A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE

For the past couple of years, my husband, Clif, has struggled with high blood sugar, which, as I’m sure readers know, can lead to adult-onset diabetes. Mostly he’s been able to control it with diet and exercise, and often when Clif goes for his checkups, he gets a “gold star” from his doctor. Clif’s weight and blood sugar are exactly where they should be. However, occasionally Clif backslides, and if I’m going to be honest, I have to admit that it’s partly my fault. After all, what’s a husband to do when his wife gives him a sidelong glance and whispers, “Do you want to go to Bolley’s for fish and chips and donuts?” Does he take the high road and refuse? Of course he doesn’t. He succumbs every time. And who can blame him? No man worth knowing is immune to the siren call of Bolley’s, to those hand-cut potatoes, deep fried to perfection, crispy on the outside with just the right amount of give on the inside. To the fresh, flaky fish in a crumb batter so good that we eagerly eat the crumbs left behind. Then, there are the donuts, those tender, sugared circles of fried dough, which taste as though they’ve been fried in lard, even though the owner assures us that they have not. 

When Clif backslides too much, he gets a “wag of the finger” from his doctor as well as a stern lecture about the evils of high blood sugar, which, of course, are very real. Chastened, Clif turns to salads, at least for a time, and brings his weight and blood sugar down to where they should be. 

As every foodie knows, we are now in what might be called the “High Holy Days of Eating,” a time of sweet and savory excess where the appetite is fondly and shamelessly indulged. No sensible person tries to diet in December.  After all, New Year’s Day, with its emphasis on penance and resolution, is just around the corner. Until then, bring on the eggnog and cognac. 

For some inexplicable reason, Clif has chosen to have one of his frequent blood tests and doctor visits in December, and not surprisingly, this is when the wag of the finger usually comes. Last week, Clif went for the blood test, and yesterday he went to his doctor. We had both prepared ourselves for the usual holiday lecture. Instead, what Clif heard was so astonishing that at first neither of us could really believe it. Blood sugar, bad cholesterol, and weight were down. Good cholesterol was up. How could this be? How could this be happening in December, when sugarplums are dancing into our mouths as well as in our heads? 

We thought about what had changed over the past few months, since Clif’s last appointment, and we both came to the same conclusion. The biggest change is that we started this blog, which means that local, made-from-scratch food is absolutely at the center of things in our household. Now, we’ve been heading in this direction for some time. We didn’t, say, go from Little Debbie Snack Cakes one day to homemade carrot ginger soup the next. It’s been a gradual process that has spanned many years. But with this blog—the cooking, the writing, the thinking, the talking, and the photos—everything clicked into place, and intent and practice have finally combined to become a way of life for us. 

Very little of what we eat comes from a box. Bread, muffins, and biscuits are made by my hand and baked in my oven. I don’t buy skim or low-fat dairy products, but they all come from New England, indeed, mostly Maine, including Kate’s butter, which we now swear by. No margarine or butter substitutes for us. Our eggs come from a small farm, and the yolks are nearly orange. In the summer, we buy almost all our vegetables from the farmers’ market or a wonderful farm stand just up the road from where we live. Winters are harder, but we do what we can, and our emphasis is on soup, which we never seem to get tired of. How we love soup—warm, nourishing, economical, delicious, and, again, made by me. 

This posting could go on and on about the various implications of cooking from scratch, eating locally, and their effect on health, both on a personal level and on a national level. There are issues of time, which Americans never seem to have enough of; money spent on food; the advertising and subsequent pull of highly processed food; misconceptions about healthy and unhealthy food; and the role of joy and pleasure in food and eating. The list is long, and no doubt I’ll be returning to these issues over the next year. 

But, in brief, the food writer Michael Pollan is right when he advises, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. For more about this, read Pollan’s excellent In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.  He writes at great length about the health benefits of food that is grown locally, organically, and naturally. As he puts it, we are what our food eats.

Then, for heaven’s sake, if you aren’t already (and I suspect most readers already are) buy as much local food as possible, and go forth and cook from scratch. Your body will thank you.

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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.

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.

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