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Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

I just ate a book.

IMG_7116Well, I didn’t really eat it; it was more of a pleasurable chew on a good book.

Robin Mather’s book, “The Feast Nearby”,  had been napping on my bedside pile for so long that I wondered if it had  started to ripen. It is one of those books whose cover called to me in the gift shop at the Morton Arboretum. Actually, it called to me on several occasions until I finally gave in to temptation, figuring it had fewer calories than a bar of chocolate. (I can rationalize anything, especially a good looking book.) I plucked it up and brought it home, where it languished, as books often do. It even posed for a photo shoot once before.

After a very busy week, I was ready to slow down a bit and take a bite into Mather’s book, which I did in three delectable sittings.

The full title of Robin Mather’s book is “The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, eating locally (all on forty dollars a week).  A mouthful. Just typing it makes me hungry.

Robin Mather’s book is about her personal journey of discovery after simultaneously losing her job as a food reporter for the Chicago Tribune during the cutbacks a few years ago and her husband asking for a divorce.  A native of Michigan, she returns to their small cabin on Stewart Lake in Western Michigan, with Boon, her dog, and Pippin her parrot, determined to live locally on $40 a week, which she chronicles engagingly in her essays.

“The Feast Nearby” is just that; a book filled with the nourishment close at hand. It is of personal stories about fireflies and cheese, chooks and coffee production, with insightful information on eating locally, canning and preserving, bartering and knitting. Robin Mather writes in  a humorous, friendly, conversational style; one that invites the reader in for a cup of coffee whose beans were roasted in her own kitchen, laced with real cream that she has skimmed from the top of milk.  It is not preachy, nor did it leave me intoning mea culpa over what I purchase or eat. Instead, “The Feast Nearby” invited me, and will you as well, to explore the foods and the services that are closest to us and our tables.

This book is a written invitation to become a locavore.

The bonus? Dozens of recipes for real strawberry shortcake, homemade yogurt and cottage cheese, canning techniques, hunting for morels and finding the best bramble patches. Why, there is even a recipe for knitting a snug cap, which Mather does for Wally, a friendly neighbor who buzzes about the lake helping his neighbors, except in winter when he is busy ice fishing, hence the newly knit hat.

To add to the pleasure of easy, nutritious, recipes with what one has on hand (or in pantry), there is a wonderful conversion chart in the back. I now have an easy find, right where my bookmark is, to convert the recipes of my blogging friends from around the world who tempt me with their delectables.

To say that “The Feast Nearby” is a gentle read would only be half the reason to open this book. It is also a cookbook that follows the midwestern seasons. One does not need to live in the midwest, however, to know the value and pleasure of eating what is growing nearby and of putting up, away, or by for the lean months – or how gazpacho really is better for the palate and the body on simmering, hot days.

A gentle read.  A user-friendly cookbook.  A dash of humor and a dusting of hope. What more can be had from “The Feast Nearby”? Well, each chapter has whimsical titles, such as On snapping turtles and strawberries  or On cicadas, sweet corn, and the pleasure of a job well done. There are locals with whom Mather barters with – and befriends – and reasons for buying Jiffy Cake mixes; even though she bakes from scratch and the flour is harvested elsewhere. She buys the mixes because they are manufactured in a nearby town, providing jobs for many, which has prompted me to check labels and seek products that are manufactured closer to me.

My friends,  you will enjoy this book.

While I gorged myself on its pages in just three days, don’t be afraid to taste it for yourself, for it is a worthy grazing feast that can be picked up at any chapter and read with ease. When I get up from my easy chair, I will find a proper spot in my cooking queue for “The Feast Nearby”, sandwiched among my favorite ladies; Gladys Taber and Ina Garten, Betty Crocker’s “Kitchen Gardens” illustrated by Tasha Tudor and my 43-year-old dog-eared, gravy stained, batter spattered copy of the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook”.

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DSCN7068“When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender, of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”
― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

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Say, di ‘ja ever come down an old stair well

‘n shiver from your head to your toes
While your Pop shook up the fire
‘n your Mom warmed up your clothes?

Then have your eyes jump with surprise
As you looked beneath the tree
‘n everyone shoutin’ and hollerin’ around
‘n the whole house filled with glee?

Did ‘ja ever know how good an orange tastes,
when you ain’t had on fer a year;
Then find one in your stockin’, with a note,
“For Sonny dear?”

. . . from the poem, Country Christmas, by Cody Paige, which can be found in its entirety here.

Do you come from a tradition of Christmas stockings? Did your stocking, or your children’s, have an orange in it, or, nuts in their shells? Do you put out oranges, or any fruit, as part of your seasonal celebrations?

 

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Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!

Ah, but I did catch him. I spied him hiding in between vintage china and gently used baubles on a table in one of the booths of the La Grange Antique Mall, looking DSCN6955 - Version 2rather handsome with a plaid ascot around his chubby brown neck. Right then and there, before he could run away, I snatched him up, thinking he might feel right at home on a plaid tablecloth tucked in away in drawer.

As I roamed about the mall, I eyed a small plastic bag filled with tiny boxes wrapped in plaid paper and gold ribbon and an idea for a holiday tablescape was born.Santa holding gingerbread

Over the next few weeks, as I wrapped presents, baked goodies, adorned the trees and tabletops, little bits of plaid pleasure emerged, including a box that Dottie and Rick gave us last Christmas, with a Santa glittered and garbed in PLAID! It wasn’t until I placed the jolly old elf on the table that I realized he was carrying two gingerbread men.

How fortunate it was to then remember a simple candle idea I had actually bookmarked. I mentioned it to my Antler Man whose mind was in sync with mine. Lickety split, up he came from the root cellar, carrying a box of small canning jars.

Penelope's ProgressOn and on it went; Penelope’s progress in pursuit of plaid. The cloth was laid and a cookie tin appeared. Cranberries rolled out of the refrigerator. The little plaid napkins I purchased at T.J. Maxx for half off of half off of the price some long ago Christmas past found their way to the table as well.

The pièce de résistance was to be had among my collection of Penny Books. Rather vain, I know, but, really, with a name like Penelope, books with my name in the title are few and far between. There, sitting atop my dresser, was none other that “Penelope’s Progress” clothed in a tartan wrap. A bit of irony is that I discovered it many moons ago in very same antique mall where I captured the gingerbread man.

It is nice, is it not, when a little light shines into our lives, gifting us in the simple pleasures among the rescued treasures along this road we call life?

 I hope you all had a merry little Christmas and for those of you celebrating Boxing Day today, enjoyment. Wherever your heart and spirit is, I hope a little light shines – and you catch your own gingerbread man.

Candle Jar

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DSCN6911Pinching and rolling, as the sweet aroma emanated from the oven, I thought of my childhood, my Yia Yia, and the trail of powdered sugar that has followed me all of my days – and well into Monday night as I baked kourambethes.

Kourambethes are the delectable Greek powdered sugar butter cookies.

As I formed the dough, trying to keep the balls uniform in size, my earliest memories drifted in like the sweet powdered sugar of my childhood home. Many-a-morning,  I would slowly awaken to the distant whir of a motor. Opening my eyes, I would find our bedroom door closed and I would know by the sound that the “mixmaster” was spinning and kourambedes would soon be baked.

My grandmother, Yia Yia,  insisted that the “sweet butter” and confectioner’s sugar be beaten for an hour. I’m sure it heralds back to the time before electric mixers were common appliances and the women took turns hand turning the dough. I know it isn’t really necessary these days, with the power of a KithenAid, but, I beat the butter for an hour just the same.

Yia Yia once sent me to the neighborhood corner store, Fred and Ed’s, for sweet butter, which I could not find.  Returning,  empty-handed, she sent DSCN6902me back. I returned, near tears, Fred telling me he had no such butter. Aunt Christina saw me from her kitchen window; going to the store,  leaving the store, crossing the street, and taking the sidewalk that connected our two houses to our back doors. Back and forth she watched me obediently pass. Her house was the corner house with a clear view to Fred and Ed’s opposite her house.  She finally stopped me and asked what I was doing. “Yia Yia wants sweet butter, they don’t have any, but, she keeps sending me back”. My aunt explained that sweet butter was DSCN6903another name for unsalted butter. She  told me the color of the box I needed to find, then waited for me to once again enter the corner store – and finally finding the sweet butter!

So  . . . back to my baking, pinching and rolling my memories. My handed down recipe for kourambethes calls for a saucer of powdered sugar and 5 or 6 cups of “Swandsdown” cake flour, sifted three times. The only way I can tell if the mixture is ready to bake is to taste a pinched piece. Yia Yia always pinched off a small bit of dough for us to taste as children, and that is my true measure, to this day. Once the dough past the taste-test, the baking began. The scents and flavors of my life wafted from my childhood to that of my daughters, one of whom asked me if I would make kourambethes again. . .

. . . and so, I did. With sweet butter.

Were you ever sent on an errand for an illusive ingredient?

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DSCN6842 - Version 2Tom’s one week post-op eye appointment brought good news; the eye is healing well, better than expected, actually, and especially considering all he and his eye have endured. With a few less eye drops to be administered daily, we remarked on how nice it was to be given 30 minutes back in our days.  We both said “Merry Christmas” for it was a gift, indeed, and felt just a wee bit of weight lifting from our shoulders.

As I backed the car from its parking nest, I mentioned that it was closing in on the noon hour and wondered aloud if Tom would like to have a nice lunch to celebrate the good news at Francesca’s in Forest Park?”.  Cleaning out my wallet a little earlier, I came across a gift card I had been given as a thank you for someone I helped out a few winters ago. The Francesca restaurants are a delicious chain of Italian restaurants across the area and Francesca’s Fiore in Forest Park was on our way home.

As we looked for a parking place along the busy, city avenue, it seemed the only option was a paid city lot.  It’s hard to haggle over such things when lunch has already been paid, so, into the lot I turned, parked the ever faithful mocha VW with latte interior (I’m going to miss this caffeinated car some day). Tom, with those blackened glasses one needs to wear after cataract surgery, and I looked about to pay.  Perplexed, we wandered a bit when Tom of the afore-mentioned glasses and dilated eyes, said “it’s free“.  There was the payment post, all wrapped up like a present, informing whomever that Forest Park was lifting their parking fees during the month of December. As we walked, we saw meters up and down the street with their meter mouths all taped up, on a coin diet for the season,  and our steps were just a bit lighter at this gesture – a gift of free parking. Quite a nice municipal gift, don’t you agree?

We had such a delightful lunch, chatting and chewing and caressing the moments of bliss on a cold but sunny afternoon with good news, good will, and good food the generous gifts of the day, all reminding me that gifts aren’t always those wrapped up in pretty paper with bows.  They are the simple gifts of life. My wish is that you find one of them today.

 

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photo-2I’m sitting here, basking in the post-Thanksgiving glow, which is almost as golden as Thanksgiving itself. Who needs Black Friday?! Most of the remains of the day are put away, though glasses that held wine and Grandma’s Coronation silver-plate still need to be put in their designated drawers and cabinets. That can wait, for I wanted to share this most excellent, someday heirloom, photo of my oldest grandnephew, Scott, who will turn 11 on my 65th birthday, next week. Here he is, cheerfully demonstrating that while he will never quite catch up to me in age, he has already done so in height. Way-to-go, Scott!

Isn’t life grand?

Our turkey was golden, and the fresh cranberry relish that perfect combination of sweet and tart. Niece Heather’s roasted potatoes were simply sublime. Nephew Andrew gave our blessing, then plates were passed and stories flowed, Jennifer and Jason soon joined us, slipping in from another family engagement, and all felt right in this day of gratitude.

Marilyn asked if I would share a recipe, and so, I thought I would.  The cranberry relish is documented here, and has been a mainstay in our menu for three decades.  My turkey, well, my turkey is usually quite delicious, but, no special ingredients or methods, I just season and roast. If a few drops of white wine are around, it usually finds itself in the gravy.

This year, I decided to make Ina Garten’s Green Beans and Shallots for our vegetable and for its color. Ina never disappoints, and she doesn’t with this easy recipe.  As you may know, I’m an Ina Garten groupie with Barefoot Contessa cookbooks lined up like the kitchen guard (though there is just enough room for her latest book, in case anyone is pondering pleasing me for my afore-mentioned birthday).  It was actually our Jennifer who first made this dish, however, and it is now a favorite.  I did use the French string beans, as they rose to my attention at the market, but, I’ve used regular as well and they work just fine. I did the parboiling and set aside earlier in the day, so, just needed to store up with the shallots just before we sat down. I did not salt the water, but, did salt the pan for the shallots – and I parboiled longer that 1 1/2 minutes.

Green Beans and Shallots

1 pound French string beans (haricots verts), ends removed (can use regular string beans)
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon good olive oil
3 large shallots, large-diced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Blanch the string beans in a large pot of boiling salted water for 1 1/2 minutes only. Drain immediately and immerse in a bowl of ice water.

Heat the butter and oil in a very large sauté pan (12-inch diameter) or large pot and sauté the shallots on medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes, tossing occasionally, until lightly browned. Drain the string beans and add to the shallots with 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper, tossing well. Heat only until the beans are hot.

(from the Barefoot Contessa Family Style)

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