Thursday, November 25, 2010


It’s a long line of 390 American meals, from that first mythical Thanksgiving in 1621 to today. Thanksgiving is our secular Yom Kippur, shared in the Americas by everyone across cultures and religions, no matter where you were born or how you will die, a day of thanks and atonement, when you greet your family with love and food (are they different?) and join to think about what’s good in your life, what’s real, what matters.

Thanksgiving is unique in that it celebrates not military victory, or religious myth, or how our culture and way of life is best, but a simple meal. It’s a holiday not just with food traditions, but, at its heart, about food. With no historical or religious basis other than a meal that someone decided to write about, it is unique in the world as holiday created for and sustained by households, about house holding.

Thanksgiving serves faith over religion, ordinary people rather than heros, and, ironically, production and creation rather than purchase and consumption. It remains unique in American culture as a holiday that has resisted commercialization, if not escaping it entirely. As our media and politics try to rend us into competing tribes, Thanksgiving reminds us how we are alike, and that America is strong because of our e pluribus unum ethos. Sensitized in my lifetime to what Thanksgiving augured for Native peoples, even this tragic history can serve to alert us to our need to come together, even if just once a year, to remember how vulnerable all are to blind faith, unchecked consumption, military overreach, and the worship of heroes over neighbors.

When you emigrate to America you bring your culture with you. But we give you Thanksgiving once you get here, and the gift makes you an American.

I hope you are surrounded today by your loved ones, even the ones that set your teeth on edge the rest of the year. I hope you are sharing the pie from your great-grandmother’s recipe, and the Mexican chutney that your granddaughter found on line. Remember how food and tradition bind us, from the sister of your blood, to the sister of your heart, to the sisters you will never meet, but who connect you nonetheless.

Apple pie with candied wintermelon
Use your favorite apple pie recipe (mine came from my mother's ancient Woman's Home Companion Cook Book). Substitute about 1/3 of the apples with candied wintermelon. Here's how to preserve it:

Preserving wintermelon
(or any firm melon like cantelope or honeydew. This will not work with watermelon)

• Remove the outer green skin of the wintermelon and cut approximately 1 lb winter melon into finger length sticks just like french fries.
• Blanch melon by putting into a pot of fresh water with 1 tsp of baking soda, and bring to a rapid boil for 3 minutes. Transfer the melon to a colander to drain.
• Heat 2 cups of sugar with 1 pint of water in a shallow pan until dissolved. Bring the syrup to the boil. Turn down heat to low.
• Transfer the drained melon to the pot of syrup. Press a plate on top of the melon to immerse the fruit in the syrup. Bring the syrup slowly to a simmer and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes; do not let it boil.
• Take the pan from the heat and allow cooling. Do not drain. Leave it in the syrup for 24 hours whilst leaving the fruit undisturbed. Carefully lift the fruit from the syrup and leave to drain for 30 minutes.
• Transfer the fruit to wax paper or parchment and leave until dry,and store in an airtight container.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Things that annoyed me at the Safeway today

• I live 50 miles south of Wisconsin, the richest dairy country in the world, yet milk at Safeway comes from Colorado and California.

• The lady who didn't like the canned pumpkin because of "additives" but didn't have time to buy and bake a pumpkin, which I believe is guaranteed additive free, by definition.

• No concord grapes

• Identical free range eggs (at least they had them!)-- same brand, grade, quantity, and even package wording and design-- but one was 70c more expensive. No one could figure out why.

• It's hard to use the self checkout if you have your own bags; it senses when you put an item into a bag, but only its own bags. You have to get the clerk to keep entering a "skip bagging" code.

I'd like to once again thank Whole Foods for buying up or shutting down all the local organic and coop markets. Also, if that lady had just bought the damn pumpkin, she could have made these:

Roasted squash seeds with candied ginger

Seeds from 4 small butternut squash or 2 small pumpkins
5-6 pieces candied ginger
pumpkin pie spice (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger)
sea salt

Heat oven to 350F

Clean and drain the seeds, then lay them out on parchment paper until they've dried to slightly sticky (don't dry them all the way). Place in a bowl. Dice the ginger into very small bits, mix with the seeds. Sprinkle with the spices, sugar and salt until completely coated. Transfer them to a baking sheet lined with parchment, spreading them into a single layer. Bake in 5-minute bursts for no more than 15 minutes, until browned and crispy. Allow to cool and then hide them because otherwise everyone will steal them from you.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Meeting Farmer Rick and the Flowerweaver

I used to wonder if I would ever make the kind of intimate, lifelong friends that I made when I was in college. In that period of your life, you spend a lot of time with, well, time, and interacting mostly with people who closely share your interests and outlooks. Your off-hours are filled with them-- you eat with them, play with them, run into them at random times during the day.

And when, as an adult, do you get to do that again? You spend your days in an office with people thrown together randomly by their skill set. Most of the day you interact with these people only at it relates to the task at hand. While you can get incredibly intimate with these people-- you go to their weddings and holiday parties, they know when you've had a fight with your spouse, or your mother, they send you cards when your favorite aunt dies-- work friendships, however intimate, tend to last only as long as the job. It's very hard to connect at a personal level, independent of the profession and maintain the connection once you don't share phone lines anymore.

As an adult, you mostly meet people through very narrow mutual interests-- yoga class-- or you see your family.

And then came the internet.

On line, I have met people very much the way I used to meet them in school: through mutual interest, on my off hours, and I "run into" them at random times throughout the day. I have met a dozen people in the past year, through gardening on line, who are now some of my best friends.

Today I got to meet the people behind the blog The Flowerweaver, whom I know from My Folia, in town to visit their new grandbaby. I made them a garden lunch: parsnip soup, raspberry soda, peach scones and the autumn salsa noted below and took them to the Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago's wonderful free 20-acre greenhouse. We spent 4 hours in non-stop conversation, and not just about gardening.

So yes, I guess I will meet new and wonderful people, all my life.

Autumn salsa

2 large apples, peeled and cored
15 medium radishes
1 small onion
lime juice

Dice the apples, radishes and onions. Caramelize the onions in about a tablespoon of butter. Mix all together with about 1/4 cup (or less) of lime juice. Salt to taste. This made enough for healthy servings for three adults.

Remember to zest the lime and either freeze it or set it aside to dry. Always nice to have a little citrus zest around.

By the way, this is so delicious. I might try it with a little honey or sugar for a sweet salsa some time.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Recycling recipes

I read somewhere recently that the typical family uses just about 10 different recipes; when I look at the label cloud I see that, indeed, there are 11 recipes here tagged "family favorites." It would be interesting to take, say, 50 families and see how many common recipes they have among themselves-- you could instantly grow your repertoire by just making someone else's family favorite.

It sounds a little depressing, to know that you're repeating a meal every ten days. But are you really? Or are you taking basic concepts and adapting, changing, reinventing?

There are some basic concepts, starting with meat or vegetarian. Subdivide those into different types of meat and vegetables. Further divide that by cooking method. Start changing up the additional ingredients. Pretty soon you've got not 10 basic recipes, but a hundred.

When you cook seasonally, this activity completes itself. I can't cook with fresh peas or string beans right now, because there aren't any, so I'm using swiss chard and brussels sprouts as the green in all my dishes. What I was making with eggplant in July I am now making with squash. It's a little scary the first time you look in the fridge to pull out something for, say, biryani, and discover that it isn't there. So you take a deep breath and substitute.

Now, the good news is, you've been eating for years and probably have a decent sense of what substitutions you can make. The other good news is, if it doesn't work there's always carry out.

Here's Monday's adapted soup:

Squash soup with caramelized radishes

3 T butter, melted in a pan
4 cloves of garlic, slightly crushed
20 medium radishes, halved

Melt the butter, turn the heat down to low and add the vegetables. Brown them over a very low flame until soft and browned, about 20 minutes. Add to the soup just before serving. Here's a couple of squash soup recipes:

Butternut-cider soup
Roasted autumn-veggie soup

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The best thing

When the first sprout pokes its head through the dirt

I always think
This is the best thing about gardening

When I make that first spring salad with the early crops
of lettuce and radish and green onion
I always think
This is the best thing about gardening

Then comes that week where you spend 12 hours
Every day,
Digging and planting and listening to the early bees
And you can’t get the dirt out of your pores

And suddenly it looks like a garden again
And I think
This is the best thing about gardening

Every day, all summer long
Flowers bloom and birds sing and bees move from blossom
to blossom
And that’s the best thing about gardening too

But then comes fall
The garden starts to die
But you chop the dead leaves
And turn the empty earth
And it is black and rich and full of worms and promise

And that is the best thing about gardening

Autumn salsa

2 large apples, peeled and cored
20 medium radishes
1 small onion
lime juice

Dice the apples, radishes and onions. Caramelize the onions in about a tablespoon of butter. Mix all together with about 1/4 cup (or less) of lime juice. Salt to taste. This made enough for healthy servings for three adults.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

How foodie culture has made people afraid to cook

It's not just cheap, available, easy and frankly tasty boxed food, fast food and prepared foods (even the so-called "organic" companies have gotten into the act) that have made ordinary people reluctant to cook.

It's also the popularity of writers like Martha Stewart and even Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver, as well as cooking shows that emphasize high end ingredients, professional preparers, and exotic dishes.

I love to cook, and I'm pretty good at it, but these shows, books, and articles are just plain intimidating.

They purport to be encouraging people to cook, but frankly, I'm not going to have "pizza night" where I have to make pizza from scratch, however seasonal, local, organic and whole I'm trying to be; it entirely defeats the benefit of pizza night, which is that there is no prep and no clean up. Do these writers not get that? I'm never going to hunt for chanterelles; I didn't even know what they were before I read The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I don't know anyone with a backyard clay oven. Can I cook a whole goat in my Kenmore, do you think?

We're never going to get people back to preparing their own home-cooked food by only talking about $12-a-pound morels, and turning up our noses at the perfectly fine, pre-sliced plain white mushrooms available at the Safeway. I love making scones, but grating frozen butter, per America's Test Kitchen, is just a pain in the ass. But apparently this is the only way to make "perfect" scones. We don't need another Hell's Kitchen, or Rick Bayless with his flawless urban farm; we need Prince spaghetti night again, where Grandma makes sauce to put on the readily available pasta from the grocery store.

Tomato-apple soup

This is a wonderful "leftovers" meal, which I made with the apple peelings from a simple homemade apple sauce (peel and chop up apples, throw them in a saucepan, simmer until it turns into sauce. A four-year-old could do this.) I served it with this morning's banana-apple scones.

10 small to medium tomatoes, cut in half
Apple peels and cores from 8 apples
3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
1 cup apple cider, or any vegetable broth

Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray, and put all the veggies/fruits on it. Lightly salt and pepper (I used sea salt, but any salt will do), and drizzle with olive oil. Roast for 1 hour in a warm oven (300F), or until the tomatoes start to brown and shrivel very slightly. Put all in a 2 quart sauce pan, including draining any liquid. Add the cider or stock; all the veggies should be covered, just. If they are not, add more water. Simmer until the tomatoes have lost all shape and the skins have slipped off. Run this through a food mill until all seeds, skins, pits, etc have been seived out, return to the sauce pan and smooth with a handheld immersible blender, or smooth it in the blender or food processor. Makes enough for two large or three to four smaller servings.

This does not need any additional spice, herb, or garnish.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

Pork chops with heirloom tomatoes, basil and garlic