EATING IN ITALY: HOME FOOD

Food lovers hardly need to be reminded that Italy, along with France, is one of the prime countries to visit if your idea of a perfect vacation consists mainly of finding good places to eat. I ready admit to being guilty of this, even when I was a teenager. At sixteen, when I went to France, I was interested in two things—cute boys and food, and not necessarily in that order. 

In the New York Times, Matt Gross recently has written an article with the headline “Mangia, Mangia!” that sure makes you wish you were in Italy. He writes about joining an organization called Home Food, “an Italian organization dedicated to, as its promotional literature states, ‘the protection and increase of the value of typical Italian gastronomic and culinary legacy.’” Membership then allows you to go into actual Italian homes where families cook for you. Gross writes vividly about both the food and the families, and by the time I was done reading the article, I was ready for dinner, even though it was only 9:30 A.M. Ready for “hand-cut triangles of pasta with juicy zucchini, a dollop of sweet roasted pumpkin and a rosemary sauce bound with sheep’s-milk ricotta” and pasta “in a sauce of puréed and whole chickpeas (which the family had farmed itself).” And there was more. Much more. 

Anyway, for a vicarious food experience, here is a link to Matt Gross’s piece

Gross’s article started me thinking about what a Maine version of Home Food would be. Don’t laugh. Yankee food can be good food, and there are other ethnic groups in Maine, including Franco-Americans, my own group. We make pretty tasty tourtière pies, and our pea soup isn’t bad, either. But it seems to me that a Maine version of Home Food would be best as a summer event. When you live this far north, the local pickings are mighty slim in the winter. Of course, there is always seafood, which is good any time of year, and blueberries survive the freezing process amazingly well, which means tender blueberry cake can be on the menu even when there is snow on the ground. But my mind turns to fresh strawberries, corn, and new potatoes. Peas and string beans with a fresh, crisp snap. 

One year, my husband, Clif, invited Jack, an out-of-state colleague, to stay with us. Jack had come to Maine from Utah to help my husband run a seminar. He came in July, and we plied him with Maine’s summer bounty—scallops, lobster, strawberry shortcake, and every other good thing we could think of. At night, Jack’s conversations to his wife revolved around what he had just had for dinner. 

None of the food was fancy, but I think it’s fair to say that Jack left Maine with a good taste in his mouth. And what better way is there to leave a place?

PIZZA NIGHT: HIS VS. HERS

Pizza My husband, Clif, is convinced that a true pizza consists of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and a layer of pepperoni so thick that it looks as though the pizza has been tiled. Sausage is an acceptable addition or substitute. He’s also keen about barbecue sauce and chicken pizza. Basically, if the pizza has some kind of sauce and meat, chances are that Clif will like it. Our daughter Shannon’s fiancé, Mike, pretty much feels the same way, as does our good friend Joel Johnson. Male solidarity?

While I can and do eat the sauce and meat extravaganzas that Clif loves, my favorite kind of pizza is quite different. Usually, it doesn’t have any sauce at all. Instead, it has olive oil, maybe some garlic, sliced tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, maybe some feta, sweet red peppers, and calametta olives. No meat. The sad truth is, when it comes to pizza, Clif and I have a mixed marriage.

Twice a month or so, usually on weekends, I make pizza and invite Shannon and Mike to join us. Normally, I make the tiled-pepperoni pizza, but last weekend, I was in the mood for my kind of pizza, and I informed Clif, as gently as possible, that this pizza was going to be more Mediterranean than what we usually have.

Clif’s reaction was admirably stoic, and as I assembled the pizza, he uncomplainingly fetched his camera so that he could take some pictures for this post.

Pizza toppingOn went the vegetables and cheese. Click went the camera. Olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried oregano followed. The camera clicked some more. Suddenly the clicking stopped, and the room was quiet for a few moments. Clif lowered the camera.

“You mean there isn’t going to be any sauce?” Clif asked, in the manner of someone who has just discovered that he’s been horribly tricked.

“No sauce,” I admitted softly.

Without comment, Clif raised the camera to his face, and the clicking continued, but it now had a half-hearted sound. I knew that for Clif, dinner had lost its usual glow. (Clif loves his dinner the way some men, say, love baseball or football, with a fervor that goes way beyond mere enjoyment.)

PizzaForty-five minutes or so later, the pizza, a glory of vegetables, creamy cheese, and crisp crust, came from the oven. Clif didn’t complain, but instead of his usual two or three slices, he only had a slice and a half.

I sighed, knowing what the next pizza would be like. To paraphrase the writer Don Robbins, “all is compromise here on Narrows Pond Road.” But maybe in three or four months, when the memory of the usurping, sauceless pizza has faded from Clif’s memory, I’ll slip in another one. Or who knows? Maybe I’ll even make two—a Mediterranean one for me and a saucy, pepperoni one for him.

A FOODIE IDEA FOR A MOTHER’S DAY GIFT

My husband, Clif, and I publish a web magazine called Wolf Moon Journal, and I just posted a piece written by Don Robbins, a retired school teacher who lives in “a dome” on Mellow Hill in Sydney, Maine. Don’s piece is called “Horizon Days,” and it’s about a present he made for his mother, who is in her nineties and doesn’t need any more gewgaws or artwork. As Don puts it, “To the contrary, she has been zealously divesting herself of many of the decorative items that crowd her small apartment.” 

But on special occasions such as Mother’s Day, we want to do something for our mothers (and fathers, too!) even if they don’t need any more clutter in their lives. So Don put together a booklet with the title Look Ahead to Horizon Days, with lists of favorite activities for him and his mother to do throughout the year. Don writes so well and so charmingly that rather than go into any detail about his project, I’m just going to provide the link to his “Horizon Days” piece

As my mind quite naturally turns to food, I started thinking about how much fun it would be to put together a Mother’s Day booklet with promised gifts of food for each month. This could be a wonderfully flexible gift. If the budget allows, and Mother lives some distance away, the food gifts could be delectable treats ordered from the Internet. (Chocolate, of course, immediately comes to mind.)  If Mother lives within driving distance, the best thing to do would be to make and deliver a special homemade treat once a month. There are lots of possibilities, ranging from bread, spiced nuts, and, when I think of my own mother, an apple crisp, which she just loved. Frosted heart-shaped sugar cookies for February. Strawberry shortcake for July. Marge Standish’s delectable blueberry cake for August, and for this cake it is always best to use wild Maine Blueberries. Main meals, too, of course. Scalloped scallops was another of my mother’s favorite dishes. And cheddar cheese soup, a perfect gift for a winter month. 

Don decorated his booklet with his own original artwork. For those of us who are not quite as talented in that department, collage would be a snappy alternative that could even feature pictures of the promised treats on each page. 

My own mother died two years ago. Nevertheless, it gives me pleasure imagining what kind of booklet I would have made for her and remembering the things she liked to eat. 

Finally, this is a gift that could be expanded to other gift-giving occasions—birthdays, Christmas, even anniversaries. Homemade treats can fit into even a very frugal budget, and some of the most delicious ones, say, bread, hardly cost anything at all to make. What this gift involves is time, that will-o’-the-wisp element that nobody, especially Americans, seems to have enough of. 

But what better gift to give?

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.

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!

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