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.
Every day, it seems, is national something or other day, but June 5 just happens to be National Donut Day. I am a donut lover from way, way back, when I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts during those halcyon times when each store had honest-to-God bakers who made donuts fresh every six hours. I ate more donuts than I care to admit, but because I was biking to work—ten miles round trip—I was fit and lean.
In 2008, I wrote a longish essay called “Desperate for Donuts.” In honor of National Donut Day, here are some excerpts, slightly edited, from that piece:
The Good and the Bad
Ironically, they are the perfect shape—a circle, round like a mandala, the symbol of eternity—and this should make them the perfect food. But fried in oil, perhaps drenched in glaze, covered with sugar, frosted, or even plain, they are not good for you. Not even a little bit.
Then there is their status. Jill Lightner, a West Coast writer, has called them the “dumb blonde of the pastry world. ” Patric Kuh, another West Coast writer, described them as a “street thug…strutting past Madeleine and Éclair.” There are also all the donut/cop jokes that have become so ubiquitous they are now clichés.
But…there is something about fried dough that transcends its lowly status, that crosses class lines, that worms its way into people’s appetites, even though they might not like to admit it. Simply put, fried dough is delicious, and donuts are the epitome of fried dough. There is nothing more sublime, say, than a raised donut, newly fried, dipped in glaze, and eaten just as soon as that glaze has dried.
A Brief History of Donuts
“When it comes to donuts New England is a place apart.” —John T. Edge, Donuts, An American Passion
New England can reasonably claim to be the epicenter of the American donut world, and its donut tradition stretches all the way back to the Pilgrims, who, after staying in Holland, brought fried dough, which the Dutch called olykoeks (oily cakes), to the New World. These ur-donuts had no holes, were yeasted, and had raisins, apples, and almonds in them. John T. Edge…has described them as “deep fried fruitcake.” A daunting thought, but I would certainly give them a try if the opportunity presented itself. Naturally, as the Dutch settled New York, they brought their olykoeks to this region as well, and fried dough had a firm foothold in what would become the thirteen colonies.
According to legend, Sea Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory, from Rockport, Maine, invented the hole in the donut sometime in the mid-1800s. Out at sea, with a holeless, olykoek-type donut in one hand and the ship’s wheel in the other, he supposedly stuck the donut on the spoke of the wheel, thus inventing the donut hole. Is this true? Only Captain Gregory knew for sure, but he somehow managed to convince the Boston Post his story was true and was duly accorded fame for his “invention.”
From there, donuts, complete with holes, went international, and they did so in a most unusual way—they went to France during World War I with the Salvation Army. Here again, we have the stuff of legend. In 1917, four Lassies (as the women in the Salvation Army were called) traveled to the camp of the 1st Ammunition Train in France. The soldiers wanted pie, but there were no bake ovens for the Lassies to use. However, they did have a kettle, oil, and the ingredients for donuts. From that first day, when two of the Lassies fried 150 donuts, word spread, and other Lassies soon began making donuts for the troops. Eventually, Lassies, often only two of them, would go on to make as many as 2,500 in one day for the grateful soldiers. Hence, the term “doughboy” was born. You might die miserably in the trench or be poisoned by mustard gas, but at least there were donuts to be had before the horrors of battle. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
A Donut Tour
“We devalue the things that give us pleasure.” —John T. Edge
I have a dream, a fantasy of sorts, that John T. Edge, a food writer who hails from the South, would come as far north as central Maine and that we would go on a donut tour together. We would start in Augusta, at Bolley’s Famous Franks, early in the morning when their donuts…are still warm. Taking time to savor Bolley’s tender, old-fashioned cinnamon donuts, we would then hurry to Frosty’s in Gardiner…marveling at the oh-so-fresh honey-dipped donuts.
From there it would be off to Willow Bake Shoppe in Rockport, whose cake donuts are impossibly tender and whose chocolate donuts are satisfyingly rich. I would perhaps introduce “wicked good” into Edge’s vocabulary. After all these donuts we would need a bit of a break, and Camden, on a sparkling day, would be the perfect place to rest. Finding a bench in the park overlooking the shimmering harbor, we would discuss the various donuts we had eaten, and I expect Edge would want to compare them to donuts he has eaten in other parts of the country. But in the end, Edge would return to a line from his own Donuts: An American Passion. That is, when it comes to donuts, New England is a place apart.
Despite the scourge of blackflies, this is the time of year when I can hardly stand to stay inside to do household chores. I want to be outside, where even hanging the laundry is a pleasure. I force myself to dust, vacuum, and clean the bathrooms, all the while looking outside at the deep blue sky and the tender yet exuberant burst of green that surrounds the little house in the big woods.
My gardens come into their own in June and July, and right now there is not much in bloom. But never mind! There’s more than enough going on with the trees and the yard to keep this amateur photographer happy.
And because we live on the edge of the big woods, there are spring wild flowers to admire.
Even the dandelions. I like their sunny heads, and when it comes to the lawn, my philosophy is that if it’s green, then it’s good. No herbicides allowed in our yard! However, should dandelions stray into the flower beds, I must admit that I dig them out.
Then there are the ferns. I admire their green grace, and I have encouraged them to take root all around our house. Ferns do well in deep shade, which this yard has in abundance.
With so much time spent outside, taking pictures and working in the yard. there hasn’t been much time for cooking, and our meals have been very, very simple—baked, breaded chicken, wraps, scrambled eggs and toast. Last night I soaked some black beans, and I cooked them this morning. Tonight we’ll have black bean burgers—from a Mark Bittman recipe—with oven fries.
I’ll make the burgers this afternoon and put them in the refrigerator to chill. Then, after a satisfying day of taking pictures and yard work and household chores, I’ll have those burgers ready to pan fry.
Over 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?
On 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.
About 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.
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