A Romanian Picnic

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Last summer we visited friends in Romanian village. One morning we set off to visit a salt mine and a spectacular gorge some distance from the village. We would have a picnic on the way. I noticed that the preparation for the picnic appeared to be a bag of cucumbers and green peppers from the garden, a metal grate, and a jar of mustard.
After touring the salt mine (another story) our hosts made a detour to a small market where they bought bread, sausages, and some paper plates. Off we set in the direction of the gorges. There were two vehicles packed with people, American visitors and villagers. Suddenly our hosts pulled off the road along a sloping meadow bordered by woods. We spilled from the vehicles, navigated over a ditch and a low fence to get into the meadow. Wild flowers were scattered across the field and a tiny stream flowed at the base of the slope. It was an idyllic setting
Within minutes the Romanians had gathered wood, found some rocks to hold the grill and had a fire going. Soon sausages were sizzling, the wonderful smell wafting across the grass where we had spread blankets for sitting.
When the sausages were cooked, slightly charred, the way I like them, they were wrapped in a slice of bread, slathered with mustard and devoured eagerly by the hungry group. ucumber spears and pepper strips, cut with a knife that appeared from someone’s pocket provided the vegetables. The food was delicious and it was the most memorable picnic of my life. DSCN1079

Tomatoes

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The season of fresh tomatoes will soon be over. By the time the tomatoes are this plentiful, I try to eat them every day knowing that once the season is done, the first freezing frost shrivels the leaves and destroys the fruit, I won’t have a tomato again until spring when the greenhouse starts producing. Supermarket tomatoes, bred for appearance and shipping/storage ability but without flavor just won’t do.
I eat them for lunch and for dinner. BLTs, sliced with salt and pepper, sliced with mozzarella and basil, cut up with cucumbers and a little Vidalia onion with a splash of basil vinegar. There are endless ways to incorporate them into a meal.
A great pasta sauce can be made in a few minutes, it tastes wonderful because it keeps the fresh tomato flavor.

FRESH TOMATO AND BASIL PASTA SAUCE
A couple of tablespoons olive oil
A clove or two of finely chopped garlic
Four or five fresh tomatoes
A handful of fresh basil, chopped
Pasta of choice

Heat oil in a large frying pan. Saute the garlic briefly in the oil. Add chopped tomatoes and heat through. Add basil, cook two or three minutes and serve over hot pasta.

I peel the tomatoes (easy when they’re fresh from the field) and take out some of the seeds to make the sauce less juicy. My friend who also make this never peels, he says peeling destroys vitamins.

Pickles Anyone?

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Our first summer in New England we planted cucumbers. Lots of cucumbers.
We had moved in the winter, from a tiny duplex apartment in San Diego to an old farmhouse on 11 acres of land. Room for a garden, our first. We tilled a large plot of land and proceeded to plant. Peas, beans, corn, potatoes, radishes, every vegetable we could think of and hill after hill of cucumbers, four plants to a hill. Our neighbor, in the taciturn way of many old Yankees commented that one hill would have been plenty.
By July the cucumbers were more than plentiful. It seemed important to use the bounty, thus began the summer of pickles. Max brought them into the house by the bushel and I studied my cookbooks for pickle recipes. Soon I was scrubbing, slicing, salting, and brewing vinegar brines. Dill pickles, sweet pickles, bread and butter pickles, pickle relish, and sour pickles. We had found more than 100 canning jars in the cellar of the house. They all had to be washed and then sterilized with boiling water before being filled. Some recipes also called for processing in a hot water bath.
Did I mention that we had three children under three and it was a very hot summer?
One recipe called for putting the cucumbers in a large crock, filling it with a salt brine and weighing them all down with brick placed on a large plate. This mixture was supposed to sit in a cool place for six weeks before the pickles were bottled, or they could be stored in the brine. I don’t know if it was the lack of a cool place (a corner of the kitchen) or not doing it right, but it wasn’t long before a white scum started appearing at the top of the brine. In the end that crock of pickles ended up on the compost pile.
It’s been a long time since I’ve made pickles but I have found a way to turn fresh cucumbers into a crunchy semi-pickle. I keep a mix of vinegar, water, sugar, and spices in a jar in the refrigerator. If I need a little something extra to jazz up a meal, I slice a cucumber into the brine before I start dinner. An hour in the brine gives a bit of flavor, a nice addition to a meal.

Fresh Cucumber Slices
2/3 cup vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1-1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
Spices or herbs of choice
One of my favorites is the addition of eight whole allspice berries and a half teaspoon of red pepper flakes for some bite. Or a teaspoon of mustard seed and a whole head of fresh dill seeds. The market sells packets of pickle seasoning, I haven’t used it but I’m sure it would also work.
I keep a jar of this in the refrigerator for weeks adding more vinegar if needed. I dip the slices out when I’m ready to use them and save the mixture for another time. it is a fast way to add a bit of bright flavor to a meal. The slices are also good in sandwiches.

Big news! My cast came off last week. For the next four weeks I will wear a small splint and do OT exercises to get strength and mobility back in my right hand. I managed to make a simple meal over the weekend after Max peeled some potatoes and cut up some veggies to go with the mixed baby greens from the orchard.
In addition to the steaks and pork chops with green beans or broccoli that Max does so well, Leah and Susan brought us some spicy chili and a great taco soup, Miranda’ stepmother Marianne brought us a perfectly cooked baked haddock and salad, and Aaron’s friend Nancy arrived with her traditional Italian Marinara and Bolognese Sauces as well as huge servings of lasagne.
Doug and Miranda invited us for a home-grown roast chicken dinner with potatoes and sweet corn harvested by Hunton from his garden. Aaron and Nancy served us an assortment of homemade salads on a warm night, including Aaron’s lobster salad (yummy). Susan and Matt had us for lovely grilled salmon, and last night we went to Alex and Bonnie’s for a feast of roast beef, roasted potatoes with rich gravy (I love gravy).
I had stocked the freezer with leftovers, meat loaf, chicken pot pie, and Stifado, the Greek stew that we love. Despite our disappointment with the restaurants on our travels, we have eaten really well! Nevertheless, I’m eager to get back to the kitchen before the fresh fruit and vegetable season is over.

This is the time of year for sweet corn but I can’t hold it to eat off the cob. Here’s a way to have it as well as using whatever other vegetables are fresh.

Corn Salad

4 or 5 ears of corn
1 red pepper, chopped
1 small zucchini or cucumber (or both)
1 medium Vidala onion (red if you like but I find them too strong)

Those are the things I’d start with and then add whatever I have on hand. A small chopped chili, celery, fennel root, a little crisp, chopped bacon, scallion, tomato, seeded and chopped, a good handful of fresh cilantro or basil.

Bring a pot of water to full boil, drop ears of corn into it and return to boil, then remove from heat, drain and run under cold water. Drain well and cut from cob. Place in large bowl and add other ingredients as desired.

Mix 3 tablespoons olive oil with 3 tablespoons cider (or flavored vinegar) and ½ teaspoon cumin. Blend well, add to vegetables and toss. Refrigerator for an hour to let the flavors blend.
or
Use a bottled dressing of your choice.

On The Road

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Max and I recently took a two week road trip to Michigan via Pennsylvania and Ohio, returning through Saulte Ste. Marie, and Ottawa, Ontario. One of the pleasures of travel has always been the opportunity to eat out.
With the exception of one lunch at Subway, we avoided fast food and chain restaurants. We like to take secondary roads, driving through small towns and enjoying the scenery. Sunday, in little town along Route 20 in northern Ohio we found an unimpressive little dairy bar/diner the only alternative to McDonalds. The ambiance was funky with 50’s memorabilia.
Frank Sinatra posters hung on the wall surrounded by old 78 records. One wall was lined with license plates from the 50s, another held old post cards. The women’s rest room held a huge photo of Marilyn Monroe and fancy 1950s dresses hung from hangers on the walls.
The room was full of cheerful people having a late breakfast or an early lunch. It boded well for the food and we weren’t disappointed. I had a perfectly cooked, hand formed, burger with grilled onions that tasted like the ones from Uncle Bob’s Diner in Flint, Michigan when I was a kid. Wonderful!
It was downhill from there. With the exception of meals eaten with family (my sister Beth’s meatloaf was winner) we were not impressed with the food.
One meal at white tablecloth restaurant we splurged on a tender but flavorless filet served with overcooked roasted potatoes and stringy asparagus. Whether at an upscale restaurant or a small town diner we were uniformly unimpressed and disappointed with the food.
We arrived home late one afternoon. I mixed a cup of ginger wine with a couple tablespoons of soy sauce and a teaspoon of sesame oil as a marinade for some boneless chicken thighs. After a couple of hours I simmered the thighs in the marinade and served with fluffy rice and lovely tender crisp green beans. We agreed that it was better than any of our expensive restaurant meals.
Cooking is definitely worth the effort.

Who Cooks?

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A fascinating piece in Sunday’s New York Times magazine has been on my mind all week.  Michael Pollan, who wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma, talks of the way his family’s meals changed when his mother started watching Julia Child’s television shows.  A lot is being written about Julia this week with the release of the new film Julie and Julia.

It reminded me of how much I was influenced by Julia. I’ve enjoyed cooking since childhood, mainly because I love to eat. By the time I was twelve I was cooking many of our family’s meals. (I got to skip the dishes) Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a Christmas gift in 1962 and quickly became my bible. In easy step-by-step directions it introduced my generation to new foods with herbs and combinations that were exotic and delicious.  Cooking became more fun.

Reading Pollan’s piece brought back many memories but I began to feel sad as he traces the demise of cooking with the explosion of cooking shows and celebrity chefs. He makes the argument that TV cooking shows no longer are “how to” but rather passive entertainment for a nation of eaters. He gives nods to America’s Test Kitchen and a few others but believes the shows are mostly carefully crafted by the food industry to sell more processed food (shortcuts) and food related items.

Pollan blames much of our obesity and poor diets on processed food filled with fat, salt, amd sugar, all are cheap and in various combinations are used in most of the food we buy. He suggests that the time and work involved in cooking once put a check on our appetites. He quotes a 1992 study showing that the best predicter of obesity was not income or social class but who cooked. In the end he says, if you want to eat less, cook it yourself. Eat whatever you like but cook it yourself.

There was so much more, I’d like to reproduce the article but instead I refer you to the source.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/magazine/02cooking-t.html?em

The owners in my condo complex take turns setting out the trash and recycle bins. When it’s my turn my compulsive habits get in the way. The instructions are explicit, No plastic bags! But there are always plastic bags mixed in with the papers and bottles! I can’t put the stuff at the curb without sorting out the bags and putting them in the trash. On the weeks when it isn’t my turn, I try not to look.
We first started recycling in Andover 45 years ago. Bottles were separated by color, green, brown, and clear. Cans had to have both ends removed and be flattened. Papers couldn’t contain any cardboard and, in the beginning, no glossy pages. Once collected, we had to load the bins into the station wagon and head to the town Dump along with our trash. Cast off household items also went, threadbare rugs, broken chairs, toasters that no longer worked, all went to the landfill.
Saturday mornings were eagerly awaited. One or more of our four sons would go on the dump run and the station wagon invariably returned bearing treasures cast off by some other family. The boys then happily spent the afternoon recycling their treasures. They might build a go-cart, add a lava lamp to their room decor, or disembowel a non-functioning radio, depending on what had been salvaged. Weeks or months later, these would go back to the dump to be replaced with other equally interesting bits and pieces.
Laura’s recycling habits today are worthy of a gold star. Bottles and cans go into a bin. A composting bucket holds any scrap of food that isn’t consumed and even the most minuscule piece of paper goes into a paper bag to be recycled. Not content to manage her own recycling, she keeps a close eye on the rest of the family and lets us know when we aren’t being diligent enough.
At the orchard we are doing our bit to Go Green by recycling, composting, growing “no spray” veggies, turning used oil into biodiesel to run the tractors, generating hot water via solar panels, and burning wood from old trees to heat the greenhouse.

DSCN2788Last night Miranda’s fans were treated to an evening of music. Along with her band and some guest performers, she kept the room rocking with an eclectic selection of songs. Each time I hear her sing I think back to 1990 when our daughter Laura, who was managing the orchard, often talked about one of her teen-aged employees, Miranda Henry. Laura called her “the little sister I never had”. We never guessed that she would one day be a much loved member of the Russell Family.
Listening to the music and watching our dear grandchildren proudly cheering for their mom in a room crowded with family and friends gave me such a feeling of happiness.

Strawberries are a sweet memory for this year but eating sun-warmed raspberries and blueberries directly from the bush is keeping us happy. With such an abundance, it’s time to make our favorite berry recipes and try out new ones.
Our friend Leatha in Michigan made this for us a number of years ago with berries freshly picked from her garden. She says that it’s an old recipe found in many cookbooks but for us, it will always be:
Leatha’s Blueberry Glaze Pie
4 cups blueberries
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup water
1 baked 8 inch pie shell
Whipped cream (optional)

1.Combine sugar and cornstarch, add water and 1 cup crushed blueberries. Cook over medium heat stirring constantly until thick and clear.
2. Remove from heat and cool until barely warm.
3. Place 1-1/2 cups of berries into pie shell and pour half the cooled mixture over them. Add remaining berries and filling. Shake to settle filling.
4. Chill at least four hours. Serve with whipped cream.

Surgery

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It’s been a very long time since I’ve had someone “taking care” of me. That is exactly what happened this week and I must say, it isn’t bad. I finally admitted that the arthritis pain at the base of my thumb wasn’t going to go away on its own and had surgery last Thursday. For the next month my right hand will be in a cast.
Max has been staying with me while he builds the guest house that will be his retirement home. He’s turning out to be an amazing caregiver. Cooking, shopping, laundry, vacuuming, he does it all cheerfully (and well). I might get really used to this!
I think dinner should be about 7:30, he thinks 5:00 is the right time. Now that he’s cooking dinner is very early but you can be sure, I’m not complaining.

Sunshine streaming through the skylight wakened me this morning. Oh happy day! It seems like it has been raining for months. It is a good day to start this blog.

It is the Fourth of July, the summer holiday that marks the beginning of the New England vacation season. The kids are out of school and the weather (usually) is hot making our lakes and coast a destination.

As a kid my family didn’t take vacations. My father got one week off from work and spent it at home resting but the Fourth of July was a big occasion. Mama would pack a big basket with potato salad, homemade bread, cole slaw, a berry pie, chocolate chip cookies and, best of all, fried chicken. Our fried chicken wasn’t coated with anything, this was long before KFC.

The day before the Fourth Mama would go to a local farm for a fresh chicken. The farmer picked one from many scratching in the chicken yard, a hefty hen that wasn’t laying eggs any more. Early the morning of the holiday, the chicken was simmered in a big pot of water until it was tender, then fried in butter until it was brown and gooey and chewy. I loved it.

The picnic stowed, we drove to a small lake not too far from home where we met aunts and uncles and cousins. They always arrived early enough to claim the choice picnic tables. We children swam and played on the tiny sandy beach. The men played horseshoes and catch while the women talked and relaxed. After eating we had to stay out of the water for an interminable hour.

At last dusk settled, we donned sweaters and snuggled on blankets ready for the highlight of the day, the fireworks. They were much too short and finally we packed the car and headed home, sandy, sleepy, but happy.

Socks

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I’ve just rummaged through my socks drawer to find something suitable for a warm Spring day. There are a couple pair of fleece socks that are hard to get on, thick fluffy orlon socks that will only fit with hiking boots or sneakers, thin short socks that I can’t remember how I came to buy, several pair of knee socks that, when worn under slacks always create static electricity so that whenever I walk, the slacks cling to my legs, and some low socks that cover just my feet.

Stuffed into the back of the drawer is a package with a ten pair of nylon panty hose, left from a dozen that I bought just before I retired nine years ago. The drawer is so full that I can barely open it but I still can’t find anything to wear.

These thoughts of socks reminded me of the years when our boys were growing up. The Sox Box, a cardboard carton sat on the dryer where all the socks got dumped as they came out of the dryer. I began by trying to match up pairs for their bureau drawers but by the time there were routinely two or three dozen unmatched socks, I gave it up.

In an attempt at organization I started buying each boy a different color but otherwise they were all the same. Black for Matt, navy for Doug, brown for Jason, and green for Aaron. It was their morning ritual to paw through the box looking for a pair.

Laura, our only daughter’s socks were more interesting and colorful. By middle school she had solved the missing sock dilemma by never wearing matching socks, even if she found them. Her friends soon followed suit. I thought of her last week when seven year old Cecelia arrived wearing mismatched socks. Another trend setter perhaps.

Mumbai

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I love to travel and I love to eat. I have memories of great food experiences around the world. India was one of my first ventures abroad. Through Servas, an international friendship organization, I was invited to spend a couple of days with a middle-class family in Mumbai.

They had servants who did dishes and cleaned the apartment but the mother and two adult daughters did the cooking. Mid-morning they brought bowls of vegetables, sharp knives and cutting boards into the living area. Sitting cross-legged on a sofa they spent the next hour chatting and chopping vegetables.

Mid-afternoon they followed the same routine. The meals were vegetarian and spicy, accompanied by hand formed chapatis, the whole wheat Indian flat bread that we used to move the daal (lentil soup) and vegetables from bowl to mouth.

Prior to my visit I had read carefully the importance of respecting Indian culture and knew that it was proper to keep the left hand under the table. The left hand is reserved for hygiene purposes, the right hand is used for eating. Curling the bread into a scoop, getting some soup to stay long enough to get it in my mouth was hard but even harder was getting the soft bread to scoop the vegetables and rice without it falling apart. They finally took pity on me and suggested that I use both hands.