ON THIS SNOWY DAY

January in Maine means deep winter with the landscape suspended in a tight freeze of snow and quiet. Today, when I look out my office window I see snow falling on trees already white from yesterday’s storm. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the landscape is monochrome, the colors are definitely limited—the dark green of the conifers, the brown trunks of leafless trees, and, of course, white everywhere.  

With its service sector economy, Maine is not an easy place to live in the winter when the fuel bills are high, and tight budgets must be stretched even tighter so that families can stay warm. Still, when we compare our situation to, say, the situation of those living in Haiti, we have much to be thankful for. And we cannot help but be moved by the suffering of the thousands and thousands of people who are grief-stricken, hungry, thirsty, and homeless. My husband and I have done our small part to help, and I know this is true for many Mainers as well as for Americans in every state. 

Somehow, then, it seems appropriate in this posting to give thanks for what I have. First and foremost, I want to give thanks that I live in a country with a strong central government that at least provides a certain measure of social services. As my friend Brian Hannon put it in a recent email, “Without our strong, stable central government, we’d be no better off than Haiti or any other messed-up country. Obviously we don’t want to become some North Korean dictatorship, but without strong leadership in Washington, we’d have a lot more problems than we do, social, financial, security, etc.” Yes, we would, and those who huff and puff about the evils of the nanny state should take a long, hard look at what it’s like in countries where governments do as little as possible. Would these huffers and puffers really want to live in such countries? Unless they were tremendously wealthy and could thus insulate themselves from everyday life, I suspect they would not.  

I give thanks for my little house in the big woods. Modest though it is, our house has sheltered my family and me, and it has been a place where our friends can gather. Even though it is small, it has given me “a room of my own” and the quiet I need to work. 

Naturally I give thanks for my family and friends, and I shudder to think what Haitians are going through right now. Bad enough to lose your house; far worse to lose family and friends. 

Finally, I give thanks for my full cupboards, for the bags of beans, nuts, and rice. For the pasta and spices and flour. For the sugar and molasses. For the eggs that come from a local farm. For the big bag of apples in the guest room, which is closed off and cold. For the basket of squash also in the guest room. For the interest, time, and ability to turn these staples into hearty, satisfying meals. Like our house, these meals are not fancy, but they are tasty and nourishing, and they help keep my husband, Clif, and me healthy. 

So much to be thankful for in this long, cold month when slowly, slowly the days begin to get longer.

SHANNON’S PLAN: COOKING WITH MARK BITTMAN

Once in a while, even as an adult, there is a Christmas gift that you really long for, one that you fervently hope you will find under the tree. So it was this Christmas for our daughter Shannon, and the present was How to Cook Everything by the inimitable Mark Bittman, who writes about food for the New York Times. It might be going too far to say that Shannon and I are Mark Bittman groupies. However, we are certainly enthusiastic fans, and we have both come to rely on and trust his cooking advice. Bittman advocates cooking at home and cooking from scratch using fresh ingredients, but he realizes that in this busy world, few home cooks have the luxury or the time to spend all day with a recipe. Therefore, his recipes are relatively quick—most take no more than an hour to prepare. They are also healthy and delicious. Bittman’s moniker is “the minimalist,” and his recipes are proof that fast food doesn’t have to be bad. 

Shannon works full time and has a fairly lengthy commute—about an hour each way. She and her fiancé, Mike, usually get home at about 6:00, and except for the occasional pizza, they cook dinner almost every night. Therefore, Shannon felt as though she really needed Mark Bittman’s book to expand her repertoire of tasty but relatively quick meals. 

“Do you think Mom got it for me for Christmas?” Shannon asked her sister, Dee, when the two of them went shopping just before Christmas. 

Dee, in turn, tried not to laugh because she was the one who had bought it for Shannon. But all Dee said was, “I don’t know what Mom got you, Shannon.” 

“Well,” came the retort, “if I don’t get it for Christmas, then I’m just going to have to bite the bullet and buy it for myself.” 

When Dee later related the conversation to me, I said, “Oh, she’ll be looking for it among the presents.” 

How to Cook Everything is a big book. After all, it has to be if it’s going to live up to its title. We both knew Shannon would spot in a flash if it was under the tree. 

“Let’s hide it in the entertainment center,” I suggested.  “We can give it to her after all the presents have been opened.” 

This we did, and I must say that after all the gifts were opened, and How to Cook Everything was not among her pile of presents, Shannon’s expression was still cheerful. “I decided to be philosophical about it,” Shannon would say later. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she had received a couple of gift cards that could be used for the book’s purchase. 

Naturally, Shannon was delighted when we retrieved the book from its hiding place, and we gave it to her. She didn’t even scold us for tucking it away where she couldn’t see it.

Now, the older we get, the more we know that presents come and presents go, and even longed-for gifts sometimes lose their luster as time goes by. However, unless I am very much mistaken, How to Cook Everything will be a present that is used for years and years. 

In fact, Shannon has a plan, slightly reminiscent of Julie and Julia. In a recent email to me, she wrote, “I’m creating an Excel spreadsheet and putting all of the recipes and their variations that are in Mark Bittman’s book (excluding anything that Michael and I are either allergic to or know that we’re not going to like—no onion or peanut butter soups!). I’m also breaking them up by the chapters in the book to make them easier to find. I’m up to page 500 in the cookbook right now (I think there’s almost 1000 pages—so about half way there!). And in that Excel spreadsheet I also have for each recipe a column to put the page number it’s on, if Michael liked it, if I liked it, and whether I thought the recipe was good for company or just us. And so there’s no timeline for this—some of the recipes (like a lot of the seafood) are ones that we can’t afford to make right now. But I’m just going to try to make at least two or three new recipes a week and note them down in the Excel spreadsheet so that I can keep track of what I’ve done and what I haven’t. I thought about just writing notes in the book—but with the spreadsheet, it seemed easier to see what had been done and what hadn’t. And also I don’t like to write in books.” 

Shannon has promised to share some of these meals with us, and I will be reporting on how they turn out. 

And based on Shannon’s plans, How to Cook Everything certainly seems to be a gift that, as the saying goes, will keep giving.

USING LEFTOVERS: BISCUIT PIZZA

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to make better use of leftovers, to regularly scan the refrigerator, take stock of what we have, and then use what’s there before it goes bad. Filled with the energy that comes from a new resolve, a few days ago I rummaged through the refrigerator and found a jar of pizza sauce that Shannon had brought for New Year’s. It was one-third full, not enough for a pasta meal, especially not for my husband, Clif, who could fairly be classified as a pasta hound. Biscuit PizzaThat much sauce on pasta would be the merest appetizer for him, and there would be nothing left for me. But I thought there would be enough for a small pizza, which doesn’t need as much sauce as pasta. However, on the day I was considering the sauce, I had many errands to do and not much time to make pizza dough. Then I spied a carton of milk, also about one-third full. “What about biscuit pizza?” I asked myself.

What about it? Certainly, it’s not as good as one with traditional pizza dough, but it’s not bad, either. In fact, it’s pretty tasty. And quick, which on that busy day was a plus. Biscuit pizza it would be, then. All that was left to worry about was the cheese. I didn’t have mozzarella or any other kind of mild cheese. Instead, I had a leftover block of cheddar, which was getting a little hard and needed to be used. Again, not necessarily the first choice, but in the spirit of using leftovers, it was a good one.

Because biscuit dough is softer and more absorbent than pizza dough, I decided to cook it in stages rather than put it together all at once, the way a traditional pizza is assembled. I made a batch of biscuits, using my mother’s recipe. (Oh, she was a great biscuit maker! Mine are good, but they don’t even come close to hers.) I patted the dough into an 11 x 7 ungreased  pan and baked it for 20 minutes at 450° F, just until the top was beginning to brown. Then, I put on the pizza sauce and let it cook for another five minutes. Finally, I added the cheese and baked the pizza until the cheese was nicely melted, another five minutes or so.

Readers, this impromptu pizza came out just the way I had envisioned, with a nice biscuit layer that was moist but not soggy, the right amount of sauce, and cheese that was not too brown. As an added bonus, the cheddar turned out to be a great topping for the biscuit pizza. Somehow, the sharpness worked very well. If I had had mozzarella, then I would have used it, but I have a feeling that in terms of absolutes, the cheddar was a better choice.

Now, I expect no true pizza lover would have gotten excited about this pizza, and it was certainly a humble dish. But, by making biscuit pizza, I used up leftover milk, cheese, and pizza sauce that might have gone to waste. The results were not a gourmet’s delight, but the pizza was hearty and warm, a tasty supper that both Clif and I both enjoyed. It also reheated well when we had the leftovers for lunch the next day. I expect I will be making it again sometime, and when I do, I will probably use a tomato sauce that I make using Muir Glen organic crushed tomatoes with basil, to which I add plenty of chopped garlic and a little red pepper flakes.

Biscuit Pizza step1 For those who want to give this pizza a try, here is my mother’s biscuit recipe. I suppose there is no need to add that biscuits go with just about any meal, but I’ll do it anyway.

Rochelle’s Biscuits

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 heaping teaspoons baking powder (I use a regular spoon rather than a proper measuring spoon.)
4 tablespoons of shortening
1 cup milk

Combine flour, salt, and baking powder. Add the shortening and with

either a fork or pastry blender, cut into the four mixture until it is crumbly. Add the milk. (Note: biscuits are best when the dough is very moist. I use what old timers would call “1 cup milk, strong. That is, slightly more than a cup.)

Put the dough onto a floured surface and knead a few times. Don’t overknead, or biscuits will be tough.

Then, the dough can be pressed into a pan for the pizza. Or, cut into biscuits for biscuits. If making biscuits, put a bit of butter on the tops and bake at 450° F for twenty minutes or until brown.

GLUTEN-FREE COOKIES

I love a homemade cookie.  So, I assume everyone else does, as well.  How can one resist that tempting texture and flavor combination that it seems only a homemade cookie can provide? 

There are several people in my life who are unable to eat anything with gluten. 

This makes cookie baking a bit challenging. I decided to try baking three different types of cookies that would be gluten free to give as Christmas presents to these loved ones. 

It turned out to be so much easier and more satisfying than I had anticipated. 

First, I chose a flourless cookie, a peanut butter and chocolate sandwich cookie recipe I found in the December 2007 Fine Cooking magazine. It reminded me of the famous peanut butter cookie with the Hershey Kiss in the middle, a classic holiday cookie that brings warm memories of childhood celebrations. 

It was easy to prepare and delicious. 

Next, I chose a Ghirardelli Ultimate Double Chocolate Cookie recipe that called for only 1/3 cup flour. I’d made this cookie before using wheat flour and can vouch for its delightful chocolate flavor and chewy texture.  Instead of the wheat flour, I substituted a gluten-free flour consisting of a combination of white and brown rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca flour that I purchased at Anello’s Gluten Free Cafe in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The gracious owner gave me the needed xanthum gum product that “binds” the flour ingredients. You can buy off-the-shelf products in most grocery stores that have similar mixtures, but I love this shop and make local purchases as often as possible. (After the holidays, I went to Portsmouth and found that Anello’s had closed. I hope it is going somewhere else and not folding.) 

Using the same gluten-free flour, I went out on a limb and prepared a slice and bake shortbread type cookie that called for 3 1/3 cups of flour.  This recipe was found in the same December 2007 Fine Cooking magazine, and I added the ginger and cinnamon it suggested as a flavor variation. 

I packaged the cookies for a family of five, four of whom have Celiac’s Disease and must not eat wheat flour. They have a traditional family party on Christmas Eve Day with several extended family members. 

I received a text message in the midst of their party, “My family is LOVING your cookies!”

Merry Christmas to me!!

HAPPY NEW YEAR AND A FEW RESOLUTIONS

The holidays are over. I made more chocolate chip cookies than it’s even decent to consider, plenty of peanut butter balls, and lemon-frosted shortbread as well as tourtière pies and potato cheese soup. Clif made—not once, but twice—some of his wonderful waffles. Then there were the home fries and French toast. Our daughter Shannon, who is really getting into the cooking spirit, made us some treats from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. These included roasted chickpeas and pistachios (oh my, they are good!); stuffed mushrooms; an olive tapenade; and a chickpea soup with tahini and cumin. Well done, Shannon! Give this young woman a gold star, says her proud mother. 

A few short years ago, Shannon’s claim to culinary fame was limited to scrambled eggs. Now, there is nothing wrong with scrambled eggs. I like them, too, but they can get a bit tedious if served every night for dinner or supper or whatever you want to call it. But things can change, and so it has with Shannon. She’s gone from being an indifferent cook to someone who fervently hoped that Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything would be waiting for her under the Christmas tree. (It was, courtesy of her sister, Dee.) 

This ability to change, in turn, brings me to New Year’s resolutions. Some people dismiss them as unrealistic, nagging goals that can never be attained and whose only purpose seems to be to induce guilt. Certainly, resolutions can have this effect. But taken in the right spirit, New Year’s resolutions also can be seen as guidelines that encourage us to grow and to become more creative, more mindful. And here’s the good thing about resolutions: whatever progress we make is more than we would have made if we had done nothing. If we fall short—which, being human, we probably will—then there is always next year. 

So in the creative, mindful sense, here are my New Year’s resolutions: 

Buy more in bulk
This can be tricky when there are usually only two people to feed, the way it is in our household. However, nuts, beans, rice, popcorn, oatmeal, and spices are much more affordable when bought in bulk. In fact, so much so that it is often possible to buy organic, even with a frugal food budget. With careful planning and organization, a small family can take advantage of bulk prices. Unfortunately, because I am right-brained and rather disorganized, this one will be a real challenge for me. But this year I am determined to buy more in bulk, use what I buy, and thus save money. 

Cook even more from scratch
Yes, I know. I cook a lot from scratch, probably more than many people do. However, I still have some weak spots, so to speak. The most glaring one is salad dressing. With all the meals I make, you might think that salad dressing would be a snap, but for some reason it isn’t. Somehow, I always turn to the bottled ones, which are loaded with ingredients that can hardly be pronounced and are certainly not good for you. Crackers are another weak spot. Mark Bittman has assured readers that crackers are a cinch to make. Not only that, but they taste better, are healthier, and are much less expensive than boxed crackers. Plus, they keep a long time. Crackers and salad dressings, I will master you in 2010.

Used dried beans rather than canned ones
This corresponds to my buying in bulk resolution. Canned beans have many advantages. They are quick, and they don’t have to be soaked. They can be a last-minute choice, say, when you are really craving black bean burritos. But compared with dried beans, the canned ones are very expensive, and I am a cook with a modest budget. 

Eat less meat
While my husband and I don’t want to become vegetarians, we both want to reduce our meat consumption. The junk that is fed to commercially-raised cows, pigs, and chickens is the stuff of horror stories, and if people really dwelled on this, meat consumption in the United States would plummet. (For graphic descriptions about how our meat is raised read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or watch the documentary Food, Inc.) There are, of course, healthier ways to raise animals for meat, but this meat is much more expensive, and, as I have mentioned previously, we have a modest food budget. Finally, there is the environmental impact—-the resources and the land that go into producing meat are far greater than they are for growing vegetables. When you consider that Earth’s population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, this is no small matter. How are all the people on the planet going to eat? By a happy coincidence, Mark Bittman, in his New York Times blog Bitten (http://bitten.blogs.nytimes.com/?ref=dining), has recently written about ways to fix lentils, and there’s a recipe for curried lentils with cashews that I’ll soon be making.

Waste Less Food
We all do it. No matter how conscientious we are, food gets shoved to the back of the refrigerator. By the time we come across it, this food has turned an alarming shade of green and has such a horrific odor that it nearly makes us pass out when we open the container. This year, I resolve to have more diligence when it comes to leftovers. Throwing them away is just like throwing money into the trashcan. Then, there is this to consider: According to a recent article in the New York Times, “One in eight Americans now receives food stamps, including one in four children.” In this light, throwing away food seems, well, worse than wasteful.

The quest for true spaghetti carbonara in Maine
I added this somewhat lighthearted one because I didn’t want readers to think it was all resolve and no play for A Good Eater. I love spaghetti carbonara the way my husband, Clif, loves turkey—with a zeal that goes beyond human reasoning. I could eat it once a week, maybe even twice. But here’s the thing. What most restaurants in Maine call spaghetti carbonara is, in fact, spaghetti Alfredo. Instead of being an egg-based sauce, it is made with cream. Now, there is nothing wrong with Alfredo, and I like it very well. But Alfredo is not carbonara, which should consist of eggs, garlic, some kind of cured pork, black pepper, and grated cheese. (I’ll be writing more about carbonara later.) So, do any restaurants in Maine serve true carbonara?  In the course of the year, I’ll be going to Italian restaurants in Maine. I’ll order the spaghetti carbonara and then determine whether it’s true carbonara or usurped carbonara. I’ll be sure to keep readers posted.

A TOURTIÈRE CHRISTMAS

This time of year in Maine, when you go into a grocery store and see people looking at the ground pork, it can only mean one thing—tourtière, the meat pie so beloved by Franco-Americans. The English have turkey or goose for Christmas. We Francos have our tourtière, and the holidays just wouldn’t seem right without them. Because Francos are a gregarious bunch, unlike the more taciturn Yankees, it is very easy to strike up a tourtière conversation with complete strangers in the grocery store. This I have done, and in each conversation, we have all marveled at the tourtière variations—all pork, ground pork mixed with ground beef, ham, potatoes, no potatoes, and for those who yearn for that 1960s touch, potato flakes. There are lots of variations, and some of them are better than others. However, I think a comment from the website Chowhound got it exactly right. That is, the best tourtière pie is the one your mother made. 

This past October, I wrote a fairly long post about tourtière—its history and my unsuccessful attempt to make a healthy tourtière. Interested readers should go to my “A Tale of Two Tourtières,” posted October 8th, 2009. 

I do want to add a little about the pronunciation. Franco-Americans who settled in central Maine call it “toochay” pie. However, the correct pronunciation is “tor-tē-yā,” and the first time I heard it said that way, I had no idea what the word meant. I have also read that in some parts of New England it is pronounced “tout-care.” 

However it is pronounced, tourtière can be made ahead and frozen (unbaked), which is a real blessing this time of year, and right now there are three tourtières in my freezer—two for Christmas Day and one for a gift. However, there is still time to make a tourtière or two, and below is the recipe my mother and I developed over the years. 

Joyeux Noël and bon appétit! 

Rochelle’s Tourtière Pie 

1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried sage
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 cup water
1 cup plain mashed potatoes, with no butter and no milk

Pastry for a 2-crust 9-inch pie 

In a saucepan combine beef, pork, seasonings, onion, and water. Cover and simmer for one-and-a-half to two hours. Uncover and cook ten minutes. The mixture should be moist but not runny, and if it isn’t, then drain the excess liquid. Add the mashed potatoes.

Heat oven to 425° F. Put meat mixture in crust and then bake for about 30 minutes. (Foil wrapped around the edges of the piecrust helps prevent excessive browning.) 

As I mentioned in the piece above, these pies can be frozen, unbaked. Then, in a 350º oven, bake unthawed pies for an hour, or longer, until the meat is bubbly and the crust is brown.

ALICE’S ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS, DELICIOUS SPICED NUTS

Alice Johnson brought these spiced nuts to our Christmas party last weekend, and when the nuts were gone well before the party was over, I wondered if there would be trouble. Paul Johnson got the last handful, and there were baleful glares in his direction. Fortunately, in keeping with the Christmas spirit, nobody mugged him for that handful.

Seriously, though, these nuts are incredibly good, sweet and spicy at the same time. Make some to eat, and if you can bring yourself to part with them, make some to give. That’s what I’ll be doing this weekend.

Spiced Nuts

Preheat the oven to 350 F °

8 cups of nuts: such as whole almonds, lightly salted dry roasted cashew and whole pecans
2 tablespoons margarine
1 ½ teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon each ground  cumin, ginger, and coriander
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon water

1.      Line a roasting pan with foil.  Bake nuts for 10 minutes, stir after five minutes.

2.      Melt margarine and stir in spices, sugar, salt, and water.

3.      Pour mixture over nuts stir to thoroughly coat them

4.      Bake until nuts are brown. I check every 10 minutes to stir the nuts. This should take between 20 and 30 minutes. 

5.      Take out of oven, and cool completely in the roasting pan.

6.      Some of the nuts may stick together. Stir to break apart. Store in dry containers.

Addendum: Paul Johnson, the man who got the last handful of nuts, is not Alice’s husband, whose name is Joel. It seems I have quite a few friends with the last name of “Johnson.” A very good name indeed!

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