Archive for the ‘cooking’ Category

Double rainbow

August 5, 2017

I’m scheduled to give my first (and only) Evening Program at Bandelier’s amphitheater tonight which means it will be a long, long day.  If I decide to come home afterward, once I’ve successfully managed to dodge the elk and mule deer on the road over the Jemez Mountains, I won’t fall into bed until well past 11.  Then I need to get back on the road by 8:30 for Sunday’s shift.  I did manage to get some sleep last night but was awake by 4:30.  Combining a persistent low level exhaustion with the fact that my Evening Program isn’t anywhere near completed as I type this, I think it’s safe to say that a very interesting day lies ahead.

As I prepare to wrap up this part of my life and move back to Virginia, so many thoughts/plans are running through my head.  Adding to all of the usual miseries of relocation, over the past 45 days or so, my car has been having issues that have only within the past 2 days been diagnosed:  a leaking head gasket.

I have a rental car reserved for my cross-country drive, but there’s a part of me that thinks the leak is not too severe since the car never overheats.  So I’m going to try one more fix:  a product that seals leaking head gaskets.  Sure, one issue that’s inspiring me to try one last fix is money, but I also have this feeling that this car & I are not quite at the end of our relationship.  Arguably silly, I’ll agree, but I’m just not one to buy into our disposable culture.  Plus I tend to anthropomorphize inanimate objects; it may be a genetic thing:  to this day my mom acts as if she coax her car into lasting longer by not driving it often.  As if one can bargain with a car!

So this morning while I’ve been researching the gasket lead and repair possibilities on-line, I’ve also been roasting a chicken for the week ahead.  (the best recipe

As I was walking in and out of the house, running the car engine, noting the white smoke blowing from the tail pipe, checking the fluid, etc., the tantalizing smell of a roasting chicken filled my adobe’s airy rooms.  The sun struggled to rise above the bank of clouds hanging low in the east as a few sprinkles fell.  Standing over the car engine, coolant in hand, I looked up and saw a double rainbow.

My thoughts have been busy unpacking that dark closet full of all the things that could go wrong, and I’ve forgotten to appreciate all that has gone, and is going, right:  a job here and one awaiting me in Virginia, long-time friends who are looking forward to seeing me again, more adventures on the horizon, a black cat who manages to hang on regardless of what happens next, a sweet little home, a car that (still) works, money in the bank to cover (some) emergencies, a chicken roasting in the house, and much, much more.

Just as that double rainbow – just a simple trick of light – has reminded others of what holds their lives together, it arrived to arc across the New Mexico sky and remind me.  It won’t make all those dark problems, today’s and tomorrow’s, go away, but it does tell me I have the strength to endure and the capacity to enjoy.

Cherry picking

June 2, 2013
cherry pie

a perfect cherry pie

I was 4 or 5 when we lived in the house with a cherry tree in the backyard.  I remember the spring it fruited. I can’t recall whether my sister and I picked them or simply gathered them from the ground, which makes more sense given how small we were. My thought was to gather them all and produce cherry jam that we would sell to our neighbors. Unfortunately, my method of creating this jam wasn’t informed by any consultation with an adult.  I figured all we’d have to do was to smash them together, which was an unfortunate decision.  The impossibility of getting an edible jam from this mess became clear to me only after we’d given them all a good smashing. Seeing my dejection over this error, my mom suggested I take a bottle down the street, where an elderly neighbor said she would be delighted to buy it, pits and all.

After I blew my first opportunity to enjoy an abundance of cherries, I didn’t have another chance to enjoy another until I was in my fourth decade. That June I had a job shuttling historic garden symposium attendees from the residence hall to various sites, one of which was Monticello, the institution where I’m further employed as a guide of Jefferson’s garden.  The days the group was up on TJ’s mountaintop, sitting through talks I’d already heard, I wandered the gardens and grounds, catching up with fellow employees and picking cherries.

It was a bumper season for cherries in Jefferson’s orchards, and the way I looked at, I was being paid to pick them. The Monticello gardeners had more important things to do on the clock.  Luckily not many visitors ventured that far from the vegetable garden, so there were few if any witnesses to my exceedingly dangerous perches, as I inched myself up higher and higher in the trees, trying to grab the ripe fruit. The weather that June was beautiful. And often as I reached for a bright red sour cherry, I could see the green line of orchard and forest and the brilliant blue sky dotted with clouds and feel again how lucky I was.

Better even than the fruit I picked with my own hands was the fruit picked by 4 or 5 attendees who, realizing that they couldn’t carry the fruit home with them, graciously gave them to me. That spring I spent a lot of time pitting (I’d learned at least this), making jam, a few pies, and freezing the rest. There are few things more delightful than a sour cherry pie at the end of autumn or even deep into winter since cherries freeze much better than strawberries or peaches.

The next year’s harvest was a bust, but in 2008, the trees sprang back. I took my boyfriend-at-the time with me and managed through seriously applied effort to have more than any sane person needed. It was that season, I believe, that my digestion got wonky from constant cherry consumption, and in searching for ways to preserve them beyond freezing, I tried out a recipe for cherry syrup that didn’t require pitting and is one of the few things that makes vodka palatable.

Since then, while I’ve continued to tour guests around the gardens each June, coming early to pick cherries or lingering afterward, I’ve only gathered enough to make a pie or two. The luxuries of jam and syrup seem behind me now, as I’ve resolved that this year is my last at TJ’s, and this year’s fruit not only is scanty in number but in size. In the nine years I’ve been there, I haven’t seen cherries with such thin meat. Unless I buy a quart at the farmer’s market, there won’t be a pie.

Where I live in town used to be blocks of stately homes, some of which were converted to office buildings when the hospital took up residence by mid-century. Now, with the hospital gone, the area’s real estate market is soft. Perhaps that’s why the owner of a house about 150 yards away is leaving his cinderblock wreck abandoned, waiting for an uptick before he unloads it.

I call that neglected yard “Bandit’s Field,” since it’s my cat Bandit’s particular haunt. The owner — no doubt the original owner’s descendant — comes every month or more to cut back an increasingly smaller amount of grass as trumpet vine and ailanthus claim the remainder. A small amount of tulips, hyacinths, spanish bluebells, and irises bloom, and there’s a pear tree, a fig that will only fruit if someone transplants it elsewhere, some mulberries, and a cherry tree. I’ve picked a few of the flowers, tasted a few mulberries, and bemoaned the pears fallen from the high branches of the unpruned tree splattered over the ground. But I hadn’t tasted a cherry until this year. I go to “Bandit’s Field” several times a day to call Bandit home and noted the fruit. Not a lot and too high above, I figured, for any significant haul. Plus I figured the birds would get them well before they’d ripened. But the birds have been distracted by the quantity of easy-picking mulberries, and today I noticed ripe cherries lying on the ground. The intact ones I put into my mouth with no qualms. Nothing could be more organic than this fruit that had not been sprayed falling in the tall grass of a lot that was neglected.

They were some of the most delicious cherries I could remember having. Not large and juicy like the ones from my early bonanzas, but their lack of volume was compensated by the delicate, singular tartness. There weren’t many, and some the insects had already gotten to, but still there were more than I would have supposed. I pondered briefly the possibility of getting a ladder in order to get those out of reach, but knew I wouldn’t go that far. After tasting a few, I wanted more. As I searched the long grass for the bright red baubles, I heard a plop. A minute later, another. Fruit was falling softly all around. It seemed to me at that moment that the tree was picking its fruit for me, the only person in a long while to be found circling below, full of appreciation for its bounty.

That’s what I’ve been doing every hour or two this Sunday. As a cold front moves closer, the winds have picked up, so when I need a break, I head over to “Bandit’s Field” to see if more cherries have fallen. More than the importance of pitting cherries before making jam, in the last 10 years especially I have learned that Nature has its own economy. Some years you’ll leave fruit on the tree, unable to keep up with the harvest. Other years you’ll treasure the memory of a scattering of cherries falling at your feet like the gift they always are.

All About This Shit

April 18, 2011

(I can’t figure out how to change the font on this piece, although I have tried several times.  For those of you who can see it and decide to read it, thank you.)

I’ve been hunting morels (successfully!) for a little more than 10 days now.  At first I managed to maintain some emotional detachment.  With three years of hunting behind me, I know a few things about morels.  One is to strike the right note of humility since you can never be sure if you’ll find them or how long the season will last.  By now I’ve found my fever is under weigh, having slipped its last practical moorings.  The only thing that seems real to me is being out in the woods as sunlight dances across the forest’s floor while I search endlessly for mushrooms.

It’s crazy how it’s taken up occupation in my mind, flooding into my dreams, my conscious thoughts, my schemes.  The other night I set my haul in a stainless steel bowl.  No more than 2 or 3 inches high and most of them much smaller, they were a jumble of polished river stones or ocean shells, their surfaces still damp from the earth.  With a palette of ochres, greys, and ivories, their lighter colored gills carved out intricate veined patterns, casting off the light from the bowl.   Their tracings of shadow and light reminded me of another dappled creation of nature that gives me immense pleasure to look at – my cat Clarabelle.  Because I can’t haul out my mushrooms every so often and appreciate them without the unfortunate side effect of mauling them, I’ve taken to cooing “my little mushroom” to Clarabelle.  To me it’s axiomatic – anything I think is beautiful reminds me of my cat.

My excitement caught fire when my friend Rachel took me a new spot 30 miles from where I’ve been hunting.  I hadn’t thought we’d find anything, mostly because I thought it might be a little early, and then once we got there, the floor didn’t seem right.  But there’s always something new to learn about morels, one more reason to love them, and Rachel found the first one, a small white.  After an hour or so, we left with a ½ pound and the indelible memory of the spring forest’s wonders. 

The first ¼ pound I found April 6th went into a frittata; the second ½ pound gathered a few days later was shared with Andy, Rachel and Isaac – local beef stew and garden asparagus and morels tossed with egg noodles.  Yum!  The first full pound I picked I decided to sell to a local restaurant.

I don’t worry about selling my morels, but I do spend time deliberating whom I’ll contact.  Last year I sold ½ pound to my landlady, not having to leave the property to complete the transaction.  My foodie friends would pay or barter as would the 2 upscale markets and my one or two extremely rich acquaintances.  Once I decide to sell to a restaurant, deciding which restaurant is a matter of happenstance.  This month Rachel sold some of her lamb to one, so I decided to call that number first.  I’ve recommended this spot to out-of-towners because I’ve been there enough to sense there’s always something on the menu worth ordering.  The cooks there don’t fail as often as some others. 

From my vague knowledge of the local restaurant scene, this new guy seems to be publicly grooming himself as one of the area’s several Local Food heroes.  I recall a picture that accompanied a food mag’s article where his arms are crossed, a study in a chef’s cockiness.  Still, he was laughing which made him a little less irritating than those who move through Charlottesville in their chef whites.  Seriously!  Chef whites are intended to be worn only in the kitchen to ensure hygiene, not to stroll around town in.  I saw one chef sporting them in the Monticello garden.

This guy answered the phone when I called (I no longer leave messages when I’m selling morels; I just go down the list until someone tells me “yes”) and immediately expressed interest.  Good sign.  I explained how I was pricing, that these were the first morels; that if the season went well, I could drop the price, but that $25 a pound was what I was asking.

“Let me check that price point on the internet,” he said.

 I was a little bewildered.  I didn’t know of a site where local foragers posted on the internet.

“I’m checking the prices in the Pacific Northwest,” he told me.  “Hold on just a second.”

Wasn’t this about using local produce?

I don’t know if he got a response to his price query, or maybe realized he was going at this bargaining the wrong way, but he didn’t take long to agree to the sale.  “You say the season’s just beginning?” he asked before we ended the call. 

I told him it was bound to get better with temperatures moderating and rain in the forecast. 

“Do me a favor and keep me in the loop, okay?  ‘Cuz I’m all about this shit.”

Something about this got under my skin.  Here was a guy who wouldn’t have even known morels were popping if I hadn’t told him, and he’s “all about it.”  “No,” I wanted to reply.  “Until your hamstrings are aching from trudging up slopes and you fall to sleep with images of morels in your mind’s eye, you’re not all about this.”

Later I told Rachel that this guy took himself a little seriously.  She agreed, adding, “I have a soft spot for people who take themselves seriously, having been one of them myself.”

It’s true:  there are much worse things to take seriously, and it’s easy to mock the newly passionate converts.  But what to me is the essence of something like morels isn’t to be worn like the newest fashions.  Morels have nothing to do with Facebook and Twitter.  You can’t “like” them with a simple keystroke.  Finding morels requires a total engagement with the natural world that is the point of eating, whether it’s local or otherwise – an engagement that humbles in what it reveals about how little we know of the world and blesses us with beauty and nourishment in spite of our shortcomings. 

Because I’m older and wiser, I’ll do my best to give this guy, and all those other local food acolytes, some time and space to learn.  Morels might be created perfectly, but the rest of us need much longer growing seasons.

Don’t try this at home

October 18, 2010

This is the time of year when my inner farm wife emerges; I think of her as a kind of angry badger, snarlly and fixated.  I’ve also been labeled a Norwegian ant when I’m in this mode, an allusion to the Aesop fable which would seem apt if I were so darned lazy about almost everything else.

Regardless of what it’s called, this is the part of me that insists nothing get wasted, that I put up/freeze anything that isn’t shelf-stable and that there isn’t any time to lose.  Of course, this kind of resource management frenzy dictates my behavior all seasons and explains why I still had a pound of broccoli from the Spring in my freezer, a quart of blackberries, a small pie’s worth of peeled and sliced peaches, two cups of sweet cherries, a gallon of sour cherries, a cup of raspberries and some black currants.  But to make room for the Fall’s bounty (to date, one wild turkey breast, a venison leg, two pounds of green beans, frozen corn, two quarts of applesauce,two kinds of tomato sauce and two kinds of red pepper soups), I’ve had to start chipping away at the prior season’s stockpile.

It was in the course of taking out the broccoli which not surprisingly had migrated to the bottom of the back that I found a quarter of a white chocolate cheesecake baked sometime before the berry season had kicked off and before summer’s heat made baking a self-punishing act.  My friend Scott was coming to dinner so I defrosted the cheesecake as well as the raspberries, thinking I could manage a raspberry coulis.  When he arrived, though, I was exhausted, so we settled for the cheesecake (a little freezer-burned) solo.

Now I had defrosted raspberries to deal with.  With the drought it had been a poor raspberry season.  One year I had gathered enough from the everbearing canes to make several jams and a fresh raspberry pie.  I couldn’t bear the thought of treating the last few I’d gathered cavalierly, but the precious cup of defrosted berries wouldn’t take long to go moldy. Plus thawed raspberries present different possibilities from fresh ones too, and I wanted to pick just the right thing to use them in.

Two days later, I found myself making dinner as well as wielding my hand-held mixer to whip up a small pound cake.  The next morning, unwilling to drive to the store for more milk, I made a cup of custard, let it cool and then assembled three mini-trifles, using the defrosted raspberries as well as the raspberry-rhubarb jam I’d made in June.  The eventual grocery store visit netted a quart of whipping cream (which I went through in less a week), and the trifles were complete.  As Scott and I enjoyed them that Saturday evening, I couldn’t help but think we were having the best dessert in Charlottesville that night.  My badger housewife/Norwegian ant behavior can be over-the-top ridiculous much of the time, but until the day my freezer fails, the moments when it pays off are wonderful to savor.

A Nice Problem to Have

August 27, 2010
Scott's still life of figs, diamonds and leaf

Scott Robinson's still life of figs, diamonds, sink drain and leaf -- very artistic!

One thing that most of my friends already know about me (and who else, really, is reading this blog) is that I’m an industrious cook.  I’m not sure where the desire to cook originated, maybe from my mother’s refusal to cook anything interesting when I was a child or maybe it’s a past life memory.   My urge to try new recipes, almost to the point of physical exhaustion, my love of and access to seasonal, local produce, and a borderline-neurotic refusal to throw any edible produce away usually combine to produce at least one if not more dishes on a daily basis from my teeny, tiny kitchen.  On average, I prepare three times the amount of food I can consume, and have been known to give a portion of whatever I’ve made away to friends regularly.

My cooking picks up speed in the summer months as I work to catch up with the fruits and vegetables I’m so lucky to receive, whether through my friend Rob Brown, through the bounty of Monticello’s gardens and orchards or through my own foraging and picking.  This year began with a surprise harvest of black mulberries, fat from the wet winter.  I’ve worked through harvests of black currants, sweet and sour cherries, rhubarb, and not enough raspberries, blackberries and strawberries.   Now it’s peaches, figs, apples and plums.  Some of the fruit I’ve used for baking, some I’ve frozen (the blackberries will make the autumn’s apple pies taste terrific, and I have enough sour cherries for one more pie), some I’ve soaked in alcohol (there’s just not enough of my cherry vodka cordial to go around), some I’ve dried in my friend Rachel’s dehydrator (the white peaches turned out fabulously), and some I’ve used to make jams, jellies, and preserves.  And that’s just the fruit.  The vegetables I can’t turn into lunch or dinner I’ve frozen or pickled (cucumbers and caponata), made romesco and tomato sauce and even tomato jam.

This week’s challenge has been how to use the 10 pounds of plums I received from Monticello.  So far I’ve made a plum chutney, an upside-down plum cake, and a plum-apple-jalapeno jelly.  Tonight I will force myself to use the rest of the plums by making a simple plum jam.  This will be a different recipe than the one I made about a month ago with rhubarb, tart enough to send my Scandanavian grandmother for her 91st birthday.  I can’t make it earlier in the day because I need to buy more canning jars.  Somehow I’ve managed to go through every single one.