Holiday Greetings

Happy Winter Solstice to all! No matter your faith or lack thereof, the official start of winter (at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere) brings a chance to regroup and become grounded in preparation for a burst of new growth as the hours of daylight increase day by day.

With Christmas only three days away, I know many of you are becoming

IMG_1094and instead of feeling like IMG_1089
you are feeling like

IMG_1088because you have been decorating the tree

IMG_1092cleaning up the yard in preparation for lights, camera and Santa action

IMG_1086Wrapping presents

IMG_1090and baking lots of goodies.

2013-06-16 20.42.05But take a deep breath, and remember, that the greatest holiday gift of all is

PEACE

PEACE

To my Jewish friends, Happy Hanukkah and to all of my readers, I wish you health, happiness and peace in the New Year.

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The Joy of Cooking

Before Thanksgiving I had my twenty-three year old Ikea kitchen cabinets professionally painted. That required emptying drawers and cupboards and getting rid of many things that no longer served me, designating them for either Goodwill or the trash. Inspired by the resultant lack of kitchen clutter, I’ve tackled my 1840s Irish hutch, the home of all of my cookbooks, kitchen utensil instruction manuals, food clippings and miscellaneous things once held by random magnets on the refrigerator. This trip down a decades’ long memory lane became a recipe for smiles, a tear or two and a lot of reflection.

After, organized and weeded out

After, organized and weeded out

The oldest item, aside from the hutch itself, is my favorite cookbook, Joy of Cooking. The mint green cover of this 1963 edition, the last authored by its originator, Irma Rombauer — stained in places and held together with duct tape — gives evidence of not just its longevity in my collection, but of its utility. The red ribbons attached to the binding and provided as page markers are permanently embedded in the turkey roasting and pie baking pages. Which is not to suggest that others are not well thumbed.

IMG_1066Long before Google, Pinterest and Epicurious, Joy was my “go to” for questions about equivalencies, substitutions, techniques, housekeeping tips and proper entertaining etiquette.

Not that I hadn’t been properly trained at home. Whatever else she might have been, my stepmother was, by the standards of the 1950s and 1960s, an excellent home keeper and cook. Yes, meals were meat and potatoes affairs occasionally enhanced by the modern packaged foods newly available at the time, like Shake n Bake or Velveeta. But meals were always a sit down affair, with dinner at 6pm sharp every night, breakfast of eggnog and cinnamon toast ready before school and sandwiches, milk and fruit at lunchtime. My sister and I were schooled on how to cook, set the table and clean up — whether just for our family of eight or an important dinner party with white tablecloths and multiple forks and spoons at each place setting.

But it was Irma and her daughter Marion who first taught me about cuts of meat, measurements for cocktails (who knew what a “jigger was”), drying herbs, the many types of flour and sugar, even how to remove coffee stains by pouring boiling water onto them from a height of two feet! More than a cookbook, Joy was my fictive mother, grandmother and great grandmother, available at an instant to tell me how to do almost anything in the kitchen or dining room, on the porch or patio. The wonderful illustrations, common sense approach and recipes made with readily available ingredients presented in honest and family friendly combinations, made Joy not just one of the New York Public Library’s 150 most influential books of the twentieth century, but an antidote to the over the top foodie extravaganzas that hit bookstores and restaurants in the 1990s and beyond. (Influenced a bit by this, my 1997 edition of Joy rarely is used and will be replaced by the 2006 75th anniversary edition which is more faithful to the original Joy vision.)

Next came my upscaling at the hands of Craig Claiborne. Living in New York City as a young adult and then (as now) a devotee of the New York Times, I devoured his columns and tried many of the recipes in the four Times cookbooks I own: The New York Times Cookbook, The New York Times Menu Cookbook, The New York Times International Cookbook and Craig Claiborne’s Favorites from the New York Times. More gourmet than the down home cuisine in Joy, but still reproducible by the home cook without a trust fund to spend, Claiborne’s recipes ranged from regional specialties cooked simply to more elegant dishes influenced by international cuisine.

Several staples of our Thanksgiving feast — including the southern cornbread stuffing, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce — originally came from these volumes. When the Times put out The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century in 2010, after carefully checking to make sure that the stuffing recipe was included, I bought three copies, one for myself and one for each grown daughter.

And then there was Julia. Like many, I was smitten with her PBS cooking shows, which became must see TV for me. Too young to have watched The French Chef while in boarding school in the 1960s, I found her in the 1970s and immediately started working my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. While I never made every recipe as did blogger Julie, I made many, and then most from the cookbooks reprising episodes of her later cooking show seasons.

For me, Julia was not just about technique, she was about being fine with less than perfect results. Watching her laugh off small goofs or even dropped chickens and hearing her signature “Bon appetit” at the conclusion of each show made me eager to try to replicate her creations, like her, with a wine glass in hand. It was she who influenced me to acquire Le Creuset cookware, which forty years later is still my “batterie de cuisine”. Living now in the D.C. outskirts, I have more than once made the pilgrimage to her kitchen at the Smithsonian. Some day I will even have a pegboard wall, perhaps in her signature green!

During the 1980s I discovered the Moosewood cookbooks, five of which I now own, with publication dates spanning from 1977 to the early 1990s. Like many, I was first cutting down on meat, eventually choosing not to eat mammals while still cooking with fowl and fish. Especially during the 1990s, the healthy, relatively inexpensive and easy to prepare dishes featured in the cookbooks and the Ithaca restaurant for which they were named became staples in my household, both out of principle and practicality; raising two daughters on a teacher’s salary required some real budget jujitsu.

An assortment of culinary classics like the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, Jane Brody’s Good Food Cookbook, Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking, and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking have been joined by several Mark Bittman titles. (I’m still coveting How to Cook Everything…. do you hear me Santa?).

Then there are the appliance specific cookbooks/manuals: slow cooker (the best are by Beth Hensberger), blender, food processor (my favorite is the original robot coupe 1973 cookbook which I still have, even though I gave the machine to my daughter), pressure cooker (from days owning a sailboat), ice cream maker, grill, fondue pot. I own too many vegetarian or near vegetarian cookbooks and will keep only one or two, but my two bread cookbooks from Williams Sonoma and Cindi Flahive-Sobel will still have honored shelf space.

Family recipes and those garnered from friends have been painstakingly digitized onto laminated recipe cards residing in a plastic box. Clippings have been weeded out (if I lived to be a hundred I could eat a different saved chicken recipe every day…not likely to happen). My Evernote recipe notebook, Pinterest food folder and New York Times online recipe box hold my virtual clippings.

I began by mentioning smiles and tears, and you might be wondering why. My 1963 Joy has penciled annotations in two different hands drawing me back first to a grand love from my twenties and then a failed marriage in my fifties. The New York Times cookbooks bear the black-penned name and date of my college lover and mate. Julia Child came into my life at the same time that my daughters did, and all of the books were gifts from their father.

I’ve gone through phases, trying new cuisines, new gadgets, new men, new identities. As I leaf through the books, unfold the yellowed newspaper clippings, decide what fits me now and what doesn’t, I experience a rush of joy at remembering the happy times of cooking for men I loved, children I bore, friends I cherished, relatives I wanted to nurture as they had me. Many of those I recall are no longer a part of my life, on to other kitchens, other meals, or other dimensions as in the case of my dear friends Charlie and Antonio.

Cooking is an act of love. My culinary library tells the story of my journey from young adulthood through relationships, marriages, parenting, juggling work and homemaking, empty nesting. After forty-five years, I’ve learned to cook without much use for instruction, working by instinct with whatever is at hand most of the time. But my cookbooks have become totemic, keys to who I have been, what I have aspired to, who I wish to continue to be inspired by. “Bon appetit!”

Living La Dolce Vita at Borgo Pignano, Volterra, Italy

Ever wish you could live as if the Downton Abbey lifestyle were transplanted to a Tuscan estate for the warmth of the Italian soul and sun and delicious, home grown food and wine? Well I got to experience this and more, if “only” staying in the farmhouse — not the five star villa —  with a band of merry yogis on a week-long retreat.

Riding from Florence to our lodgings in the back of a VW van, suitcases piled high in the way back and beside me in the third row, careening along narrow, winding, hilly roads with our ebullient hostess Camille (also known as Pushpa from her days as a child in India) was, shall we say, unforgettable. The landscape was breathtaking.

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The farmhouse where our group was staying had a beautiful common room dominated by a huge dining table and french doors looking out across a pond.  The kitchen was ours to use as well, which we took advantage of when our chef Lennie was not around:

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We rose each morning at 7 in time to make our own cappucino, gnosh on baked goods left for us in the cupboard, and walk to the yoga studio about a quarter of a mile away near the main house:IMG_0557

After morning yoga we trundled down the hill to a feast of a breakfast provided by Lennie.  What a challenge he had! Some guests had gluten intolerance, the week was vegetarian even for those who were normally carnivores, and some of us had random food allergies such as mine regarding pine nuts, unfortunately often a staple of pesto genovese — boo 😦 . Everyone agreed that our meals were outstanding.  There was plenty of variety in the unbelievably fresh produce, the bread and cakes and cookies were to die for and the presentation was always a combination of down home and carefully plated:

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Our afternoons were never the same twice. We had a tour of the estate with Pushpa, who delighted in telling us about the history of the place, built on Etruscan ruins and added on to throughout the centuries,most notably in the nineteenth century by two feuding family members who literally divided the home in half:

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Pushpa is deservedly proud of the green way in which the estate is currently being managed. Solar panels provide hot water, heirloom varieties and authentic milling and processing practices contribute to the sense one has of really experiencing what this soil and climate have to offer. All animals range free, the honey used is from the villa’s own hives, herbs and aromatics are made into salves, potpourri, and soaps:

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We did get a peek at the accommodations in the main house, with my favorites being this bathroom and Pushpa’s domain — the bakery:

IMG_0685IMG_0674We were also treated to a pizza night at the outdoor area adjacent to the ancient Etruscan walls:

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Afternoon trips to Siena, Volterra and a hot springs spa, as well as the grape harvesting described in the previous post helped to whet our appetites for the delicious dinners Lennie prepared, sometimes with tutorials for those interested, and always with organic, private reserve red wine from the neighboring vineyard.  We began dinner preparations and socializing at sunset, dined for several hours as the moon rose, and went to bed, grateful to have been alive and together in this beautiful place. Namaste!

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Stay tuned for capsule summaries of the rest of our trip in the days ahead.

Grape Harvesting in Tuscany

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Next to Borgo Pignano, the estate where we are staying, is a limited production “boutique” winery owned by relatives of our yoga teacher. We had a once in a lifetime experience yesterday, harvesting grapes and learning about the production process at MonteRosola Winery.

The weather was beautiful, with a crisp Volterra sky, just enough heat and sun to warm the bones. I could not just understand but feel how important the quality of this sunlight is to the vines and the grapes they bear. Row upon row of specific clones graced a hillside, dripping with clusters of deep purple fruit ready to be harvested.

A family operation, two tow-headed preschoolers skedaddled about, clippers in hand, at one with the Tuscan earth and ready to participate in the harvest. Two enormous labradors padded about, pausing to nuzzle each other or sniff out ripe olives to lap up from the chalky soil. A robotic lawn mower meandered about the lawn in front of the residence while our host explained to us our task and the process of turning grapes into award winning red wines.

I am no oenophile. In fact, I cannot drink red wine due to its tannins and oak barrel aging. But picking and then eating three varieties of organic grapes — cabernet, shiraz, and the local Italian specialty, sangiovese — even I could discern a clear difference in taste and even feel in the mouth depending upon the variety.

We were tasked with cutting and then perusing sangiovese grapes, looking especially for mold, but also being attentive to overripe, already fermenting grapes. These were to be selected out, tossed on the ground and allowed to return to the soil from whence they came. Several hours later the baskets of grapes we had selected would be put through a destemmer, sorted on a small conveyor belt to select out any remaining imperfect specimens, and then crushed, flowing into gigantic oak barrels where they would be tended like delicate hothouse flowers, with minute temperature adjustments and coddling, but with no additives or artificial acceleration of fermentation permitted.

Because the winery operates completely organically, rose bushes at the end of each row signal the presence of insect pests, which are treated with concentrated chamomile. Grape clusters often had spiders within, and the occasional yellow jacket buzzed drunkenly about, feasting on the fallen overripe  grapes.

It will be several years before the grapes we picked will end up in bottles in some lucky person’s wine cellar, but many more years than that before this unforgettable experience fades from my memory.

You can read more about MonteRosola here. 

Summer Bounty: Cornucopia

To my amazement, some members of my CSA put their sweet corn in the swap box!!! Without hesitation I traded my green peppers and zucchini for extra corn to freeze.  Here are the steps I used:

First, duh, I shucked the corn.  I cut off both ends then made a slice down the ear making it easier to remove the leaves and silk smoothly.

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I had two dozen ears, but since the corn was organic one ear had a few too many critters and rot to use. Five ears were for dinner, leaving 18 ears to freeze, not a whole lot, but enough for a first batch that will be my succotash at Thanksgiving.

Next, I boiled the ears in a total of four batches for four minutes each batch.

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I used my large stainless steel colander with a clean dishtowel underneath and stood the ears upright in order to let them cool and drain excess water. When they were cool enough to handle I cut the corn off the cobs standing each ear upright in a shallow serving bowl. After all the ears were scraped I poured melted butter (about 3 tablespoons) into the corn and tossed it to break up the clumps and insure that the butter was evenly distributed. I don’t have pictures of these two steps because by this time my visiting daughter and I had hit the wine, and you know, forgot to take pictures!

Last, when the scraped, buttered corn was totally cool I filled quart freezer bags about two thirds full, closed them, flattened them, opened the seal and squeezed out all of the air, and then resealed them. I stacked them in the quick freeze section of my refrigerator and later transferred them to the freezer in the carriage house.

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My 18 ears produced 3 nicely packed quart bags, so obviously I need to repeat this process about 3 or more times to get the quantity I would like for those chilly months when fresh frozen corn will be a treat. We’ll see if there are more orphans this week at the CSA.

Meanwhile, we ate the rest for dinner with sliced beets, green beans from the CSA and our garden, and grilled salmon. YUM!

Summer Bounty : Saucetravaganza

Preparing gallons of tomato sauce may not save the world, but it is certainly helping to calm my unease at a world seemingly gone awry. Watching the news this past week has been disheartening.  I suppose famine, disease or sectarian/ethnic/religious or just plain political conflict is always with us, but this summer the world seems to be particularly chaotic. Sometimes, doing things the old school way is a means of creating a tiny island of security and stability in an otherwise challenging sea. Freezing tomato sauce was one of my summer goals, and I’m happy to say that the carriage house freezer is now housing the results of yesterday’s marathon. Here are the steps I followed, improvising after doing a bit of online research: First, I acquired the following :

25 pounds ripe organic paste tomatoes, washed, chopped into one inch dice with hard membrane but not skin or seeds removed (I like chunky sauce so I don’t bother to skin or seed)

chopped tomatoes

4 large organic white onions and as many cloves of fresh garlic as you wish, chopped

chopped organic onions and garlicFresh Italian parsley, fresh basil, fresh rosemary, fresh oregano (washed, dried and chopped)

organic Italian parsley and  basil

Any good red wine, salt and pepper

Freezer containers with no toxic chemicals

Next, I sauteed the onions and garlic in olive oil until just translucent. I then worked in four batches with one batch just tomatoes cooked until tender with no seasoning to serve as diced tomatoes in future recipes:

voila!!The other three batches cooked for a much longer time. After a strong covered boil on medium heat for about ten minutes or so, the tomatoes had cooked down to about 2/3 of their original volume, but the sauce was very watery.

I took the lid off the pot, turned down the heat to a simmer, added all of the chopped herbs (except the parsley, which went in at the very end to preserve its greenness) a bay leaf, salt and pepper to taste, and about a cup of a good red wine per batch. Stirring every ten minutes or so, I let the sauce cook down until it was less than half the volume of the original diced tomatoes. On a very slow simmer, this took about two hours.

Finished Sauce

(If I had been making just one batch I might have used my slow cooker, but doing so many batches required using the stove.) Finally, I tasted and corrected the seasonings, added the parsley and allowed the sauce to cool, giving an occasional stir. Once everything was cool, I ladled the sauce into washed and dried ziploc plastic containers, leaving space at the top of about a half an inch.  I did the research, and these containers (and the bags) contain no evil chemicals or contaminants so they won’t leach bad stuff into my luscious sauce. I refrigerated the containers until chilled and then transferred them to the freezer. All in all, the process (including picking up the tomatoes at my CSA drop off point) was pretty much an all day affair. Judging from the way Mr. D and I gobbled our spaghetti dinner last night, it was worth it! Up next …. freezing a giant batch of corn. I may not be able to fix the world, but I can darn well fix some delicious meals in a sustainable and rewarding way!!

I’m Seeing Red

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It all started a week ago when Mr. D and I went to Capitol Hill to visit an awesome private gallery of Americana political memorabilia with his West Coast cousins. I fell in love with the brilliant red door, the lipstick colored apartment building framed by flaming red flowering shrubs, the Tasha Tudor like urban garden complete with Corgi and little old woman weeding.  Then, on Saturday we went to Hains Point and walked most of the length of the East Potomac Park.  The most spectacular day of the summer yielded wonderful views of planes landing and departing over the Potomac as we lay on our backs in the grass.  Families fished, picnicked and frolicked along the waterfront, but not in numbers or decibels sufficient to dispel the sense that we were vacationing in some far off coastal area. Glimpses of red caught my eye there, too.

Then, this morning, my CSA notified me that I could preorder 25 pounds of Roma tomatoes for canning or freezing next week. While Mr. D and I are happily tending our own tomato plants, most of which are cherries and slicers, we welcome the volume that we can get of these organic, beautiful Romas.

Those of you who follow my blog may remember that putting up tomatoes and tomato sauce is on the to do list for this summer.  So, onto the interwebs I went to find the perfect recipes.  I’m a little bit afraid of poisoning Mr. D by canning incorrectly, and I have a freezer in the carriage house that has plenty of room, so freezing it will be.  With some due diligence I’ve discovered that Ziploc bags do not contain BPA or other evil things so that will be the preferred containment system.

I’m going to use this recipe or a close variant depending upon my whim, possibly slow cooked in my slow cooker. I’ll do a post documenting my efforts next week!

Summer CSA Stirfry

 

This week our  CSA (community supported agriculture) share included garlic scapes, carrots and a beautiful fresh cabbage.  What else to do but stir fry!  Here’s what I did:

Tossed julienned carrots, one inch garlic scape sections, fresh minced garlic, half an onion chopped, chicken tenders cut into one inch pieces in canola oil with a splash of hot chili oil and a sprinkling of cayenne powder for good measure.  I made sure that everything was in one layer and on high heat in my awesome 15 inch Calphalon pan. (I don’t have a wok).

 

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Next I washed and chopped half a giant cabbage into rough one inch strips and threw them in after the first ingredients had browned and become transparent.  I splashed in some rice vinegar to add some zing and some moisture, stirred like crazy, and for the last few minutes put the lid on.

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When everything was tender but not at all close to slimy, I added some sweet chili sauce from Trader Joe’s.

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And then Mr. D and I served it up and ate it!  Nom Nom Nom.

 

Fruits and Vegetables of the Season

I got an e mail from my local organic grocer with information about the four kinds of turkeys I can pre-order and the gluten-free pies that will be available. That means that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. But before I start thinking of stuffing, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes with gravy, its time for other kinds of fall favorites. I needed a reminder about the difference between a fruit and a vegetable. From the Mayo Clinic:

According to botanists (those who study plants) a fruit is the part of the plant that develops from a flower. It’s also the section of the plant that contains the seeds. The other parts of plants are considered vegetables. These include the stems, leaves and roots — and even the flower bud.

The following are technically fruits: avocado, beans, peapods, corn kernels, cucumbers, grains, nuts, olives peppers, pumpkin, squash, sunflower seeds and tomatoes. Vegetables include celery (stem), lettuce (leaves), cauliflower and broccoli (buds), and beets, carrots and potatoes (roots).

So, this beautiful cauliflower from my CSA is a vegetable, and my pumpkin is a fruit.

Mr D. made a delicious stir fry with fresh leeks, the cauliflower, some vegetable broth and curry spices (before the New York Times article warning that lots of spices from Asia were contaminated with all kinds of yuck.  We clearly have survived regardless).

Here’s to hearty fall eating, as beautiful as it is yummy.

Squash

I just ran across this goofy picture of my daughter taken on Christmas Eve as we prepared our holiday feast in her NYC apartment: squashShe had a recipe for a squash and kale dish that was absolutely delicious and the colors of which really enlivened the plate. Wish I had it to include here.

Anyway, Mr. D and I have been fiddling with a recipe from the February issue of Country Living, our version of which is as follows:

2 butternut squash (as in the picture above — smile) peeled, seeded, cubed

3 cloves garlic, smashed

3 tablespoons of olive oil

1 pound penne or rigatoni

1/2 to 3/4 cup whole milk

3 cups (about 12 ounces) of fontina cheese

4 tablespoons of fresh sage or 5 teaspoons or so of dried sage

salt and pepper to taste

panko crumbs to cover casserole — about 1 cup

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Toss squash, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and garlic together on a large, heavy cookie sheet and place in preheated oven on the top rack until the squash is tender, the timing of which will depend on whether you use convection and the size of your cubes, but certainly not more than an hour and probably less. Remove and let cool. Then lower the heat to 350 degrees.

3. Cook pasta according to package directions and set aside.

4. Puree squash in a blender or food processor (or just smash with a potato masher if you don’t want to bother with getting out the appliances). You might want to reserve some in its cubed form as we do.

5. Add the milk until the consistency feels saucy — which will depend on how much you pureed the squash and what texture you like — we prefer it a bit lumpy rather than soupy, especially as we double the squash in relation to the pasta.

6. Brush a 9 X 13 inch baking pan with the remaining olive oil.

7. Toss the pasta, squash, squash “sauce”, sage, salt and pepper and two cups of the cheese in a bowl and arrange in the baking pan.

8. Combine the remaining cheese and the panko crumbs and sprinkle on the top.

9. Bake until bubbly, with cheese melted and crumbs lightly browned on top.

10. EAT!  Excellent with a green salad and some garlic bread, and of course some wine 🙂

Here’s their pic of the finished product:

baked-butternut-squash-rigatoni-recipe-clv0213-smn

For another interesting thing to do with butternut squash — the perfect winter comfort food, check out the New York Times website video of this Mark Bittman/ Mario Battali preparation of fresh gnocchi with butternut squash. OMG. So amazing and on the menu for this weekend.

Cheers!