SUNDAY JAZZ BRUNCH AT OUR HOUSE

Waffle stationMy husband, Clif, and I enjoy feeding family and friends. Our daughter Shannon and her fiancé, Mike, frequently come for dinner, and once or twice a month, we have friends over either for an appetizer night or a meal. In the summer, we love to be outside on our patio, and we entertain out there as often as we can from June through September. But this time of year, until the weather is really warm, we like to host Sunday brunches. Few things are cozier than to invite some friends over, set the dining room table, put on jazz, and haul out our little “waffle table,” which we place next to Clif’s seat. Onto the waffle table go the ladle, waffle iron, and batter bowl. Onto the big table go the maple syrup, butter, and homemade blueberry syrup and caramel applesauce. Also, an earthenware pitcher of sweet apple cider from a local orchard.

Home friesSoon comes the buttery smell of home fries, made from cold potatoes cooked the day before. But the brunch revolves around Clif’s waffles, made fresh, one by one, at the dining room table, and passed around so that guests can help themselves to a section. Simply put, Clif’s waffles are soft, tender, and utterly addictive. I know this is bragging, but I can’t help it. His waffles are so good that it seems senseless to go to a restaurant to have breakfast. (His thick yet fluffy pancakes aren’t to be sneezed at, either.)

Waffles fall under the category of simple food involving a little extra preparation that takes them out of the category of everyday food. After all, what’s in a waffle? Flour, eggs, milk, baking powder, salt, and oil. That’s about it. But there is something special about sitting at the big oval table and watching Clif as he pours the thick batter into the waffle iron, closes the top, and then waits. In turn, we all wait in eager expectation for the golden hot waffle, and in the beginning, Clif cannot keep up with our appetites. The waffle plate goes around, and it comes back empty before the next waffle is ready. But eventually, aided by home fries and, say, a quiche or chili eggs, the time comes when the waffles pile on the plate faster than we can eat them, and then finally we can eat no more. Clif continues cooking the waffles until the batter is gone, and there will be toasted waffles for breakfast for the next week or so. What a wonderful thought!

Last Sunday, our friend John Clark came over for brunch. Unfortunately, his wife, Beth, was working and couldn’t join us, but  their daughter Lisa was visiting from New York, and she came with John. There are few things nicer for middle-aged folks than to be graced with the company of a young adult. I might be getting old and soft, but it seems to me that younger people just shine, and how nice it is to bask in their glow. Lisa teaches school in the Bronx in New York City, and she spoke of the joys and the challenges of teaching children raised in a tough, gritty neighborhood. John, who is the librarian in Hartland, Maine, is also a scrounge extraordinaire, and he finds treasures at the local transfer station to add to the library’s collection. He also swaps, via the Internet, to get books, DVDs, and CDs for the library, and as a result, the shelves are pretty much full. I am a sucker for scrounging stories where resourcefulness, cleverness, and creativity are employed so that what would once be thrown away becomes something useful and of value. If more people were like John (and his daughter Lisa, who is a chip off the old block, as the saying goes) then the world would certainly be a much greener place. And a better one, too.

Our friends Dawna and Jim Leavitt also came over, and they told us about their photography projects. (Dawna is working on an “Our Town” project, and she brought me some lovely photography cards she took of Hallowell, surely one of central Maine’s most photographic towns.)

Then, as late morning turned to afternoon, the talk went from the personal to the political and the societal. Clif made the insightful comment that nowadays, “Stuff is the opiate of the masses.” Who could argue? Our country is awash with cheap stuff, which in turn seems to pacify people who labor in low-paying jobs that offer no benefits. (Maine has a service sector economy, and many Mainers work in such jobs.) However, soothed and buttered by waffles, quiche, and home fries, we couldn’t really whip up ourselves into our usual state of progressive indignation.

Maybe what the world really needs, is brunch, sweet brunch, to make it a mellower place.  And, of course,  a little jazz to go with it.

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RICE DREAMS: A PIECE IN THE NEW YORK TIMES

This morning, I read an article in the New York Times that vindicates what organic farmers have been saying for years. That is, you can’t separate growing crops from the health of the soil, and commercial fertilizers and pesticides kill the living things necessary for that health. The article features Kurt Unkel, a third-generation farmer from Louisiana who has been growing rice for thirty years using conventional methods. But then he noticed something alarming: “[I]t got to the point where you could plow 100 acres and you wouldn’t find one earthworm.” So he and his wife, Karen, decided to go organic with the brown jasmine rice they were growing. It was costly, and it took a long time, but Unkel did it. In a state that only has twenty-three organic farms, this might seem more than a little maverick. But who knows? Maybe Unkel will inspire other farmers in his area. Also fascinating was Unkel’s realization that with conventional farming and government subsidies, the money would be the same, no matter how much rice he grew. As Michael Pollan and other writers have suggested, it is high time we revamp the laws regarding agricultural subsidies.  

For the full story, here is the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/magazine/28food-t-000.html?ref=dining

MOM’S BISCUITS GO SOUTH

My friend Marilis, who is from Tennessee, has told me there are two things that every Southern woman should know how to make—biscuits and piecrust. She has also said, with a twinkle in her eyes, that it’s a good thing her husband, who is a Northerner, didn’t know this when they got married. In truth, I expect he did and then quite rightly decided it didn’t much matter that Marilis couldn’t make biscuits or piecrust. It’s a well-known fact that Northerners, especially Mainers, are as keen on biscuits and pie as Southerners are. Geography, climate, and, perhaps temperament might make Southerners and Northerners seem like opposites, but they are united in their love of biscuits and pie. 

My own mother was a good pie maker, but her biscuits were outstandingly good. They were so light and fluffy that they really did pretty much melt in your mouth. Although I have always used her recipe, my biscuits have never been as good as hers. She just had the knack. (Her biscuit recipe is in the post Using Leftovers: Biscuit Pizza.) 

Mom died two years ago in May, well before I started this blog and posted her biscuit recipe. She would have been thrilled to have her biscuit recipe online, but she would have been tickled beyond pink to know that her biscuit recipe has traveled south, to biscuit country, to North Carolina.

My friends Bob and Kate Johnson have gone to North Carolina to visit their daughter, Erin. Recently, I received an email from Kate describing how she had gone to a farmers’ market, bought some peach butter (among other things), and then made some of my mother’s biscuits to go with the peach butter. What a great combination! I am crazy about all things peach, and my one big regret about the Maine climate is that it’s too cold, as a rule, for peaches. (There are small microclimates in Maine where a peach tree or two can be grown, but they are the exception and are thus very rare. Alas, I have never seen local peaches at any Maine farmers’ market.) Erin liked the biscuits so much that she wants the recipe so that she can make them for herself. (Kate knows where to direct her.) 

A few more words about Erin. This is a young woman who grows herbs on her deck and who makes panfried black bean cakes for her parents when they come to visit. Pish posh on those naysayers who claim that young people “just don’t know much about food nowadays and don’t know how to cook, either.” Well, this young person does, and so do the young people in my life. If our children are cooking, then I suspect many other young adults are cooking, too. A good example of how generalizations are often wrong. 

As Mother’s Day approaches, it is lovely for me to think about how Mom lives on through her biscuit recipe, not only here in Maine with her family but also down south with another family. This sharing of recipes, passed down through the generations, illustrates food at its best, when it transcends mere sustenance to become a gift.

ANOTHER ANNIVERSARY MEAL

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned how lucky we were to have friends who are such terrific cooks. The same can be said about our daughters. Our eldest daughter, Dee, who lives in New York City, is a vegetarian, and even when she was in her early twenties, it was obvious she had a real flare for cooking. Shannon, our youngest, has come to cooking later—in her late twenties—but the progress she has made with her cooking over the past two years has been nothing short of remarkable. This is despite the fact that she works full time and has a long commute. Her example shows that “where there is a will there is a way,” and for couples without children, there really isn’t much of an excuse to turn to processed food because there “isn’t time to cook.” Mark Bittman, with his self-proclaimed minimalist approach, is a favorite of hers, but Shannon also subscribes to Food & Wine magazine, and she is always on the lookout for good recipes. 

Yesterday, she and her fiancé, Mike, invited us to their apartment for an anniversary dinner. Unfortunately, Clif forgot to bring his camera, which was too bad, because the dish she made was so pretty in the pottery bowl she used as a serving dish. (Perhaps she can be persuaded to make it again so that Clif can take a picture of it.) The dinner she served was something of a fusion dish—spiced pork in a stir fry with broccoli, peppers, ginger, and garlic served over spaghetti. Oh, my, it was good! For dessert she made a baked custard with strawberries, a perfect light accompaniment to the pasta dish. 

So all in all, thanks to family and friends, Clif and I had a delicious anniversary weekend, and the cherry on the weekend wasn’t food related at all. Instead, it was the health care bill that the House passed, and although it wasn’t designed solely for us, it felt like a real gift. Kudos to President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid for having the courage to continue on the right path, despite the tremendous opposition, much of it very ugly. (The spitting on black lawmakers by some of the Tea Party folks was a real low.) Like Medicare and Social Security, this health care legislation will improve life not only for the poor but for businesses and the middle class as well. 

Happy anniversary to us!

BRUNCH USING SOME ELEGANT LEFTOVERS

Last night, we had some friends over for an appetizer night, and those friends—Alice and Roger and Erma and Chuck—sure know how to make some terrific appetizers. It must be duly noted that we would be just as fond of them if they weren’t good cooks, but how lucky for us that they are. Erma and Chuck brought an artichoke crab dip and some French bread to go with it. Alice and Roger brought a mushroom spread, crackers, and beef with cream cheese and horseradish wrapped around perfectly cooked asparagus. I made some appetizers, too, of course, and we had quite a feast.

Leftover BrunchAmong the leftovers were four of the beef-wrapped asparagus, and I tucked them into a container and put them in the refrigerator. They did, however, put us in a bit of a quandary. This afternoon, we are going over to our daughter Shannon’s home for an anniversary meal—our thirty-third wedding anniversary was on Friday, March 19th—which means that having the asparagus for dinner is out. Because of the rather delicate nature of the asparagus, it didn’t seem as though they would keep for very long in the refrigerator. We hate wasting food of any kind, and when it’s something as elegant and delicious as that beef-wrapped asparagus, we especially don’t want to waste it.

So what to do? Why, incorporate the asparagus as part of a Sunday morning brunch. We had leftover homemade bread, which we toasted, added scrambled eggs, and voilà!  A brunch classy enough to rival what we would get at most restaurants in Maine. All it needed was a bloody Mary to go with it. However, Clif and I settled for coffee and tea, and we thought the brunch was very good indeed.

OUR ANNIVERSARY MEAL

Yesterday, my husband, Clif, and I celebrated our thirty-third wedding anniversary. What a strange thing to think that we have been married to each for over half our lives. We are way past the ten-year mark, and, indeed, in seven more years we will hit the forty-year mark. Holy guacamole, as our daughter Dee would say. Clif and I are both getting up there, that’s for sure.

Scalloped scallops plateWe briefly considered going out to eat to celebrate our big day, and we even had coupons for a buy-one-entrée-get-one-free deal at a local restaurant that’s not too bad. But being a frugal couple, we started doing the math, and we figured that even with the two-for-one deal, we would end up spending between $40 and $50, depending on what we ordered. In addition, Augusta, Maine, is not known for its fine dining. Maine has many first-rate restaurants, but they are at least an hour away, and, along with our budget, we are always conscious of our carbon footprint. We knew we could do much better cooking our own special meal.

“What would you like?” I asked Clif.

He did not hesitate. “”

Clif’s love of scalloped scallops rivals his love of roast turkey, and it is what he asks for on special occasions. He recently declared, “It is the best scallop dish I have had. Ever.” The scallop recipe I use is based on an old Yankee recipe from our 1930s The Boston Cooking School Cook Book by none other than Fannie Merritt Farmer. Over the years, especially now with the foodie revolution well underway in the United States, Yankee cooking and Fannie Farmer have become, shall we say, a little déclassé. Oh, those boring garlic-averse, white-sauce-loving Yankees. What is the use of their recipes? But here I find myself defending Yankee cooking. While it is true that Yankee cooking is not known for its spices, and some of the food is downright plain, it is also true that when the ingredients are topnotch, plain food cooked well is, in fact, utterly delicious. (And if a Franco-American can defend anything Yankee, then there is hope for the Israelis and the Palestinians. Let’s just say that in Maine, the relationship between the Francos and the Yankees has not always been as smooth as the white sauce those Yankees loves so much.)

Scalloped scallops and Fanny FarmerWhen it comes to scalloped scallops, I completely agree with Clif—they are damned good, and they are simplicity itself. Here is the list of ingredients: scallops (naturally!), cracker crumbs, breadcrumbs, butter, salt and pepper. Milk or cream. And that is it. Cook them for forty minutes or so, and you have yourself a pretty good meal.

So scalloped scallops it was, and along with them we had homemade bread, baked potatoes, and a cabbage, carrot, and toasted almond salad with a cider vinegar and brown sugar dressing. Now, I don’t like to exaggerate, but as the saying goes, Clif tucked into those scallops like there was no tomorrow. I did get a decent-sized spoonful, plus a couple of extras, but he ate at least half the scallops, and by the time he was done, there was just a small serving leftover for lunch the next day. Clif was definitely the good eater last night.

The only stumble came with dessert. I made a pie I have never made before—Marjorie Standish’s Lemon Sponge Pie. (I decided if I was going to go Yankee, I might as well go all the way.) It’s basically a lemon custard pie, and like all custards you bake it hot for fifteen minutes or so. Then, you turn down the oven and finish baking it. The initial blast of heat stops the crust from becoming a soggy mess. Dutifully following the instructions, I baked the pie at 425° F for fifteen minutes, turned the oven down to 325°, and baked the pie for another twenty-five minutes. When the timer rang, and I opened the door to check on the pie, I was disconcerted to see that the top was dark brown—almost burnt looking—and I immediately removed the pie, fearing the top would indeed burn if I left the pie in any longer. Unfortunately, the middle wasn’t done, and it was soupy, but ironically, the top tasted very good, reminiscent of a crème caramel. Perhaps leaving it in for another five or ten minutes would have been just fine, but I won’t be making this pie again to find out. Its flavor was not as lemony as we would have liked, and I’ll be experimenting with other lemon pies. Still, all was not lost. We were able to drain off the excess liquid and have a pie that was reasonably tasty.

Despite our disappointment with the pie, we both enjoyed our home-cooked anniversary meal. Even with the scallops, which admittedly are a little pricey, we estimated that the entire meal cost us no more than $17, a far cry from the $40 or $50 we would have spent going out.

We were so pleased with ourselves, that we’ll probably do the same thing—minus the lemon sponge pie—next year.

Making Scalloped scallops

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TO JILLSON’S FARM AND SUGARHOUSE

Jillsons Farm signLast weekend, we went to Jillson’s Farm and Sugarhouse in Sabattus, Maine, for their hearty weekend breakfast buffet. Tucked between rolling hills, which in March are the color of shredded wheat, the farm is in classic central Maine country—wide fields and hills punctuated by forests. While Maine is rightly known and loved for its rocky coast, this central Maine landscape will always be what I envision when I think about the state.

Jillson’s has a store/dining area large enough for a buffet table and a smattering of  dining tables, many of them long and family style. There are maple products galore to tempt those like me, who are smitten by anything with a maple flavor. I succumbed to maple-cream donuts and maple-flavored kettle corn, one of my absolute favorites. After all, it combines two things I especially love—maple syrup and popcorn. The store also sells other Maine products such as cheese, eggs, and butter.

I spoke with Pat Jillson, one of the owners, and she told me that the maple syrup season was over. It started February 28th and only lasted for a couple of weeks. “It was the shortest ever,” she said. So there was no smoke coming from the wood fires used to boil down the sap, no watching the alchemy of sap turning to syrup. Because the season was so short, the yield was not good, and I can’t help but wonder if prices will go up because of this. Fortunately, Pat and her husband, Ed, do not rely solely on maple syrup for their livelihood. They have a large farm and grow a variety of vegetables, which I often buy at the farmers’ market in downtown Winthrop. Jillson’s Farm illustrates perfectly how diversity is a very good thing.

Below are pictures that my husband, Clif, took, inside and outside, of the  farm and the too quiet sugarhouse. We can only hope that next year will be a better season for maple syrup.

Sugar House Door

Wood fired sugar shack

Maple filled

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