Category Archives: cooking

A Cool Soup Day in June

Daisies on a grey day
Daisies on a grey day

It’s mid-June in Maine, and after a hard, hard winter, we have had a pretty good spring. May was sunny and warm. The black flies were brutal, but mercifully their time here was short—two weeks at their swarming, biting peak. June has been somewhat rainy and cool, but there have been enough nice days so that humans don’t feel too damp and soggy. Best of all, the potted flowers outside look very perky—not a given in June. Sometimes it rains so much that the pots become waterlogged, and the plants never really recover. Who knows? If the good weather continues, then I might even get a decent bunch of basil.

However, today is a cool day, a soup day. (As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a good thing Clif and I like soup because in Maine you can eat soup nine months of the year.) I still have frozen vegetables from Farmer Kev’s winter CSA, and I have decided to make a Mediterranean soup with green beans and summer squash. I splurged on fresh rosemary along with Italian-spiced  chicken sausage. We’ll add cooked pasta to the bottom of the soup bowl before ladling soup on top.

Biscuit muffins—one of Clif’s favorites—will round out the soup. Somehow warm biscuits, muffins, or bread round out most any meal.

The rest of the week is supposed to be sunny, and I am especially hoping it will be nice on Friday, when friends will be coming over for homemade strawberry ice cream and cookies. If the weather is rainy, then we will of course eat in the dining room.

But how much nicer to be on the patio, next to the Irises, which are still in bloom. To have the birds fluttering above and around us in the trees. To be held by the green hand of the forest.  And high above, framed by leaves, a blue circle of sky.

So tonight, soup and biscuits with the hope the weather will be clear on Friday for friends and homemade ice cream.

 

Mother’s Day Brunch

IMG_8630Over the years, we have realized that our favorite way of celebrating special days and holidays is to cook together as a family. (The family that cooks together stays together?) Birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, and, of course, Mother’s Day all bring about a flurry of mixing and cooking.

Yesterday, Shannon and the dogs came to the little house in the big woods to celebrate Mother’s Day. With Clif, we were a small but mighty team of three humans—Mike had to work, and Dee lives too far away—and three dogs. (Both Clif’s mother and my mother have died. How we miss them!)

This lucky mother got the best pancakes in Maine, if not the United States; fruit salad; home fries; and delectable flourless, chocolate cupcakes, which I request every year for Mother’s Day. Clif made the pancakes—his truly are the best—and Shannon made the rest.

IMG_8616-1

IMG_8615

For the most part, Clif and Shannon wouldn’t let me help, but I did manage to sneak in a couple of things such as wiping the tables, inside and out.

“You’re not supposed to be helping,” Shannon said. “You’re supposed to be taking it easy.”

“Well, whose daughter is she?” Clif asked.

Shannon and I laughed. My mother couldn’t stand not helping, and it was a real effort to get her to relax. Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as the saying goes, and it I will admit it makes me a little fidgety to sit while others bustle to prepare a meal. However, for the most part, I complied with their wishes and stayed out of the kitchen.

After brunch, we headed out to the patio so that the dogs could roam and sniff and we could enjoy being in the backyard. We were able to spend quite a bit of time outside before the black flies drove us in.

Even though it made me a little antsy not to pitch in and help, it was a treat to have someone else do the cooking and clean-up. We seldom eat out, which means I make most of the meals we eat. I am happy to do this, but it is nice to eat food that somebody else has prepared.

Somehow, it always tastes better.

IMG_8614

Blue Sky, Perfect Pumpkin Bread, and a Trip to Boston

Upside down pumpkin bread with parchment paper on the bottom
Upside down pumpkin bread with parchment paper on the bottom

The title of this post indicates a perfect pre-Christmas trio—blue sky, pumpkin bread that didn’t stick to the pan, and a trip to Boston to see our Thai student Saranya, who is no longer a student but instead is a lovely woman. As I noted in yesterday’s post, I haven’t seen Saranya in seventeen years, and what a treat it will be to get together with her after such a long time.

All else dims compared with the excitement of seeing Saranya, but I have to admit it was a great feeling to make pumpkin bread that didn’t stick to the bottom of the pans. I lined the bottoms with parchment paper, and out came the bread with no trouble at all. The bread is in the freezer, where it will stay until the day before Christmas.

Then there is the blue sky. There are some clouds, but who cares? The sun is out, and it is not raining. My friend Margy is coming here for tea, and she will be walking from her home, about a mile from the little house in the big woods.

Later, I’ll be taking the dog for a walk in the woods. How nice it will be  not to come back with wet hat and mittens.

Finally, this afternoon I plan to make a double batch of gingersnaps—Rochelle’s gingersnaps as they have come to be called around here.  (In honor of my mom who made them all the time. I still use her handwritten recipe.) The cookies are good keepers, and I plan to give most of them away.

Busy, busy, but what fun!

Christmas Cooking on a Rainy Day

img_4090More rain. Yes, yes, it could be a lot worse—freezing rain or mounds and mounds of snow. The snow, at least, would be prettier than this rain, which makes the December landscape look like March. Did we ever have such weather in the olden days, say, when I was a kid in Maine? No, we did not. Well, we humans have changed the climate, and now we must cope with what we have wrought.

On a more positive note…Today I will commence with Christmas cooking. My plan is to make one of the two ice cream pies that have become a tradition for dessert on Christmas day. The whole family agrees that homemade chocolate ice cream is good any time of year. Add a graham cracker pie shell and some hot fudge or caramel, and you have a pretty tasty dessert. But the best thing about this dessert is that it can be made ahead of time. One less thing to do Christmas week.

I’ll also bake two pumpkins so that I have purée for a spicy peanut soup I’ll be making for Christmas Eve and for pumpkin bread. This time around, I’ll be lining the bread pans with something—foil or parchment paper—so that the loaves won’t stick to the pan the way they did at Thanksgiving. The bread was still tasty, but it looked sorry and hunched over, as though it had traveled too many miles to get to the table.

But before I bake the pumpkins, I will make yeast bread, one loaf for immediate use and one loaf to tuck in the freezer. I hope to make another batch this weekend so that I have extra for French toast over the holidays. (Let’s just say that French toast is especially delicious when it’s made with homemade bread.)

Anyway, damn the rain and on with the cooking!

Cheddar Cheese Soup and a Gathering of Friends

Last Saturday, we had two sets of friends over for dinner, and it was one of those special gatherings that brings a happy glow to the cook. We’ve known these friends for many, many years. Our daughters are the same age and graduated from high school together. So perhaps part of the reason for the glow was that we are all so comfortable together.

Then there was the beer and wine. Clif had an assortment of beer from Craft Beer Cellar in Portland, where our son-in-law works. Craft Beer Cellar sells hundreds of different kinds of beer, which has become as specialized as wine. Not all of our guests are beer lovers, but the ones who do like beer were impressed with Clif’s selection. For the wine lovers, there was a nice bottle of a white wine called Viognier, from Meridians in Fairfield. There’s nothing like good wine and beer to bring a happy glow to a party.

Flickering candles and a tree with blue Christmas lights provided an actual glow in the little house in the big woods. While perhaps they weren’t essential, candles and tree surely set the stage for the food and the wine.

The centerpiece of the meal was cheddar cheese soup—creamy and rich and adapted from a Moosewood recipe. This soup is a  favorite with the family, and it’s one I make for the holidays. For gatherings, I put the soup in a crock-pot, and nearby I have big bowls of cooked broccoli and tortellini so that guests can serve themselves. That way, they can have exactly how much they want of the soup, broccoli, and tortellini.

“Very, very good,” was the consensus about the soup. There were seconds for some of our guests and requests for the recipe. Now that surely brings a glow to the cook’s cheeks because one of the chief delights of cooking is to feed and please people.

To add to the meal there was also the brie appetizer that one friend brought and the chocolate and coconut squares from another friend. Surely they contributed to the happy mood of the party.

In the end, I truthfully I can’t say whether it was the beer, the wine, the candles, the soup, the appetizer, or the dessert that made this gathering such a success. Whatever it was, there were kisses and hugs as everyone left and a promise to get together after the holidays.

All in all, it was some party, as we Mainers like to say.

 

Cheddar Cheese Soup Recipe
(Six hearty servings by itself; Eight with the addition of broccoli and pasta)

10 medium size potatoes, peeled and diced
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons of oil
2 large cloves of garlic, cut in thirds
6 cups of water
2 teaspoons of dried dill
8 ounces of cream cheese, sliced in four or five segments
2 cups of grated cheddar cheese (Go for a good, sharp brand and please do not buy the pre-shredded cheese. The taste of this soup hinges on the quality of the cheddar.)
Salt and pepper to taste. (I use two teaspoons of salt and liberal grinds of the pepper mill.)

In a large stockpot, heat the oil and sauté the potatoes, carrots, and onion for 5 minutes or so. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds, then add the water and the dill. Let simmer for 45 minutes or an hour, until all the vegetables are really soft.

If you don’t have an immersion blender, buying one before you make this soup would be a very good idea. Immersion blenders are not expensive and are ever so much easier to use than one with a glass container. Directions for an immersion blender: Place the stockpot in the sink and blend the potatoes, carrots, garlic, onion, and water. When this is smooth, add the cream cheese in chunks and blend until smooth. Return the pot to the stove and on a medium heat, add the cheddar, salt, and pepper. At this point, the soup must be kept warm enough so that it is hot but low enough so that it doesn’t boil. No matter how careful you are, it will probably develop a skim on the top. No need to worry. Just stir it into the rest of the soup, and the skim will melt.

Directions for a blender with a glass container: In four batches, blend the potato, carrots, onions, garlic, water with a slice of cream cheese that has been quartered. Be sure not to fill the container too much and to cover the top with some kind of cloth as you blend. This soup is hot, and it will burn you if it spurts out the top and onto your hand. I speak from experience from my pre-immersion blender days.

Any kind of pasta can be added to this soup as well as broccoli. I serve them on the side so that the pasta and broccoli don’t swell or get too mushy in the soup.

Happy holidays and happy anytime that you have this soup.

Beet Gratin at the End of a Gray Week

IMG_7117Since Tuesday the skies have been gray. There has been sleet followed by rain—lots of it—now capped by a bit of snow. I’m not complaining, mind you, especially when I consider what we might have had—an ice storm that could have knocked out our power for days or more. Then I think of the deluge the West Coast is dealing with, the floods and the landslides, all just before the holidays.

But it would be nice to see blue sky and sun. It would be nice to not have another storm until after the New Year. It would be nice to have bare roads for the holidays. All right. Maybe I am complaining. Just a little.

On a more positive note…I made a beet gratin last night from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I’ve been wanting to make this gratin for a while, but I was afraid Clif wouldn’t like it, and we would be left high and dry for our supper. But Farmer Kev keeps bringing us beets, and it was time to do something with them.

Bittman suggesting cooking the beets whole in a covered roasting pan in a 350 degree oven, and that’s just what I did. It took a long time—almost an hour—for the beets to cook, but there was no fuss and little mess. (The beets were scrubbed but not peeled.)

When the beets were done, I let them cool and cut them into slices, which I then arrayed in the bottom of a 9 x 12 baking dish. I sprinkled salt, pepper, and dried thyme on the beets. Then I crumbled an eight-ounce log of goat cheese on top and covered the whole thing with fresh bread crumbs—I used three slices of homemade bread.

Bittman suggested broiling the gratin until the crumbs were brown and the cheese was melted. I followed his advice, but unfortunately the top became too brown before the beets were heated through.

However, the overall taste more than made up for the lukewarm dish. The tangy cheese was a perfect compliment to the sweet beets, and the overall effect could even be called elegant.

“Pretty darned good,” Clif said, going back for seconds.

I nodded, relieved we wouldn’t have to resort to scrambled eggs and toast.

“But you might want to bake it next time rather than just broil it,” Clif added. “If need be, you can broil it a little at the end.”

I agreed, and next time I make beet gratin, I will bake it so that everything is piping hot.

Still, I was pretty pleased with the way the dish turned out, especially after such a long, gray week.

 

 

 

 

Chocolate chip Cookie in a frying pan

All right. Here is how it went. First, I made a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough, a standard recipe from the back of a bag of chocolate chips.IMG_7082

Then I pressed the dough into our trusty cast iron frying pan (greased).

IMG_7090

While the cookie was baking—375 degrees for 25 minutes or so—I set the table.

IMG_7085

When the dough was golden brown, I removed the pan from the oven.

IMG_7095

Our friends Judy and Paul were waiting at the dining room table. Clif brought over the hot pan, set it on the board, and scooped vanilla ice cream on top of the cookie.

IMG_7097

Upon which we all scooped into what was indeed a glorious, gooey,  chocolatey mess.

“It’s like a hot fudge sundae,” Judy said, spooning a glob of cookie dough with molten chocolate and ice cream onto her plate.

“Rich,” said Paul, digging in.

“Very chocolatey,” I added as I helped myself to seconds.

Clif didn’t say much. He just ate.

IMG_7101

I hope I am not embarrassing anyone by noting that when we were done, there wasn’t much left in the pan, and I had used a whole batch of chocolate  chip cookie dough.

Good as this dessert was, I have to admit it was a tad too chocolatey for my taste. (I never, ever thought I would write such a sentence.) It seemed to me that the melted chocolate overwhelmed the dough.

The next time I make it—oh yes, there will be a next time—I am going to use half the amount of chocolate chips—one cup instead of two—and see if I like the ratio of chocolate to cookie dough better.

And Mary Jane, you are right. This dessert is way more fun than fondue.

 

Early December: Winter is here

IMG_7078-1Despite what the calendar might say, winter has settled over central Maine. The ground is covered with snow, which doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave anytime soon. The air is sharp and cold, and by 5:00 p.m., it’s nearly as dark as midnight. The nights are very long indeed.

Clif, Liam, and I do our best to adapt to the short days, but we all suffer from a restlessness that comes from spending too much time inside. Liam actually doesn’t mind the cold weather, and he could be out from dawn until dusk. His humans, not so much. We dutifully bundle up and take the dog for a walk a couple of times a day. But it’s not enough for him, and in truth, it’s not enough for us either.

A few days ago, Liam and I went into the woods to gather pine for an arrangement in an outside deck box. Yesterday, I arranged the pine  along with branches of berries I had collected earlier. I did this outside, where the mess could fall on the ground and where I could throw the ball for Liam while I worked on the deck box. It made me laugh to watch the dog and the ball skittle across the hard snow.

Although my arrangements would never win any prizes, I really do enjoy making them. They might be plain and simple, but they are mine, from beginning to end.

This Sunday, weather permitting, our friends Judy and Paul are coming for an afternoon visit. On Food 52 I came across the decadent idea of baking chocolate chip cookie dough in an oven-proof pan, setting the pan in the middle of the table right after the dough has baked, dropping scoops of ice cream on top, and letting everyone spoon directly iinto the warm, glorious mess. I had thought about making muffins, but this cookie concoction sounds way more fun—more fun than fondue, as my friend Mary Jane has said. So I’ve changed my plans. Pictures will be taken, and if this dessert turns out to be as delicious as it sounds, then this might very well become a winter tradition.

Despite the cold, despite the dark, winter does have its pleasures.

 

Thanksgiving is over—onward to Christmas

IMG_7065Thanksgiving is over, and thanks to the snowstorm, how hectic it was. No power for twelve hours and a foot of heavy snow to shovel and throw on Thanksgiving morning. As I mentioned in a previous post, thank goodness Shannon was hosting this year.  After clean up, Clif and I were ready for a nap. We, of course, resisted the impulse and headed to South Portland in a timely manner.

But, our two travelers—our daughter Dee and Mike’s sister, Liz—made it safely to Maine. The table was lovely, the food was tasty, and the three dogs were good. (Shannon wisely bought the dogs big crunchy bones, which they got just before dinner. Those bones pretty much kept the dogs occupied for the entire meal.)

Now on to Christmas. My shopping is almost done, which is the way I like it. I hate running around at the last minute, trying to think of gifts for my family. Much better to plan ahead of time. The season is more enjoyable, and it is also better for the budget.

That leaves decorating and menu planning. Although I have a collection of Santas that I always display, I like to decorate primarily with greens and other natural items. Yesterday, in the woods by our house, I collected winter berries and bittersweet for the outside pots. Today, the dog and I will head into the woods to collect pine branches. The weather isn’t supposed to be good tomorrow, but the branches will be stored in our little shed, and they, along with the bittersweet and winter berries, will keep until the weather allows me to use them. (I like arranging the pots outside.)

For inside, pine branches and cranberries in vases are simple and pretty. I’ll have to make more than one trip into the woods for the branches, and this will please the dog.

As for cooking…I am not one who enjoys making lists, but I find I must do so for my Christmas cooking. There’s just too much for me to keep it straight without a list. This weekend, I’ll be making apple crisp for a dinner we’ve been invited to, and some kind of special muffin for friends who are coming over on Sunday. Next weekend, different friends are coming over for cheddar cheese soup, a holiday favorite in our house.

Add ice cream pies, gingersnaps, thumb print cookies, pie dough knots, peanut butter balls, and perhaps some toffee bars to the list. And yeast bread and pumpkin bread to freeze ahead.

No wonder I need a list.

Thanksgiving approaches and so does the storm

Early afternoon at the little house in the big woods.  It is snowing. The storm started, ever so slowly, when the dog and I were on our walk, and by the time we came home, Liam’s back was wet with snow.

As far as preparations go, everything is right on track. The green bean casserole, minus the butter-crumb topping, is ready. (The butter-crumb topping will be sprinkled on top just before the casserole goes in the oven.)

Green bean casserole, made with Farmer Kev's frozen beans
Green bean casserole, made with Farmer Kev’s frozen beans

The sweet potato casserole—complete with a brown sugar, butter, flour, and nut topping—is ready.

IMG_7032

And so is the gravy, cold and solid now from having been in the refrigerator. But it will heat up to a lovely consistency, and how nice to have this piece of Thanksgiving done ahead of time.

IMG_7030

To further add to Thanksgiving convenience, Shannon has borrowed an electric roaster, which she will use for the turkey, thus freeing the oven for the various casseroles and dishes that need to stay warm. I’m not sure it would be worthwhile to buy an electric roaster—most meals during the year don’t include so many different side dishes—but the roaster certainly makes life easier on Thanksgiving.

I have several more items on my to-do list: make homemade bread, vaccuum the house, and make peanut butter balls—Clif will help with these when he gets home. Have I planned too much? I usually do.

Finally, Dee was unable to change her travel plans. She anticipates no problems on the train from New York to Boston. The touchy part will be with the bus from Boston to Portland.  To hedge her bets, she’s booked a seat on the Downeaster, which for some crazy reason doesn’t offer any trains between 5:40 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. What’s up with that?

Now, if only Dee can make it safely to Maine.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and I hope those who are traveling reach their destinations safely.