THE NEW YORK TRIP

Well, Clif and I made it “there and back again,” as Bilbo Baggins might say. We love visiting with our daughter, and New York is an exciting city, but it’s oh so tiring for the two country mice from Maine. The drive in and out of Brooklyn is the biggest challenge. The route itself isn’t too bad—it’s fairly straightforward, and our daughter doesn’t live far from the highway—but the traffic is, well, a bit frantic. This makes little things like lane changing and keeping track of where to turn a huge challenge. And a stressful one. But although we had some near misses, we came back with no new dents in the car and only a few more gray hairs. 

The big event on this trip was the Brooklyn Flea Market, or the Flea, as it’s known in the city. Although it’s not too far from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where we’ve been several times, it took us a while to find the Flea, but find it we did. It’s quite the event—150 vendors in an empty lot—and it attracts a big crowd.

The Flea
The Flea

As to be expected with a flea market, there was a fair amount of what we Mainers would call “junk,” stuff like that wonderful speckled vase Aunt May gave you for Christmas thirty years ago. It was ugly then, and it is ugly now. But maybe just maybe someone will decide a speckled vase is exactly the thing they want for that retro look. You never know. And no doubt along with that speckled vase there were other more attractive items. However, as our own house has enough gewgaws to clutter the shelves, nooks, and crannies of several homes, we prudently stayed away from most of the actual flea market fare. 

There were a fair number of crafts people at the Flea, and they sold jewelry—some of it very, very tempting—T-shirts, and art. There was a vendor selling some old book illustrations, and my favorite was of humpback whales with the wonderful caption “Humpback Whales Disporting.” That one almost came home with me. 

But, of course, I was mostly interested in the food. I had, not necessarily in this order, a madeleine (Why ever did Proust make such a fuss over them?); a cannoli, tasty but not as good as the ones in the shop by Dee’s apartment; a sample of some of McClure’s garlic pickles (I bought a jar to bring to our friends Bob and Kate); a bite of Dee’s chocolate scone (too dry), and a nibble of Clif’s “Asia dog” hot dog, a wiener topped with Asian spices (one nibble was definitely enough). For me, the winner of the day was an unexpected candidate, one that I hadn’t really considered when I perused the vendors’ list.  It was a fish taco from Choncho’s Tacos. 

Fish Taco at the Flea
Fish Taco at the Flea

Fish tacos are not common in central Maine, and to this Mainer, who loves fish, they just weren’t that appealing. But as I sat resting on the stone bleachers directly behind Choncho’s Tacos, it seemed to me that it might be worth reconsidering my stance. I watched as fresh fish was dipped in batter and fried to puffy goodness in very small batches. Once out of the hot oil, those golden fish nuggets were placed in a small, soft corn tortilla shell, drizzled with a mayo and yogurt dressing, and then sprinkled with cilantro and shredded red cabbage. It wasn’t long before Clif was sent to wait in the fish taco line. While I limited myself to one, I could have easily eaten two of them, and I will never be indifferent to fish tacos again.

By the time we left the Flea, it was midafternoon, and after spending more time wandering around a very crowded Union Square, we had Thai food for dinner (good, but not great) before heading to a movie at Angelika Film Center. (The movie was Collapse, a documentary about a journalist named Michael Ruppert, who seemed slightly unhinged but nevertheless had it mostly right about peak oil, energy use, and overpopulation.) 

On Sunday, after a bagel breakfast (there’s a shop right around the corner from Dee), we reluctantly said our goodbyes, and headed back to Maine, holding our breaths as we drove on I-278 out of Brooklyn, taking care not to inadvertently zip through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel into lower Manhattan or make any number of wrong turns that would take us from our I-278 lifeline. At times it was a squeaker, but we made it, and there is no lovelier sign to a Mainer than one that reads “I-95 North.” 

We arrived at Bob and Kate’s house at midafternoon, where we had salad, spiced pork sandwiches, and a rich, dense chocolate cake that just might be the chocolate cake that dessert lovers around the world dream about but so seldom get. Was it the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had? Without further testing, it would be hard to say, but it’s certainly in the running. 

From Maine to New York to fish tacos to New Hampshire to sheer chocolate delight. All in all, quite a trip.

TO THE BIG APPLE

This weekend, Clif and I are heading to New York City to visit our eldest daughter, Dee. The primary attraction, of course, is seeing our daughter, and we would go wherever she lived, even if it meant flying, my least favorite way of traveling. (I hate being in the sky. As a Virgo, I am an earthbound creature.) But I can’t deny that New York City is an added bonus. For the food obsessed, it’s the equivalent of hitting the jackpot. Just down the street from where Dee lives, there’s a shop that sells the best cannolis I’ve ever had, with an incredibly crunchy shell stuffed with a creamy filling that hovers on the edge of liquid and solid. So good, so good! There is also a bagel shop and a Chinese takeout that has decent food, much better, in fact, than what you can get in central Maine. All these delights are in one single block in Brooklyn, and there are so many other pearls on the necklace, so to speak that I am positively giddy with anticipation. 

This time, our plan on Saturday is to visit the Brooklyn Flea Market or the Brooklyn Flea, as it is called in the city. (http://brownstoner.com/brooklynflea/)  From their website, here is a description of the Saturday Flea: “The Fort Greene Flea is outdoors at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, on Lafayette Ave. between Clermont and Vanderbilt Ave., and features 150+ vendors of vintage furniture, clothing, collectibles and antiques, as well as new jewelry, art and crafts by local artisans, plus delicious food. It is open from 10am to 5pm—rain or shine—every Saturday.” There is also another Brooklyn Flea, on Sundays, by the famed Brooklyn Bridge, but according to the website, the Flea will soon be heading indoors for the winter. 

I’ve nothing against vintage furniture, clothing, collectables, and antiques, and I readily admit to loving art and crafts by local artisans, but naturally it is the “delicious food” that is the real draw for me. In the New York Times, I’ve read all about the food at the Brooklyn Flea, and I can’t wait to sample some of the offerings from vendors such as Asia Dog, Nunu Chocolates, and Pizza Motto, to name a few. 

Dee’s birthday was last week, and we’ll also be taking her out to dinner—given that we aren’t too stuffed after eating at the Flea. She’s picked a Thai restaurant, always a good choice. I’ve heard a rumor that the restaurant she’s chosen even serves sticky rice, which is not common in Thai restaurants in Maine.

Finally, as if all this weren’t enough, on the way home we will be visiting with our friends Bob and Kate Johnson in New Hampshire, and Kate will be “cooking a pork loin roast with spices that is made to cool and slice for sandwiches with apple butter on one side; mustard on the other; a salad with a homemade dressing; and a chocolate cake …[from] Cook’s Illustrated.” 

My mouth is watering. 

I’ll be reporting on all these delights next week.

HUNTING SEASON BEGINS

In Maine, November is deer hunting season, and for that month we have to wear bright orange whenever we go for a walk, indeed whenever we go out in our own backyard. Our house is tucked into the woods, and our land abuts a rather large watershed that the town owns so that the Narrows Pond, a body of water as big as some lakes, is protected. The watershed is basically acres and acres of undeveloped woods and is home to all sorts of animals—foxes, fishers, stoats, bears, coyotes, and deer. Lots of deer. This, of course, means that we have lots of hunters in those woods in November. Often, we hear gunshots, and occasionally I see a man with a gun walking just beyond our property line. Once, I watched as a deer rushed by, and the fleeing creature was followed by gunfire so loud that I felt as though I was in a war zone. 

In all fairness I must state that not once has a bullet hit our house nor have we ever felt a bullet whiz by us. Nevertheless, I have very mixed feelings about hunting. Even though I am a fifth-generation Mainer and come from a family of hunters, I am on edge the entire month of November. I don’t like the idea of men with guns roaming the woods in back of my house. The woods are thick, visibility is limited, and it would be easy to lose track of where the houses are, especially if a hunter was seized with “deer fever.” I don’t like the sound of gunfire. Every time shots go off, my stomach jumps. I resent having to wear orange in my own backyard, a place where I should feel safe and secure. But I don’t. Not in November, and when I go out to rake leaves, not only do I wear orange but I also bring a radio with me. I have it set on a rock and roll station, and I crank up the volume, figuring that the noise will alert hunters to the fact that they are near a house. I don’t like seeing dead deer on the tops of cars. In short, there is nothing about hunting season that I like. 

And yet… I eat meat, mostly chicken, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t like steak, and I have a zeal for pork that I figure must be encoded in my Franco-American DNA. But I don’t want my meat to resemble an animal in any way—no feathers, no fur, no snouts, no feet. I want my meat clean and packaged. I can’t conceive of ever butchering an animal or tracking one down to shoot it. However, even as I write this, I know it’s not strictly true. Under the right circumstances—motivated by enough hunger—I could probably do it. Fortunately, I am not in a position where I have to kill the animals I eat, so I let others do it for me. They have a name for this sort of attitude, and it begins with H

So who has it right? The one who is willing to kill a deer and deal with hoof, fur, and blood? Or the one who is perfectly happy to eat meat as long as she isn’t reminded where it comes from?  The notion of food, which includes hunting, is fraught with such slippery questions that seem to have no clear answers. 

Someday, my husband, Clif, and I will move, not because of hunting season but because the house is too big for us take care of. However, when we do move, it will be to a village where no hunting is allowed, and I don’t have to on guard for the entire month of November. Until then, I’ll be wearing orange, and I’ll be listening to loud rock and roll on the radio. And counting the days until December comes.

A REMBERANCE RECIPE—SPICY PEANUT SOUP

In my last post, I wrote about my friend Jill and her mother’s handwritten recipe for chili eggs. (Jill had invited us over for brunch, and this was the dish she made.) Jill’s mother passed away several years ago, and Jill spoke of the connection she felt with her mother via the handwritten recipe. 

Reminiscence and connection can take many forms, but it seems to me that a handwritten recipe is an especially lovely way to remember loved ones who have died. And as we approach the Day of the Dead (or All Soul’s Day) on November 1st, this is a very appropriate time to do so. 

This started me thinking about recipes I have received from family and friends who have passed away. Because it is soup season, one of the first recipes that came to mind is one for Spicy Peanut Soup, given to me by my friend Barbara Johnson, who died four years ago at the much-too-young age of sixty-eight. 

At the time of her death, Barbara and I had been friends for about fifteen years. Simply put, we were kindred spirits. We loved  many of the same things—nature, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Jane Austen, England, tea, books, and movies. Even now, when I read or see something that I know would be interesting to her, I want to give her a call. She was a cat fancier, and I am a dog lover, but we somehow managed to reconcile this difference so that it did not affect our friendship. Seriously, though, we were such good friends that we felt completely at ease in each other’s company, so relaxed that we could just be ourselves. As an added bonus, Barbara was a terrific cook, one of the best home cooks I know. She won several cooking competitions, and I was lucky enough to be invited to her home on many occasions for lunch and dinner. 

The following recipe for Spicy Peanut Soup, which I have in Barbara’s handwriting, is at the top of my “favorite soups” list. It is easy to make; the ingredients are inexpensive; and the combination of tangy spices, sweet squash, and peanut butter give it an irresistible taste. Plus, it’s good for you. 

Bon appètit, indeed! 

Spicy Peanut Soup
Serves 4-6, depending on appetite 

4 tablespoons of butter
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 cup cooked & pureed pumpkin or squash
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne (More can be added to taste)
5 cups water or chicken stock (For a thicker soup, use less liquid, and for a thinner one, add a little more)
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup peanut butter (Crunchy is best)
Salt & pepper to taste
Sour cream and/or croutons for garnish 

Melt butter over medium heat in a soup pot. Add the onion. Cover and cook about ten minutes or until onion is translucent. Check to make sure onion does not burn. (The heat might need to be adjusted.) 

Add the water, squash, tomato paste, peanut butter, and spices. Blend to smoothness. Cover and simmer at least 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

A FULL WEEKEND (INCLUDES RECIPE FOR CHILI EGGS)

Last weekend was the kind of weekend I like best—one filled with food, family, and friends. (Yes, I know. Many of my weekends are filled this way.)  To add to the mix, there was also an environmental event on Saturday, and I am as keen about the environment as I am about food. After all, the two are inextricably twined.

On Friday, we met our friends Alice Rohman and Roger Carpentter at the Café de Bangkok in Hallowell. While the food was good, the view was even better. The restaurant sits right next to the Kennebec River, and we were lucky enough to get window seats and watch as night settled over the river. At one point, the light was dark gray, giving the narrow river a moody, even British look. Inside, we discussed books, politics, and movies, but we were very much aware of the river, just outside, and the gathering darkness.

On Saturday, our friend Diane Friese invited Clif and I to her house in Brunswick for lunch. Our daughter Shannon and her fiancé Mike were also invited. We always make this trip with a merry heart, as we know that delectable food will be waiting for us. This time was no exception. The centerpiece was a creamy squash soup, slightly sweet and pleasingly thick. (I am hoping she will give me the recipe.) After the soup came coleslaw, curried vegetables, and a simmered sweet potato and apple mixture. What else could follow this but cookies and tea, always a satisfying ending?

With full stomachs, we walked in the rain to Bowdoin College, about five minutes from Diane’s house. On campus was a 350 event, one of many around the world to be held that day to bring attention to climate change and to how many parts per million of carbon dioxide there should be in the atmosphere—350, of course. (Right now, we are at about 387 and rising.) The rain undoubtedly kept many people away, but since the event was held indoors, this was probably just as well. The room was pretty crowded, and when we formed a “human” 350 so that a picture could be taken, there wasn’t much space to move. Governor Baldacci and Representatives Chellie Pingree and Michael Michaud were there as well as quite a few veterans to offer their perspective. This gave the event a twist that I haven’t often seen at environmental gatherings. That is, climate change is also a security issue for the United States. Our reliance on fossil fuels, one of the prime causes of climate change, also makes us vulnerable to countries that don’t always have our best interests at heart. Also, the weather disruptions will cause famines and migrations, and, as one veteran put it, our military will have to be there to hand out food and water and to help keep some kind of order. I hope these veterans speak up at various events around the state and the country. Many of them have served in Iraq, and they bring real heft to the promotion of alternative energy, one that can’t be easily dismissed by the not-in-my-backyard contingency.

On Sunday morning, we went to Jill Lectka’s house for brunch. We became friends with Jill in a rather unusual way. Our eldest daughter, Dee, moved to New York City when she graduated from college. Her first job was with Macmillan Library Reference, and Jill was Dee’s boss. One day, a few years ago, Dee called and asked, “Guess where my boss Jill is moving?” Naturally, I couldn’t guess. “To Waterville, Maine.” Waterville, Maine? From New York City? Why? “She’s going to work for Thorndike Press in Waterville.” Thorndike, like Macmillan, is owned by Gale, so it made a strange kind of sense. But still. A very, very small world.  As it turned out, Jill moved to Hallowell, Maine, and she has become good friends with our family, even spending Thanksgiving with us.

On Sunday, the weather was warm enough to have drinks—mimosas—on Jill’s porch, which is nearly two stories up and gives the impression of being above the trees. A sort of bird’s eye view. Then in we went for a rich egg casserole she had made. After drinking—we moved on to coffee and tea—and eating until about 2 P. M., we felt very lazy indeed and reluctant to leave. But leave we did, heading home to the dog who had been left alone this weekend far too much for his liking.

DSC08823

Chili Eggs

(This recipe came from Jill’s mother, who passed away several years ago. The recipe was handwritten by her mother, and each time Jill makes this dish, she feels a connection—via the handwriting—to her mother.)

10 eggs
½ cup of flour
1 teaspoon of baking powder
½ teaspoon of salt
1 pint of small curd cottage cheese
1 pound of jack cheese, shredded
1 stick of butter, softened
2 four-ounce cans chopped chilies

Beat eggs until light. Combine flour with baking powder and salt. Add to eggs. Add remaining ingredients. Bake in buttered 9 x 13 pan at 350ºF for 35 minutes. Serves ten.

THE USUAL LAWS OF BACKLASH

In the Diner’s Journal blog in the New York Times, Sam Sifton came up with an apt description of the contrarian streak that lurks deep in the hearts of men and women, especially those who are obsessed with food. He wrote about the “usual backlash laws,” in reference to his three-star review of Marea, an “elegant Italianate restaurant Chris Cannon and Michael White opened this spring” in New York City. With tongue somewhat in cheek, Sifton suggested that even though readers who have eaten at Marea “hail its food and drink” and readers who haven’t “wonder what the fuss is about,” the reverse could soon be true. Thus the usual backlash laws.

Those backlash laws can strike unexpectedly, and indeed the term foodie, once used to describe those with a strapping appetite, has now, in some circles, come to have a negative, cliquish connotation, more appropriate for young teens than for adults. So it should come as no surprise that farmers’ markets and local food have also come under the crosshairs, so to speak, of the backlash movement.

Yet I was surprised. How could anyone find fault with Farmer Kev in his small stall in Winthrop, Maine, selling garlic and zinnias and cabbages and the sweetest little squash this side of the Mississippi? Or with any of the other small-time farmers in this state and across the country? These farmers work hard and long and often just barely break even, while contending with bad weather and pests that constantly threaten their crops. (This year, Farmer Kev lost all 250 of his tomato plants to blight.) How could we, the lucky public who reap the fresh, tasty benefits of this labor, have one harsh word to say about farmers’ markets?

Well, there are contrarians who are unable to make the best of anything, and James McWilliams, an historian at Texas State University, seems to be one of those people. In a recent column in the Times, McWilliams criticizes farmers’ markets, insisting they are only for the elite and are therefore not as benign as they might seem. McWilliams states, “[I]f there’s one thing you do not see at the farmers’ market, it’s socio-economic diversity…” In his opinion, the marginalized are even more marginalized because the food at farmers’ markets is too expensive for them, and the rich not only get to eat fresh, local food but also decide what kind of food is offered in a community. This, in turn, trickles down to undermine the middlemen, who benefit from the current system. Without giving any statistics, McWilliams seems to be suggesting that the big box grocery stores are laying off employees because the small-time farmers have so cut into their profits.

How to respond to this? Food justice is a subject dear to my heart, and it is my belief that all people, no exceptions made, deserve nutritious, delicious food. I could therefore write about this subject for many, many pages, and indeed I have for Wolf Moon Journal. But this is a food blog, and accordingly I will keep my comments relatively brief. Or at least try to.

First, in all fairness, it must be noted that there are, in fact, two food Americas—one for the affluent and one for the poor. Poor neighborhoods in inner cities are notorious for having food deserts, places with an abundance of fast food, convenience stores, and liquor stores, but nary a big box grocery store. Farmers’ markets hardly even come into this equation, and what residents of these food deserts long for are honest-to-God grocery stores that offer a variety of food.

Second, it must also be noted that poor people do struggle to feed their families, and they often don’t have enough money to buy good food. Processed food is frequently cheaper and goes further. In addition, much advertising money is spent promoting this food, and only those with the strongest willpower can resist the pull of advertising. Heck, I’m sometimes tempted by those chip and dip ads, and occasionally chips make their way into our house.

Now the counter arguments. How can McWilliams tell the socio-economic status of those who go to farmers’ markets? Is McWilliams so clever that he can tell just by looking at a person what his or her annual income is? Perhaps where he shops, people have stamps on their foreheads, R for the rich and P for the poor. Or maybe the clientele comes to the farmers’ markets in fur coats. I’m being facetious, of course, but I would suggest that gauging a person’s income level is tricky at best, and McWilliams should be careful when passing judgment.

Next comes the question, are farmers’ markets really only affordable to affluent customers? In my experience, the answer is sometimes. When it comes to meat, cheese, jam, and eggs, the prices are frequently higher than they would be at a big box store. (But remember, poor neighborhoods often don’t have big box stores.) However, when it comes to vegetables, the prices at farmers’ markets are usually very competitive. Consider what I bought recently at our local vegetable stand, which will soon be closing for the season. (I know. A vegetable stand is not exactly a farmers’ market, but it’s pretty close. It offers many of the same things for about the same price, albeit under one tiny roof, and the emphasis is on fresh and local.) I bought ten pounds of potatoes, four peppers, two heads of broccoli, carrots, two bunches of lettuce, and one butternut squash for the outrageous price of $14. That’s a lot of food for $14, and all of the food was local.

Finally, all of this discussion about the elitism of farmers’ markets manages to overlook an essential but “inconvenient truth.” That is, the underlying reason for much of the poverty in the United States. The simple fact of the matter is that many of the jobs in this country just don’t pay people enough money for them to easily support themselves, to buy good food. Let me put it another way. The problem isn’t with the cost of vegetables at the farmers’ market. The problem is with low-wage jobs. The man who pumps your gas, the woman who checks out your groceries, the greeter at Walmart—in short, many, many working people—don’t make a living wage. They work for $7 or $8 an hour. Some lucky clerks get $10, but that is still not enough to live comfortably, especially when you consider many of these jobs don’t provide health insurance, and affordable housing is often difficult to find.

Pay people a living wage. Provide affordable health care and housing for all. Then, this discussion about the elitism of farmers’ markets becomes completely irrelevant. But there. It’s much easier to point the finger at farmers rather than reflect on how we, as a society, exploit the labor of poor people. In the end, perhaps the contrarian view is more convenient, more comfortable. One thing is certain; it sure illustrates the dangers of backlash.

NONDAIRY “CREAMY” GINGER, CARROT SOUP

When the loons have left the Narrows Pond and the humming birds are no longer whirring among the flowers and yellow leaves cover the patio and the porch needs to be swept almost every day, my mind quite naturally turns to soup. It must be said that we are a family of soup enthusiasts, and Maine is certainly the perfect place for us to live. For nine months of the year, we can eat soup without ever breaking into a sweat. (I do wonder if we would be as keen on soup if we lived, say, in Florida. How much of what we eat is dictated by climate and locale, even in these globalized times?)

DSC08807We love all kinds of soup, from chunky meat stews to bean soups to cream soups. Because my husband, Clif, is lactose intolerant, cream soups can be problematic for him. Yes, there is Lactaid, but as a rule we don’t like to burden our digestive systems with food they have a hard time tolerating. As luck would have it, cream soups are at the top of my favorite food list (FFL), just slightly behind donuts, pie, and chocolate. So, then, how to have cream soups on a regular basis without Clif resorting to Lactaid? The answer is simple—potatoes, the tuber of Maine. (I do realize that other states grow potatoes, but as a Mainer who comes from a family of potato farmers, I tend to equate Maine with potatoes.)

In most cream soup recipes, potatoes can be added to give soups that creamy texture I love so much. Clif doesn’t have to hit the Lactaid, and I get to eat cream soups more often. And, as an added bonus, soups thickened with potatoes are not as fattening as soups made with cream.

Last weekend, we stopped at Stevenson’s vegetable stand, which will, alas, be closing next Sunday. Among other vegetables, we bought potatoes and bright orange carrots, a perfect start for ginger, carrot soup. I had garlic, onions, and ginger root at home, and with the potatoes and carrots, that’s all I would need. Along with a little salt, pepper, olive oil, and water, of course. Again, all readily available at home.

By my reckoning, this carrot soup must rank pretty close to the top of frugal meals that are not only good for you but also have you going back for seconds. Add some muffins or a salad, and no sensible person could ask for anything more. Except, perhaps, for some homemade croutons for the soup, which take about seven minutes from beginning to end.

I made the soup last night, and luckily, there is enough leftover for my lunch this afternoon. All morning, I have been thinking of the bright taste of carrots, the undertones of garlic, onion, and ginger, and the smooth texture of this soup. I wish I had doubled the recipe so I had more leftover. Well, I’ll just have to make ginger, carrot soup again sometime soon.

DSC08806

“Creamy” Carrot Soup
Serves four, if you have someone with an appetite like Clif’s. Otherwise, you might be able to get five or even six servings from this recipe.

Oil
4 cups of chopped carrots (about six large carrots). Use a food processor, if you have one.
2 potatoes, diced
4 thick slices of gingerroot, chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
I medium onion, chopped
3 cups of water
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large soup pot, heat enough oil to barely cover the bottom. Add onion and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring pretty much constantly. Add the carrots and the potatoes and cook for three minutes, stirring frequently. Add the ginger root and cook for a couple more minutes, again, stirring frequently. Add the water and cook the vegetables until they are tender, about twenty to thirty minutes. Puree the soup in either a blender or a food processor. An immersion blender works well, too. With 3 cups of water, this is a very thick soup. If you prefer a thinner soup, then simply add more water. Season with salt and pepper.

Homemade Croutons
These are so much better than crackers, and they are easy to make. Why deprive yourself?

Four slices of bread, cut in cubes
Oil

In a large fry pan, heat the oil and add the cubed bread, turning them as they brown. When they are brown and crisp all over, drain on a paper towel in a plate.

If you want more croutons, they can be oven baked (375ºF) on a cookie sheet. Use more bread, put cubes on an ungreased cookie sheet, drizzle with oil, and bake until crisp and dry, stirring every five minutes.

While hot, salt can be sprinkled on the croutons as well as herbs, dried or fresh, and/or grated Parmesan cheese. Or just use them plain. They are good anyway.

LEFTOVERS, PLUS

DSC08792Being a frugal home cook, I frequently have nights when I look into my refrigerator, survey the clutter of leftovers, and decide it’s time to see how I can use them to make a tasty meal. Usually, the leftovers consist of vegetables and cheese, sometimes meat, and sometimes condiments or sour cream. Last night it was broccoli and parsley as well as feta cheese. There was also some wine leftover from a dinner party from last weekend. In addition, I had some garlic from Farmer Kev, a little zucchini from my own garden, and a nice sweet red pepper from Stevenson’s vegetable stand, which, alas, will be closing this weekend. DSC08794With such an assemblage, my mind turned to pasta, and luckily I had a mostly full box of penne in the cupboard.  Below, is a recipe that I put together from what I had, but this is a wonderfully flexible dish that will take a variety of vegetables, leftover chicken, shrimp (who has leftover shrimp?), and herbs. I used parley because that’s what was in the refrigerator, but basil, mint, rosemary or a combination of all three would taste even better. In the summer, when I have all these things growing in pots on the patio, I often make an herbed pasta, using a cup or so of the fresh herbs. (Oh, summer where art thou?) If worse comes to worst and you didn’t have any fresh leftover herbs, then you could even use a little dried oregano or perhaps Herbes de Provence.

DSC08795

Pasta with feta and vegetables

Serves 4, depending upon age and appetite

3 tablespoons or so of olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small red pepper, chopped
1 small zucchini, cut in rounds
1 small head of broccoli, cut in small pieces and barely steamed
½ cup of white wine
1 cup of feta, crumbled
3 tablespoons of chopped parsley
7 or so ounces of pasta
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated parmigiano-reggiano, if you wish, and I always do

Assemble the garlic, red pepper, zucchini, broccoli, wine, feta, and parsley in separate little bowls and place them on the counter next to your stove. In a large pot, boil some salted water and cook the penne, about ten minutes or so. In the meantime, after the penne has cooked for several minutes, heat the olive oil in a large skillet. When the oil is hot, add the garlic, zucchini, and red pepper, stirring constantly so that the garlic doesn’t burn. After the vegetables have softened but are still crisp, you might want to add a bit of the pasta water, say, half a ladle full. It all depends on how saucy you like things. Then add the wine and let simmer a bit. By now the pasta should be done. Before draining, reserve more of the pasta water, just in case, and then add the drained pasta to the skillet. Sprinkle the feta over everything. This makes a nice little cream sauce. If you want it creamer still, use a little of the reserved pasta water. If not, season with salt and pepper and top with parsley. Serve immediately with the grated cheese. Who said leftovers can’t taste good?

THE VARIABILITY OF TASTE

Last night, I went to D. R. Struck Landscape Nursery again, this time for “A Ladies Night Out.” Nowadays, it seems, I am almost always ready for a night out, especially one that features wine tasting and samples of various dips and sauces. The event was held in Struck’s large retail store, and there were goodies galore as well as a woman giving massages and another woman playing the keyboard and singing.  

The wine tasting was set up on a counter at the back of the store, and The Lighthouse Wine and Seafood Market, just down the road in Manchester, supplied the wine. One of the owners, Bridget Palmer, was there to pour and give advice, and she was aided by Corinna Rodrigue. There were six wines to taste—three whites, one red, and two dessert wines. 

Allow me a slight digression. I am currently reading a book called Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, which my friend Roger Carpentter encouraged me to read, and he even let me borrow his copy. The book is about how various nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists, using creativity and intuition, have arrived at various truths about the brain, which have later been verified by scientists. As luck would have it, the wine tasting at Struck’s coincided with the chapter I was reading about Auguste Escoffier, the great French chef who wrote Guide Culinaire and discovered that we have a fifth taste, which has become known as umami. I’ll save the subject of umami for another posting because what is relevant to this piece are Lehrer’s observations about taste in general, especially when it comes to wine. It seems that with humans, there is great variability with taste and smell. What tastes good to one person does not necessarily taste as good to another person. Lehrer writes, “Science has long known that our sensitivity to certain smells and tastes varies as much as 1,000 percent between individuals. On a cellular level, this is because the human olfactory cortex, the part of the brain that interprets information from the tongue and nose, is extremely plastic, free to arrange itself around the content of our individual experiences. Long after our other senses have settled down, our sense of taste and smell remain in total neural flux.” 

The wine tasting gave firm proof of the variability of taste. Judy, a neighbor of mine, was also there, and we sampled wines together. Now, there were only three whites to choose from, but we each preferred a different one. She went with Gazela Vinho Verde, a wine that was sweet to her but slightly bitter to me. My choice was Austrian Pepper, which I thought had a smooth, fresh taste and none of the astringency of the Gazelo Vinho Verde. Judy’s response? It wasn’t sweet enough. 

More inconsistencies. As a rule, I am not very fond of sweet wines, but I have a weakness for dessert wines. Go figure. And while one of the dessert wines (B. Nektar Pyment) at the tasting remind me of cough syrup, I went gaga over Chocovine—yes, a chocolate wine. From Holland. It was so smooth, so good. A little like Bailey’s Irish Cream, and if someone offered me a glass right now, I wouldn’t refuse. 

Being weak when it comes to food and wine, I ordered a bottle of the Austrian Pepper and, of course, one of the Chocovine. After all, the holidays are coming, and ’tis the season of good cheer. 

Two more observations. First, my daughter Shannon came to the wine tasting, and her taste exactly matched mine. According to Jonah Lehrer, this is no surprise, as what we have grown up eating and drinking influences what we like. But those who like Ring Dings and Gallo wine can take heart. Taste is not fixed, and if we change what we eat and drink, our appreciation of what is good will also change. And second, the white wine that most of the women liked was neither the Gazela nor the Austrian Pepper. Instead, it was Working Girl White, a wine with an admittedly snappy name but for me, at least, with a taste that was too bitter. Obviously, other women didn’t agree. But I wonder, could the name have also influenced the choice? Lehrer states that labels do indeed matter, even with wine experts who should know better, and he cites an experiment where identical wine was served in two different glasses. Wine experts were told one glass was an expensive wine, and the other was a cheaper one. Guess which wine was chosen as the best wine? Hint: It wasn’t the so-called cheap wine.

All in all, last night’s wine tasting was as illuminating as it was fun, and best of all, I have two bottles of wine to look forward to drinking. With some help, of course.  There is a limit to how much good cheer I want at one time.

OF TIME AND COOKING

This morning, I heard the New York Times columnist Gail Collins on National Public Radio, where she was promoting her new book, When Everything Changed. The subtitle is The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, and this will give readers a pretty good idea about the subject of the book. On NPR, Collins spoke about how after World War II, a family was able to live a comfortable middle-class life on one income, a life that included a house, a car, vacations, and college for the children. This changed in the 1970s, when the economy could no longer support a middle-class lifestyle with only one salary. Women, in great numbers, began to work outside the home so that their families could continue to live the good life. (Of course, it must be noted that many women were itching to get out of the house, and for these women this was a golden opportunity.) 

Most women today expect that they will have careers as well as a family, and by and large this is a good thing. The days of the bored, trapped housewife, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, are over, and good riddance, too. Being trapped is never a good thing. Unfortunately, as Collins noted, our American society has not kept pace with the changes. From maternity and paternity leave to childcare to vacation time, the United States is far more parsimonious than most industrial countries. And what are the results? Well, women are no longer bored. Instead, they are stressed because what they now lack is time to be with their families, take care of the house, and, yes, cook. (Some headway has been made with getting men to pitch in and do their fair share around the house, but more progress could certainly be made on that front.) Fast food—from McDonalds to frozen pizza—is a temptation that most busy families succumb to at least some of the time. 

Recently, Michael Pollan wrote a piece about how America loves to watch cooking shows, but when it comes to actually cooking, not so much. Naturally, he disapproved. For a dissenting view, Matthew Yglesias, on the blog Think Progress, suggests that we have better things to do with our precious time than cook, activities such as “read a blog, download an MP3, get a movie from Netflix on Demand.” He’s tired of all the foodies and celebrity chefs hectoring the general public about the evils of fast food and the glories of cooking, which he seems to feel are overrated. 

So back and forth we go, ricocheting between cooking shows and really cooking; fast food and home cooked meals; watching a movie after work or cooking dinner. And amidst the ricocheting, two things are true: we Americans have too many demands on our time, and we have lots of media distraction. 

Yet despite the lack of time and the distractions, it seems to me that many people are cooking and are even enjoying it. Maybe these home cooks are more Mark Bittman than Julia Child, but some people, at least, are taking the time to prepare simple, nutritious, delicious meals. Are they are a majority or a minority? I really couldn’t say, but they certainly are a presence on blogs on the Internet, and in Maine, anyway, interest in cooking and food has probably never been greater. 

I’d like to end on an upbeat note. Now, I realize that my family probably has a greater interest in cooking and food than many families do, but here is how my daughter Shannon and I chose to spend Columbus Day, a day off for both of us—we made an apple pie together. We could have done any number of things with our time. We could have gone out to lunch. We could have gone to a movie. We could have gone shopping. These are all fun things to do, and I don’t look down on any of these activities. Instead, we chatted as we peeled apples and made a piecrust. As the pie baked, the kitchen was filled with the sweet smell of apples and cinnamon. When the pie was done, we made tea and had warm pie with ice cream. My husband, Clif, who had been working on outside projects, came in and joined us. 

Did we think this was a good use of our time? We certainly did. And the pie was pretty good, too.

A blog about nature, home, community, books, writing, the environment, food, and rural life.