Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Growing up in New Jersey with a large extended family, I was blessed with rich memories of holiday gatherings filled with aunts and uncles and cousins. My mother was particularly attuned to relatives in the nether reaches of the family tree and friends of family members that were left hanging on their own during the holiday were usually found at the family table. Our house was filled with frolic and frenzy and especially great food steeped in festive traditions. My great-grandmother’s English mincemeat and plum pudding, fresh cranberry-orange relish, and most importantly – Christmas cookies.
The recipe for Currant Cookies is really, really simple and yet, almost every time I make it, the result is a little different. Some years really outstanding. Some years – best forgotten. I’ve made Currant Cookies in Germany, in New Jersey, in West Virginia, in Ohio, and now I’m making Currant Cookies in South Dakota.
I got a head start on cookie making this year and found myself assembling the ingredients for this year’s batch of Currant Cookies about 2 weeks ago. I asked myself – how will they turn out this year? Moist and melt in your mouth? Or dry and floury? Will the lemon zest zing on your tongue? Will the currants be little pops of soft sweetness as you chew?
As I was creaming the butter I started thinking that Christmas traditions are a lot like these currant cookies. My own particular recipe has evolved over the years and yet is pretty simple: lots of Christmas music especially from the choral repertoire, Christmas movies, and even if I don’t haul out all the decorations each year, I always have lots of candles around the house.
I especially love the season of Advent with its countdown to Christmas in both the sacred, liturgical world and the commercial secular world. And each year, as the days of Advent tick by, I revisit my vast store of Christmas memories and traditions, revel in the happiness they bring and, at the same time, feel some uneasy stirrings that maybe this year won’t measure up to the glories of Christmas Past.
And somehow, just like my Currant Cookies, even when I follow the same recipe using the same ingredients and the same techniques, some years are outstanding and some - well let’s just say if they don’t make it into that vast store of memories, they won’t be missed all that much. As the days of Advent wind down I often find myself thinking that maybe this Christmas will be one that I don’t need remember. And that seems a little scary to me.
But then, each year I find myself sitting at the Christmas Eve service at church, hearing the story from the Book of Luke and singing the carols of old. And I think – what was I worrying for? So what if the traditions change from one year to the next, old traditions fade and new ones take their place? There is only one ingredient you need for the recipe that is Your Life - the knowledge that Christ was born, fulfilling God’s promise of love, redemption, and restoration. With that insight, that little scary feeling goes away and I am renewed, invigorated, and ready to take on any new variation that comes into my life
To All My Readers, I wish for you a Very, Merry Christmas!
¾ cup currants
1 cup butter, softened
¼ cup sugar
Peel of one lemon, grated
2 ¼ cups flour.
Plump currants in hot water, or use brandy, bourbon or liqueur to flavor if desired. Set aside for 10-15 minutes to allow currants to absorb flavor.
Cream butter and sugar until very light and fluffy. Stir in currants and lemon peel. Gradually add flour and stir until smooth.
Shape into one inch balls and place on greased cookie sheet one inch apart. Dip tines of fork in sugar and flatten to 1 ½ inch. Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown around the edges.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Image of the cider press from: www.beechhillartisans.com/Cider%20Presses.html
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
My earliest experience with philanthropic eating was at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Raubsville, Pa. This small congregation , where I was baptized and spent my formative spiritual years, supported itself with community dinners. They were held once a month and alternated between ham dinners one month and turkey the next. The sanctuary would quickly fill as hungry Lutherans and others from Raubsville and the surrounding country farms waited patiently for spaces to free up at the tables in the fellowship hall downstairs. Steeped in with the ambiance of Sunday worship – the stained glass, worn hymnals, hard wooden pews, and the majesty of the altar – were the soul-satisfying aromas of roast turkey, fresh mashed potatoes, candied sweets, giblet gravy, and the ever present peas and carrots. And no matter how full you were after the main course, you always had room for pie or cake, fresh baked by the Lutheran Church Women. The congregation supported itself for decades on their community dinners, although our family didn’t go very often after we transferred to another church closer to our home on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. I suspect much of the dinner succumbed to convenience and cost savings as the years went by. Instant mashed potatoes, gravy from a jar, and so forth.
So in Pennsylvania and New Jersey we had our community dinners. Out here in South Dakota, we have ‘feeds.’ A name that no doubt reflects the pioneer farming tradition of the upper Midwest. But try as hard as I might, the name conjures up visions of sitting around tables set-up in the feedlot back beyond the barn.
My first South Dakota Feed came perilously close to realizing this vision when my friends invited me to join them at the Ramona, SD Volunteer Fire Department Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed. I was not so naïve that I didn’t know what rocky mountain oysters were, and it was a not foregone conclusion whether I would eat any or not. I didn’t decide until the split second before they hit my plate, as the spoon was poised in mid-air. “No thank you.” I declined. Instead I settled on the baked beans and the chislic, another South Dakota dish new to my palate.
No matter, you go to these events for the convivial social atmosphere. I recall from experience at the Ramona Fire Hall numerous inquiries along the lines of “How are the nuts this year?” or “They’re just like Chicken Nuggets.” Hmmm – I don’t think so.
I recall from my years living in West Virginia, the Preston County Buckwheat Festival and supporting the Kingwood Volunteer Fire Department who produced truly authentic buckwheat cakes, top quality pork sausage, and maple syrup produced at local Preston County farms. My group of friends considered the Buckwheat Festival a competitive event and each year bets were made on who could eat the most cakes. Quantity consumed was only the first part of the competition. Sustainability was the second. If you lost your cakes on the Ferris wheel, walking through the cattle barns or on the drive back home you lost. Sustainability is a real challenge on a 30 mile drive up and down curvy mountain roads in West Virginia with a bellyful of buckwheat cakes.
My Farmer-Architect and I were on the serving side during the Steam Threshing Jamboree in late August of this year. We worked with the Prairie Village Ladies Auxiliary serving breakfast. The Ladies Auxiliary has a predominantly senior citizen membership. Clearly these ladies had been serving the Jamboree breakfast for decades. However, they are not above using new technology to help ease the work. Large roasters, a staple of any philanthropic food event, were everywhere in the kitchen. The ladies on the pancake line discovered a roaster really keeps large quantities of hotcakes hot. Although, they discovered, Styrofoam plates don’t hold up well in a roaster. The sight of melted Styrofoam sandwiched between 2 pancakes gives new meaning to the term “short stack.”
Two weeks ago we went to the Pork Feed for the Madison Volunteer Fire Department and a Pancake Feed at St. Thomas Catholic Church. In just a few minutes we’re heading off to the Kiwanis Feed at the City Armory. Mostly the Armory is used as an athletic venue these days. I don’t know what’s on the menu but whatever it is; for sure it will be seasoned with the visions of dirty gym socks, good friends, and most importantly a good cause.
The final count – 395 tickets sold. About 800 train riders. We started with 235 pumpkins. Most we grew in the Village patch – some were donated. After the first train load it was clear we were going to have call Pumpkin 911. There were already another 100 people waiting in line and we were only 30 minutes into the event that was scheduled for four. We bought out one farmer, then we bought out another farmer who had his truck set up at the corner convenience store. In the end every child got a pumpkin and we had a dozen or so left in the patch.
The games we had going were a huge success. Pumpkin Bowling, Scarecrow Relay Races, Halloween Bingo, and face painting. On the train there was Pumpkin Caroling led by Good Witch Sandy.
We won’t know the net proceeds for another week. But I think it's safe to say that the Chapel Car Restoration Fund swelled like a milk-fed pumpkin. And the Pumpkin Train will roll again next year.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
My camping experience is almost exclusively backpacking in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. And my Farmer-Architect? Mainly car camping on fishing and hunting trips in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Canada.
Now - I know how to prepare for backpacking. In fact I was surprised how quickly all the planning and organizing skills came back to me even though I haven’t done serious backpacking in almost 15 years.
But a weekend of camping with a cabin and a car? And a husband? And two hounds? How do you do that? Since the cabin was equipped with electricity, I decided to go ahead and take a few extras like the coffee maker, the computer (for inspired writing in the woods), and other necessities associated with my comparatively urban lifestyle.
So I can’t say I was surprised by all the head shaking and eye-rolling on the part of my Farmer-Architect as we pulled out of the drive late Friday afternoon. The Jeep was packed to the hilt leaving just about 2 square foot of space for the bassets. But even with all that stuff, I forgot the sleeping bag, the box of tissues (and this is the high point of my allergy season), the cork puller, and the nice tablecloth. Our friends Dan and Lynn were joining us for dinner on Saturday night and I expected to entertain with some style. But in the true spirit of backpacking I improvised in an inspired way. An extra bed sheet became the tablecloth. Coffee filters make great tissues. It was pretty hot so we didn’t need a sleeping bag.
We arrived at Lake Herman State Park and checked out the cabin while Hank & Maggie gave our spot the sniff-over test. Wow – squirrels, rabbits, and at least 15 other camp sites with dogs. Labs, retrievers, Pomeranians, wiemaraners, bulldogs, and schnauzers. Best of all Lynn and Dan were there with Pixie and Micro the chihuahas, Tinkerbelle the Yorkie, and Max the black lab.
Hank & Maggie insisted on sleeping with us. We designated the extra bed in the cabin the Basset Bunk. No they had to cram in with us in the already cramped double bed. I don’t know what the problem was. Maybe they missed the streetlights or the sound of the bug zapper that’s outside our bedroom window at home or the occasional sound of a passing car. It took them forever to settle down.
My Farmer-Architect had to leave early Saturday morning to help with the Habitat House. This is the third house being painted this summer in the New Brush With Kindness program. Hank was bereft, whimpering and whining, and just not settling into the routine of doing absolutely nothing - a prime requirement of any camping weekend. As for me, I sat for a good long stretch that morning. How long? I don’t know. The battery on my cell phone died. Who knows? Who cares? The point is I sat with my brain completely devoid of any thought, meaningful or otherwise. Well – not exactly true. I did give a passing thought as to how two dogs and two leashes can get so incredibly tangled. But I didn’t make move to do anything about it. That’s the beauty of a camping weekend.
The hounds have their routines and much like babies, they’re happier when the routines proceed according to plan. Usually they get a walk first thing in the morning about 6 a.m., and then sleep for the next three or four hours. So about mid-morning when I was finally done doing absolutely nothing, I decided to read a book. At which point, the bassets decided it was their duty to entice the interest of every dog in the campground and in the process managed to get the leashes looped around the campfire grate, the porch rails and two folding chairs.
Finally I gave up and took them for a walk, and when we got back to the cabin, exhausted, they finally fell into a deep sleep, comatose and snoring. In the cabin. On the bed. Like they never left home. I can only conclude it was the rumble of the air conditioner and the smell of fresh brewed coffee that made them feel at home.
If I get to go backpacking again someday, I really wouldn’t miss things like computers, coffee makers, and air conditioning. But I surely would never go without my hounds because for sheer entertainment nothing beats a basset.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Friday, July 9, 2010
Monday, June 28, 2010
Dan observed that the beer he just happened to bring along made an exquisite pairing with the cake: Michelob Ultra Pomegrante Raspberry. I can't remember why I didn't try this pairing at the time. But by the following weekend, I was determined to bake another edition of this fabulous chocolate cake to try with the beer. My farmer-architect husband thought this was a great idea.
What??!!! The "I'll take a fruit pie over cake anyday of the week" guy??!!! This clearly was a cake beyond compare.
And then - No! What recipe did I use? I went to several trusted sources remembering only the cake used cocoa and sour cream. I tried a likely candidate from King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion. No - it was too lightweight. Then this past weekend I tried again with other prospect from Maida Heatter's Great Book of Chocolate Desserts. Noo --o-o-o- way too dry even when supplemented with strawberries and whipped cream. (Although not a bad pairing either).
Driving back home this morning from my daily consitutional at the pool (which I really needed after three weekends in a row with chocolate cake) I was pondering which of my cookbooks had the greatest selection of chocolate recipes. A-Ha!!! I found it! "Sour Cream Chocolate Cake" from the Hershey's Chocolate Treasury (page 44 if you're lucky enough to own this gem of a cookbook). Many chocolate cake recipes have sour cream. The distinguishing feature in this recipe is buttermilk.
So I will be making this cake again for the coming weekend. I'm also picking up my bike - now repaired - from the bike shop and I pledge to you, my readers, that I will ride to Lake Madison and back this weekend (20 miles) to pay for this chocolate indulgence.
One more thing - I did add two special ingredients to the original recipe. If you leave a comment on my blog - I might be willing to share, although there is one clue in this blog!
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Monday, June 21, 2010
Sunday, June 20, 2010
A beautiful sunshiny morning. The air is clear and bright. The maple trees stand tall throwing crisp clean trunk shadows across the street. Their leaves filter the morning sun and carpet the lawn with patches of clear yellows and golds.
I wanted to make a fast breakfast this morning and get to my studio. The morning was just beckoning me to write. But the quick breakfast evolved into a brunch worthy of my farmer-architect husband-father. While he fielded phone calls from his daughters in Ohio, I whipped up a ham, onion, spinach frittata and parmesan french toast made from last night's foccacia. Served it up with a fresh made strawberry jam. I have to confess - wow! I'm not really great at being an improvisational cook, but I surprised us both this morning.
Dinner tonight is more of a planned affair. My farmer-architect requested chicken - made with 'Chicken Sunday' chicken (see June 15 blog post). This will be a personal challenge. A confrontation of graphic imagination and culinary duty. Friends have assured me that once I taste our chicken gustatory delight will triumph over gory detail. I'll report on the outcome of their assurance later tonight.
I must say that I have become a whiz at the frittata. Thank you to Marcella Hazan and her classic cookbook Essentials of Italian Cooking. I also like Lynn Rosetto Kasper for Italian recipe inspiration.
But now - strawberries call. We're heading out to the Roundball Garden to pick fresh strawberries which will make their way into Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie for the Father's Day dinner.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
My farmer-architect husband loves to grow stuff - especially green stuff. I was not immediately aware of his passion for gardening when we first met. During our courtship days I told him I had three criteria for a husband - if I decided to ever re-marry. He had to know plumbing, he had to fix cars, and he had to treat me like royalty. He certainly qualified and in fact exceeded my expectations on Criteria #3. What I didn't know at the time was the benefits I would reap from his love of gardening.
In Ohio (before we met) he had a 1 1/2 acre organic vegetable garden and an orchard of 30 assorted fruit trees. He has long been a proponent of community supported agriculture. Now here in South Dakota he gets to work and play in The RoundBall Garden.
Avid gardener and past president of Dakota State University, Jerry Tunheim, has turned his backyard into a winning court of vegetables, fruits and herbs. Each spring he sells garden subscriptions to area residents and Dakota State supporters. Then every Wednesday afternoon from May until October, garden fans pick up the week's harvest. Proceeds from the sales are donated to the Dakota State Lady T's Basketball Scholarship Fund. My farmer-architect husband is a major player in this game helping to plant, weed, harvest, and move the soaker hoses. Throughout the growing season tall girls are frequently seen among the rows of corn, beans, and squash. An incomparable workout in preparation for the basketball season.
The RoundBall Garden is a winning experience for everyone. Gardeners, players, and those of us who score fresh vegetables all summer long.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
The farm where we buy our eggs had a few extraneous roosters that persistently ended up where they weren't wanted and needed to be dispatched. My farmer-architect-husband, who raised chickens back in Ohio well before I arrived in his life, was quick to step up with hatchet in hand to solve the problem.
Now I enjoy telling people that I grew up in rural New Jersey, roaming wide open fields, biking back roads and country lanes, and even on occasion followed our neighbor's dairy cows down the road to the school bus stop. Most don't have this vision of New Jersey. But my rural childhood instilled in me an abiding respect for nature and a love of the land. At the same time, I'm also someone who gets squeamish pulling the giblet bag out of a frozen turkey. However, in the spirit of South Dakota pioneers, and I'm certain my earliest New Jersey ancestors, I decided I needed to have the experience of butchering a chicken at least once in my life.
So out we went to the farm. I played with the turkeys and the ducklings while my farmer-architect-husband 'did the deed' in the chicken house. With our future chicken dinners in a large plastic bag in the back of our Jeep, we drove back to town to perform the final rites. I was assigned plucking detail. I really surprised myself at how I was able to perform my task with an air of clinical detachment. By the time I was on bird 3, I even discerned the need to adopt different plucking techniques to different feather types and carcass locations.
Nearing the end of bird 4, I was ready to be finished with the experience. I was recalling conversations with different people around town, "Oh yes we used to do a 100 chickens at a time." That many chickens to be plucked by hand defies even my fervid imagination. By the time I finished bird 4 it took a supreme act of will to not think about what I was doing, not inhale too deeply as I sat by the big pot of boiling water. I tried to tune out the primal barking and baying of our basset hounds, their usual scents of backyard squirrels and rabbits effectively overcome by the fresh scent of hot wet chicken feathers and assorted gizzards and innards.
Strangely I started thinking about my paternal grandmother, that she was with me, and watching me and cheering me on. I have vivid memories of my grandmother making piccallily, chow-chow, rivel soup, and other homely dishes, but I never saw her dispatching chickens. Yet clearly something primal in my background has managed to leak out around my ertswhile more 'sophisticated' life experiences.
For now, our future chicken dinners are lying expectantly in the freezer in the basement. I think it will be a while yet until theyre invited to the table.
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Today I retired my trusty orange salad spinner (see new one at right). The little plastic mesh sprocket thing-ies were stripped and the inner basket had split in several places. Retiring this long-serving kitchen tool to the trash sparked one of those flashback 'memories in the moment.' I've had this salad spinner since 1979 when I lived in the church apartment in Morgantown, WV. That is a lot of salads ago.
Reflecting on this passage of time - how different and unexpected my life has turned out. I have a different husband. I live in South Dakota. My career started in music therapy, progressed to a master's in public administration and landed with a Ph.D. in political science. I have a daughter with a successful career and the best son-in-law a Mom could ever wish for. I own basset hounds. Who would have known?
There is a lot to be said for life/career planning, but there is equal value in being flexible when unforeseen circumstances thrust you in new directions. I have a quote I keep on my desk: "The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps." I'm still pondering on what this means exactly in living my life each day. Somehow the meaning seems less murky when I look back over the years. Maybe it really is the journey and not the destination.
What I can be sure of? I'll continue to spin greens well into the future (remember those nine varieties of lettuce I mentioned in my first blog post!) and I'll continue to rise to the challenge of perfecting an exquisite vineagrette.
Friday, June 11, 2010
The gusting rains blew through last night and that spelled the end of my beautiful irises. This is the third summer in our old house. Each year we hack away some more of the overgrown vegetation and each succeeding summer brings new blooming surprises. Last year we had just one of these beautiful pale blue irises. This year we had five in the front flower bed and a spread of a dozen or more in the backyard. The blooms were filled with the most lilting fragrance, lilac-like in its intensity, yet with a certain lingering delicacy. I think they are of an old-fashioned variety. Research is required to bear this out.
The newly planted apple trees survived the storm. Honey Crisp and Fuji. Three peach trees are in the coolest section of the basement waiting to be planted. Each year we look for orchards with peaches but haven't found any yet in the this eastern section of South Dakota. They can grow here according to the zone charts. I admit we were very spoiled in Ohio living just a mile from Lynd's Fruit Farm and having fruit picked fresh from the trees daily.
Tonight after work, we picked the first pea pod. A Sugar Snap. Still tiny but even in immaturity bursting with sweetness. A great start to the weekend!