It’s A Summer Cooking Extravaganza!!

Standard

We’re well into the Dog Days of summer here in my neck of the woods, and while I’m having to take consolation in the knowledge that – unlike my home in Texas – this ghastly wave of heat and humidity will not be lasting for the next six whole months, it is fairly miserable at the moment and putting everyone out of sorts.  Even the Wonder Horse is out of sorts.  Even the Death Kittens, Bax and Max, are out of sorts.  I keep reminding myself that this weather will break…and in the meantime, I choose to focus on the extravagant cornucopia of goods fresh from the earth that are pouring out of every farmstand on every road, major and minor, in this area.

The season was off to a sllloooooowwww start, thanks to a lingering winter cold, but once it arrived, it came in with its usual absurd bounty. We’re finally moving into Tomato Season, which is also Corn Season.  And I’m having a minor existential crisis in the knowledge that there just aren’t enough days, and enough stomachs, in the house to make it possible for me to work my way through the glorious assemblage of summer-cooking recipes I have at hand.  Roy is doing his Manly Best to wade through seemingly bottomless spreads of vegetarian delights, but there’s only so many meals that he can eat in a single day, bless his heart.

At times like this, I think that maybe I should have become a chef instead of an accounting professor, and opened my own Farm To Table restaurant.  Then I consider the stunning workload that goes into running a restaurant, and cooking professionally, and I’m a little more resigned to my current situation.  I have an extremely limited audience, consisting of Roy, and our friend Louise, who seems happy to eat anything that pours out of my kitchen, and with this, I must be satisfied.

Still, I feel the need to Share.  So this is what my kitchen has provided this week.  A note: with my academic papers, I am scrupulous about keeping track of my sources.  With my cookbook, I am not at all good about this.  I collect recipes like a magpie collects shiny things, and have about as much notion of where they came from as that bird.  So if you see a recipe and think “Hey! That’s MINE!” please let me know and I will be more than happy to credit you.

Corn Bisque with Red Bell Pepper and Rosemary

4 T (1/2 stick) butter
2 C chopped onions
1/2 C diced carrot
1/2 C diced celery
7 1/2 C corn kernels (you can make this with frozen corn, but it is OH so much better if you make with fresh. Allow approximately 3/4 C kernels per typical ear of corn.)
1 T fresh rosemary
1/4 t cayenne pepper
6 C chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth (obviously, you can make this vegetarian, but it’s way tastier with chicken stock)
1 C half and half
1 red bell pepper, chopped

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrot and celery and sauté 3 minutes. Add 5 1/2 cups corn, rosemary and cayenne and sauté 2 minutes. Add stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered until vegetables are tender and liquid is slightly reduced, about 30 minutes.

Working in batches, purée soup in blender. Return soup to pot. Mix in half and half and remaining 2 cups corn. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add bell pepper and sauté until almost tender, about 5 minutes. Stir bell pepper into soup. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

Bring soup to simmer. Ladle into bowls and serve.

Vichyssoise

Oh, god, it’s so good I don’t have words for it.

3 large leeks
3 T butter
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 lb potatoes, chopped
3½ C chicken stock (as before, if you want the Anemic Version, use vegetable stock)
2 t lemon juice (DO NOT LEAVE THIS OUT, AND USE THE FRESH STUFF, NOT THE SQUEEZE LEMON)
pinch nutmeg
¼ t ground coriander
1 bay leaf
1 egg yolk
2/3 C light cream
fresh chives, snipped, for garnish

Trim leeks and slice thinly. Melt butter in soup pot and cook leek and onion for about 5 minutes. Do not let them brown. Add potatoes, stock, lemon juice, nutmeg, coriander, and bay leaf to pan. Season with salt and pepper and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes until all vegetables are very soft. This is the original recipe talking here. I bought two big fat russet potatoes from the grocery, but then Roy ate one, and was sent back to the grocery in disgrace to buy another one. I told him “russet” and maybe that’s what he came back with…maybe he came back with something different. All I know is that I had to simmer this stuff for at least 1 hour before whatever he brought back started to collapse into “softness”. Be warned. Do not use Yukon Golds for this. Cool the soup slightly, remove and discard bay leaf, and puree in blender until smooth. If you’ve done it right, you should have a super-thick, almost glutinous result from the pureeeing process. I had to smack my KitchenAid blender on the side repeatedly in order to get it to puree things properly.

Blend egg yolk into cream, add some soup to the mixture, and then whisk all back into the soup and reheat without boiling. Adjust seasoning. Chill thoroughly. Serve sprinkled with chives.

Crispy Summer Flounder with Scallion Corn Ragout
aka Holy Sugar, I Can’t Believe How Good This Is!!! (that’s a direct quote)

1½ lb flounder filets
1 C milk
2 bunches scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
6 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
corn from 5 ears of corn (about 4 C)
½ C toasted wheat germ
1/3 C cornmeal
½ t sea salt
dash cayenne
½ C (packed) small fresh basil leaves
¼ C minced chives
1 lemon, cut into 6 wedges

Place fish in large dish and cover with milk, and refrigerate 30 minutes.

In large skillet over medium heat, cook scallions in 2 T oil until softened. Stir in garlic and corn. Cook 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and keep warm.

Combine wheat germ, cornmeal, salt, and cayenne, in large flat dish. Remove fish from refrigerator and drain off milk. Dredge fish in wheat germ mixture and place on baking sheet.

In large skillet on high, heat 2 T oil. Add half the fillets and cook 3 minutes per side, adjusting heat if they brown too quickly. Transfer cooked fillets to platter. Add remaining oil to skillet and cook remaining fillets.

Just before serving, stir basil and chives into scallion-corn ragout. Season with salt to taste. Spoon ragout onto each plate and top with a fish fillet and lemon wedge.

COOK ON!!

Advertisements

The Seventh Season

Standard

New England has more seasons than any other place I’ve ever lived.  Texas has two seasons: Hot Dry, and Cool Wet.  You can get both seasons in the space of one week, and they each come around multiple times per year, but there are still only two.  Wisconsin had four seasons: Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring.  Very basic and uncomplicated, those seasons. New England has at least six.  There’s the usual Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring, but then there’s also Stick and Mud.

Stick comes between Fall and Winter, and it’s one of the two seasons that is characterized by a preponderance of the color Brown. Stick is the inevitable payment, with interest, for the fabulous New England Fall, known world-wide for its stunning multicolored beauty.  At some point, all of those wonderful brightly colored Fall leaves, well…fall.  Fall off.  Hit the ground, and lie there, moldering, leaving the world full of, well…sticks.  Stick season.

Mud comes between Winter and Spring, and is the sad payment, with interest, for those picturesque hills covered with glistening white blankets of snow.  At some point, it melts, and because the topography of New England can be summarized with a few short words like “hilly”, “rocky”, and “surface water” we get a truly epic season of Mud.  This year, astonishingly – given the record amounts of snow we had – Mud was surprisingly short and surprisingly not horrible.  Huey has been known to lose up to three shoes in a really bad Mud.  This year, he only lost one, and it was almost time for the farrier to come out and put his summer shoes on anyway, so it wasn’t too bad.

Pretty much, I think, everyone knows about Summer, Fall, Spring, and Winter, and quite a few people have heard of Mud.  Stick is a new one on me since I came to New England, as is the seventh season: Long Sleeves And Shorts.

Long Sleeves And Shorts can overlap with several of the other seasons.  It almost never overlaps with Winter, not unless you’re talking about tweens and teens, all of whom are indestructible, and none of whom think it’s Cool to dress for the weather.  Long Sleeves And Shorts season can overlap with Summer, particularly on the coast.  Most frequently, though, it happens in conjunction with Spring, Fall, Stick, and Mud.  A certain quality to the air arrives, and people flood out onto the streets sporting a wide range of Long Sleeves and Shorts.  Since New England is basically the Fountain of All Preppiness, you often see khaki shorts and rugby shirts (on both men and women).  You might see boarder shorts and long-sleeve t-shirts.  You see skimpy little running shorts and a long-sleeve quarter-zip technical top in lurid colors never seen elsewhere in nature.  You see padded bike shorts, and long-sleeved slinky tops festooned with obscure logos.  You see cargo shorts and flannel shirts, or denim shorts with thermal waffle-knit henleys.  If it’s particularly chilly, you see the shirts covered up with a zippered  vest.  When Long Sleeves and Shorts season happens on the coast in summer, you can see shorts paired with a collared shirt and a sweater.

I’ve been in and around New England so long, at this point, that I didn’t even notice Long Sleeves and Shorts season until this past fall, when some friends of mine from Texas came up for a visit.  Roy and I suited up for some outing or other – independently, I should add – and rejoined our guests.  They stared at us in astonishment.  “Long sleeves? And shorts?” they said.  “Now we really know we’re in New England.”  They were both baffled and amused by this, I think.  I suppose that I would have been, too, if I were more recently from Texas.

As it is, it makes perfect sense for me.  Long Sleeve and Shorts season is characterized by the exciting phenomenon of having two seasons in one day.  Sometimes two seasons in a four-hour period, which it’s been doing lately.  You have to dress for both, and this is the compromise.  It’s Winter in the morning – it was 34 when I woke up – so you wear the long sleeves.  But you know that it’s going to be Summer in very short order – probably by the time I come back from grocery shopping – so you wear the shorts.  What’s not to understand about this?

In Texas, it’s not unknown to have both seasons in one day: to wake up to Hot, and then have an arctic front blast through and drop the temperatures to Cool.  The difference between Hot and Cool season in Texas can be anything from 101 Fahreneheit to 40, so this is not a trivial swing.  The deal is, it doesn’t happen that often, certainly not every day of the week like happens in Long Sleeve and Shorts season in New England.  And in Texas it’s completely predictable, often down to the very hour when it will happen.  So Texans go off to work and school in their Hot season clothes, and the ones who are paying attention to the forecast in the morning, drag along their huge puffy winter commuter coats, and they’re fine.  The ones who weren’t paying attention do high-speed sprints from the building to the car and then sit there for five minutes, turning the heat on full-blast until their bare legs recover their color and feeling.

It doesn’t happen often enough in Texas for there to be a proper season for it.  Here, though, I have three choices for the day: waffle henley, rugby shirt, or t-shirt.  The shorts are a given.

I Can’t See You From Where I’m Standing

Standard

I encountered a person yesterday with whom I *should* have common ground, but realized pretty quickly that I don’t. He had a team of Belgians in harness. Horse workers, horse people, the common ground here ought to be the horses. I met them, admired them, and mentioned that I’d done some work for the local draft-horse rescue/sanctuary.

“Those are trash horses” he said, immediately.
My eyebrows shot up into my hairline.
“They should all be at the kill pen.” he added.
The rest of the conversation went along the lines of what a waste of time it was that they have these horses who can’t work any longer, and how they ought to just be sent out for slaughter.

I got out of this conversation as soon as I possibly could, and went off to Ponder and Cogitate.

On a personal level, I take people where I find them.  I don’t often Judge, because even if someone has what I regard as an untenable position, it’s usually pretty easy to see how they might have arrived at this position, and why it makes sense. People are who people are.  This one, though, it really stuck in my craw.

Possibly because The Wonder Horse was obtained at an auction, and the other bidder was someone presumably there to collect future horse meat.  If my trainer hadn’t been there, hadn’t been paying attention, hadn’t been willing to take a chance, I wouldn’t be having any Wonder Horse.  The Wonder Horse would have been sent off in a trailer full of terrified, sick, old, lame horses to be penned up in a terrifying manner, and would have been slaughtered, with terror pouring through his brave heart.

Fuck that shit.

The more I thought about this guy and his perspective, the more I thought, and the more strongly I thought, exactly that:  Fuck that shit.  Fuck that asshole, and everyone like him.

I can understand having a professional relationship with horses.  I can understand not being able to afford to keep horses around that can’t help earn their keep.  Horses are expensive.  The only thing that is in their same league, as far as Pure Expensiveness, is kids.  They cost a bundle, and for someone who needs to earn their livelihood through the work of horses, I can totally understand that you can’t keep them if they can’t help pay.

But to state that at the point when they can no longer pay, they should be sent off and slaughtered, in fear and terror?  Fuck that shit.

What I wish I had the moxie to say to this guy is this:  Those horses give you everything. they. have. you asshole.  How dare you treat another living creature as if it was some kind of THING to use up, and then throw away when you’re tired of it, or it can’t give you any more.  It’s another being, with thoughts, and feelings, and a soul, and energy of its own.  A creature. Not a thing.  And you take everything they have, and when they can’t give you any more, you cast them off into the pit of hell.  Fuck that shit.

You can’t support an animal who has given you everything it had?  You find another home for it, you jerk.  And if you can’t find another home for it, it’s too damaged from your taking what it had to offer, or it’s too old, or too sick, you fucking get your vet out, and you fucking pay to have that animal euthanized in the security of its own home.  You don’t send it off to be frightened, and terrorized, and abused.  And you SURE as hell don’t talk a bunch of smack about people who are cleaning up after the mess you made by irresponsible treatment of your animals. Fuck that shit.

I don’t often judge, but after I thought about this guy, I realized I was more than happy to judge him and his ilk all the way down into the hands of satan.  If there is a satan.  You just don’t go around treating other living beings like trash.  I don’t give a damn what species they are.  You treat them with kindness, and sensitivity, and you treat them humanely.  You don’t throw them away when you’re done using them.  You don’t subject them to agony when they can’t make you happy any more.

There are words for this kind of behavior where I come from.  “Asshole” is the first one on the list, and it just goes downhill from there.  I don’t know that I’d actually be able to find enough words to reflect the degree of contempt and scorn I have for a subhuman life-form who could take this position.

Fuck that shit.

That Old Kitten Spirit

Standard

My BFF, Buster Kitty, passed away this fall.  He died suddenly, and unexpectedly, from what we believe to be a common heart problem that plagues cats.  We came home from a day trip and found his body at the base of the stairs.  It was unspeakably horrible.  If I never go through anything that awful again, ever in my life, I will count myself fortunate.

Ten years ago, when Tybalt, the Black Death, my Buddha Cat, was on his last legs, I discovered that in the 18 years I’d known him, I had somehow forgotten to live without a cat.  And that’s when Buster Kitty entered my life.  When Buster Kitty unexpectedly shuffled off his mortal coil, I remembered that I had forgotten how to live without a cat.  Roy, bless his heart, said “We’ll get another cat.” meaning “We’ll get another cat in the spring”.  He’s a little slow sometimes.  He gets there, but he takes the Local Train.  He was planning to get engaged four or five years after we met, even though it was perfectly obvious from our first date forward that we were headed directly to the altar.  I had to take things into my own hands on that one as well, but that’s a different story.  Roy said “We’ll get another cat.” and all I could think was “How long do I have to be here without a cat?”

You know, unless you are hopelessly Cat Averse like my mother, that there is power in the purr of a cat.  There is no dreadful event in my life that has not been improved by a purring cat on my lap.  Or, rather, my experience of every dreadful event has been made less horrible, less weighty, less burdensome, through having a purring cat on my lap.  The sudden loss of Buster Kitty was certainly a dreadful event, and made even worse by the fact that the loss of my usual antidote to dreadful events, the purring cat, was the dreadful event itself.  It was the ultimate in Negative Synergies.

I lasted one week.  I knew quite well that Roy had some totally absurd time horizon in mind, and with the expertise of the long-married, I utterly disregarded that.  I launched a conversation with him about this Hypothetical Event of securing another cat for the house. I ran across this magnificent article that explained my perspective perfectly.  Buster Kitty occupied a completely unfillable Cat Track…but the household had at least one Cat Slot, and it was vacant, and it very badly needed to be filled.  Really.  The post I linked to there is totally worth reading. Anyway, filling the vacant Cat Slot was First Priority, for me. I wasn’t going to be having any vacant Cat Slot for months and months.  Who could stand it?  Anyway, my Cat Slot had been continuously occupied by adult cats for 28 years at this point, but suddenly, Overhead Control alerted me to the fact that the specs for the job had been changed.  My Cat Slot had been converted, without my permission, acquiescence, or agreement, into a Kitten Slot.  I don’t know why.  The decision was handed down by Top Management.

While the Cat Slot Conversion paperwork was getting processed I sounded Roy out on the topic of Multiple Cats.  Because, why not.  Starting fresh is starting fresh, and it might be interesting to have more than one.  He was not in favor.  His idea was: 1 cat.  Not 2 cats.  I hadn’t yet been alerted to the change in status on the Slot, so I was unable to obtain his feelings on the subject of Kitten.  I was pretty sure I knew what they were going to be, anyway.

Fortunately, about that time, Roy headed off for a conference.  One of his very favorite sayings is “It’s better to ask forgiveness than ask permission.”  I think this position has merit, and was fully prepared to deploy it in the face of his inevitable protest. I called a good friend to come visit me for purposes of Cat Shopping.  Or, as I understood it at the moment, Kitten Shopping.  When I was informed of the conversion of the Slot from Cat Slot to Kitten Slot, I was also informed that we had been given an extra Slot in acknowledgement of the inconvenience. So we were not shopping for one cat, we were shopping for two kittens.

Plan A was to hit several of the area shelters, meet all the kittens they had on hand, and pick from that selection after several hours of Kitten Shopping.  As they say, “if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”  Plan A was derailed pretty much instantly when I met my First Kitten, a tiny little tuxedo cat, who nestled himself in the angle between my neck and my shoulder when I picked him up, purred loudly, and then licked the end of my nose.

“Friend,” I said to my buddy, “I’m gone.”

Meanwhile, she had discovered a contender in the form of a fluffy blue kitten with more toes than whiskers, who pitched the World’s Tiniest Temper Tantrum when she did not immediately open up his cage and take him out.

“Lori,” she said, “I”m gone.”

And so it was that we set out to obtain Two Kittens, and took home the first two kittens we met.  Later that day, I spoke with Roy on the phone.  “I have a confession to make” I said. “You got a cat” he said. “No,” I said.  “You know how you’re always saying it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission?” “What. did. you. do.” he said. “Well,” I said, “We went to the animal shelter.” “But you said you didn’t get a cat” he said. “That’s right,” I said.  “I didn’t get a cat.  I got two kittens.“. Silence reigned.  “Two.” he said.  “Two…kittens.” “Yep. You’re going to love them.”  My friend had already pointed out that if Roy kicked up a dust, we’d just toss the fluffy one at him, and the kitten would work its Fluffy Kitten Magic, and that would be the end of the protests.  And that is, more or less, how it worked out.  These kittens were so unbelievably cute – even our vet, who specialized in cats, melted when I brought them in – that Roy didn’t have a Chance.  It took him more than five minutes, and less than two days.

Now we’re one bigger, happier family: me, Roy, Max, and Baxter.  Max is the fluffy blue one, who turns out to be a volunteer shoot on the Maine Coon family tree.  Baxter is the tuxedo cat.  Both are shaping fair to be enormous.  Baxter was 10 lbs at his six-month checkup, and Max wasn’t very far behind. I’m told that Maine Coons take a long time to grow into their full magnificence, though.

Now the kittehs are sad.

I have a hanging sculpture in my bay window. It has a big swarovski cut-crystal ball hanging from it. Around 4pm at this time of the year the sun is at exactly the right angle to shine through the crystal, which puts dozens of rainbow-colored dots on the wall. If I give the sculpture a spin, the dots chase around the room. It’s like having 50 laser pointers, all going at once, in a seemingly random pattern on the living room walls, furniture, and the hallway stairs. It’s not random, I’m sure there’s a mathematical equation that perfectly describes it, and I bet my friend my kitten-shopping buddy the physicist could tell me what that equation is. But to the kittehs, it’s like having hundreds of multicolored mice racing randomly EVERYWHERE.

Kittehs learned very quickly that Mama Makes The Sparkle Dots Dance. Now they congregate in the living room around 4pm, with expectant looks on their little furry faces. I don’t know what it is about their looks that’s expectant. I just know it is. They see me coming and they want me to make the Sparkle Dots.

It has been cloudy for the last five days in a row. We’re in the throes of mud season, and it’s sleeting, snowing, raining, and just generally depressing and gloomy without being attractively atmospheric, like it is in the fall.  It’s just grim.  Mud Season.  End of Ski Season. Something to endure.  Thank heavens for the Sugar Shacks, because they’re the only thing that makes life worth continuing to live for the six weeks it goes on.

No sun = no Sparkle Dots.  On top of swimming through puddles on the sidewalk everywhere, on top of random warnings of three inches of nasty, useless, wet snow, on top of the crushing of the spirits that comes with the end of ski season…I have to disappoint my kittens every. single. day.  They don’t understand the pivotal role of the sun in the Sparkle Dot picture.  They just know Mama has the Sparkle Dot Magic, and refuses to use it.

God, please bring me a sunny afternoon.  I can’t stand crushing the hopes of my kittens every afternoon much longer.

In a happier time:

Ode To A Sugar Shack

Standard

‘Tis the finest time of spring, when all wend their ways into the hinterlands to observe the annual Boiling of the Sap, the Making of the Maple Syrup, and the Dining At The Farm.  One of the finest traditions of Western Massachusetts is the Sugar House, or the Sugar Shack: a place where you can experience the turning of the year.  There truly is nothing like wandering into the sugar house while the boiling is underway.  You drive miles on country roads, pitted by the winter’s plowing, with the rotting snowbanks, dingy and grey, lining the path.  The trees are naked, and the landscape is utterly devoid of even the hint of color.  There are no signs of spring…

…not until you round a bend, and spy a rustic wooden hut, with a small cupola jetting powerful clouds of fragrant steam.  You can’t smell it, not yet, but you know.  If you’re in Western Massachusetts, where we have a regional speciality in this sort of thing, you may find a large parking lot next to the hut, loaded to the brim with expensive sport utility vehicles, luxury sedans, hybrid hatchbacks, and snowmobiles – and in the right place – a hitching rail with saddled and blanketed horses attached.  These happy travelers are here not just for the joy of socializing with the sugar-maker, but for a fresh breakfast, farm-style, with eggs and sausage, and bacon, and waffles, and pancakes, and – if you are in the very right place – corn fritters.  All served with the freshest possible maple syrup, almost straight from the evaporator to your table.

There’s nothing like a cup of coffee, no matter how pedestrian the bean or the roast, that is served piping hot, with a drizzle of warm maple syrup to sweeten it up.  Even those who do not take their coffee “sweet” may find themselves adopting a new attitude when it’s a dollop of freshly-boiled maple syrup added to the cup.  There’s also nothing like a hot corn fritter, served with a small pool of the syrup on the side.

Last year, our favorite sugar house, South Face Farm, announced that it was their last year of operations for the breakfast business.  Roy and I felt as though a small light had gone right out of our lives.  The building, the staff, the coffee, the drive from our hometown, but especially, the corn fritters.  This place was one of those things that makes Mud Season in New England worth living through.  Imagine our joy when the local community rallied behind the operation, and opened the restaurant once again for the current season.  Unbounded, that’s what it was.  Ecstatic.  I ate four (4) corn fritters all by myself, just in a pure spirit of celebration.  It was a moment to inspire one to Poetry.  And thus, I offer you this:

An Ode To A Sugar House.

We ariseth from the winter’s shrinking grip
As growing daylight warms the air from chilling night
And snow-cover’d passages thaw, freeze, and slip
While suns’ rays set the heavenly dome alight.
Now in the growing days of spring
Does sap burst up in every maple’s core
While farmer tramps through softening snow
The brimming bucket full of sap to bring
Nectar, prime for boiling o’er a flaming pyre for
To shrink that juice into a tender sweetening flow.

And in that time of sweetly springing
Do folk long for pilgrimages rural
As birds anew are gently singing
Upon the gnarled maple burl.
And then, do farmers launch their toil
While waiting hand and foot at table
While pilgrims seek waffles, coffee, and cakes
The handy product of the farmers’ boil
All sweetened to the heights with essence maple
That with the work and boiling, farmer makes.