Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Football, Politics & Pepperoni Rolls

The only thing more disappointing last night than the West Virginia Mountaineers loss to NC State in the Champs Bowl, was my dismal effort at making pepperoni rolls. I should have researched recipes long before last night. Or, alternatively, placed an online order to Chico's Bakery for a South Dakota delivery of Julia's Pepperoni Rolls. The superior quality of the bread makes these pepperoni rolls tops in my book. About a year ago I did order a dozen to introduce my prairie friends to this qunitessential experience of West Virginia cuisine.

To the uninitiated, a pepperoni roll is a neat, portable snack - or it could be the basis of a meal - that consists of pepperoni encased in bread dough and baked. Originating at the Country Club Bakery in Fairmont, WV, pepperoni rolls were a favorite of coal miners as they were filling, highly portable and did not require refrigeration. Pepperoni rolls have some variations such as with or without cheese, with or without peppers, served at room temperature, warmed, or split open and served hot with marinara sauce. Variations aside it is the quality of the bread and the quality of the pepperoni that elevates the pepperoni roll from a mere quick, cheap snack to a taste of Almost Heaven.

And this is where my efforts at pepperoni roll production failed. I used a hot roll recipe that was a little too sweet, and a little too rich from the presence of two eggs and 1/2 cup of sugar in a dough that had 4 cups of flour.

And the pepperoni? Alas here on the eastern prairie of South Dakota, authentic pepperoni is harder to find than a real Democrat. Mine was flat, insipid and totally lacking in zip and pizazz. Not that I want my pepperoni overly peppery and spicy hot, but it should be able to boldly distinguish itself from the bread, not unlike a real Democrat boldly speaking out against the South Dakota political status quo. The best quality pepperoni conveys passion, heat, and a gusto for living as it lies both united with, and at the same time, independent of the bread.

Kind of like a truly progressive political community where differences are abundant but respect reigns supreme. Thus allowing everyone to move forward and progress be effected.

But - I digress. Politically speaking. Just a little frustration leaking out from the last election. Not unlike the oozing of the pepperoni into the surrounding bread.

In my search for pepperoni roll recipes last night (my search began after my failure) and I found several fabulous web sites. First the Pepperoni Roll Home Page by Bob Heffner and second a wonderful source of pepperoni roll recipes and West Virginia blog: Chickens In The Road. Author Suzanne McMinn provides beautiful photographs as well as step-by-step recipes. Next time, I'm trying her recipe!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Reflections on Christmas Cookies & Traditions

My first Christmas as a bona fide ‘grown-up’ was in 1975. I was married to my first husband and was celebrating our first Christmas together. At the time he was in the Army and we were living in Frankfurt, Germany in a tiny rented apartment in the city. We were invited to Christmas dinner at Art and Mitzy’s home. Art and Mitzy were American transplants in Europe. Art had been a dentist in Milwaukee and was trying to launch a second career in the opera. Mitzy was a pianist. The holiday dinner would be filled with other transplanted Americans, musicians, businessmen, their spouses and children. My husband and I were the only ones with a military connection. I still remember quite vividly the conflict between feeling the adventure of a European Christmas and missing my own family Christmas traditions.

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.

In the pantry there was always a stash of cookies of every variety. Some were annual holiday standards and some were new recipes. For my mother it was critical that she always be prepared for drop-in visitors. Being prepared equaled “something to go with coffee” and at Christmas time that something meant cookies.

So for that first Christmas in Germany, absent family, or decorations, a tree or shopping, or snow, I latched onto the one thing I was convinced would tie me to long-standing family traditions – baking cookies. At that time I didn’t have the extensive recipe collection I do today so I combed my new cookbooks and holiday magazines for likely candidates. There is one cookie recipe I found that stands out today over 30 years later – Currant Cookies. I found the recipe in Family Circle magazine. The cookies are basically a shortbread cookie – lots of butter, very little sugar, plus lemon zest and currants flour. At some point over the years, I added my own variation by soaking the currants first in brandy, or bourbon, or some other flavored liqueur.

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!

Currant Cookies
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

Let's Get Real - Real Apple Cider That Is!

When did mega-food manufacturers start getting away with selling apple juice and calling it apple cider? My first encounter with this charade came back in October when a local business here in Madison generously volunteered to donate apple cider to the great Pumpkin Train event at Prairie Village. I thought that was an exceedingly generous gesture of support. Imagine my surprise when the cider arrived in 2 gallon plastic jugs from food purveyor, Sysco. Further imagine my surprise when the stuff that was poured out of the jug was a clear, golden liquid surprisingly like the stuff that I used to pour into my two year old daughter's sippy cup.

I don't mean to malign our sponsor's generous donation. No, I hold Sysco responsible as well as any other mega-food manufacturer that seeks to lure an unsuspecting public into thinking that mass-produced, homogenized generic food products are the real deal.

Last weekend, at a holiday party, one of the hot beverage options was hot cider. Ha! It was hot apple juice - without any cinnamon sticks or cloves floating in it to even try to masquerade as cider.

The final straw in my cider rant? This past Saturday our local grocery store, Sunshine Foods, was offering hot cider to early morning shoppers. How nice! And yet - I knew what was coming. To add insult to injury, someone forgot to plug in the pot and so what came out of the spout? You guessed it - cold apple juice.

OK - so if food regulations and guidelines say that your cider has to be filtered, pasteurized and adulterated, well alright then so be it. But don't try to pawn off that bland, syrupy, insipid apple liquid as apple cider. Call it what it is - liquified, sanitized, homogenized apple flavored liquid supported by an arsenal of chemical double agents.

Lest my readers have fallen victim to the apple cider conspiracy, let me remind you what authentic apple cider is all about. First - it is not clear; its cloudy and opaque. You can't see through it. It's not pulpy but it does have texture. Real apple cider fills your mouth the taste of crisp, cold , fresh apples. The best cider is tart, but depending on the apple variety used, can be a bit on the sweet side. In fact the very best cider is made with a variety of apples, preferably windfall apples from the orchard floor.

Now - and this is key - cider is pressed - not strained, filtered, and pasteurized. Those apples off the orchard floor? They come with natural flavor enhancements - leaves, stems, seeds, the odd blade of grass or two, and yes, best of all, the occasional worm.

I have a distinct apple cider memory from my days in West Virginia. It's late September and the West Virginia University Farm has started the apple harvest. Cider time has arrived. You had to take your own jug and get in line at the big barn where the cider press sat. As you waited your turn, you could watch the farm wagon dump the load of apples straight from the orchard into the press. A switch was flipped and the press began. The big squeeze with fresh cider streaming out the into the barrel and then funneled into your jug. Mere seconds from apple to cider. As the press squeezed and groaned the atmosphere in the barn filled with the crisp nose of clear mountain air, fruit releasing its succulent sweetness stored from the summer sun and then topped off with the icy freshness of autumn's first frost.

Watching the cider flow into your jug, you knew the best was yet to come. In about 10 days. The solids would gradually settle to the bottom of your jug and the texture and color of the cider would lighten up each day until the one magical moment when you took off the cap and you heard a soft, sibilant hiss. Your cider was starting to turn. Oh heaven sent joy! Now your nose took in whiffs of yeast and your tongue exploded with the subtle suggestion of vinegar in the making. This was when your cider was ready to stand up to the boldest recipes you can find like "Cider Stew." Beefy, tender, savory with carrots, potatoes, and onions, with the tang of cider lurking in the background. A stew that stands up to the coldest autumn and the heartiest appetites.

If you were thrifty and thinking ahead, you put a couple gallons of that fresh cider in your freezer ready to be pulled out for holiday entertaining. Sure anyone can mull some cider with spices and simmer it in a crock pot. But for me, I prefer Hot Apple Pie. This was a recipe given to me by a dear friend who - alas - I have since lost touch with. Let me warn you - this is not your grandmother's hot apple pie. Do not insult the recipe by using hot apple juice. Wait until next autumn, find an orchard where they are pressing real apple cider. And if you have to drive a way to find it, stock up on several gallons and put it away in the freezer. One taste of Hot Apple Pie - you'll be thanking me!

Hot Apple Pie

1 quart apple cider

3 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

Tuaca (a liquer, generally available anywhere)

Sweetened whipped cream

Heat cider and spices just to boiling. Add 1 1/4 ounces tuaca to a cup or mug. Top with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.

Cider Stew

3 large onions, sliced

2 pounds stew beef, cubed

3 tablespoons flour

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1 cup apple cider

1 tablespoon ketchup

3 large potatoes, cut in chunks

4 medium carrots, cut in chunks

Brown beef and onions in oil or drippings. Combine flour and seasonings and add to beef and onions. Stir until all are well browned. Stir in cider and ketchup. This mix will deglaze your pan so be sure to scrape up all the crusty bits from the bottom. Add potatoes and carrots and cook until all ingredients are tender.

You can cook this on stove top on low, in a casserole dish in the oven at 325, or in a crock pot. Thicken the juices with a little cornstarch and water. Add a drop or two of Kitchen Bouquet (optional) to deepen color and flavor.

Original recipe found in Farm Journal Country Cookbook.

Image of the cider press from: www.beechhillartisans.com/Cider%20Presses.html

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dakota Diner @ The Dakota Diner

This morning it is my privilege to be indulging in breakfast at The Dakota Diner in Webster, SD. I'm on my way to a meeting in Aberdeen but when my colleague at Northern State University said I must stop at The Dakota Diner, I had to agree.

This is a quintessential small town diner. And the food meets exceeds my standards for diner breakfast. My initial thinking was I'd order coffee and maybe toast while I blogged. That thinking lasted about 27 seconds. I ordered the Bronco Breakfast. Eggs ordered your way. Choice of breakfast meat. Three silver dollar pancakes. Sublime.

The scrambled eggs were light and fluffy and my request for a little shredded cheddar on top was happily fulfilled. I ordered my bacon 'crispy' and it came crispy and well done without being burnt. Believe me - this happens a lot. And the silver dollar pancakes, three the size of dinner plates, were tasty, toothsome with just a hint of malt. Perfect! The coffee was standard but it kept coming. A true never ending cup.

Diner breakfast is only half about the food. A diner breakfast is also about the ambience and the customers. The Dakota Diner has both. Blue vinyl booths in rank order front to back. Thick porcelin coffee mugs turned upside down in groups of four, waiting for customers needing their first hit of caffeine for the day. The grill is fronted by a long counter holding baked goods under frosted plastic covers. You can watch the cook ply his spatula over the eggs, the ham, and the hash browns.

In the booth next to me is a changing group of men, spanning the generations, talking farming, politics, and passing observations on the local school system. Behind me are two older farmers talking about a new horse. In front of me is a mom, a dad, and a kindergartner grabbing some breakfast before the school day begins.

I'm reminded of stories my mother told me about her early career working in diners in New Jersey - The Turnabout Diner in Phillipsburg, the Waa-Waa along the Delware River in Riegelsville, PA and another one (whose name I can't remember) in California where she worked when my father was stationed in ports along the southern California coast during his service in the Navy. I've had a lot of diner experience in my own life. I've been in diners that were authentic and diners that were aspiring. You know - those diners that have the correct decor, with jukeboxes, formica countertops, and 50's music on the Muzak.

But it's the people that make for a true diner experience. You can't design a table that has been privy to first dates, celebrations, mournings, family secrets, and civic crises and intrigues. Walls that enclose the totality of small town life. This is the seasoning that goes with your coffee, your ham and eggs, your BLT (Hold the mayo), and your salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.

Long live diners in small town America. They keep us focused on the daily requirements of a fulfilled life - good food, good conversation, and good community.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Philanthropic Eating

My Farmer-Architect and I have been doing a lot of philanthropic eating the past few weeks. Like most folks who support these charitable gastronomic venues, we do it to support the cause and not for the epicurean delights. Let’s face it if you’re going to the VFW Pork Feed, the name alone tells you that gourmet subtlety won’t be on the menu.

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 na├»ve 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.

Pumpkins, Pumpkins, Everywhere -----

. . . . . and not a single one in a pie. It was all aboard the Pumpkin Train at Prairie Village on Saturday. An event in the planning for the past three months, the Pumpkin Train exceeded everyone’s expectations for participation. Five dollars bought you a ticket to pick a pumpkin for the pumpkin patch at Prairie Village. If you’re age 12 or less. Otherwise you got a free ride on the Prairie Village railroad and the chance for vicarious joy watching your kids find their most perfect pumpkin ever.

This was the first year for the Pumpkin Train. The event was a fund-raiser for restoration of Chapel Car Emmanuel. When I met with the Pumpkin Team planning committee for the first time, I said “We need to keep it simple.” I wanted a few games for the kids to play while they waited their turn to board the train. “If we get 50 kids this first year, I’ll be happy,” I told the Team.

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 ran out cider, we ran out donuts, we sold all the candy left in the Village Gift Shop. We made another trip into town and hit the various dollar stores because we ran out of prizes for the games.

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

Town Hounds Go Camping

This was a weekend of new shared experiences. My Farmer-Architect and I each had a lot of camping experience, but not with each other, or as we refer to those years before we met, B.G Before Gary or B.M. Before Mickie. More importantly - it was the first time the bassets went camping.

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

Coffee Mourning

It's been a tough summer in the kitchen. First it was the total collapse of the trusty salad spinner. Last week it was the fatal plug on the coffee grinder.

I've had that coffee grinder longer than my current husband. Longer than the divorce of my first husband. Longer than I've been a Mom. Although I have to credit my first husband, or rather his grandmother, or rather more precisely his grandmother's funeral, that led me to be a coffee drinker in the first place.

Now - you need to know that I came to coffee drinking comparatively late in life. My parents were die hard coffee drinkers. Coffee was a featured beverage at every family get together and neighborhood party. No matter the temperature, it could be 90 degrees in the shade in mid-July, if company came and the coffee pot was put on. Refreshments were defined as 'something to go with coffee.'

Bonding closely to my maternal English heritage, I was a dedicated tea drinker. Throughout my my high school years, my mother would inquire from time to time, "Would you like a cup of coffee?" Then on trips home from college, she would ask in puzzlement, "Aren't you drinking coffee yet?" Clearly she thought I missed an important developmental milestone. I continued determinedly drinking tea.

But it was bound to happen. The critical moment when I needed a hot beverage and there was no tea to be had. That moment for me was early December 1977 in Ligonier, PA. My husband's grandmother has passed away. The funeral was at St. John the Baptist Russion Orthodox Church. It was one of those wet and cloudy December days where the damp cold penetrates every bone no matter how many layers you have on. When the service was finished at the graveside, the whole family had just one thought in mind, get inside where it's warm and hope they serve hot soup at the funeral lunch.

I opened the door into the fellowship hall in the church basement and immeduately an intoxicating aroma of hot coffee hit me full frontal. I was never opposed to the aroma of coffee, just the taste. In fact, I really liked the aroma of coffee. And today the velvety brown aroma of hot, fresh-brewed coffee wrapped me in a warm embrace that made that cold, damp December drizzle a distant memory. It was fated. One of the church ladies serving the lunch asked what she could get for me. What else could I say? "Can I have cup of tea?" Her pleasant, sympathtic smile faded, "Oh I'm so sorry. We ran out of tea bags."

Horrors! There was nothing left for it - I needed a hot beverage and if coffee had to be it - I'd drink it! My first tentative sip - and my next thought - "What was I missing all these years?"

Going back home to West Virginia, I was a coffee drinker. Only a week after the funeral we went out and purchased a Mr. Coffee and a bean grinder - a Braun. I've been grinding and brewing for the past 33 years. That first Mr. Coffee has been long gone, but faithful Braun the Grinder has soldiered on until last week when I pulled the plug and one of the prongs stayed in the wall socket. I should call my ex-husband and share this story (he's a good friend but not a blog follower yet!). My Farmer-Architect said he's pretty sure he can fix the plug. In the meantime, a friend has come to the rescue and lent me her Krups. It's OK - but it's not my Braun.

I know we're not supposed to get attached to material things, but honestly, Braun the Grinder has been with me in New Jersey, West Virginia, Ohio, and now South Dakota. I'm glad to honor it with this blog post.

And now if you're ready for a really good cup of coffee - check out Cherrybean Coffee Company, superior roasts from certified organic, fairtrade growers. Cherrybean is located in Parker,SD but you can buy online. Enjoy a virtual cup with me!

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Legacy of Pie & Dixie Cups

Post July 4th -and the week has flown by. I am behind in my self-imposed blog schedule. Usually I need a brief period of free floating thinking before I start writing. Not tonight - I have been looking forward to blogging on this topic all week.

We joined friends for a scaled down July 4th celebration last weekend. Ribs were the featured main course. I was tapped to bring dessert. I was looking through my recipe stash and came across my grandmother's recipe for Lemon Sponge Pie. I never made it before, but we had a bag of fresh lemons and this seemed the perfect time to try it out. Plus my Farmer-Architect loves all things lemon. I was fairly certain this would be a hit.

And it was. Fresh and lemony with a smooth filling on the bottom - not quite pudding, not quite custard - and a sponge top that stopped just short of being a meringue. Success!
This pie was special for more than its exquisite taste and texture. This was one of the pie recipes that my grandmother developed early in the 1940's. At that time my grandfather worked for the Dixie Cup Company in Easton, PA. (The picture above is of the Dixie-cup-shaped water tower on top of the plant in Easton, Pennsylvania in the 1920s). My grandmother often packed a slice of pie in his lunch, and then started packing two and sometimes more slices as lunches were divided and traded around among the crew. My grandmother's pies were a huge success which gave my grandfather an idea - he would bring whole pies to work with him and sell them.

Soon my mother was getting up before school and starting her day rolling pie dough while my grandmother made the fillings. Next my grandmother invested in a commercial oven. The business was taking off. And then - the local health inspector got wind of the business and paid a call to my grandmother's kitchen. She didn't have to shut down the business as long as she complied with pages of health regulations designed for commercial bakeries.

And that was the end of the pie business.

For me - the good news is that my mother kept all the pie recipes. She also taught me how to make the ultimate crisp and flaky pie crust. I've tried dozens of pie crust recipes over the years, with butter, with egg, with convoluted prep techniques. But the basic recipe with crisco, flour, a dash of salt, a dash of sugar, and cold iced water gives me the best result. The only significant variation from my mother's early instruction is that I use a food processor to cut the shortening into the flour.

My grandfather only worked a short time at the Dixie Cup plant. He died at a young age in 1948. But I often heard about my grandmother's experience in the pie baking business. She never held much with government regulation after that.

Lafayette College in Easton, PA has a special collection on the history of the Dixie Cup. It is a very interesting story, intertwined with public health, railroads, and public schools. You can link here: Dixie Cup History.

Slowly but surely I'm putting together a cookbook. If you would like to be a recipe tester for the Lemon Sponge Pie, post a comment and let me know.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pairing Chocolate Cake & Beer: Does It Get Any Better?

I am living testimony to the belief that chocolate is an essential food group. In my world: ice cream - chocolate; cookie - brownie or chocolate chip; pie - chocolate cream. And cake - but of course, chocolate. Served best with my preferred frosting - peanut butter. Rich, dark chocolate cake with light and creamy peanut butter frosting. The ultimate in comfort food.

A couple weeks ago friends Dan and Lynn came by for an impromptu porch supper. I baked a chocolate cake and it was without doubt the best chocolate cake I ever made. Dense, moist, fully chocolate expessive. If this cake was a cathedral organ - it would be the pedal tones in the lower register reverberating in the nave. If this cake was in the band - it would be the resonanting oom-pa of the tuba. If this cake was in the opera, it would be the Wagnerian basso profundo commanding center stage.

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

Medium Rare

Tonight - let's talk steak. We went to dinner with friends last Friday night at one of Madison's dining establishments. Now - notice my careful choice of words. I did not say 'fine' dining establishments, because there are no fine dining establishments in Madison. There are places to buy food you don't have to cook yourself. And there's are a couple of places for a pretty good breakfast. In fact I originally wanted to start this blog as a restaurant critic for Madison. Let's face it - when one of the listings in the 'Dining Guide to Madison' includes the convenience store at the gas station on the corner of the highway, you must know that the definition of dining is stretched pretty thin.

But I digress.

So last Friday we're out with friends and Lynn orders a rib eye medium rare. She said this with a certain authority that affirmed to me 'this is a woman who knows her steak.' Then she asked "Is this steak dry aged?" I'm in awe .... in the presence of a beef connoisseur.

I admire beef connoisseurs. Actually for me - well, I've never been a big fan of steak - T-bone, rib eye, or otherwise. I guess because growing up the best our family could afford was a big thick burger or a steak sandwich. I almost hesitate to say 'steak sandwich' because you probably think growing up in New Jersey we had Philly steak sandwiches. Although where I grew up was not far from Philadelphia - the steak sandwiches I know and love bear no resemblance whatsoever to what people are passing off as Philly steaks these days. This is as true in South Dakota as it was when I lived in Ohio, West Virginia, or Maryland. But the Philly steak is a topic for a future blog post.

Back to Friday night. The rest of our orders - 2 reubens and a chicken Parmesan were placed without further interrogation.
The steak comes. To my eyes, it didn't look so good. Like I said, I am not a fan of eating steak, but I had an illustrious early career as a short order cook (Union 76 Truck Stop Bloomsbury,NJ; Village Inn Pancake House Lawrence, Kansas) so I've cooked a lot of steak. I knew that skinny pathetic piece of beef on that plate was not medium rare.

And so did Lynn. She didn't take the plate when the waitress passed it to her. "That is not medium rare. I can't eat that." The waitress went speechless, dropped her eyes to the plate looked helpless. Clearly, this was new territory. I don't think anyone had ever challenged her before. This is after all South Dakota and while people know good steak, they are also very nice and averse to making a scene or being in anyway confrontational. Lynn did not make a scene and she was not confrontational. But she was very positive and very clear, "I cannot eat this steak. I can talk to the cook if you want me to."

Waitress: "Uhh-hhhh."

Lynn: "Really, I cannot eat this. I'll go back to the kitchen and talk to the cook."

This was a savvy move on Lynn's part because as a short order cook I had been on the receiving end many time for waitress wrath, occasionally deserved but more often as a convenient scapegoat for a lousy tip. Of course - there was the time the hostess came back and told me as tactfully as possible that an eight year old girl had choked on the plastic wrapping I failed to take off a slice of ham that went out in a ham sandwich. The girl's father was quite upset. Oh - did I mention the girl's father was my piano professor? And that my end of semester piano jury was the following day? Yep - that was a memorable kitchen gaff.

But I digress again. So the waitress retreated with the pathetic beef back to the kitchen. Lynn ate her potato. The rest of us dined on mediocrity and when a new plate of beef arrived, there was a regal rib eye worthy of a discerning steak eater. Thick juicy. Great grill aroma. And Lynn declared it quite good. She then proceeded to instruct the waitress in techniques for determining the doneness of a good steak. Even with my experience I was captivated by the lesson. Which only made sense because Lynn was a natural science teacher. She was in her element -a plate of beef, a young girl, and a lesson learned.

I wish I had been friends with Lynn when I worked at the truck stop. I could have used her particular expertise in medium rare. We served a lot steaks especially on the midnight shift. Steaks and eggs were a special for the long haulers although for the most part I don't think they were awake enough to know what was even on the plate. We also served a lot of burgers. Don't have any illusions about those. They were pre-formed, pre-frozen barely a quarter-inch thick. But there was one older couple that came in everyday for lunch Monday through Friday and placed placed their order with the same air of dicserning taste and authority: two hamburgers - medium rare.
The bottom line: People just know what they want and we need to respect that.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Throw All Your Rings Into The Ring Box

This morning we woke up to a refreshing summer rain shower. The kind of morning that whispers "Oh go ahead, roll over and pull up that sheet a little snugger." And the next thing you know you're drifting away on the sound of raindrops falling through the leaves and dripping off the eaves.

Rainy mornings didn't always have this effect on me. When I was a kid, this was the kind of morning that brought sadness and disappointment. The sound of rain falling outside my bedroom window inevitably happened the same day some exciting outdoor adventure was planned. A drive to a state park and a picnic lunch. A day at the pool. A long awaited day long bike ride. Or Bushkill Park Day. Wow. That was the worst.

My father worked for New Jersey Power & Light and each summer, the employees and their families were treated to a day at Bushkill Park, an amusement park just outside Easton, Pennsylvania.

Bushkill Park Days. An accumulation of singular moments from each successive summer packed away and ready to be shaken out and enjoyed one at a time now some 40 years later. All the chocolate Yoo-Hoo you could drink. The free tickets for the rides. When tickets were all used up, you ran back to the pavilion where the grown-ups were hanging around. The men drinking Rolling Rock. The women sipping Cokes and minding the babies and the toddlers. The Man With The Tickets would unwind the big roll and hand you a long strip. How many? 10? 15? It didn't matter because when they were gone you could go back for more. Although, the Man With The Tickets would try to make you believe that this would be the last strip of tickets you would be given. "There will be no more," he'd say with a stern look. "Better make them last."

So off we'd race to the Bumper Cars, the Fun House, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and for me endless rounds on the Carousel. Finally, one glorious summer, my arms were long enough that I could grab rings from the ring bar. I'd lean way out over the edge of the moving platform, clinging to the post of my trusty steed as he soared gracefully up and down. Stretch a little further and bing - I snatched the ring. One time I even got the brass ring - good for one free ride.

And then the tickets would be gone and we'd race back to the pavilion worried that maybe this time the Man With The Tickets would be right and this time the tickets really would be gone.

Only one time can I remember, in a vague sort of way, that the ticket roll was empty. I was older by that time, 12 or maybe 13, and already losing the optimistic ideals of my youth. I don't remember being disappointed. Just gave a shrug and an 'Oh Darn.'

It wasn't too long after that the power company stopped the tradition of Bushkill Park Day. Another victim of corporate cost cutting. And today Bushkill Park itself has fallen victim to two floods, irresponsible flood control, and not enough money.

In my mind I can still smell the cotton candy and the popcorn, see the bright colored lights strung through the park, hear the metallic snap-crack of The Whip, and feel the juicy scariness of running through the rotating barrel in the Fun House. Best of all, embedded in my memory, I hear the jolly, lilting melodies of the carousel organ with its brass, its reeds, and the percussive beat of the tambourines and bass drum. And all too soon I hear the voice directing us to "Throw all your rings in the ring box. All your rings in the ring box, please." The voice that foretold the coming of the end of the ride.

I see Bushkill Park now as a kind of metaphor for my life. You only have so many tickets to ride. You don't know how many more you might get. You better enjoy each ride as you go round and round through life. And when the day comes and I hear the voice instructing "Throw all your rings in the ring box" I hope that I am still carrying the excitement and optimism of Bushkill Park Day that even the rainiest summer morning cannot squelch.
Bushkill Park: The Last Ride

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day Sunday

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

A Slam Dunk for CSA

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

Still Life in Iris Garden

This picture was two taken two weeks ago when the irises were still lush and healthy. Which is more than I can say for the chickens. It's taken me this long to reflect on this experience that I now call 'Chicken Sunday.'

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

The Salad Spinner

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

After the Rain

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!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

First-time blogger here. Greetings! The plan - musings on life as a South Dakota transplant, a gardener, a baker, and a celebrater of all things edible.

The photo - by way of introduction - Our Kitchen Garden.

I take little credit for this symphony of lettuce in nine varieties. My husband the Farmer-Architect wields the magic garden baton. Or hoe if you will. My contribution is bringing the daily additions to the compost piles at the end of each row (future sites of fruit trees). And most important, I dispense admiration and encouragement to the orderly ranks of leaf and sprout and seedling from my 2nd floor studio window. I cheer on the struggling fennel, soothe the fears of the rabbit-assaulted green beans, and beseech the soaring onioms to halt already!

In addition to lettuce and spinach, an early first harvest this week were beaucoup of radishes. Thanks to the Culinary School of the Rockies for their recipe, Spicy Radish Quesadillas. (Go to http://www.culinaryschoolrockies.com/ for email newsletter).