Archives for category: cooking

THE HIGH-HANGING FRUIT

 

Whenever I wedge my body into an airplane seat, I wish I were shorter.  Otherwise, I’m happy to be taller than average.  It is helpful in such disparate contexts as viewing art, playing tennis and picking blackberries.  This morning, we did the latter, and I benefitted from the abundant fruit available where small children and most adults do not reach.

My wife, Katie, and I arrived at the farm at 7:04 a.m.  Confident the early hour promised a private experience, we were startled to find the parking lot nearly full.  A stream of pickers spread through the rows of bushes like pac-men on a video screen.

Forty minutes later, we’d gathered eight pounds of fruit and headed home to commence a jam-making frenzy.

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Not necessarily in chronological order, the process involves cleaning the fruit, sterilizing the jars, measuring the sugar, adding the pectin and, here’s where I come in, mashing the berries in a special contraption to remove the seeds.  Once upon a time, when we were both younger and less experienced (about four years ago) we made blackberry jam WITHOUT removing the seeds. The taste was good but the consistency resembled dry grape nuts.  Not recommended.

  By the end of the three-hour process we beheld fifteen eight-ounce jars and the prospect of Smuckers-free life for the next 10-12 months.  Whoopee!  (We have already given some away….)

 

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I cannot say the agrarian life style is exactly coursing through my veins.  If I went back three hundred years to some Ukrainian village, I’m confident my forebears would not be found tilling the soil; rather, they likely sold the hoe to the farmer.  Canning and “putting up” provisions as household activities never crossed the threshold of my childhood nor my married life until we moved to North Carolina and found ourselves close to several “Pick-your-own” opportunities.  Along with visits to a strawberry farm and occasional support for the local famer’s market, Katie and I now make jam creation an annual event.

The motivation for this activity is a several-fold.  First, it’s fun for those lucky enough not to pick berries every day for a living. Second, the end product of fresh-fruit jam making is delicious.  Third, there is a sense we are preserving (no pun intended) a farmer’s lifestyle otherwise under assault from many factors, such as urbanization, traffic and labor shortages.  Not all of the factors of modern life are harmful to the farmer – – some are probably viewed as wonderful opportunities.  For instance, we would not live two minutes from the berry farm if some other farmer hadn’t realized his land was more valuable as new homes than cultivated.

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Though I’m not an agricultural economist, I think it’s safe to say the remaining local farmers who own their land (as opposed to tenant farmers) do not face a forlorn future.  On the contrary, their land’s value has soared so much that their labors, I imagine, are constantly measured against the temptation to “cash in.”  By picking their crop and cheerfully paying to do so, we hope to encourage the farmer to continue farming.

 

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Our farming efforts at home consist of six tomato plants wedged into the townhome-sized side-yard that also contains our air conditioning compressor.  The crop is treated like the newborn child of first-time parents.  We water it daily, trim its lower branches meticulously and support its limbs with stakes so it doesn’t stress too much.  We worry at the dearth of pollinating insects and do our best to shake its fragile yellow flowers to promote fertility. Each little tomato that emerges is like a jewel.  We guard against wicked, non-pollinating insects who might emerge to chew on the foliage.

 

 

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How many tomatoes will we harvest? Enough for several salads?  Enough to support a spaghetti dinner? Maybe.  A neighbor who grows with enough chemicals to support the economy of Delaware has scores of tomatoes hanging from every branch, like a Christmas tree in tricolor green-orange-red.  But our organic plants refuse to offer unearned gratification. We seek satisfaction in quality, not quantity.

And so it goes with our blackberry jam. It is said: “One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp.”  But a farm stand is not in the offing.  It’s also said:  “Everything in moderation.”  I’m happy to have used my reach and grasp for enough blackberries to provide a season of deliciously spread toast.

 

 

 

 

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CHEF SANDERS

 

We’ve been invited to a dinner party this evening, and I’ve been asked to make my famous cheese pie for dessert. Technically, it’s a “sour cream cheesecake” and derives from pages 611-612 of the 1948 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.   Few of my fans know that. They believe (or claim to believe) that I’ve created the recipe through decades of trial and error. Or, perhaps, they believe it comes from a long line of family pastry recipes. Uncomfortable living a lie, but not so uncomfortable that I would tell them directly, I write this post to blow my own cover.

 

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The culinary arts are not a field in which I’ve excelled. Though pretty solid in breakfast options, e.g., French toast, pancakes, oatmeal, my greatest skill in the estimation of my children is the ability to spread butter and jelly evenly on a piece of toast. All three lauded my expertise when they lived at home. Did they simply feign enthusiasm to extract additional before-bed snacks? Is that a cynical question? No, I believe I truly am gifted at spreading. Still, their flattery highlighted the lack of other tasty arrows in my quiver. EXCEPT for the cheese pie.

Somehow, to the apparent joy and relief of my wife, Katie, every time we are invited to a dinner or party my cheese pie is requested as our contribution. Accordingly, we keep a supply of pie-crusts in the pantry. And I know where to find Breakstone sour cream and Philadelphia cream cheese in the local supermarket. (Only name brands suffice).  Has Katie created this demand with subtle hints to our hosts? Am I being cynical again?

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My lack of development in the kitchen can probably be attributed to the model established by my father. Note that I did not say: “blamed.” He was, after all, a normal man of his era in the sense that he did not consider the kitchen to be his domain.   Plus, a child shouldn’t blame every shortfall on his parents any more than he should claim a child’s triumphs. Heaven knows I’m not implicated in my son’s gift for chemistry. Like me, my father had one specialty, namely: fresh-squeezed orange juice.

In my childhood recollection, my father used an ancient, hand-powered metal machine that looked like a combination of a water pump and an oil derrick to make delicious juice 365 days a year. More likely, there were times when oranges were not available, or we ran out. But memory sometimes gilds reality to the point of improbability. For this story, I’ll just go with it.

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Each morning, I arrived in the breakfast room to the sound of KYW News Radio in the background. Several steps away, in the kitchen, my father would be slicing four or five oranges in half and crushing them into juice. He would place the empty rinds in the previous day’s newspaper and fastidiously discard them in the trashcan. He then placed three glasses with bright orange nectar on the round breakfast table for me, my mother and himself.

We rarely spoke during this ritual except for him to express disgust at the odors that our cats, Farah and Cubbie, had produced in their litter boxes in the adjoining powder room. This communication by my father was non-verbal, along the lines of “Feh, eccch, phew.” My job was to empty the messes before sitting down to eat. My mother would typically be preparing eggs or toast or pancakes or assembling bowls of cereal.

 

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The 1960’s were a simpler time in many ways. Orange juice, for instance, was known as a pure pleasure. I enjoyed it; I expected it; I hadn’t yet learned to say: “But it has so much sugar,” as we do today. “Real” orange juice also didn’t yet come in a package; Minute Maid was only available in concentrated form and tasted far inferior. Dare I say I took my father’s efforts for granted?

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     When I returned home from college or law school a decade later, packaged orange juice had improved markedly. I noted that my father’s juice machine had migrated to the back of a drawer; he usually poured juice from a box by then. We all remarked at how “real” it tasted. Only now, four decades later, do I recognize we’d lost something special.

 

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Not all my cream cheese pies have been successful. Once, I forgot to add sugar. Another time, I absent-mindedly doubled the recipe and couldn’t figure out why the pie erupted volcanically all over the oven. Worst of all, I once mistook the cinnamon container (an ingenious ingredient I add between the cream cheese and sour cream layers) for a curry powder container. They look alike! Really, they do! The taste was… not so good.

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I’m still producing cream cheese pies even though we’ve deduced in recent years that I am lactose intolerant. This malady has caused my personal consumption to decline, though not to disappear.  After all, the chef must make sure his product is decent, right? But I’m less inclined to eat half a pie over a two-day period as I might have in the past.

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Today’s pie has turned out successfully. Per usual, I regret not having made a little mini-pie to enjoy at home tomorrow. Thinking of the thin legacy of Sanders men in the kitchen, I think I’ll go down the basement now and see if I can locate a box that holds the antique juicer. Damn the sugar. It’s time we experienced something delicious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


THE PANTRY

Mankind’s fervent desire for new and interesting experiences is reflected in the contents of the pantry. Alas, that is also where that desire crashes on the shoals of reality. For the pantry is where forgotten packages of couscous, cellophane noodles and pearled barley await their expiration dates. Oh, did I forget to mention the grits, lentils and ultra-grain quinoa penne?

The main course for dinner in our household is often chicken or fish. The accompanying dish is usually from the worlds of pasta, potatoes or rice. When we dine out, however, especially if it’s at an ethnic restaurant, we see greater variety. Our enjoyment of exotica invariably leads us to purchase “something different” for use at home. Yet, when “push comes to shove,” due to the familiarity of taste and preparation, we almost always opt for one of our basics. After several rejections, the “different” recedes into the dark corners of the closet where it is forgotten, out of sight and out of mind.

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I am responsible for several household tasks including, but not limited to, the following: unloading the dishwasher, taking out the trash, and mowing the lawn. Every few months, I voluntarily venture into the food pantry.

Sometimes, my goal is to organize and sometimes to alphabetize. And sometimes, like a lemming jumping off a cliff, my goal is to find packages that have fallen behind others into obscurity. When I locate one, I tend to announce to my wife, Katie: “We’d better eat some spinach channa tonight, whatever that is. The box says it’s about to expire.”

Sometimes, the discovery is within the tastes and preparation parameters of the planned meal. More often, unfortunately, there is a reason the product hasn’t seen the light of day. “Long grain, slow-cooking brown rice” is, as the label notes, slowly cooked. Forty-five minutes for a side dish is rarely acceptable. And “rice fettuccine noodles without gluten?” Does that sound appealing to a person who isn’t on a gluten-free diet?

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The other evening, in a fit of masochistic efficiency, I took out everything in our pantry that didn’t fall into the category of “normal.” I determined to make a meal of several of the products. “Kasha,” I announced, “is something my mother used to make. I haven’t had it in forty years, but tonight’s the night.”

“I don’t like kasha,” said Katie.

“Then why did we get this?” I asked, brandishing a small, plastic package.

“I think it came in a gift box,” said Katie.

“Someone gifted us kasha?” I asked, incredulous. “They must not like us very much.”

“Well, it’s supposed to be healthy. You know, it’s buckwheat,” Katie said.

“I didn’t know. I’m impressed. How does that differ from plain wheat?” I asked.

“Now you’re pushing it,” said Katie. “Maybe the groats are shaped differently.”

“Groats?” I said.

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Anyway, I recalled from childhood that kasha often surrounded bow-tie pasta. We didn’t have any bowties but I found a package of green and red Christmas tree shaped pasta purchased in a fit of holiday enthusiasm. Suspecting kasha might benefit from some flavor other than buckwheat, I also grabbed a small bag of dried currants that was surely destined for disposal. In my view, currants are to raisins what harpsichords are to pianos or typewriters are to computers –- obsolete. Still, they could play a role in my meal of obscurity.

The directions on the package of kasha were basic. Add a cup of water to a cup of groats, boil them for fifteen minutes, let them sit for ten minutes, then, eat. When the kasha began to thicken, I added the currants and threw in some almond slices, for texture. I also had the idea that a can of cannellini beans that had held down a corner of the pantry for nearly three years might be helpful. I threw them in, too.

Within half an hour, I had a massive pot of dark brown paste along with a second pot of colorful trees. The kasha gave off a fairly unpleasant fragrance.

“I feel like we’re in a gulag,” I said.

“This was your idea,” said Katie.

“Well, how bad can it be?” I asked.

No response.

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After only two or three bites, Katie went to the refrigerator and found herself some leftovers from the previous night’s restaurant meal. Left to consume my medley on my own I determined to finish. I added salt, then pepper, then more salt. I drowned a portion of my kasha in blue cheese dressing. There was no way I would admit it was inedible.

After the meal, Katie turned to me and asked if I’d like to go out for dessert. Like a person throwing a life preserver to someone who’s drowning, she added: “Let’s go to the place next door to the pizza shop.”

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Later that evening, on the phone, I told my mother what I’d made for dinner.

“Oh, I love kasha,” she said.

“You do?” I asked, incredulous. “It hardly had any taste. And the smell…”

“How did you prepare it?” asked my mother.

I told her the details and she laughed.

“There are different kinds of kasha,” she said. “Yours sounds like the type you just add for texture, like bread crumbs, not to eat as a meal.”

“Yes,” I said. “It was like eating little pieces of buck-shot, not buckwheat.”

“You made the wrong kind. There’s a type of kasha that’s fluffy and delicious.”

“Hard to imagine,” I said.

After this experience, I’ll avoid the pantry for at least a month. Then again, there’s a jar of peach-mango chutney that might be just perfect with Fat-free Organic Thai Rice Noodles.