AU REVOIR, SUMMER

In Maine, Labor Day—the advent of September and fall—is a bittersweet event. On the one hand, there is no lovelier time of year than autumn. First there is the weather—warm, dry, and sunny, with deep blue skies. This is followed by October and explosions of color as the trees go from being cool green to eye-popping red, orange, and yellow. Yet Mainers know all too well what comes after all this beauty. Many months—five, to be exact—of freezing rain, snow, slippery roads, and aching cold. Yes, winter has its frosty beauty, but the older one gets, the less impressive this beauty is.

Therefore, I’ve come to regard Labor Day weekend as a gateway to fall and to all things colder. What better way to celebrate (or prepare) than with a weekend of food, friends and family? And that’s just what we did this year.

On Saturday, my husband, Clif, our daughter Shannon, her fiancé, Mike, and I went to the Windsor Fair, a small honky-tonk event complete with rides, games, livestock, and horse races. We, however, went mostly for the food, glorious deep-fried grub, as the writer Lesley Blanch might have put it. Clif and I started with fried dough, moved on to hand-cut French fries, followed with funnel cake (fried dough’s competitive cousin), and ended with crisp, fried, sweet whole clams (no strips for us!) and more hand-cut French fries. In between the French fries and the funnel cake, I cleansed my palate with a candy apple, which was surprisingly tart and fresh. Clif had a sausage digression, an extremely smelly one, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Shannon and Mike had falafel and a chicken gyro. (My, how fairs have changed since I was young. There was even a stand that sold Thai food.) Since Clif and I don’t go on rides anymore, I had supposed we’d only be at the fair for a few hours, but I had seriously underestimated how long it would take us to eat our way around the midway. We got there around 11:30 in the morning, and we didn’t leave until 4:30 or so. Warmed by the sun, propelled by the crowds and the noise of the rides, we had what can only be described as a grand eating day.

Sunday was a more genteel eating day, although one might argue that the quantity of food still tipped the scales in an excessive direction. We had friends over for a barbecue on our patio, an event that started at 2:00 P.M. and ended at 7:00 P.M., with steady eating pretty much the whole time. We began with an assortment of cheeses—Vermont cheddar, a spicy chive Cotswold, a mango Stilton, and a smooth local goat cheese—with crackers and nuts. Next came Clif’s specialty, grilled bread, which he has learned how to toss like a real pro. Could we serve the grilled bread by itself? We could not, and I had prepared a platter of grapes and local cantaloupe to go with it. Then came the main event—grilled chicken with a lemon-mustard glaze, potato salad, and green beans (from Farmer Kev’s stand) with browned butter and roasted almonds. As we finished the third course, it seemed that my friend Beth Clark had read my mind. She said simply, “Food, friends, and family.” To which I responded, “What else is there?” For dessert we had Beth’s delectable blueberry cake, from a Marge Standish recipe, along with ginger snaps Beth had bought at her local farmer’s market.

On Sunday, we had to have a follow-up, more modest perhaps, but very tasty, mostly because of the freshness of the food. Shannon and Mike came over for what might very well be the last barbecue of the season. This time we had teriyaki chicken, corn on the cob from a local stand, some of Farmer Kev’s small, red potatoes, roasted with garlic, and homemade bread not long out of my oven. As the crickets sang and the sun went down, we all raised our glasses to summer. Farewell, until next year. We will certainly miss you.

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FARMER KEV, HIMSELF

Farmer Kev signLast weekend, when I went to the Winthrop farmers’ market and spoke with Tim Leavitt, farmer Kev’s father, I learned that Farmer Kev would be at his stand on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. (Farmer Kev is a student at the University of Maine at Orono.) As it turned out, that Saturday was beautiful and sunny, and I brought my husband, Clif, along to take some pictures of Farmer Kev, his stand, and his vegetables. We bought more green beans as well as zucchini and garlic. Garden on, Farmer Kev!

Farmer Kev
Farmer Kev
Beets and Carrots
Beets and Carrots
Eggplant
Eggplant

LEFTOVER BEANS FROM FARMER KEV

Last weekend, I bought two pounds of green beans from Farmer Kev’s stand at the farmers’ market in town. Right from the start, I had planned to cook them all that night, eat some for dinner, and then have some leftovers for a concoction I call Green Beans with Sour Cream Sauce. It is one of my husband’s favorite dishes, and I have to admit that I think it’s pretty good, too. Here is what I do, more or less, depending on how many beans I have. In this case, I had a scant two pounds of cooked beans, but three pounds would work as well. It all depends on how saucy you want the beans to be.

In a small bowl, combine 4 tablespoons of flour, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt, and a few rounds of pepper from your pepper mill. You will also need, in separate measuring cups, one cup of milk, one cup of sour cream (plain yogurt is also delicious), and one cup of grated cheddar cheese, very sharp. In a skillet, on low heat, cook slightly a bit of minced onion, say, a teaspoon or so, in 4 tablespoons of melted butter. (How much onion you use is up to you, but I would recommend using only a small amount. Onions can have a bullying flavor, and you don’t want to mask either the delicate taste of the beans or the smooth, rich sauce.) Into the butter whisk the flour, sugar, salt, and pepper mixture. Add the milk all at once and cook until thick and bubbly. Remove from heat. Stir in sour cream. Add cooked beans. Spread 1/3 of the mixture in a two-quart casserole. Sprinkle half of the cheddar cheese over beans. Repeat, ending with beans. Top with some kind of melted butter/crumb combination. Crushed crackers and butter are good; so are breadcrumbs and butter. Bake at 400º for 25 minutes or until the edges begin to bubble.

Observant cooks will note the similarity between Green Beans with Sour Cream Sauce and the upstart green bean casserole that is so often served at family events, especially Thanksgiving. I won’t deny the relationship, but I do want to point out that cream of mushroom soup is a very poor relation of a good sour cream sauce, and as for those canned onion rings, well, the less said about them the better.

FARMER KEV

In Winthrop, Maine, where I live, Tuesday and Saturday are the days for the small farmers’ market held in the center of town. Because my husband and I only have one car, and I usually don’t have use of it on Tuesday, Saturday is my “go to market day.” Last Saturday was a rainy one—tropical depression Dan was wending its way up the coast—and there was only one vendor—Farmer Kev or, to be more precise, Farmer Kev’s father, Tim Leavitt. Farmer Kev was not there for a very good reason—classes have begun at the University of Maine at Orono, where he is a first-year student. Farmer Kev is eighteen years old, and this is his second year at the farmers’ market.

I am acquainted with Tim Leavitt, and we chatted a bit before I bought some vegetables. Tim described how Farmer Kev, or Kevin as he is more commonly known, showed an early interest in gardening. When he was twelve or so, he converted an old sandbox into a small vegetable bed and grew some food for the family. But a true gardener is never satisfied with one small bed, and Kevin expanded into the family’s backyard. Soon, this also wasn’t enough, and on the outskirts of town he found some land that the owner was willing to let Farmer Kev use. Kevin also helped organize community gardens at Winthrop High School, where, until recently, he was a student. Next year, Kevin plans to build some cold frames so that he can start tomatoes earlier. This year, unfortunately, he lost his plants to blight, as so many Maine farmers and gardeners have done this rainy summer.

“How long far into the season will you be here?” I asked Tim.

“Until October,” he answered, smiling. “Kevin will be home over Labor Day weekend, but my wife and I will be helping while he’s at school.”

No small task for busy parents, but the family that gardens together, stays together?

Now, even though I have one of the worst yards in Winthrop for gardening, I have a very soft spot for farmers and gardeners. They grow our food. They keep us going. Without them, most of us would find it hard, if not impossible, to feed ourselves. Many adults have a tendency to criticize young people for not knowing enough about where food comes from, for thinking that it all begins at the grocery store. While this might be true for some young people, it is not true for all young people, and it is certainly not true for Farmer Kev. May the blight leave his tomatoes alone; may he always enjoy having dirt under his nails; and may he garden for many, many years to come. And kudos to his parents for helping out, even when it rains, for supporting him in his gardening venture.

Late August and early September are wonderful times to eat in Maine, and here is what I bought from Farmer Kev’s stand: two pounds of green beans, two heads of garlic, one zucchini, and four pounds of little red potatoes. For all of this, I paid $8, for food that is local and is grown organically.

Chicken Meunier
Chicken Meuniere

That evening, along with chicken cutlets meuniere, my husband and I had some of those succulent green beans and those wonderful little red potatoes. We raised our glasses to Farmer Kev, to his green beans and potatoes, to all things local and delicious, and to the good life, which doesn’t always have to cost a lot.

FOOD AND FRIENDS

Yesterday was the kind of perfect August day in Maine that gives it the reputation for being vacationland. The sky was a deep blue without even one speck of cloud to worry it. The day was warm but not hot, and the humidity was blessedly low. Oh, summer!

I invited my friend Barbara Penrod over to celebrate her birthday, and I made her lunch, which we ate on the patio. I won’t lie. The gardens are, shall we say, a little frowsy by late summer. Most everything is gone by, and the foliage has a dry, ragged look. Still, the bee balm was enough in bloom so that we had a splash of red and a constant whir of feeding hummingbirds. The scarlet runner beans still looked lush and cheerful, and the backyard was filled with the songs of crickets and cicadas.

Here is what I served: chicken salad with dried cranberries, celery, and roasted pecans, all arranged on bed of lettuce bordered by triangles of tomatoes, local, of course; homemade cornbread; and green grapes. For dessert we had cream and cherry parfaits along with lemon-frosted shortbread. Barbara is a very appreciative guest and, I’m happy to report, a good eater. However, when she said, “That shortbread is to die for,” I knew the meal was a success. I also knew her gift would be a success as I had bought a blue-swirl plate from a Maine potter and filled it with some of the shortbread.

Eating and talking, we spent a good part of the afternoon on that sunny patio, with the dog alternately begging for handouts and running around the fenced-in backyard. After Barbara left, I felt happy and content. I had gotten up very early to make the cornbread, the shortbread, and the parfaits. The night before, I had roasted the chicken for the salads. All of the food was simple to make, but it took time, something that Americans never seem to have enough of, and ultimately what I gave Barbara was the gift of my time. And it felt good to give this gift.

Cherry Parfait
Cherry Parfait

Here is the recipe for the cherry parfait. I got the recipe from my friend Beth Clark, and she, in turn, got it from her aunt.

1 cup whipping cream
1 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons of sugar
1 can of cherries (I used bing cherries canned in Oregon.)
1 teaspoon of vanilla
dash of salt

Whip cream with sugar, vanilla, and salt. Fold in sour cream. Alternate layers of cherries with whipped cream mixture in parfait glasses, beginning with cherries and ending with cream. Top with cherry. Chill.

The shortbread “to die for” is a recipe from the New York Times Cook Book (published in 1961), but I’m convinced that the secret to its deliciousness is the brand of butter I use—Kate’s Butter, made by the Patry family in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. (Their website is www.katesbutter.com) On the box of butter, it says that the butter is made without dyes or preservatives and that the milk comes from cows that have not been treated with artificial growth hormones. Whatever the case may be, Kate’s butter is quite simply the best commercial butter I have ever tasted, and once I went down Kate’s buttery road, there was no turning back. It is the only butter I use.

THE FREEDOM TO FAIL

With the release of the movie Julie & Julia, this August has been quite the month for Julia Child. And what an appropriate month. Fans of this exuberant cook will know that August 15th was the anniversary of her birthday, and she would have been ninety-seven. (Fans might also recall that she died in 2004, two days before her ninety-second birthday.) While the movie got mixed review from some critics—in general, they admired Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Julia Child but were less than thrilled with the whiny Julie (Amy Adams)—audiences around the country seemed to love it. Indeed, the movie has taken in more than it cost to make, which is not a given for today’s films, which often rely on DVD sales to cover their budgets.

I must admit that I loved Julie & Julia, and I can’t wait for it to come out on DVD so that I can watch the extras. The food shots literally made my mouth water, especially the chocolate pie and the boeuf bourguignon, and I was enthralled by Streep’s performance, which was full of crackling vitality. However, I must also admit that I found the “Julie” parts less compelling than the “Julia” parts, but then again, who can compete with Meryl Streep and Julia Child? Most of us would fall woefully short. 

After seeing the movie, I was inspired to read My Life in France, which Julia Child wrote with her nephew Alex Prud’homme and was published posthumously. As I read the book and followed Julia Child through France, Germany, and the United States as she ate and cooked, two things especially impressed me. The first was the sheer amount of hard work it took to put together the famous Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Recipes would be made, tested, tasted, and made again and again. Julia Child did not just breeze her way into America’s kitchens and then become an icon. Instead, she cooked and wrote like crazy, and she didn’t give up, even when publishers rejected her work. 

The second, and most important for me, was her attitude toward cooking failures. In My Life in France, Julie Child writes, “One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed….no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” (The italics are hers.) 

I found that advice to be tremendously freeing. Yes, she seemed to be saying, mistakes will happen. It’s too bad, but that’s to be expected when you cook. Onward and better luck next time. Julie Child was, of course, American, but I can almost see this advice accompanied by a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. 

With an attitude like that, no wonder Julie Child had a bon appétit.

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