Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Thanksgiving’

For a dozen years I had as a neighbor an Army veteran, borough fire chief (in the 1950s), a gardener who outlived two wives, and one of the last true outdoorsmen from the Greatest Generation. He loved canoeing as a kid in the 1930s and said he knew every stream and byway of Deal Lake. He taught kids how to fish on Sandy Hook when he was in his eighties. He showed me the secret patch of beach plums that he’d been visiting every year since childhood, at first with his mother, and then on his own, to get fruit for his favorite jam. He hunted wild turkey every Thanksgiving week, teaching me all about those very smart and very fast birds, and swearing they made the best soup in the world. He’d wave at me from his tiny front porch, pushing 90 years old, and call out, ‘Still here.’

When he went into the hospital for a couple of weeks, he told me to help myself to anything I wanted in the little 10×10′ garden he planted between his house and detached garage, and I loved pulling sweet baby carrots for dinner. When I’d bring him a piece of coffee cake I made with my wild mulberries, he was one of the very, very few people who wouldn’t look at me like I was a mental case. He’d devour it, then grin and tell me to keep practicing.

In front of his little house grows a lavender rhododendron bush. One day, when his second wife was still living, he showed me a straggly rose bush planted in front of it and told me he really wanted to pull it out, but didn’t because she liked it.

We lost him a few years ago. I rode my bike past the house today. The rhododendron is still there, healthy and enormous, and taking over the yard. But it took me sticking my bike-helmeted head under the branches, and looking around in the dim light for a quite a few minutes, to spot what I was looking for.

He was a widower for a good five years after she passed, and never lost his sharp mind. He didn’t forget to pull it out. He left it because of her, and I’m probably the only one who knows. But I guess all of you know now, too.

Saluting Mr. Cook this Memorial Day. Your rosebush is still here. So are you.

Read Full Post »

img_8529

Project: Crack Open Black Walnuts. Me: Luke Skywalker trying to infiltrate the Death Star. A lot—a LOT—of little Death Stars.

I’m writing this on the night before the U.S. inauguration, trying to keep my mind occupied with something more positive than the impending event. Bear with me.

Last October I dragged a Hefty bag containing some three gallons of local black walnuts upstairs to my apartment. Then I began what was a month-long, three-part combo platter: 1) Husk the green hulls and contend with the damp, inky-brown insides. 2) Dry (and turn daily). 3) Crack and pick.

Item 1 took me about an hour and a half, sitting on the floor of my kitchen while wearing rubber gloves which soon ripped at the tips. That was just to remove the top hulls.

Item 2 required turning over the damp nuts every day to allow even drying. I sliced open the Hefty bag and used it as a tarp, setting it by a radiator.

Item 3 took the better part of two days, and truthfully? I still have a half gallon to go. Once I had about a half-pound of nuts shelled for a pastry chef who has visions of (holy cow, get ready) tarts filled with chocolate, caramel, and black walnuts, and topped with whipped cream infused with white pine needles (they taste like wintergreen; still have to get that for him) and candied kumquats, I stopped. I mean, I toasted the little guys, popped them into a sandwich-sized Ziploc, and stashed them in the fridge.

That’s the really abridged version of Item 3, by the way. You might be thinking you crack black walnuts with a basic nutcracker and fish out the nuts easily, as you would on Thanksgiving, stuffed and semi-catatonic. Oh, how wrong you would be.

Loyal reader Angie, retired Kentucky farm girl, tells me that in the ’50s and ’60s her family used to back the family truck over the nuts just to get the green outer husk off. This just goes to show you how tough the bad boys are underneath. Angie’s mom, come Item 3, would use a hammer and nail to open the nuts. I used a cutting board, a dishtowel, and a brick.

Wrap the nut in the dishtowel, set it on the cutting board, and clobber it once, with good spring back, to split it. Think Thor and his hammer. Many’s the time it doesn’t crack the first time, or the second, or the third. The goal is to hit it hard enough to open it, but not so hard that you crush everything inside. It took me about five minutes per nut to open it and pick the meat out. (I used a vintage fondue spear.) This is why black walnuts are $14/pound.

I told friends that my neighbors, hearing the erratic pounding over several hours, were probably wondering if I’m perhaps nailing together an armoire very, very slowly. That was the sound.

Raw, the nuts have a strange flavor. I wrote to Angie and said, ‘Are they supposed to taste like a garage?’ She about laughed her posterior off. I mailed her some to taste. She told me they were perfect, that she had not had them in decades, and loved them. I toasted them and was surprised to find not only that it immeasurably changed the flavor, but that they had sorta grown on me.

Matt (the pastry chef) is getting the lion’s share; I’m giving Angie some more (I know you have to go easy on them, A); and the rest are for me. I’ll work on them again sometime next week, leaving my neighbors to wonder how big that fekakte armoire could possibly be.

This project also helped keep in sharp focus that I am an American, delivered to this sacred ground by ancestors who left their homelands for my benefit, so I could be in a place where I could steer my own life. We don’t yield. It’s our birthright. It’s the whole point of this place. My back is sore, my cutting board is permanently pocked, my dishtowel is stained and nearly shredded. But I got what I was after.

img_8821

An American black walnut.

Read Full Post »

img_8657

Flagrant imitation of a Four and Twenty Blackbirds shot. Their pies always look like the work of a New England grandma, made as geese fly overhead and honk faintly, wistfully, as wood smoke curls into the grey clouds.

My pies tend to be fruit based. Or homemade low-fat vanilla pudding + fruit based. This is because I’m usually the one eating my pies, and if I made pies like the above for myself, I’d be as big as a Boeing*. I made it for my friend Matt’s annual ‘Pie-Day Friday’ party**, for which he requested something that comprised his favorite combination, chocolate and peanut butter. This is also my own personal kryptonite, so I was happy to oblige him.

But it was strange, and not just because Martha Stewart’s recipe was written too loosely, and not just because her staff has a worrying obsession with writing recipes using off-sized baking pans that no one owns. It was odd to make a pie crust and fill it with peanut butter and chocolate, and no fruit at all. And they have you press in bits of homemade peanut brittle into the peanut butter. There was a lot of leftover brittle, so I ignored the instruction to drizzle more peanut butter on top (which was easy to ignore, as I don’t own a microwave to melt it, and warming it in a pan just burns it and makes your house smell like the boiler room at J.M. Smucker. Hypothetically speaking.) and instead I just stuck more pieces of brittle around the edges, Stonehenge style. It was odd, and all told, it was honestly less of a pie than a giant round candy bar.

But conversation noticeably dried up for a little while while the guests ate it, so I know it went over well.

img_8660

It didn’t call for fleur de sel, either, but there it is.

*W├╝sthof-sharp analogy that will be dated embarrassingly soon, like circa Thursday morning, so I hope you’re reading this is in a timely fashion.

**The invitation said to bring leftover pie from Thanksgiving or to bring a new one. I asked Matt, a prosecutor, ‘But if we all walk in with pies, wouldn’t that leave you with still more leftover pie, necessitating yet another pie party?’ He replied, ‘Tell no one you have unraveled our scheme.’

Read Full Post »

A few nights ago I made an apple cake with buttermilk and a good hit of my homemade apple vodka. I would have done it anyway; I love cake…it’s Fall…I love cake (this bears repeating).

But I wanted to try making a recipe with even less sugar than I normally use. In the past 10 or so years, I’ve been typically cutting back the sugar in recipes by half or more because sometimes I’ll have the cake for breakfast. Too much sugar in the morning grosses me out, and moreover sends me into a stupor. But my doctor told me I should be moderating my sugar even more, so I added just two heaping tablespoons of organic sugar to the batter along with something like a half cup of apple vodka, which contains sugar. So the cake is somewhat bland—I might have gone overboard—but I’ve been dressing it up with a blop of plain yogurt. The sour tang is surprising against the gentle sweetness and tender texture. So I’m proud that I made it work and that it works beautifully. Every day I’m looking forward to a piece of my apple cake.

*

Tonight I worked at a soup kitchen a few blocks away. It was a Thanksgiving feast for the needy in the community, a couple of days early. When I arrived I saw a young lady wearing a cocktail dress, with her hair in an upsweep, crouching and peering into a rolling cart of canned soft drinks. She asked if there were any iced teas that weren’t diet. (Can’t blame her.) We scanned the cart and said we were sorry, but didn’t see any.

The young lady sighed and frowned, thanked us, and turned to go. Then suddenly the event organizer said, ‘Wait!’ She reached into the back and pulled out some regular iced teas that had been hidden. I started laughing as the young lady started loading them under one arm, and she turned to me with a big grin and a question in her eyes.

‘It’s just—really wanting something, and then getting it,’ I said. She laughed with me and said, ‘Yeah.’

The world is a spinning top—it always has been, if we’re going to be honest. There will always be things we want and don’t get, and we need the strength and tenacity to keep moving forward when that happens.

But I’m not going to sit here and say it doesn’t get tiring when, over and over, we don’t get what we want, or have it and lose it. And this year has been a doozy. I’m wishing you your regular iced tea, at the very least one, whatever that is to you…more even, as many as you can carry.

img_8616

Read Full Post »

Okay, I know I meant to write more about food writing* this week, but I’ve had so much fun with another idea that I want to talk about it first. It’s my dearest love of sloppy food.

There’s such pressure to be perfect these days. It’s not new; our great-grandmothers used to compete, silently, to see which woman on the block was first to hang her clean wash on the clothesline on Monday morning. Those days are over, mercifully. But new ones, and pressures, took their place. With the advent of movies, TV, and now social media, we’re holding ourselves up for comparison to endless others paraded in front of us, forgetting that what we see is not likely the whole enchilada. Very not likely. (Philip Galanes of The New York Times recently received a letter from a young woman asking why on earth her stepmother, who had always been cold to her and her sisters, would post kitten memes on Facebook that read, ‘I heart my stepdaughters!’ He replied, ‘Facebook is not the real world. It is not even adjacent to the real world.’)

One way to counteract the deluge of pretentious perfection is to go whole hog in the opposite direction, at least for a time. An excellent way to start is with eating.

I work my way down this list if the pressure mounts, or when my life gets too tidy, and would encourage you to do the same. Sandwiches feature prominently.

  1. Tomato-raw onion-Cotija sandwiches. The ingredients slide out in 17 different directions, and I slurp extra-virgin olive oil off the backs of my arms.
  2. Dark chocolate that I’ve melted for a recipe, and had extra at the bottom of the Pyrex bowl, so I put it in the refrigerator to firm up overnight. This is one of my favorite choices for chocolate day: wedging the tines of a fork into that bowl to chip out the chocolate in shiny shards, and eating just shy of a migraine. I take my joys where I can get them.An example of bloomed chocolate. Looks cool in the bowl. Not so much on candy.
  3. Italian subs. With everything on it, and lots and lots of oil and vinegar. A sopping roll is a blasphemy and an aberration to many; to me, it’s a requirement. I learned from a counter guy at a local sub shop that if you like your sandwich this way, you should say, ‘WET.’
  4. Tuna-anchovy sandwiches. It drips out the edges of the bread as you bite into it and you get to pick up all the fishy little bits with your fingers.
  5. S’mores. Homemade, baby.
    IMG_4526
  6. Ice cream with leaky cones. I like to take the paper cone off the bottom and slurp.
    on the clock to take the shot before I wear this.
  7. Thanksgiving dinner. The ultimate. On the floor. I grew up eating a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, but it was far too straight-laced for the likes of me. So one year I spread out my best friend’s grandmother’s afghan on the floor and we had a picnic of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. We wore fleece and socks instead of dressy clothes, and we deliberately ate the whole thing with our fingers. It was one of the most liberating meals of my life.StuffingIn the early ’90s, I taught a camp group of Pre-Ks (four-year-olds). One rainy day when we were stuck inside, all of the Pre-K groups were given smocks, big sheets of glossy fingerpaint paper, and bowls of chocolate pudding. I plopped a blob of pudding onto each of their papers with a plastic spoon. For most of my kids, this was exceedingly well received. One little girl, though, Lucy, didn’t want to touch it. Her mom always had her dressed just so; I can still picture her, with tiny gold stud earrings and her long hair pulled back with a ribbon. Everything she did at camp she did with caution, and I would gently encourage her to try more, to do more.

    At first she agreed to put her pointer finger in the pudding and swirled it around a little. That went on too long. It was a rainy day, and this was all we had to do in the cramped gym for 45 minutes, so I kept cheering her on. ‘Come on, Lucy Luce! Get your hands in there!’ She put two fingers in and Mona-Lisa smiled. That was it. I looked away for a few minutes and came back to find her with both hands flat to the paper and pushing them up and down and laughing her little beribboned head off.
    There’s a place for excellence in our lives…not perfection. There’s a place for tidiness. But too much, and with the wrong expectations, and we stifle ourselves. Life is a rainy day in the gym. Every day is. Go messy for a while, laugh, lick your fingers, and fresh new ideas will start bumpity-bumping around in your head. Let yourself enjoy it, too. Be a Lucy.

*Sorry if I melted your brain there. Peace & love.

Read Full Post »

IMG_7460

Huber Woods, Navesink. New Jersey’s a dish, isn’t it?

Every year on Thanksgiving I make my family’s recipe for stuffing, eat it in great quantities, then go hiking. (The unfathomably good recipe is here.) This tradition does not vary, because like diamonds and a little black dress, like Valentino and the smoulder, it works. It ain’t broke.

But. I had to alter the tradition a bit this year, as I’m still nursing the effects of last month’s scratched food pipe. The stuffing starts with a loaf of crusty Italian bread. When it’s done, it’s spicy, rich, and chewy—the kind of addiction you wouldn’t mind having. And I don’t.

How it ought to look.

I was disheartened for a good week beforehand because I thought I would have to forgo this dish. But I decided to buck up, and good techie that I am, made a plan: to eat stuffing, somehow, and not have it aggravate my condition.

Instead of buying my Italian bread on Monday and letting it go stale on my dining room table until Thursday, I bought it fresh, the day before. Next I pulled the crust from the fluffy white insides—the part I was hoping I could swallow easily—and froze the two portions separately. I also prepped some homemade chicken broth.

On Thanksgiving morning I defrosted the bag of bread insides and added it to my pan with the sausage, spices, olive oil, eggs, toasted nuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I ground the dried rosemary with a mortar and pestle so it wouldn’t be too spiky going down. Then I poured broth over the whole thing to make it even more tender.

I am not going to lie and tell you that it was delicious. It was decent. The next day it was quite a bit better. But it was more important that I wasn’t uncomfortable, and I wasn’t. I made it work. This was a huge win.

Then I went hiking.

IMG_7459

Gradations of light and shadow, eastern meadow.

Longtime readers know about my love affair with nature—with the wildest parts especially. It is at once a source of serenity and energy for me to leave the paved walkways and cross meadows, hills, glens, groves, the untidy places, the unmanicured country. There is no grass, let alone neatly trimmed grass. The spicy fallen leaves are slippery. I get my ankles tangled in the snarls of vines that cover the rolling ground. Chipmunks, groundhogs, and squirrels dart between thistles. Once I even saw a coyote. I always hope I’ll run into him again. But I hike mostly because I love the feeling of being enveloped by something ancient and unspoiled. It’s like getting massaged on the inside. And I always try to see something I haven’t seen before.

A few Thanksgivings ago I found a hidden cemetery, with maybe 30 occupants in all. I always wish them a nice holiday.

Last year I found tiny old wooden shacks labeled with numbers—1937, 1938—and I fancied them past years, relegated silently to the woods of Navesink. I could not bring myself to look through the windows and still cannot. This year I found 1929.

And also this year, beyond the eastern meadow, I followed a deer path until I was surprised by the shadow of a horse. It stood perfectly still, so I ventured closer to investigate. It was a sculpture, perfectly to scale, and made entirely of driftwood blackened with age. Imagine coming across this with no warning.

12309613_2130104267018496_3433882818643451530_o

The afternoon light gets low pretty early these days. I watched it ride the edge of the trees and wondered if I had enough time to look just a little farther. I’d never been beyond the brook at the western end of the woods, and it was tempting. I decided it was getting too late to chance it. Coming across a coyote at nighttime is somewhat less appealing.

But here’s the thing. Being sick or injured can make a person want to withdraw and not take chances. God knows it’s happened with me, especially recently. After a month of ping-ponging between my food pipe being okay and being uncomfortable, you can believe I’ve hung back from time to time. If I’m not careful, though, that can become a new habit.

Last Thursday I wanted to go farther. I’m so glad I wanted to. It’s a good sign. There are times when I won’t be able to, like this time. But I figure as long as I always want to know what’s beyond the brook, I’m okay.

For dinner that night I ate half an Italian sausage, some caramel applesauce I stirred up on the spot (sliced apples with a little butter, brown sugar, and water), and vanilla pudding I’d made the night before. And it was okay again, and I was grateful.

The crust from that loaf of Italian bread is sitting tight in my freezer, waiting for another batch of stuffing. It’ll happen.

IMG_7465

 

Read Full Post »

IMG_6028

The following account details a situation I should have handled like an adult and, head bowed, I regret I did not. Or maybe, okay, that entire sentence was a total head fake.

So it’s fig season, running a little late since it was a cool summer. I am lucky enough to know a farmer who grows them, and luckier still that a fair amount of customers don’t even know it. The clear upshot of this is that I end up with a shameless amount of figs, and eat most of their fat gorgeous selves on the way home.* Locally grown figs aren’t all that easy to come by, and for that reason I include them with Italian white truffles, or patience on the New Jersey Turnpike, in their rarity and in the hushed tones in which I speak of them. I love them, and while normally I am a kind and sharing person, I leave that person in the back of my Honda with my yuppie canvas shopping bags during fig season, to come back out again at Thanksgiving time and thrive just until the stuffing is served.

I was at the farm last week, and asked the girl at the counter if I could please go fig slinging. I leaned. I whispered. She and the farmer discussed it, during which another woman overheard and squealed. ‘Oh, you have figs? I love figs! Where are they?’

Did I wail to the heavens? Did I go all Jeff Gillooly? No. I took down a couple of baskets and offered to walk the nice lady out to the trees.

IMG_6026

Quite obviously not figs but dried thistle flowers, or possibly artichokes (they’re in the same family) that grow alongside the fig trees. Coolness.

That totally smacks of Snow White and the hunter, but you can relax. Much wile can be applied under the guise of nice, as any Thin-Mints-quota-driven Girl Scout can tell you. As we walked, the woman asked how to tell if a fig is ripe. I told her it’s been a cool year, and that goodness me, it has been tough to find a ripe fig; and we’re likely to have the same situation that cool and drippy day.

She went on one side of the row of trees and I went on the other. She’s chatting and sharing fig recipes, I’m chatting and marvelling that not everyone eats them all on the way home, and she’s saying, ‘Are you getting many? Wow—you’re right. There just aren’t that many to be had,’ while I am making agreeable tut-tut-it’s-a-shame noises while slipping fig after ripe fig into my coat pockets. Well, I couldn’t put them into the basket or she’d see how many I was picking. And…I was wearing decades-old, secondhand shoes, and I don’t have any problem at all with ducking under leaves to look for hidden fruit. This very nice woman, on the other hand, looked like she was going straight from the farm to Ann Taylor Loft, with her skinny jeans tucked into smart leather booties, and hair combed and everything.

She went to pay (she told me she found five figs) and I stayed on. I live a half hour away, and she told me she lives three houses away. She’s going to end up getting more figs as long as she thinks to visit more often than I do. But then again, maybe not. She’d have to wear crap shoes like me and be willing to brush spiderwebs out of her nose. She really didn’t seem the type.

I did well, as the title reveals. And I’ll be back this week.

*I do have recipes, but due to my above weakness they don’t usually see the light of day.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »