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.

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.

 

Dutch country ‘Roots’

Even when you’re not completely #retired, there’s more time for spur-of-the-moment adventures.

Finding ourselves with an obligation-less day, on Tuesday we set out for the legendary Root’s Market in Pennsylvania Dutch country. There were other possibilities, of course, but Root’s is open ONLY on Tuesdays, and we knew it would be an easy ride that wouldn’t consumer the entire day.

Farmers’ markets are ubiquitous in this part of the world. Central Pennsylvania, once you get out of its small cities, is still replete with farmland even though much of it, sadly, has been sold off for development. In the summer months, we never buy fruit or vegetables in the supermarket—we go right to the source. There’s a farm market not too far away that has been in the same family for more than a century. More about that one on another day as it deserves its own post!

People have been telling us about the wonders of Root’s for years. Even though the best of the summer bounty is still a few weeks away, we thought that it might have something unique to offer.

And, in a way, it did: a cast of thousands. Shoppers, that is, purchasing everything from $1 boxes of assorted school supplies to fruits and vegetables to locally smoked meats  to flowering plants… and then some. Although disbursed through several buildings and the outdoor areas between them, the crowd was thick and slow-moving. And it was hot.

I made a few discoveries:

One is that even the Amish have discovered the selling power of designer coffee.

Another is that if you have a grandchild who likes matchbox vehicles, you can find them there, “at a good price.”

The third is that the larger the market, the larger the crowd, the more overwhelming the display, the less inclined we are to buy anything. Hubby and I are very much alike in that respect.

And so, we’ve done Root’s. Our next fruit-and-veggie buy will be at one of our local farm stands. And our next spontaneous day trip will probably be to a rose garden.

 

 

Sweet distractions

I’ve been lean on writing  this last week; sometimes, real life just intervenes. In this case, in a good way. Here is where my time usually devoted to writing has gone…

The kitchen cabinets
I set out determined to clean both pantry cabinets and all the kitchen drawers, and I did. They are beautifully organized, old stuff has been pitched, and some goodies I’d forgotten I had have been used or scheduled for use in dinners or other delights. Some of you will no doubt think I’m sick, but cleaning closets and cabinets is really the only household task, apart from cooking and baking, that I truly enjoy, perhaps because it fairly screams, “Fresh start!”

The garden
We’ve spent considerable time enjoying our backyard garden and the roses and clematis that give our house the look of a little cottage on the Maine coast. Everything we planted, moved, replaced is thriving this year; all we need do is take the time to savor it. We added a climbing rose this week and hope it will be happy in the place we chose.

Long walks with Miss Pup
Our walks have been extra pleasurable on the sunny days that followed what seemed like ages of damp and dreariness. One of the things I love most about our neighborhood is that people are always out and about—kids playing on the green, mamas and papas walking their babies, and lots of other doggies taking their constitutionals. Everyone smiles; everyone waves. The world needs that.

My first Tana French
Faithful Place is a dark crime novel set in Dublin. Oh, my goodness, what skill with voice! This one is really hard to put down.

Strawberries
Our local berries, the real ones, bear no relationship to those big, tasteless California imports in the grocery stores. We’ve been devouring our local berries for over a week, both in biscuit shortcake mounded with real whipped cream and just out of the dish, unfettered.

Every now and then, I catch myself frustrated with how few tasks I’ve completed in the course of a day. Sometimes, I still feel unproductive or even a bit guilty. But really enjoying your #retired life isn’t about changing the sheets, is it?

Photo: In my history with azaleas, which goes back to childhood, this may be the fullest and most beautiful. I take no credit for planting or feeding it—that all goes to our “tree whisperer,” Don. I would have posted a photo of the strawberries, but they disappeared before I could say, “Cheese.” I did include a link to my favorite shortcake recipe, just in case you’re interested.

Rainy-day baking

Despite yet another gloomy day, I’m assuming that the pleasures of outdoor dining are just around the corner. We’ve had crazy weather for months, with the temperature spiking into the 90s long before it should have, then taking a 20-degree fall—sometimes in the space of an hour or two. I know I’m not the only one longing for a steadier state.

Yesterday started out an idyllic, sunny spring morning. Unfortunately, the sky had turned  a dull gray by noon. The rest of the day was bleak, with wind and rain during the night, and today it’s pouring. More gloom is expected for the holiday weekend. Still,  I persist with the optimistic view that we’ll be dining al fresco some time soon. At least some of the time, that means burgers on the grill.

Which brings me to the actual purpose of this post, to share my very favorite recipe for sandwich rolls. I don’t know about you, but I despise supermarket hamburger rolls. They’re full of dough enhancers, preservatives, and artificial flavors; they’re gummy and just about tasteless. Hubby calls this “chemical bread” in all its iterations, which is both pretty cute and pretty much on-target.

Since I love to bake bread, last summer I decided that we were done with packaged supermarket rolls and began looking for sandwich roll recipes on my go-to King Arthur Flour website. Beautiful Burger Buns, Click to link to the recipe. I discovered, are lovely looking, good tasking soft buns. I highly recommend this easy recipe if you prefer a very traditional soft bun—for example, for brisket sandwiches with an au jus, pulled pork, for Sloppy Joes or Wimpies or whatever-they-call that old reliable delight in your part of the world. Maybe even for a chicken salad sandwich. If you try this recipe, however, be mindful that it calls for a fair amount of sugar, which helps to achieve the lovely golden brown color. It’s a bit too sweet for my taste, so I suggest cutting back a bit on the sugar—perhaps from ¼ cup to two tablespoons, per King Arthur notes.

A few months ago, I noticed another KAF recipe, No-Knead Sandwich Rolls, on the KAF Flourish blog. I had a feeling, reading through the directions, that they’d be perfect, which they have been, without fail. They have a more European texture, with a nice airy “crumb.” They’re substantial enough to shape any way you want to—long, for example, for a sausage and pepper sandwich, or smaller than usual, for a dinner roll. Rather than repeat the recipe here, I opted once again to rely on the link, where you will find detailed instructions with photos. Don’t skip dusting them with flour—I’m convinced it helps to produce that lovely crust. Use a sieve, and dust each tray immediately after shaping. One other tip—although the KAF photos show different shapes on the same tray, I suggest doing all the round ones on one tray, and longer ones for hoagies (subs, to you folks who call them that) on another, just in case there’s any minimal variance in baking time. Check at 20 minutes—mine were sufficiently brown by then.

These rolls are truly worth the minimal effort. They’re good enough on their own, as a European-style breakfast treat with butter and jam. What’s more, they freeze beautifully. You can make them ahead (in the evening, perhaps, when it’s not so hot), cool them, and freeze them in a bag, then take out just what you need every time. For sandwich rolls, slice them as soon as they’re completely cool, before freezing. When you’re ready to serve, defrost on the counter and warm them up a bit, and they’ll be just as good as they were right out of the oven.

And here’s another plus—you can make the dough ahead of time, all in the same bowl, which means no mess on the counter— and refrigerate it after the rise. It will store covered in the fridge for up to seven days, which is true for no-knead recipes in general.

They say you shouldn’t bake on a rainy day, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather do to chase away the gloom. Once I heat up that oven, all will be well.

Notes:
I use the KAF dough bucket and KAF dough whisk when I make no-knead bread in particular. The bread bucket has measurements so that you can see when the dough has doubled in bulk. Plus, no mess on the counter! The whisk is great–the gooey dough doesn’t stick to it. I bought one elsewhere as a gift once, but the KAF is definitely superior.

I used my go-to KAF unbleached white flour for both, but there’s no reason you couldn’t mix it with white whole wheat, or add wheat germ or flax, for extra nutritive value.

 

Oscar, mother, and those jelly jars

I’ve loved The Importance of Being Earnest, one of dear Oscar Wilde’s funniest, since we staged the show in high school. Many of its epigrammatic quips have stayed with me all these years.  It’s possible that I like this one best:

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.
No man does. That’s his.

The value of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams cannot be underscored. Their essential truth, well cloaked in satire, sticks like chewing gum under the dairy bar counter. They grow with you. When I was 16, I thought this was just a funny line. When I was 21 and trying to assert my independence, being “like my mother” was the last thing on earth I wanted. When my own kids came along, I wondered if they’d be like me. By the time I was 40, I began to hope I was at least somewhat like her. And now, of course, I am—at least in one notable way.

Which is to say, my kitchen in fully of jelly jars. Specifically, Bonne Maman (“good mother”) jelly jars. Like Clark Griswold’s Christmas bonus, they’re the gift that keeps on giving. Whereas my mother saved commercial jelly jars for her own wondrous jams and preserves, I use the Bonne Maman jars for everything from baking soda to chopped onion to leftover sweet potatoes. I find they’re ideal not just because I’m a “brand loyalist,” but because the mouth is fairly wide, the lids are an adorable red-and-white check, you can easily see what’s in them, and they stack. More than that, Bonne Maman jams take me back to June in Provence, where Françoise, our charming hostess at Hôtel l’Hermitage, at breakfast served baskets of just picked strawberries and cherries from the orchards around Mt. Ventoux. Plus, as you’ve probably discovered, if it’s French or Italian, I’m in.

Recycling is always a good thing, and since many of us are trying to make the switch from plastic storage to glass, why not try some Bonne Maman—non-GMO, by the way—and put some of these great little jars to handy new uses?

Bon Maman