MAY: THE LET THEM EAT BREAD REPORT

Fresh BreadThe Project: To bake and give away at least one loaf of bread each week in 2011.

The Reason: A personal protest against the rampant selfishness of our society.

The Bonus: It’s good spiritual practice.

In May, I gave away five and a half loaves of bread. A funny number, I know. I gave one loaf each to Alice and Joel Johnson; Richard Fortin, the director of our library; my daughter Shannon; Jim and Dawna Leavitt; and Mary and Tom Sturtevant. I gave a half loaf to Bob and Kate Johnson, and if ever a couple deserved a whole loaf of bread, it would be Bob and Kate. However, we had all gathered for a meal at Shannon and her husband, Mike’s, new place in South Portland. (I’ve written about this in a previous post.) I brought two loaves of bread, and we ate half of one. One loaf went to Shannon, and rather than take a half loaf home, I asked Kate if she would like it, and she said, yes. Very soon a whole loaf will be heading her way.

Now that summer is upon us, I’ve had to rethink my giving strategy. All last winter and into spring, I really didn’t have to plan ahead about giving bread. I could decide last minute, and give the recipients a quick call. Always, they were home. But with the advent of summer come plans, and people go away either for the day or longer. Mary and Tom nearly didn’t get theirs because they had gone for the day, but they were so keen to get homemade bread that they called as soon as they returned—I had left a message on their machine—and they got their loaf of bread.

Somehow, though, I have been reluctant to call before I see how the bread comes out. I would say that 98 percent of the time, the bread comes out well enough so that I feel comfortable giving it away. But occasionally the bread doesn’t rise as it should, or it falls a little. Naturally, this bread is perfectly good enough for my husband, Clif, and I to eat. (Bread has to be very bad indeed for us to toss it.) But if it doesn’t have a full, rounded pretty look, then I really don’t like to give it away.

In fact, on the week of May 18th, that’s exactly what happened. I made bread to give away, but the loaves looked kind of anemic—who knows why?—and I decided the bread should stay with us. I still reached my goal for the month, which was four loaves of bread. As it turned out, I surpassed it, but it worries me to offer bread before I see what it looks like.

Still, now that it is summer, that is probably what I will have to do. And if the bread is not quite as pretty as I would like, then so be it. Chances are, it will taste better than most of what can be bought at the store, especially in Winthrop.

Total for May: As previously stated, 5 1/2 loaves

Total for the year: 29 1/2 loaves

The year isn’t half over, but I’m well past my half-way goal of 26 loaves.

MEMORIAL DAY: BEST-EVER POTATO SALAD

potato saladAfter a long wet, rainy May, we had the warmest, sunniest, most-perfect Memorial Day that I can remember. The weather was hot but not stifling, and there was nary a dark cloud to dampen our day. For the most part, the dratted black flies were gone (and good riddance!), and the mosquitoes didn’t come out until dusk. This meant my husband, Clif, and I could spend the whole glorious afternoon on our patio, and we were joined by our daughter Shannon and her husband, Mike, for the first barbecue of the season.

At our house, barbecues follow a certain ritual. First comes the appetizer. We try not to go overboard on this, knowing that more food, lots more food, will follow. Yesterday we kept it simple with chips and salsa and a pitcher of margaritas to toast not only the beginning of summer but also those who have passed away and are very much missed.

Next comes grilled bread, which has become one of our specialties. So much so that guests actually request grilled bread when we invite them for a barbecue. Clif has become a master at stretching the dough, rolling it, flipping it, and making sure it doesn’t burn. A little olive oil for dipping, and you have yourself a pretty good treat. We take the easy way out—buying pizza dough from our local Hannaford—but ambitious cooks could certainly make their own. Perhaps one day I will. Regardless of whether the dough is made from scratch or purchased at a grocery, grilled bread wows most guests at pennies per serving. Now, how often does that happen?

After the bread has been dipped and eaten, we move on to the main meal. For this Memorial Day, we went traditional—grilled chicken, steamed corn, and the best-ever potato salad. (Yes, a recipe will follow.) There are three elements that make this potato salad especially good—bacon, sour cream, and, most important, the hot potatoes are marinated with a vinaigrette. The resulting potato salad is so flavorful that it really doesn’t need onions, although they certainly could be added. As raw onions do not agree with me, this is a real plus in my books.

Grilled chicken and potato salad

It is our habit to linger over the main meal until the citronella torches must be lit, dampness settles over the backyard, and, finally, the mosquitoes come out. Then in we go for tea and dessert. Shannon made chocolate thumb-print cookies, which she filled with a cream-cheese mixture and topped with chopped strawberries. A delectable ending to a splendid Memorial Day.

 

Best-Ever Potato Salad
Adapted from a recipe given to me by my friend Dawna Leavitt

7 medium potatoes
1/3 cup of vinaigrette or Italian dressing
4 or 5 hard boiled eggs, chopped
1/2 pound of bacon, cooked and crumbled
3/4 cup of sour cream, or to taste
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

Peel and cut potatoes in quarters. In a large stock pan, boil the potatoes until tender. As soon as the potatoes are done, chop them into bite-sized pieces, put them in a mixing bowl, and pour the vinaigrette or Italian dressing over the still-hot potatoes. Put the bowl in the refrigerator and let marinate a few hours, at least until the potatoes are cold.

When the potatoes are nice and chilled, add the chopped eggs, the crumbled bacon, the sour cream, the mayonnaise, and the salt and pepper. Mix well, put in a pretty serving dish, and ideally chill a bit more so that the flavors will mix. However, if you are pressed for time, the potato salad could be served immediately.

Full disclosure: I do not measure the sour cream or the mayonnaise. I add a bit of sour cream and then mayonnaise until I get a consistency that I like.

Also, 3/4 cup of chopped celery could be added, and for those who love onions, 1/3 cup or so of chopped onions. Parsley might be nice, too, but I never do. I just stick with the basics, and even onion lovers have requested this recipe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MARY AND TOM’S GARDENS

I love looking at other people’s gardens, at their flowers, vegetables, shrubs, trees, and garden ornaments. Every garden has a distinct look, created by the gardener who literally plots then toils and worries. There are triumphs, and there are failures. Some years the tulips are outstanding. Other years blight gets the tomatoes. Seasoned gardeners are all too aware of the vagaries of nature, and they plant a wide range of flowers and vegetables, thus assuring that something will bloom or bear fruit.

Yesterday, my husband, Clif, and I delivered a loaf of bread to Mary and Tom Sturtevant. Their house is just off our bike route, so we tucked the loaf in Clif’s bike pack and rode to Mary and Tom’s. They live in a lovely old house that once had an attached barn, as so many Maine houses did. Unfortunately, the barn had to be torn down, but in its place, Mary and Tom have put stonework and benches and gardens. As a result, their half acre—in town—is abloom with flowers and bursting with vegetable seedlings, a wonderful example of what can be done with a small amount of land that gets full sun.

“May we see your gardens?” I asked Mary. (Tom was out.)

“Oh, yes,” Mary said.

“May I take pictures of your flowers?”

“Anytime,” she replied.

Here are a few pictures of Mary’s flowers. As the season progresses, I might go back for more photos. After all, her place is just off our bike route, and my little Cannon—my stealth camera—pops right into my bike pack.

Tulips

 

Bee in flowers

 

Lily of the Valley

 

FARMER KEV’S GARLIC

For the past couple of years, my husband, Clif, and I have been fans of Farmer Kev, a young farmer also known as Kevin Leavitt, who lives in our town when he isn’t at university studying sustainable agriculture. I have written previously about Farmer Kev so I will be brief. When Kevin was about twelve years old, he became fascinated with gardening and with growing things. He started with his parents’ backyard, and when that wasn’t enough, Kevin leased land not far from his house so that he could grow things to sell, thus making the jump from gardener to farmer.

Kevin has a booth at the Winthrop Farmers’ Market, and for the past couple of years, we’ve bought vegetables from him at the market. Somehow, his vegetables just taste better than everyone else’s vegetables. His corn is sweeter; his lettuce is crisper; his garlic has more pep and crunch. It really does seem as though Farmer Kev has a green thumb, a sort of “psi” talent for growing things. In reality, I suppose he has a combination of traits that allows a person to excel in any given field—a burning interest in a subject, perseverance, hard work, and the ability to learn from mistakes.

This year, Clif and I decided to join Farmer Kev’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. Each week, starting sometime in June, we will be getting boxes of whatever is ripe in Kevin’s garden. We decided to start with a half share, which is $200, and see how that goes. (A full share is only $300, but we wanted to be sure we could eat all of the vegetables delivered in a half share before moving on to a full share.)

A week or so ago, Kevin sent pictures of his garden to members of his CSA, and he kindly agreed to let me use them in my blog. Above is a picture of his garlic, and despite the cool, rainy weather we’ve been having, it looks as though Kevin’s garden is thriving.

Come summer, come vegetables!

 

A NEW TABLE AND BUFFET

Dining room tableYesterday was a banner day for my daughter Shannon and her husband, Mike. They were the beneficiaries of a swirl of giving that started with Paul and Judy Johnson and extended to Paul’s son Bob and his wife, Kate. Paul and Judy are selling their house and are moving into a smaller one. As a result, they decided to give away many things that would not fit into their smaller home. A large buffet was one such item, and Paul and Judy asked Shannon and Mike if they would like it. Yes, indeed! After some measuring, Shannon and Mike confirmed that it would fit in their long, narrow kitchen, which has a decided lack of storage and counter space.

Then, Paul and Judy gave their big dining room set to Bob and Kate, which meant that Bob and Kate could offer their old set to Mike and Shannon. (I told you it was a swirl of giving.) Mike and Shannon have a very little table that will technically seat six, but when the places are set, there is no room for the food. Bob and Kate’s old dining room table is much bigger. Plenty of room for dinner plates and serving dishes.

Naturally, this meant renting a truck and moving furniture from New Hampshire (where Bob and Kate live) to Maine (where the rest of us live) and then from Maine to New Hampshire. Thus, as Bob put it, Operation Furniture Transfer was born. For Bob and Kate, it was a very long day, but all went well, and miracle of miracles, it was even a sunny day. (Moving furniture in the rain is no fun.) My husband, Clif, took off the day to help with Operation Furniture Transfer, and at the end of the day—and I mean this literally—Shannon and Mike had a new buffet and a new, large dining room table.

We ordered pizza from Pizza Magnolia, and we all gathered round to eat at the old table in the new home.

Many thanks to Paul and Judy and Bob and Kate for their generosity. How good it is to be able to give to family and friends. How good it is to give.

BOOK REVIEW: AS ALWAYS, JULIA: THE LETTERS OF JULIA CHILD & AVIS DEVOTO. EDITED BY JOAN REARDON AND PUBLISHED BY HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT, 2010

In this age of the computer—with Facebook, Twitter, and email—handwritten letters are pretty much a thing of the past. While there are probably some holdouts who prefer pen and paper, I expect most of us communicate electronically via the computer. While this kind of communication has its good points—speed and ease—it also has one very big drawback—impermanence. Simply put, letters written on paper have much more lasting power than messages sent through email.

We can only be grateful, then, that Julia Child and her friend, mentor, and confidante Avis DeVoto did not have use of computers when they were middle-aged women. Otherwise, we never would have had the many letters they sent to each other, starting in 1952 and ending in 1988, a year before Avis DeVoto’s death. For the letters in As Always, Julia are more than just a chronicle of everyday life in Europe (Julia Child) and Boston (Avis DeVoto) in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the book ends. These letters, arranged and edited by Joan Reardon, trace the arc of a remarkable phenomenon that, like most phenomena, would seem to be a foregone conclusion but really wasn’t. I am referring, of course, to the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which did so much to change the way Americans cook. While most foodies know that Julia Child was the driving force behind Mastering the Art of French Cooking—Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle also worked on the book—few foodies realize the pivotal role that Avis DeVoto played in getting this important cookbook published. DeVoto has been called “the midwife” of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Indeed, after reading As Always Julia, I wondered if Julia Child ever would have become JULIA CHILD without DeVoto’s help. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s fascinating to think about, and this book is a terrific lesson about the importance of friends.

It’s funny and somehow appropriate that the correspondence began with a knife. Bernard DeVoto, Avis’s husband, was a historian and a journalist. In a 1951 issue of Harper’s, Bernard DeVoto bemoaned the deplorable state of American knives, which were by and large stainless steel and thus couldn’t hold an edge. Julia Child and her husband, Paul, read the article, and even though neither of them knew Bernard DeVoto, they admired his writing, and Julia decided to send him a good knife along with a short letter of explanation. At the time, the Childs were living in Paris, and it was easy for them to get good knives. Avis DeVoto, “mainstay of and secretary to her husband, the mother of two sons, a reviewer of whodunits for the Boston Globe, an editor, an accomplished cook…” answered Julia’s letter and thanked her for the knife. Something immediately clicked between the two women, which resulted in more letters and a friendship that would last until Avis died in 1989.

When Julia Child first began corresponding with Avis DeVoto, Mastering the Art of French Cooking wasn’t really Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Instead, the proposed title was French Cooking for All, and the original idea was for it to be published in five individual volumes by Ives Washburn. Julia Child decided to send a first draft to Avis DeVoto, “who immediately saw [the book’s] potential” and thought it should go to Houghton Mifflin, her husband’s publisher. The manuscript did indeed go to Houghton Mifflin, and when they eventually got cold feet because of the manuscript’s length, Avis DeVoto managed to convince Alfred A. Knopf and a “talented young editor” named Judith Jones to read the manuscript and to consider publishing it as one long book. This they did, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking was finally born. This, of course, is only the briefest summation of what really happen during the long, long gestation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

In addition to this fascinating history, the smart and witty personalities of each woman shines clearly in this book. Both were passionate, liberal Democrats who were thrown into despair by Joseph McCarthy and his thugs. Child and DeVoto were interested in books, art, and ideas, and this correspondence should put to rest the notion that the 1950s were an intellectual wasteland. While not everyone was a vibrant thinker and a brilliant conversationalist during the 1950s, the same is also true of people today. I would even venture to guess that the percentages are pretty much the same between now and then, but I don’t have any numbers to back up this hypothesis.

Finally, while I have long been a fan of Julia Child and her large, glowing personality, I became totally smitten by the intense, loyal, funny Avis DeVoto, who did so much for Julia Child. How I would have loved to have had  a conversation with the two of them.

As Always Julia is a fascinating chronicle of a critical era in American food history, and it certainly belongs in the library of anyone who loves and is interested in food.

 

APPLE TART AND SALMON. TAKE THAT, GRAY DAYS!

We have had such a spell of wet, cool weather that many of us are wondering what this summer will be like. Is this a sign of things to come? We sure hope not. Etched in our memories is the summer when it seemed as though it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and blight struck the tomatoes hard. A summer with no fresh tomatoes is a miserable summer. Their reign of glory is brief but oh so welcome. In Maine, we do have greenhouse tomatoes from Backyard Farms in Madison. They’re not bad—better than what is usually found in grocery stores when tomatoes aren’t in season—but greenhouse tomatoes certainly can’t compete with tomatoes grown outside in the good earth.

This weekend, between showers, my husband, Clif, and I managed to go to the transfer station, where we could dump brush into a giant pile waiting to be composted as well as pick up some of the rich, black humus from a pile that has been composted. Unfortunately, because of all the rain, that area was a mud pit, and we couldn’t park too close to the compost. This meant slogging through the mud with our heavy, compost-filled garbage cans. What fun we had! We were just grateful that it didn’t start pouring until we had returned home, taken the garbage cans from the car, and cleaned the muddy mess left behind in the car boot. We gardeners certainly live on the edge.

However, all was not doom and gloom this weekend. On Saturday, our friends Jim and Dawna Leavitt invited us over for dinner, and they served us grilled wild salmon with a white sauce and chopped egg. I will admit that this is the first time I have had this traditional Yankee dish, and I am also not ashamed to admit that I loved it. Really, I could have lapped the plate. The moderately strong taste of the salmon blended so well with the white sauce and the eggs. A milder fish, such as haddock, would have needed some cheese in that sauce, but not the salmon. Just thinking about the salmon with white sauce and eggs makes me want more, and it was certainly the best meal we had all week.

Salmon with white sauce and eggs

Then, on Sunday, our friends Kate and Bob Johnson stopped by for a visit. I was able to lure them to Pete’s Roast Beef for the incredible roast beef sandwiches, but I also wanted to make a little something to serve at home with tea. My daughter Shannon is a big fan of frozen puff pastry, and it is very good indeed. For some reason, I had never used any, but I just so happened to have a box in my freezer. I also had apples in the refrigerator, brown sugar, and cinnamon. In other words, the fixings for a dessert that was not only simple to make but tasty as well. From finish to end, which included 40 minutes to thaw the dough, this dessert was made in about an hour’s time, with 10 minutes devoted to slicing the apples, mixing them with sugar, and arranging them on the puff pastry. If there is an easier, more delicious dessert, then I haven’t had it.

Apple tart

 

Apple tart with puff pastry

1 sheet of frozen puff pastry
4 small apples, or 3 medium, cored and sliced very thin
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
A pinch of salt

Remove one sheet of puff pastry from the box, and, without unfolding, let it thaw on the counter for 40 minutes. While the puff pastry is thawing, core and slice—as thin as you can—the apples and place them in a mixing bowl. Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and salt and mix with the apples. Do this enough in advance so that the apples and brown sugar can sit for a bit so that apples are really coated with the sugar. When the puff pastry has thawed, unfold and cut it in half the long way. Put the two halves on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, and arrange the apple slices so that they overlap and leave a nice edge. Bake in a preheated 425° oven for 18 to 20 minutes. Serve with either whipped cream or ice cream. While serving this type of dessert warm is always best, the apple tart is perfectly good served cold as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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