Tag Archives: cooking

A Very Cranberry Christmas

Chutney in Bowl

Chutney in Bowl

(This article also appeared in the Waterboro Reporter newspaper, soon to be found online, but for now check out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TheWaterboroReporter)

Here we are, smack-dab in the middle of another holiday season, singing along with the carols playing non-stop on 94.9 WHOM (if you live in Maine), finishing up our shopping and wrapping of presents, and turning thoughts toward special holiday foods.

Yes, this is the season of Christmas cookies, nut bread, fruit cake, and eggnog. Peanut brittle, peppermint bark, snickerdoodles, and hot cocoa with whipped cream. Depending on our family traditions, we may enjoy turkey, ham, lasagna, baklava, corn-bread stuffing, sweet potato casserole, or those glorious Franco-American pork tourtieres.

And anything cranberry.

In my family, a traditional treat is cranberry bread. My mother serves it on a silver tray at her Christmas Eve dinner of fish chowder and crackers, jello fruit salad, and homemade sour pickles. Cranberries are fun to string together and hang as a garland on the fir tree. Frozen into an ice-ring, cranberries add a splash of color to a holiday punch bowl. Added to champagne cocktails, frozen cranberries not only keep the beverage chilled, but look very pretty rolling around in the glass. (A mint leaf provides good contrast, too!) There are cranberry sauces and jellies, cranberry pancakes, and don’t forget cranberry nut muffins with a little spread of butter to warm up chilly winter mornings.

There is something just so festive about those bright red berries that contrasts with the uber-whiteness of the snowy winter world outside!

As more and more people are coming to realize that eating locally with the seasons makes sense from a health and environmental perspective, here in New England we can feel confident about choosing cranberries in late fall and early winter. According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, cranberries–along with blueberries and Concord grapes–are a native North American fruit. Native Americans used the cranberry in a sort of protein bar called pemmican which was made of crushed berries, deer meat, and melted fat. They also used the berry as a dye and as a medicine. Later, American sailors took cranberries with them on sea voyages to stave off scurvy as the cranberry has a high vitamin C content.

Cranberries are also grown commercially right here in Maine. According to the Maine Cooperative Extension, cranberry production is a new “old” industry since cranberries were grown here in the past, disappeared in the first half of the 1900’s, and then experienced a rebirth in the 1990’s when new commercial production began. Last year, I bought a ten-pound box of the ruby-red berries from a local food co-op organized by Ossipee Towns for Sustainability (check out their Facebook page). The group orders from Crown o’ Maine Organic Cooperative which markets products from Maine growers.

I had good intentions when I bought those berries, but somehow after sticking that box in my freezer I forgot about it…until last week. All of a sudden, as we rounded the corner to Christmas, it hit me. Cranberries! I decided I wanted to try making chutney to include in my Christmas dinner menu and also to give as handmade gifts. It doesn’t get much more local than your own kitchen, right?

I searched the internet for a recipe, found one I liked on the Ocean Spray website, gathered my ingredients, and set the pot to boiling. The first batch came out a little more runny than I wanted, but the flavor was tangy-sweet and spicy. Making a few modifications the following evening, I ended up with a firm, spreadable chutney with a glorious dark garnet-red color and just the right blend of spices. I can’t wait to serve this with my Christmas turkey, not to mention all the leftover turkey sandwiches!

If you would like to try it yourself, here is the recipe.

Shelley’s Second-Batch Christmas Cranberry Chutney

1 ½ cup water
1 ½ cup sugar
2 cups frozen Maine cranberries
1 cup vinegar
1 cup raisins
½ cup small dice apple
½ tsp each allspice, ginger, cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves

Put sugar and water together in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring often to avoid sticking. Pour into glass bowls and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate. Stir before serving to show off all that chunky deliciousness.

If you like your chutney more saucy, reduce cooking time. The longer you cook, the more “set” your chutney will become. Happy holidays!

Image

Harvest Minestrone Soup

Harvest Minestrone Soup

A good pot of soup, thrown together from a harvest of fall vegetables and herbs. In my last post, I promised a recipe. Here is how I created my tomato, veggie, and herb minestrone soup yesterday.

Mix together the following:

1 quart of quartered fresh tomatoes and juice or stewed tomatoes
1 cup of diced onion
cloves of one garlic, minced
3/4 cup chopped celery
3/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
1/2 medium radicchio chopped
1/2 cup chopped mixed garden herbs: oregano, thyme, sage, marjoram, savory, etc.
1 medium zucchini, sliced
2 tsp salt
1 can of light or dark red kidney beans, not drained
optional: pepper to taste
optional: throw in one chili pepper whole

Add water to almost cover if the tomato juice isn’t quite there. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat, reduce heat and simmer, covered until veggies are tender.

I was quite impressed by the flavor of this soup without having to add any vegetable bouillon, but save any leaves or onion tops, etc. for a future soup stock. This soup was delish sprinkled with a little bit of feta cheese.

We Are All Blemished: Lessons from Canning Tomatoes

Big Pot of Tomatoes

Big Pot of Tomatoes

A First Thought

Dear Reader:

‘Tis the season for harvesting and preparing for the long months ahead when fresh produce in our gardens is only a sweet memory. Since my tomato plants do not produce much more than garnishes for a few late-summer salads, I trucked on over to nearby Porter, Maine for a bushel of canning ‘matoes f0r $15. Honestly, I’m not sure I could ever grow that many tomatoes for that price, so I consider this a great bargain. A couple days later–up to my elbows in skins and seeds and juice and pulp, listening to Windham Hill Christmas c.d.’s (yes, a guilty pleasure of mine come fall before the craziness of the real holiday zaps all the fun out of it), and putting up stewed tomatoes–a realization struck:

We are all blemished, and that doesn’t mean there isn’t goodness in us.

Blemished

Blemished

See, I was cutting out the bad, dark spots on the canning tomatoes which are, by their very nature, second-best. Flinging skins and blemished fruit into my compost container (an old, blue metal pot that belonged to my grandmother and reminds me of her every single day), I couldn’t help but think about how tempting it would be to throw out the entire fruit because it wasn’t perfect. We like perfect. Somehow, nowadays, we expect perfect. What a waste it would be, I thought, if we missed out on all that goodness beneath the surface just because one of the fruits had a spot or two on the outside!

People, too, are not perfect. Friends have character flaws. Community members drive us crazy sometimes with their idiosyncrasies. Some of us talk too much. Some of us are nosy. Some of us are controlling or passive aggressive or maybe annoyingly passive. Like the tomatoes, though, we have goodness inside us if others are willing to dig beneath the surface and take a look at our sweet, juicy centers…

A bushel of tomatoes and herbs from the garden.

A bushel of tomatoes and herbs from the garden.

Well, you know what I mean.

I like people. I also like to criticize people. Taking a lesson from today’s processing, I am going to try to stop focusing on the flaws and concentrate, instead, on finding the goodness.

Of course, once in awhile you just gotta toss the whole rotten tomato into the compost bucket. Even then, however, there is usefulness. A little time in the elements, a little rain and a little sun, a bit of time to rearrange the old molecules and voila! Up pops a new tomato plant from the pile of refuse. It’s probably not pleasant to be rejected, tossed away, and forgotten; however, there is always hope for change and renewed vitality and goodness. If this happens to you, don’t give up. Use your time alone to let your thoughts and attitudes compost. Let the goodness in you spring up from those tiny seeds.

Of course, if the thought of this doesn’t appeal to you, I have advice: Don’t be a rotten tomato!

All Jarred Up

All Jarred Up

A Second Thought

Canning tomatoes is a fairly easy, but long process. So is developing your character. And remember, we can’t all be tomatoes. Some of us are bitter mustard greens. Others are spicy hot chili peppers. Some are tart lemons, cool cucumbers, sweet blueberries, humble potatoes. Throw a bunch of us into a pot, and something happens–something like this tomato, veggie, and herb soup.

Soup

Soup

Tomato Canning Tip

To easily peel tomatoes for processing, wash them thoroughly, remove any major blemishes, and put them into boiling water for three or four minutes. Remove them and put them in cold water in your sink for a few minutes. The skin will crack or loosen, and when you take them out of the water, the skin easily slips off the fruit. You are then able to get to your canning.

Or soup making. I will post a recipe for the tomato, veggie & herb soup next time on Localista.

Grand Fennel-y

Fennel Seed Head


Dear Reader:

September is here. It is the grand finale of summer, of the harvest. I’ve been picking tomatoes, cucumbers, red chili peppers, and the last of the lettuce and yellow summer squash. A couple of the garden boxes are looking a little thin now that the zucchini and squash plants have been pulled. My herb box, however, continues to delight. The basil is full and fragrant (time to make pesto before the frost hits!), the calendula finally blossomed, the sage and rosemary are holding their own . . . and then there is the fennel!

Rich in phytoestrogens,Fennel is often used for colic, wind, irritable bowel, kidneys, spleen, liver, lungs, suppressing appetite, breast enlargement, promoting menstruation, improving digestive system, milk flow and increasing urine flow. Fennel is also commonly used to treat amenhorrea, angina, asthma, anxiety, depression, heartburn, water retention, lower blood pressure, boost libido, respiratory congestion, coughs and has been indicated for high blood pressure and to boost sexual desire.–http://www.herbwisdom.com/herb-fennel.html

Honestly, I had no idea what a powerhouse of a plant I had growing in garden box #1! Fennel tasted like licorice, I knew that much. I wanted to grow some new-to-me herbs in that box, and the fennel looked interesting at the greenhouse. So four fennel plants found their way into the herb box.

And they grew.

And grew.

And grew until they were huge white bulbs with offshoots springing from it looking somewhat like a white heart with ventricles and arteries and veins.

See . . .

Upside-down for comparison

When it became clear to me that I should cook the bulbs before they went to seed, I pulled up three of them, brought them inside, sliced them up, and roasted them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sea salt until they caramelized.

The fennel petals were a bit tough…I really did leave the plants in the ground too long. Still, the roasted fennel lent a mellow, buttery-licorice taste when added to the top of a bed of greens for a late-summer salad. The remaining plant will be allowed to go to seed. I’ve been snipping off fronds here and there to use in vinaigrette, on top of roasted meat, added to soups, for cucumber pickles, whatever I can think of.

Going All To Seed

When the flower heads turn to seed and begin to dry, I will harvest them, put them into a marked envelope, and wait until next spring to try my hand at starting new plants indoors.

I’ll also be trying to find some herbal teas that include fennel to help boost my heart, lungs, and digestive system over the fall and winter. Mmmmm, a soothing cup of licorice-tasting tea while the watching the leaves turn color outside the window. I’m almost ready for summer to be over. Almost.

How about you? Are you a fennel fan? Or fennel-finicky? Cast your vote . . . Outside the Box.

Bean on the 4th of July

Bean Pot

Dear Reader:

What could be more Maine than a pot of baked beans on the 4th of July?

The tradition of slow-cooking beans with molasses, salt pork, and salt goes way back to Puritan New England when the church-people were not allowed to cook on Sundays. Using the Yankee ingenuity we still celebrate today, those good church-going Protestants figured out that if they put beans into a hole lined with hot coals on Saturday, they would have a steaming, wholesome meal to eat on Sunday–without lifting a banned wooden spoon! The Puritans came from a part of England where foods were baked into stews and pies rather than frying, so it was natural for them to incorporate traditional cooking methods when they transplanted themselves here to the New World (see Wikipedia article for some dubiously-fact-checked reference material for these statements.)

While Massachusetts is known as the official “Baked Bean State,” we Mainers can also claim this savory dish for ourselves. After all, Maine was once part of Massachusetts, and like it or not, we do share some cultural quirks with our counterparts just south of us on I-95. Maine baked beans are a Saturday-night supper staple. You will also find a pot or two served at just about any public supper, family reunion, or informal celebratory event…like the 4th of July.

Canoe on the Saco River

In honor of my traditional Maine roots, I put a pot of beans into the oven on Independence Day and left them there to simmer and bubble for six hours. Later, following a leisurely afternoon kayaking with friends down a sleepy stream, we all tucked into the beans served with potato salad, coleslaw, pickles hamburgers, and radishes from the garden–a feast in honor of great American cuisine on America’s Independence Day.

Hope you all had a Happy 4th of July. Here is a family recipe for Maine Baked Beans. Enjoy!

Maine Baked Beans

2 pounds beans (we like yellow-eye; Maine-grown if you can find them)
1/2 pound salt pork (or 1/8 lb butter or even olive oil if you are vegetarian)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2/3 cup molasses
2 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1 1/2 Tbs. salt
1 medium onion

Rinse beans and soak overnight in water. In morning, parboil beans until skins crack when you lift them out and blow on them (use a wooden spoon to lift a few out). Cut up the onion into fourths and put in bottom of your bean pot. Drain the beans, reserving the liquid in a bowl. Put beans into bean pot. Put pork on top of beans. Mix brown sugar, molasses, mustard, pepper and salt with one pint of the bean liquor. Pour this mixture over the beans. Bake at 300 degrees for 6 hours or more, adding more boiling water if the beans begin to dry out on top. Serve with slaw or potato salad, brown bread or biscuits (really good to eat biscuits with butter and molasses…yummy!)

You can also put this all into a crock-pot and cook on low for ten to twelve hours. The beans get better as leftovers, too, soaking up more and more flavor from the molasses and spices. You can also freeze leftovers to warm up later for quick meals.

Well, the buzzer on the stove just went off, telling me that the strawberry-rhubarb pie I stuck in there forty-five minutes ago is done. More on that next time…Outside the Box.

Eggsellent Spring Supper

Spring Herbs

Dear Reader:

It may be hard to believe, but the garden, thanks to perennial herbs, produced ingredients for a wonderful, fresh-tasting spring supper before I even sent in my order to Johnny’s Seeds yesterday.

Perennial herbs are a gift of spring. Nestled up beside the first little feather fronds of yarrow and the recently divided rudbekia are the healthy clumps of reliable chives. The first grayish-purple flower heads poke up through the succulent spikes, and a few snips of the cooking shears yield a small handful of spicy, slightly oniony flavor.

Chives

Another unassuming, grassy-looking clump perfumes my fingers with the slight scent of liquorice when I roll a blade between thumb and finger. This is French tarragon–useful in soups, sprinkled on roasting chicken or vegetables with olive oil, or stuffed into a bottle of vinegar where it will impart its Mediterranean essence to that humblest of condiments.

French Tarragon

A short walk down to the perennial bed beneath the beech trees, my tiny but refuses-to-die thyme plant has put out new green leaves. I snip a few sprigs, roll a leaf between my fingers to inhale the woody aroma. Thyme is good, of course, in chicken soups and other stews. It is also remarkably yummy with eggs…and this is what I’m intending for this night’s supper.

Fresh Thyme

Bouquet in hand, I stroll to the house. From my ‘fridge comes a carton of locally-raised eggs; delicate shells in various hues indicate a mixed flock. The chickens that produced these eggs get plenty of protein from insects and plenty of fresh air and grass to scratch in. Their beaks haven’t been clipped. They have room to move. The yokes inside the eggs are golden-orange and plump, healthy, reassuring.

If only I’d thought ahead and purchased some local chevre, I think as I whisk a couple of eggs in a bowl and pour them into a buttered skillet on the stove. Instead I make do with some sharp cheddar and feta from the Limerick Market. I vow to try making my own mozzarella soon.

Sprinkling on the chopped herbs, I flip over one side of the set egg mixture. I pop a slice of my homemade bread into the toaster, tuck a handful of organic spring mix (Note to self: next year, use cold frames and start greens early!) onto a large plate, and slide the omelet next to the greens. A little butter on the toast and bon appetit!

Simple Dinner

If I’d started an asparagus bed, could I have added that to my meal, I wonder? Is Maine asparagus ready this early? Another note to self: create asparagus bed this year.

As for greens, I could have harvested all the dandelion any girl could want…wild food is even better than perennial food. (See “Not Your Grandmother’s Dandelion Greens.”) I have the store-bought greens, though, and the dandelions aren’t going anywhere.

Dandelions

Now, imagine some homemade hard apple cider to go along with this meal. Or some home-fries from local or backyard potatoes instead of the toast. Rhubarb pie for dessert. I wanted a quick meal, but the possibility for something more substantial is all right there–inspired by the fresh flavors of perennial spring greens. If you have even a small area in which to plant, these hardy and versatile herbs would serve you well.