Friday, November 29, 2013

Still Thinking About Food

"There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat." 
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I know that Thanksgiving happened yesterday. It's over. I get it. But I'm still consolidating left-overs, making turkey-noodle soup, and stowing Grandmommy's china back on the top shelf of the pantry to wait patiently for use in another 364 days.

We had all had enough TV for the day – football games that seemed to go on and on, reruns of Duck Dynasty, and silly local news that featured shoppers on the go since yesterday. We turned it off and enjoyed the silence. I made myself a cup of tea and picked up a beautiful book that Maggie gave me last Christmas: 40 Years of Chez Panisse, the Power of Gathering, written by Alice Waters and Friends. (For those of you who don't keep up with the superstars of the food world, Chez Panisse is a restaurant in Berkeley, CA, founded by Alice Waters in 1971 and known for using local, organic food. It's been named the best restaurant in America.)

Organized by decade, the book chronicals the evolution of the small restaurant through its rise and acclaim and features photographs, invitations, menus and recollections by public figures and cooks who have been inspired by or mentored at the restaurant. It was a great way to spend an hour or three.

The last spread in the book featured an afterword by Michael Pollan who recalled ordering a bowl of fruit for dessert the first time he dined at Chez Panisse. "What arrived at the table was a small, unpolished bowl of hammered copper set atop a round, hammered copper base, and in that bowl rested two perfect peaches wreathed in a scatter of equally perfect raspberries." He goes on to explain that "the wonder of it was that the kitchen had somehow arranged for those peaches and raspberries to land on our table not a moment sooner or later than that narrow interlude of perfection."

Reading this got me to thinking about our breakfast this morning and also about a pawpaw that I experienced a couple of months ago.

After the excesses of yesterday, I wanted something fresh and simple for breakfast. I had used two bright orange Hachiya persimmons in a centerpiece yesterday and they were becoming perfectly soft and ripe. 

I cut them up and added the fruit to some greek yogurt, drizzled on some honey and sprinkled the tiniest bit of sea salt on top. So perfect to eat at that exact moment.

Like eating strawberries in May, or blackberries in July, persimmons are meant for November. I've not had many persimmons in my life, but plan to going forward. Our orchard has two persimmon trees that I am anxiously awaiting their bearing of fruit. I think they are a different type than the one I had for breakfast. They are called fuyu persimmons and are squat, like a tomato – supposedly not as astringent as the Hachiya ones.

Eating fruit when it is perfectly in season really does make a difference. In late September, Ed and I stopped by an orchard near Owenton, KY to buy some apples. The chalk board in back of the bushel baskets of apples listed pawpaws for sale. Having never had a pawpaw, I was excited to try one. Unfortunately, only one was left. I took it, but was disappointed at how it looked: all brown and squishy, like an overripe banana. I brought it home and put in the refrigerator, afraid to leave it out on the counter overnight. In the morning, I cut it in two, fished out five large seeds and scooped out a bite. It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted: sweet, a cross between an banana and a mango, custardlike. Being the nice person that I am, I presented Ed with the other half.

Pawpaws are native trees in this area, often growing in patches as understory trees. We have searched our entire farm, but have yet to find any pawpaw trees growing in our woods. We have planted three pawpaws seedlings, along with the five seeds that I saved from our one brown, squishy specimen.  We will just have to wait for them to produce pawpaws. The wait might be long, but it will be so worth it. Just like the song says, we'll head down to the pawpaw patch and pick up pawpaws and put 'em in a basket.

Then we'll eat them when they are perfectly ripe.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grateful, continued

For this morning's sunrise...

For good kitchen help...

For Maggie and Nate coming home and spending the night (and fixing breakfast this morning)...

For Grandmommy's china and Mimi silver goblets...

For just a bit of healthy kale salad to counterbalance three kinds of dressing, two kinds of potatoes, and multiple desserts...

For the MacLean boys napping on the couch and Ed watching football...

While Mary and I took at post-feast walk...

And then coming home to a Skype call with Jack in China...

For all these things and a million more, I am grateful.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Brenda's Country Cafe: Open for Business

We've lived in Shelby County for almost three years and made the trip down Todd's Point Road and into Simpsonville at least a hundred times. On the right, just over the railroad tracks, is an old grocery store building, with no current sign on it, but a OPEN neon sign hanging in the window. Usually a couple of pickup trucks are parked out front. We've often wondered what was going on behind the dark windows, one of which has a bullet hole through it.

A month or so ago we made a trip into Cottrell Farm Equipment, our favorite Simpsonville shop. While waiting for Renee Cottrell to figure out what was currently wrong with our chainsaw, we asked about the mysterious building. Renee's brother-in-law Bobby said that Brenda was behind the window, and she was cooking up a storm and feeding anyone who ventured in for breakfast or lunch. Two weeks later, Ed and I ventured in, and we returned again today.

I'm not sure I can adequately explain what goes on behind those windows. It's not really about the food, but rather the whole experience. First, there is the place: a big open room lined with shelves that are filled with knickknacks. At first I thought they were for sale, but now I'm not so sure.

Six or eight tables with red checkered plastic cloths and mismatched chairs are scattered around, most with various sections of newspapers on them. A wood burning fire is going. Usually an old man or two are sitting at one of the tables or in the vinyl easy chair by the wood stove. Perhaps they ate earlier in the day, but now they just sit or sometimes play Rook.

In the back corner there is a steam-table, a grill, and Brenda. She greets everyone as they come in and explains that you can have a hamburger and fries or her daily special. That's it. You don't like it, leave. Both times we have eaten there, the daily special has been pork loin. Today it was served on a bun and came with canned peas and macaroni. There's chocolate cake with chocolate icing for dessert. Whipped cream from a can is optional.

When we got there today, Brenda was a whirling dervish as she plated a dozen burgers and fries. She was expecting a large group to walk in the door any minute and she said she would get to us soon enough. I don't know where these people came from, but sure enough, in a minute or two a whole crowd came in, picked up their full plates, and made themselves at home. In the middle of serving them she yelled over at us to see if we wanted the daily special and, in a matter of minutes, Brenda yelled that our plates were ready for pickup. She was all out of iced tea, so tough luck. Did we want a soda? One of the other customers called over to Brenda about getting some ketchup. She yelled back: Why you asking me? Don't you see that refrigerator? Get up and get it yourself.

The large group ate and settled up before we even got started. Most of them seem to have a running tab and it was stored in Brenda's brain. There was a lot of back and forth about who owed who how much and just when could they pay up. Between when they left and when the next group came in, Brenda came over to chat with us.

We found out that her name was Brenda Ried and she had been cooking at the store for decades. In times past, a furniture factory was located next door and she single-handedly fed all the workers breakfast and lunch, five days a week. The factory is now shut down. Seems like most of her customers are farmers or down-on-their-luck young people, looking for a place to hang out and fill up. Construction workers also seem to find their way to Brenda's.

She's cooking turkey and dressing on Thanksgiving for anyone that needs a place to go. She doesn't want anyone to go hungry. If she's got something cooking, she's going to make sure all get fed. That's just what she does. That's just who she is. Brenda's Country Cafe, open for business.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Weather Report

I woke up Saturday night to hear the rain pounding down on our metal roof. I fell back asleep and when I awoke on Sunday morning, it was still coming down. I didn't make my usual morning walk as the rain was still happening. On the way to town Sunday morning, we found the creek water was up over Dover Road and nearby fields were unindated.

When we got home I changed from my church clothes to my walking clothes and waited for the rain to let up. A couple of times I headed out the door, only to get to the drive and find it still raining. I never got my walk in (although I know it wouldn't have killed me to walk in the rain).

This morning when I headed out for my walk, I stopped by the garden to check the rain gauge: 3.25 inches. That's a lot of rain. The trails this morning were mushy, oozing mud where moles had tunneled. But today, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. And that's my weather report.

Feeding my spoons

101 Cookbooks, one of the food blogs that I never miss featured a recent post about spoon butter. Spoon butter? I had never heard of such a thing. Turns out it's not something you eat, it is something you feed to your wooden spoons, other wooden utensils, wood bowls and cutting boards. The idea is that you rub it into your wooden kitchen items to moisturize them, prevent cracking and repel water. The wood soaks up the spoon butter.

Unfortunately many commercial spoon butters are made with beeswax and mineral oil – a by-product of petroleum production and not something that I want to ingest, even in small quantities. Heidi Swanson, author of the 101 Cookbooks blog, did some experimenting and figured out that extra virgin coconut oil can be substitued for the mineral oil. Turns out coconut oil is quite stable and won't go rancid.

After I read her post about how she rehabilited her wooden wares, I mentioned to Maggie that I needed some organic beeswax. Not a problem. She was out at Farm Dover getting her bee hives ready for winter and brought in some messy looking honey comb, which she put in a large pot with several cups of water and brought to a simmer. She then poured the gookey mess into a quart jar and told me to check in in the morning. Sure enough, the top was a solid layer of beautiful beeswax, which I scooped out and saved.

Last night, I melted the beeswax with some coconut oil, creating my very own spoon butter. I gathered all my wooden goods together and then slathered them with spoon butter. I left them overnight and this morning I gave them each a good buff. (Not only did it bring back the sheen to my wooden goods; it left my hands nice and soft.)

If spoons could talk, I suspect that they would express their gratitude for this bit of TLC. They just seemed happy.

This is the kind of task that I would never have undertaken in my old life in the city. In fact, I would have laughted at the very thought of it. I was just too busy and I didn't really care. If a wooden spoon gave out on me or looked too worn, I'd just toss it and buy another at Target. 

In this new life of mine, I am much more mindful of being a good steward of all that we own. In fact, I'm now thinking we may need to give our garden tools a good cleaning and rub down with linseed oil. Then they also would be happy.


Spoon Butter

Roughly speaking, a ratio of one part beeswax to ~three parts extra virgin coconut oil makes a nice, spreadable spoon butter.
3.5 ounces / 100 grams extra virgin coconut oil
~1 ounce / 35 grams beeswax, cut into small chunks
To make the spoon butter: Place the coconut oil in a mason jar and top with the beeswax. Fill a thick-bottomed saucepan with an inch or so of water, and set over gentle (low-medium) heat. Set the beeswax jar in the water. The water should come up the sides a bit. Allow the water to come barely to a simmer, and allow the mixture to melt, stirring occasionally, until all the beeswax is fluid. Turn off the heat, and allow to set. The oil is hot, so I allow it to cool and set in the pan, instead of moving it at this point. When cool, cover and keep in a dark place until ready to use.

To treat cutting boards, wooden spoons, etc: Start by making sure your wood surface is scrubbed very clean and is completely dry. Use your hands (or a cloth) to slather a generous amount of the spoon butter across the wood, working across the entire surface. Let sit over night. You can then use a smooth cloth to buff off all residual oil at this point. You should have a nice, satiny surface, not at all greasy. Reapply any time you sense your wood utensils and boards seem at all dry.
Prep time: 3 min - Cook time: 10 min

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I'm Not That Type of Girl

As Jack was packing up for his year in China, he brought into the kitchen a crock-pot that he used in college. (I'm not sure he used it very much. It looked brand new to me.) He offered to let me use it while he was away. I quickly stored it under a kitchen counter. I've offered it a couple of times to Mary, but she doesn't seem interested. I understand. I'm not that interested either. You see, I'm just not that type of girl.

Crock-pots were quite popular in the 1970s when many women began to work outside the home. They could throw a bunch of items into the pot in the morning and voilĂ ! Dinner would be ready when they got home.

In my mind, many recipes for slow cookers seem designed primarily for convenience, use few ingredients, and often prepared sauces. In other words, they seem to be a bit of a cop out. I'm not saying that I never used one. In fact, I've owned one for years – it may even have been inherited from Ed's bachelor days. I would lend it every year to my friend Karen for her Christmas caroling and soup party. Worked great to keep a pot of soup warm. I also remember trying to cook country pork ribs in it. I think the recipe called for jamming the pot with uncooked ribs, adding a bottle of barbecue sauce and walking away for 8 hours. Dinner tasted like ribs floating in fat and looked kinda pastey. Not good.

So, I had given up on ever using a crock pot. Until last night. Remember the apples that we were given by our neighbors for our help putting up his cold frame? Well, there are a lot of them and I wanted to make some apple butter. 

Most of the recipes I found called for cooking apples for two hours, stirring non-stop. That seems like a long time to keep my focus on the task at hand. So, I googled "crock-pot apple butter" and up popped Martha Stewart, offering me a recipe for an overnight apple butter recipe

Last night, I peeled and cored 5 pounds of apples and tossed them into Jack's crock-pot, along with some spices and 2 cups of apple cider.

I cooked them on "high" for an hour or so and then turned them down to "low" and went to bed. Eight hours later, I woke to house that smelled deliciously like spiced cider. A minute or two of immersion blending and voila! I had beautiful apple butter, ready to be canned. 

So count me in. I'm now a believer in crock-pots. I guess I am that type of girl. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Barn Raising

The call came at noon. Could we be at our neighbor's Wild Carrot Farm at 2 p.m. for a barn raising, oops, make that a cold-frame raising? With temperatures expected to drop into the 20s tomorrow night, our neighbor needed to get the roof on his new cold frame asap. And he couldn't do it single-handedly.

Ken, our neighbor, recruited his wife, two daughters, sister, three young nieces, dad, another friend and his two sons, Ed and me. It took all of us working side-by-side to raise the plastic roof covering over the metal frame.

Ken had the process all worked out. He just needed some extra hands to pull it off. Every 10-feet or so along the edge of a long roll of plastic we wrapped the edge of the plastic around tennis balls and secured them with rope. The idea was that the tennis balls would provide a way to fasten the rope without putting holes in it. Ken had already slung the other end of the ropes up and over the top of the structure.

With five people on each side, the order was given to pull. Up we pulled the ropes from one side, across the apex, and then down to eye-level on the far side. That was the easy part.

The hard part was holding the rope tight enough to keep the wind from billowing the plastic up, up and away. It wanted to get away from us in even the slightest wind – but we held on, and prevailed.

Ken was up on a ladder most of the afternoon – adjusting the plastic, smoothing out wrinkles...

...and then applying wiggle wire to hold the plastic snuggly in the frame. 

Here's a view from inside the cold frame once the roof was fastened down. 

Our payment for our labor was a bushel of apples that we picked from two very-heavy laden trees up by the farm house. While the apples didn't look like the perfect ones from the store, they were organic, tastey and crunchy.  I've got plans to turn them into apple butter. 

It was a fun afternoon, a pleasure for us to participate. I think Ken was glad we came and enjoyed the work. He's got second cold frame to erect and he's going to need experienced workers. Sign us up.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What are you reading?

That's the question we ask at my two monthly book clubs: one of mostly Shelby County women and the other of my going-on-thirty-years book club, whose members include my oldest and dearest friends.

That's also the question that is central to Will Schwalbe's book: The End of Your Life Book Club. I just finished this story of a son and his mother, who start a book club (of just the two of them) that brings them together as her life comes to a close. I had owned the book for nearly a year. I think Ed gave it to me for Christmas or my January birthday, but it sat patiently on my bedside cabinet until I was ready for it. I had skimmed the book jacket and was afraid the book would be morbid or too sad. It was neither.

The book is organized chronologically over a two-year period based on discussions of dozens of books Will and Mary Ann Schwalbe read as they sat in waiting rooms for her cancer treatments and doctors' appointments. Both are passionate readers and their conversations about books are both wide-ranging and deeply personal. I knew from page one that I was going to fall in love with this book; the title of the first chapter is Crossing to Safety and refers to Wallace Stegner's 1987 novel that traces the lives, loves and aspirations of two couples over their lifelong friendship, taking the reader right to old age and death. The novel starts out in Madison, Wisconsin, a city near and dear to my heart. It is my favorite book. The last book they discuss is Nobel Prize Winner Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness, another of my favorites. In between, they discuss books I know, as well as a number that I had not heard of, but will add to my must-read list.

Reading has always been an important part of my life. By the end of third grade I had read every book of fiction in my tiny elementary school library. My mom became so worried that I wasn't making friends that she tore up my library card, a most tragic day for me.

I read recently that 80% of U.S. families did not buy a book this year and that 42% of college graduates will never read a book after they graduate. According to a Wall Street Journal article some 59 percent of Americans don't own a book – not a cookbook or even the Bible. These statistics amaze me. I can't imagine a day passing without reading – blogs, newspapers, books, magazines – whatever I can get my hands on. Our home is filled with hundreds of books -- a stack by my bedside, unread books and poetry in the study, hardback books of our favorite authors in the living room, cookbooks in the kitchen, reference/travel and children's books in the upstairs loft, paperbacks in the cottage.

Author Anna Quindlen notes that those who read because they love it more than anything "feel about bookstores the way some people feel about jewelers." I agree. I'd much rather spend an hour in Carmichael's Bookstore on Frankfort Avenue than at Tiffany's on Fifth Avenue.

I get a kick from reading books, but part of the fun is discussing them. My dear friend Jane works in a bookstore in northeast Ohio, and we spend part of every phone call discussing what we've recently read. My Louisville book club, founded when I was just a year or two out of college, matters much to me. Not only do we discuss a book each month, we talk about all the other things going on in our lives -- celebrating the joys and commiserating with the sorrows.

When we moved out to Farm Dover, I joined another book club. Instead of reviewing just one book each month, we each, in turn, talk about what we've read that month, trading books back and forth. I can't begin to keep up with most of these avid readers, but I always like to hear what books are in their stacks. (Plus, the potluck lunch is always a treat.)

There is nothing I like better than losing myself in a good book on a rainy afternoon. Maureen Corrigan, NPR book critic, and author of Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, explains her love of reading this way: “It's not that I don't like people. It's just that when I'm in the company of others - even my nearest and dearest - there always comes a moment when I'd rather be reading a book.” I know what she means.

So, what are you reading?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Two Can Play This Game

Whitetail Buck 2, Debbie 0

The young, handsome buck has struck again. This time, his target was a pretty little maple tree that we planted along the drive last spring. He ravaged it: breaking off the top half and stripping the bark on the bottom half. Makes me so mad....

I tried to forgive him the first time – last week when he wrecked havoc on our 2011 Christmas Tree. But he is really testing my patience. Time to stop being so nice and take action. Tonight when he goes sniffing around our other young trees, he is in for an unpleasant (if you are a deer) whiff of Irish Spring soap. Soap On A Rope: not a guarantee, but a highly touted deer deterrent (if you believe all you read on the internet.) 

Any other ideas are welcomed.