none of the doors in my kitchen close on their own

None of the doors in my kitchen close on their own… except the refrigerator door, which always closes on its own, just seconds before I get there with whatever ‘over-full’ thing I happen to be carrying.  Like Jello. Boiling hot, slippery, liquid Jello, splashing up out of its shallow glass container and cascading to the linoleum below as I bump it into the suddenly sealed-shut fridge door.

It’s moments like these that remind me *why* the kitchen is my favorite room in the house- it has linoleum floors! No matter what I spill, I can always wipe it up and begin again more carefully, this time holding the door open with one foot while balancing on the other and slipping the pan into the bottom shelf where it will stay until all is solid and well.

I just made Jello from scratch for the first time using four packages of unflavored gelatin (obtained at the local grocery store, in the ‘Jello Aisle’) and four cups of white cranberry/peach juice (also found at the store, only in the “Juice Aisle”….)

That’s it. Two ingredients. It is idiotically simple, even though it took me forever to find the directions in the little box (I guess even idiotically simply just isn’t simple enough- woe is me). Come to find out the directions were inscribed on the individual packets of gelatin (duh)… I shall remember that for next time should this grand Jello experiment result in something even remotely Jello-like and we need to repeat the process.

One cup of cold juice gets poured over four packets of powdered gelatin. Three cups of  cold juice are heated over the stove until they are boiling. While the juice is working itself up to a boil, the gelatin is relaxing and swelling in the cold liquid- turning into a fascinating sort of gelatinous glob. Once the juice has boiled, the cold gelatin is stirred in until it is fully dissolved, then poured into a waiting 9×13 pan and sent to sit in the fridge until it is solid and ‘jiggly’. That is, of course, unless you spill it all trying to slip it in before the door violently and arbitrarily slams shut before you… In that case, I would suggest making something less tricky, like Pancakes Barbara.

(Convenient Literary Time Lapse Complete With Comfortable Bluegrass Music and Some Tea)

Here we are at the end of the day. The dishes are almost done, the laundry is almost folded and my child is almost asleep. I hear him in his little room at the end of the hall, murmuring his goodnight song to the stuffed woodland creatures dangling from the mobile over his crib. I’m exhausted and could really go for something cool and fruity.

Has the jello jelled? Yes it has. Hello there, my lovely, how charming you look, all glistening and gelatinous!

Ladies and Gentlemen – we have Jello, and not just any jello, but a perfect Homemade jello with no added sugars, colors, flavors or chemicals – just pure jiggly goodness. And while we are on the subject of jello’s goodness, let me say a few words about the health benefits of gelatin, the reason why jello is so adorably jello-like. Gelatin; it’s good for your aching knees, your brittle hair, your stubby nails, your lack-luster skin, your sluggish digestion and last but not least, your over-worked immune system.  Some studies suggest that the main constituents in gelatin may improve sleep quality and help regulate ones weight. I like those suggestions! It’s exceedingly low in fat and high in protein.  Sounds like much more than just a delicious snack! In accordance with our new year’s resolutions to eat more life-nourishing foods, I’m going to make jello… a lot… and eat it with abandon. The juice aisle is filled with flavors to be tried and I’m thinking chunks of fruit would be brilliant if stirred in before chilling. Oh boy, there is fun to be had here! Enjoy…

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my german summer

The German appeared on the horizon like a subtle storm, exciting from a distance with all the intrigue and mystery of a tumultuous dark cloud. He came with his charm, his attitude, his quaint way of coloring outside the lines with the English language and a fascinating way of rolling cigarettes like the cowboys we’d seen in movies.

He refused to disclose his exact birthday and acted like a nineteen year old most of the time but his eyes and stories and balding head  betrayed the many years he had actually lived through. He had been every where and done every thing that was exciting and exotic and somehow ended up in the middle of corn country USA working on an organic farm in exchange for room and board and a chance to learn firsthand about America. The farmers he boarded with happened to be friends of ours and that’s how we met our German. I was 16 at the time and my brothers and I fell nearly head-over-heels in love with his grand adventures, foreign ways and delicious German food.

Unfortunately, in spite of his great size and athletic build that would have made him a top-notch farm hand, the German realized all too late that he really, truly, honestly and desperately hated to farm. He hated picking beans. He hated canning tomato sauce. He hated getting up early. He hated being hot and sweaty. He hated being in a small town where nothing happened. He did, however, love to cook and eat and swim and sit by a smoldering campfire and play mournful songs on an old guitar. The focus of his stay quickly became Food which meant he spent a great deal of time at our house in the kitchen with my mom, whipping up delightful things for us to eat. I do believe that was the only summer ever that I actually Put On weight instead of losing it. We had schnitzel and spatzle and creamy soups with brussel sprouts (or ‘Rose Cabbages’ as he called them), we made sour pickles in crocks and stomped sauerkraut with our feet using a centuries old secret family recipe he requested from his mother. At the end of the day, when we had finished our own batch of farm work and he had sung all of his sad songs by the fire, we ate thick slices of “Bee Sting Cake” while he told us what it was like to grow up on the East side of the Berlin Wall.

In September, the German left us – heavier and a little wiser about the world at large. No doubt he was glad to be heading back to his familiar life and I dare say we weren’t broken hearted to be getting back to ours. The only thing we truly had in common was our love of food and excellent after-dinner conversation. We had a small stack of handwritten recipes and he most assuredly never took his glamorous city life for granted again. It was a win-win situation.

This is one of our favorite recipes, absolutely the oddest thing I have ever eaten and you must try it before you judge it too harshly.

Soyunka (or, “Junk Food Soup”)

1 bunch of green onions, chopped

1 sweet red peppers, chopped

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms

1 20 oz can tomato sauce plus one can water

1 1/2 cups dill pickle slices *with* the juice

1 1/2 cup sauerkraut

2 Tablespoon parsley flakes

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 cup chopped ham, bologna, sausage… any kind of cheap meat

Don’t laugh – it’s no joke, these are actually the ingredients! Saute the onions, peppers and mushrooms in butter or olive oil until they are limp. Add to a large soup pot then throw in the remaining ingredients. Cook on medium for 20 minutes or so then serve with crusty bread. It’s out of the ordinary, slightly alarming and leaves a strong impression, almost like the combination of homeschooling Midwest farmers and a city-wise German, but you only live once, might as well dive in and taste it, right? Enjoy!

corn child

I heard the other day that there is now fresh sweet corn available in the area- it must truly be summer.

I grew up in ‘Corn Country’ surrounded by hundreds of acres of corn that were at least ‘knee high by the Fourth of July’. Most of what the farmers sowed each year was left to dry on the stalk. I’m not sure if it was just a rumor, but I know some people said that it was bought by cereal companies to make corn flakes. I remember scorching days when the clay the corn was planted in would split into a mosaic of cracks and crevices while the corn plants themselves would roll their leaves up tight in an effort to keep in their remaining moisture. They’d stand in their neat lines in the blazing sun while the locusts sweated on the roadsides, breathlessly waiting for rain with the rest of us. After a good, soaking sort of storm the leaves would unroll once more and the fireflies took up to dancing in between the stalks after dark.

Even though field corn was a rather common, every day and over-abundant part of life for us, there was still a little thrill of excitement and romance attached to the sweet corn harvest. Unlike the patient field corn that waits for its day to come in October, the sweet corn is a short-lived crop, needing to be harvested at just the right time and preferably eaten within hours of being picked. I think of it as one of those summer luxury foods that comes on and needs to be fully enjoyed while it can be gotten as close to the source as possible like peaches, melons and berries.

By some miracle of engineering you can now buy sweet corn in the grocery store at all times of the year, but that will never come close to being able to acquire it in season from a local provider – they’re practically two different foods! I think there is something about the local harvest that adds a sweetness and depth to the food you eat like nothing else.

One summer my brothers and I volunteered to help one of our farmer friends work the local Farmer’s Market by going out with him at 3am to harvest sweet corn to sell later that morning. “This is the way you do it, fresh as possible. It’s the right thing to do.” He was not a man of many words and the ones he did use weren’t often very shiny or complicated, but he usually meant what he said and punctuated the statements that he felt the most strongly about with the phrase, “…it’s the right thing to do…”

This is how my family and I ended up in a pitch black sweet corn field out in the middle of nowhere’s nowhere – we were doing the right thing. I have to admit that I never felt so much like a raccoon as I did that morning, slipping between the corn stalks that towered over my head, enjoying the cool of the damp darkness and the occasion bite of raw sweet corn from an ear that I picked to keep my stomach happy while we worked. The kernels burst in my mouth, each one filled with sweet, milky goodness that couldn’t be found in corn that had been grown ‘away’ and was tired from traveling across county in a truck. Sweet corn is one of those foods that likes its home and gives itself most graciously to those who are willing to make the extra effort to keep it there. The farmers and gardeners who brave the weather and soil and before dawn harvests are able to offer the best there is to their families, customers, and community.

It’s sweet corn season in Vermont and you better believe I’m going to take advantage of it! I may not be in the field at 3am picking it, but I’m sure there are some local producers who will be doing their share of ‘the right thing’… be sure to enjoy it!

spinach and basil pesto with almonds

Well, I do believe I have done everything within my power to put off having to write.

I have washed the dishes (something of a chore when you’re nine months pregnant and the kitchen is about nine hundred degrees),  I have dried the dishes. I have filled my water bottle, drank the contents and refilled it – several times. I have meticulously removed the pregnancy beard from my pregnant double-chin and watered all the house plants.

It’s hard to write about food when any day, any hour you might be launched into labor and find yourself giving birth to a tiny human being. In all honesty, it’s rather hard to do anything but fidget around and… wait.

Fortunately, the need for sustenance has not disappeared with my interest in the world at large – we still need to eat, and in spite of the fact that my mom has been invaluable in the area of preparing and providing meals for us, there are times when I find myself needing to actually cook something on my own. Yesterday afternoon was one of those times. I made pasta with fresh spinach pesto sauce that I whipped up in my little blender contraption and it was actually quite good.

I used the last of the spinach harvest that had been stashed away in the fridge as well as the leaves from the basil plant that lives on the kitchen window sill. Mixed with some parmesan cheese, almonds (since I didn’t have pine nuts), garlic and olive oil, it made a delicious sauce for the pasta and the extra will no doubt be used as a spread, dip or topping for homemade pizza.

Spinach and Basil Pesto

makes roughly 1 pint of sauce

1 large handful of fresh spinach leaves, torn

1 equally large handful of fresh basil leaves

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1 handful of unsalted almonds

3 Tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (since the oil is a big part of the recipe, don’t skimp – use the good stuff, you won’t regret it!)

1/4- 1/2 lb pasta, cooked and strained

The actual production of this sauce is ridiculously simple, everything gets thrown into the blender or food processor and then blended or processed until it’s a creamy, delicious sort of mess one wants to eat by the spoonful. You might find yourself ripping off hunks of bread and sopping up the pesto right there and then and making boxed macaroni and cheese for the rest of your family (who will never know what they’ve missed). I will warn you that the possibility of having small bits of spinach and basil cling to your teeth exists and that you should plan accordingly lest the rest of the family get an inkling about the sudden menu change.  This is one of the many reasons why I advocate having a mirror somewhere in the kitchen to use for last minute face checks so that one doesn’t head into the fray with, say, chocolate cake batter smeared on the corner of one’s mouth, or the remains of devoured pesto crying out from the in-betweens of one’s teeth.

In the end, who ever ends up eating this will not only get a shot of heart-healthy, iron-fortified, garden-fresh spinach, but a good dose of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory power from the basil and garlic. Almonds add satisfying textural interest as well as a bit of protein. This is a healthy green food that makes the fact that you’ve eaten two servings of pasta a little less reprehensible, at least in my book!  You can toss the pasta with as much pesto sauce as you like then top it with cheese and – viola, lunch or dinner is served.

If you do happen to have any remaining when all is said and done simply store in a jar in the fridge. The oil may thicken up a bit but a few minutes left on the counter will return the pesto to it’s former, creamy state. Enjoy!

Only Tuesday – again

I found a stick of butter I didn’t know I had hiding in the very back of the freezer, and as I held its frozen self in my hand I realized that everything was going to be ok. It wasn’t the end of the world after all – it was only Tuesday. I laughed a little to myself, then burst into tears and when I was done crying I couldn’t remember what I needed the butter for in the first place.

Welcome to cooking with a woman entering her 30th hormonal week of pregnancy. I am growing and slowing and laughing and crying all at the same time. It is taking me longer to get up our stairs and I am completely winded when I finally reach the top. My appetite is enormous and while the rest of the world seems to be enjoying their spring greens, I am plotting how to inconspicuously add potatoes to the menu.

Comfort food – that’s what I want. I imagine it must sound insane to those of you not in the throws of prenatal life, but I just want pasta for dinner. Pasta and sausage – preferably with a side of potatoes and bread and butter, please. I would drink heavy cream if I thought for one minute that I could get away with it and pour gravy on my oatmeal. Maybe it’s because I spent the first few months not being able to stomach anything but grapefruit slices and sour candy. Who knows!  The problem to be solved is how to cook hearty, but healthy. How to mix Spring green with my cravings for Winter heaviness, in short – how to eat potatoes more often and yet not gain several hundred pounds in the process.

I think I may have found at least one solution, one of my family’s favorite meals that we lovingly called “Poverty Dinner”. There really is nothing ‘poor’ about it other than being inexpensive and easy to make. It’s a tasty, filling sort of one dish meal that worked perfectly with the first greens that braved the uncertain glory of Spring.

 

Poverty Dinner

4 potatoes, washed and cubed

1/2 lb lean ground beef

1/2 onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

several good handfuls of washed greens; spinach, baby kale, swiss chard, etc.

2-3 Tablespoons of oil or butter for cooking

salt and pepper

 

Potatoes and ground beef, comfort food at its finest, mixed with vitamin-packed greens fresh from the garden or market, making a simple meal that can be cooked up after a day in an office or in the field.

I like to use my big cast iron skillet for this. Heat the frying pan over medium heat and then add the oil and the potatoes then cover. Let the potatoes cook for a little while before adding the garlic and onions so that they don’t get too overdone by the time the potatoes are tender. Once the potatoes are feeling a little giving, break up the ground beef into the pan and stir well. Keep an eye on it to make sure that the ground beef gets cooked thoroughly. Another way to do this, although it changes the ‘one-dish’ nature of the meal, is to let the potatoes cook all the way and then remove them to cook the beef. Either way, you may need to add a little bit of water to the pan to keep the beef moist while it’s frying. If you’ve kept everything together, return the cover and let the potatoes finish cooking. Otherwise, return everything to the pan and reheat.

Now – here’s the super healthy part you’ve been so patiently waiting for. Once your potatoes, onions and beef are completely cooked, heap the greens on top. There will be a little bit of water clinging to them from washing which will help steam them. Cover and reduce the heat to low. In a few minutes the greens will have wilted and steamed and completed your meal. Season with salt and pepper as you desire and you’re ready to go!

Enjoy!

Bear Chili

They told me bear meat tastes like People – I didn’t want to ask how they knew.

My rugged hunter man went off into the woods and shot himself a decent-sized he-bear. When he came and announced the news to me I thought, “What are we going to do with all that meat?”

I’ve heard that it is a tough, sweet, oily sort of meat, not exactly everything we’ve come to love about good old Black Angus!  But, being the types to embrace adventure – culinary or otherwise – I decided to do my best to cook it into some edible form and Alex promised to eat it with an open mind.

From the various hunters and other adventurous cooks I interviewed, I realized that bear is not a distasteful meat, just a misunderstood and often poorly prepared one. It tends to be on the tough yet mild side and the fact that the animal itself lives all winter on hoarded stores of fat means that there can be quite a bit of grease, but that is easily pared off with a sharp knife, leaving you with less fat than most beef. It seems this meat wants to be spiced up and simmered long. I thought – “Chili!”

I used my crock pot and cooked the daylights out of it while I was at work and we ate it with homemade corn bread and a wild greens salad – a perfect, rustic, simple autumn meal.

Bear Chili

1 lbs lean bear meat, ground

1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes plus 1 can water

4 oz cooked black beans

4 oz sweet corn (frozen or canned or fresh)

1 Tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 onion, diced

2 Tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more or less, depending on how hot you want your chili to be)

1 Tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon salt

 

The first thing is to fry up your onions, garlic and bear meat (*or* ground beef, since I suppose not everyone has a package of bear just sitting in their freezer, waiting to be used!)  Start with about a teaspoon of olive oil or butter in a hot frying pan, add your diced onions and minced garlic and cook them over medium heat until they are translucent and fragrant. Next, add the ground meat with a little water. I don’t like to add more fat to fry the meat with when a quarter cup of water will keep things from sticking just as well. Break the meat into small pieces while it is cooking. Once the meat is thoroughly browned, turn off the heat and set the pan aside.

If you are using a crock pot, now is the time to rescue it from its shelf or box. If you are going to cook your chili on the stove top, get out an eight or more quart stock pot with a thick bottom. Pour the tomatoes, water, corn, beans and spices into the cooking apparatus. If you are wondering about the cocoa powder, let me tell you – it does wonders for a chili! It does not make your meat taste chocolate-dipped, rather it adds a depth and darkness of flavor that is hard to beat. Simply trust me and add the cocoa.

Now, scoop in the meat mixture and turn on the heat! As I said before, I let the chili cook on high in my crockpot for several hours. If you are cooking on the stove, let it simmer on a lower heat for an hour or two, stirring occasionally so that nothing sticks to the bottom. If you need to, cover it up or add water by the cupful if it seems to be losing too much moisture. It does need to cook for some time so that all those lovely flavors get a chance to work together and make something fabulous.

It will be fabulous, let me assure you, whether you use beef, bear, moose, venison or even ground chicken. You don’t necessarily need to be a huntsman to enjoy the fruits of field and forest.  Enjoy!

 

 

Make-Ahead Oven Homefries

Because really, who has time to stand over a hot skillet and *fry* the silly things!

Some days I miss living out on the prairie, with my man busting sod all day while I busy myself with bread baking and soap making and chicken feeding. It was a good life, but not exactly the one we enjoy today – and honestly, that’s alright. Our days have gotten so much easier with the invention of electricity and indoor plumbing – I particularly enjoy toilet paper and dishwashing liquid. And who can say that things were better *before* the advent of penicillin and Tylenol?

I’m here to say that there are good things about this modern age, even if it is a bit hedged in by insane busyness, and one of those good things is my oven.

The other night we had our weekly Breakfast for Dinner and I made oven homefries, a mash-up of sorts of oven fries and the hashbrowns you get at the local diner. One of the best kitchen tips I picked up while waitressing is to boil the potatoes before frying them, they cook faster and get crispier that way. Also – I never seasoned them enough. You’ve got to season homefries like you mean it – like you intend to Taste those herbs and spices when everything is said and done.

Oven Homefries

4 potatoes (this number can be easily adjusted to fit a smaller or larger crowd)

Spices

A big pot ‘o’ water

A flat, oven-worthy cooking vessel

Olive oil, or Butter, or preferably Both

Alrighty then.

First thing to do is chop your potatoes into bite-sized, homefry pieces. While you’re doing this, you should have your pot of water on the stove, heating to a boil. It’s up to you whether or not you want to peel your potatoes first,  I like mine a little on the rustic side so I let them keep their skins.

When the water is boiling like mad, add a little salt and then toss in your potato chunks (toss them carefully so as not to bathe thyself in boiling water). You don’t want to cook them all the way – this is important. They’re still going in the oven to bake  *at some point*. This is the lovely part about this process, you can parboil the potatoes any time you wish. I knew that we were going to have a rather frantic evening, so I boiled my potatoes in the morning and let them sit in the fridge all day, ready to be popped into the oven fifteen minutes before dinner. SO easy.

But I digress. The potatoes are boiling for 5-10 minutes, depending on how big your pieces are. You want them to be slightly fork-tender, but not mushy *At All*.

Remove them from the stove and strain them. After they’ve cooled a bit (and most of the wetness on them has evaporated from the heat), you can either put them in the fridge, or if you are going to cook them immediately,  dump them into or onto your oven-worthy cooking vessel.

Turn on your oven to 375 degrees.

Now for the fun part – the seasoning.

I like every sort of season – all at once, but some times just plain old salt and pepper do the trick, it’s up to you. First, however, you have to give the taste something to stick to. This is where the olive oil and/or butter come in. Pour a couple of Tablespoons of oil over the potatoes and stir them around in it, coating them as evenly as you can and allowing some extra for the bottom of the pan so that there is No Sticking. Then, sprinkle on some seasonings. Salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, sage, thyme, oregano, curry powder, basil, rosemary – – the options are endless. My favorite seasoning mix is sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, garlic powder and poultry seasoning (of all things), which is a recipe with its origins lodged in an old folk song, “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…”

The whole shibang is going to head into the oven for 15-20 minutes, and half-way through they should be stirred up a bit so they get crispy on all sides.

Yum.

They are definitely house-on-the-prairie-slaved-over-a-cast-iron-skillet-all-day good, without the actual slaving-over-a-cast-iron-skillet part – which is even better.