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IMG_1565. . . or, who gets the thigh and other fowl parts.

 

I’ll get to the chicken parts in a moment – or when I figure out how to use this new layout WordPress changed to when I wasn’t looking. Having used the same format for over 10 years, I was quite comfortable with the way things were. My first few posts were small entries. It took me awhile to figure out how to add photos, change my banner, add favorite blogs and so forth. Eventually, I managed to figure it out, post most days, and found the process enjoyable while making many new friends along the way.

I liked things just as they were.

Lately, my posts have been sporadic. Life’s many distractions and challenges, social media and other activities have stolen much of my time – along with reading and maybe playing too much Tetris. 🙂 This week, I vowed to get back to posting more often and here I am – ready to fire up the keypad and finding a new format for posting just when I had a post to write. Oh, bother, as a certain bear would say.

“It’s th’ unblessed food that makes you fat.” – Puny Bradshaw Guthrie *

On to poultry politics.

My treasured friend, Sharon, who has enjoyed Jan Karon’s Midford books as much as I have, gifted me “Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader” for my birthday this past December. We finally met up for lunch a few weeks ago, where I squealed with delight when I received this book. I have been slowly perusing it ever since.

The book contains recipes from the Midford series with related excerpts from the books, kitchen tips, whimsical drawings and short essays from Jan Karon. It was in the pages of this gem that I came to a short piece entitled “Political Chicken” with the lead sentence observing that

         “. . . once it hits the table, friend chicken becomes highly political.”

Every part, it seems, has its target audience. From the drumsticks, which most often go to children, to the breast meat, which Ms. Karon finds tasteless, to the wings and the thighs. Even the back of the bird is considered, often eaten by the cook, so everyone eating gets a more appropriate piece, except for an elderly aunt who might prefer “the part that goes over the fence last“.

As children, my sister and I were always given a drumstick – and made to feel we had the most cherished part, and we could eat it in our hands. Recently, a younger man asked me to help him find chicken thighs while I was picking up chicken at the local grocery. Really. I’m at that point in life where my female mystique is relegated to chicken thighs, but, I digress and you already know that some of my more enlightened conversations are conducted at the grocers.

I’ve rambled and hopefully this will publish and you can tell me what piece of chicken is your favorite, or, if you have a chicken story.

 

 

 

 

 

*  Quote from the inside flap of  “Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader”  edited by Martha McIntosh

 

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The mixer poised, ready and willing, sat on the counter’s edge. Sifters and spoons, cake flour and powdered sugar – part and parcel to a plan to make kourambethes early the following Christmas Eve morn.

Keziah and I had been chatting away, as we often do, wondering what we would make for supper and what delectable treats we would bake next. I mentioned that I wanted to bake Greek powdered sugar cookies (kourambethes) and that I could use her help. Well . . . that quickly became an action plan to bake them early the next morning, with Kezzie suggesting that we bring some to share at church on Christmas Eve.

Keziah helped me make peppermint kiss cookies for a ladies event I would be attending when our Up North family visited at Thanksgiving. I was impressed over how precise and efficient she had become,  forming dough into cookies, molding them “just so”. in a way remarkably resembling that of my Yia Yia, so many years ago.

So it was that Kezzie sifted flour ( 4 or 5 times, Yia YIa,  really? ). The mixer whirred and blended the butter and egg yolks (Yia Yia, you can’t use just the yolks!). A taste of pinched off dough determined that we needed more sugar (Yia Yia, you can’t eat cookie dough!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I explained to Keziah that my Yia Yia could not read or write (oh, Yia Yia, everyone can do that!) which was why this recipe did not have precise measurements. I told her that this recipe was written down for me by my mother, who I called Ma (like Little House on the Prairie?) but Auntie Jenny and Kezzie’s Mommy called Yia Yia (could she read and write?). I replied that yes, she could, but that she did not finish 8th grade, nor did she read or write or speak Greek.

My sweet granddaughter, perched upon a stool, pinched and rolled with an uncanny ease for one so young. She lined the dough on cookie sheets as we talked and baked and tasted our results. Keziah did the work her Yia Yia couldn’t quite handle this year. We talked, she asked questions and we puzzled out family history. She reminded me to check the cookies in the oven and anticipated “dusting” the cookies with powdered sugar when it was time.

When we were done, 100 cookies were made, tins were filled, and Ezra helped us taste test – just to make sure they were good.

This recipe for kourambethes came to me like taking the long way home.

It begins for me with a young woman, Penelope, for whom I am named. She brought this recipe and others in her mind as she traveled down a mountain, more than a century ago, a donkey employed to carry their possessions. She came down the mountain and boarded one ship, then another and sailed across the ocean to New York, then traveled on to Massachusetts and finally Chicago. Her daughter-in-law, my Ma, wrote down what she saw and in time gave it to me. The measurements in saucers-full and baking until done.

This year, 2020, five generations strong, I will convert my cursive writing to print and provide more accurate measurements*, confident in the knowledge that a new generation is now becoming the keeper of family recipes, especially those that have traveled so very far.

  • My one true test of knowing when the dough is sweet enough to bake is in tasting the dough. Yia Yia would always pinch off a little piece of dough for my sister and a piece for me before she would start forming cookies to bake. This pinch is how I know they are sweet enough. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

 

 

 

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“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

A trip Up North usually, happily, involves a bowl, ingredients, stirring and baking and more than one cook in the kitchen.

Not hot buttered toast, nor contented cats, but, the quote is a favorite of mine, as are these two cherished charmers.


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This determined moonflower vine is clambering up and around our old, weather-worn wrought iron railing. It is twisting and turning and trailing, reaching upward and outward, fortifying itself with the stems and strength of nature’s own knots. A few small buds are hinting at the possibility of fragrant white flowers, which will be most welcomed some night soon. The vine, however, with its heart-shaped leaves, is a simple pleasure in itself.

I was sitting on our front porch, on a bright and glorious morning, and I could not help but reflect on the gathering we hosted the night before as I observed this trailing vine.

We were privileged to host a small gathering of members of our church community; young, and not so (Tom and I :)) and those in between. The bookends of life. We shared a meal amid the laughter of children, with a collective telling of stories, challenges, triumphs, gratitude and more. I love the communal conversation that often comes with the breaking of bread, just as I love the slow rising evening song of crickets and tree frogs as dusk becomes dark on a warm summer’s night.

So it was, the very next morning, that I found myself in a contemplative mood. I was perched on our weathered front porch, reflecting on the evening before and on the ways we reach out as a people, joining together like the stems of this moonflower vine. I thought what a fine day it was and of how fortunate I am for all who reach out and grab hold of me on this twisting and turning stem we call life – and of how grateful I am for all of you.

 

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So it is that a new year has arrived, with the midnight madness of fireworks, toasts and resolutions, the anticipation or anxiety toward the year ahead. I’m not much of a New Year’s Eve person. I never do resolutions, preferring not to set myself up for disappointment, instead feeling that each new day, with the first one of the year or the last one of any week, holds opportunities, much to be grateful for, sadness to hold in my heart and for joy to ripen like summer fruit into gratitude . . . on and on as each day goes.

Our Christmas was on the quiet side, with Christmas Eve church services and a Christmas Day meal at our daughter and son-in-law’s house with cherished family. Burrata and pesto slathered on crusty bread from Heather and Andrew and an amazing frittata from Suzanne whetted our appetites and was a recipe/tradition of her grandfather’s. Jennifer, always daring in her menus, served us the most succulent of meals: duck comfit with a pickled raisin sauce, lentils, potatoes and smashed Brussels sprouts. It took her days to prepare it – and mere minutes for us to consume.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Vase appeared, as did holiday cookies, pastries and Jason’s crullers – another family recipe.

 

Gatherings with others and quiet time, as well as moments of pure delight and those of poignant memories. Elegant meals as well as simple suppers, my mountains of Christmas books and the cheerful cards that came through the mail – it was a meaningful and lovely Christmastide.

My Antler Man and I dined in for New Year’s Eve – we usually do. A rare treat of steak and potatoes to celebrate year’s end, and some Belgium chocolate gelato for a wee desert. I baked and baked and baked some more this year. I don’t know where the flurry of flour activity arose from, but, it did and I will confess that it is rather nice to end the year, any year, on a “sweet” note. My pièce de résistance was a most delectable pork tenderloin on New Year’s Day. Gently stuffed with spinach and Swiss cheese, I topped it with cinnamon apples, baked in a very hot oven and ate with wild abandon. (Well, not exactly wild abandon, but, we did eat well 🙂 ).

So it is that a new year has arrived – and with it gratitude for each and every one of you that visits here on the Cutoff. I appreciate all of you and am humbled that you take the time to read my ramblings.

Thank you, one and all, and best wishes for a healthy, happy New Year!

Penny

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I knew I was in for a treat as soon as we opened the door. With a name like Copper Hen Kitchen and Bakery, I was intrigued which did not recede as followed the hostess to a table.. Walking past a bakery case under exposed beams and rough walls, the Copper Hen appeared to be a congenial spot and it was, indeed. The oversized napkins – more dish towel than napkin – added to the allure. That our daughter, Katy, had eaten there before with a friend and they thought I would like it touched me and added to my joy in the experience.

There was much on the menu that tempted me, but, the Farmhouse Salad had my name on it! I have seen many salads in my internet and cookbook wanderings of late with poached eggs atop. Poached eggs are something that you either like – or don’t (I do) and this was a perfect opportunity to try one on salad greens with roasted mushrooms, cashews, ricotta, nuts (I think they were cashews) and a light vinaigrette. I only wished I had ordered a side of toast, but, got along quite nicely as I “licked the platter clean” in this delectable farm-to-table restaurant in Minneapolis.

 

Sated, Katy and I left the Copper Hen and made the short drive to a bookstore I have been wanting to visit. I don’t remember who first suggested Birch Bark Books, but, if you are reading this, thank you, thank you. A sign on the door asked that visitors not take photographs. I will try to paint a picture in words of Birch Bark Books, a cozy, neighborhood independent establishment. Birch Bark is overflowing, in a warm and welcoming way, with a wide offering of books. From cookbooks to mysteries, outstanding children’s selections to poetry and books on nature, there is truly something for everyone at this unique shop, which also sells native artwork, jewelry, baskets, cards and much, much more. The store and is adorned with items that speak to the land and its people.

From Birch Bark’s website:

“We exist to keep real conversations between book lovers alive. We exist to nourish and build a community based on books. We are a neighborhood bookstore, and also an international presence. Our visitors come from Minneapolis-St. Paul, from every U.S. reservation and Canadian reserve, and from all over the world. We are different from all other bookstores on earth!”

Birch Bark Books is ” . . .  a locus for Indigirati — literate Indigenous people who have survived over half a millennium on this continent. We sponsor readings by Native and non-Native writers, journalists, historians.”  It is an amazing local establishment in which I felt both at home and in awe.

Birch Bark Books is owned by author Louise Erdrich. I invite you to explore Birch Bark’s website by clicking the link below to read more about the store, the interesting history of the building, an online shop and photos, which include the birch bark canoe that hangs from the ceiling of the store.

Of course, I could not leave Birch Bark Books without a book.

Have you read anything by Louise Erdrich?

 

https://birchbarkbooks.com/ourstory

http://www.copperhenkitchen.com/menu

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(This is a long story and a bit of rambling. If you just want the recipe for Greek onion stew, please just skip down to the recipe below.”

I don’t remember the first time I climbed onto the seat of a kitchen chair, opened the cabinet above the stove and slowly edged the Imperial coffee grinder from the shelf. I was old enough to know what it was and that I was to be very careful with it. It was a chore I would be asked to do many times in my youth . Each time I reached up for the grinder, I knew what my next chore would be – grinding the spices. I would instantly savor the scent that clung to the aged wooden edges of the grinder’s drawer and anticipate the aromas that would eventually rise from the slow, bubbling pot on the stove. This humble meal of meat and onion stew that would be scooped onto our plates come suppertime. 

The coffee grinder was part of my grandmother’s dowry. It still grinds quite well, however, it is showing its age after more than a century of employment, with nicks and bruises and the signature patina of aged wood. It was, I am told, first used for grinding coffee beans, but, that is family legend to me.

The grinder moved with my grandmother, from the large family two-flat on Congress Street to our small, suburban home in Maywood, then to a north side apartment. When Yia Yia moved in with my aunt, the grinder stayed with my mom who eventually gave it to me when Tom and I bought our first home.

Like many of the dishes and delicacies of my Greek family, there were no written recipes. Yia Yia passed away before I had a chance to gather measurements, though others transcribed many that have been shared. Oddly enough, stefado never made it to a recipe card, a slip of paper, an envelope – those pieces of all of our lives that record our favorite foods.

Stefado was a favorite of mine and I was determined to make it, especially upon discovering a recipe for it in a magazine. “Women’s Day”? “Better Homes and Gardens”? “Family Circle”?   I no longer remember where it appeared, but, find it I did and it used ingredients I remembered. I conferred with my aunt, who said the ingredients were what Yia Yia used and yes, she used pickling spices. Aunt Christina reminded me of the grinder, but, I was miles and miles away and so  – I just threw the pickling spices into the stew!

Have you ever bitten into pepper corns? coriander? mustard seeds?

The stefado tasted right, but, biting into those spices was no fun at all. I called Aunt Christina, frustrated at my results and piqued at the money I’d spent on the meal. She calmly said “It happens. You are just learning. Next time, make a small sack out of cheesecloth, put the spices into it, tie it with twine and put the sack in the pot. ”  As I look back, her advice was invaluable, but it was two words she used –  “Next time” –  that were a gift. Those words gave me license and determination to try again.

TADA!

That worked and I employed that method for several years until Ma came over to our house, carrying the ancient coffee grinder in her signature shopping bag. “Here, Penny. This is now yours. You make stefado and you are your grandmother’s namesake. This is yours now.” – and so, it was and still is, a treasured possession. I still use it, though infrequently, when I make this hearty Greek stew.

A week or so ago, with onions so prevalent and sweet at the markets and a longing for flavors of my youth, I stopped at Penzey’s for a fresh jar of their pickling spice and I picked up some stew meat at the grocery store. Once home, I retrieved the coffee grinder. It sits a shelf where I keep treasured cookbooks. I set the grinder on the counter and slowly, carefully, purposefully opened the little drawer on the bottom, whereupon my childhood rushed out to greet me, as if to say “Penny, what took you so long?”

I put a spoonful of the pickling spices into the top, slowly closed the slot and began turning the grinder, pushing the seeds past the blade and into the drawer below, just as I did as a young girl, helping my Yia Yia in this simple, methodic, fragrant ritual. I ground the spices and then opened the drawer and for a brief, magical moment I was a young girl again.

The onions and meat married in the stew pot with the sprinkling of spices and other ingredients in attendance. I pottered around, monitoring the meal in anxious abeyance, peeking under the lid, stirring my senses along with the stew. A loaf of warm crusty bread – and there we were, my Antler Man and me and this savory meal – and for a brief moment my family of origin was sitting right there beside me.*

Stefado (Greek Onion Stew) 

3 pounds of cubed beef (lamb, venison, or other meat can be used – I prefer beef)

3/4 cup butter (you can substitute oil)

1 1/2 pounds small onions (or larger onions cut into chunks – you want chunks so that the onions will hold up)

Ground pickling spice to taste. I use about 1 Tablespoon ground.  Salt to taste. You can use an electric coffee grinder or even a food processor to grind the spices, or put the unground spices in a cheesecloth sack and put directly into the pot. 

1 small can tomato paste. 

1 cup water plus a little extra water in tomato paste can to scrape any tomato paste left inside.

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

Brown meat and onions in butter, then add rest of ingredients. Stir well, cover, simmer until tender – about  1 1/2 hours

Can be made day before. Flavors meld and mingle and make magic IF you can wait until the next day.  

 

 

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