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I’m between full-time jobs now, freelancing in theatre and writing until The Next Big Thing lands securely in my lap, so I decided a few weeks ago to see just how full-on Laura Ingalls I could go. It’s spring and foraging time is in full swing, I have a stocked freezer of ingredients, and the brain of a techie.* I’ve restricted purchases to essentials–milk; eggs; produce; fish; chocolate; yes, it is essential; and stuff like toothpaste. I know it’s totally un-American and next they’ll be building a wall around me, but I’ve never been frivolous and actually quite hate shopping, so this really wasn’t much of a stretch.

While in Mode Resourceful I’ve been kind of knocked out with the cool ideas that have hit. Here’s what I’ve done so far and am currently doing.

Outside: Collecting garlic mustard, lilacs, wild chives, dandelion leaves, and (this week) honeysuckle. Some of the latter I’m drying for tea (Groovy Idea #1), as I did with the lilacs, and some (Groovy Idea #2) I’m steeping in some rum from my booze shelf. SO excited.

Inside: I have always hoarded bread crumbs pulled from the insides of rolls and blitzed in the Cuisinart, various kinds of flours and nuts, simple syrups made with flowers, homemade stock, yeast, that kind of thing. I pulled from them from time to time. Now I’m 99% seeing what I can make from what I already have. You’d think it would feel restrictive, but that’s actually where the fun has been.

Some of my favorite dishes have been banana bread (defrosted overripe bananas work best), pizza (with homemade crust and foraged veg), and most recently fish patties. I combine salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna, in any proportion, in a bowl, throw in an egg and some of those bread crumbs, and from there you can add almost anything. Often enough I flatten them and fry them in olive oil, but yesterday I decided to treat them the same way I do meatballs: form them into spheres the size of racquetballs and bake them in about an inch of tomato sauce in a casserole pan. They have chopped black olives, onions, and a lot of white pepper, and are great at any temp.

On Saturday I went strawberrying. I like some whole grains in my pie crust and am out of whole-wheat pastry flour, so I used all-purpose combined with semolina flour and graham flour. Made strawberry-rosewater turnovers, and they rocked. Next I’m making strawberry shortcake with cream spiked with honeysuckle rum.

No, I don’t feel deprived.
ūüôā

*In my head, not the freezer.

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reviving

Doing one thing at a time is like butter on a burn. (Not actually. Don’t do that.) I figured this out circa Good Friday when I was making my annual breads. It’s weird to do just one thing. I’m so busy—we all are—that when I slow down just to the task at hand, just to the chopping, or to the texture of dough, it unravels my tangled-up thoughts.
*
I bought the prettiest vintage yellow Pyrex bowl a few weeks ago at a garage sale. Even prettier was a successful go at haggling the seller down to 12 bucks. 12! I might forget where I parked at Target or leave my sunglasses at work for the 932,838th time, but I can still haggle like a goddess. I put it to work almost immediately, serving as a makeshift double boiler to melt chocolate for brownies. An honorable first task.
*
Addicted lately to my cookbooks from the ’50s. I pick them up for a song at used book sales, so I have a bunch. I love that they assume the reader can just ask her butcher for a hog’s head and he’ll react like she asked him if they’re calling for rain that afternoon. I’m imagining the resourceful housewife of 1958 handing over $1.50 and smugly tucking this thing under her arm like a suburban Macduff, then splitting it in half and casually boiling it to make scrapple. It happened. It still happens. Why do I find this reassuring?
*
I decided from now on I won’t buy my greens in the springtime. It’s pointless; there are free and wildly nutritious greens everywhere (pun intended and savored). Dandelion greens, wild mint, wild chives. I think I found chickweed, too, but I want to double check. Every single time I go a-foragin’ someone pulls over, or walks up to me, or ambles by with a dog, to ask what I’m picking, no matter what it is. And you’d think everyone in cynical 2018 shops online at Blue Apron and doesn’t really cook and couldn’t give a flying Wallenda what a strange chick in a bandanna is doing, but I’m here to tell you they’re always fascinated, always hang on every word. And even better—and I swear this is 90% of the time—they pause and the pitch of their voices go down and they say something like, ‘…My grandmother used to make soup with those. God. I haven’t thought about that in years.’ Or a guy in a pickup calls over, ‘My dad used to make wine with those. What are they? Mulberries? I never knew their names. I lost him in 1980. Jesus.’ And they don’t want to leave. I’m not kidding.
*
I learned milk tart, a South African recipe that’s basically a custard pie, is a blissfully cooling thing to have right after a sweltering night, and we inexplicably suffered a few of those last week. This is a continent that knows how to handle heat, and I’m smart enough to take their advice. I had bought a variety of eggs, cute little Bantams and Araucanas (what they call Easter eggs, since they’re naturally colored blue or green or even tan), and wanted to give them special treatment. And I was out of sugar, so I used a splash of pure maple Grade B. Smooth sailing.

 

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Sat dumbfounded on my papered seat recently when my doctor told me I had to save meat for special occasions. I don’t mean red meat; I more or less already save that for the odd barbecue, and it’s not that big of a deal to me. I mean my mainstays—chicken and turkey.

But but but but they’re low fat, I said. They’re not as high in fat as red meat, but it’s still all saturated fat, she replied. I was in shock, although I did wake up to enjoy the little verse she performed for me next. Something about eating things that walk on all fours versus things that swim. Finger-plays for adults.

I love weirdo fish like sardines, mackerel, salmon, anchovies. But I never imagined they would so easily replace poultry for me, and moreover, that it would not bother me that much. That was the second shock.

Now I’m eating mackerel with horseradish mustard stirred in, scooped up with organic blue corn chips like a bleeding hipster, and for breakfast like a crazy person. I love it. I’m having fun picking out new condiments to try as well. The mustard is great; so’s chipotle hot sauce. Trader Joe’s Thai Green Curry Simmer was a disappointment, as it’s almost flavorless and is the same stricken color of the chairs at the DMV to boot. Looking forward to making my own hot sauces again, along with a new recipe for spicy lemon pickle, a recipe from India. It calls for fenugreek seeds and has to sit in the sun for a week. Clearly I’m in.

I’ve been saving poultry, and eggs as well, for every now and then. Gave in a couple of days ago and made myself a new recipe, below. Cut the sugar back by half (see once again and unremittingly: crazy person), cut the eggs down from five to three, and enjoyed one of the smoothest, velvety-est desserts I’ve ever had: old-fashioned lemon pie. Can’t have fish for breakfast every day, after all.

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reward

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Gosh, I missed you guys. Between an upgrade that screwed up my WordPress connection and losing my mom a month ago, I’ve been dry-docked. I’ll tell you the Mom story inside the steps it took to make the above, a cinnamon-swirl raisin bread. I haven’t stopped cooking, and you know¬†the reason¬†as well as I: it keeps us sane.

Get a call that says everything is fine, but stop by the hospital.
/Bring the milk to a simmer, add butter, stir in flour, sugar, and an egg.

Get panicky¬†at the ER when I hear a voice over the intercom repeating ‘Code Blue,’ realize what I had been told was a 180 from what was actually true, and that I need to keep it together, immediately.
/Throw in a little whole-wheat flour to give it extra structure.

Keep my dad focused, coordinate with two doctors and a patient advocate, and wait for my siblings to arrive from far-flung parts of the state.
/Cover and let rise over heat for an hour.

Get grim prognosis.
/Punch down dough.

Siblings arrive.
/Roll out and add sugar, cinnamon, and raisins.

Sit utterly dumbfounded, facing a team behind a curtain which tries its best but fails.
/Put the pan under the heat.

Tell friends, who liberally pour love, attention, and we’re here for you’s, including Sandy, who¬†came over after rehearsal that night just to sit and listen; Grace, who¬†did all the legwork to figure out an insurance issue for me before¬†an imminent¬†deadline; and many, many more. It’s not the kind of thing you can repay. Texts and emails and IMs¬†came in at all hours, and for days.
/Pull it out, enjoy the lovely fragrance, and let it cool.

Work with two priests, two funeral directors, a florist, and the line at Staples an hour before the wake. Be grateful again when over a dozen friends come in from all over to be there for me, and when everyone back at work is ready with hugs and sweet words.
/Slice with a sharp knife. Then appreciate the prettiness of the inside.

Let the dust settle, look around, and be grateful again.
/Take a big slice, and a big bite. Then another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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what is

This is a lemonade-out-of-lemons thing. Well, technically I got a pie out of it. And it concerns figs, not lemons. But saddle up and let’s ride this metaphor out.

A couple of weeks ago, after a hard and surprising first frost, I wandered out to the fig trees at the farm to do triage. Most customers don’t know the trees exist, which I’ll admit to you is a fairly greedy thrill, and those who do aren’t thinking about them in November; plus the girl behind the counter said anything I happened to find was mine for the taking. Take not lightly an ambitious woman with a berry basket.

The figs were small, but I was excited to discover many were soft. So! These could be a pie. These, after being sliced and hit with a drizzle of butter and honey, and sizzled around a little in a pan, could be a pie. A drizzle + a sizzle = redemption. I cleared out every last fig.

One of my biggest challenges* these days is looking at reality head-on and working with it as is. Wishing and wanting aside, and it’s bloody hard to do that, we’re left with the truth in its stocking feet. A big surprise is how often the final product is improved when we create without the benefit of inherent bells and whistles. A bigger surprise is how much pressure falls away when we’re left to retool on our own, and how sometimes we kind of impress ourselves.

They made a pretty nifty pie.

*or irks, depending on the day.

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Been a bit of an arduous Fall so far, as evidenced by the big wall of space between the last time I blogged (two months ago) and now (currently), but I’ve been tossing around lots of ideas. Let’s start with this one:

Every year at the end of August, I go beach plumming half an hour north on Sandy Hook, NJ, a six-mile stretch of pines, sand, WWII training ground remnants, and the odd white-tailed deer. A local pastry chef commissions me to forage for him throughout the year, and one of his favorite ingredients is beach plums, the little wild and astringent ones the size of cherries that grow on Sandy Hook. He candies them and adds them to desserts, and people go crazy.

This year I thoughtlessly* hurt my back a few days before my plum excursion. But I had promised Matt I’d get him a bunch of plums, and besides, after working so hard for so long I really needed a foraging fix in the near wilderness. I went. It took me about 45 minutes to get in and out of the car, but I went.

And despite my injury—or maybe because of it—I ventured more deeply into the wilds, and took more chances, and consequently found more plum bushes. Getting totally lost on this remote peninsula as night was coming on would be a serious matter. But I needed to get lost a little.

Beach plum bushes in this area are ancient and leggy and scratchy. You have to maneuver your way into the center of them in order to get the most fruit. This work is not for the fearful or dainty. I never remember to wear a long-sleeved shirt, I always pay for it with slim cuts up my arms, and every time I’m afraid that standing on one foot and reaching will one day make me pay even more dearly if the aged branches give and I fall into poison ivy. It’s difficult enough work without an injured back.

But I got several quarts of plums, and while standing in the middle of my last bush, so old and tall that it was all dry leafless twigs, I reached, and was surprised that its brittle bones didn’t give. The farther I reached, the more resolutely it gripped me. It didn’t let me fall.

 

 

*I have a little problem with feeling invincible, and not surprisingly, it can get me into trouble. In this episode, I lowered a heavy six-foot upholstery table without help** and felt it in my lower back for two solid weeks.

**Don’t do this.

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I had every hope of finding Concord grapes today in a local park. But the guy who told me about them impressed upon me the fact that they tend to wrap their viney selves around trees, way out of reach. So I might find them, sure, but would they taunt me from their lofty perch, giggling at my dinkiness? Probably. I suited up (boots past their prime, socks over the cuffs of my jeans, old t shirt, and backpack) and went anyway. I looked like a bohemian infantryman, which worked since the grapes were supposed to be somewhere at Monmouth Battlefield, the site of one of the most intense fights of the Revolutionary War.

It had been years since I’d been on these hallowed grounds—acres and acres of rolling hills, old fences, tree-lined pastures, nodding false Queen Anne’s lace blossoms, and no sound but the whirring of crickets. No sound except for today, when I was hiking behind two elderly couples who stopped every few feet to discuss in detail why the battle was an important one, even though all were Americans and might have heard of the kerfuffle we’d once had with the British. The gentleman who took the lead in enlightening the hikers, the pastures, and the crickets on the battle had the kind of manner that always seems as if he’s pontificating, even if he’s talking about tomorrow afternoon’s forecast. I’d planned on taking a right after the bridge, but took a left to get the noise out of my ears. At a place like this, all of that yammering felt blasphemous.

At first I found a lot of what looked like grape vines—they were all over—but found no grapes on them, so I figured I’d just enjoy the walk and the soul of the place. But I kept looking. And when I spotted my first few, a few feet over my head under an awning of leaves, I just stared, dumbstruck. These are the variety that’s made into grape jelly. Treasure is in the eye of the beholder.

There were in fact a few clusters out of reach along that pathway, maybe a half mile long. I think the deer probably got to the lower ones first. But a lot were accessible, even for Miss Five-Foot-Three, and I got about a quart’s worth.

Most important thing I learned while picking Concords: Wild rose canes are vicious. I’ve added their tiny vampire-like cuts to the ones I got last week while picking beach plums (more on that later). War wounds on war-grounds. Worth it. And I’m so grateful to those couples for their insufferable prattle or I never would have turned left.

I think I’ll make peanut butter muffins and top them with these.

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