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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simple treasures: The best BLT ever

For a very brief time, Hubby and I owned a home in the triangle area of North Carolina. Although our plans to relocate there changed, we like to visit now and then. When we do, the one stop that’s always de rigeur is Merritt’s Store and Grill in Chapel Hill.

Apart from the fact that Merritt’s is a delightful, welcoming place, where both staff and customers always greet you with a smile, the truth is that it’s the home of the best darn BLT in the USA. Honest. With all the fancy restaurants in Chapel Hill, the only one that calls to us, every time, is Merritt’s.

I’m not sure what they do to make the BLTs so good, so remarkable; but I can tell you that you won’t be disappointed if you try one. They are brimful  with bright green leaf lettuce, a generous serving of perfectly crisped bacon, and big, beautiful tomato slices that taste great even when tomatoes aren’t in season. I’m not sure how they manage that.

And, of course, there’s mayo, and, yes, it’s probably Duke’s, which is a veritable institution down south.

The bread, made fresh daily at The Bread Shop is nearby Pittsboro, is great, too. My preference, sunflower, is another North Carolina institution. There are other possibilities, including a gluten-free option. You can add on to your BLT if you prefer—that Southern invention, pimiento cheese, or avocado, for example. In my humble opinion, however, adding anything to a Merritt’s BLT is gilding the lily.

And here’s another reason to visit Merritt’s. If you time it just right, you can enjoy some fantastic old-time fiddlin’, pickin’, and singin’. Check Merritt’s website—link above—or Facebook page to find out what’s going on.

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Nothing fancy—just good things to eat.

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The gang you can thank for those BLTs.

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.