I can

I can.

As a teenager, canning season (with the exception of Christmas and Thanksgiving) was the most anticipated time of the year.  My mom and I and often a boy or three spent day upon day in our sweltering kitchen preserving batches of food we had either grown, gleaned or gained by gifts from over-burdened gardening friends. We were encouraged by the hot breezes that forced their way into the crowded room and the knowledge that our hard work produced a harvest that would be welcome come winter. We canned everything that wouldn’t run away starting with plump June strawberries and ending with thick, dark, highly-spiced apple butter late in the fall.  For months it seemed our kitchen overflowed with the steam of the canner, pots and pans filled with food bubbling away while waiting its turn, and hot, sweaty people working day and night to get it all done while the season lasted.

Our store of preserved food was a great source of pride and comfort for us. We were rather poor folk if you saw us in passing, or peeked in the windows and saw our homey but plain sort of lifestyle , but we felt rich indeed when we thought of the many boxes of canning jars filled with good food stashed around our little house. In every closet and under every bed were boxes of jars – apple sauce, pie fillings, green beans, tomato sauce, jams and jellies; mingled among books on shelves and underneath end tables draped with cloths – peaches, ground beef, brandied pears, spaghetti sauce, cherry juice, green tomato butter, chicken broth and even sweet breads. It was a treasure as real as if we had bricks of gold hidden in every corner. We studied long and hard to find the best places to keep things, things we used frequently like tomato sauce were stored in easy to reach locations where brandied pears and other such delicacies were often put high on back shelves to be saved for the holidays. I remember joyously traveling out to the far corner of the house to retrieve a jar of the delicious pears for Thanksgiving dinner, my heart swelling with the memory of sitting around the table, my family and I, late into the night peeling, coring, and slicing pears we had picked from a neighbor’s forsaken old tree, laughing and talking all the while. Nothing ever tastes so good as that food which is seasoned with good memories!

Before we moved East we spent the preceding year selling off all furniture that could be spared and settling our little farm into a peaceful place of sleep. We carefully wrapped over 500 jars of preserved food in old newspapers and packed them up for the long trip. We wouldn’t have dressers and chairs in our new home, at least not at first, but we knew that whatever happened we would have food. In the end, that food kept us going during our first  months out here while we found steady work and housing. Each time we opened a jar we were flooded with the tastes, smells and comforts of Home.  We had made it that far, we could keep going a little longer.

It’s canning season once more and this summer my greatest harvest was a little boy born in July. There doesn’t seem to be much hope of canning anything this year!  Nevertheless I managed to pack up several quarts of refrigerator pickles from the cucumbers in our small, townhouse garden. It was a small return for much effort (as anyone who has every tried to do *anything* with a four week old will understand) but it was immensely satisfying. I introduced an entire new generation to the wonder, pleasure, work and reward of preserving the harvest which seems to be more of an accomplishment than the six jars of kosher dills in the fridge. I am looking forward to many more years of canning with and for my family, making memories that will last longer and be even sweeter than the fleeting summer harvest captured in glass.  Here’s hoping you enjoy *your* harvest.

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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!

wilted beet salad

One summer, when I was much younger, my family stayed on a farm way out in the country for a couple of months. We had been living in an expansive trailer park that was more like a factory farm of metal boxes lined up on cement. Going from that broiler oven to being surrounded by luxurious fields, a huge yard filled with trees and secret places to hide away in and visit with fairies and other imaginary friends was nothing short of miraculous. I was enchanted – there were raspberry bushes and strawberry patches and mulberry trees, swings and chickens and a *gigantic* woodpile that was reborn into a magnificent fortress that my brothers and I defended form the wrath of the two angry geese who patrolled the back yard.

One day I remember Jan (for that is the woman of the place’s name) telling me that men don’t often notice cobwebs behind doors, but most women do and that’s why you must be careful to always dust behind the doors. We were preparing for a Tea that she was hosting at the farm and she and my mother were busy cleaning and cooking and getting things ready for the afternoon. I was so excited, being under the age of ten and longing desperately for the prestige and privilege of a grown up woman, I had been included in the Tea. Mom and Jan were always willing to involve me in their womanly activities, letting me sit up with them at night and talk about the deep things in life over tea while the lightning bugs filled the fields like fallen stars and crickets serenaded us from under the porch windows. I felt grown up in all the ways that mattered to me at the time and it satisfied me tremendously.

I don’t really remember how the Tea that we were preparing for came off, my young mind fixed on one dish in particular that was being mixed together in the big, old kitchen and everything else remains a happy blur.  This was the first time I had a Wilted Salad. I haunted the kitchen even then, feeling that room contained all the important business of the house. Jan mixed together a warm salad of greens, bacon, vinegar and sweetening and it tasted like heaven to me.

Over the years we have repeated her recipe, adjusting it and adapting it to different greens and not always saving it for special occasions! This is an excellent side dish to throw together for any summer dinner. It tastes like that sweet and tart time in life when I was so young and yearning to be so much older.

Wilted Spinach and Beet Salad

3 red beets (with or without their greens)

1 lb  raw spinach

1/4- 1/2 lb bacon (depending on how much you like)

1 medium onion, sliced

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1-2 tablespoons of honey, brown sugar or maple syrup

Firstly, cook the beets and their greens if you have decided to use them. I like to boil mine in their jackets. Once they are cooked, slip them out of their coats and chop them into bite-sized pieces. If you are using the greens (which should be boiled with the beets until tender) chop them up too.

In a *big* skillet, fry up your bacon until it is crisp, drain most of the fat away then add the onions and let them cook until they get slightly clear. Add the vinegar and sweetener and let it all simmer together for several minutes before dumping in your chopped beets and their greens. It’s really starting to smell good now!

Wash your spinach and drain it,  then pile it on top of the dressing in the skillet and cover for about five minutes. The heat will start to wilt your spinach and then you can begin to mix everything together. Turn off the heat and stir until the dressing has completely covered the spinach. The spinach shouldn’t be soggy and cooked, just wilted.

Serve immediately and 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!

Harvest Party

It’s coming into harvest time, and what a time it is! Probably my favorite of the year… but I say that about every season, I think…

Our modest little garden has outdone itself and far outreached our meager expectations of it, we’ve had tomatoes like crazy as well as four good pickings of green beans, enough cucumbers to keep us on our toes and all the salad we could eat in earlier months. It’s been wonderful. We planted three types of tomatoes, one was an early producer with well mannered plants and petite, perfectly shaped fruit and the other two are monster heirloom varieties that sprawled everywhere and literally ate one of their unassuming pepper plant neighbors. They produced frighteningly large, misshapen tomatoes and several green peppers (not really, it only seemed like that because I waded into them the other day and recovered the consumed plant, finding that in spite of its interment with the Amazonian tomatoes, it still managed to pop out a couple of peppers… amazing.)

I feel it only fair to mention that Alex took the lovely, well-behaved ones under his gentle wing in the Spring and tied them up nicely and cared for them, thus creating a lush tomato paradise, while the feral heirlooms were my territory. No tying, no gentle wing, just wild, uninhibited growth. One of us is a real gardener, the other is something of a impatient seed scatterer. It will be fascinating to see what comes of our children….

We didn’t grow any zucchini this year, I was banking on the fact that come August, everyone has zucchini in abundance and I would be able to get some for little or no money. I was right! A friend of ours donated three HUGE zucchini to our harvest cause and I was able to freeze seven quarts of shredded zucchini one morning. There is no room for anything else in our apartment-sized fridge freezer, but by golly – we’ll have zucchini coming out our ears till May.

I’ve made nearly two gallons of fresh garden salsa- all from our own tomatoes and peppers and ruined a huge pot of would-be spaghetti sauce, please don’t ask how – it was tragic and I haven’t really forgiven myself yet. Here me now – I will never, ever, ever, ever, EVER, ever again use identical containers to store salt and sugar. I will not forget to label said containers. I will not automatically assume that I have the right container and continue to add the WRONG thing to my sauce, ending with a salty, inedible MESS. Never. EVER. The End.

It’s been grand and we are so thankful to Alex’s mom for giving us her beautiful garden boxes, to our Landlord for letting us hog his tiny yard, and most of all to our Lord, who sent the rain and sun and gave the increase. Praise God from whom ALL blessing flow… Amen.