Tarragon, rosemary, thyme

Record rainfall in July and a reasonable amount of hot sun have produced crazy growth spurts in our little dooryard.  The herbs, most of which overwintered, are particularly lush and abundant—so much so that I decided last week to begin drying now for winter, instead of waiting till September.

Without a good place to hang drying herbs, as the experts recommend, I’ve decided instead to dry very small batches, on the kitchen counter. On a warm, still, low-humidity day, I sometimes “sun dry” the herbs I’ve cut on the patio table for a few hours to jump-start the process. Once indoors, I spread them on a piece of paper towel, turn them frequently, and make sure that they’re absolutely dry and brittle before storing. It takes a few days, but it’s easy and almost free. The only downside is the temporary loss of a bit of counter space.

Last year, for the first time in ages, I had enough parsley to fill a jar. It retained its fresh, intense aroma until I used the last of it in May. That is definitely NOT the case with most store-bought herbs. I’m using my Bonne Maman jars for storage, bien sûr.

This happy occupation is leading me to rethink the generous array of herbs and spices that I usually keep on hand. They’re expensive, and they lose their potency over time. Perhaps the better choice is to concentrate on growing and drying those we use most frequently and purchasing the more exotic ones as needed. Such an approach, needless to say, requires an organized meal-planning effort and religiously maintained shopping list. This daydreaming Pisces, who often cooks and bakes on a whim, may be setting herself up for failure, or at least for last-minute dashes to the store because there’s no coriander.

My next task: Go through the out-of-control herb/spice shelf and pitch what’s old or unused. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

 

I dream of Italy

When the weekend approaches, I often find myself daydreaming about all the wonderful places we’ve been. I’ve got Italy on my mind today, perhaps because it’s so warm and sunny here, perhaps because there are beautiful fresh tomatoes on the counter and basil thriving in the backyard, perhaps because there’s a field of sunflowers nearby, perhaps because I never really get Italy (or France, for that matter) entirely out of my head…

So today I’m sharing a few photos of our daydream-worthy visit to the remarkable, enchanting Cinque Terre. I’ve shown you photos of some of the food we enjoyed in this magical region in a previous post, but this time it’s all about the views. Do enjoy, and do visit if you’re lucky enough to be in Italy.

 

Cover photo: “Modern” recreational vessels punctuate an ancient seascape in Monterosso al Mare. Each of these photos is my own work.

A versatile veggie roast, Italian style

Like many of us, I roast vegetables all winter long—mostly root vegetables, since I try to cook with the seasons. I use whatever I have on hand; sometimes, it’s turnips or parsnips with the usual carrots, onions, potatoes, or sweet potatoes. Sometimes, it’s Brussels sprouts, broccoli, a hunk of cabbage, or red beets.  If I have a stray apple, I might throw that in, too.

When summer arrives, however, I am OVER roasting vegetables. Who wants to turn the oven on in the heat? But as I write this, I am literally about to eat my words, thanks to an Italian cooking video from the website Fatto in Casa da Benedetta (homemade by Benedetta, roughly) that turned up on Facebook. She calls the dish Mix di verdure al forno says you can use it a thousand ways. You probably can. This array of eggplant, zucchini, carrot, celery, onion, potato, tomato, bell pepper, and any fresh or dried herbs that you prefer looked so irresistible and versatile that I just had to try it. The links above are to her website and the actual video recipe, respectively.

I’ve looked through some of her other recipes and have been impressed at the simple flavors and easy construction. Don’t be intimidated by the Italian. You don’t have to know it to get the point—just watch carefully and pause/repeat if you miss something. That’s not cheese she’s sprinkling, by the way—it’s bread crumbs to soak up the liquid from the fresh vegetables, as my cousin Nadia pointed out. I missed that and would have been adding grated pecorino romano or parmigiano without her good counsel. You could always do that anyway, of course.

Pay attention to  the different ways that Benedetta uses this lovely summer dish. Added to a large wrap spread first with ricotta, for example. Spread on grilled Italian bread for bruschetta. In a savory tart. Or even frozen to use at a later date. Tonight, I planned to have the verdure with pasta, but they were so good that I never even boiled the water.

A couple of notes:

  • Benedetta says to cut the eggplant and the squash in larger chunks because, of course, they cook more quickly.
  • 200° Celsius converts to 392° Fahrenheit (oh, the wonders of the Internet!). I started my sheet pan at that temperature, checked mid-way, and turned it down to 375°. Everyone’s oven is different; the recommended hour cooking time was perfect.
  • I used ribbons of fresh basil and parsley from the garden, cut with the herb scissors my sister-in-law gave me (see photo below). Nadia suggested fresh mint. Whatever you like.

Benedetta, you’ve found a fan! Next up: your ceci (chick pea) salad.

Simple gifts

I believe it was Helen Keller who said, “”Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow. It’s what sunflowers do.” Helen Keller, of course, couldn’t see at all—at least not with her eyes. Still, it’s pretty good advice, don’t you think?

A field of sunflowers is uncommon in my little corner of the world. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that hundreds of sunflowers had burst into full bloom in a nearby patch of  field,  little more than a stone’s throw from my house.

Everyday I see people of all ages stopping by to take pictures or just have a look as these wonderful flowers turn their faces to the sun. In fact, girasole, the Italian word for sunflower, and tournesol, the French word, mean exactly that: turned to the sun. The local restauranteur who planted the field hadn’t expected such an over-the-top response to something she thought would just be a fun thing to do. Even the local TV cameras showed up. Turns out that, without much expectation or even intent, she gave a fairly priceless gift to the whole community.

In a world that seems reliably crazier every day, the simplest gifts count the most.

 

Mystic-ism

I’d wanted to visit Mystic Seaport in Connecticut for years by the time we finally got there on a misty (sorry—I couldn’t resist) day a few summers ago. Mystic is a delightful trip back in time if you appreciate the American Colonial period, and a great history lesson for kids. It’s easier to enjoy in spring or fall, when the tourist volume is lower. Earlier today, I was going through my photos and thought you might enjoy these.

Mystic schooner

 

 

Garden bounty

I haven’t had a full-blown vegetable garden since the early 80s; but up until that point, the gardens I planted and tended were fairly successful—healthy and productive and free of all the bad stuff. I’ve missed gardening over the years, but I gradually learned to accept the fact that I couldn’t do everything, all of the time. Today, I confine my efforts to a patch of fairly happy herbs nestled against our garage wall. My daughter and my son, however, love to grow things. My son, as we speak, has a tree positively overladen with figs in his city garden patch. My daughter and a friend plant and tend a very bountiful garden. Thankfully, Hubby and I are blessed with many local farm stands that offer a steadily increasing variety of fruits and vegetables, many of which are grown organically.

As lovely as this bounty is, however, it doesn’t begin to approximate the quality and beauty of the fruits and vegetables that we found at markets in France. Each of our trips to France has been in growing season. It would be impossible to forget the gorgeous array of freshly harvested produce in the market towns we visited in Provence—no doubt the reason why Provence continues to be so celebrated by many of the world’s greatest chefs. And why I have at least five Provençal cookbooks on my kitchen shelf.

But other parts of France are equally fertile. I’ve mentioned before that one of the great joys of blogging is that it puts you in touch with other bloggers across the globe. One of my favorite discoveries is Our French Oasis, tales of country life in the Charente Maritime in southwest France that are rich with gorgeous photos. Susan’s most recent post tells the story of her potager, or kitchen garden.

Appropriately, potage means soup or stew; and one of the great delights of the growing season is a soup made with vegetables fresh from the garden. There is the legendary soupe au pistou,* of course, but with fresh peas in season, you may want to try this simple but lovely potage. My daughter often serves a small portion as a starter. A parfait or even a shot glass—for juste un petit gout**—makes an elegant presentation. The recipe below is from Ginette Mathiot’s I Know How to Cook (Je Sais Cuisinier), which is roughly the French equivalent of our Joy of Cooking. The massive cookbook was a Christmas gift from my dear friend Stephanie a few years ago, and it’s really one-of-a-kind. Still,  I owe my daughter thanks for introducing us to this lovely early summer soup.

*The link is to David Lebovitz’s recipe, but you will find many others online.
**”Just a little taste”

Cover photo: Glorious beets at Four Corners Farm in Newbury, VT.

Pea Soup

1 pound, 10 ounces shelled peas [My note: You can approximate the quantity; European cooks often cook by weight. Just don’t be stingy.]
6-½ cups any stock [My note: Summer is a great time to make vegetable stock from all your peels and other odds and ends]
salt and pepper
½ cup crème fraîche (sour cream will do)
croutons

Put the peas in a large pan, pour in the stock and bring to a boil. [My note: To maintain the vibrant color of the fresh peas, I would bring the stock to a boil first, then add the peas.] Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Pass the soup through a strainer into a tureen, season with salt and pepper, and serve with the crème fraîche and croutons.

peas

Sitting on the porch shelling peas or snapping the ends off beans is one of those meditative kitchen chores I truly enjoy.

i know how to cook

Here’s the book. You will find it comprehensive but short on specificity. Every time I open it, I think of Julia Child’s insistence on detail when she was working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking. You can read about that in My Life in France. You can find both at your favorite independent bookstore, or on Julia’s Amazon page.

 

‘You’ll shoot your eye out!’

Before you read this, please note:
1) The following is NOT about my husband; but, just as in reading a great work of literature or studying a famous painting, you are free to draw whatever conclusions you like.
2) It may sound “sexist.” It is.

A hospital stay can really knock it out of you even when you’re not the patient. Running back and forth to the hospital is in itself exhausting even without the associated stress. When you get home, you still have to walk the dog, put the trash out, go to the store, and—worse case scenario–water the lawn or shovel the snow, depending on the time of year. All you want to do is sleep, but you are wide-eyed at 2 AM, watching Frazier reruns. You seek distraction in oddly considered chores. All things considered, however, this is not the best time to sharpen your knives or climb a ladder to dust the top of the refrigerator. No household needs two recovering patients.

You think you will be so much better off when your patient is discharged, but going home is even more challenging if your patient is a male.

You’ve seen those cartoons of the “ER for men with colds” circulating on Facebook. Annoying though a whiner may be, you are actually in more trouble if your patient is one of those stalwart soldier types. If you’ve twisted your face in chagrin to scream, “WHY ARE YOU LIFTING THAT?” to a husband recovering from hernia surgery, you will understand why I’ve adopted that priceless line from A Christmas Story, borrowed for the title of this post, as my own code for, “What are you, nuts?” Sometimes, it even works.

You may be accused of sounding like a broken record (does anyone under 50 even know what that is?) or being a shrew, nag, or know-it-all. If he’s too polite and considerate to say any of those things (which the men in my life, fortunately, have always been), you will still see that sentiment very clearly written across his face. If you firmly believe you are always right in such circumstances, you are.

The behavior I’m describing has nothing to do with how smart they are; in fact, the smarter they are, the worse they are at applying common sense to situations involving their own well-being. They may tell you they just want to feel normal again, which I agree is understandable, or—much worse—they still think they can do everything they did at 17. Sadly, the restoration of health after illness or injury does not include time travel.

Fighting this battle does wear you down. After all, you are watching someone do exactly what sound reason and people who know better have said he shouldn’t do. As a result, you imagine one worst-case scenario after another—for example, checking repeatedly to see if he’s still alive when he falls asleep in the middle of The Ballad of Josie Wales. (Clue: If he falls asleep, it’s probably because he’s seen it 75 times.)

The only possibility of an end to this frustration is that at some point in the far distant future, your husband, father, or any other recuperating male in your care, may turn to you and say, “You were right.” And to a woman who knew she was right all along, that’s almost—mind you, I said almost—as good as jewelry.

Photo: One of the hospitals in our area. Sadly, even the Fourth of July dress can’t compensate for the fact that it looks like a computer card.