Category Archives: food and cooking

The sweetest flower is here.

This morning I wished I had gloves on my hands, as I looped my loop through the fog that was lifting as I went. It was the time when many mothers are walking their kindergarteners to school and pushing a younger child in a stroller. Middle-schoolers congregate in the saddles of their bicycles, and then speed off at the last minute to get to class on time. I encountered four neighbors with three dogs, Nino, Corky and Maverick.

And flowers! Maybe because the edges of the walking paths were sheared in September, a few Queen Anne’s Lace flowers have opened near the ground. This thistle caught my eye, the first I had seen all year, contrasting in color and development with pyracantha already in the berry stage. Above it, the shrub with yellow flowers is one I don’t know, but it looks like it may originate in the southern hemisphere… I say that only because the leaves remind me of bottlebrush. Does anyone know it?

Less exotic is the lower creek path and the creek, seen from the bridge, my “same ol'” favorite scene.

Birds are very busy in the runaway tangles of berries, vines and ripening seeds, such as in the patch of sunflowers in my front yard. I wish I knew who the little ones are that flit about there every day and fly away as soon as I get near.

I am listening to One Wild Bird at a Time by Bernd Heinrich, a man after my own heart, who spends days and weeks at a time in every season, tracking the behavior of birds in the Maine forest around his a cabin. He climbs trees to look into nests of woodpeckers and digs in the snow to count the fecal pellets of grouse, keeping detailed records in hopes of solving what to him are fascinating Why questions of the avian communities and society.

I also find this kind of detective work much more compelling to engage in or to read about than the kind of mystery novel many people enjoy, Agatha Christie or P.D. James or the current favorites. I don’t have the time Mr. Heinrich does to follow the owls and nuthatches through the woods, or to befriend and tame a starling; I also don’t have the vast background knowledge of birds and insects that informs his research, so I really appreciate his sharing the joy of his lifelong love in action.

Busy as my days have been, full as my house already is with books, when I returned a book to the drop slot at the library I succumbed to the temptation to look into the five ! 4-foot cube containers of books out in front, evidently what was left over from a book sale, books that were intended for thrift stores but — the truck had broken down, or what? We who were rummaging through only knew that the library staff had told us to take what we wanted, and yes, for free.

Wouldn’t you also have at least looked? I don’t know how much time I spent there, and I don’t know if it was the right thing to do… It was a strange situation, to be outdoors where several of the people were chatting as they tried to dig down at least a couple of feet toward who-knew-what treasures, the deepest of which were completely out of reach, unless someone wanted to dumpster dive.  One woman said, “These are some great books!” and later I heard, “These are all worthless.” Another seeker examined one volume after another and said to whoever would listen, “I never look a gift book in the mouth,” which seemed not the right proverb for what she was actually doing.

I talked to a third-grade girl who had come to the library with her grandfather. I showed her a few books I thought she might like, including Lemony Snicket and Beverly Cleary. She said about Cleary, “I only read the new books,” and told me she was looking for books for her baby sister.

I still had a bag of books in my car that I had taken from a box at church, left by a friend who used to sell books online and now is joining a convent. The picture above shows most of what I brought home from the two sources, less a couple of cookbooks I’d already put on the shelf; the book at the bottom right with the embossing worn off is How Green Was my Valley.

The Art of Loving I have an interest in because I had read it on my own in high school, and then at an interview for a college scholarship the interviewer wanted me to talk about why I liked it; I was completely unprepared for that and dumb. (I did get the scholarship anyway.) Many of these books I chose thinking of the possible interest of various of my very large and growing family. But I suspect I will end up giving at least a few to the thrift store myself!

I’ve cooked a couple of new things lately, first, some homemade dry cereal as inspired by Cathy and adapting the method she uses, developed by The Healthy Home Economist. I’ve made two batches now, and I really like it. I decreased the amount of maple syrup in my second batch and used both chickpea flour and rice bran in my recipe, and it was still good 🙂 Cathy’s picture made it look very good, and mine doesn’t seem as appealing visually, but here it is.

My housemate Susan taught me this summer to enlist the aid of Saint Phanourios when I lost something important.  The second time it was my keys, including the remote key to my car, that I lost, and when I found them I decided to bake the traditional cake in his honor, for both findings. It’s a yummy spice cake that Greeks might eat at any time, baked with orange juice and zest, and walnuts.

I was anticipating the arrival of grandsons Liam, Laddie, and Brodie this week, and decided to revive my traditional Oatmeal Bread recipe to serve them, which was our sandwich, toast, snacking bread for twenty years or so when we fed a houseful of us. For a time Pippin was the baker. We had to turn out a batch of five loaves a little more often than once a week. (Not quite as often we added a batch of the sourdough bread.)

This is Liam giving a sniff to the loaves that had only just come out of the oven when they arrived, with their mom and tiny baby sister — ta da! — Clara. She is my favorite fall flower of all.

 

rain with quinces

In the evening of this humid day I was cooking, and waiting for my computer guy, who never came… Rain began to fall about 5:00, but the air is mild, so I opened the windows wider so as to smell the indescribable and rare scents of these early rains. When you live where the whole summer is dry, often for five months, the first showers of fall are especially delicious.

I was peeling and cutting up the smallest quinces I’ve ever seen, and surely they are the most rock-like. For years I’ve been on the lookout for neglected quince trees, which I know used to be common, when I didn’t have time to experiment with them. Last month I was invited to go with my new neighbor Kim up in the hills to pick fruit at her friend’s estate. The word was, the fig trees were loaded.

When we arrived, we found that the figs were mostly not ripe. Passing over the monster zucchini, we picked kumquats that turned out to be more sour than lemons, a few apples and pears, and these dwarf quinces. Note to self: tiny quinces are not a good deal.

I interrupted my tedious quince prep to make tomato soup for dinner, using roasted cherry tomatoes of every color, preserved in the freezer from a distant summer, and other hoarded tomato treasures. Then I decided not to eat my garlicky soup after all, because I am going to the dentist tomorrow. I munched on a few handfuls of sunflower seeds.

Then it was back to the quinces: At this point they have been poaching for a good hour, and did get soft, but they are more sour than the kumquats, reminiscent of rhubarb, in spite of me adding extra extra sugar. Now I’m wondering if the tree they came from was some kind of sport — but no, there was more than one tree….

So many of my thrifty cooking projects lately have ended up terribly time consuming, but at least today I was able to feel appropriate to the fallish weather, in my efforts to use the garden harvest. The fresh and damp air was such a tonic that only laughing, not grousing, seemed natural. When I took this picture, a light rain was watering the earth.

 

Tension, flatness, and bricks.

Over the weekend I got another batch of sourdough going. This particular  make-it-up-as-you-go recipe included rye, whole wheat and unbleached flours, and potato flakes. I started what I call the sourdough sponge on Friday afternoon, and took the bread out of the oven Monday afternoon.

Most of the three days the sponge sat in a bowl on my kitchen table getting more and more sour. It was essentially a big batch of starter itself by Monday. After I added the last ingredients it took a few hours for the final proofing, shaping, and baking.

I watched a couple of videos of how to shape “high hydration dough.” Before its final rising you don’t want to add flour if you can help it, because that will spoil the lovely “custard” crumb you are aiming for. It’s a challenge to keep the fairly runny dough from just flattening out on the baking sheet. I liked the YouTube videos “Bake with Jack,” because Jack’s attitude and accent are entertaining; he does talk a little too much about the Why but eventually he gets to demonstrating the How, which is, after all, what I watch a video for. As in “How to stop your dough from spreading out flat!”

Another baker man on YouTube — they seem to be 80% men — poured his white and incredibly wet, stretchy dough out on a board and used a wide putty knife to cut it and and scoop it around, tucking the sides under in a series of rotating sweeps to get the lump shaped into a beautiful ball (boule) with a tight “skin.”

I went into the garage to dig around and found an almost identical putty knife, and it was even stainless steel, so I scrubbed it up and tried it out, but it seemed that the structure of my dough was heavy with ingredients low or lacking in gluten. It would not tighten up. I put the half I had tried to shape on a pizza stone anyway, and poured the rest into a large loaf pan. It was a total of about five pounds of dough.

How pleased I was to see that the free-form loaf got some height soon after it went into the oven at 450°. It must have held more tension than was obvious. My slashes in the top were so timid and shallow as to nearly disappear in baking, but that loaf has a nice shape and didn’t crack along the sides.

The pan loaf, on the other hand, had needed me to use the razor blade with a fearless will. Next time I will try to envision one of the Three Musketeers with his sword, and be brave. Swoosh! But right now, I have a loaf with a horizontal fault line along which the slices break, not quite halfway down. This makes the bread annoyingly inconvenient for toast or sandwiches. Enter the Brick Trick.

The section on “How to Slice a Brick” in Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book is written for those times when your loaf of bread for some reason does not get height, yet you want to get more useful and normal-looking slices out of it. I thought this technique would work for at least the bottom half of my loaf, so I wrapped it in foil overnight to allow the crust to soften a bit, and in the  morning I went at it.

I didn’t know what would happen when I got to the upper part of the loaf, but I was able to slice along the “fault line” so that I ended up with 10 large square slices with only two crusty edges each, and five “heel” slices, two of which started out as the bottom of the loaf, and two of which are from the top. (Plus the heel I ate fresh from the oven.) I can see eating all those crusty edges myself, as well, so it looks like there will not be more than a few crumbs wasted.  🙂

I ate one of the thick Super Heels this morning, and I’d say I’ve never tasted better toast. Yesterday I had been feeling silly for giving “so much” effort to my Sourdough Project, even though the time commitment is not that great; bread spends a lot of time on its own in and out of the oven, giving the baker plenty of freedom to work on other tasks.  This whole episode has only made me want to keep experimenting and having fun in the kitchen. Not to mention I need more opportunity to work on my sword skills!

Poetic cooking while in fetters.

coconut curry with garbanzos

Since my husband’s death three years ago I’ve had three long-term housemates. Two of them have moved on, so that Susan and I are the only ones here, just two of us using the cupboards and large freezer space. This situation dovetails with my own less-burdened mind, which  now is able to grasp:

Yes! The obvious thing is to clean out the larder, use up the food, and start planning and cooking interesting meals with all the bits of this and that squirreled away. Facing up to what is unusable is part of the process; the soup that got lost in the back of the freezer for too long is one of the hidden costs associated with huge life changes, and is not a cause for guilt.

kasha (buckwheat)

Chesterton’s wisdom on creativity always helps me: Thrift is the really romantic thing; economy is more romantic than extravagance…  economy, properly understood, is the more poetic. Thrift is poetic because it is creative; waste is unpoetic because it is waste. It is prosaic to throw money away, because it is prosaic to throw anything away; it is negative; it is a confession of indifference, that is, it is a confession of failure.

The most prosaic thing about the house is the dustbin, and the one great objection to the new fastidious and aesthetic homestead is simply that in such a moral menage the dustbin must be bigger than the house. If a man could undertake to make use of all things in his dustbin he would be a broader genius than Shakespeare.

Another development since I returned from India is that I can’t go back to the weird eating habits I had fallen into as soon as I no longer had anyone to cook for routinely. Eating normally and very tastily for eight weeks cured me forever, I think, of my go-to frozen chopped spinach that I had been eating as the main part of every meal. Yesterday I used the last of it with a little container of likewise defrosted meaty red sauce and a (fresh) egg, to make a perfect breakfast:

These limitations I have placed on myself made me remember other things Chesterton said about art and painting and limits, and that led me on an interesting path through fields of quotes on the topic. Talk about limits and people will argue that they only exist in your mind, and must be “dropped,” if you are “to go beyond them into the impossible.” Even Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “The vistas of possibility are only limited by the shortness of life.” But he wasn’t trying to get dinner on the table in an hour.

Modern man seems especially prone to this delusion, but there are many sage exceptions, like Robert Browning: “So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!”

In matters of food and cooking, even if you had unlimited money you have limited time, and limits on whom you might find to prepare the ingredients, the choice of which is always limited to some degree, and on and on. I know you all know these things; this is my philosophical rambling you’re reading.

“Untitled” by Richard Diebenkorn

I am not advocating for an unhealthy fear of trying something new, but actually the opposite. As George Braque said, “It is the limitation of means that determines style, gives rise to new forms and makes creativity possible.”

And though Richard Diebenkorn was talking about painting, this word from him is empowering when considered at the beginning of any creative work: “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles.”

Yesterday I found several very ripe bananas in the freezer, and I did not want to waste them, even if their monetary value at purchase was minimal. You can imagine what they looked like after being there for a while; I’m sure I couldn’t have found a neighbor who wanted them. Anyway, part of my “style” is to stay home. I avoid going shopping, and knocking on doors for any reason. If only I had got my hoped-for worm bins set up, I would have given them to the worms!

But various baking supplies were sitting in the refrigerator begging to be used, so I put everything together into an unusual banana bread. It started from a “paleo” recipe with almond flour, but when I substituted egg replacer for the eggs I created a Grain-Free Vegan Chocolate Chip Banana Bread.

It is a work of super enjoyably edible art!