Friday, June 21, 2013

DinnerLove: Fish Hash



(Huhm-buh-l) adjective, hum·bler, hum·blest, verb, hum·bled, hum·bling. adjective
1.  not proud or arrogant; modest: to be humble although successful.

Humble is a great word. It rhymes with such charmers as bumble, stumble and crumble. Perhaps it's definition is what makes it such a standout. In a world where elementary school children sport "bling" and carry expensive cell phones, Humble has been forgotten in the pile of elderly and obsolete phraseology. People seldom behave in a Humble manner these days. Shocking conduct is routinely splashed across the gossip rags that line grocery store shelves. 

Humble is without a doubt out of fashion.

I, however, see Humble as a reliable partner. Combined with Strength and Confidence, Humble provides a catalyst that can lead to the path of success. As an amateur Historian, I believe that the Victorians used this Humble formula in the most efficient and effective manner.  Buoyed by scientific breakthroughs and astronomical economical accomplishment, Victorians thrilled to new ideas like Spiritualism,bicycling, day trips and ice cream. Through this modernity, however, the rigorous and unyielding class system remained intact, but servants weren't the only members of society who lived a Humble life. Even the most powerful industry chiefs managed to stay Humble while still flashing outlandish displays of wealth and prestige, perhaps knowing that everything in life is vulnerable and can be swept away in mere minutes.

Victorian cooks embraced Humble. Serving a magnificent roast for Sunday dinner, they continued to use the meat throughout the week, transforming the large cut into salad, hash and soup. The next Sunday, they'd start all over again. A wonderful television series was made in the 1980's that walks  modern folks through the daily life of a Victorian kitchen. This series is a wonderful experiment caught on film and will make anyone grateful for even the most annoying, antique or ragged 20th century kitchen:

Farming is a Humble occupation. Some might take offense with that idea, seeing Humble as a degradation or insult. Really, though, many occupations could be described as Humble or certainly Humbling. Farming is a little different. Daily, Farmers are hand-in-hand with dirt, manure, after-birth and innards. Each day can bring the joy and heartbreak that is firmly tied to the whims of nature and the wisdom of choices. 

Today, my tomatoes made me Humble. They stand bravely in the windy field, silently accusing me of planting them too early in this northern region. The empty row of green beans that were lovingly planted, but never germinated seems to stare reproachfully at me, accusing me of perhaps planting them too deeply. The bolting onions wave at me; unwelcome blossoms Humbling me. I had no power over the mercurial hot-to-cold weather that produced the premature flowering, but I still felt responsible.  My basil Humbled me too. Only 4 inches tall and already going to seed. I pinched their tops back, scolding them. 

"You're too little to make seeds", I tell them, wagging my finger at them. " I need a freezer full of pesto for the winter. You have a lot more growing to do. Now get to it!"

I wandered over to the beehive after putting the basil in it's place. I felt instantly better. Our Sweetbees can always be counted on to provide a thrill of success. The now 2-story hive was humming with activity. The previous week's addition of the second story showed heavily honeyed frames and countless healthy bees.

It had been a long day of weeding, mowing and mulching. Our kids had helped with the day's chores and everyone was tired. 

Dinner loomed. It was rare that I didn't look forward to creating meals, but today was one of those days. Driving home sore and sunburned, I racked my brain for nutritious options. There were potatoes in the cellar and two packs of Tilapia fillets in the big, upright freezer. Riding next to me in the passenger seat, my son held the two bolted onions, still covered with dirt. 

Suddenly, it hit me. Hash! Fish Hash!

Hash is just a medley of ingredients thrown in a pan and stir-fried. It's a great choice when there is not enough of each separate item to serve them alone. The leftovers -if there are any- are even better.

Winter'Rest Farm Fish Hash

5-6 white potatoes, boiled and cubed

4-5 Tilapia fillets
2 green onions, sliced.
Evoo and butter
Salt and pepper

Heat a large skillet. Melt the butter and evoo. Today, I used 3 TBSP of butter and a 1/4 cup of evoo. The evoo helps the butter reach a hotter temperature without burning, and the butter is a key part of the final flavor.
Toss the potatoes in and brown them on medium/low. Remove. Add the fish and brown. Don't worry if it flakes and breaks. That's what you want. Add the bottom of the green onion and continue to cook. Add back the potatoes and toss. Sprinkle with the green tops of the onions and serve. Delicious.

Hopefully, in the very near future, I will be able to use our black bass to make this meal. In the meantime, I will use what I have to produce a hearty, filling, and tasty meal for my family. 

Humble comes in all packages. Fish hash is only one, but it will satisfy your spirit and fortify you for the coming day- and Humble will help you through.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Breaking wrenches

There are days when I find myself bemused by the wicked sense of humor the Universe can show me from time to time.

"Hey!" It bellows from the heavens, lobbing It's celestial curve-ball at me, "catch THIS!"

"This" turns out to be shaped like a wrench. With a monkey attached.

Stretching out, I grasp for the unexpected missile. On this day, I manage to catch the end of it as it sails past my head. I grapple and juggle with the monkey-wrench as I try to gain a purchase on the stinker. Finally it comes to rest in my hands. I look at it with disgust.


Farming is a daily hopscotch of ups and downs, punctuated with some slippery sideways maneuvers. And we're just getting started. Our livestock are fish and honeybees. There's only so much trouble they can get into. There are no large animals to be up all night with while we wrestle with mastitis or colic or complicated, messy births. We have no house on the farm, nor is there any electricity to run the invisible home. The only running water is that which continually flows down the hill following the incessant spring rainfall.

At times I feel like such a newbie that it is painful. The monkey-wrenches pile up in the proverbial corner, having been vanquished and neutralized. I wonder if there is a monkey-wrench limit in the Transcendental General Assembly's Rules and Regulations.

There are lots of cliches written about this phenomenon: "life isn't fair" or "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" or "that's the way the cookie crumbles". That last one is my favorite. I mean, what kind of cookie are we talking about? It's got to be some kind of shortbread or it wouldn't crumble unless it was stale.

I suppose that stale cookie is the most powerful ammunition against succumbing to the potency of the monkey-wrench. The stale cookie does crumble. But the world continues to turn. Children are born, cakes are baked, dreams are realized.

I look at the loathsome monkey-wrench in my hands, then down at the pile of cookie crumbs at my feet. I close my eyes and reach into the depths of my soul, calling upon the vitality that lives there. I ask that spirit to help me transform the monkey-wrench into something more a stale cookie.

I lift the monkey-wrench high above my head and fling it to the ground with all my strength.

It shatters to bits, shards breaking off to skitter away. I sweep them into the pile of broken wrenches already littering my proverbial corner. Worry and anxiety roll off me having just been cheated. I dust off my hands and place them on my hips, looking skyward.

"Thanks for that, Great Spirit." I say with another sigh. "That was just you reminding me that everything has a purpose and any obstacle is surmountable...especially with faith and a sense of humor."


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

DinnerLove: Meatless Meal!

I've been eating a lot of meat lately.

I blame it on the weather. Although it's mid-June, the days have been cool, cloudy and rainy. I'm certainly not complaining; that sort of summer weather is one reason I moved to upstate NY. This kind of proper Irish weather begs for steamy bowls of chili, stew and dumplings.

I needed a change. At least temporarily. Grabbing my reusable shopping bags, I headed to the market.

I perused the grocery store shelves looking for the bargains. Back in culinary school, we had tests called "mystery basket", where we would be given a box of cobbled together ingredients and be expected to create a delicious meal from them- using additional ingredients from a typically stocked pantry.

As I pushed my cart down the isle, scanning the shelves for the bright yellow tags that shouted a drop in price, I mentally thumbed through my recipes and tricks. The pickings were a little slim on this day. I managed to score on some chicken, pasta, pomegranates and a bag of yellow eye beans. The chicken and pasta didn't inspire me, so I stashed them away when I unpacked my shopping bags later that morning. Pomegranates are wonderful in all kinds of ways; delicious as well as heart-healthy and cancer-fighting. So I removed the seeds from the fruit and stowed them in a zip-lock bag for future convenient access. Then I turned to the bag of beans, still slouched against the sugar bowl where it had come to rest when it fell out of my canvas grocery bag.

Yellow eye beans. Hhhmm. I'd never run across them before. They were sleek and sizable. Bigger than a navy bean, but smaller than a kidney bean, they were creamy white with a saddle of dark tan stretched across the top. Sort of the pinto pony of the bean world.

Well, they were new to me, but they were beans- and I certainly knew what to do with beans. A satisfactory meal idea solidified in my old standby: beans and cornbread. Too much meat in the previous days had left me weary of animal protein and I was ready for a meatless meal. It's long been known that beans and rice combine to make a meat-free complete protein, but cornbread works too. (

I dumped the beans into a bowl and filled it with hot-from-the-tap water. I set the bowl aside. Dried beans really need 24 peaceful hours to rehydrate. Not great for those who crave instant gratification, but still quite doable.

The next morning I peered into the big stainless steel bowl to find the beans had swollen to the top of the water line. I set a big stock pot on the stove and dumped the beans into it. I added an onion, some garlic and a celery stalk, set the heat on low and covered the pot. Don't salt beans until you serve them as it tends to dull their color as well as toughen the skins. Dried beans are an all-day cook, which makes them a great food item for cool, rainy days.

The pot bubbled away cheerfully as I went about my day. Evening approached and I reached behind the stove to get my big cast iron skillet  off it's hook. I turned the oven to 400 degrees and put the empty, clean skillet inside.

Cast iron has great heat retention. Whether it's bare cast iron or cast enamel, these great cooking vessels can withstand even the most inhospitable of temperatures and conditions. They can crack or break if they are dropped sharply on a hard surface, however and do leave black skid-marks on the bottom of your white sink, but other than that, they are dependable cookware, often being passed from generation to generation. In fact,during Reconstruction times in the Old South, cooking in cast iron was one way the survivors of the Civil War were able to get some scant amount of iron into their diets.

For cornbread with a crisp, flavorful crust, cast iron is a great choice. Cornbread is a quick bread and must be mixed quickly and baked immediately. I use a basic cornbread recipe and multiply it to fill my colossal pan. There are two schools of thought in the cornbread cosmos. There are those who like sweet cornbread and some who prefer normal cornbread. In the normal cosmos, sugar does not enter the orbit of the cornbread batter. Of course, if you like to bake your cornbread in a cupcake liner and frost it with vanilla buttercream, by all means, add sugar to your cornbread recipe.

Winter'Rest Farm Cornbread
1 cup white or yellow cornmeal
1 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 TBSP baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 stick butter melted OR 1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup milk
1 egg

Heat your oven to 400 and put cast iron inside to heat up. To the empty cast iron pan, add a couple of tablespoons of butter to melt and get hot. (If you don't have a cast iron pan, use what you have, add the batter and then bake) Combine the dry ingredients and whisk to incorporate. Set aside. In a separate bowl, combine the wet ingredients and stir together. (I use a whisk) Add your wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to just incorporate. Don't overmix. Less is more here. Remove your hot skillet from the oven and pour in the batter. (Adding the butter or oil to the pan as it heats means that the batter starts frying as soon as it hits the pan.) Move quickly and get it back into the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown and firm to the touch.
The batter fries as it hits the hot oil in the pan.

I like to serve cornbread within 10 minutes of removing it from the oven. You'll need to wait at least 10 minutes or it will crumble when you try to cut it. If you wait too long, the delicious local butter you slather on it won't melt properly.

To your big wedge of cornbread, add a bowl of salted beans. When I am feeling coltish, I break off hunks of cornbread and stir them into the beans. On a really crazy day, I might add a sprinkle of shredded cheddar. Yum.

This type of dish is a super way to feed a lot of people for mere pennies. The beans cost $1.49 for a 1 pound bag, and the corn meal was .99 for a 2 pound bag. Unless you are serving a platoon of soldiers, you should have plenty of leftovers and you'll please all the vegetarians in your life!

No need to wait for rain...serve anytime and enjoy!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Pursuit of Contentment

I raised my vintage roller blinds to a bright and brilliant morning. The air was dry and fluffy clouds scuttled across the clear blue sky. It was so uplifting that I barely noted the peeling wallpaper and the crack in the antique window glass.

I was glad to see the dry weather. The day before, strong storms had swept through communities from Massachusetts to South Carolina. In our valley, rain had fallen steadily all day, swelling creeks and rivers to the flood stage. My friends and family in North Carolina sustained significant damage along with widespread power outages. It was Mother Nature in an irascible and grumpy state.

I clumped down the creaky wooden stairs to the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. The dogs greeted me with wildly wagging tails, silently asking to be let out. I walked with them to the rear of the yard and looked at the beautiful meadow that spreads out to back our property. I took a deep breath, listening to the birds sing in the trees. What a lovely day!

I started to prepare the dog's breakfast, quickly realizing that there was not enough food in the bin -better make a run to the store. I quietly grabbed my keys and crept out of the house; the children were still asleep and it was early.
Getting in my car, I rolled the window down and felt the cool breeze blow across my forehead. The sun was bright; I dug out my sunglasses and put them on.  I glanced to my left and was amazed to see that the West Canada Creek was rolling heavily through it's banks and sent a thankful prayer that none of the creek's residents had seen any flooding with the previous day's storms.

The highway was busy, log trucks and big shiny milk trucks rumbling along the highway as they made their rounds. I turned off the main road and took a short-cut through the rolling farmland that blanketed the valley floor. Green pastures were surrounded by fluffy hedgerows and row after row of spruce and other evergreen trees formed multi-hued green borders against the fields. Meadow grasses waved in the wind, undulating like waves in the ocean. Cows and horses grazed together, some laying peacefully- the tops of their heads the only partially visible through the vegetation. I pulled up to the one and only stop sign on my route and paused to look around. Fluffy balls of color decorated round peony bushes which grew next to spiky lupine flowers. Clumps of wildflowers studded the pastures and edged the heavily flowing creeks and streams. The trees near the stop sign cast cool shadows on the warm pavement, their branches murmuring and whispering as the wind blew through them. Tender new leaves fluttered to the ground, unable to withstand the torment of even the most gentle breeze.

I turned right and continued on my way. As I topped a low rise, on a narrow road with no painted lines, I met a young Amish boy at the reigns of dark carriage horse which was pulling an open buckboard wagon. I slowed down and waved. The boy cheerfully returned my wave, his straw hat pulled low on his head against the stiff breeze. He was leaning casually back on the bench seat, one arm draped across the back. The boy held one of the reins loosely in his free hand, the other long leather reign lay unattended at his feet. He was in no hurry and seemed to be at peace with the world.

I finished my errand and returned to Appleside Cottage. The front garden shimmered with new growth and looked refreshed. I was thankful for the wisdom of nature. Nature has it's own agenda. It's up to us to work around its whims and temper tantrums. If it were left up to humans, it might never storm again, which would have a slew of it's own repercussions.

The dogs settled down, bellies full. The house was quiet. I sat on the back porch in my big rocker and cradled my hot coffee in my cold hands. The wind blew. Birds warbled and trilled, flitting and dancing through the trees. I took a breath of clean, fresh air. Smelled the scent of nearby plants. I rocked.

A sense of happiness and satisfaction washed over me. Then I realized that "happy" may not accurately describe the feeling. Happiness seemed too fleeting, too intangible. This feeling was strong and  marbled with gratitude and independence.

It was contentment.

And it was good.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

DinnerLove: Osso Buco (Vegetarians, avert your eyes!)

I popped into my neighbor's house yesterday to relieve the boredom of a chilly, constantly raining day. She was making venison stew. We chatted and carried on for a time and as I was leaving, she tossed a large plastic bag at me.
"Here." She said. "You take these. I have no idea what to do with them." She made a comical gag-face.
Intrigued, I peered into the bag. Sliced beef shank bones.
"Oh NICE!" I exclaimed. "Thanks!"
"That's part of the cow I got for painting the inside of my friend Sally's house," she explained. "Well, it was only half a cow, really."
"Just half a cow?" I giggled.
"Yes, but it was part of their organic herd. Local and grass fed!"
"...and free for me!" I was delighted to take this wobbling bag of clear vacuum-packed shanks. Seven big, thick disks of beautiful beef rested at the bottom of the white plastic bag, looking back at me and asking what I was going to do with them. My brain started to smoke.
"Ok thanks so much!" I waved at my neighbor as I bounced down her porch steps. "See you later!"
"Wait!" She stopped me. "What are you going to do with those things? She made the comical gag-face again.
"Osso buco!" Came my reply as I skipped back to my cottage.

Osso buco finds it's roots in the northern Italian city of Milan. The classic recipe uses veal shanks, white wine and tomato, and is topped with a gremolata- a condiment made from lemon zest, garlic and parsley. That would have been delicious, if I had had any of those ingredients in my kitchen. But "osso buco" simply means "bone with a hole". These shanks were not veal, and I did have garlic, a bag of onions and a big box of Cabernet Sauvignon. I also unearthed a half a bag of corn meal. Perfect. I would run with that.

I went down to the cellar and dug around for my gigantic use-only-at-Thanksgiving pot. I set the pot on the stove and turned the eye on medium, mildly vexed that one end of the pot wanted to hang off the end of my glass-top stove.
I washed the meat and patted it dry. The dry meat browned well and left a nice, even brown crust on the bottom of the pot. Known as "fond" this dark residue is the caramelization of sugars present in the food that is browning. Fond is a key contributor to a richly flavored dish.
I removed the meat and tossed in my chopped onions. They sizzled and popped as they slowly became clear with nice, even brown edges. I returned the shanks to the pot. Reaching up to the top of the fridge, I grabbed my box of red wine, held it over the cooking meat and turned on the spigot. I let the wine barely cover the meat and topped it off with a quart of tap water. I smashed 6 or 8 cloves of garlic and tossed them in. Salt and pepper finished off the hodgepodge. I set the lid on top and turned the heat down to low.

The chilly, rainy day droned on. Darkness closed in and I returned to the pot that was bubbling away on the stove. Steam billowed up as I lifted the lid to see that my version of osso buco was ready to eat. I knew it was time to make the polenta to go with it.

Polenta is a gruel made from cooking a grain with boiling water. In recent years, it has come to mean cooking cornmeal in boiling water. It can be eaten immediately as a soft, flavorful porridge, or cooled, sliced and fried. It could not be easier to make and is an economical way to feed a large crowd. Just bring the water to a boil and sprinkle in the cornmeal, whisking as you pour. Use 3 cups of water to 1 cup of meal. Today I used 6 cups of moderately salted water to cook 2 cups of cornmeal.
I stirred in butter, lots of salt and a little pepper.

Osso buco and polenta are part of the darlings of the modern food scene. Trendy, urban restaurants charge big dollars for this kind of food. Ironically, many members of this group of current favorites are the descendants of dishes that were born from poverty and necessity. That is the beauty of food. The most humble bit of edible leftover bits can be transformed into a rich, flavorful and satisfying meal for all of those you love.

Try it. You'll be surprised what you'll be capable of!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

DinnerLove: Farmer Approved Beef Stew

When my husband Jeff and I were engaged, I thought I would surprise him one cool fall day with a rich Irish beef stew for dinner. I crafted this dish with care, chopping my potatoes, carrots and onions neatly and holding back the green peas until the last minute so they would retain their beautiful green color.
I made bread bowls to serve the stew in and set a rustic autumnal tablescape. When he arrived home from work, he surveyed the table with interest, smiling and making sweet comments. Then he looked closer.
"Is that stew?"  He asked, turning to look at me.
"Yes!" I grinned, waiting with anticipation for the approval and admiration.
"I hate stew". He replied, kissing me on my forehead.

The smile vanished instantly from my face.

"Gosh," I said, "I'm not sure I can marry you."

Of course, I was just joking. But that kind of irreconcilable difference worried me. Stew is a fundamental building block of my culinary arsenal. Fortunately, Jeff's beef stew prejudice stemmed from traumatic childhood incidents involving some improperly prepared versions of the dish. He was willing to try to be objective.

Twelve years later, I still haven't been able to win him over to the Dark Side. He continues to shun beef stew, although the rest of the family loves it. What he doesn't understand is that although different names are applied, he eats stew all the time. Chicken pot pie, beef bourguignon, beef stroganoff, carnitas, ratatouille, cassoulet, and even a family favorite- chili, are all stews. The contrasts are cultural and methodical, and of course they all feature different ingredients. But one-pot cooking can be traced back to ancient times and simply refers to food being cooked in a pot with water (or any kind of liquid) and served in it's own sauce. I happen to love Irish Stew, which incorporates common ingredients found on the Emerald Isle. Traditionally, Irish Stew uses lamb or mutton, carrots, onions, green peas and of course, the ubiquitous potato. In my geographical location, lamb is rarely available, tends to be expensive, and frankly, I wouldn't unleash mutton on my worst enemy. So I tend to fall back on the American favorite, beef.

I cut my own stew meat. Buying pre-cut stew meat may be a time-saver for extremely busy people, but unless you are a captain of Wall Street industry, or are preparing to pilot the space shuttle, it is more efficient and cheaper to buy a large cut of meat and cube it down to your desired size. This kind of simple butchery usually takes me about 6 minutes and saves money.

Winter'rest Farmer Approved Beef Stew

1 London broil, cut into 1" cubes
2 medium onions, diced
2 stalks celery, sliced
2 quarts home-made or high quality meat stock-I used chicken
2-3 carrots sliced
2 cups corn
2-3 handfuls green beans, peas, lima beans- whatever you have
4-5 potatoes cubed
 1 can or bottle of your favorite beer

Heat a thin layer of evoo in the bottom of a large pot.
Dust the meat with all-purpose flour. Layer in the meat so that each piece of meat is separate from it's neighbor. Don't crowd the pot. Brown
the meat on low-medium until they are brown and release on their own from the bottom of the pot. Remove and do another batch. Remove. Add the onions and celery and brown. Deglaze with the beer or the stock. Fill the pot with all ingredients, cover and cook on low for 4-8 hours.

I love to serve this kind of stew with my home-made bread...any kind will do! This is wholesome, hearty fare. Your family should love it and you should have plenty of leftovers to fall back on later in the week when you may not have time to prepare a meal from scratch.

"Líon isteach do bholg agus do spiorad le úr, bia ar fad!"

"Fill your stomach and your spirit with fresh, whole food!" Translated from the Irish language.

Slainte and Cheers!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Thrill of the Grill!

I like to use firewood. What's in those briquettes anyway?

Since the dawn of time, humans have cooked meat over fire.

Many still do. In modern times we call it "grilling" or "barbequing".
We flock to the hardware store to gaze upon the newest, shiniest grills- especially those with multiple functions; the flashy models with side burners and rotisserie spits all housed in pristine stainless steel bodies. Many of these cookers sport optional accessories in nearby display racks: infrared remote thermometers, digital probe heat sensors, special pans and baskets to grill fish, vegetables and fruit. Next to the 12 inch aim-and-flame lighters are stainless steel suitcases holding 14 and 20 piece deluxe grill tool sets that fill the shelves just down from the all-weather fitted grill-covers with velcro tabs for extra security. There are bags and bags of charcoal; from the basic black briquette and traditional cubes of charcoal studded with "all-natural" wood,  to small-batch boutique lumps of charred mesquite, hickory or apple wood.

All that to cook food over fire.

If you filter and dig, tossing aside the glitzy tools and ornaments, you find that all you need is a heat source and something to hold the food. The exploring Spanish of the 15th century found the Arawak people of the West Indies cooking fish and other meats around a fire on wooden apparatus that they called "barbacoa". The word has come down through history to the modern term we recognize as Barbeque, or even Bar-B-Q.

Many people confuse "grilling" with "barbequing". Really, the difference is simple. Grilling is a quick cook, almost the open-fire version of a saute. Barbequing is a long, slow cooking method which renders the food item soft and tender with deep, complex flavors that incorporate the natural flavor of the food with the flavor generated from the heat source.

Most fish, vegetables or fruit can't stand up to the long cooking methods involved in barbequing. Pork, beef and chicken are the common choices for barbeques. Some pit-masters opt for dry "rubs" which are made up of multiple spices and salt, mixed together and rubbed over the meat, to create a flavorful crust as the meat cooks over split firewood. Some choose a "wet" style sauce (that can be made from literally anything, but usually has a tomato base) and use gas as a heat source.  Or vice versa. There are very serious national and international competitions that seek to find the best way to barbeque. Books are written, sides chosen and awards bestowed on whoever creates the best, most tender, most flavorful dish that is wrought through a day-long sojourn on what is usually a hand-made, thoughtfully engineered, often creatively painted and finished barbeque rig.

But still, it all boils down to humans cooking food over fire.

Personally, I like both dry rubs and wet sauces. I use whatever ingredients I have on hand, usually opting for fresh herb sauces in the growing season, and dry spice rubs and sauces in the winter. As many people know, there are countless bottled barbeque sauces and rubs available in the marketplace. Most are relatively expensive for the small sized containers. They also tend to be cloyingly sweet and sticky with ingredients that I don't want my family to ingest. I make my own and always have extra to store.

Winter'rest Farm Honey-Bacon Barbeque Sauce

1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes or sauce
1/3 c. bacon grease
1/3 c. local honey
1/4 c. paprika
1/2 c. organic apple cider vinegar (its worth it)
1/4 c. cumin
1/3 c. chili powder
2 TBSP kosher salt
1/4 c. black pepper
1/4 c. sugar (brown is best, but whatever you have)
1 large onion diced small
1 TBSP cinnamon
Pepper flakes to taste

Combine all ingredients in a heavy bottom sauce pot.  Bring to a boil. (Watch this, boiling tomato sauces will spit fire) Cover and reduce to low. Cook, stirring occasionally until the sauce has reduced to the desired thickness. Cool and bottle.

The fun of barbeque sauce is that you can use whatever you like. Keep things like bacon grease or stocks from weekly cooking to add to your sauce. Use the bottom-scrapings of jams and jellies that are languishing in your fridge door- just heat them slightly to liquify and pour into the pot. Anything with the flavor profiles that you like can be added. The hardest thing you'll have to do is run your sauce through a strainer before bottling.

Refrigerate your house-made sauce for future uses. If you are a capable canner, by all means, can your barbeque sauce and store it in your pantry!

Monday, June 10, 2013

BakingLove: Ciabatta

To me, bread is life.

Any kind of bread.

Bread with good cheese, some fresh seasonal fruit and wine is one of my all-time favorite meals. Steamy fresh bread hot out of the oven, lightly spread with butter is simple- and heavenly. Stale bread makes the list too: cubed and tossed with tomatoes, onions, basil and vinaigrette is the base of Panzanella, the delicious Italian summer-time salad.

All countries have their cultural breads. Ireland has soda bread. Middle Eastern countries have lavash and pita bread. There is skolbrod and kneip in Norway and oatmeal bannocks from Scotland. The ubiquitous French baguette is one of France's most popular exports- dominating many other European breads. Italy took umbrage with their neighbor's bread success, however. The Italian answer to the popularity of baguettes is Ciabatta. Italian for "slipper" or "old shoe", ciabatta is a relative new-comer to global cultural breads, officially created in the mid 1980's.

Ciabatta is simple to make. Not quite as easy as French bread, but close. There are 5 ingredients: flour, salt, olive oil, water and starter. A starter is just flour and water mixed together in a container, covered
and left in the fridge for at least 24 hours. A starter can also be called a pre-ferment, poolish, biga, sponge, or levain. Differences are cultural and refer to wheat/water ratios. Back-breaking texts have been written on this subject, so suffice to know that the information is available if further study is desired.

Perhaps the most complicated part of making your own ciabatta is planning ahead. Yeast is optional. The beauty of using a starter in bread formulas is that the starter - even in the fridge- gathers natural yeast that is always present in the air around us. If you are in a hurry to produce a loaf, you can add a teaspoon or so to your batch to speed up the fermentation. If you choose to forgo the yeast in favor of a real natural yeast fermentation, you'll need most of the day to get your first rise.

When I am making bread at home, I almost never use a recipe. I've been making bread for over 20 years, and in the beginning I never deviated from the instructions. Once I began to really listen to the bread, and understand what it was saying, I only used a recipe when making large quantities of bread that I was being paid to make and was expected to be able to sell!
The only equipment you need is a bowl and a mixing spoon. Jewelery and watches should be removed and you should make friends with your naked hands. I use my 5 quart Pro-series Kitchen Aid mixer (the undisputed king of my kitchen), fitted with a dough hook to save time and limit messy clean-up.

Here is the "recipe" I used today, as close as I can relate when I am dumping ingredients into the bowl based on what the bread tells me. (My fellow professional bakers and pastry chefs are agog now, I'm sure. All in fun, folks!)

Winter'rest Farm Ciabatta
6 cups starter
3/4 cup EVOO
4 cups quality bread flour
1 1/2 TBSP salt
warm water as needed

Combine starter, flour and oil. Mix to incorporate. Add salt. (Note: salt can kill yeast, so I add it after the flour and other ingredients are blended. This seems to protect the yeast from the heavy
These "rags" tell you the formula has a good water/flour ratio
concentration of salt when it is added, before it is spread around the batch and loses it's potency. Also, add the salt before you add any water. Salt tightens the gluten and can render water unnecessary in some cases)
Add water if the batch is dry, a touch at a time. If the mix is wet, add a bit of flour at a time until the formula can be handled easily. (These are small batches of home-made bread. I would always use a tested recipe for larger batches or bread I was marketing- to maintain consistency)
Knead on the machine or by hand for 15-17 minutes. This sort of bread can be loose and sloppy. Don't let that worry you. It will come out fine!
Cover and place in a warm, draft-free place. My oven has a "Proof" setting. As long as the temperature of your proofing area is under 140 degrees, it will work. All yeast is killed at 140 degrees.
Once the dough has doubled in size, dump it onto a floured surface and pat into a rectangular shape.

Fold the dough envelope style,
 gather and flip onto a prepared sheet pan. Flip it so the underside that was on the floured surface is now facing up. Flour is the "garnish" for ciabatta, so dust the top lightly with flour.
Gather the "envelope"
Set aside to rise for 1-2 hours- but LISTEN to what the bread tells you. Some breads take more or less time time to complete this second rise. If it looks like it is rising quickly, get it into a 400 degree oven sooner. Bread that over-rises can deflate and collapse. Under-proofing can cause the bread to stretch and pop in undesired areas.

Don't be afraid!
Remove to prepared sheet pan

Flop over so the bottom is now on the top

Dust with flour and allow your ciabatta to rise a second time
At the end of the day, whether your ciabatta is under-proofed or flat from over-proofing, you will still have an edible hunk of bread that you made yourself. More than likely you will have a big, beautiful loaf of ciabatta that will feed you for most of the week, as long as you keep it bagged or wrapped in plastic to keep the air from staling it. Even after it stales, though, toast it and use it in recipes that call for toast, or whiz it in your food processor to make your own bread crumbs. If you don't think you'll eat the whole loaf in one week, cut it in half and freeze part of it. Bread freezes very well, as long as it's wrapped and not left more than 30 days or so.
Just have fun experimenting with bread. Fat or flat, round, square or buns, bread is good any time. Just no margarine, please!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Living Local and Loving it!

As a child, my parents exposed my sister and I to lots of British television and movies.  Although there were some exceptions, most of the shows and movies were set in some idyllic village; a cluster of thatched or tiled-roof cottages set cheek-by-jowl around a meadow, green or garden- usually sporting a charming bandstand or summerhouse. The denizens of the featured hamlet shopped daily with their bicycles, baskets and trollies at the village green-grocer and made routine appearances at the local pub. The rosy-cheeked children would ride their ponies and horses through the relatively car-free lanes and walk to the tiny village school- returning home for lunch to waiting Mums with steamy plates of cheese and fresh bread and frothy cups of local, creamy milk. Daily life was studded with Fetes and Festivals, during which the village was transformed by fluttering flags, streamers, balloons and groups of musicians in traditional garb playing old-time tunes.

Really? Is that sort of lifestyle really possible? Or is it just scripted for the cameras?


I grew up and faded into young adulthood secretly chasing that subconscious wish for a life set in an English village; a slow pace- walking out of the house, pushing the baby carriage (leaving the top of the arched Dutch-door open, of course), through the wee garden gate and down the lane to the grocer's shop. Waving to passing villagers and stopping to admire the flowers that border the village green.

I had it all laid out in my mind.

But twenty-something years later, I was still driving everywhere in my car, rushing about to "get things done" and "stay on top" of the latest fads and wishes that would wash in waves through my suburban existence. I raced around on endless highways with my SUV loaded with huge economy-sized bales of paper towels, canned goods and plastic wrapped meats in their styrofoam trays sitting atop blood-absorbing "diapers". All to get the best! Lowest! Family-sized! Price! Ugh.

Then one day, was too much. I just couldn't do it any more.

I began to formulate a plan to return to my dream of living a slower, more peaceful, higher-quality style of life- preferably in a quiet village somewhere. Through research, I found that English village life was indeed a reality and not just scripted for the cameras. I dove into my search for an American village that would meet at least some of my ideals and wishes. Finally, on my 40th birthday- an early September day that was a remarkable 107 steamy degrees, I threw a dart at the map- in the form of Google- and found Newport, New York.

My husband and I bought acreage in Newport and began to develop our own small farm that we call Winter'rest Farm. We found a tiny house in a neighboring village and moved there from North Carolina in the summer of 2012. (See previous post "The Gift of an Old Girl")
Newport Marketplace features a full rack of Bob's Red Mill products!
There are still highways to travel, and I still have an SUV. But the pace and quality of life here is perfect for us and our children. Villages in the Kuyahoora Valley- where Newport is nestled-  are surrounded by farms of all kinds; farmer's markets abound and villagers support local businesses and tend to stay local if possible. Folks on horses clip-clop by the house every so often, and the clatter and rumble of Amish buggies is a routine occurrence. Children- and adults- ride their bikes everywhere and several folks use their lawn tractors to ride down the street to visit neighbors. Even the climate in Newport is similar to English weather!

As I began to explore the area, I found businesses that I really liked and wanted to support. One of those is Newport Marketplace. Opened just a few years ago, owners Dick and Patty Marko bring wonderful, local and small-producers products to their store shelves. They believe in local and seasonal sourcing and are even establishing their own farm - Hill Side Meadows Farm- to help supply their customers.
Newport Marketplace carries products that are old-fashioned and delightful. They feature high-quality healthful items like coconut oil and ground flax seed.
A bright, shiny wall of cold-storage shelves are stocked with local dairy producer Stoltzfus Family products. There is Amish butter and plastic bags of creamy and delicious cheese curds. Patty stocks her own free-range eggs which are right next to the cheeses of another local business: Three Villages Cheese Co.

River Rat Cheese Co. 4 year sharp cheddar, cut as much as you like!
There are big, clear bags of oats and flour. There is dried fruit, vanilla and local honey. Jugs of local maple syrup and muslin bags of corn meal crowd loaded shelves, alongside little zip-lock bags of spices and other delightful culinary bits-and-bobs.

Next to the check-out counter is a tall stand with a checkerboard adorning the top. Crowning the surface of the game-board is a giant block of 4-year sharp cheddar, produced by River Rat Cheese Co. in Clayton, NY- a couple of counties north of Newport. Patty keeps a big chef's knife next to the lump of cheese; just hack off as much as you like!

Piles of delicious bacon and sausages!
Behind the River Rat Cheese is a low glass freezer chock-full of bacon and sausage supplied by local Mennonite farmers. Bags are simply labeled with the item name, weight and price. The meats are in clear plastic bags so that customers can see what they need to see: the product!

Everyone needs some gummy fried eggs!!
 Newport Marketplace is not just a grocery store. There are antiques and architectural salvage, decor, handmade items and art. It's a real gem of a business wedged between Highway 28 and the West Canada Creek.

On this day, I left with my paper grocery sack full of oatmeal, ground flax seed, vanilla, craisins, cheese curds, honey and sausage links. I am thrilled that there is a business like this just 4 minutes from my house. The Markos are part of a thriving village life that makes it possible for those of us who have transplanted themselves willingly, in order to benefit from what this valley has to offer.

The Kuyahoora Valley is just one of many American small towns, villages and hamlets.  There are many ways to live in this great country and this is the way we have chosen: living local and loving it!

Bragg's organic apple cider right next to local producer Ford's Honey