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

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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.

FRUGALITY IN TWO ACTS: PART ONE

frypan on stoveAfter the previous post, which was a little bleak, I thought I would go with something a little more inspirational—two incidents designed to tickle the frugal cook, which I most certainly am. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if the title of this blog should have been The Frugal Cook rather than A Good Eater. But The Frugal Cook has already been taken, and A Good Eater, in fact, gives me quite a bit of latitude. I can focus on frugality as much as I like, but I can also move on to other topics.

Part One

My father was a child of the Great Depression, and like many children of that era, he grew up in a very poor family. While my father and his family never actually starved, I think it is fair to say that there were years when they didn’t have quite as much food as they would have liked. One time, upon hearing that his aunt and her family wouldn’t be staying for dinner, my father replied, “Good. That means there will be more for the rest of us.” And he wasn’t joking. My grandmother, of course, was mortified, but I can’t help sympathizing with my father, who, I suspect, was always a little hungry as a child.

Not surprisingly, my father grew up to be very frugal, and he delighted in scrounging, in finding use for things that might be tossed into the rubbish. Our barns and sheds were filled with things he had scavenged and saved. “That might be useful,” he would say, tucking away another scrap of wood or a bit of metal. My father had the same philosophy when it came to leftovers. Throw good food away? Never!

Fried Potato and carotI am a father’s daughter, and he has passed on to me his love of frugality and scrounging. I thought of him the other night after I had made a veggie soup stock, following a recipe in one of my Moosewood cookbooks. The stock consisted of carrots, potatoes, celery, an onion, garlic—the usual suspects. After the stock had simmered for a few hours, I strained it, and I was about to throw the vegetables into the compost bucket. After all, the onion, garlic, and celery were like mush, and even in my frugal world, there didn’t seem to be much use for them. But the potatoes and the carrots were another matter. They were cooked but still reasonably firm. They looked good enough to eat. When I nibbled the edge of a potato, a little spicy from the stock, I discovered it was good enough to eat. So rather than going into the compost bucket, the carrots and potatoes went into a bowl in the refrigerator. But, I wondered, what should I do with them? Make them into home fries, came the immediate answer. Well, why not? I often make home-fried potatoes, and while I have never made home-fried carrots, I figured they were worth trying.

Readers, they were delicious, and Clif and I gobbled them in our usual good eater fashion, with gusto and pleasure. The potatoes tasted pretty much the way any home-fried potatoes do, and the carrots were crispy and sweet and good. So good, that I have since boiled carrots with the sole purpose of making them into home fries. “They taste a little like sweet potatoes,” Clif said, and he was right.

My father, who has been dead for over twenty years, would have been proud of me. I must admit that I was more than a little tickled to turn food destined for the compost bucket into something utterly delicious.

A final note on my father’s frugality. As an adult, he outgrew his childish selfishness to become a generous father, husband, and friend. Guests were always welcome in our house at mealtimes. Along with instilling in me a love of frugality and scrounging, he also illustrated how it was possible to be generous as well. A good lesson.

Tomorrow: Frugality in two acts, Part Two

A GRAY DAY

Yesterday was another snowy day, another day to shovel the driveway and the paths around the house. The night before, the heating element in my oven broke, and I mean this literally—it’s in two pieces. We had to microwave the shells and cheese that I made for dinner. They were all right but not as good as they would have been had they been baked in the oven. As soon as possible, we will be replacing that heating element. 

Yesterday morning, I woke up to hear how Massachusetts had voted, how they had elected Scott Brown, a Republican who is dead-set against the current health care bill making its way through Congress. What an insult to Senator Kennedy, whose place Brown will be taking. Until the very end, Senator Kennedy worked long and hard on a health care bill that would provide coverage for the middle class and the poor, for every American, not just those who could afford it or who were lucky enough to work in jobs that provided good coverage. Like Moses, Senator Kennedy died before reaching the Promised Land and did not live to see such a bill passed. At the rate things are going, I’m beginning to think most of my generation—the baby boomers—will die before reaching the Promised Land, too. The pundits predict that some kind of health care bill will pass, and I hope they are right. But after yesterday’s election, I’m not so sure. After all, Massachusetts is supposed to be the bluest of states—liberal and progressive. And now this—a stunning reminder of how fast things can turn. 

So gray, gray, and gray. What a difference a day can make. The day before the election, I was so thankful for all that I have, and I wrote about it in a posting. Now, I feel apprehensive. 

I know this is supposed to be a blog about food and eating, and this posting might be regarded as a digression. But is it really? Consider this: According to Reuters, in the United States, one in eight people receives food stamps. One in eight. In supposedly one of the richest countries in the world, this is a shocking statistic. And here’s an even more shocking statistic. A recent article in the New York Times reported, “About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.” This means that every day—at work, at the supermarket, at the library—you will come across someone who uses food stamps. “They” are not only out there; “they” are among us. And, if your luck turns bad, you might become one of “them.” 

So how do food stamps tie-in with health care? In a just society, it’s all of one piece, and what it boils down to is security for everyone, not just for those who are rich or fortunate. Two essential pieces of security are food and health care, and chances are if you have a hard time paying for one, then you have a hard time paying for the other. Conservatives and independents are forever warning liberals about the perils of the United States becoming like “nanny-state” Europe, as though Europe were some kind of hellhole to be avoided at all cost. Funny, but I’ve been to nanny-state Europe, and far from being a hellhole, it is a very nice place to visit, and it seems to be a good place to live, tool.  As many other Americans like to vacation there as well, I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Another interesting fact: Conservatives and independents never mention countries that provide minimal or no social services—countries such as Sudan or Somalia, where life is hard, brutal, and short. Perhaps those who are opposed to social services should plan a vacation in a country that doesn’t provide them. Then they can report back to the rest of us. 

Last night, my husband, Clif, and I discussed the Massachusetts election and the opposition to the health care bill. Clif thinks it all boils down to one thing—overpopulation and a corresponding scarcity of resources. (Indeed, those who oppose the health care bill are primarily those who have good coverage and are afraid their benefits won’t be as good if there is health care for all.) Instead of trying to figure out how to share resources, some people in this country get selfish and downright mean in the face of scarcity. In a way, I can understand it. None of us like to think about living in an age of less. We all like the idea of more, of abundance. But with world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, I expect our days of more are coming to an end, if they haven’t already. (I haven’t even touched on the subject of peak oil.) 

So how are we going to deal with it? Like nanny-state Europe, which makes an attempt to share resources and narrow the gap between the rich and the poor? Or, are we going to descend into the worst kind of individualism and disregard the larger community? It really is our choice, and the direction this country is taking is not a promising one. 

A big subject for a gloomy day, and one that is definitely beyond the scope of this posting. Yet it is something we all must be thinking about in the years to come. You can bet I will be, and, of course, writing about it from time to time.

ON THIS SNOWY DAY

January in Maine means deep winter with the landscape suspended in a tight freeze of snow and quiet. Today, when I look out my office window I see snow falling on trees already white from yesterday’s storm. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the landscape is monochrome, the colors are definitely limited—the dark green of the conifers, the brown trunks of leafless trees, and, of course, white everywhere.  

With its service sector economy, Maine is not an easy place to live in the winter when the fuel bills are high, and tight budgets must be stretched even tighter so that families can stay warm. Still, when we compare our situation to, say, the situation of those living in Haiti, we have much to be thankful for. And we cannot help but be moved by the suffering of the thousands and thousands of people who are grief-stricken, hungry, thirsty, and homeless. My husband and I have done our small part to help, and I know this is true for many Mainers as well as for Americans in every state. 

Somehow, then, it seems appropriate in this posting to give thanks for what I have. First and foremost, I want to give thanks that I live in a country with a strong central government that at least provides a certain measure of social services. As my friend Brian Hannon put it in a recent email, “Without our strong, stable central government, we’d be no better off than Haiti or any other messed-up country. Obviously we don’t want to become some North Korean dictatorship, but without strong leadership in Washington, we’d have a lot more problems than we do, social, financial, security, etc.” Yes, we would, and those who huff and puff about the evils of the nanny state should take a long, hard look at what it’s like in countries where governments do as little as possible. Would these huffers and puffers really want to live in such countries? Unless they were tremendously wealthy and could thus insulate themselves from everyday life, I suspect they would not.  

I give thanks for my little house in the big woods. Modest though it is, our house has sheltered my family and me, and it has been a place where our friends can gather. Even though it is small, it has given me “a room of my own” and the quiet I need to work. 

Naturally I give thanks for my family and friends, and I shudder to think what Haitians are going through right now. Bad enough to lose your house; far worse to lose family and friends. 

Finally, I give thanks for my full cupboards, for the bags of beans, nuts, and rice. For the pasta and spices and flour. For the sugar and molasses. For the eggs that come from a local farm. For the big bag of apples in the guest room, which is closed off and cold. For the basket of squash also in the guest room. For the interest, time, and ability to turn these staples into hearty, satisfying meals. Like our house, these meals are not fancy, but they are tasty and nourishing, and they help keep my husband, Clif, and me healthy. 

So much to be thankful for in this long, cold month when slowly, slowly the days begin to get longer.

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