Monthly Archives: June 2010

Cooking With Shelley

In the kitchen with Shelley

Dear Reader:

In my quest to be more “productive” I decided to start with cooking. I have to make meals anyway, I philosophized. In order to be more productive I could simply do, well, more of it. So, the past couple of weeks I’ve gone a little nuts in the kitchen with mixed results.

First there were the blueberry scones. Good. Then there was the broccoli soup. Nice. Soup needs bread, so I experimented with a bread recipe that didn’t require an entire day to rise and punch and rise and punch and rise again. Eh, just so-so. And since the strawberries ripened just in time, I was finally able to use my rhubarb to make a pie. Score!

Follow along, my apron-wearing, spoon-wielding friends, down my path to productivity in the kitchen. You may be inspired to try some of the recipes yourself. Or you may just like looking at the pictures. In any case, welcome to Cooking With Shelley.

We’ll begin with the scones. Usually scones are dry and crumbly and maybe a tad . . . well . . . bland. I wanted something a little more soft, a little sweeter. Something you might actually enjoy with your cup of tea in the afternoon.

Scone DoughIn my quest for a kinder, gentler pastry, I took a regular Betty Crocker Cookbook recipe (I have the 1991 edition. Click on the link to see how “Betty” has changed over the past seventy-odd years!) and tweaked it by doubling the sugar content, adding frozen blueberries, using farm-fresh whole cream instead of half-n-half, and bread flour rather than all-purpose. The result was SOFT, crumbly, sweet scones. The ladies in my craft circle gave good reviews (okay, there were just three of us at craft time last week, but still!), and I’ll definitely be making these the next time I’m invited to a morning brunch or afternoon tea.

Don’t these just look yummy? The key to pretty scones is an “egg-wash” brushed on top of the scone triangles before popping them into the hot oven.

Now, on to broccoli soup. This recipe I took directly from the latest Weight Watcher’s Cookbook, and is low-fat, healthy, and delicious. Basically, you chop a bunch of celery, carrots, and onion and sautee them in olive oil for a few minutes. Then you add broccoli florets and chicken (or in my case turkey) stock.

Soup, salad, and bread

Add salt and herbs to taste. To make the soup creamy, finish with a can of fat-free condensed milk. If I wanted to make this a more “local” soup, I could substitute the canned milk for fresh, heavy cream from Laura’s farm . . . probably cooling the broccoli/veggie mixture first so as not to accidentally curdle anything.

What made this soup special for me was the addition of fresh thyme from my garden. Just a few little leaves scraped from the stem and voila! Fragrant, delicious soup.

Along with the soup, I served my homemade bread and a salad which included some of the last greens from my garden boxes for a nice, summer meal. The bread was adapted from a Betty Crocker “streamlined wheat bread” recipe. I used molasses instead of sugar which turned the bread a lovely brown color. I also substituted some buckwheat flour and rolled oats for part of the wheat flour. The bread didn’t rise as well as I’d hoped (or else I just got too impatient and put it in the oven too early), so I ended up with rectangular bread, about the size of half a sandwich loaf.

This went fine with the soup, and as I still have some left-over this week, I’ll probably cut it up today, brush it with oil, sprinkle it with salt, pepper, and herbs, and toast it into homemade croutons. For awhile, I was making my own bread regularly, but then I got out of the habit. Like anything, the more you practice, the better you get. From now on it is homemade bread at my house.

Rhubarb and Strawberry Pie Filling

After the bread-baking and soup-making, it was finally time for the “piece de resistance” . . . strawberry-rhubarb pie. I spent a lovely morning up no’th picking strawberries with my parents at Tate’s Strawberry Farm in Corinth. (If you click on the link, you can view a video that shows the farm and the lovely strawberries. You just have to wait and get through the car dealership commercial first:)

At $2 a quart, these berries were a bargain. The beds were edged with clover and chamomile, so we had to dig a little to get to the sweet, scarlet gems, but the scent of the berries mixed with the herbs and flowers puts the “aroma” in aromatherapy. Who needs spas when you have berry picking?

Unbaked Pie

Now I’m going to share with you my secrets to making good pie crust: practice and bread flour.

I love bread flour for pastry. In the past, using all-purpose flour resulted in umpteen tough, impossible-to-roll-out, breakable pie crusts in my kitchen. A few years ago I had run out of all-purpose and, serendipitously (how many times do you get to use THAT word in a sentence?) chanced the bread flour lurking in my pantry . . . with amazing results! For some reason, bread flour makes a dough that is stretchy and pliable, pastry that is much less likely to rip apart when I fold it into the requisite fourths in order to lay it on top of the filling. Did I read somewhere that bread flour has more gluten, making it more stretchy? Note to self: research bread flour. Anyway, even this time, when I’d accidentally used the 9-inch pie crust recipe instead of the 10-inch, I was able to roll the dough out thin enough to fit the larger dish.

My rhubarb

Now, I’m not a huge fan of rhubarb, but no self-respecting Mainer can cultivate a garden without a patch of the giant-leafed, pinky-green stemmed plant growing beside it. As a kid, I used to run down to the rhubarb patch in my bare feet where I would break off a stem and bite into it, feeling my eyes water at the sharp, tart, sour taste. I don’t know why I did this. Same reason I used to eat Hot-Balls, I imagine. In any case, when I started my own garden patch, I asked my mother to bring me a division of her plant.

Now I have a piece of home growing just behind the bee-balm.

Rhubarb really does give a nice, tart, complimentary taste to the sweetness of strawberries. For this pie, I used a 1:3 ratio of ‘barb to ‘berry instead of the 2:4 the recipe called for. Both husband and child were generous with the compliments.

One last discovery: pistachio ice-cream goes really well with strawberry-rhubarb pie. I only know this because I forgot to buy the usual vanilla bean and only had pistachio in the freezer. Something about the nutty flavor really complimented the sweet-tart filling. Maybe the Valley Girls were right all along with the pink/green color combo. The dessert was, like, totally awesome.

So, Monday morning has rolled around again, and it is time to figure out my menus for the week. The sugar-snap peas are almost big enough to pick in the garden boxes. Maybe a stir-fry? Tune in next week to find out . . . Outside the Box.

Mastering the Art of Procrastination

Dear Reader:

I should be a) folding laundry b) finishing the short story I started last week c) writing an article on Reiki I’ve been planning for over a month d) washing walls in preparation for new paint or e) at the very least finishing up the pinky-orange cotton socks in my craft pile. What am I doing instead? Drinking coffee and re-reading Julia Child’s autobiography MY LIFE IN FRANCE. My excuse is Monday’s book-club discussion, but really my reasons are less noble, for while sitting on my butt and reading about boeuf bourguignon I am mastering the art of something besides French cooking.

Call it the Art of Procrastination.

(If you would like to try an adaptation of the Julia Child boeuf bourguignon recipe, I’ve found one at RecipeZaar that looks quite good; however, I haven’t tested it yet so can’t vouch for the end result. Click HERE for the link. If you are inspired to “cook with Julia” and want to check out her book MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, click HERE.)

Clever procrastination takes a good pinch of self-delusion. For instance, when I’m feeling slothful, I can always turn on the computer and begin to compose a blog post. Then, when someone asks “What did you do today?,” I can truthfully say “Oh, I did some writing.”

Voila! The artistry of transforming Sloth into something approximating Industry!

Self-delusion only goes so far. Like sugar, the rush lasts for a little while and then fades. Conscience eats away at my composure (not to mention my leisure). I am forced to ask myself: Has blogging become nothing more for me than an elaborate justification for laziness?

I try to be as objective and honest in my assessment as possible and come up with a wishy-washy “yes and no.” Much of what I have attempted and accomplished in past fourteen months has been fodder for the blog. Knitting, sewing, gardening, researching, cooking, shopping, reading . . . the blog gives my preference for variety (rather than specialization) a raison d’etre. Hopefully, I am able to turn my obsessions, my preferences, my interests, my questions, my explorations into something informative and entertaining–something of value.

I also like to think that while being thus un-gainfully employed, I have created not only words on a light-screen but also some tangible objets. Like socks. Like yarn. Like bread. Like perennial gardens. Like arugula. While not of great economic value to my household, these things are useful, and so I really can’t consider them a complete waste of time.

Still, once in awhile it is good for me to take stock of my time-management skills . . . or lack of them. What have I actually produced lately? Is the time I spend producing things like socks, bread, and irises “worth” the end results? Am I basically wasting time? Should I be working for a corporate salary or an hourly wage? What (and who) does my work benefit? At the very least, am I mastering my chosen crafts so that my knowledge could some day be translated into gainful production or teaching or both?

I’ve been reading alot lately about the economy, of course: the arguments for and against deregulation, the wranglings in the Senate and House, the size of the federal deficit, the unemployment numbers, and the roller-coaster ride from Hades that is the daily stock market report. A general theme is emerging in my readings. More and more people seem to be questioning our decision as a country to outsource much of our production. Whether this is because a more general idea is taking shape in our collective American conscience or whether I am seeking therefore I am finding, many people are worried that our inability to feed, clothe, and shod ourselves will end up leading to a bleak economic future.

To that I offer this intellectual bon mot: Well, duh.

Take, for instance, this informative article entitled DISMANTLING AMERICA from Patrick J. Buchanan posted on the American Conservative site this past March. In the article, Buchanan writes, “Things that we once made in America — indeed, we made everything — we now buy from abroad with money that we borrow from abroad. Over this Lost Decade, 5.8 million manufacturing jobs, one of every three we had in Y2K, disappeared. That unprecedented job loss was partly made up by adding 1.9 million government workers.”

Dear Reader, we once made everything. Now we sit in government offices, pushing papers. Not even that. We file electronic documents. Buzz on the street is that our recent slight improvement in unemployment numbers can be attributed to those oh-so-very temporary US Census jobs.

Until we start making things again, creating them with our own hands, we will not have a truly strong and resilient (not to mention sustainable) economy. Reading Wendell Berry this week, I found myself agreeing with the agrarian philosopher on so many issues, but with none so strongly as this, that our quest to free ourselves from hard work has diminished us in many ways. In his essay “Think Little” Berry writes, “Our people have given up their independence in return for the cheap seductions and the shoddy merchandise of so-called ‘affluence.’ We have delegated all our vital functions and responsibilities to salesmen and agents and bureaus and experts of all sorts. We cannot feed or clothe ourselves, or entertain ourselves, or communicate with each other . . .” (Think Little, Wendell Berry, THE ART OF THE COMMONPLACE, Shoemaker & Hoard, Emeryville, CA, 2002. pp.84.)

Although I make things with my own hands, I cannot honestly say I’m productive. Dabbling is not the same thing as mastering. A master craftsman knows all there is to know about her chosen profession. Housewives of yore were master craftswomen. They knew how to raise chickens, spin yarn, make soap, sew a shirt by hand, bake bread, biscuits, pies, and cakes, grow a kitchen garden big enough to feed the family, store food, save seeds, knit sweaters, darn socks, wash and dry laundry by hand, put up jam, milk the cow/goat/sheep, and provide basic medical care. Girls began their apprenticeship at an early age.

I was lucky to have a mom who baked bread and sewed and put up jam. I was lucky to have a dad who knew how to keep a garden growing all summer. My grandmother always had some handwork going–knitting or crocheting or tatting–when she wasn’t taking news photos or typing up her articles. My grandfather tended a large kitchen garden. But in general it was expected that I would be a careerist and not a farmer/housewife, a consumer and not a producer. Instead, I fell into the crevasse between the two. I swim in the limbo that is the life of a modern, stay-at-home mom. So I blog. Is it enough?

While working on her book, MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, Julia Child set herself a schedule of testing recipes and typing the manuscript even though she would have preferred exploring the nearby countryside. I am inspired to follow her example. I need to set specific goals. I need to create a schedule. I have mastered the Art of Procrastination. It remains to be seen if I can master the Art of Productivity.

Quick Post–Check out the New Kid!

Dear Readers: I like to introduce you to blogs I find inspiring and/or related to some aspects of my own mission of encouraging local living. A writer-friend has started a new project blog: making ALL her own clothes for a year. If you would like to check out the new kid on the blogging block, click here to read A Year In Stitches. I’ll be following it clothesly, er, closely. LOL. You might want to do the same. http://ayearinstiches.wordpress.com

Where the Wild Things Are

Wild Thing?

Dear Reader:

Seven years ago, my house did not exist and the lot on which it now sits was covered in forest–mostly a bunch of tall, scraggly pines with an understory of small hardwood trees and saplings, ferns, and ground-cover plants. A developer cleared a small portion of the lot and built the house. Weeks later, we moved in and began the process of creating order from the wilderness, albeit on a really small scale.

Wild Bee

We have a one-acre lot. Over the course of seven years, I’ve created several perennial garden beds. Last year we installed four raised garden boxes for growing vegetables. We’ve cleared out a few dead or dying pine trees. I’ve lopped off encroaching alders and blackberry brambles. We’ve piled up fallen branches and created huge brush piles. Last summer we chipped two brush piles and now have a nice supply of mulch for the garden beds.

The front lawn covers the septic field. A strip of lawn in back of the house is maybe twenty feet wide. Outside the lawn is forest. In between lawn and forest, we have something interesting ecologically and aesthetically. We have edge. And edge is where the wild things are.

An ecological edge is where two environments intersect, creating an area that is more diverse than either of those environments. (Hemenway, Toby. GAIA’S GARDEN: A GUIDE TO HOMESCALE PERMACULTURE, pg. 7) In my case, the edge is the area between forest and lawn. Lawn is basically an artificially created prairie, and when rigorously maintained is also a monoculture. My lawn is not quite a monoculture–it is now mostly clover and dandelions and other opportunistic weeds that thrive in soils that are not rich enough to support wide swaths of perfect, lush, green grass. In other words, Mother Nature is trying to heal the wound that is my lawn.

Hemenway writes,“When humans make a clearing, nature leaps in, working furiously to rebuild an intact humus and fungal layer, harvest energy, and reconstruct all the cycles and connections that have been severed. A thicket of fast-growing pioneer plants, packing a lot of biomass into a small space, is a very effective way to do this.”

Basically, a forest environment is self-regulating and self-stabilizing. Nutrients are taken, used, and released by one species to be taken, used, and released by another species. Sunlight is filtered through the upper story trees which capture the energy. Smaller understory plants grow in the humus created by falling leaves and branches of the upper story. Beetles, fungi, etc. break down the fallen leaves to create the humus. Of course, I’m oversimplifying the process, but the point is, things in a forest environment are fairly stable even as changes take place incrementally. Eventually, the pine trees give way to hardwoods, for instance. But when we come in with chainsaws and bulldozers, things change too fast. Suddenly, sunlight reaches newly bared ground, and the edge explodes in a biological frenzy. Weeds, shrubs, vines and other quick-growing plants take advantage of the sudden bounty of sunlight. Nature goes wild!

I noticed this effect most dramatically in two places on my lot. Some of the old pine trees in back of the house were dying off. It seems pretty obvious to me that this land was once cleared pasture. Farmers don’t build rock walls through forest, after all. These pines must have been the first seedlings to spring up, crowding each other and crowding out the brambles and weeds. Now they are towering columns bristling with broken-off lower branches and creating a thick canopy of upper branches that manage to get some sunlight way up there. Their life-cycle nearing completion, they begin dying and falling, allowing the hardwood saplings to gather the resulting sunlight and to grow. Left alone, eventually this would be a hardwood forest of maples and oaks and beeches.

In the meantime, we don’t want old pine trees to fall on our heads, so we cull the dead and dying which creates, you guessed it, edge. The ground is now covered in blackberry brambles and other colonizers. Left alone, the edge out there would soon be impassible. This spring, I cut down blackberry stems as wide as my thumb and as tall as the top of my head. Already new suckers have shot up from the undisturbed roots.

This is life on the edge, baby. If I don’t figure out how to take advantage of this vibrant area, planting it with fruit trees and shrubs and berry bushes and ground covers, Mother Nature will continue to plant for me. A few blackberries might be a good thing. Yards of blackberry thicket? Not so much.

Yellow Flower Carpet

Last summer I inadvertently created another edge–this one behind my garden boxes. Cutting down the one big pine out front, clearing a spot for the boxes, putting a nice layer of mulch all around the veggie area, I left a nice strip of previously-shaded ground between the garden and the oak and maple saplings that guard the the older pine stands. To my delight, a miniature wildflower field grew up there this spring (a welcome change from those ubiquitous blackberries). Over there is a carpet of yellow flowers and over here a bunch of pretty, light-green grass.

Clover and Chives

I threw some chives into a bare spot last summer, and this summer waving purple heads of clover nod with the waving purple heads of those chives. Monarch butterflies flit and feed on both clover and chives, creating a pretty backdrop to my garden boxes. Wild blueberries have spread and flowered in the corner near the compost bin. Deeper in the shadows of the pines, delicate pink ladyslippers hang on sturdy, green stalks.

ladyslippers

Buttercups are blooming on my lawn. The manual push-mower didn’t chop them as efficiently as the old gas-powered mower, and I kinda like seeing them nodding out there in the breeze.

Wild strawberries have taken over the rock wall that was shaded by that old pine in previous years. Were the seeds lying dormant there all these years? I’m waiting for the rosa rugosas to bloom among the tumbled rocks of the old fieldstone wall.

This red flower (a wild columbine, maybe?) popped up near the strawberries. Ground-covers surprised me with tiny pink or white blossoms. I’m ashamed that I don’t even know what these wildflowers are called. Perhaps a guidebook is in order. And a sketchpad.

I confess: I’m loving the edge. The trick will be preserving the best of the edge while using it to create a sustainable, functional, aesthetically-pleasing landscape around my home. In the meantime, the arugula in the garden box has provided me with an overabundance of salad greens and is now flowering and going to seed. Next year, I’ll plant the first row one week and the second row a week or so later so I can have a continuous supply instead of one big crop. The peas and kale are up and growing. I’ve planted tomatoes and brussels sprouts and peppers. A rogue red leaf lettuce and a rogue kale plant popped up in a garden box, and I’m just letting them do their thing.

Even the the “square” garden boxes have a wild side, I guess.