Monday, November 29, 2010

Stillness: Red, green and sparkle

by June
One of the reasons we ended up in Maine was winter. The snow fell, and it fell deeply, and a body had no choice but to huddle inside by the fire between bracing forays to haul in firewood or to ski through the fragrant woods.

 For me, winter was time to quiet down and think. It was time to read, time to create.

It's not that it doesn't snow anymore. It does. But for the past few years, winter hasn't tiptoed in around Thanksgiving with a deep, hushed snowfall that transforms the landscape for a whole season. The snows do eventually come—but often with sleet or ice or rain. Then it all melts. Going out for firewood, even in February, we track mud into the house.

As long as the ground remains bare, the gardener in me feels compelled to keep tending our ambitions for our place. But I'm worn out. At Thanksgiving dinner, I heard myself going on and on and on about how all I wanted to do over the long weekend was read. Julia Glass's new novel, The Widower's Tale, was practically glowing on my nightstand, and all I could think about was curling up with it.

But it never happened. 

Instead, I laid out the new orchard and hauled compost to prepare the ground for the new trees. I added more mulch to the blueberry plants. I cleared some brush. It's all good work. Yet I long for the good work that comes of growing still and listening to the thoughts that whisper around the sound of the crackling fire.

That book is still waiting for me. And even as we hurtle into the season of merrymaking (emphasis on making), I am promising myself a gift of stillness—whether the snows come or not.

What are you promising yourself this season?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mother to daughters: The secrets of flaky pie crust

by June
Our daughters love being in the kitchen. Before they could walk, they'd scoot in on their bottoms. (Crawling was too low-down for them: Who can see anything while lying on her tummy?) We kept a cabinet filled with cooking utensils just for them. As Birch and I rattled away at the stove, they would bang pots with wooden spoons. Their first Thanksgiving, we prepared the feast with them riding in backpacks and watching like baby owls over our shoulders. Later, Grandpa Hickory made them a double-size step-up, so they could safely work with us. If we made bread, they helped knead. If we made cakes, they sifted flour and helped with the frosting. And noodles...they've rolled a lot of noodles.

As I got ready to make pie crusts for this Thanksgiving, the girls appeared at my side. "Can I help?" Blossom asked.

I cupped her face in my hands and asked, "Do you know what the secret of great pie crust is?"

"No," she said, "but your hands are cold."

"Exactly!" I cried. "Cold hands are the secret of great pie crust." The idea is to get the butter all the way into the oven still in its solid state. When it finally melts away, it will leave behind air pockets that are the signature of a flaky crust. And a flaky crust is what we're after.

Fern and Blossom have very warm hands (probably from all that goat cuddling). So our pie-crust adventure began with a cold-water rinse. We also added ice cubes to a little bowl of water and set that aside.

Then we put two cups of flour (after leveling with a knife) into the bowl of a food processor and pulsed it two times with one-quarter teaspoon of salt.

Then we chunked up ten-and-two-thirds tablespoons of butter and loaded the chunks into the bowl with the flour. Here, the important thing was to cut the butter into the flour without creating heat from the spinning blade. A series of quick pulses (about fifty) turned the flour and butter into what we call butter crumbs. (We sometimes add a tablespoon of sugar if we're making the crust for a sweet pie, but we only pulse a time or two to mix it into the butter crumbs.)

 Next we separated an egg yolk from the white and beat it into three tablespoons of the ice water. We sloshed this down the chute of the food processor.

We pulsed just until the butter crumbs and egg mixture began to cling together in a clump.

We tumped the dough clump onto a square of wax paper and cut it into two sections. We quickly—with our cold, cold hands—gathered it into two circular-ish patties and wrapped each patty in its own square of wax paper. These went into the fridge for twenty minutes (though we could have held them there a couple of days if we had zipped them it into an air-tight bag).

After the dough chunks were chilled, we patted flour onto both sides of what Fern has dubbed the pie-crust suitcases. (Every pie maker should have at least two of these convenient pouches.) We put a dough patty in each one and began to rock a rolling pin across the stiff dough until it began to flatten out into a larger and larger circle. It was hard going at first, which is as it should be if the dough is thoroughly chilled.

As the dough thinned, it was important to roll from the center, then turn the wheel of dough, then roll from the center again. When it was roughly the size we need (and we eyeball everything at this point), we began to feather any gaping edges together by just rolling with one end of the pin.

Then the two flat discs of dough, still in their suitcases, went onto a round pizza pan and back into the fridge for another twenty minutes (at least).

Finally, the bottom crust got unzipped from its pouch. We peeled off the top layer of plastic then flipped the crust over the pie plate. Because the dough was cold enough, the bottom plastic peel away cleanly, leaving the crust draped over the pie plate. Then we gently nudged the cold dough into the bottom of the pie plate and filled it with our pie filling.

The top crust then covered the bottom, and we tucked its edges down along the bottom crust's edges, and then pinched  so that the bottom crust's top edge was sandwiched in the fold of the top crust. We crimp quickly into a fluted edge. Even with cold hands, we tried to touch the dough as little as possible.

We painted it with milk.

We sprinkled it with sugar.

We pierced it so steam could escape.

Then, since it was an apple pie, it went into the oven at 425 degree Fahrenheit for about thirty minutes. Next, it got turned down to 325 degrees for another thirty. We had to watch carefully to make sure it wasn't getting too brown too fast. When it was done, the pie filling was bubbling out like warm jam, and the crust was golden brown with a crackling glaze of sugar.

There is no trick for waiting until the pie is completely cool before cutting it. So we didn't even try.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Rosie is in Cooking Light!

by June

It might be an alarming experience for your favorite hen to be in a food magazine, but since our Rosie is in Cooking Light with all her feathers, Fern and Blossom are nothing but delighted. We're all delighted, actually, that Scott Mowbray welcomed us into his editor's note this month. Thank you to Scott and to the beautiful friend who urged him to read Four Green Acres.

Here's a re-posting of the original piece, which is excerpted in the December issue of Cooking Light.


Ten years ago today, in China, we became a family. In many ways, April 10, 2000, and the weeks that followed are a blur now. We four were groping for one another through the fog of all we didn't yet know. For Birch and me, it was a time of many questions: How could we comfort these baby girls when we didn't even have a common language? How could we express our love? How could we let them know we meant no harm?

What those early days were like for the eight-month-old babies, I still quake to imagine. When I see photographs from the first day, I can't look for long. Fear radiates from their eyes. They were so confused.

One memory remains vivid. Birch was gone. I was sitting on the edge of a bed with a baby in each arm. They were crying. I was singing and jostling and talking to them. And they only cried more -- brokenhearted, all-is-lost wailing.

So I started crying too.

And that's how Birch found us. Fortunately, he ushered room service in the door. He rolled the cart between the two beds, took a daughter on his knee and handed me chopsticks. It was a feast: Noodles and egg custards and greens melted to a sweet tenderness. We began to feed the babies and ourselves.

The babies ate eagerly. We did too. We dangled the noodles from the chopsticks, and they gaped for them like baby birds. Fern got one noodle by the end. She slurped. It slapped and whirled and sucked right into her red little lips. Then...she laughed. And so did we. We ate more noodles and laughed some more.

Later we would all cherish the fact that a noodle was there in the moment we really became a family. Birch and I soon understood that we did have a common language with our daughters: food. We saw how they were soothed by ginger and rice when they were sick. We saw how avid they were for pork buns and dumplings and noodles, noodles, noodles. We recognized ourselves in their appetites.

We embraced Chinese cuisine as a gift we could give our daughters. We taught ourselves to make noodles the Chinese way and steamed buns and green beans with charred garlic and... We discovered Barbara Tropp, whom I consider the Julia Child of Chinese cookery. If I had to leave my burning house with one book in hand, it would be my signed copy of Tropp's The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. (Especially now that I see a new one could only be had for $216.66...for shame! for shame! Somebody, please, bring this book back into print.)

Our Chinese New Year's gift to one another this year was David Chang's Momofuku. Making a meal of pork-belly buns affirms the family we have grown to be (especially since the Jewish papa could never have imagined himself eating pork let alone pork belly).

Birch fires up the outdoor oven for the barbecued pork.

I whir up the Kitchen Aid to churn out the bun dough, and Fern sets up the bamboo steamer in the wok so we can turn the burner to full blast and steam the buns over boiling water.

Blossom makes Chang's quick pickles out of sliced cucumber, a tablespoon of sugar, and a teaspoon of kosher salt.

We still laugh when we eat. We laugh almost as much when we are eating as when we are cooking together. Food makes our family. Food is love.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thanksgiving in a pumpkin

by June

It's time for Thanksgiving, both uppercase and lower. My thankfulness is brimming this season—not because we have passed an easy year filled with bounty but because the year has instead been a rough passage from one set of expectations to another. And yet here we are. The four of us have encircled one another with love and understanding and laughter. Our friends and family have been steadfast. Like the Pilgrims, we have survived. (That should be present progressive tense, actually: We are surviving.)

Around here, thankfulness smells like sage, celery, and pumpkin.

We recently tried a French recipe we heard about on NPR. It takes a whole sugar pumpkin and stuffs it with bread bits and bacon and cream and... It was a rich delight, fragrant and filling.

But I couldn't stop thinking about what a perfect vessel a hollow pumpkin would be for the best part of Thanksgiving dinner, by which I mean, of course, stuffing (or, if you will, dressing).

We scooped out a second pumpkin (about a three pounder) and tossed in salt and pepper. We diced an onion and two stalks of celery and sauteed them in butter with some fresh rosemary, thyme, and sage. Next, we tore day-old bread and tossed the pieces into the skillet and then poured on about a cup of broth. We added a handful of dried cranberries and some toasted walnuts. We tucked this rough version of stuffing inside the pumpkin. Then we grated nutmeg into a half-cup of fresh cream and poured it in. We set the top on and slid it into a 350-degree oven for about an hour-and-a-half.

The aroma of thankfulness filled the air, and when the pumpkin came out of the oven it was a miniature Thanksgiving feast.

Now we can't wait for leftovers from the actual feast. We're thinking we might scrape out yet another pumpkin and layer in turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and a ladle of gravy. Those will be some exalted leftovers.

What do you do with the best leftovers of the year?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Savoring the harvest: Leek-and-potato comfort, two ways

by June

Autumn has deepened. It all but rattles our bones. What wind! At night, we hear it roaring from a great distance before it hurtles against the house. Our sleep is fitful. Some of us have the sniffles. And, worst of all, we've lost a hen, one of the originals, our Dottie. She got her name from speckles on her fluffy chick forehead, and then she grew into a beauty with a full breast of scalloped white. She was famous for nuzzling up to the cat when he took a sun soak. This past year, she's been a ragged mess of tattered feathers; the other chickens pecked at her. Blossom and Fern gave her extra free-ranging privileges, but she didn't range so much as nestle down outside my office window. I'd hear her out there clucking contentedly to herself.

We miss Dottie. She was just a chicken. But she was part of what made our home seem like home.

So it's high season for comfort food.

That means Leek-and-Potato Soup.  The one we make is light and simple. I learned it from Patricia Wells's book that explores the cuisine of Joel Robuchon: Simply French. Before making this soup, when I thought of a potato and Robuchon at the same time, I went into a swoon about his silken potato puree, which I once had the privilege of eating in Paris. That puree is sheer artistry. It is ballet on a fork. It could hang in the Louvre.

You accuse me of hyperbole? Really? Okay. Maybe. But I'm trying to get at the difference between the puree, which would be out of place in our kitchen and the soup.... Ah, the soup... The soup is at its best when I walk out into the wind and wrench a few leeks out of the soil and then root around for some nice potatoes. This soup is right at home in a bubbling pot on the stove—even as we're trying to wash the leek roots and all the clinging soil out of the sink. This soup is earthy. It fits the way we live.

We suspect it'll fit the way you live too, whatever way that is. It's very accommodating, this soup. It wants to please.

Peel, quarter, rinse and drain one and a half pounds of small boiling potatoes, such as Red Bliss.

Trim two leeks at the root. Split the lengthwise and sluice water down into all their little leek crannies. Rinse under cold water, then let them soak in a bowl for about five minutes—or until the grit settles to the bottom. Dry them and chop coarsely.

In a stockpot, melt two tablespoons of butter over low heat. Add the leeks and stir until tender but not browned. Add one and a half quarts of water and sea salt to taste. Add the potatoes, cover, and simmer gently for 35 minutes.

Take the pot off the heat. With an immersion mixer, process the soup until smooth. Return the soup to high heat and bring to a boil. Skim if anything icky floats to the top. Add one tablespoon of cream and stir. A few seconds later, add one tablespoon butter. Ladle into warm soup bowls and sprinkle with chervil or flat-leave parsley snipped with scissors. Season with ground pepper to taste.

That is a bowl of solace.

But the other evening we had a pizza dough rising. We happened that day to dig out a few fingerling potatoes and also some leeks that never sized up. And, well, why couldn't we put leek-and-potato yumminess on a crust? Maybe Leek-and-Potato Pizza would combine the goodness of the soup with another favorite...the potato gratin.

The handful of fingerling potatoes went into a pot of boiling water. When they were tender, I sliced them in half lengthwise.

We did a simple, fast leek gravy: I cooked a strip of bacon in a skillet and removed it to drain. Then I sauteed several small leeks in the bacon drippings until they were sweet and a little caramelized. Then I whisked in a spoonful of flour until it smelled toasty. Then I whisked in some milk...just enough to make a sinuous roux.

The leek gravy went onto the pizza crust first. Then the fingerlings got scattered around. Then we added some grated gruyere cheese and then bacon crumbles.

When it came out of the pizza oven, we fell upon that pizza as though it could ease all the pain in the world. And for a few minutes, it almost did.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

How we peel a really, really fresh egg—if we get really lucky

By June

We are waiting for eggs. It's past time (by our eager calculations) for the first egg from our new little flock of Rhode Island Reds, and we can't even soothe ourselves with fresh goodies from the older hens; they are all molting.

First eggs are fun eggs. There's the thrill of discovering that first perfect offering, and then there's the thrill of cracking it open: Will it have a double yolk? And sometimes the first eggs are HUGE. See what happened last year...

But however large the eggs and no matter how many yolks are squeezed inside, the first eggs share something with all the eggs we get through the year: Fresh-from-the-hen eggs glow with rich orange and vibrate with taste...but they are hard to peel. Nay, they are impossible to peel. The white glues itself to the shell and comes off in great hunks.

So when we want to devil eggs, we either have to plan ahead (as old homesteaders did) and put aside some eggs to age. OR...what? Well, we set ourselves a mission to see if science had yielded any new tricks. We found this guy...

His technique, as you will see, involves boiling the eggs with baking soda, and then pinching a hole in each end and blowing the whole boiled egg out one end.

I am not going to show you pictures of us trying this technique; let's just say it wasn't the most dignified thing we ever did in the kitchen. We huffed, and we puffed, and we wheezed, and we coughed. Only Birch had the airpower to even dislodge an egg. We all stood around red in the face and fighting for breath, and we decide it was gross anyway. Who wanted to eat an egg that somebody had forced out of its shell with a lot of, er, spit?

But...we did find that the teaspoon of baking soda helped things along a bit. Even on a whim, the girls are now able to throw together a platter of deviled eggs. And, you know, a platter of deviled eggs create a party wherever they go.

I have to admit to a little motherly pride about their deviled eggs. You see, I grew up eating deviled eggs and watching my mother make them. But, years later, when I wanted to make them myself, I had to track down a recipe (this was before the Internet). So I felt a stirring of pride recently when I heard my daughters in the back seat discussing deviled egg recipes with a friend.

Blossom and Fern told what they did. Their friend discussed her recipe. That's self-sufficiency—knowing how to make something you love without being yoked to some writing on a piece of paper. Teach a child to devil an egg, she'll eat for a lifetime!

Here's Blossom's and Fern's recipe for Deviled Eggs from Really, Really, Really Fresh Eggs.

Put the eggs in a pot until the water is about an inch over their heads. Add a teaspoon of baking soda. Set the pot on the burner and fire it up high until it boils. Let it come to a really rolling boil, and then turn it off, put a lid on it, and let it sit for 12 or 13 minutes. (Lots of advice says 11 minutes, but we find that the yolk still has moist bits in it. We're trying to catch it at that perfect state between where it still has moist lumps and where the skin of the yolk turns that awful green. At our house, that's 12 minutes. Usually.)

Plunge the eggs into a bowl of ice and water. Shake it so the shells begin to crack. When the eggs are good and cold, peel away.

Slice the eggs in half the long way. Scoop out the yolk and whip it with a little mayo, a little Dijon mustard, and a little salt and pepper. According to Blossom and Fern, your fingers will know when it's the right consistency. Your taste buds will know when the seasoning is right.

Spoon it (or squirt it with a pastry bag) into the little bowls of the sliced eggs.

Sprinkle with paprika and fronds of dill. Try to get everyone to resist until dinner is served.

Now, ladies of the coop, please bring on those fresh, first eggs!