THE PARTY’S OVER

DSC08892We had our big party on Saturday night. The weather was clear but cold, the steps were scraped clear, and the driveway was salted enough so that nobody slipped and fell. Halleluiah! Guests started arriving around 3:00, and by 4:00 our “little house in the big woods” had over twenty people spilling from the dining room to the kitchen and to the living room. The house, shall we say, was very cozy and was noisy with conversation and laughter. In short, it was just great.

Then, of course, there was the food. I made potato cheddar cheese soup and my “award-winning” chili (more on that in a future posting). Both went into crockpots, which were then left on the counter so that people could serve themselves. Fortunately, I have a lot of small white mugs, which I arrayed by the crockpots, and by the end of the evening, the crockpots were nearly empty, and there were a lot of dirty mugs. (Thank God for the dishwasher!)

DSC08897To make more room, we pushed our dining room table into a corner, and onto that table went the appetizers—hummus, cheese, little quiches, a cream cheese torte, crackers, corn bread, spiced nuts, celery stuffed with cream cheese, and more, I’m sure, that I’ve forgotten. As guests came, more dishes were added to the table.

Drinks and desserts were spread out on a counter and a table in the kitchen, and the sweets were just as abundant as the appetizers—chocolate cookies, walnut-filled bread, mincemeat squares, fudge, peanut butter balls. Well, you get the picture. Again, guests contributed much of the food.

The conversation ran the gamut from family to movies to politics to football. Joel Johnson and Chuck Marecic (and perhaps Mike Mulkeen and Bob Johnson) were fairly certain that by the time the evening was over, they had solved many of the world’s problems. My daughter Shannon and I got to discuss one of our favorite books—Pride and Prejudice—with Roger Carpentter. Alice Rohman and I talked about what we were doing on Christmas Day. Food and recipes and this blog were discussed. (Cheryl Harrington commented on my, ahem, enthusiasm for writing about food. It is a charge that I cannot deny.) Alice Johnson, seeing the nearly empty crockpot of cheddar cheese soup, suggested I use the rest as a sort of rarebit over the cornbread. What a great idea, and one I wouldn’t have thought of. And so it went, for over five hours.

After the party was over, Clif and I talked about how grateful we were to have such a wide and interesting assortment of friends who would come out on a cold afternoon and evening to spend time with us. What a blessing!

And, as an added bonus, a number of friends have pledged to send me recipes. If I’m lucky, I might even get some of them before Christmas. I’m especially working on Alice Johnson and her spiced nuts, which would make wonderful presents to nut lovers on anyone’s gift-giving list. In fact, Alice has promised to send the recipe as soon as her Christmas packages are mailed. So stay tuned.

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CHRISTMASTIME IS HERE! AND SO IT BEGINS…WITH PEANUT BUTTER BALLS

In the Good Eater household, Christmas is our favorite holiday, and we really don’t understand why some people like to grouse about it so much. What’s not to like about a holiday that brightens the darkest month of the year? About a holiday that encourages generosity (gift giving), cooking (food), and eating (more food)? Then there are the movies, ranging from A Christmas Carol to Elf to A Christmas Story to A Child’s Christmas in Wales. We watch them all. In fact, we usually watch several versions of A Christmas Carol, and a little eggnog and cognac makes the viewing even more enjoyable.

It must be noted that we are not a religious household, but that doesn’t matter at all. While the practice of Christianity has often been ugly and violent, the Christmas ideal of “Peace on Earth” is not. Unfortunately, the divergence of practice and ideals is all too common, and Christianity is hardly the only belief system where this has happened. And if you are not moved by the story of the nativity—the plight of Mary and Joseph—then you should ask yourself why.

DSC08885We are also not an affluent family, and at times we have been quite poor. But we have never let this interfere with giving presents, and we do it without going into debt. How do we do this? With creativity and prior planning. All through the year, we are on the lookout for sale items that might appeal to family and friends. Library book sales are a favorite place for us to shop for presents. We also like Daedalus Books, which has a broad range of remaindered books, DVDs, and CDs. Finally, we make presents—jewelry, cards, calendars, framed photos, and, of course, food.

We also like to host a big party, which we will be giving this Saturday, and I have begun making goodies for it. Yesterday, it was peanut butter balls, and I have a big tin of them in the kitchen. It’s a good thing I made a lot because resistance is futile, and I have been “nipping” a peanut butter ball from the tin from time to time. (If I’m not careful, I’ll have to make another batch.)

Today, I’ll be making pie knots. I’m also going to make a potato, ham, cheese, and tomato galette, which will be an experimental dish (no recipe), and if it comes out well, I’ll be making a couple for the party. In the next two days, I’ll be moving on to chili, cornbread, cheddar cheese soup, and several other dishes. Then after the party will come the cooking for Christmas itself—breads, tourtière, and ice cream pies, to name a few. Oh, the list is long and delicious, and I will be writing about what I make.

To sweeten the mood of Grinches and non-Grinches alike, here is my recipe for Peanut Butter Balls.

Peanut Butter Balls

Note: This recipe originally called for paraffin to be added to the chocolate, and in our innocent past, we blithely did this, not only with peanut butter balls but with Needhams and other candy as well. Nowadays, we know that ingesting paraffin is not exactly the thing to do, and we add a bit of Crisco to the chocolate. We also realize that Crisco is not high on the list of health foods, but we figure that it’s at least a little higher than paraffin, which has even been labeled as “evil” by one foodie. When you come right down to it, nobody would dream of putting peanut butter balls on a list of healthy food. But remember, Christmas comes but once a year, and really the best place to put those sweet, little peanut butter confections is right in your mouth.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Balls

Mix:

2 sticks melted butter
¾ cup of peanut butter
2 cups crushed graham crackers
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 pound of powdered sugar

Roll teaspoonful of mixture in small balls and place on cookie sheet lined with wax paper.

In double boiler, melt 2 tablespoons of Crisco with 2 cups of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate. Be sure water simmers but does not boil.

With a fork (a long-handled one is best) and a looped candy dipper (use another fork if you don’t have one) roll the balls in the chocolate and then put them back on the wax-paper lined cookie sheet. Chill in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes, and then take them out. When they are hard, store in an airtight container. And remember, you want to save at least some of these for friends and family.

THE ART OF HOMEMADE CHICKEN SOUP

DSC08881At first glance the title of this posting seems faintly ridiculous—the words “art” and “chicken soup” are an unlikely couple. After all, what could be more simple or more basic than chicken soup, a comfort food that nourishes the body and the spirit? But think back to chicken soup you have eaten, either in the home or at a restaurant. Has it always been rich, flavorful, and golden? After eating one bowl, did you want seconds? If your experience is anything like mine, then the answer is no. All too often, chicken soup is bland and watery, and one bowl is usually more than enough. Honesty compels me to admit that I have made chicken soup that is, shall we say, edible but forgettable. But over the years I have learned how to make a fragrant chicken soup, and here are some tips.

The first and most important one is this: Do not think you can make a decent chicken (or turkey) soup from bones that have been stripped of every shred of meat. I realize that frugal cooks love the idea of taking said bones and making, as it where, something from nothing. I like the idea myself, but sad experience has taught me that when you use chicken bones with only a hint of meat and try to make soup from them, what you get is a thin, boring soup. No, what chicken soup needs is a fair amount of chicken on the bone that can be simmered for hours. There are two ways you can do this. You can buy chicken just to make the soup, and I occasionally do this. But the better way is to purchase more than you need, say, two small birds or a very large one, and have roast chicken one day. (I season mine with oil, salt, pepper, and dried thyme.) Then, resisting the impulse to strip the chicken clean and make sandwiches, you leave most of the remaining meat on the bones and into the stockpot they all go with enough water to cover the bones. If there is a lot of chicken, I will remove a bit to add to the soup after the simmering is done. But only if there is a lot of chicken.

With this, you have a good start, but more is needed. To the stockpot I add one whole onion, with a few  cloves stuck in; two large carrots, peeled and cut in big chunks; three or so cloves of garlic, again peeled and cut in large chunks; a couple of stalks of coarsely chopped celery, if I have them (and I don’t always); and a bay leaf.

Now comes the tricky, watchful part. You want to bring this all to a slow boil, and just as it starts to bubble, turn the heat down so that you have a gentle simmer. (Leave the cover on as it simmers.) You don’t want to have a furious witch’s caldron of swirling bones, fat, and vegetables. You want things to merge and blend slowly. Depending on what kind of stove you have, this can take a fair amount of jiggering with the burner’s heat. Next comes the skimming, and do not skimp on this part. The more fat and froth you skim from the stock, the brighter the soup will be. So, for four or five hours, simmer those bones gently and periodically skim. I know. This is starting to sound like a Julia Child recipe. But a big pot of soup will last for several days and is oh so nice during the long, dark cold of winter. Soup made with boxed chicken broth is a sad, sad imitation, and I’m not even going to get into Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.

Once the stock has simmered for many hours, strain the broth, pick the meat from the bones, and set the meat aside. Discard the scraps and the vegetables. What you should have now is a golden broth that needs a bit of salt and pepper but not much else to flavor it. Because I am from Maine, I add potatoes and sliced carrots to the broth, but rice or pasta would do as well. Or, if you want a Mediterranean touch, white beans, celery, and a bit of rosemary could be used. The choice is yours, and they are all good ones.

Once the potatoes and carrots are tender, I add whatever reserved meat I have to the pot. Make some biscuits or some muffins, and you have yourself a pretty nice meal.

DSC08875Ingredients Recap
My husband, Clif, always grouses at me if I don’t include some kind of recipe that more or less gives exact measurements. So here goes.

2 small chickens, adding up to ten pounds or so, or 1 large chicken. (If you are feeding a lot of people, you can up the ante to two large chickens.) Roast, have a meal, and leave a lot on the bones to simmer.

1 small onion, left whole and stuck with several cloves

2 large carrots, peeled and cut in chunks

2 stalks of celery, cut in chunks

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in chunks

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper to taste

Follow the aforementioned simmering and skimming instructions. This is pretty much an all-day event. For those who work outside the home, this will be a weekend meal. But here’s an added bonus: Your house will smell heavenly while the stock is simmering.

After all of this simmering and skimming, it seems very appropriate to end with a “bon appétit!” And perhaps a bonne chance?

THANKSGIVING POSTSCRIPT: A NEW TRADITION

A week has passed since Thanksgiving. The turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing are gone. The glazed carrots (thank you, Jill!) are gone. The same is true of the pumpkin and pecan pie (thank you, Carol and Jerry!). Only a bit of cranberry is left, in a small container in the refrigerator, and I plan on spreading some of it on peanut butter and bread for lunch this noon. 

With two oil lanterns and some candles giving the dining room a warm glow in the dim November afternoon, we literally spent hours at the Thanksgiving table, resting after the first round so that we could go back for seconds. And, yes, we all had room for dessert—the aforementioned pies as well as lemon-frosted shortbread. 

After all I had eaten on Thanksgiving, you might think that the Friday after Thanksgiving would have been a day to cut back and eat lightly. You would be wrong. Our friends Carol and Jerry, who are from East Machias, stayed two nights with us so that we could embark on a cultural excursion that would take us from central Maine to Damariscotta and finally to Brunswick, right at lunch time. 

Our first stop was at the secondhand bookshop run by the Skidompha Public Library. Readers, if you are in shooting distance of Damariscotta, do not hesitate. Go to this bookshop. Truly, there is something to suit every reading taste, ranging from poetry to science fiction to romance. The prices are incredibly good as is the selection. My best find was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, a hardcover in perfect shape for $4. 

Naturally, after a happy hour or so spent browsing and buying used books, we had worked up an appetite, and we headed to the Great Impasta in Brunswick, which, as its name suggests, is an Italian restaurant—small, intimate, and comfortable. We were led to a table with one bench against the wall as well as chairs ringing the table’s outer edge, and we decided we felt very European. The menu came, and Jerry and I both spotted the spaghetti carbonara. It took the two of us approximately 20 seconds to choose the carbonara, in honor of Calvin Trillin and that “Italian guy,” Christopher Columbus. (For more about this, see my previous post Thanksgiving Folderol.) The Great Impasta’s carbonara is, in fact, Alfredo sauce with prosciutto, but what the heck. It tasted good, and Jerry and I decided that whatever the form, carbonara the day after Thanksgiving should become an annual tradition. And so it will. 

After pasta, we went up the street to Gelato Fiasco for what is surely the best gelato in Maine, if not New England. Contented, we ended our trip with a visit to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, which is currently featuring an exhibit with the works of Romare Bearden. 

All in all, quite a day, especially coming right after Thanksgiving. In fact, it was quite a weekend. Clif got his turkey, and I got my carbonara, more or less. This is not the first time I’ve been to a Maine restaurant where Alfredo sauce is referred to as “carbonara.”  Among foodies, there is a great debate about what constitutes “real” cabonara—cream or only eggs. This has got me wondering. Are there any Maine restaurants that use only an egg-based sauce to make carbonara? I shall be on the lookout. But egg-based or Alfredo, I could eat this dish at least once a week. It certainly beats turkey, whatever the day.

THANKSGIVING FOLDEROL

On 74 Narrows Pond Road, Thanksgiving, that day of gluttony, always involves some intense negotiation. It boils down to this: My husband, Clif, has a zeal for roast turkey that goes beyond human reasoning, and he could eat roast turkey any day of the week. I, on the other hand, am iffy about this big bird. No, that is not true. In fact, I’m not at all fond of turkey, with its mound of white breast meat that always turns out to be dry and bland, no matter how it’s cooked. In short, we are a divided family. Clif’s philosophy is: The bigger the turkey, the better.  My philosophy is: Why bother with turkey at all? Why not just go with the writer Calvin Trillin’s proposal and have spaghetti carbonara? (With tongue firmly in cheek, Trillin’s suggestion is that spaghetti carbonara is really the original dish served at Thanksgiving, a little recipe the Native Americans picked up from that “Italian Guy”—Columbus.) 

Thus, a week or two before Thanksgiving, it begins, always with the question: “So, what size turkey should we buy?” This year, I started low, as I always do, knowing I would have to go up. “Eight pounds,” I answered. “After all, there will only be six of us, and one is a vegetarian.” 

“Eight pounds?” Clif gave me a look that suggested that I was only a hairsbreadth away from being as miserly as Scrooge. “Thirty,” he shot back quickly. 

“Thirty?” I was nearly overwhelmed with the horror of that much dry breast meat. “It wouldn’t fit in our roasting pan, not even the big one. What about ten?” 

Clif snorted. “How can we have leftovers with a ten-pound turkey?” For Clif, leftovers are nearly as alluring as the actual Thanksgiving dinner. “Twenty-five!” 

For me, leftovers just mean more of that darned dry meat, but I had to acknowledge he did have a point about a ten-pound turkey. “Twelve!” 

“Twenty!” 

We finally settled on fifteen pounds. Well, all right, since I’m the one who does the grocery shopping, I settled on a fifteen-pound bird, figuring Clif wouldn’t sulk too much when I brought it home. 

He didn’t, but he couldn’t resist making a catty remark about how puny it was, knowing very well that a fifteen-pound turkey hardly qualifies as puny. 

And there it sits, huge and hulking, in our refrigerator. Tomorrow, it will be oiled and stuffed and slid into a hot oven. Soon the house will be fragrant with turkey. Even I have to admit it smells good as it’s cooked. Potatoes will be riced (never mashed in our house!), bread will be sliced, and cranberry sauce will glitter bright red in the cut-glass bowl. 

And I although I would never say this aloud, I have to agree that dry though it is, there is something about turkey that spaghetti carbonara just couldn’t replace. Nevertheless, next year the negotiations will commence, as they always do.  They have become as much of a tradition as turkey.

A TRIBUTE TO SOUP: CURRIED TOMATO SOUP WITH CHICKPEAS AND CAULIFLOWER

“As we honor and pay tribute to soup, I also wish to encourage my readers to use the art of soup making to bring relief to the poor and the hungry near or around us. In ancient times, when monasteries were located within the city walls, monks and nuns provided soup and bread to the poor who daily knocked at their doors. Many monasteries still follow this ancient evangelical practice, and this is where the idea of “soup kitchens” to help the poor originated….Soup making, soup sharing, and soup giving done with love and a selfless spirit can be occasions for endless joy.”
—Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, Twelve Months of Monastery Soup

Thanks to my daughter Dee, I have a new favorite soup. When we were visiting recently with her in New York, she said, “Next to where I work is a shop that sells a really good tomato soup.” Oh? What kind of tomato soup? “Well, it has chickpeas and cauliflower.” What kind of spicing? “Curry. It was spiced with curry. Do you think you could make it?” Yes, I think I could.

DSC08845I decided to roast the cauliflower, which has a mild—some might even say bland—taste. It seems to me that roasting improves almost any vegetable. From there I would go to onion and garlic, the basis for most soups, followed by a can of tomatoes, a can of chickpeas, and a teaspoon and a half of curry powder as well as a pinch of red pepper flakes. Readers, this is one of the best soups I have ever made. The nutty chickpeas complement the mild cauliflower, and the curry blends with the tomatoes to produce a spicy but smooth flavor. I could eat this soup once a week, and I’ll certainly be making it regularly during the impending months of cold weather, which in Maine stretches through three seasons and at least six months. With so much cold weather, soup can be a great consolation.

I began this piece with a quotation from Twelve Months of Monastery Soups. During the upcoming holiday season, indeed throughout the whole year, we should follow Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette’s advice. Hunger and food insecurity are on the rise in the United States. According to yesterday’s New York Times, “the number of people in households that lacked consistent access to adequate nutrition rose to 49 million in 2008, 13 million more than in the previous year and the most since the federal government began keeping the data 14 years ago.” Surely the richest country in the world can do better than that, and what better way to start than with soup—nutritious, delicious, soothing, and economical.

DSC08851

Curried Tomato Soup with Chickpeas and Cauliflower

1 small onion, chopped fine
3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
Olive oil
1 ½ teaspoon of curry powder
1 pinch of red pepper flakes (or more, if you like things hot)
1 head of roasted cauliflower
1 (19 oz.) can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 (28 oz.) can of crushed tomatoes
1 can of water, using the tomato can

First, roast the cauliflower. Cut the cauliflower into small pieces, toss with some olive oil and bake at 375°F until the cauliflower is tender and slightly browned, about twenty-five minutes. When the cauliflower has cooled, chop into bite-sized pieces and set aside.

Sauté the garlic and onion for a few minutes in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add the chickpeas, the tomatoes, the can of water, the curry, and the pepper flakes. Simmer for 45 minutes or so. Add the chopped cauliflower and simmer another ten minutes. Garnish with either sour cream or yogurt if you like, which I always do.

SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT HOMEGROWN, A NEW DOCUMENTARY

At first glance, being a foodie and writing a blog can seem quite focused, maybe even a little narrow. It can easily come down to three things: food, recipes, and impressions, and indeed many good food blogs go no further. But food can be a much broader subject, and foodies everywhere should be concerned with how and where their food is grown.  (They should also be concerned with questions about why some people get too much to eat and why some people don’t get enough, but that’s a topic for another time.) Then, from these concerns spring a larger environmental awareness that spirals inward and outward at the same time. Simply and personally put: How do my eating habits affect me, my town, my state, my country, the world? Naturally, energy use, climate change, pollution, and pesticides are woven into these questions as well. It soon becomes clear that food is a complicated subject that touches many areas of life. 

I thought of this as I watched HomeGrown, a documentary about the Dervaes family, who literally took food matters into their own hands and decided to see how much they could grow in their backyard, which was less than a quarter of an acre.  As it turned out, they could grow 6,000 pounds, enough food not only to feed themselves but also to sell to local restaurants. Because the Dervaes family lives in Pasadena, they have a long growing season and can therefore support themselves with the bounty reaped from their urban homestead. But still, long growing season or not, 6,000 pounds from one quarter of an acre is pretty impressive. In addition, the family lives off the grid, using solar panels and an outdoor solar shower. (Again, the outdoor shower is possible because of where they live.) Their urban homestead also has chickens and goats. There is a website (of course!) called Path to Freedom (http://www.pathtofreedom.com/about), where you can learn more about this remarkable family—a father and three adult children, two daughters and a son. HomeGrown, directed by Robert McFalls, has a website as well. (http://www.homegrown-film.com/about.html) If the movie doesn’t come to a theater near you, it will certainly soon be available through Netflix. 

Now, not every family wants to sell food for a living. Nor should they. After all, we need teachers and librarians and social workers and chefs and factory workers and engineers and doctors. The list is long, and it is no more advisable to have a society with mono-careers than it is to have a farm with mono-crops. But do we really need so many clerks working at Wal-Mart and Home Depot and, yes, even L. L. Bean? Consider this statistic, from November’s Down East magazine. “The most common job in Maine isn’t lobsterman or lumberjack, it’s retail sales clerk, followed closely by cashier; there are more people working in either of those professions than all the fisherman, farmers, and forestry workers combined.” No doubt some of those clerks and cashiers love their work, despite the fact that these jobs pay a low wage and often come without benefits. However, when was the last time you saw a clerk or a cashier who looked pleased as punch to be working in that big box store? Not very often, I suspect. 

But what would happen if, in the thousands and thousand of yards across the country, families started growing food instead of lawns? What if they kept a few chickens? Maybe even a goat or two? What if they began making their own bread and began hanging their laundry on a clothesline?  Would it be possible to live on one income rather than two? Or perhaps two part-time jobs? And, correspondingly, would it be possible to get by with one car rather than two? Would there be more dinners cooked from scratch? What would this do to energy consumption? To food distribution? To the high levels of obesity and diabetes? (Hint: How many farmers are fat?) 

I know. This sounds like a hippie-dippie back-to-nature scheme, and in a way I suppose it is. But it is also a radical shift from the system we have now, where we pretty much totally depend on others for the necessities of life. Let me be clear. I am not suggesting we return to the good old days when nearly everyone lived in the country on a small family farm. There are far too many people to make this feasible, and it is good to have time to pursue other interests and hobbies. To grow or make everything a family uses is labor intensive indeed. Yet how free are we, really, in the two-career home where both adults work outside the home all day and come home too frazzled to cook and enjoy being with their children? How free are we when we depend on Wall Street and big business for our well being? I’m just asking. 

I’d like to suggest that if we grew and cooked more of our own food, then we would in fact be freer and more secure than we are now. (Throw in universal health care and affordable higher education, and families would have even more latitude.) I think it is totally appropriate that the Dervaes family called their website “The Path to Freedom.” 

Finally, let me be clear on one other point. To my way of thinking, “The Path to Freedom” does not mean that it is automatically the woman who stays home to grow the food, bake the bread, and hang out the laundry. Men can do these things as well as women, and with freedom comes flexibility and choice. 

HomeGrown is only fifty-two minutes long, but it certainly raises a lot of issues, both on a personal level and on a larger societal level. I highly recommend this film.

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