Category Archives: Food

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.

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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.

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Sunday with the Birds

Beth's delectable blueberry cake
Beth’s delectable blueberry cake

Yesterday, Clif and I had the most delightful Sunday we’ve had in a very long time. Our friends Beth and John came over for brunch, and they brought their little dog Bernie with them. Clif made waffles, cooked fresh at the dining room table and then passed around on a plate. I had made a blueberry sauce and an apple sauce to go with the waffles, and there was, of course, real maple syrup. We also had homefries and scrambled eggs with smoked cheddar—from Pineland Farms.

Good as the brunch was—Clif’s waffles are pretty darned tasty—the best part came afterwards, when we had coffee, tea, and Beth’s delectable blueberry cake on the patio. The day was sunny and warm but not too hot. There were a few bugs but not enough to be a problem.

For several hours, we sat with the sun warm on our faces. We drank coffee and tea and ate cake. We talked about retirement—Beth is retired and John and Clif will be retiring soon—politics, and how hopeful we are that the millennial generation will continue with the course they have started. Although there are always exceptions, by and large this generation is tolerant, liberal, and concerned about the environment.  Many of them have eschewed the excessive consumerism that has characterized this country and are living a modest but comfortable and creative lifestyle. They are gardening in the cities and the suburbs. They are riding their bikes. They are building tiny houses. Kudos, kudos to them.

We are surrounded by trees—I don’t call our home the little house in the big woods for nothing—and this is perfect for the birds, who have secure places to perch as they fly back and forth to the bird feeders. The birds must have been particularly hungry yesterday afternoon because as we sat at the patio, we were treated to the visual delight of fluttering birds as they came to the feeders. We had the usual suspects: chickadees, nuthatches, tufted titmice, woodpeckers, and gold finches.

A goldfinch casing the yard
A goldfinch casing the yard

 

Little chicadees
Little chickadees

We also had a pair of cardinals—the first ever who have decided to take up residence in the woods by our house. It’s such a thrill to have them nearby.

Mr. Cardinal, in all his red glory
Mr. Cardinal, in all his red glory

“I wish I had brought my camera,” Beth said.

“Next time,” I said, taking picture after picture with my little Cannon, which is a wonder with food and flowers but not so much with birds. Still, I got a few decent shots.

At around 4:00, Beth said, “We need to leave.”

“Yes, we do,” John replied.

But we sat at the table for another half hour. They didn’t want to go, and we didn’t want them to leave. Finally, of course, they left, and we will see them again the end of May, at John’s retirement party.

What a Sunday! As we Mainers put it, it was the finest kind of afternoon filled with food, friends, birds, and dogs. Who could ask for anything more?

Cute-as-a button Bernie
Cute-as-a-button Bernie

 

The Best Laid Plains: Unexpected Chicken Goulash

IMG_8421On Sunday, at our local Hannaford, I came across a deal that I couldn’t resist: Nature’s Place whole chicken for 99 cents per pound. I bought two, thinking I would get more later during the week. However, when I went back, they were sold out. Moral of story: When there is a good sale, stock up then and there. Don’t wait.

Ah, well. At least I got two, and this week, I was able to get three meals out of a five pound chicken that cost, of course, $5. The first day, I cooked the chicken our favorite way in the slow cooker, with the chicken on top of potatoes and carrots and spiced with sage, thyme, salt, pepper, and garlic. I always add 1/2 cup of water to the vegetables so that I have more drippings for later use, often in a soup for added flavor, and that was my plan for this chicken.

However, you know what Robert Burns had to say about the best laid plans of mice and men. Mine certainly went awry. I put the chicken, vegetables, water, and spices in the slow cooker, set it on high, and left for the afternoon to visit friends and do errands. Clif was working at home that day, but I forgot to tell him to turn the slow cooker to low by midafternoon.

When I came home late afternoon, the chicken was what you might call well cooked. Very well cooked. In fact, the carcass more or less collapsed when I removed the chicken from the slow cooker, and there would be no using those bones for a soup. Fortunately, whole chicken cooked in a slow cooker is forgiving, and the meat was still moist.

But what to do with the leftover chicken, vegetables, and drippings? A goulash, I decided the next day, served over noodles and topped with roasted almonds.

I measured the drippings—I had a cup and a half—and added enough milk to make two cups. (The night before, I had put the drippings in a bowl in the refrigerator. The next day, I scraped off the fat, heated the drippings, and measured how much I had.) I made a roux using four tablespoons of butter, four tablespoons of flour, and some salt and pepper. Into the roux I whisked the milk and drippings mixture. I stirred until the mixtures thickened, and it made a line on the back of my wooden spoon. I added the vegetables and potatoes, stirring frequently until the mixture was hot.

While the goulash was heating, I cooked some egg noodles. Then in a frying pan I dry roasted some sliced almonds to go on top of the goulash. Clif was on salad detail. Somehow, a green salad was the perfect accompaniment to this hearty meal.

The results? Pretty good, my Yankee husband pronounced, and he went back for seconds.

Now, this meal is not what you would call elegant, and I probably wouldn’t serve it to guests, but it was tasty and filling and economical. With that $5 chicken, I got three meals for two people, and Clif always has seconds. It’s one of his weaknesses. The goulash also went together pretty quickly, an added bonus during the spring when so much of my time is spent outside.

Even though my best laid plans went awry, the resulting second plans were not too bad. Good enough so that sometime in May, when I’m in full gardening frenzy, I will do exactly the same thing with the second chicken I bought for 99 cents a pound—a chicken dinner one night and goulash the next two nights.

Let’s hear it for mice and men. And women, too.

 

Beyond Meat: A New Meatless Product

IMG_8365About a year ago, for environmental reasons, Clif and I decided to stop eating beef and pork. In addition, we don’t eat much fish or seafood—even though we love it—because we have come to believe that there is no way the oceans can sustainably feed so many people on this planet. (For more on this, watch Mission Blue, the terrific documentary about the oceanographer Sylvia Earle.) We do eat some chicken, often organic but at the very least antibiotic free.

We also eat some dairy and eggs, but mostly what we eat are plants, many of which are grown by our own Farmer Kev. Because I have long been interested in a plant-based diet, I have a repertoire of vegetarian dishes, some that I’ve developed on my own and some that come from other sources, including the inimitable Mark Bittman and his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. (America‘s Test Kitchen, the polar opposite of Mark Bittman but excellent in its own way, has recently come out with The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook. I don’t have it, but this book is on my wish list.)

Most of the time Clif and I are more than happy with our plant-based diet. He could eat my vegetarian fried rice once a week, and my bean burgers, based on a Mark Bittman recipe, are pretty darned good if I do say so myself. Nevertheless, at times we do miss the texture and taste that ground beef brings to such dishes as chili, spaghetti sauce, or tacos. We could certainly use ground turkey or chicken, but we don’t want to eat too much poultry, either. Besides, nothing can really compare with the umami of ground beef.

We’ve tried texturized vegetable protein (TVP), and it’s about as appealing as the name suggests. TVP has a blah flavor, and it brings nothing but, well, texture to chili and spaghetti sauce. We scratched that one from our list long ago.

More promising have been MorningStar Farms crumbles. While they don’t have the smooth and mellow taste of ground beef, these crumbles aren’t as tasteless as TVP. They are fairly expensive, and for those who live on a modest budget, the crumbles would have to be a once in a while kind of thing. Unless, of course, you can find coupons for them.

Not long ago, I learned about other meatless meat products made by a company called Beyond Meat. On a recent show, Tom Ashbrook, of On Point radio, featured Ethan Brown, the CEO and founder of Beyond Meat, which manufactures fake chicken and beef  made from pea protein and soy.  While doing the show, Tom Ashbrook munched on one of Beyond Meat’s burgers, and he indicated that he liked it pretty well.

Naturally, Clif and I were curious about Beyond Meat, and we were eager to try it, too. We had a coupon for the product and a very good thing as Beyond Meat is not cheap—an 11 ounce package costs $4.99 at Target. Therefore, with coupon in hand, Clif duly picked up a package of Beefy Crumble, and last night I used it with a jar of spaghetti sauce.

The results? So-so as far as I was concerned, and I thought the MorningStar Farms crumbles had a better flavor. While the Beefy Crumble wasn’t as bland as the TVP, it was certainly bland enough. The texture was good—I’ll give it that—and the Beefy Crumble had a satisfying chew. But other than that, it didn’t bring much to the sauce, and I would rather have mushrooms, peppers, and zucchini to add taste and texture. Clif understood my point of view, but, to him, the pleasing texture more than compensated for the bland taste, which he said he liked.

What next? As long as I have some coupons, which I do, I would be willing to try some of Beyond Meat’s other products—the chicken, the meatballs, maybe even the Feisty Crumble. However, after eating the Beefy Crumble, my expectations are not high.

In the end, I expect Clif and I will stick with our simple homemade meals made directly from vegetables.

 

A Birthday Weekend with Shannon, in which We Had Fish Tacos and the First Grilled Bread of the Season

Shannon on the patio at the little house in the big woods
Shannon, the birthday girl, on the patio at the little house in the big woods

Last weekend was what might called a very Shannon weekend. Her birthday is April 22—Earth Day—and as is the tradition in our family, we had a little party where we cooked what the birthday girl wanted. In this case, fish tacos, which Clif and I had never made.

Awhile back, I went to Mary Jane’s house for lunch, and she served fish tacos that were utterly delectable. I wrote about it for this blog, and Shannon read the post.

“Fish tacos!” she told me. “I love fish tacos.”

“Would you like them for your birthday?” I asked. “I bet Mary Jane would give me the recipe.”

Shannon said yes to the tacos, and Mary Jane did indeed agree to give me the recipe. Or rather talk me through it.

“I used tilapia,” she said. “But catfish would be fine, too.” Good. Unlike most fish, both tilapia and catfish are sustainable fish that we don’t have to feel guilty about eating. “All you do is cut the fish in strips, dip the strips in beaten eggs, roll them in crushed cornflakes, and pan fry them. You’ll have to do it in batches and keep the fish warm in the oven on a low heat.”

Not too hard. But what about the delicious chipotle mayonnaise Mary Jane served with the tacos? “Buy a can of chipotle chilis in adobo sauce. Cut up a few of the chilis, removing most of the seeds. Add them to some mayonnaise along with a little of the adobo sauce.”

Easy enough.

“Cole slaw is also good with the tacos,” Mary Jane added. “And so is salsa verde. And sliced limes.”

With these directions I felt more than confidant that Clif and I could make good fish tacos for Shannon’s birthday. As Mike doesn’t care for fish, we would make chicken strips as well, using egg and cornflakes and pan frying them the same way we would for the fish.

I am someone who likes to plan and have things ready ahead of time—last minute rushing leaves me flustered and prone to making mistakes. The fish tacos were not difficult to make, but there was a certain amount of prep work that needed to be done: cutting the fish and chicken, crushing the corn flakes, slicing the limes, and and making the chipotle mayonnaise.

Fortunately, Clif and I work well together in the kitchen, and we had everything ready before Shannon, Mike, and the dogs—Holly and Samara—arrived for the afternoon.  The day was nice enough so that we could have appetizers on the patio. It was so fine that we could have the first grilled bread of the season, and Clif grilled the dough to perfection. (As I’ve written many times, Clif’s grilled bread is legendary among family and friends.)

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After appetizers, it was time for fish tacos. Mike and Shannon sat in the dining room where they could still talk to us. Clif used the big electric frying pan for the chicken, and I used the cast iron for the fish. Everything went just the way it should, and how gratifying it is when that happens. I also cooked some rice to go with the tacos.

A plate of pan-fried tilapia
A plate of pan-fried tilapia

Both the fish and the chicken were pretty darned good, as Clif put it, and we all agreed that this was a make-again meal. In fact, you might even say that Mary Jane started a tradition for us.

Thank you Mary Jane, and happy birthday Shannon!

A fish taco, ready to be eaten
A fish taco, ready to be eaten

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Alice’s Magic Trick: How to Make Delicious String Beans from Frozen Ones

Magic beans
Magic beans

I have a confession to make: I am not a fan of frozen string beans. Oh, how slimy they are and how I hate their texture. I would take a can of string beans any day over frozen ones, with fresh, of course, being the best.

However, this year in Farmer Kev’s winter CSA I got packets of frozen string beans. Lots of packets. (I completely understand why Farmer Kev would prefer to freeze the beans rather than can them. I would make the same decision if I were in his situation.) I’ve been using the string beans, diced small, in various soups, and this hides their slimy nature. In fact, the frozen beans are very good in soup.

Then not long ago, when my friend Alice was visiting, she told me what she had done with part of a packet of frozen string beans I had given her. “I stir fried them with garlic and oil until the beans were blistered and well cooked. They were delicious.”

Alice is a good cook, and I trust her judgement. Despite my aversion to frozen beans, I resolved to try her method. Not long after her visit,  I whipped out my trusty cast-iron frying pan, added some oil, heated it, then added some thawed beans. I let them sizzle for quite a while, say, five minutes or so, until they were nicely blistered and more than a little brown. I added the garlic during the last minute—I didn’t want the garlic to be as brown as the string beans.

And the results? Readers, the beans were utterly delicious. The slimy texture was gone, gone, gone to be replaced by a crisp, garlicky one. The beans were so good that I gobbled them up before I ate my potato and chicken, and I wished I had more when the beans were gone.

I see other possibilities for these stir-fried string beans. They are terrific with just the garlic, but soy sauce and sesame oil could also be added. The beans are great as a side, but cut a little smaller, and they would also be delicious in stir-fried rice, one of Clif’s favorite dishes and a staple in our house.

How nice for this old cook to learn a new trick, to take a vegetable I was not excited about and to turn it into something that I eagerly eat.

Many thanks, Alice!