Amish Foodie

I just got back from a week-long trip to the Homeland.

I know most of you believe that I made up this mystical place where mashed potatoes are piled high with egg noodles and served on a slice of snowy white ‘Wonder Bread’, but I’ve been there. I have pictures. I brought back 10 pounds to prove it.

The family I stayed with are Amish. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Amish, they’re a religious order that practices simplicity and separation from the world in their day-to-day lifestyles. They reject being on ‘The Grid’ and power their machinery with propane, generators and dangerous looking patched-together systems of car batteries, jumper cables and tiny wires. The women wear dresses and head caps, the men have beards and use suspenders to keep their homemade trousers up.The don’t have cars but commute using bicycles or horse-drawn buggies.

I tried on their dresses, ironed with a terrifying butane iron (fire and cloth – ummm), washed my clothes in their outside washer/ringer set up and bathed my little bear in a large wash tub on the front porch. We took a dusky buggy ride along a few old back roads just as the lightning bugs were waking up and making their first appearance. I thought my heart was going to choke on itself; I had forgotten just how beautiful the sight of a thousand neon stars twinkling in the cornfields could be.

One delightful dish my friend prepared was Honey Mustard Swiss Chard. Chard is a tender-leafed green that has a mild, ‘earthy’ taste I find works well with strong flavors. Martha fried up a bit of bacon (of course) until it was crispy before adding honey, sugar, mustard, cream and Miracle Whip to make a sauce. The chard was chopped then simmered in the dressing until it was thoroughly cook and then it was served on top of – you guessed it – mashed potatoes.

Now, I had never heard of such a thing in my life, but it was pretty tasty. I decided right there and then to make a version of this when I got home – here’s the result.

Creamy Honey Mustard Chard

1 large bunch of cleaned swiss chard, chopped into bite-sized pieces

1/4 nitrite-free bacon diced into 1/4 inch pieces

2 Tbsp local honey (maple syrup could be substituted)

2 Tbsp prepared mustard (such as dijon)

4 Tbsp chèvre goat cheese or thick greek yogurt

1/4-1/2 cup water or broth

 

If you can’t get your hands on any nitrite-free, regular bacon will work just fine. You can adjust the amount of bacon if you want, I tend to be a bacon hog (pun fully intended!!).

In a large skillet, fry up your bacon over medium heat until it is crispy. Scoop out the bacon bits and add your honey and mustard and then the water/broth. Stir well until everything is mixed together. Add your swiss chard and lower the heat a bit to keep things from scorching. Depending on how big of a skillet you’ve got, you might be able to put all the chard in at once, otherwise, add a little at a time, stirring and waiting until the chard wilts until adding more. It’s going to seem like your sauce is never going to be enough, but the chard is going to cook down quite a bit. Let it simmer for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. When the chard is cooked and covered in sauce –  add the goat cheese or greek yogurt and the bacon bits and give it another good stir. I figured chèvre was a healthy swap for Miracle Whip since they’re both white and creamy and tangy. If you have dairy restrictions, this dish will be just as tasty without the cheese!

You can serve this however you want, over potatoes (I can see the look on your face, it’s actually really good), as a side for a meat dish, with scrambled eggs (another odd but delicious option) or just as it is!

Eat it on a warm summer night as the lightning bugs are just coming out and slow down, for pity’s sake. Sit around the table with your family or friends or enemies – doesn’t matter – and enjoy a little bit of life at buggy speed. Life isn’t a race, after all.  Enjoy!

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.

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!

strawberry rhubarb massacre

Hello, my name is Andrea and I habitually burn baked goods.

This is my story.

Once upon a time last week I baked a pie – a strawberry rhubarb pie.  I carefully chopped up my fruit and dumped it in a mixing bowl. I measured in the required amounts of lemon juice, instant tapioca, spices and vanilla. My boldest venture was to substitute the white sugar with half the amount of pure maple syrup, making this dessert something truly Vermont-like and wonderful.

I stirred my pie filling thoroughly and let my shiny **new** oven preheat. My favorite pie plate with the deep dish and charming crimped edges was lined with pastry dough and then filled with the pretty mess. All was ready. My timer stood at attention on top of the stove and the red preheat light clicked off.  I quickly sprinkled some sugar over the delicately slit top crust and then slid the beauty in to bake.

Fifteen minutes later when the first timer buzzed its warning, I dutifully came to the kitchen and turned the heat down before resetting the time. Forty-five minutes after that, I returned to the fragrance of glorious pie scenting the entire front half of the apartment. Crimson juices oozed from the crimped edges and bubbled up between the top crust slits. It was obviously ready to be taken out, but the crust looked slightly pale to me – it was *almost* perfect, but not quite. I envisioned a pie on the glossy front cover of a cooking magazine, golden and crisp and my pie just wasn’t there yet.

There I stumbled and there I fell, gentle reader. When will I learn that sometimes ‘almost perfect’ is as close as I should dare get to a magazine cover? Fools rush in, or so they say, and so I did.

“Let’s stick this bad boy under the broiler for a minute or two – that oughtta brown ’em up!!”

Oh, the pain of stupidity. Temporary insanity set in and it seemed like a good idea, I switched the control over to Broiler with a clever smile and put the timer on for another five minutes.

Five minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, does it? A five minute shower is hardly worth taking, the snooze button on my alarm that doles out extra sleep in five minute increments is a joke and I wouldn’t dream of only giving myself five minutes to EAT pie – but let me tell you, five minutes under the broiler of a brand new oven is something to be reckoned with. In fact, the poor pie didn’t even last the entire five minutes. I came running to the kitchen when I smelled smoke and the blessed timer still had a good minute on it.

Broilers kill, ladies and gents. Should have left well enough alone and not messed with something that was good and nearly perfect. My pie needed to be taken to some sort of pastry burn unit but unfortunately, they don’t exist – yet. We’ll see what happens if I keep on baking, they may open one and name it after me and I will leave something to it in my will.

My pie – oh, my pie. It was blackened and acrid smelling. The lovely juice that once oozed from its crust resembled a tarry black river of cooled lava. The sugar that so delightfully decorated the top had bubbled up into angry, swollen worts of Burnt. It was awful.

Thank God for the men in my life, who scraped away the charcoal top layer and enjoyed the goop that remained, saying that it gave the pie a “brûléed-type flavor”. They were actually quite impressed and honestly, so was I -that is by far the most damage I have ever done to a baked good, I have taken my dessert destruction to a whole new level.

Next time I will be content with almost perfect, unless, of course, I get a better idea.

shrimp – they’re just not that scary

I cooked shrimp for the first time in my life yesterday.

I know what you are thinking – how can a reasonably intelligent and adventurous home-chef like myself go for so long without having dealt with shrimp? I’ll tell you – fear. Clammy, white-knuckled fear and intimidation.

Growing up, shrimp was an expensive, exotic sort of food that was reserved for New Years Eve. I remember dunking my chilly, naked crustacean in cocktail sauce then relishing the way the mild, snappy shrimp mixed with the extremely pungent horseradish in my mouth. Oh my – good times.

My mom and I were the only ones who truly appreciated the delicacy, all three of my brothers avowing that they would never – under any circumstances – eat something that looked like a “sea bug”. It was one of the only foods my mom never insisted that they try more than once. Nope – more shrimp for the girls and that was always desirable.

For a long time I wondered if it wasn’t actually the cocktail sauce that I was addicted to, but one year my mom cooked Shrimp A’la Meuniere for my birthday and my doubts concerning the true nature of my love were set to rest forever.

I loved Shrimp and could love it without cocktail sauce. It was a revelation.

Now I ask you, how do you go about cooking a food you have so elevated? It’s somewhat terrifying. The thought of ruining a dish that contained shrimp was almost too much for me and yet for the past 18 months I have lingered at the seafood counter, gazing at the packages of fresh frozen shrimp before walking on, convinced that this was one culinary risk I was too timid to take.

My mom, whose fearlessness in the kitchen has yet to be matched by any single cook I have met, recently convinced me to buy my coveted bag of shrimp. “It’s not that hard…” she said, “… just thaw them in some cold water then cook them. Just don’t overcook them or you will loose that delightful *snap*.”

Oh, the delightful snap – something I dreaded loosing to be sure!

Calling back the memory of my beloved birthday dinner – the simple lemon, butter, garlic and herb sauce that so perfectly and delicately adorned the shrimp, I decided to do something of the same and serve it on pasta.

Shrimp with Garlic Butter, Lemon and Capers

1/2 lb  raw, fresh shrimp (thawed if you are using frozen)

3 Tablespoons butter plus a splash of olive oil

1 large clove of garlic, minced

2 teaspoons green capers

juice from 1/2 a lemon

grated Parmesan cheese to top

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 lb pasta, cooked and strained

Ah yes, shrimp and butter are the stars here. I figure the low calorie nature of shrimp allows for some extravagance, and I think I’m right. So there.

Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and olive oil (which should keep the butter from browning too much) and then the garlic and capers. Let them sizzle until the garlic is slightly brown and then toss in your raw shrimp. Stir well as they will cook relatively quickly. Once the shrimp have begun to curl on themselves and turn pink, add the lemon juice and some salt and pepper. The capers are pretty salty on their own, which is really nice in the sauce but you will want to taste it before adding *more* salt. A few moments more and the shrimp should look tight and plump and very pink. Turn off the heat and liberally decorate with parmesan cheese. One final stir and you’re ready to serve on top of your pasta with a side of salad or steamed veggies.

It was a quick, simple sort of meal but very delicious and worth the daring of finally deciding to cook shrimp. It wasn’t nearly as nerve-wracking as I had imagined! What food fear are you near to conquering? Let me encourage you to dive in and face it, you may end up with a dinner to be enjoyed and remembered…

Enjoy!