BEAUTIFUL OCTOBER: A HEARTY HAM AND CHEESE CASSEROLE FOR COOL FALL NIGHTS

Ham, potato and delicata squashBlue, blue, brilliant blue. That’s what the sky in central Maine has been for the past week or so. The weather has been cool at night but warm during the day, warm enough to sit on the patio when I eat lunch. Between that blue sky and the swirl of yellow and orange leaves as they fall on the lawn, the colors are so dazzling that I can hardly focus on my lunch or the book I am reading.

The cool nights, of course, mean fires in the wood furnace in our basement, which is how we heat our entire house. This, in turn, reminds us of the wood that still needs to be stacked. Over the weekend, my husband, Clif, and I made good progress with the woodpile. We are now down to two cords waiting to be stacked, and we have four cords in nice orderly rows not far from the cellar door, where we bring in the wood. It’s a satisfying feeling to survey the stacked wood and to know that we won’t have to worry about heat for the winter. And if there is anything cozier than wood heat, then I haven’t felt it.

Other household duties have included washing the bedding—blankets, quilts, and bedspreads—and hanging them out to dry. Another homely pleasure is watching the laundry flap on the clothesline. It is actually a triple pleasure. First, the visual delight; second, the satisfaction of knowing I am not using fossil fuels to dry my laundry; and third the wonderful, fresh smell that no artificial dryer sheet can ever reproduce. (I wonder if there is a national “hang your laundry outside” month?)

In between hanging laundry, stacking wood, and sweeping leaves from the driveway, Clif and I managed to sneak in a couple of bike rides last weekend, and one of them included a trip to Tubby’s. It is still warm enough to eat outside at the tables, and a surprising number of people were doing just that. (However, Clif and I were the only ones who rode our bikes.)

Soon it will be too cold for ice cream outside, but Tubby’s Restaurant will be opening in three weeks or so. We got a sneak peak at the progress, and with the white wainscoting and tiled entry way, it looks as though Skip Strong, the owner, is doing his usual wonderful job with layout and design. Tubby’s in Winthrop could be a poster child for how to take an older, unattractive building and remodel it so that it is appealing and inviting. A good lesson in this age of strip development and hasty construction. What a waste to tear down all those ugly buildings, and with Tubby’s, Skip Strong has shown that we don’t have to do so.

After ice cream, we came home for more wood stacking. As the sun set, the air became cool. What kind of dinner for a fall night? When I was at Whole Foods in Portland last Friday, I bought a small ham steak—no nitrites, no nitrates, no antibiotics.

“How about ham and eggs?” I asked Clif.

“How about a ham and potato casserole with cheese sauce?” he shot back.

ham and cheese casseroleI was just teasing him. I had promised him the ham and cheese casserole, and when we came in from stacking wood, he peeled and cooked potatoes while I made the cheese sauce and cut the ham into small pieces. Into the oven it went, along with one of Farmer Kev’s delicata squash—cut in half, seeded, brushed with canola oil, and sprinkled with a little brown sugar along with a dash of salt and pepper.

A cozy meal for a fall night.

Ham and potato casserole with cheese sauce

Seven or eight large potatoes, peeled and cut in bite-sized chunks
7 oz. of cooked ham steak, cut in small pieces
1 cup of grated cheddar cheese. (The sharper, the better.)
2 cups of milk
4 tablespoons of butter
4 tablespoons of flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the potatoes. When they are slightly tender but not yet done, start making the sauce. Melt the 4 tablespoons of butter in a medium saucepan. Stir in the flour and let the mixture sizzle a bit. (But don’t let it burn!) Gradually whisk in the milk and then with a wooden spoon, stir continuously over medium heat until the sauce is thickened and the sauce leaves a clear line across the back of the spoon. Add the cheese and stir until melted.

By now the potatoes should be done. (If not, set the sauce aside and wait until they are. It shouldn’t be long.) In a large mixing bowl, combine the potatoes, cheese sauce, ham, and salt and pepper. Pour into a large casserole dish. A couple of pieces of bread, torn into small breadcrumbs, are nice on top. Cook in a preheated 375°F oven for 30 minutes or until the  mixture is bubbly.

Note: For a vegetarian meal, slightly steamed broccoli could be used instead of ham.

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MY ARTICLE ABOUT FARMER KEV IS IN MAINE FOOD & LIFESTYLE MAGAZINE

Farmer KevRegular readers of this blog will know that Farmer Kev (aka Kevin Leavitt) is an extraordinary young farmer (nineteen years old) in Winthrop, the town where I live. His energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to farming would be impressive at any age and are even more impressive in one so young.

He has a vegetable stand at the Winthrop Farmers’ Market, and during the growing season, our produce comes mostly from him. Readers, I swear that his vegetables taste better than vegetables from other stands. Especially his garlic and his delicata squash. Somehow, Farmer Kev has the touch.

Anyway, last spring, the editor from Maine Food & Lifestyle magazine asked me if I would write a piece about Farmer Kev. This I did, and it has been published in the current issue (#11), which is available at many bookstores in Maine. By the by, my husband, Clif, took the accompanying photos.

Do pick up a copy if you get a chance. Maine Food & Lifestyle is a very appealing magazine that chronicles Maine’s food journey, from restaurants to home cooks to artists. It’s worth subscribing to, if the budget allows.

A DELAYED BIRTHDAY TRIP TO THE MERRY TABLE IN PORTLAND

Square crêpeYesterday, my daughter Shannon, our friend Kate Johnson, and I went to The Merry Table in Portland to celebrate my birthday, which was in September. Originally, we had planned to go the Friday after my birthday, but I had been overly optimistic about how fast I would recover from breast cancer surgery. Four days wasn’t enough. Hence the delay.

Over the past couple of years, celebrating our birthdays in Portland has become a tradition, and somehow we have had the best luck with the weather. The days are always clear, warm, and sunny, and yesterday was no exception. It was the kind of October day that makes Maine famous in the fall, the kind with a crisp, intoxicating blue sky, the kind that makes you want to break into song.

A cruise ship was docked in the harbor—lucky cruisers to have such a fine day—and it was as busy in the Old Port as it is in midsummer. The streets were so crowded with people that it felt more like Bar Harbor than Portland, and I hope the merchants, for the most part local, did well.

The Merry Table, on Warf Street, not far from the harbor, is known for its crêpes. The restaurant is small, cozy but rather dark, except for a table by the window, which is where we sat—Kate and I on a bench with our backs to the sun and Shannon on a chair across from us. It felt, just a little, like a café in Paris.

Because crêpes are the specialty at The Merry Table, crêpes are what we ordered. Ever since my cancer diagnosis, my stomach has been touchy, and all I’ve wanted is fairly bland food. Now that I know the outlook is good, my stomach is starting to settle down. Nevertheless,

I decided to play it safe, and I ordered a plan ham and cheese crêpe. A good decision. Kate and Shannon were more adventurous, ordering ones with ham, brie, garlic, and roasted red peppers. Unfortunately, especially for Kate, the garlic was so overwhelming that she really couldn’t enjoy the crêpe. As Kate revels in spicy food, I can just imagine what the crêpe must have been like. Shannon, another lover of spicy food, also thought the garlic was too much.

My ham and cheese crêpe, a golden packet untraditionally folded in a square, was tasty if not exciting, exactly what I wanted. We all ordered dessert crêpes, and Kate felt her crêpe Suzette redeemed the bitter garlic bite of her previous crêpe. I had one filled with a rich, dark chocolate. Unfortunately, the whipped cream came from a can. I don’t remember what Shannon had, but I do remember that she ate it all.

Three Friends
Kate, Laurie, and Shannon

So, The Merry Table was a mixed bag, but never mind. We like to try a different restaurant every time we get together for birthdays, and this sort of thing is bound to happen, even in a foodie town such as Portland. In the end, the company is always great, and that is the most important thing. In fact, we like getting together so much that we have decided we need to throw in another trip to Portland before Shannon’s birthday in April. Perhaps right after the holidays.

JUDGING APPLE PIE AT THE MANCHESTER APPLE FESTIVAL

A squirrel decided to nibble on our phone line—also the line for our Internet—thus rendering us phoneless and without Internet over the weekend, and we didn’t get back on line until yesterday. Hence my tardiness with this post.

Monmouth apple festivalOn Saturday, October 2, my husband, Clif and I went to the Manchester Apple Festival at Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, Maine. This is the seventh annual fair, but we had never been before. I was expecting a nice little fair with a few booths and lots of apples. Instead, it was a good-sized fair with crafts, food, activities for children, and a soundstage with some very good music by a snappy duo called Perpetual Motion. There was no admission—a nice feature. This meant that families with modest incomes could still come and have a good time listening to music and nibbling on a few goodies.

Pie contest boothI went there primarily for the apple-pie-judging contest. I am particularly keen on pies, especially apple pie. I love to make them, and I certainly like to eat them. Long ago, with my grandmother’s help, I mastered making dough and rolling it out, and I still use her pie-dough recipe, with very good results. Such good results, in fact, that I’ve never really wanted to try any other recipe.

I haven’t been to many pie-judging contests, and I wanted to see how this one worked and, of course, take a look at the pies. I was also hoping that samples might be available after the judging so that I could try a few of the entries. This was the case last year at D.R. Struck’s apple-pie-judging contest. After the event, slices of the judged pies were on sale, and proceeds went to the local food pantry. It was a lot of fun to sample the various pies and to compare my taste with the judges’ tastes.

apple piesThe booth for the pie judging was easy to find, and we got there a little early, which turned out to be to my advantage. There were twelve pies entered in the contest, and as I was talking to the women who were running the booth, I discovered they were still looking for judges. They asked me if I would like to be one of the judges. Would I? Of course I would! And they signed me up.

Interestingly, out of eight judges, only two were women. I’m not sure why this was the case. Was it because women, ever weight conscious, were intimidated by the thought of sampling twelve pies? Was it because the men, less weight conscious, were thrilled by the thought of sampling twelve pies? I do not know.

pie testingBut this I do know. When twelve pieces of pie must be tasted, you cannot eat very much of any single piece, no matter how much you might like it. You can take two, maybe three, small bites of each one, and that’s it. Otherwise, by the time you get to pie number six, you are in big trouble. Your palate will be overwhelmed, and your appetite will be gone.

As judges, we were asked to rate the pies by appearance, by the taste of the crust, by the taste of the filling, and then for overall taste. The contest organizers had devised a scale that went to 100, and while the actual scoring was simple enough, adding it all up afterward was not so much fun. I am sorry to say that I am a mathematical ignoramus, and I even find it a challenge to figure out how much to leave for a tip at a restaurant.  (Fortunately, the man to my left took pity on me and added up my columns.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Supplied with water, napkins, judging sheets, and pencils, we commenced with the judging. As to be expected, some of the pies tasted better than others. As I sampled each pie, I was struck by how different they all were, by how much variety there was in something as simple as apple pie.

My favorite—number 6—received a nearly perfect score. It was everything that I thought an apple pie should be. The crust was flaky, and it had a good taste. The filling was perfectly cooked, smooth—buttery even—and nicely spiced. Taken together, pie crust and filling, here was a piece of pie that anyone would be grateful to eat.

When the judging was over, I asked the two men beside me what their favorites were, and they agreed with me—number 6. It seems that a majority of the judges thought that number 6 tasted best, and it was the winner of the contest.

Alison Ames was the woman who made the winning pie. Congratulations to her!

And what fun to be a part of the contest.

Apple pie

MAKING BREAD AND GIVING IT AWAY

Fresh BreadYesterday I made bread again. I had made two loaves of bread on Monday, but nonetheless we were nearly out of bread. No, my husband, Clif, and I did not go on a bread binge. I gave one loaf to our daughter Shannon, and the loaf we kept was down to one or two pieces, depending on thickness. Hence the need for more bread.

Last night, as I was discussing the bread situation with Clif, I said, “What is the point of making bread if you can’t give it away?”

“Exactly,” he said, and we both reflected on how this was a good metaphor for many things, for individuals, for towns, for counties, for states, for countries. Especially in a world with finite resources and an ever-growing population. In this country, we see two responses—the clenched hand that wants to hoard and the open hand that wants to share. I am convinced that the first response will lead to misery and that the second response is the one we should be aiming for.

Making bread and giving it away. I know. I’m getting philosophical here, with a decided tilt toward Buddhism. (However, I do want to point out that most religions, at their best, encourage giving and sharing.) What can I say? Having breast cancer has made me philosophical. But even before the cancer, I have been an advocate of cooking and sharing, and often gifts to family and friends revolve around something I have baked. I have done this for birthdays, for holidays, and for no reason at all other than I want to share what I’ve cooked.

Now, I don’t want readers to think I’m in the Mother Theresa category. I’m not. I’ve had my share of selfish moments and no doubt will continue to have them from time to time. But giving away bread as well as lemon-frosted shortbread, cinnamon pie knots, and peanut butter balls is good spiritual practice. It encourages generosity, both physical and spiritual.

Sandwich Bread
Adapted from a recipe from Sheila Lukins’s U.S.A. Cookbook

1 tablespoon of yeast
1 tablespoon of sugar
¼ cup of warm water
6 tablespoons of butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1½ cup of milk, warmed to room temperature
4 cups of flour, plus a little more
2 teaspoons of salt

Since I buy bulk yeast and keep it in the refrigerator, the first step is to put a tablespoon in a small bowl and let it warm on the counter for an hour or so. After that, I combine the yeast, water, and sugar in the mixing bowl that goes with my little stand mixer, whisk them, and let the mixture get nice and fizzy. This will take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.

When the yeast mixture is fizzy, I melt the butter and let it cool. This only takes a few minutes. I put the milk in a glass measuring cup and microwave it for 40 seconds or so on high, until the milk registers 70ºF on a cooking thermometer. I add the cooled melted butter and the room-temperature milk to the yeast mixture and mix it thoroughly with my stand mixer with dough hooks. This could, of course, be done by hand.

Next comes the flour, the tricky part. I put the two teaspoons of salt with the flour and ever so slowly and in very small increments, I add it to the yeast/milk/butter mixture. The bowl spins, the dough hooks beat, and when everything looks smooth, I add more flour, repeating until the flour/salt is gone. This probably takes about five minutes. Then I add a bit more flour from the canister until the dough becomes soft and sticky but stiff enough to knead for a bit. This is a delicate balance, and unfortunately only with practice can a home cook really get it right. If the dough is too soft, the bread will fall. If the dough is too stiff, the bread will be coarse and dry. But the more bread you bake, the more you will get a sense of how sticky the dough should be.

Because my stand mixer is so small and because I do like to knead bread a little, I stop at about 4 ½ cups, turn the dough onto a floured counter, and knead the bread for about five minutes, adding more flour as necessary but taking care that the dough remains sticky to the touch and doesn’t get too dry. (The dough should stick to your hands but also pull easily away.) Those who are making the bread completely by hand will be kneading longer, at least 10 minutes to get a smooth, elastic dough.

Next, grease a large mixing bowl, form the dough in a ball, twist it around the bowl, and set the dough greased side up in the bowl. If the day is warm, I set the bowl on the back of the stove and cover the bowl with a dishtowel. If the day is cool, I put a 9 x 12 pan of hot water on a low shelf in the oven then put the bowl on the middle shelf. I let the dough rise until it is double, which takes anywhere from 1 to 1½ hours.

When the dough has doubled, punch it down, form into two loaves and set the dough in two greased bread pans. Again, if the day is warm, on top of the stove goes the dough. If the day is cool, I empty the 9×12, refill it with hot water, set it on the lowest shelf, and put the bread pans on the middle shelf. I cover the pans with the dishtowel and let the dough rise until the loaves have crested the pan (probably an inch or so). Like the first rising, this takes 1 to 1½ hours.

When the dough has risen, I uncover the bread pans, remove them from the oven, remove the pan of water, heat the oven to 350ºF, and return the pans to the oven to cook the bread for 25 or 30 minutes. The bread should be nicely brown and make a little thumping noise when you hit the bottom with your knuckle. Cool on a rack. But do help yourself to a slice of warm bread. And remember, share a loaf once in a while.

COMING BACK TO COOKING: CAKE, BREAD, AND BARBECUE BEEF

Between my daughter Shannon’s wedding and my breast cancer diagnosis—with all its attendant doctors’ visits, surgery, and stress—there hasn’t been much time or energy for cooking in the past two months. But yesterday was my husband, Clif’s, birthday. Now that things have settled down, at least a little, I decided it was time to get back to some heavy-duty cooking. 

There would have to be cake, of course. Unfortunately, cakes are not my strong point, and given my druthers, I’d much rather make a pie or cookies. But what is a birthday without cake? Fortunately, for reasons known only to the gods, I can make a pretty good spice cake, which, in another stroke of luck, just happens to be Clif’s favorite kind of cake. 

So spice cake it was. I tackled this project first thing in the morning, just in case I had lost my touch with spice cake. Success! The cake rose just the way it should, and there was no falling in the center as it cooled. (My cakes have an irritating tendency to fall as they cool.) All it would need is a good butter cream frosting, which I knew I could easily whip up. 

From cake it was on to barbecue beef. In our house, the tradition is for the birthday boy or girl to choose the meal, and since we seldom eat beef, Clif was in the mood for roast beef slow-cooked with barbecue sauce. We bought a rather expensive hormone-free, antibiotic-free roast from Whole Foods in Portland. We have made a commitment to eat as organically/hormone free as possible, even though it costs more to do so. On the other hand, while the roast might have been expensive at $4.99 a pound and thus $20 for the size we bought, we knew it would easily feed four on the night of Clif’s birthday.  Add a couple of sides, and the whole meal would cost no more than $25. Now, where can you get that kind of meal for four people for $25, with the possiblity of leftovers? Nowhere that I know, even in central Maine. Roast beef from Whole Foods is not something we could afford to do for every meal, but it is well within our budget for special occasions. 

I made a simple barbecue sauce from a New York Times recipe and browned the roast on all sides. Into the crockpot, set on high, went the roast, which I then covered with the sauce. With any luck, in six or seven hours, I would have a delectable roast to serve for Clif’s birthday. 

Finally, there was the matter of bread. For the past two months, Clif and I have been eating store-bought bread, and we have not been very happy about this. Oh, we have mixed in artisan bread and English muffins with the blah sliced bread available at our grocery store, but it would be a gross understatement to say we missed homemade bread. 

After two months, would I have lost my touch with bread? (So many worries!) I took out my little mixer and began making bread, using a recipe I have adapted from Sheila Lukins’s U.S.A Cookbook

Again, success! The bread rose the way it should, and it was moist with a satisfying yeasty flavor. Visions of toast danced in my head.

At the risk of bragging, I must say that everything came out just as I hoped it would—the tender spice cake; the roast beef, which I was able to cut in perfect slices; and the bread. (No more store-bought bread for us.) Even the baked potatoes were soft on the inside and had lovely crunchy skins. 

It was good to be cooking again.

CHICKEN SOUP AND BEEF BOLOGNESE FOR BODY AND SPIRIT

Well, it’s been quite a month. I had surgery last week, and the tumor from my breast was removed. Then came the waiting, which is never fun. Exactly how big was the cancer? Was it as unaggressive as previous tests indicated? Would the margins be clear, or would I have to go in for more surgery? 

I am happy to report that given I have cancer, the news was far better than I had hoped. The cancer was even smaller and less aggressive than earlier tests indicated—which means radiation and hormone therapy but no chemo—and the margins were clear. No more surgery! 

As to be expected, I have been tired and sore, but I have the good cheer and kind concern of family and friends to buoy my spirits. Cards, emails, phone calls, flowers, and gifts have all come my way, and, yes, they do make a big difference. I’ve always known this intellectually and have done my best to be supportive when family and friends have been ill. But there is nothing like going through it yourself to really understand how important such support is. 

On the day of my surgery, my daughter Shannon took the day off and came to our house so that she could take care of our dog, Liam, as well as make some chicken soup for me. She followed a Martha Stewart recipe, which involved taking a small chicken, with the skin removed, and simmering it with some vegetables for an hour or so to make a fragrant broth. Then, the broth was strained, more vegetables were added, and when they were cooked, the meat from the chicken went into the soup. 

Oh, how lovely it tasted! I hadn’t eaten anything except toast since the day before, and my throat was sore from the respirator. That chicken soup lived up to its chicken soup reputation. It was warm, soothing, nourishing, and just plain good. So readers, if someone in your circle of family or friends needs tending, do not hesitate to make them chicken soup. (As long, of course, as they aren’t vegetarians.) It will be very much appreciated. 

Then, on the weekend after my surgery, my friend Kate Johnson called and asked, “How about if Bob [her husband] and I come for a visit this Saturday, and we’ll bring the meal—beef Bolognese, wine, homemade bread, and peach shortbread?” Naturally, I said, “Yes, please!” as soon as she had finished asking the question. 

So on a warm, sunny day, Bob and Kate came bearing food, a present (the book Reckless by Cornelia Funke), and cards. We sat on the patio and had cheese, crackers, and wine while our dog Liam cavorted with their dog Jamie—a yellow Lab. Finches, chickadees, and nuthatches fluttered at the bird feeders at the edge of the patio. Crickets sang their fall song. When it became too cool and damp to stay on the patio, we went inside for a wonderful meal of smooth yet tangy beef Bolognese on pasta, bread as good as only homemade bread can be, and peach shortbread with the right amount of crumble. 

These are two meals I won’t forget.

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