MAPLE SYRUP ALERT: A POTENTIAL WARNING TO US ALL

Yesterday, the temperature reached 50º F in central Maine, and it has been sunny and warm for well over a week. The snow banks are nearly gone, and the sides of the road are so dry that my dog, Liam, hardly has any mud on his feet when we come in from our afternoon walks. I wish I could say the same thing about our backyard, which is fenced-in for the dog. Right now, most of the snow has melted, and the yard is a muddy mess, especially the paths that Liam has carved with his flying paws as he races around the perimeter of the patio. I’ve lived in Maine for over fifty-two years, and I have never seen a March like this. Usually, it is quite cold, and the snow doesn’t even think about melting until the end of the month. My daughter Shannon’s birthday is the end of April, and one of her ongoing birthday wishes is that all the snow will be gone by then, and a green flush will have crept over the lawns. Well, this year I expect she will definitely get her wish. At the rate things are going, the snow will be gone by the middle of March, which means we are over a month ahead of where we should be.  

So what’s to complain about? Who wouldn’t like warm, sunny days in March after the cold of January and February? And, the truth is, I do like the warmer weather.  Afternoon walks are a pleasure, and my thoughts have turned to gardening and yard work, which I truly enjoy. (Even raking, sweeping the driveway, and clipping brush. I just love being outside.) 

But there is a downside to all this, and it concerns maple syrup. In a previous post—Maple Sugaring Time—I wrote about how in Maine March is the month for tapping trees and making syrup, a sweet, sweet sign of spring and eagerly anticipated. As soon as the tubing and the buckets make their appearance in the woods, I’m ready for a maple syrup breakfast at Jillson’s Farm and Sugarhouse, and we plan to go this Saturday. 

However, the warm weather had me worried. For the sap to run, the days need to be warm, but not as warm as they have been, and the nights need to be cold, much colder than they have been. This morning, I called Jillson’s to find out if there would be a maple syrup breakfast this weekend. Yes, there would be. How about the sugarhouse? Would it be fired up, making glorious syrup from sap? Well, maybe not. “It might be a short season this year,” the man on the phone told me. “Very short. If the weather cooperates, we’ll make syrup. If not, then we won’t. We can’t.”

That’s how it goes. Last year’s sap season was short, and this year’s might be even shorter. It all depends on the weather. We all depend upon the weather, and when it changes—as it is certainly doing, despite what skeptics might say—we gain things, and we lose things. In Maine, over the years since my childhood, we have gained shorter winters, ticks, Japanese beetles, cardinals, and turkeys. We seem to be losing our maple syrup season, and according to National Geographic, sugar maples, along with other trees, have begun migrating north, entlike, at “an average clip of sixty-two miles a century.” With their flying helicopter seeds, maple trees are especially well suited for migrating, and in the National Geographic piece, there is speculation that these trees are migrating even faster than the aforementioned sixty-two miles a century. So in time, we might lose our sugar maples altogether, and that will be the end of maple syrup in central and southern Maine. (Northern Maine, perhaps, will be able to hold onto their trees. It all depends on how warm things get.) 

All I can say is, we humans had better start wising up.

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NOT SO WONDERFUL WHOOPIE PIES

Weather wise, the past few days have been very odd. In fact, the whole darned winter has been a strange one. Parts of the eastern seaboard have been pelted by one storm after another, and surely New York and Washington, D.C., have received more snow than they ever thought they would get. Meanwhile, the weather in central Maine has been relatively balmy with not much snow. Even around our little house in the big woods, there are bare patches of ground that grow larger every day. Today is March 1st, yet in some ways it has felt as though most of February was, in fact, March, that intermediate month of gray weather, mud, and gloom, when it’s not quite winter but not quite spring, either. While we are not sorry to be spared the massive snowstorms, most central Mainers are not exactly excited about the prospect of having two Marches. To our way of thinking, April is certainly not the cruelest month in Maine. That honor belongs to March.

To go right along with the weird weather we’ve been having, a tempest blew in last Thursday. While New York City, where our eldest daughter, Dee, lives, was again bombarded with snow, Maine got rain—and plenty of it—along with strong winds. It rained and rained until basements filled with water, rivers flooded, and in one town—Rockland—a roof blew off a house and blocked the main street. On our road, a huge tree came down, taking power lines with it, and we were without power for twelve hours. We felt very sorry for ourselves until we heard from our friend Bob Johnson in New Hampshire, who had been without power for two days.

On the Friday after the storm, I took our dog, Liam, for a walk. It was a sunny day and fairly warm. Water raced down the ditches—in February!—and it ran so clear that underneath the leaves and the sand were in sharp detail. Birds sang their spring songs, and the remaining snow banks, so little and dirty, had a discouraged look, as though they knew their time was soon coming to an end.

To cheer the family up, I decided to make whoopie pies, those round, little chocolate cakes filled with cream. Moist, chewy, yet made to be held in the hand as they are eaten, whoopie pies are big in Maine, and the whole family is very keen on them. Not far from where we live, there is a company—Isamax Snacks—that makes such good whoopie pies for such a reasonable price that I haven’t made them in years. Many years. In truth, since I was a teenager. Our local grocery store carries them, and whenever we are in a whoopie-pie mood, usually once a week, I just buy them.

But, as someone who likes to cook from scratch, I thought I should give whoopie pies a shot, and the weekend after the tempest—when February had felt like March, and March was still ahead us—seemed like the perfect time to tackle the project. Our daughter Shannon and her fiancé Mike came over, and the whoopie pie making commenced. I used a recipe from The Tightwad Gazette II, and we were all eagerly anticipating an afternoon of whoopie-pie indulgence.

Maybe it was the tempest. Maybe it was the weird February we just had. Maybe it was the recipe or the baking soda I used. Who knows what really happened? But let’s just say my whoopie pies won’t be competing anytime soon with the ones from Isamax Snacks. Flat and disappointing, my whoopie pies looked more like a chocolate cookie than those puffy little half-circles held together with cream that we all love so much. Mine were edible, but that’s about the best that could be said about them.

Three flat whoopies

Now I have to decide how much effort I want to put into learning how to make a good whoopie pie. On the one hand, when a cook fails at making something, the best thing to do is to keep trying until he or she succeeds. Julia Child writes about how she poached so many eggs before she got the results she wanted that she and her husband Paul couldn’t bear to eat any more eggs, and they had to be flushed down the toilet. On the other hand, even though we love whoopie pies, they are a treat that should be an occasional indulgence—once a week at the most. Do I really want to make them over and over until I get them right? Unlike Julie Child, I can’t bear to throw out food that is edible but not perfect. Should Clif and I really be eating so many whoopie pies? And, finally, we have such good local whoopie pies, courtesy of Isamax Snacks, that we never have to go without.

I don’t know what I’m going to do. But this morning, I was looking at whoopie pie recipes on the Internet. While I don’t want to make any firm commitments, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to predict that I will be trying to make whoopie pies sometime in the near future.

MAPLE SUGARING TIME: A SWEET SIGN OF SPRING

“Life is sweet when you’re addicted to the sap.”
—Craig McInnis, the Ottawa Citizen

A few days ago when my dog, Liam, and I were out for an afternoon walk, I noticed something in the woods that made me positively dizzy with excitement—a maze of long blue tubing stretched from tree to tree. No, we don’t have an entrepreneur making moonshine in central Maine. The blue tubing I saw can only mean one thing—the sap has started to run in the maple trees, and from sap comes maple syrup, “golden delight.” As far as I’m concerned, the South can keep its whiskey. Without even a moment’s hesitation, I’d take maple syrup over whiskey. Anytime.

Most Mainers are crazy about real maple syrup, and even though I am a frugal cook, maple syrup is one area where I don’t economize. I just can’t make do with the imitation stuff. No Mrs. Butterworth’s in our house, thank you very much. According to MELiving.com, “In Québec, cheap imitation maple syrup is called ‘sirop de poteau’ or ‘pole syrup,’ suggesting that it was made by tapping telephone poles.” My sentiments exactly.

In southern and central Maine, the sugaring season begins in late February or early March, when the days are warm and the nights are cold. This means that there’s a very small window of opportunity for collecting the sap, which is then boiled down to make syrup. (Depending on sugar content, it takes roughly forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.) Pat Jillson, of Jillson’s Farm and Sugarhouse in Sabattus, Maine, told me that sometimes, if the weather cooperates, they can get six weeks of good sap weather. Last year, the season was short. It started the beginning of March, and it was done by the beginning of April.

Who knows how long the season will be this year? But I am ready, poised on the brink of this sweet season. I don’t tap trees, but Jillson’s Farm and Sugarhouse is not far from where I live, and during the month of March, they feature maple breakfasts. My husband, Clif, and I will be there at least once. We might go back a second time. We’ll buy maple syrup. Will we give in to the temptation of maple-cream donuts? I expect we will. Ditto for maple-flavored kettle corn. We’ll tour the sugarhouse, where we can watch the alchemy of sap being turned to syrup.

My mouth is already watering. Stay tuned.

DINNER WITH FRIENDS: BOB AND KATE JOHNSON

Bread and WineOn Saturday we were invited to have dinner with our friends Bob and Kate Johnson. They live in New Hampshire—the banana belt to those of who live in central Maine. Indeed, there was a striking difference in the amount of snow around our two homes—nearly bare in New Hampshire and about three feet or so around our little house in the big woods in Maine.

Both Bob and Kate are terrific cooks, and an invitation from them means two hours of anticipation as we drive to their house. There were four of us—me, my husband Clif, our daughter Shannon, and her fiancé Mike—and by the time we reached New Hampshire, we had worked up good appetites. To be truthful, almost embarrassingly good appetites.

This meal was Kate’s creation, and for appetizers it included homemade French bread, two homemade salsas, Brie, and blue corn chips. Almost a meal right there. But next came macaroni and cheese, pickled carrots and onions, and flank steaks. Then of course dessert, apple crisp, which I brought. The icing on the cake, so to speak, was the conversation that went with the meal, and the topics ranged from books to movies to politics.

We did show some restraint. We didn’t completely devour everything. (I’m not ashamed to admit I considered eating the last of the steak.)  But let’s just say we made a good dent in the food Kate served, and, if I’m not mistaken, I think we pretty much polished off two loaves of French bread. (My, they were good. Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, and a beautiful, perfect shape.)

Kate graciously allowed Clif to photograph the food and the process, and the photos below will give readers some idea of what a wonderful meal we had. Truly, it was worthy of a “bon appétit” as well as “merci beaucoup.”
Thank you, Bob and Kate!

Bread and Salsa

All gone

Pan frying flank steak
Cutting Flank Steak
Serving

OUT THE WINDOW

Comfort FoodEvery since I started this blog, in August 2009, I have been extolling the virtues of cooking from scratch. Homemade food tastes better, is more economical, and is better for your health. (See my previous post “A Christmas Miracle” ) As Michael Pollan puts it in his new book Food Rules, “Cooking for yourself is the only sure way to take back control of your diet from food scientists and food processors.” And, as an added environmental bonus, cooking from scratch usually means less packaging and therefore less trash.

In general I practice what I preach, and my husband, Clif, and I make most of what we eat. Except for pasta and crackers, there is very little commercially processed food in our cupboards.

However, two weeks ago, I caught a rather nasty bug, and I have been more or less out of commission ever since. I call the bug a bad cold. Clif calls it the flu. Whatever it was, I spent way too much time on the couch, watched too many British Sitcoms, and have had too many coughing fits. During this time, cooking from scratch went out the window, and here is what I wanted to eat and drink: ginger ale; Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, with rice added; sherbet; canned peaches; and saltine crackers. Comfort food of my youth. When sickness strikes, how easy it is to regress.

COOKING WITH MARK BITTMAN UPDATE: MIKE’S BIRTHDAY AND SUPER BOWL SUNDAY

This Christmas, the one present my daughter Shannon really wanted was How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. (For more about this, read “Shannon’s Plan: Cooking with Mark Bittman.”) I am happy to report that this is one cookbook that’s not languishing on the bookshelf, and Shannon has already begun tackling this cooking tome. (What else can you call a cookbook that has 960 pages?)

She’s had some failures. The breading on the fried chicken was too doughy (she thinks perhaps the frying oil wasn’t hot enough) and a lentil soup with homemade broth was “inedible.” (She’s not exactly sure what the problem was with the soup.)

But there have been successes—notably chicken wings, with two different sauces—mustard-honey and a spicy one; garlic roasted chickpeas and pistachios, and tortilla chips made from corn tortillas. Shannon made all these things on Super Bowl Sunday, which also turned out to be the day we celebrated her fiancé Mike’s twenty-seventh birthday.

“Eat up,” she said, as she put the food on the table. We didn’t have to be urged twice. We are, after all, good eaters. By the time we were done, there were only a scattering of chicken wings left, a handful of chickpeas and pistachios, and a few chips. Some thoughts about the chips: Mark Bittman recommends frying them in lard, and Shannon followed his suggestion. They were utterly delicious—far better than packaged chips. The chips can be fried in vegetable oil, and I’ll be soon trying them this way. But let’s be honest. Lard gives fried food that certain something that vegetable oil just doesn’t have. I’m not suggesting that cooks should switch from vegetable oil to lard, but it would be dishonest of me to pretend that lard doesn’t taste better.

The roasted chickpeas and pistachios were my favorite. Shannon made this for the first time at Christmas, and at odd hungry moments, I daydream about them. A very simple combination—chickpeas and pistachio tossed with chopped garlic and oil—but I find them irresistible. They don’t keep well, but who wants to keep them anyway? In a week or so, my friend Diane will be coming over for dinner, and I plan to make these as an appetizer.

But back to Super Bowl Sunday. We ate until most of the food was gone. Mike opened his presents. There was an ice cream cake. Then we settled in to watch the Super Bowl. I know almost nothing about football, and Mike had to explain what was going on. Nevertheless, I found myself rooting for the Saints. (I most always tend to go for the underdogs.)

And, by gosh, the Saints won. Go, Saints, go! And go New Orleans!

FRUGALITY IN TWO ACTS: PART TWO

Well, this piece was supposed to be posted on Saturday, January 23rd, and here it is Tuesday, January 26th. Every year I think that after December, things will slow down. They do, of course, but January is still pretty busy. However, this is a story definitely worth sharing, even if it is a little late.

Last week, the heating element in my oven broke, and I mean this literally—it was in two pieces. I discovered this when I was about to bake some shells with a cheese sauce. Upon finding the broken heating element, I immediately changed my plan, and into the microwave went the shells and cheese. A good save, but the shells would have tasted better had they been baked. 

It is never a good thing for a home cook to be without an oven, especially when that cook makes the family’s bread. Therefore, the following morning, I did not procrastinate. I called Dave’s Appliance, a small in-town shop where we have bought all our appliances.  And why not? They are local, their prices are competitive with the big box stores, and they make house calls not only to deliver new appliances but also to fix broken ones. 

So I called Dave’s, and the man who answered listened as I explained what had happened. When I asked if someone could come fix the stove, he said, “You know, those heating elements are easy to replace. If you do it yourself, then you’ll save yourself $90.” He had a record of the stove we bought, way back in 1991, and he had heating elements in stock for that stove. 

Unfortunately, I am about as handy as our dog, Liam. But luckily, my husband, Clif, is pretty handy. So I said, “I’ll be in to pick up an element.” 

On Friday, a day Clif works at home, I made my great circle run of errands, which included the Transfer Station, where I found two books in the book box; the bottle redemption center, where I asked after the owner’s three dogs—Tex, Babs, and Cody, who were all napping in his car; and finally Dave’s Appliance. 

On the way to the parts department, I saw some pretty impressive gas stoves with some pretty impressive prices. My favorite was a white enameled gas stove designed to look like an old-fashioned wood cookstove. A complete conceit, but if I had the money and the space, that’s the one I’d get when our Whirlpool finally goes to stove heaven. 

I sadly left that white enameled beauty and bought a new heating element for $40. The man in the parts department gave me careful and involved instructions to give to Clif so that he wouldn’t zing himself when installing the element. “One man zapped himself good trying to install one of these heating elements. It won’t kill you, but it will give you a nasty jolt. If that man had just followed my instructions and had flipped the right switch at the fuse box, using the oven light as a test, then it wouldn’t have happened. But he didn’t flip the right switch. Then, he was so afraid that something was wrong that he insisted on paying $500 for a new stove. $500 when he could have spent $40. We tried to talk him out of it. The old stove was perfectly good. But he insisted on getting a new one.” The man, a little younger than I am, shook his head over the foolishness of spending $500 when all it took was $40 and some care with the fuse box. 

I didn’t take notes, but I listened attentively and passed on the instructions to Clif, which he diligently followed and more or less already knew. He didn’t get zapped, and I am now in the baking business again. The new heating element has only been in my oven for two days, and it’s already baked a batch of biscuits, some gingerbread, and a loaf of bread. They all turned out exactly the way they should. 

I’ve always been very satisfied with Dave’s Appliance and their service. Now, I am even more impressed. They could have easily made a house call and charged me the extra $90. I wouldn’t have complained. Not at all. But frugality runs deep in central Maine, and an honest business will never try to charge you more than is necessary. Not all central Maine businesses are like this—we’ve been stung a few times—but quite a few of them are, and when we find a place like Dave’s, we become loyal customers. 

Frugality, honesty, and loyalty might sound corny to the point of being New England clichés, but here they are in central Maine, at Dave’s Appliance, in the twenty-first century. Maybe we aren’t going to hell in a handbasket after all.

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