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Posts Tagged ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder’

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I was heading to the blackberry field at my favorite farm recently when I heard the old iron gate above swinging in the wind. It opened with an awkward squeak, then graduated to rich middle notes, then closed to a low baritone, jabbing its voice through the clear day and green landscape.

A 360-degree view of the August farm showed spring asparagus gone to seed and a few weeks off from another appearance, ripe blackberries, raspberries, corn, squash, and more crops beyond. I stood in the middle of LIFE, in exhilaration and exultation.

But the thing is, a farm isn’t a still frame of lush beauty. It’s hundreds of still frames that make up a continuous feature. A farmer knows that, but it just occurred to me that day when the gate whined back and forth, open and shut. A farm is the whole life cycle. It is both lovers’ bed and deathbed, nursery and graveyard.

In spring, the farm is fragile and palest green, a greenhouse full of teeny shoots a few weeks off from being planted because the soil is still too cold.

In late spring and early summer, it’s stretching its legs, testing boundaries, getting cheeky and rosy.

Now, in high summer, the farm is saturated with sun and rain and sugar and bite and intense color. Mid-life is when everything shines and bursts. Corn kernels pop when a fingernail is pressed into them. A ripe melon, at a single, infinitesimally small piercing, splits ahead of the blade wide open with a CRACK on the kitchen counter. Little potatoes dug from dusty soil are washed and roasted, and at first bite their skins, loose from the flesh, snap.

But as the crops lose the light bit by bit every day, that snap gives way to profound sweetness, softness, mellowness. Apples lose their sharp astringent bite, and are finally ready to pick. Tomatoes—boy, if the frost holds off and we can get tomatoes into September or even October, their flesh becomes deeper and richer than any July specimen. Green bell peppers turn lipstick red, and tender. Pumpkins become sweet and earthy. The farm is going to seed. It’s like everything is settling in to resignation, the innate knowing that the honeymoon is over, long over. But the farm is okay with it. We can actually taste that it’s okay with it.

Late Summer into Fall the farmer tosses spent squash and overripe tomatoes right into the fields to nourish them. Nothing is wasted; everything feeds everything else. Even the winter snow helps to fortify the soil. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day, in the 19th century, farmers called fresh snow “poor man’s fertilizer,” and sent the kids out with the plow to turn it under the soil. They didn’t know why it did the job so well, but they knew it did. Now we know it’s full of nitrogen, the most essential ingredient for healthy plant development.

So in August, in the wind, that old gate was the farm’s mouthpiece, singing, reminding me of how it all works. The baby’s squeak to the young adult’s call to the elder’s hum, it’s all a song. It gets sung every year. We’re moving into the baritone hum. Enjoy time’s pendulum and the old iron gate swinging closed, and the flavors that come with them. I think they’re the best of the year.

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My fellow stage-crew friend and I like to eat. And to talk about eating. And, often enough, to talk about eating while we’re eating.* Casey grew up in a family that cooks from scratch—hard core. When they make burgers they start with an actual cut of meat. Then they put it through a grinder and spice it to taste. Yeah. He also has a brother who’s a chef in Manhattan, and his dad’s wife is a pastry chef in Brooklyn. Having a friend like this is wise on all counts.

For a couple of years we’ve been dreaming about a banh mi, a sandwich made at our favorite (so far) Vietnamese restaurant (Pho Le, in Red Bank, NJ). The place only offers it for lunch, and the only time we’re both available for lunch is on weekends. That usually leaves lunch before a Sunday matinee…but most of the time we’re too sleepy to go after working a heap of shows.

Yesterday, before the closing matinee of Peter Pan, we quit whining and made it happen.

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Look at that fat wedge of jalapeño! Tucked underneath like it’s a common dill pickle, humming placidly and gazing skyward! Sneaky little poser.

Pho Le’s classic banh mi is at the top of the page. I have a recipe for one from the long-gone and much-lamented Gourmet Magazine, one that has liverwurst ably pinch-hitting for pork pâté.

This sandwich had the real thing: pâté, roast pork, pork roll, head cheese, cucumbers, jalapeños, cilantro, pickled daikon (a type of radish—pure white and mildly flavored), and carrots.

I’d never had head cheese before, but have always wanted to try it. As a lifelong Laura Ingalls Wilder devotee, I’ve read matter-of-fact accounts of offal preparation over and over, so I’m not especially squeamish about it. I did read up on head cheese as a refresher, though, and learned meat from the tongue, feet, and heart are sometimes added to the flesh from the animal’s head.** Only one complaint about this delicious sandwich: not enough of the pâté and meat. It gave me a little taste of the gaminess I love, but not as much as I’d like.

Casey yawns at squeamish as well; he’s eaten far stranger foods. His sandwich is just above and was more successful. It was a grilled pork banh mi, with avocado, pâté, greens, tomato, and the rest of the lovely vegetables I had in my sandwich. The smokiness of the grilled meat sold us both. And the sandwiches, it must be acknowledged, were served on very fresh, toasted rolls. Concentrating on the fillings and mailing in the bread has almost become a cliché in the food business, but this little place knows it matters. They’re right.

We put these sandwiches away while he told me about the snake-bitten production of West Side Story he did in college. Theatre people never run out of disaster stories, and we’re always ten minutes away from a new one. Then we pushed our chairs back from the table and sighed and headed off to Neverland. Two friends, two adventures, one afternoon.

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*BONUS: I just received a fantastic leftover turkey sandwich recipe, and right now we’re messaging about it. This is surprisingly common.

**Boy, if my mom didn’t stop reading earlier, she sure did now.

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I just discovered that the edges of a crab apple leaf are the exact same red as the fruit they’ll produce in the fall. Isn’t that the coolest? Foreshadowing!

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You all know I can’t get enough of the outdoors. This time of year there are so many new things to see, and many of them tiny things, so you kinda have to look.

If you do, and if you live in an area that doesn’t over-manicure open spaces (as I do, sing hosanna), you might find one or more of the little wildflowers that once carpeted all of the outdoors in May. They’re called spring ephemerals, and in the very small town where I grew up, they mainly grow on the quietest, shadiest street along the lake. Most of the trees there are original and thus are enormous, but enormous. That spot feels like a forest to which people happened to add some houses. Little woodland flowers pop up on roadsides, near the mossy banks, and right on people’s lawns. They don’t know that the town was settled almost a hundred years ago. I find this incredibly comforting, especially as time goes by. It’s something we can count on, something silent and resilient and beautiful that never fails.*

I’m having very little success finding out the names of most of the flowers there. Can anyone help me out?

These first I know: white violets. (Sometime I’m going to find seeds for the variety that has a sweet scent. My girl Laura Ingalls Wilder, who grew up in the western part of the U.S., talks so fondly of them in her books.)

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The below ephemerals are edged in palest purple, with white on the inside.

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These have the form and color of a grape hyacinth, with blossoms shaped like lilies-of-the-valley.

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These are pure white and grow in clumps. I had to sneak onto the Schwartz family’s lawn to take this shot. Shhh now.

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Another clump of the above was growing a little farther down the street, and I pulled over to shoot them as well. When I did, an elderly gentleman with a big smile walked over and asked what I was doing. Of course I was terribly taken aback at his question, as most normal people routinely 1) both see and 2) stop the car to crouch in the dirt so they can shoot seven white flowers growing on the side of the road. He shook my hand with his big hand and said his name was Fred. He asked the name of the flowers, and all I could say was they’re ephemerals. But along with living in a not-overly-manicured area, I also love having conversations with neighbors in the middle of the street about wildflowers, the neighbor’s precious patch of lilies-of-the-valley, and the dangers of overgrown ivy.

Heading inside. I’m getting hungry, for a change.

I bought the below this morning from a farmer who lives about five miles away. Weathered face, weathered hands, big crinkly grin. The asparagus posed for the picture just before going onto the cookie sheet and into the oven at 350 for half an hour. Just took them out, and the house smells all green.

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The below was a surprising triumph (except for the crust. You can see it’s way, way too heavy.). The topping came out exactly right even though I totally winged the amount of sugar I added to the rhubarb. Underneath was my vanilla custard. Good breakfast choice.

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Hello, whoops, back outside again. Six hungry little girls watching the crowds at the car show today in Ocean Grove. I love that they’re sitting shoulder to shoulder, like sisters, and I love that they all have on new flip flops. All different colors, no less—left to right, they’re purple, blue, yellow, orange, pink, and green.

Hoping your May is as colorful, as close, and as sweet as theirs.

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*You know the song Edelweiss, featured in The Sound of Music? Edelweiss were not just flowers to Captain von Trapp; they were a brave and constant symbol of everything he loved about his home. They were his home. The spring ephemerals are my edelweiss.

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I love game. Let’s get that out of the way right up front, or this post won’t make any sense.* Elk, deer, alligator, goat, pheasant, moose, buffalo—love it all. Bring it.

It should be noted I did not grow up eating game. But I started reading pretty early, and was and still am a wild devotee of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. So from very early on, the notion of preparing and very much enjoying meals that included game has never struck me as anything but normal. When I had the opportunity to try game for the first time, the luscious Game Pie filled with rabbit, duck and venison at Colonial Williamsburg’s King’s Arms Tavern, sweet Jesus I hope they never stop making it, I went for it. Rich rewards.

I say all this because game freaks out a lot of people—at least many I know. I’m not entirely sure why, although I suspect Madison Avenue’s been whispering Glade Bali Bloom air-freshened propaganda into our ears, making us believe game like rabbit is for lesser humans.

And if I can be frank, and I can since it’s my blog, that thinking is awfully short-sighted. Unless those critics’ descendants were Inuit or from an island where there aren’t any miniature mammals, they probably ate rabbit. Which means they’re alive on this planet because of it, so they should please check their snooty at the door.**

Those I know who will admit to eating game will say they’ll eat it as long as it doesn’t taste ‘too gamey.’ That’s their prerogative, but for my money, the gaminess is exactly what’s good about it—that non-homogenized pungency, that flavor that just insists its way onto your taste buds.

I chose this recipe as a part of my cooking project, detailed here. It’s courtesy of Johnnie Walker, purveyor of hot sauces and jellies (Two Mile Creek Specialty Foods), and resident of Colorado. He says, “I visited with my mom and pop…they ate lots of rabbit as kids during the Depression. In fact, my pop says that he ate so much rabbit as a kid, every time a dog barks, he JUMPS!!”

The trick, in a beach town, is getting hold of a rabbit. The only guns we fire around here are Nerf Super Soakers, and I’m happy to challenge the local status quo about lots of things, but not about this.

I called a local specialty butcher, who ordered a rabbit for me from upstate. It was a fattened, pen-raised rabbit which cost as much as a semester at Cornell, so if you’re a hunter or know an obliging one and can get your hands on a wild rabbit, go that route. It will likely be even more flavorful and less fatty (read: less tender), but no worries. It should still work with this recipe, since it calls for baking in a sauce in a covered dish. This will help to hold in juices in this very simple, home-style meal.

Stuff I did:

-Bought my supermarket’s best candidate for a ‘bold beer mustard’: Inglehofer Stone Ground Mustard, with ‘FULL STRENGTH’ wrapped helpfully around the lid three times.

-Used carrots as my root vegetable. Seemed a natural with rabbit 🙂 And used thyme for the poultry seasoning.

-Didn’t use any booze, just chicken stock. Don’t let me stop you, though.

As good as this was after it came out of the oven, I must admit I liked it even better cold and sliced for lunch. Scrumptious.

I was surprised, even after the liberal dousing of habanero jelly and mustard, that the dish wasn’t ablaze; it was very flavorful, but mellow (at least to my taste). If it’s not enough heat for you, slap on more of the jelly or mustard as you eat. Scroll down for the habanero jelly website.

TMC (Two Mile Creek) Baked Rabbit with Mustard and Habanero Glaze

1 whole rabbit, cut up
A breath or two of white wine (like 4-6 oz.) or a nice light beer (like half a bottle), plus a tbsp or two of chicken broth to deglaze
1/3 c butter, softened
1/3 c TMC habanero hot pepper jelly with whiskey-infused apricots
3 tbsp mustard (a good call here would be a bold beer mustard)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
½ c all-purpose flour
1 tsp poultry seasoning
1 tsp sweet paprika
Shortening, vegetable oil, bacon grease or duck fat for frying
Root vegetables like onions, leeks, carrots, baby red potatoes, etc. cut into chunks

Mix the butter, the jelly and the mustard together in a bowl. Set aside. In another bowl, stir together the dry ingredients.

Heat enough oil in a frying pan (or better yet, an oven-friendly frying pan!) to brown the rabbit pieces.

Dredge the rabbit pieces in the flour mixture and brown in the hot oil. Cook on each side for 1-2 minutes—less time for less crisp pieces and longer for a nice crisp piece of rabbit. Set the browned pieces aside.

Deglaze the frying pan with the wine, beer or chicken broth, or a combo. Scrape all of the bits up with the extra deglazing liquid. Set aside.

In the bottom of a casserole dish or Dutch oven, arrange your vegetables. Salt and pepper lightly. Take the deglazed bits you saved and pour this over the vegetables. Now place the rabbit pieces on top of the vegetables. Spoon or brush the butter/jelly mixture over it.

Cover the dish and place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Remove the lid from the dish. You can flip the rabbit pieces at this time, if desired, and continue cooking for another 15-20 minutes or until the rabbit is tender and around 160-165 degrees.

When you plate the rabbit and the vegetables, pour the bottom juices and drippings in a gravy bowl or such style container for extra sauce.

Serves 3-4 city folks or 1-2 hungry Logan County farmers. You can substitute chicken or pheasant or even farm-raised goose for the rabbit. Squirrel is good too…cooking time will be less, though.

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Johnnie Walker
Logan County, CO
USA

twomilecreekspecialtyfoods.com

Thanks, Johnnie!

*Like I have such a track record for plausibility. Now isn’t the time to start making guarantees.

**Here in New Jersey people won’t eat rabbit but they’ll eat pork roll***.

***To non-residents of NJ: Pork roll is a very popular breakfast and sandwich meat of questionable origins. Then the manufacturers add salt and nitrates.

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Vanilla slushie gazing out onto the snowy landscape and mourning its squandered youth.

Back in the late ’70s my little sister had one of those Snoopy Sno-Cone machines. You fed ice cubes in the top, jammed the Snoopy-shaped mortar downwards, and shaved ice came out the front, where you caught it in a paper cup. Icy bits melted all over the table, and the LSD-trippy-colored syrup got everywhere. Which obviously spells big fun, so my mom made us play with it in the backyard.

This is the last in my year-long series of edibles not found with a bar code, that is to say, out in the elements. And aside from catching snowflakes on my tongue, occasionally getting a face full of it going downhill on a sled, and the above a la Snoopy, I’ve never, you know, eaten snow. Thought it would be fun to play around with it in the kitchen.

Step one was to snoop around for some recipe ideas. I really wanted to make Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family recipe for maple candy poured hot onto snow, upon which it turns into something like taffy. This is a New England favorite. I have The Little House Cookbook, but the recipe in it calls for molasses, not maple, which is an exceptional bummer and means I will have to keep looking and post about it later. I did see recipes for one simple dish; it was compiled of varying degrees of milk, vanilla extract, and sugar mixed into snow. Many started with a gallon of snow, but since I’m not holding a dessert fiesta for 20, I scaled it way back.

It snowed again last night, so I jumped at the chance to use fresh snow. Pulled out a Tupperware container and walked out to a remote spot by the lake to scoop some. The EPA won’t allow any pesticides near the lake, so I knew it was clean. Yes, I live in New Jersey; yes, there are some areas in the state that earn its reputation and where I would question the cleanliness of anything, not just snow*. But it sure ain’t here.

Back at home I spooned about a cup of snow into a bowl, then added a few splashes of milk, a dash of vanilla extract, and maybe 1/4 c of white sugar. You’re all boggled by my fierce attention to exact measurements, I know. I made it up. Make it up yourself until it tastes right. You’ll know. Most of cooking really works this way. And remember…it’s snow. You foul it up, you go outside and get more.

The dessert tasted a lot like icy and somewhat melted vanilla ice cream, but it was good—delicate and fresh tasting.

The next ‘dish’ was as simple as spooning snow into a glass and pouring Baileys over it. I was inspired by the drinks the South Pole crew made in the book Icebound, made with the cleanest snow on earth. They called them slushies. I made a Baileys slushie, Jersey style.

And to curl up and watch Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with it late on a Sunday night…it was pretty much just the thing.

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Ooooooh that’s good slushie.

*Just like any populated spot on Earth, mind you.

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Autumn’s the time when the earth shoots and sprouts a bit less and instead does a great deal of dropping, shaking off, and scattering. The fun lies in catching the good stuff before the housekeeping winds of Winter blow it all away.

My usual friendly cautionary note about picking wild edibles goes like this:

1) Be sure that what you’re about to pick and eat is what you think it is. Please don’t wing it. Shoot for old age.

2) Don’t pick anything off your neighbor’s lawn unless a) she owes you one b) she owes you several c) you know she doesn’t use pesticides d) it’s under cover of darkness e) in which case leave my name out of it.

3) Don’t pick anything close to roadsides where they likely have been urologically christened by every domestic pet within five miles, most notably the Alsatian across the street that routinely drinks out of the potholes in the Quik Chek lot.

From left to right:

Crabapples (Malus) I wrote about this little treasure a while back. Wild crabapples are a little grainier in texture than their voluptuous full-sized apple cousins, and for my taste, they need a bit of sugar to be palatable. Making jam from crabapples is a special fall thing for me, even though making it is a bear because they’re so small and their seeds are the size of sesame seeds. Having good music in the background goes a long way. I add a hefty dose of New Jersey honey to the pot, making it 100% local. You can also make crabapple liqueur if you steep them in vodka with granulated sugar.

Rose Hips (Rosa) Another jammy choice, and a vintage one. Folks during World War II ate a lot of rose hip jam because it was full of Vitamin C, which was tough to access then. They’re tart, a little bit astringent like their cousins above (so they need sugar, too) and wildly healthy, full not only of Vitamin C but of antioxidants and lycopene.

Beech Nuts and Leaves (Fagus) As a Laura Ingalls Wilder diehard all my life, I knew beech nuts were edible. She wrote about her husband as a boy, gathering and eating them in upstate New York, describing the spiny little husks and the three-cornered nuts they contained, and saying they were ‘solidly full of nut.’ But the leaves being edible as well? News to me, but cool news. Freshly picked, they can be eaten in salads or even steeped in gin.

Acorns (Quercus) When I took Anthropology in college I learned that American Indians ate acorns. Making them edible takes some doing, and they knew what they were doing; they must be smashed and rinsed with a lot of water to release toxins. I’d love to try them. Has anyone ever prepared acorns for food or eaten them?

Missing from this list: Sassafras. Here I was all ready to dig up one of the 764 and counting plants that grow around my lake and steep the roots to make another American Indian specialty, a primitive form of root beer, when the heavy winds last week blew all of the telltale mitten-shaped leaves off. They’re all out there now, mittenless and mocking, but I’ll hit them up come spring. Stoked to write about it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_hip

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beech

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak

http://www.wikihow.com/Forage-for-Food-in-the-Fall

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The Lilac Law

Lilacs bloom according to this algorithm:

1) Sum the squared mean daily temperatures (in Celsius) since the last frost.

2) Use an average of the past few years’ daily temperatures to predict the date when this sum will reach 4264.

Despite my distaste in math, I find this fascinating—not just that this law was figured out in the 19th century, but that it was figured out at all. But then phenology goes back centuries.

Phenology* is the study of natural cycles—how one influences the other, and how we can take cues from what happens. The first beech leaves that unfurl, the first flight of the swallowtail butterfly—every genesis reflects the fragile interconnectedness of soil, air, sunlight, temperature, and dozens of other natural factors.

Long before spreadsheets and calculators, growers created their own data by carefully watching and waiting for nature’s cues to sow their precious seeds. It was a question of survival, a much more in-your-face reality back then. With no Shop-Rite, and your nearest neighbor often miles away, carelessness meant rolling the dice on starvation.

Some of their data include:

When lilacs are in leaf, sow beets, cabbage and broccoli.

When lilacs are in full bloom, sow beans and squash.

When apple blossom petals fall, sow corn.

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Apple blossom.

Or, as Laura Ingalls Wilder writes in Farmer Boy (a biography about her husband Almanzo’s growing-up years on an New York farm in the mid-1800s), when the leaves on the ash tree are as big as a squirrel’s ears, sow corn.**

In the same book, little Almanzo eagerly awaits ‘the dark of the moon’ (new moon) in May so he can sow pumpkins.

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Another one. When you see these…

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(Bearded irises)

…set out transplants of these.

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(Melons. Clearly.)

I read that even Martha Stewart traditionally plants peas on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father swore by ‘Plant turnips on the 25th of July, wet or dry.’

(Compelling story: He also went goose hunting one fall day in the 1880s while he and the family were living in Dakota Territory, and, utterly dumbfounded, returned home with nothing. It wasn’t because he was a lousy shot; it was because the birds were flying high above the clouds—he could hear them—but not one came down low enough to shoot. They were getting out of Dodge, and at breakneck speed. In fact, he said the entire prairie was still; every living thing was hidden away. Another day that same fall he said he’d never seen muskrats’ dens built so thickly. He got his family out of their rickety little claim shanty and into a sturdy house in town in a heartbeat. Can you finish this story—have you read The Long Winter? Blizzards slammed the mid west for virtually seven months.)

Do you sow, or act, according to any of these ancient rules? What successes or failures have you had?

Do you swear by any other cues?

Has the fairly recent wacky weather (here in NJ we had snow Halloween 2011, and snowdrops came up right after Christmas that year) affected what you’ve done?

Does anyone work with Project BudBurst, the environmental group that asks people from all over to record when plants start sprouting in the spring?

*Not to be mistaken with ‘phrenology’, a study based on determining one’s character by analyzing the bumps on one’s head. (I’ve had two concussions. For me, the smart money’s on ‘a touch clumsy’.)

**About 1/2″ in diameter. Don’t go chasing us to compare. –A PSA from the Squirrels Are Faster Than You Commission

wrongplanet.net/postt63638.html

budburst.org/

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