This morning, when I looked out my window, I saw falling snow and a gray day.
A perfect day to make red bean soup, in honor not only of Esther and her mother but also in honor of soup month, which January apparently is. (In Maine, January is an appropriately frosty time to celebrate soup.)
I found some beans from Maine, and I soaked them last night.This morning I simmered them, and soon into the slow-cooker the red beans will go along with green beans, summer squash, and green peppers. (Those last three had been frozen then thawed.) I will also add some chicken sausage.
I’ll make biscuits, of course. After Esther’s story of walking home in the cold and the dark to red bean soup and biscuits, how could I leave out the biscuits?
I expect my soup will different from the one that Esther’s mother used to make, but no matter. It will be red bean soup. Served with biscuits.
After much deliberation and angst, Clif and I finally made a decision about our new electric range, which has made us so unhappy with its burning ways. After doing a lot of research, we found that it cost less to buy a free-standing convection oven than to return the Whirlpool electric range we just bought and replace it with an electric range with a convection oven. Therefore, we bought a free-standing convection oven—a Hamilton Beach 31103A. It came yesterday, and we were able to rearrange things in the kitchen so that no counter space was lost.
The many comments on this blog were a big help. Thanks to all of you who shared your oven stories. It made us realize two things—new standard electric ovens have a tendency to burn baked goods, and convection ovens do a beautiful job when it comes to baking.
This was reinforced the other night when we had dinner at our friend Mary Jane’s house. There were nine of us in all, and Mary Jane, who is a terrific cook, had us recount the story of our oven woes.
Richard Fortin, our library’s director, was there, and as soon as we had finished telling our sad tale, he said, “The same thing happened to us. We were burning things that we baked. But we have a convection setting in our oven, and as soon as we started baking on that setting, everything came out just fine.”
Then there was the matter of glass top versus coil top. Richard continued, “I once had a stove with a glass top, and I ruined it using cast iron.”
There were protests from some of the other guests, who successfully used cast iron on glass tops without marring the surface. It does seem as though you have to be careful not to slide the cast iron over the glass top. Instead, it has to be lifted up. Richard noted that he wasn’t that careful of a cook, and neither are we. I can easily envision sliding the cast-iron frying pan over the top. For us, coil top is best.
The next day, Richard called and told me that Kenmore has a coil-top electric range with a convection oven, and it is listed for $630. (Clif, in doing stove research, found that Consumer Reports gives Kenmore high ratings.) Dave’s, unfortunately, does not sell Kenmore, but if we had known then what we know now, then we would have gone with the Kenmore.
But as I mentioned above, it was more economical for us to buy the free-standing convection oven—there was a very good deal through Amazon—and we now have two ovens. While the Whirlpool does a terrible job with baked goods, it does a fine job with dishes that require less precision, such as chicken, baked potatoes, and casseroles. It also does a great job broiling. Finally, the free-standing convection oven, which takes a 9x 13 pan, is much more energy efficient than the larger range.
This morning, we tested our new convection oven. I made a batch of biscuits, and success! The biscuits came out exactly as they should, with nicely browned tops. The bottoms were also brown but not crunchy, the way they were when I baked a batch in the Whirpool. Instead, they were soft, just the way biscuits ought to be.
Next I will try making gingersnap cookies, which I could not get right in the Whirlpool, no matter how much I fiddled with the time or the temperature. I’ll be sure to report back.
Here is a recap for readers who will be buying a new electric range in the near future. Conventional electric ovens, even the more expensive ones, are not reliable when it comes to baking. Bottoms are burnt and middles aren’t cooked enough. However, many electric ranges—coil top as well as glass top—come with a convection setting, and this is the way to go if you like to bake. Whatever brand you choose, be sure to do some research from a disinterested source such as Consumer Reports. All ranges are not created equal.
Finally, thanks to Shannon for sending us the review of the Hamilton Beach Convection Oven. We ended up buying a larger model, but that review helped steer us in the right direction.
Yesterday, I mixed up a batch of gingersnaps so that I could bring cookies to my friend Esther. Because my stove is new—we’ve had it for a week—I decided to test one cookie to get a sense of the baking time. In my old stove, eleven minutes would give me a good cookie. This stove seemed to run a little hotter, so I decided to try nine minutes.
The results, dear readers, were not good—burnt on the bottom. I tried eight minutes, again, with one cookie, and it was slightly burnt with a gooey middle. I turned the temperature down from 375° to 350°. No luck. I still had cookies that were burnt on the bottom and gooey in the middle.
I called Dave’s Appliance, the store in Winthrop where we bought the stove, and on Thursday they will be sending someone over to look at it. I’ve no doubt the stove will either be fixed or replaced, and I’ll soon be on my way to be making perfect gingersnaps. (I froze the dough in balls, and I’ll bake them as soon as I have a working oven.)
Next week is Thanksgiving, and I started thinking about what I would do if I were hosting the meal this year, and I didn’t have a reliable oven. As it turns out, I’m not hosting Thanksgiving dinner, but cooking nerd that I am, it gave me pleasure to come up with a solution anyway. Here is the plan I hit upon. I have two slow-cookers, and in them I would cook two five-pound chickens on top of potatoes and carrots. Gravy is always made ahead of time—I’ve got one batch in the freezer now, and by this Thursday I’ll have another batch made. Green bean casserole and sweet potato casserole could be heated in the microwave. I might take a chance on using the oven to keep the casseroles warm, turning the oven to a very low heat and setting the racks as high as they would go while still having room for casserole dishes. Stuffing would have to be made outside the bird, in a casserole dish heated the same as the other two.
That leaves dessert. Fortunately, the top of the stove works just fine. I could make pudding for chocolate cream pies and use store-bought crumb crusts.
So there! I could do it. It wouldn’t exactly be traditional, but it would be good enough given I didn’t have a reliable oven.
I must admit that I miss my old stove. And Esther is going to be disappointed when I arrive without gingersnaps.
Ah, well! At least I have a good story to tell her—the saga of the new stove.
Yesterday, I baked our first loaves of bread in the new oven. My fears— or concerns, if you will—turned out to be completely justified. In my old oven, it took thirty-three minutes to bake the bread to golden perfection. I decided to see if the same was true for my new oven. It was not.
The bread, although not burnt, came out a little too dark, a little overbaked, and thus a little dry. As Clif and I mostly think of bread as toast—oh, how we love toast—this dry bread is not as bad as it sounds. However, next time I make bread, I will bake it for thirty minutes and go from there.
The next challenge will be gingersnaps, which I’ll be making on Monday to bring to my friend Esther when I go for a visit on Tuesday. In my old oven, eleven minutes gave you a perfect cookie that had a little snap and a little chew all at the same time. I’ve decided to try nine minutes.
All this fussing about time reminds me that my old oven and I were quite the team. I knew just how long it took to bake family favorites. Now, I will have to recalculate the times for many of the things I bake.
No wonder the old stove seemed like a friend. People and their tools, their equipment, and their appliances can form quite a bond.
Yesterday was quite the day at the little house in the big woods. Two men from Dave’s Appliance delivered our new stove. It was also a bittersweet day. As I noted in a previous post, we bought that stove—a basic electric—in the mid-1990s, and I have literally cooked thousands of meals on it. I’ve fed family and friends. Really, for the past twenty years, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t use the stove.
But the time had come—there were just too many things that were broken—and it was with a lump in my throat that I watched the two delivery men take out the old stove. Out they wheeled it to the big truck, and back in they came with the new stove, another basic electric. Within thirty minutes, the job was done. Farewell, farewell old friend.
Clif and I eschewed the electric stoves with the flat, glass tops. We were told we could not use cast iron or any other pot with a texture on the bottom as they would scratch the top. We asked ourselves, how in the world could we make home fries without using a cast-iron frying pan? Clearly, we couldn’t. The cast-iron frying pan make those home fries so crispy, so right. Therefore, we went with the traditional coil burners.
After the delivery men left, it didn’t take us long to make inaugural cups of tea. As the water heated, I marveled at how the front burner actual worked and how the oven door stayed open all by itself. I didn’t have to rest it against my knees to peek into the oven. I didn’t have to lock the door for it to remain shut.
Welcome, new friend! I hope you stay at the little house in the big woods for many years.
Yesterday, I made two apple pies. One to bring to a potluck and one to share today with our friends Paul and Judy. To me, there is something very satisfying about making pies, especially apple.
First there is the peeling and slicing of the apples. Into a big bowl they go, and I stir in the sugar and spices.
Second there is the dough—the cutting, the mixing, the rolling out. By the time I am done there is a grand explosion of flour, a glorious mess, and why this gives me so much pleasure I cannot say. (I do want to note that this sort of mess did not give my Franco-American mother any pleasure at all, and her way of dealing with my messy habits was to leave the kitchen and read while I was cooking.)
Then there is the filling of the pie—in this case with fresh Maine apples. My favorite part is the crimping of the edges. I love pinching that dough. Finally, I cut a the hole in the middle of the pie, a trick my mother and I learned from Addie O’Keefe, a neighbor of ours in North Vassalboro. Lord, that woman could cook, can, and make preserves. Addie took my mother, a “city” girl, under her wing and taught her what she needed to know about living in the country.
From time to time, I think of Addie’s generosity. She was not a young woman, and she had her own big house and gardens to take care of. However, Addie found the time to teach my mother practical country skills. In turn, when Addie was dying, my mother sat by her side and held her hand. The wheel of generosity turned from Addie to my mother.
But back to pie, specifically apple pie. Its next gift is the lovely smell when it cooks, the bubbling of apple, the mingling of sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Someone coming to the house, upon opening the door, would immediately know that apple pies were baking.
After all the mess, all the fuss, there is—ta dah!—the baked pie with its brown, flaky crust and tangy apple filling.
M.F.K Fisher, the great food writer, thought that food was much more than a way to nourish the body. It also nourished the soul and expressed a variety of emotions, depending on the cook and the eater. How right she was.
And how evocative something as simple as an apple pie can be, taking me back to my childhood, reminding me of generosity.
Before I launch into a description of this week’s recipe using Farmer Kev’s delicious vegetables, I thought I would describe a little blooper I made in the kitchen last night. All right, it was actually a big blooper. I am sharing this because I believe it’s good to admit that even those who have been cooking for a very long time can still make mistakes. (So take heart, beginning cooks!)
Here’s what happened. I had marinated tofu. I had pea pods courtesy of Farmer Kev. Why not stir fry them together, put them on rice, and drizzle a homemade peanut sauce over it all? Then, of course, sprinkle with crushed peanuts. This I did, and how nice it all looked.
There was just one teensy-weensy problem, which Clif and I discovered as we started eating.
“Wow!” I said. “These pea pods are tough.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Clif admitted.
“And they don’t have much taste,” I added.
Then it immediately came to me what the problem was. These weren’t sugar snaps; these were peas to be shelled. Oh, how we laughed at Laurie’s mistake as we stopped eating to shell the slimy pods. Miraculously, even though the pods had only been lightly blanched, the peas inside were cooked enough to eat.
After the peas were shelled, the dish was pretty darned good, as my Yankee husband observed. So good that there weren’t any leftovers, even though there should have been. (Clif is what you might call a good eater, especially when peanut sauce is involved.)
Blooper aside, this dish, like fried rice, is wonderfully versatile. A variety of summer vegetables could be used: Broccoli, zucchini, summer squash, green beans, carrots. Shelled peas or sugar snaps, but probably not both.
I marinated extra-firm tofu in a homemade teriyaki sauce, baked it for 45 minutes, then cut it in cubes to stir-fry. This might be one extra step that a busy home cook would rather not take. Although the marinated tofu adds a nice texture and taste to the dish, it is not an essential element. Just vegetables could be used. Leftover chicken could be added.
The vegetables could be steamed or stir-fried. If stir-fried, then chopped garlic or onion could be added for additional flavor.
So this week, I’m not going to give a recipe per se. Just cook up some rice, steam or stir-fry some vegetables, drizzle with peanut sauce, and sprinkle with crushed peanuts. And for goodness’ sake, don’t confuse sugar snaps with shell peas.
Here is a recipe for the peanut sauce. It’s adapted from a recipe from Miserly Moms: Living Well on Less in a Tough Economy.
1/2 cup of peanut butter
1/2 cup of warm water (Use less for a thicker sauce)
3 tablespoons of soy sauce
1 tablespoon of vinegar—wine, cider, or rice
1/4 teaspoon of hot pepper flakes (More could be added for those who like it hot.)
Whisk together the peanut butter and water until smooth.
Add the soy sauce, vinegar, and hot pepper flakes. Whisk again.
Drizzle over vegetables and rice. Drizzle over vegetables and noodles. Use as a dipping sauce for chicken. This simple but tasty sauce can be used in a number of ways
The greens are still a-comin’, but we are going to turn our attention to another vegetable that can sometimes be such a nuisance that friends will run shrieking if they see you approaching with a bagful. Or a bushel full, as the case may be. This might be apocryphal, but I have heard heartbreaking stories of how these vegetables are just abandoned on the steps of family, friends, acquaintances, and even perfect strangers. Sometimes with a note, most times not.
I am, of course, referring to zucchini—or, courgettes as they are called across the pond. Right now, in Maine, they are little and trim, almost sweet looking, and this week they were innocently tucked at the bottom of my CSA bin from Farmer Kev. But before long, in the garden, these sweet little veggies will grow and grow and if left untended on the vine, become large enough to be used as a murder weapon.
And let’s be honest. When it comes to taste, zucchini is definitely the bland cousin of the vegetable world. (Perhaps that’s why they grow so large. To compensate for their muted flavor.) While peas, corn, tomatoes, and delicata squash make us rejoice, all too often zucchini makes us sigh.
Nevertheless, zucchini has its uses. Grated, it adds a nice texture to muffins or bread, and its mild flavor complements tomato dishes. Last but certainly not least, zucchini is very economical. As indicated above, sometimes you don’t even have to pay for it.
While the zucchini is still in its slender, innocent phase, I decided to take what business people might call a proactive approach and find ways to use those little darlings.
I wondered, what if you grate a small zucchini, add some garlic, sauté the mixture in a skillet for a couple of minutes, add eggs beaten with milk, and sprinkle with basil? Scramble the whole mixture, then cover with grated cheese. What would happen?
I’ll tell you what happens. You get a dish so tasty your Yankee husband not only says “Pretty darned good” but also adds “This would make an elegant dish for brunch.” Now, how many times have you ever heard the word “zucchini” paired with the word “elegant”?
Best of all, despite the chopping, this dish goes together fairly quickly, making it a perfect week-night supper. Add some homemade bread and some sliced cucumbers. Maybe even a white wine with a fresh taste. (Don’t even consider a Riesling.) Not only will you have made use of zucchini, but you will also have a delicious meal.
Note: Fresh basil is absolutely essential for this dish. If you don’t have some growing in your garden or in a pot, then spring for it at the grocery store or at a farmers’ market.
Mediterranean Scrambled Eggs
Makes two hearty servings
1 cup grated zucchini
1 cup grated cheese (I used a sharp cheddar)
2 tablespoons of minced basil
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
4 large eggs beaten with 1 tablespoon of milk
1 tablespoon of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
On medium, heat olive oil in a skillet. Sauté the garlic and the zucchini for two or three minutes.
Add the beaten eggs and the basil.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
When the eggs are done, sprinkle with grated cheese, cover, and turn off the heat. Let set until the cheese is melted.
The greens have started slacking off, at least a little, and this week in Farmer Kev’s bin I received, among other things, broccoli, cucumbers, zuchinni, salad turnips, and summer squash. I was thrilled by this bounty as it will feed Clif and me for nearly a week. (Naturally, we’ll fill in with rice, pasta, wraps, and herbs from my little garden.)
The first meal I’ll be making from some of these vegetables is fried rice, a dish so open to improvisation that it’s something all home cooks should have in their repertoire. A recipe is hardly needed. Take whatever vegetables you have on hand, add either garlic or onion or both, combine with rice, add a couple of eggs, and finally season generously with soy sauce and sesame oil. Minced ginger root could also be used.
I’ve made fried rice with cabbage, endamame, peas, green beans, carrots, broccoli, and peppers. The pictures below were taken a couple of weeks ago when I got carrots and sugar snap peas in my Farmer Kev bin.
I usually make a vegetarian fried rice and add peanuts to give it a little zip. However, leftover meat could also be used.
A few tips: vegetables such as broccoli, sugar snap peas, endamame, and shelled peas should be lightly cooked first. I blanch the sugar snaps and lightly steam the rest. Carrots and turnips can be stir fried raw, but they should be started first. Next would come peppers, if you are using them. Basically, save the vegetables that cook the quickest for last, with garlic being the absolute last thing added before the rice goes in. You do not want the garlic to burn.
The most invaluable tip: When adding beaten eggs, make a large well in the center of the rice and vegetables, and let the eggs cook long enough so that you can then scramble them into the rest of the mixture. Add a little soy sauce to the rice before adding the eggs, and add more soy sauce, along with sesame oil, to the mixture after the eggs have been scrambled in. How much soy sauce and sesame oil? In truth, I don’t know. I never measure. I just shake in the soy sauce and sesame oil and taste. However, I use more soy sauce than sesame oil.
Another important tip: Have everything mise en place, as the French would say. That is, ready in place. Before starting, cook the rice and whatever vegetables that need to be steamed or blanched. Make sure all the vegetables are in little bowls by whatever skillet or wok you will be using. Have the rice handy as well as the beaten eggs, the peanuts, the soy sauce, and sesame oil. Once everything is chopped and ready, this dish goes together very fast, and you want to be able to move quickly.
1 cup of rice, cooked according to directions on the package. (You should have about 2 cups of cooked rice.)
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, minced. (A small onion also could be used instead of or in addition to the garlic.)
4 or 5 cups of mixed vegetables. (In the fried rice pictured, I also used garlic scapes.)
2 eggs, beaten
Soy sauce and sesame oil, to taste
Vegetable oil for stir frying
Cook the rice, mince and chop the vegetables, parboiling or steaming whatever needs to be cooked ahead of time. (Don’t overcook. They will cook more in the stir fry.)
Have everything in place, including the peanuts, soy sauce, and sesame oil. (For those who like it hot, a hot oil could also be used.)
In a large skillet or wok, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, start with whatever vegetables take the longest to cook, ending with the blanched or steamed vegetables, and finally the garlic. Pretty much stir the vegetables constantly so that every thing is moving around.
When the vegetables are cooked, add the rice and shake in a small amount of soy sauce to give everything a little moisture. Stir again.
Make a well in the center of the rice and pour in the beaten eggs.
Let the eggs cook until they are set and scramble them in with the rest of the mixture.
Add the peanuts, if using.
Season to taste with soy sauce and sesame oil. Stir thoroughly.
Today begins what counts as a feverish swirl of activity at the little house in the big woods. It just so happens that for the next four days various groups of family and friends will be coming for a visit. This, of course, means there is a flurry of cooking and cleaning.
Today, three friends from the library are coming over for granola cookies and strawberry ice cream, both homemade. We will be celebrating several things—the library’s new addition, reaching the project’s million dollar mark, and “only” having $41,000 left to go on the project. The four of us will clink our iced tea glasses together to toast all who have given to our beautiful library and to toast all who have worked so hard—for years and years—to make this project a reality. I hope the weather will cooperate so that we can eat on the patio. Right now the sky is is cloudy with small patches of blue. If it doesn’t clear, then never mind. It will still be a clink, clink, clink, and hooray kind of afternoon.
Tomorrow, different friends will be coming over for movie night, where we’ll be watching Monk with a Camera, a documentary about Nicholas Vreeland, grandson of Diana Vreeland, and how he decided to become a photographer. And a Buddhist Monk.
Sunday is Father’s Day, and that can only mean one thing—cooking for Clif, the special man of the house. Shannon, Mike, and the dogs will be coming over to celebrate, and Shannon and I will make what Clif has requested—fried chicken and French Fries, both homemade and cooked fresh. For dessert—strawberry shortcake made with Maine strawberries. (At last they are here.)
On Monday, my friend Barbara will be coming over for French donuts—actually nutmeg muffins dipped in melted butter and rolled in sugar and cinnamon. Barbara and her husband spend the summer in Maine, and I always joke that until they come to Maine, summer can’t be begin. It’s always good to see her.
Summer time, busy time, but good times. We always enjoy having guests come to our house, but we especially like to do so in the summer when everything is lush and green, and time can be spent outside.
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