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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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.

 

 

Back in the [bread-baking] groove

Summer is looking a bit care-worn by now, even though this year, for the first in many, the grass has stayed a bright Irish-green throughout, and our little patch of herbs is so abundant that it looks downright provençal. I can see a few leaves starting to turn here and there, and, although I will keep the sun-loving geraniums to their last bloom, I know it’s soon time to trade them for mums.

Heat-averse, I stayed away from the oven most of the summer. In the last week, I realized how much I’ve missed making bread. Time to get my groove back. Partly to use up what I had on hand, I started with a no-knead semolina. I mixed the dough in my bread bucket, using my trusty dough whisk (there’s the King, back in my kitchen again!), on Friday morning and refrigerated the dough. Earlier today—Sunday—I formed the loaves, brushed them with a slurry of corn starch and water, slashed, sprinkled them with sesame seeds, and set them to rise while the oven heated up.

I’m accustomed to letting loaves rise on a parchment-coated peel, then sliding them, parchment and all, onto the pre-heated stone. Alas, I remembered too late that I was out of the pre-cut parchment that comes in so handy for making bread and baking cookies. I coated the peel with corn meal, but because some bread dough is wetter than others, and this one was, I still had a hard time maneuvering the loaves onto the pre-heated stone.

However, as Shakespeare so wisely advised, “All’s well that ends well.” Is there anything more luscious than the scent of baking bread? The crust browned and crisped nicely. I could hardly wait to try it. Five minutes after taking the loaves out of the oven—a bit too soon, I concede—I sliced off the heel. The crumb was decent. Slathered with butter, it was good, as only fresh-baked bread can be. Not my best effort, but not bad for a three-month lapse. We’ll enjoy it toasted for breakfast, with cheese for lunch, and with soup tonight. I’ll stash the second and third loaves in the freezer for another day.

Three loaves to the good, and I’m back in the groove.

Routines like this are as comforting, and comfortable, as a pair of mukluks in a November chill. We’re not quite there yet, but I’m gearing up.

In praise of celery

The approach of fall always makes me want to cook. For one thing, it’s the high point of the harvest. For another, temperatures drop to a more reasonable, less humid level. What follows is the first of my fall culinary musings.

We have a friend in Virginia who is a very fine cook. She gives traditional Southern fare, like Brunswick stew, her own little twist, often lightening up the dish to suit more health-conscious diners but never sacrificing flavor or texture. I once asked her how she did it. Her reply was immediate and to the point.

“Celery,” she said, in her elegant Southern drawl. “It’s highly underrated.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Celery has long held a certain eminence in fine cuisine, irrespective of its welcome crunch in a Waldorf, potato, or chicken salad. The mirepoix, that French staple, is a fine dice of celery, carrots, and onion—a combination also used in the construction of many Italian soups and sauces. The Cajun cooking staple known as the Holy Trinity—a term I learned from Emeril Lagasse in the early days of the Food Network—is a fine dice of celery, onion, and green pepper. Spain and Germany have their own versions, which you can read about in a fascinating post by Lindsey Howald Patton on the Serious Eats blog. You’ll note that some of these combinations substitute celery root or use leek instead of onion. One could also easily trade the onion for shallots, for a more elegant flavor.

What set off this rather unlikely post was an article I found in my inbox not long ago, from the online magazine TASTE. It was all about celery, and it was surprisingly interesting. It made me want to head to an antique shop in search of a celery vase. Read the article here.

Celery and olives, sometimes with carrots, and at Thanksgiving and Christmas with raw fennel, were always on my parents’ table for special occasion dinners. Celery is in just about every soup that I make. Celery as a vegetable—as opposed to a base ingredient or crudité—is given much more respect in French cuisine. Any vintage cookbook will provide recipes. And, of course, so will our darling Julia Child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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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.