Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dreaming, at age 26

Everyone's got to have a dream, right? Well, here's mine.

To put it simply, I want a farm like a Currier & Ives print: the little clapboarded farmhouse, the smoke rising from the chimney, weatherboarded barns and a flock of chickens in the yard. Squinting across the valley at this farm (not yet mine), I think about the life that would be possible here. Living in a city, you have to buy everything you need for your life. There are times when I'm perfectly okay with it: I do, after all, enjoy shopping. Then there are times (like today) when I struggle and wrestle with it. I feel confined, hemmed in.

And I'm really starting to sound like a popular song of the American West here:
Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don't fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
Don't fence me in.

And this one:
I've had years of cramped-up city life
Stuck like a duck in a pen.
All I know is it's a pity
life can't be simple again.

This is so American, isn't it? Wanting to strike out, shake off the dust, get out of Dodge? Aren't I just the biggest cliche, your complete, stereotypical rugged individualist case? Maybe. And I'll be the first to admit how much I idealize living in the country. I read my Wendell Berry books. I remember the joys of fresh eggs, the thrill of being prince of the apple towns. This place, this little farm in the valley, this is the place I've always wanted to get to. My whole life, almost more than wanting marriage and children, I've wanted a place.

And so, here's my dream: in fewer then five years, we will be turning the key in the door to such a place. It might be in Montrose, PA (where this farm is), it might not. But there will be room there, room for the chickens and the vegetable garden, woods and fields to be explored.

And maybe even some goats.

What are your dreams?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Winter on its way to spring

Yesterday was one of those February mental-health days. Every now and then, if you've been good, if you've stayed devoted to winter, you catch a spectacular break. You wake up one morning to beaming sunlight and twittering. From bed you can lay there and listen to the icicles drip. Making coffee, you're smiling, lost in deep contemplation of crocuses, or sandal wearing, or porch sitting. Yesterday was like that.

I smiled a lot. I did lots of thinking, and a fair bit of doing, as well. I walked around. I surveyed our yard, our compost heap, our flower beds, and envisioned things to come. I even remembered the tulips. It's a good time, spring. We all turn back to the land in our own little ways: we pay attention to what we hear and what we smell when we step outside, we take more walks, we let our toes run loose. I turn back to the land each spring with a downright religious zeal, ready to fall on my knees and worship the rich, brown dirt.

I'll let you envision that one for a moment.

Anyway. It was altogether fitting that yesterday also involved tea, neighbors, and a pile of seed catalogs. Our little community garden has been given the go-ahead for a second season, and I'm grateful. Before last spring, my neighbors Jen and Corrine were just the people who lived next door. Since then, we've planted together. We've weeded together. We've canned together. We've shared holidays, eaten brunch, and played board games on snowy afternoons together. We're friends now, all because of a common desire to grow a garden. It was lovely to spend the evening sipping tea and paging through those glossy, super-model shots of Celebrity tomatoes and Red Ace beets. The anticipation and the planning for spring are almost as good as the real thing.

It'll be here soon, and I can't wait to get started.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Transylvanian eggplant, ah ah ah!

Would you believe that, for once in my life I actually followed a recipe? I mean, to the letter. It took awhile for the realization to sink in, but now that it has, I think I'm okay with it.

The recipe is from a cookbook called Sundays at Moosewood. Sunday nights are International nights at Moosewood, and so this three-inch-thick tome is divided into chapters like Finland, New England, Provence, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Black Bread and Tomato Soup from this weekend's feast were from the Eastern Europe chapter. Seeing as how the book has only been in my possession since Christmas, (thanks Mom!) I'm looking forward to many happy years of thumbing those worldly recipes and making some tasty food.

Tonight, I was looking for eggplant recipes. Two huge gallon-sized bags of eggplant were occupying valuable freezer real estate, so I emptied one to make this. It's downright tasty!

Transylvanian Eggplant Casserole

6 cups eggplant, cubed

2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cups chopped onions
4 cups chopped mushrooms
4 medium tomatoes, chopped
3/4 tsp dried thyme
1 1/2 tsp dried marjoram
salt and pepper to taste

4 1/2 cups cooked rice
juice of one lemon
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tbsp pine nuts

4 eggs, well-beaten

1/2 cup whole-wheat bread crumbs
2/3 cup pine nuts, ground
3 tbsp vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread the eggplant out on a baking sheet, and slide it into the oven for 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile, start the rice cooking, and saute some vegetables: warm the 2 tbsp oil in a large frying pan. Cook the onions until translucent, then add the mushrooms. When they've browned and given off their lovely mushroomy juices, throw in the tomatoes and seasonings, and continue to cook, stirring, until the tomatoes disintegrate.

Add the lemon juice, parsley, and 2 tbsp pine nuts to the rice. Grease a 9 x 14 baking dish (the deeper, the better), and spread half the rice mixture in the bottom. Top with half the eggplant, then half the sauteed vegetables. Repeat the layers. Pour the eggs in on top of everything.

Bake, covered, for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Heat the 3 tbsp oil in a frying pan, and saute the bread crumbs and ground pine nuts together until lightly browned. After the casserole bakes for 30 minutes, spread the sauteed crumbs over the surface, and return it to the oven, sans lid, to bake for another 10 minutes.

Serve with salad and wine. Enjoy!

Oh, and the title is meant to be read in the voice of The Count from Sesame Street. Right.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Conchita's floss

Conchita Fernandez was my great-grandmother. I only remember meeting her once (she lived to be 103), but somehow she's become a bit of a hero to me. Maybe it's her lingering reputation as an excellent cook, and the tales of her lavish Christmas Day table. Maybe it's my fascination with the knowledge that she kept chickens in her tiny Manhattan apartment. It could be her penchant for planting every seed she could get her hands on, be they orange pips, avocado pits, or coffee beans. Maybe, her unbelieveably perfect satin stitches, her eye for color and pattern, her careful needlework. She was a freelance seamstress and embroiderer, completing monograms and buttonholes to supplement her family's income. My mom remembers her sitting in her special sewing chair, drawn up to the north window, passing the needle up and down very quick, from one hand to the other.

When Conchita passed away, my mom inherited a carefully twisted plastic bag filled with bright-colored emboidery floss. When I learned to embroider a few years ago, the bag came to me. Unwrapping those vibrant skeins of floss, it's hard not to think about all the life and creativity they served as part of her sewing basket. I considered stowing it away to be preserved as family history, to collect dust and never see any sort of use or purpose. And then I discarded that idea. With hoop in hand and a needle threaded with Conchita's floss, I find myself thinking long thoughts about this woman with whom I share so much. I think about her artfulness, her energy, her passions; I wonder at what her apartment really looked like. Were her kitchen walls dappled with the shadows of the lemon trees on the windowsill? What did it smell like? Did she hang Spanish paintings and a crucifix on the walls, and mourn the life she'd left behind?

I have no idea. What I do know, though, is that every little stitch is steeped in memory and meaning, something so important to her that hasn't been lost in time, something I'm carrying on: this simple thing that gave her joy.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Midwinter Feast

In addition to being a culinary collector, I'm a cookbook collector as well. I don't know if I have quite 101 cookbooks, lined up there on the (full) shelf in my kitchen, but I certainly have a lot. I have way more recipes than I could ever hope to prepare in the sixty or so more years I plan to live. They are tantalizing things, and often, perusing my cookbook stacks with a cup of tea, they inspire me into conjuring a menu. And what's the fun of conjuring a menu if you never prepare it? And, furthermore, what's the point of preparing a full dinner party menu for two people?


Hence, this menu was conjured, and yesterday it was prepared.

Black Bread:Bulgarian Spicy Tomato Soup with Dumplings (top picture)
Georgian Vegetable Torte (also top picture)
Stewed Mushrooms (not pictured)
Hot Apple Compote:

It all started with the bread. Who among us could bear to pass up a bread recipe calling for, among other things, potato, chocolate, rye flour, caraway, nutmeg, cinnamon, and coffee? It promised to be "as inviting as the twinkle of an eye," and, well, it was.

Other highlights included:

A husband who just won't cooperate (even with my mom!).

Lots of love time for Pete.

That's Patrick's Grandma, Pearle, in the picture. Starting next month, she's my boss. It's going to be my job to sit with her, keep her company during her long empty days, and listen to her stories. I'm looking forward to it: she's a spry old lady, still so full of wit and humor. She's someone I can try out recipes on, someone I can share my love of doing things by hand with. When she was growing up, doing things by hand was the only way to do them, without electricity or running water. I think I'll be learning a lot from Pearle.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chickpea Crepes

Patrick and I cook together a lot. I think it's a sure sign of a healthy relationship. In my mind, if you can navigate close quarters, recipe reading, and the little debates over exactly when to put in the rice without wanting to send your knives ricocheting across the kitchen at each other, you're in good shape. Patrick and I have never come to throwing knives in the kitchen, I'm pleased to report. We spend a lot of time there: from weeknight dinners to weekend breakfasts to big meals for family and friends, he's a willing and capable sous chef. It seemed fitting, then, that we celebrate our anniversary by cooking together.

These crepes will change your life. They changed mine. They are simple as pie to whip up (in a blender), and while you do it you can feel glamorous and tres chic, like Amelie. I love feeling like Amelie, I don't know about you. And once they're made, dainty little pancakes that they are, you can fill them with pretty much whatever leftovers you've got. Reliably, the leftovers too will be transformed from ho-hum to tres chic, and you will have concocted a perfect little fantasy world merely by following this recipe. Enjoy!

Chickpea Crepes

2 cups warm water
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chickpea flour (check the international section of the supermarket)
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Put everything in the blender. Turn it on. Scrape down the sides once or twice, and let the batter rest about twenty minutes.

Pick the smallest non-stick frying pan you've got, and put it on medium heat. Tip a dab of olive oil onto a paper towel, and wipe inside the pan. Once the pan's hot, measure out a quarter cup of batter. Take the frying pan in your right hand, and take the cup of batter in your left. Pour the batter onto the pan, turning it as you do so the batter covers as much of the pan as possible. It's all kinds of fun to make those first silly-looking lopsided crepes. They'll taste just as good as the perfect ones, I promise. Cook until golden-brown on the bottom, then flip, and cook another minute or so. Repeat with the rest of the batter; this recipe makes about 12-15 crepes.

For filling last night, we used a combination of sauteed onions (lots), sundried tomatoes, cauliflower, and chopped green olives. It was pretty good.

A brief FYI: olives go really, really well with this recipe.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Three years ago today...

We've only been together three years, and already that picture seems like so long ago. My parents took it, on the day Patrick met them for the first time. (Can you tell by his nervous little smile?) We'd been dating two months, and I was pretty sure I was going to marry him. I'm happy to say, I was right.

It all started with Myspace. Out of the blue, he up and introduced himself. Now, I guess I had a cute Myspace picture or something, because I'd received a fair number of messages from guys on Myspace, usually heeeey baby, your hot, wanna chat? Patrick's was totally friendly, respectful, confident, and smart. I was impressed. Impressed enough to check his profile, where I beheld:

Interests: playing guitar, writing music, fixing up houses.

This is the point at which I had to go lay down. I confess: I am a woman who loses all reason when she sees a man with a guitar. I've wanted to knock boots with almost every single guitarist I've ever met. I took a few deep breaths, and did what any normal girl would do: I called my mom.

I read Mom his email, and immediately she knew what to do. She told me to marry him.

(I should point out here that my mom had never encouraged me to even go out with any other guy, ever.)

So. Eight days and three more emails later, we had our first date. That was today, three years ago. I enacted every stereotypical nervous female behavior there was: the long shower, the preening, the endless procession of skirts, dresses, jeans, and sweaters I stretched into and out of, in front of the mirror, frowning, before finally deciding what to wear.

Now, the thing about Myspace is, you're able to learn so much about a person before you even meet them. I already knew his favorite bands and favorite movies, and that he liked good wine. It's convenient, in a way. You have plenty of ready-made conversation starters. However, it can also make the stakes incredibly high. I am queen of preconceived notions. In my mind, here was the situation: tonight, I am going on a date with my ideal future husband. He is not only a vegetarian, a dog owner, and house fixer-upper, he's a musician, too. And, I thought, I have to try my best not to blow it, because if I blow it, there he'll be, my ideal future husband, scared off, never to come again.

The funny thing is, for once in my life, the only time in my life, my preconceived notion worked out. Our first date led to another and another and another, until I lost count. In addition to the stuff I read on his Myspace page, (which is all pretty trivial, when you think about it), he is the kindest, most dependable, smartest, specialest, goofiest guy I've ever known, and every day I know I'm lucky to have him.

So. That's our story. Thanks for reading. :)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Re-fashion #2: denim skirt

Meet skirt. Skirt was picked up, by me, at a thrift store probably four years ago. Skirt has never been worn. Skirt is a lovely J. Crew denim, worn irresistably smooth and soft from years of wear (by someone else) but alas, skirt is just a tad too tight for me.
Correction: was too tight.

This project didn't take quite as much courage as my shirt from two weeks ago. There was no cutting involved. I just applied my trusty seam ripper to the middle seam, inserted a tapered panel of fabric, and sewed it back up again.

The patches helped distract from the insert. The poppy-printed scraps were leftover from an earlier project, and I'd been squirreling them away to use on something for myself. This was the perfect chance.
I spent many happy hours in my arm chair, listening to This American Life podcasts and executing rows of perfect little blindstitches along the edges of the patches. I looove hand sewing.

Now, roll on warmer weather, so I can actually wear my refashioned goodies!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Friends and food

Who remembers this kid?

Back in October, we traveled to Vermont to visit him and his Mama and Daddy. Yesterday, it was our turn to host.

The house was clean for the first time since Christmas. The late-afternoon February sun slanted in through the windows, and the (just washed) lacy curtains. I had a good excuse to cook up a big feast, and so that's where I was: in the kitchen, surrounded by steaming pots, watching Monroe chase Pete around, enjoying our guests.

The menu:

Chips and homemade salsa (the non-insane variety)
Curried Coconut Green Beans
Vanilla Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Harvest Stuffed Squash
Apple Brown Betty with Rum-Fruit Compote and Vanilla ice cream

All recipes, except for the salsa and the sweet potatoes, were from my oft-praised kitchen bible, Moosewood Celebrates. I'm getting to the point where I've made just about everything in it: from the Chocolate Pudding Cake to the Mexican lime cumin slaw to the Potato Pancakes can be found in that cookbook. It's the first place I turn when folks are coming for dinner and there's a menu to conjure.

Thanks to Jeff and Sarah for spending the day with us, and to Monroe for rocking those red overalls. We had a great time.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day

Pete, will you be mine?

My husband and I have a boycott on Valentine's Day. I know that's sort of bah-humbug of us, but let me list our reasons:
  1. We have a sincere aversion to all things pink. (Sorry Sarah!)
  2. Once you get past the undeniable sweetness of Valentine's Day in elementary school, what is the day about? Consumerism, and high expectations. How many of us have gotten into fights/been really disappointed with our sweeties on this day?
  3. How many of us have sat at home in our single days and stuffed our faces and cried?
  4. Patrick's and my anniversary is February 18th. Why celebrate hokey, contrived Valentine's Day, when our own anniversary is only four days away? Stay tuned for a sweet, lovey post on Wednesday.

And for all you who do celebrate Valentine's, have a great one! I hope there is chocolate involved.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Comfort food: Potato Pancakes

You're going to see lots of potato recipes in this space for the next couple of weeks. My bins of potatoes in the cellar, still mostly full, are sprouting feelers. It's sort of akin to an alien encounter: pulling back a layer of newspaper to behold denizens of inert brown lumps sending up great thickets of ghostly white sprouts. Like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde case, who would've ever suspected that meek, supplicant potatoes had this vigor, this wild streak? Well, I knew, but I thought I still had a few months before my taters morphed into a vegetable freakshow.

Well, shucks. It's a lucky thing, at least, that potatoes don't wear out their welcome nearly as quick as some of the other crops we've tried storing and ended up having to eat in a rush, spurred by their imminent decay. You remember this coleslaw, right? Same idea. For a month, we ate cabbage with every meal, I swear. Potatoes, at least, have more universal application.

Last night I made these potato pancakes, and ate them with lots of sour cream and applesauce. A warning to those without a food processor: prepare to get mighty friendly with your box grater.

Potato Pancakes, with a twist

3 cups peeled, grated potatoes (russet are best)
1/2 cup grated onion

Combine in a bowl, then wrap in several layers of paper towel and squeeze like your life depended on it. Watch the potato water run down the drain. This step ensures crispy pancakes. Return the potato-onion mixture back to the bowl.

2 eggs
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
black pepper to taste

Add this stuff to the potato mixture, and stir until well combined. Divide the mixture into three equal portions, putting each into its very own bowl. To bowl number one, add:

1/2 cup peeled, grated beets

To bowl number two, add:

1/2 cup peeled, grated rutabaga

To bowl number three, add:

1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
2 tbsp minced fresh dill

Begin heating a 1/4 cup of vegetable oil in a big frying pan. When a drop of batter sizzles in the pan, spoon the batter, a 1/2 cup at a time, into pancake-shaped lumps. Flatted with the back of a spatula. Be patient while they cook: it'll take about five minutes to fry each side. Flip them once, and cook the other sides, then let them drain on a paper-towel lined plate. Repeat with remaining batter.

Serve smothered in gobs of sour cream and applesauce.

I really love how pretty these guys turned out. Fancy enough for company. Of course, if you don't have (or don't want to bother with) rutabaga, beets, and fresh herbs, you could increase the amount of shredded potato by about 1 1/2 cups, and make straightforward potato pancakes. They'll still be absolutely delicious.

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