then and now

December 28th, 2010

Great-great-great uncle Everett Stetson would have written a farm blog were it not the year 1885, but a judicious diarist he was nevertheless.  Sometimes I check to see what he was up to 125 years ago.  Yesterday’s elegant handwriting indicated a day spent “chopping and hauling two cords of wood”.  Later “it snowed three feet” and he sold a sheep pelt for twenty-four cents.

I often wonder what they ate on that rural Maine farm, especially in the dead of winter, when harnessing the horse to the sleigh would be necessary in order to visit a local shop for flour, coffee and sugar.  No doubt Everett’s wife spent the whole of summer canning fruits and vegetables and by fall the root cellar would be chock full of root vegetables.

Plenty of chickens and certainly a cow or two would keep them in fresh dairy products throughout the year and dried beans, salted fish and cured meats could easily round out a winter meal.  Some type of baked good, no doubt, would be prepared each day in a wood-burning stove and probably included yeast breads and biscuits and sundry varieties of corn meal products.

As little as our modern day meals resemble those of the 1800’s, there’s one thing I’m certain we enjoy/enjoyed in common and that would be Popovers with sweet butter and homemade jam.  So I tip my potholder to great-great-great aunt what’s-her-name.

Jumbo Popovers

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mecca

December 18th, 2010

Food pilgrimages are part of my religion and none provide enlightenment like the great markets of Austria, Italy and France, but that’s a bit of a trek this time of year.  We’ve decided to serve Prime Rib for Christmas dinner, which is a simple enough decision, save for the fact that we can’t get a proper one up here in the boondocks.

Several business meetings last week required me to travel to the Boston area, and at the suggestion of the man who came to dinner and never left, I stopped in at McKinnon’s Market in Salem, New Hampshire with hopes of finding something resembling prime Angus beef.

Oh, Lord have mercy on me, for this cannot be I, was my first reaction to seeing counter after counter of beautifully cut meats, the freshest seafood imaginable, and a cheese section that represented the entire world.  I excitedly ordered a Prime Rib Roast, to be trimmed to my exacting specification, for pick-up on the Tuesday before Christmas.

During the three days of subsequent meetings, I couldn’t shake the vision of McKinnon’s bounty dancing in my head, so on the return trip home I popped in once again for some wild sea bass, some brilliantly fresh vegetables and an array of exotic cheeses and with great delight and a small prayer of thanks did we devour pan roasted sea bass, a rare treat indeed, that very same night.

Pan Roasted Sea Bass

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wonder bread

December 12th, 2010

The only thing wondrous about that squishy Wonder Bread in the plastic bag at the market is that anyone ever buys it.  The additives alone are enough to scare away the most cast iron of stomachs.  Among the horrors noted on its ingredient panel are high fructose corn syrup, mono and diglycerides, exthoxylated mono and diglycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium iodate, calcium dioxide, datem, calcium sulfate, ammonium sulfate, dicalcium phosphate, diammonium phosphate, and calcium propionate.

There ought to be a law preventing the sale of poisons under the guise of food, but that will never happen because big business and big government share the same bed, despite the heinous morning breath they greet each other with each day.  Small wonder that prescription medicines are such a popular food item.

Homemade white bread has four ingredients in it: flour, water, yeast and salt. It is perfection at its most simple and no one need ever buy the facsimiles offered at the market.

Wonder Bread for us consists of a rotation of 54 homemade breads, each of which is met with new appreciation when their turn comes up, so much so that they usually get remade and remade again before we move on to something known or new.  Currently it’s focaccia that has appeared each Sunday in anticipation of the week’s sandwiches.

A huge sheet pan’s worth, tender and redolent with olive oil and herbs, is the base for the best croutons you’ll ever eat, the most righteous sandwiches and a darn good pizza when topped with homemade marinara, a host of veggies and any kind of creamy cheese.  A true Wonder Bread, indeed!

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rewired

November 14th, 2010

Thanks to our good neighbor Susie, a.k.a. Soozle, and her generations’ deep connections in southern New Hampshire, we have been introduced to both the Rembrandts of plumbing, Luis and Zachary, and the Gauguins of electrics, Wayne and Mike.  Because they have to travel three hours in each direction, ‘tis only fair they get fed well when up here working on this cantankerous old house.

When Luis and Zachary came in November to replace the oil furnace, a morning spent in the dingy and frigid cellar called for a warm and savory brunch of Fontina Egg Puffs and O’Brien Potatoes.  For dinner we grouped around the kitchen table for big bowls of Chili and all the fixings followed by a bag of fresh brownies to take with them on the road.

This weekend Wayne and Mike were modernizing a scary labyrinth of knob and tube, 1950’s romex and a few strands of modern romex, all of which were intertwined and/or simply taped together.  Dinner needed to be hot and filling and supremely satisfying so I devised a lasagna with some added pizza elements.

The usual layers of pasta, cheese custard and marinara with ground beef were joined strategically with layers of smoked ham, capicola and discs of pepperoni, served screaming hot and oozing with cheese.  A huge salad with mushrooms,’ maters and fresh vinaigrette and a jumbo loaf of Italian bread baked with gobs of garlic butter made everyone feel quite electric!

Savory Pizzagna

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tater chips

November 9th, 2010

Commercial potato chips aren’t usually found in our pantry here and are only purchased when they’re priced two for one.  They are less a snack and more a crumb in terms of usage and crab or shrimp cakes and assorted croquettes dredged in crushed potato chips are supremely tasty.  A commercial chip’s usefulness, however, ends there.

Homemade potato chips are another matter entirely, and no surprise, actually taste like potato.  Easily roasted to perfect crispiness in the oven, they are very nearly a diet food compared with their commercial counterpoint.  When fresh herbs are on hand, toss them in with the potatoes and while they roast, dream up a smooth and tasty dipping sauce to glorify those glorious chips.

Homemade Tater Chips

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the cheese stands alone

November 2nd, 2010

Over these many years, cooking for the man who came for dinner and never left has required smoke and mirrors, slights of hand and outright fibbing in order to get him to eat and enjoy the many foods he initially warned me he’d never eat; to whit, capers, olives, anchovies, blue cheese, mustard, mayonnaise, chutney, tarragon and Pernod.

He may as well have tried to erase flour and salt from my perpetual ingredient list and would have been equally unsuccessful.  Judicious masking of ingredients and a shrewd blending of flavors have helped sway the stalwart man and romantic dinners by candlelight that disguise errant capers that roll out of position have helped hasten that sway.

This subterfuge has worked its magic and the man wouldn’t consider a capicola sandwich without a big spoonful of olive salad, or smoked salmon Napoleons without capers or Tuscan white beans without anchovies, yet he continues to hold fast against blue cheese, more the pity for him and no big complaint on my part because it means that I get to consume it solo, as in the case of this unbearably good creation of creamed spinach with Gorgonzola and frizzled ham.

Mmm… mine, all mine!

Creamed Spinach with Gorgonzola

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one thing leads to another

October 25th, 2010

Our great new discovery is Sean the Contractor who did a fabulous job rebuilding the under carriage of the downstairs porch.  I got some gray and red paints to touch up the new clapboards and steps.  They looked so nice afterwards that the surrounding paint suddenly appeared worn and rather shabby, so I painted all the exterior and interior hip-walls on the porch.

Now the door suddenly appeared worn and shabby, so it got painted along with the outdoor staircase leading to the second story porch.  That’s when our other great discovery, Brian the Masonry Wisard, arrived to re-point the side chimney and shore up the granite foundation of the house.

It’s tedious toiling outside in 30-40 degree weather, so I made a big pot of chili con carne to keep all the workers warm and fueled, and when I say big pot, I mean eight quarts worth of big pot along with a fresh batch of baguettes baked up each morning.  The numerous projects move steadily forward despite the intermittent rain and a brief snowfall this week.

The porch floor suddenly looks worn and rather shabby, as do the three big windows that flank the newly painted door.  Time to grab some more paint and turn up the heat on the big pot of chili because Sunday’s as good a day as any for plodding on.

Chili con Carne

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enrapt

October 11th, 2010

Finding salad greens in Slovakia and Russia was no small feat, but occasionally a small ball of lettuce would show up at the local outdoor markets and I would jump on it like a spider on a June bug.  The challenge was always how best to stretch these precious leaves and frequently they ended up as a simple ‘green salad sandwich’ lightly dressed with a bit of vinaigrette.

From that experience grew a real fondness for ‘salad sandwiches’.  Living once again in a country whose markets boast copious amounts of lettuce varieties, I’m in salad heaven.  A fresh homemade baguette, split and stuffed with dressed greens and herbs is a sandwich of which I can eat several feet’s worth.

Salads wrapped in lavash are pure rapture simply because the ratio of bread to salad favors the salad side of the equation.  Toss in a few slivers of olive, roasted pepper and a crumble of cheese, whisk up a brightly flavored dressing, wrap it up snuggly and settle in a glorious salad moment.

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what a fool!

October 7th, 2010

I’ll gladly suffer a fool when the fool is a dessert – gobs of fresh whipped cream streaked with bright fruit puree.  Folks and fools alike have enjoyed this heavenly concoction since the 14th century, although they took more pains with it back then.  From an Elizabethan recipe book comes these quaint instructions:

Take a Pint and an half of berries clean picked from the stalks, put them into a Skillet with a Pint and half of fair Water, scald them till they be very tender, then bruise them well in the Water, and boil them with a Pound and half of fine Sugar till it be of a good thickness, then put to it the Yolks of six Eggs and a Pint of Cream, with a Nutmeg quartered, stir these well together till you think they be enough, over a slow fire, and put it into a Dish, and when it is cold, eat it. 

A modern fool needs only a dash of sweetener and omits the egg yolks.  Recommended fruits include all varieties of berries, stewed stone fruits and even mango.  I always add a bit of crumbs to change up the texture – a crushed cookie or biscotti is nice especially when paired with an unexpected fresh herb; a hint of rosemary or mint or lavender.  Grab a big spoon and dally not all ye fool-loving provender sweetings!

Fruit Fool

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the autumn leaf

October 3rd, 2010

This time last week I was sitting in the kitchen devilishly determining how to spend a half day off, the first in ages, and decided that the best use of these few hours was to do nothing, not one thing, nada.  But first a quick walk out to the garden to pick a ripe tomato and start the day off properly with a TLC BLT.

All of a sudden an enormous roar sounded and flaming chunks began falling into the kitchen hearth.  I ran to the third floor and the roar increased threefold and through cracks in the massive central chimney I could spy a raging inferno.  Stumbling back down to the second floor, I called 9-1-1.

I imagine that everyone has idly wondered what they would take with them in the event of a home evacuation, but no amount of imagining ever proves true.  I’d been told to leave the house immediately and so I didn’t stop to grab my wallet or laptop, nor the car keys or the photo albums.  I didn’t even pause long enough to comb my hair or change out of pajamas and sweater.  Instead I lingered long enough to neaten the kitchen.

Six fire trucks and an army of volunteer firemen working feverishly for three hours kept the house on its febrile legs with no structural damage.  Sadly, it was the kitchen that took the biggest hit, with a river of sooty water washing through it.  Later that evening, with eyes like zombies, the two stray cats and I snuggled into bed and watched the same Perry Mason episode over and over again until dawn.

The cats remained spooked the next day, as did I.  After the flood cleaning crew had left, I heard something drop from the chimney and land with a small crackling sound.  Jumping with alarm, I turned and saw a lone autumn leaf that had drifted down all forty feet of chimney, lying curled and dry in the hearth.  That’s when the tear ducts finally opened and the recent hell acknowledged, choked on and finally swallowed.

The big clean up continues and once the kitchen was scrubbed and dried, something special and especially soothing was in order.  Sautéed scallops, shrimp and crab, perhaps, nestled in a vegetable and herb bisque sounded just the ticket, and like a much-needed hug, it was.

Seafood Pan Roast

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