tomato paste
Several shakes of soy sauce (Or more depending on taste)

This soup couldn’t be easier. Basically, when everything is chopped and browned, put the ingredients in a slow cooker and let them come to a simmer. On high, this soup takes about four hours. On low, seven or eight hours. When the soup has bubbled for a while, taste it to see if more spices need to be added. Serve with dollops of sour cream, or eat it plain. As you like it.

Biscuits or cornbread make a mighty good accompaniment. If I were serving this to company, I would add chopped cilantro as a garnish.

When, What to My Wondering Eyes Should Appear…But Snow, Snow, and More Snow

IMG_8216Last night, as a plane flew overhead, I could tell from the sound that it was snowing outside. It’s hard to describe exactly what this sound is, but I would have to say that it has a muffled quality that is missing during  clear weather.

A little later, Clif let the dog out, noted the snow, and confirmed my suspicions. Unconcerned, we went to bed. This is April, after all.

Imagine our surprise, then, the next morning when we looked out the window and saw that at least four inches of heavy snow had fallen during the night. It was enough so that Clif had to haul out Little Green and clean the driveway before he went to work. And here we were thinking that it was just about time to bring Little Green down cellar for the season and time to bring out the bikes. Not yet, that’s for sure.

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A little while ago, the plow went by, and the road is a mucky mess. No walk for the dog today. He’ll have to make do in the backyard. However, as I write, the snow is sliding off the branches of the trees. A few days of mild weather will bring us back to where we were before this mess, and the dog and I can walk on dry roads.

It has been a cold, hard winter in Maine, with lots of snow. Spring is officially here, but it is coming oh so slowly in fits and starts. Meanwhile, California suffers the worst drought in recorded history, and yesterday the temperature in Georgia was 90 degrees, which must be hot even for Georgia in April.

In Maine Lakes Tell Tale of Climate Change, a recent piece on MPBN, Susan Sharon addresses the issue  of global warming and writes, “While the Northeast may have experienced a bitterly cold and snowy winter in 2015, the average temperature on the planet last year was the warmest in 135 years of record keeping. In Maine the state climatologist’s research indicates that by 2050 the annual temperature in Maine will rise another 3 to 5 degrees.”

But what bothers Zach Wozich, an Ice fisherman interviewed in Sharon’s piece, is the extreme unpredictability of the weather over the past ten years, “the big variations in temperatures and snowfall.” This year, he’ll probably have two more weeks than usual to fish. A few years ago, the ice was out before the end of March. That year Clif and I actually went for an anniversary bike ride—on March 19—and Maranacook Lake looked like a huge, gray slushy. Not long after, there was open water.

There is some indication that as the Arctic melts, the jet stream is affected, bringing colder weather to the North East and warmer weather, along with drought, to the West. Only time and observation will tell if this is true. One or two cold winters do not a trend make, and there are other factors that affect the jet stream.

Nevertheless, for next winter, Clif and I will be sure to have a good supply of wood. (We ran out midwinter.) We will have a stockpile of food in our pantry as well as plenty of propane cannisters for our camp stove. Lamp oil is also a necessity and so is stored water in big buckets. For us, no power means no water.

Being prepared cannot change the weather, but it can certainly make fierce storms and power outages easier to deal with.

 

 

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