The jars on the shelf

Update. Yet another Bonne Maman jar has been welcomed into the family. If you read my previous post from months ago, you’ll recall my homage to these marvelous little jars and the preserves they hold—the “gift that keeps on giving,” just as Cousin Eddie observed in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. By the way, Bonne Maman products are made only with good stuff, as the website attests.

I’ve been transitioning gradually to glass food storage containers over the last five years. The plastic ones I still have, while advertised as “BPA free,” will eventually go, too. My plan is to follow my daughter’s lead and use space-saving canning jars for everything I freeze . That will happen in good time.

Meanwhile, as I use up each little taste of France that Bonne Maman preserves provide, I add another perfectly sized glass storage container to my collection. This year, I’ve used them for the herbs I’ve dried from the garden  They find their way to the pantry shelf, too—for the last small quantities of rice, pasta, or dried beans. And with just the two of us, they are exactly “right-sized” for leftovers and for storing prepped ingredients till it’s time to put the dish together. Mirepoix and other basic flavor bases at the ready when you need them? That’s convenience! With the ready-cut veggies at the grocery store so expensive, it’s economical, too.

By the way, as long as we’re talking economy, bell peppers are always inexpensive at our farm markets this time of year. Yesterday, I bought a bunch, cut them into strips, cooked them till almost soft in olive oil, added some balsamic for zest, and popped them into the freezer to enjoy when peppers are $4 a pound. Today, I’ll be heading back to the market for another batch—this time to roast, peel, and freeze. By the way, fresh sliced peppers, gently sautéed with or without garlic and seasoned with a bit of sea salt, are wonderful (and colorful!) tossed with spaghetti. The oil they exude on their own is just delicious. And you can store the leftovers in your Bonne Maman jars.

Wishing you all a bon weekend!

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Hallmark movies, redux

Just in case you didn’t hear the news, Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas” is once again upon us. Be still, my heart! Thirty-three new Hallmark Christmas movies plus, no doubt, innumerable repeats, will begin October 28, three days before Halloween. In one of my first blog posts last January, I wrote without shame about my attachment to these bits of holiday fluff. Once I came out of the Hallmark Christmas movie closet, many others owned up, including some of my most “cultivated” acquaintances.

Post-Christmas, I watched with amused interest as Hallmark aired first its winter-themed flicks, then Valentine’s Day, then spring, then June weddings, then summer, then autumn-in-wherever. I’ve seen my fair share of these non-Christmas movies and found most of them to be so bad, actually, that they’re good. Good enough to provide amusement that requires absolutely nothing of you. Good enough to iron by. And especially good if you join in one of my Hallmark games. Want to play? Try these:

The where-was-it-shot game. Many movies set in a particular place aren’t actually shot there, for reasons that are mostly economic. Betcha didn’t know that the interiors in  Moonstruck—maybe my favorite movie of all time—were shot in Toronto. But while in first-rate productions such scenes would be undetectable, Hallmark substitutions are way too easy to spot. You might see a flyover opening shot that establishes a location (Seattle’s space needle or a Manhattan skyline, for example), but that’s where the authenticity ends. Point in fact: There are no mountains in Bucks County,  and almost nothing in that dog show movie looks like New York, probably because it’s Vancouver. Vermont is not flat. That New Jersey bakery is really in Bucharest (which is probably why one customer’s feigned New Jersey accent was so dreadful).

The find-the-mistake game. Whoops! Snow on the ground and summer-fresh green leaves in the background! Please, Hallmark, don’t ask us to suspend our disbelief that much. No snow in December in Garland, Alaska? Or how about this—big-time marketing executive needs to come up with a holiday marketing plan for a corporate client, with only three weeks left before Christmas. I don’t think so.

The find-the-worst hair game. Hasn’t anyone at Hallmark figured out that HDTV  reveals EVERYTHING? I know full well that wigs are used widely in movies because they save time and forestall bad hair days when the camera’s rolling. I get it. The Downton Abbey ladies we all came to love—and miss every single Sunday, by the way— wore wigs for historical authenticity as well as ease. I get that, too. But some of the Hallmark wigs are so so obvious, and frankly, so dreadful looking, that one wonders why they couldn’t spend a few bucks more to give the real hair. After all, Hallmark owns this high-ratings franchise. And don’t even get me started on the male leads’ hair, some of which is just ridiculous—and far from “manly,” in my estimation—even when it isn’t “supplemented.” Who looks like that???

The switch-the-script game. My BFF says the thing she likes best about these movies is that you can join any one of them at any point in the action and it won’t matter because you always know what happens next. Which, of course, is  comforting in a quaint sort of way. You will find only a handful of plot lines in the entire universe of Hallmark movies, and they are “creatively reused” in each of the seasonal series. The heroine gets grounded in a snowstorm or returns to her home town or goes on a trip and meets up with her high school beau or struggling Christmas tree farmer or errant prince or stalwart widower. A rival of some sort—a conniving female or a really bad ex—gets in the way but is foiled in the end, when love conquers all. Point is–you could take the beginning, middle, or end of any of these movies and drop it into almost any other.

The find-the-familiar-face game. Hallmark seems to deliberately go after former TV stars whose luster has faded—either because they weren’t very good to begin with or because they’ve “aged out.” If you watch enough of these movies, you’ll find yourself muttering, “I know that face…” The late Alan Thicke showed up frequently, usually as a rigid dad with unfair expectations. I’ve spotted Patricia Richardson, the Home Improvement mom, who looked normal (which is to say, her face actually moved) and  turned in an atypically great little performance. Most recently, Hallmark scored a coup reuniting Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner, the bionic heroes of the 1970s, in widely promoted but, sadly, weakly written supporting roles.

The pick-the-worst-painting-in-the-art-show game. You may have noticed that Hallmark movies favor certain professions: struggling/frustrated/underrated/broke chefs, writers, and artists turn up frequently. The artists are always getting ready for a big show. Notice that at the gut-wrenching gallery opening, all of the once or about-to-be famous painter’s  works on display will be utterly dreadful, and not one will be anything like another.

So, all that being said, have I sworn off these featherweight fantasies?

Not on your life.

Apple season

Oh, the apples of fall! Pies, sauce, dumplings, cake, Waldorf salad*…  or, to keep it simple, an unadulterated apple, all by itself.

Last year at this time, we were in Maine at beautiful Cayford Orchard, outside of Skowhegan, picking Northern Spys under a gorgeous October sky. Four years ago, Facebook recently reminded me, Hubby found Northern Spys in northwestern Pennsylvania and surprised me a week or two later with a generous shipment that lasted right through the winter.

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This year, I’ve been fretting about Northern Spy deprivation. I even emailed the folks at Cayford to see if they would ship some to me. They were gracious but not anxious; if shipping isn’t your normal routine, it’s a lot of bother just to satisfy one frustrated Pennsylvania pie-baker. While I would have spared almost no expense to have my favorite pie apples in time for Thanksgiving, I agreed and gave up.

Try, now, to imagine my delight when, while wandering yesterday through a local farm market—one that is not my usual haunt— I saw this:

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“Where are these from?” I called out to the woman at the register. “They’re from a local orchard,” she said. “But they’re not supposed to grow this far south,” I replied. She smiled and shrugged. They were big and healthy looking. We loaded up. I’ll be baking pies very soon.

Truthfully, while I personally prefer apples from New York State and points north, Pennsylvania does grow some pretty great ones. Our friends had just brought us a bag of eating apples from Hollabaugh’s in Biglerville, PA, near Gettysburg—every one a crunchy, delicious treat. Miss Pup particularly enjoys her visits there, too, as you can see in this priceless photo with one of her two Aunt Sues:

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* Just in case you’re too young to remember, or Waldorf Salad is outside your experience, here is the recipe that I favor, from my much loved, highly tattered copy of  The Joy of Cooking, 1967  printing:

Prepare:
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced apples
(1 cup Tokay grapes, halved and seeded)
Combine with:
1/2 cup walnut or pecan meats
3/4 cup mayonnaise or Boiled Salad Dressing

The parentheses indicate an optional ingredient. I add them if I have them on hand. I use mayo rather than take the time to make a boiled dressing, and I add about 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla. You can add diced or shredded cooked chicken, too, and serve in a cream puff shell for an authentic “vintage” presentation.

 

 

‘Tis not the last rose of summer

‘Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone…

My mother had a soft spot for schmaltzy poetry—the kind that schoolchildren in the first half of the 20th Century had to memorize and recite. She also loved roses. We had a row of gorgeous ones in the backyard, planted when my parents moved into their split-level dream house in 1958. The roses were among the most popular of their day— by my recollection, Queen Elizabeth, Crimson Glory, Peace, Will Rogers, and a lovely outlier named Grand’mere Jenny that we all grew to love. They were the kind of roses—the real roses, an aficionado would say—that required meticulous tending.

As a child, those roses were objects of endless fascination, as much for their names as for their delicate beauty, breathtaking color, and heavenly scent. The American Rose Society’s online database is members-only, but there’s a nice long list on the Roses of Yesterday and Today website, where you will find not only catchy names like Double Delight, First Love, and Fourth of July, but also  Cardinal de Richelieu, Frau Dagmar Hastrup (whoever she was), and Jacques Cartier. Who names roses? If you “invent” one, do you get to name it yourself? When are you important enough to have one named after you? These are the questions that plagued me as I admired our roses and pored through the Star Roses catalogue that arrived every year. It seemed to me that it would be great fun to name roses for a living. (In adulthood, I’ve often said the same thing about paint colors, but I have a feeling I’d run dry after the first 50 grays.)

My dear friend Marionlee is an expert rose gardener with a special fondness for English and French heirloom varieties. They take my breath away. God must give rose-lovers like her an extraordinary gift of patience. Wind, disease, weather, bugs on the rose and the gardener. I tried serious rose gardening only once, but when my beautiful Audrey Hepburn rose died off, I gave up. Years later, when I finally got the English cottage garden of my dreams, I learned about shrub roses—the kind that survive almost anything, bloom constantly from late spring through fall, and need very little attention. Okay, I know it’s cheating—kind of like using a cake mix instead of baking from scratch—but they were stunning, and they were survivors.

When we moved to our present home, the huge terraced garden was gone, and we had to start over in a much smaller space. This time, I wanted pale pink roses instead of red or fuchsia. Once again, we chose shrub roses. Four years later, they’ve really taken off, with this season particularly resplendent. And look what’s happened to the color!

Although it’s October, there is no last rose of summer here yet. Not only that, the lavender is flowering for the third time, and the clematis is enjoying a highly successful second act. If they’re not ready to pack it in, neither am I.

* The first two lines of of the poem by the Irish poet (as opposed to the saint), Thomas Moore. I don’t recommend clicking through if you have any tendency to seasonal affective disorder. It’s downright mournful. That’s probably why my mother only bothered with the first two lines.

The light in Liz’s window

My cousin Liz holds a huge piece of my heart. Because hundreds of miles separated us in childhood, we did not become close until we were well into adulthood. I will be eternally grateful for that, and I just hate it when a year goes by without seeing her. She lives up north, and one of the most beautiful sights in my personal universe is the view from her window—all trees, mountains, sky, and birds at the feeders (or maybe a moose, though with our luck, probably not). Needless to say, in autumn, when the light hits just right, the view from Liz’s window is nothing short of a gift from heaven.

P.S. Credit where it’s due… We love you, too, Buddy, without whom that view would probably not be possible!

Once, under the Tuscan sun…

I am in an almost perennial state of longing for Italy. Hubby has Italy on his mind as well. The fervor is fueled constantly as we watch our current favorite Italian TV series.  Una pallottola nel cuoro—the English title,  Bulletproof Heart. We watch Euro TV almost every night, thanks to MHZ Choice, which we began streaming several years ago. Every time we do, we are transported. In the case of Bulletproof Heart, it’s to Rome. Tonight, however, I’m recalling a trip from Florence through the Tuscan countryside. And if you haven’t read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, please do. It’s a delight—and SO much better than the movie!

Chips of choice

We have a friend who is fond of saying, “You’re all that and a bag of chips.” When it comes to out-of-the-box ( bag??) compliments, one could do worse. A good potato chip, after all, is in a class all by itself.

I grew up about an hour from Hanover, PA, Utz’s ancestral home, which bills itself as the “snack capital of the world.” Driving through Hanover on a full-tilt day, even with the car windows up, you can smell chips frying. Utz has resisted all attempts at buy-outs, instead acquiring a number of other snack food brands and proudly claiming the title of “the largest independent, privately held snack food brand in the United States.” When I was a kid, on the other hand, you couldn’t buy a bag of Utz’s two hours north. That’s quite a success story! You can read about the history of the Utz brand here.

All efforts at healthful eating habits aside, and even given that my taste for salt is not what it used to be, Utz potato chips are still hard for me to resist. The golden crunch of Utz in the “chipped” ham sandwich of my childhood (yes, in it) is one of my favorite food memories.

Not, of course, in the same category as ravioli, but still…

My father, who did all our grocery shopping, was exceptionally fond of our local farmer’s market, a huge, barn-like building on the crest of Market Street Hill in Harrisburg, PA. On Saturday mornings, when Mom was working, he took me with him to do the weekly shopping. I remember those happy jaunts in minute detail. Daddy would circumnavigate the market first, assessing quality and comparing prices. For most of his regular purchases, however, he would end up at the same vendors—the egg lady, the celery lady, the butcher who cut to order the round steak that Daddy ground himself, the chicken vendor, and the man with thick-rimmed glasses, always in a plaid flannel shirt and wide suspenders, who with a deft flick of the wrist—and more than a little panache—spent the day slicing baked ham at the very back of the market.

And then —drum roll, please—there was the Utz lady. She was the first vendor to smile at us when we walked in the door, but she was always the last stop on our rounds. After all, you wouldn’t want to put the Utz’s at the bottom of the shopping bag. She’d gently scoop those fresh chips into a plain white bag, ask if we were having a good day, and thank us sweetly for stopping. That bag would tempt this chip-loving kid all the way home.

Many years later, when Mom was well into her 80s, I took her shoe shopping. The Hill market had closed years before and been succeeded by a smaller version near an older shopping center. Mom wasn’t getting around as facilely then, but she asked to stop at the market. I asked if there was anything particular that she needed. She mumbled “just a few things,” but by the time we got inside, it was clear that there was only one thing on her mind: the Utz’s lady.

We headed back to the car, that single important purchase in hand. Before I could turn the key, Mom tore the bag open and dove in, blood pressure be damned.

“There’s nothing like a good potato chip,” she said, the smile on her face as big as a kid’s on Christmas morning.