Monday, September 29, 2008

Apples!! Apples!!

Ok, first: this weekend B made blueberry pancakes, yum, and along with it a peach sauce from the last of the peaches we froze. Ahhhh! When we were drowning in peaches we did some research and the Internet World was like “straight up peaches frozen without syrup are not good.” But I am not really into syrupy things so we just froze them anyway and endeavored to use them all up in smoothies. But one container escaped our attention! And it’s true that when you defrost plain old once-frozen peaches they are a little wilted. For pie, maybe not. But for peach sauce? Just cooked down on the stove until they are so peachy you can barely stand it? The absolute best. And now, armed with this new knowledge, I hereby commit to freezing even more peaches, sans syrup, next year. Amen.

But whatever, peaches are yesterday’s news. It’s apple season. North Carolina is seventh or eighth in apple production in the country and the county south of us is where most of them come from. This weekend we drove out to a farm stand nearby that mostly specializes in sustainably grown meats, but they also have apples this time of year. All kinds of apples. Matsus (Crispins), Ginger Golds, Cameos, Cortlands, Jonagolds, Winesaps, Romes… They gave us two big bags and for $20 we filled them both to the top. And, bonus, fed one to a goat, which is hilarious and everyone who is grumpy should have to do this because life just can’t be annoying when you are feeding a goat an apple. Anyway. The plan is applesauce for most of them, but pie for some. Last night I made the “Rethinking Apple Pie” recipe from the latest Cook’s Illustrated, a take on apple pandowdy. God, they are such nerds, I am so fond of them. It’s a crust-on-top recipe that you can make in a cast iron skillet (my favorite, although I did not get to do it this time because B was cooking something beefy in our skillet at that very moment), and let me just say that I was totally sold at the point where they tell you to sauté the apples in butter. Who doesn’t think that’s a great idea? People, it was so yum. Make at once.

Cook’s Illustrated Apple Pandowdy

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter (they called for 6 butter, 2 vegetable shortening)
3-4 tablespoons ice water

Assemble as you prefer (note: I think my food processor might be on the way out, which I will cry over because it’s been the best food processor ever, especially considering that I bought it at some janky store down on Mission Street in SF where you can buy underwear and a fishing rod and a sombrero and fresh limes).

1/2 cup apple cider
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon (ok, I just shook some in there, along with some nutmeg and ginger)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 pounds sweet and tart apples, peeled, cored, halved, and cut into ½-inch-thick wedges (chickens love apple scraps)

Preheat oven to 500 degrees (that is not a typo).

Whisk cider, maple syrup, lemon juice, cornstarch, and spices together until smooth. Heat butter in 12-inch skillet (ideally this is what you will bake it in, but if yours is not heatproof, just transfer apples to a 9 x 13 baking dish after cooking them on the stove). When foaming subsides, add apples and cook, stirring two or three times until apples begin to caramelize (about 7 minutes**). Do not fully cook apples. Remove pan from heat, add cider mixture, and stir until apples are well coated. Set aside to cool slightly.

** A favorite reader mentioned that her apples could have been a little more cooked in this stage of the process, and I agree; mine did ok because I accidentally let them sit on the off-but-still-hot burner while doing 900 other things, but I think if I had taken them right off and proceeded they would have been undercooked too. Just keep in mind that you will bake this sucker at a very high temp and thus not have a lot of room to extend the cooking time before your crust gets burned or tough...

Roll out dough to fit either skillet or baking pan and place over apples. If you are ambitious, brush top of crust with egg white or milk and sprinkle sugar on top. With a sharp knife, cut the dough into six or eight squares. This is so all the liquid will bubble up and caramelize deliciously around the crust. Bake for 20 minutes or until crust is browned and apple are done (mine needed another 5 minutes to get there). Let cool for at least 15 minutes, serve with ice cream or fresh whipped cream.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cherry Pie!!!

Oh golly, it’s so Fall around here. The garden and I would like to request the commencement of Indian Summer, if you please. Our little sprouts out there are just a little too sprouty for my taste. I am thrilled about cooking all my favorite cold weather foods though. This is a top favorite for when time is short and cheap eats are in order. I never do the fussy separating of the butter though: I use 4 tablespoons and put all the spices in right at the get-go. This is the dish that put french lentils on the map for me, and while I love a good mushy dal as much as the next girl, french lentils are in another league entirely. Also loving: baking in a cold house. Yesterday I decided that it was finally time to bake a cherry pie with some of those cherries that B and I picked and pitted. I can’t believe this, but I’ve never made a cherry pie! And I was kind of horrified at how many people want you to make a cherry pie from a sweet cherry. Wtf? A sweet cherry is a hand fruit: you just eat them. Ok, not totally true, I did make an amazing cornmeal cherry cake with sweet cherries but it was just a handful and honestly, if I ever make that again I’d go sour cherries for sure. ANYWAY. As usual, I had to look at 50 different recipes and mix them all together and freak out a little bit about it. Here’s what I settled on:

6 cups cherries (too many – 5 would have been fine)
1 1/8 cup sugar (sweetening fruit pies is the scariest part – I so hate an overly sweet pie but these cherries were sour and could have definitely been undersweetened – in the end I think this was maybe just a tad on the sweet side - B does not agree - so next time I will do a cup and a tablespoon and see if I can make us both happy)
3 tablespoons quick-cook tapioca, ground to fine in a coffee grinder
2 tablespoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon lemon juice
Pinch of nutmeg

Our cherries were frozen, and most recipes emphasized that you just deal with them frozen; you toss them with the ingredients above and let it all sit for about 30 minutes and then throw it in the pie crust. Easy peasy and I am so tickled that we still have cherries for another half dozen pies.

Speaking of pie crusts I had to be my usual nimrod self and try a new pie crust recipe even though I have several that I really like and are easy to work with. I am a pie crust harlot. This crust was so flaky. Insanely flaky. Too flaky if you ask me. It made for a really nice under crust, which is to say not gummy at all, but the top crust was just a little dippy for my taste. Anyway, all of that aside, the pie was totally delicious and our favorite wedding-fiddler friends just happened to come over and god, nothing makes you feel like Betty Crocker more than opening the door and being able to say “Come in why don’t you – I’m just getting the cherry pie out of the oven!”

Hey, Asheville is still out of gas! People are freaking the hell out. It’s so interesting. B and I have been very whatever about it; the scooter and the car sip gas, we were lucky to head into this whole thing with full tanks, I mostly ride my bike to work anyway, and there’s really no place that we need or want to go that we can’t ride bikes to. Not the case for a lot of people, not even close. I empathize with folks who have found themselves in a tough spot, but at the same time I have never had more bicycle company on the road and I have never heard so many people talk about carpooling and combining their errands and all the shit we should be doing anyway. Woo-hoo.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Big Bacon Jar

Hey ho, how goes it out there? We had a rip roaring weekend of good times: music for money, music for fun, yummy food, brunch with friends, some Hitchcock, some quality chicken petting time, an afternoon warm enough for ice cream just as we happened to be passing our favorite ice cream shop. The music for money was the most fun I’ve had yet playing for a microphone. Acoustic and I can pretend we are lifting the ceiling off the living room, but microphones make me itchy and I swear I have yet to play a gig where I can hear the guitar player, but this weekend at least I heard the bass, woo-hoo.

And then: back to work. I hate to use this space to complain because my life is one plummy life, but I am not digging my new work situation. I am spending way too much time trying to figure out what about it is me and what about it is not. For the last many years I have definitely questioned my dedication to being a librarian. Or anything else that sits in front of a computer all day. I crave work that feels more like work to me; something outside, something with my hands, something where there’s less talking about doing things and more doing of them. I wish there was the time in the day for me to spend some of it working on a farm so that I could reality check my belief that I would be happier doing something like that, but right now I am putting in long hours and it’s a feat to just get dinner made before we both eat the table. I know this is finite; someday B will finish grad school and we will have a whole new set of options related to keeping us afloat. This week it just seems a long way off and I am tempted to keep riding right past the university each morning. (Aside: Asheville is out of gas. Or something like that. Gas stations seem to get one grade of gas for about three hours a day and everyone and their brother lines up around the block about 9 times for it. I find stuff like this terrifying and kind of exciting. I know that I can’t even imagine how drastically our life would change without the current resource access and I know that it’s very likely that any big changes will probably be uncomfortable. But I also probably wouldn’t have to stare at a computer all day anymore.)

Ok, on to more exciting things. How ‘bout those leeks up there? They are not the fattest leeks you've ever met, but they are looooong and so flavorful. They were dug up for potato leek soup with fresh corn, and thyme. The soup was supposed to have bacon in it, but I forgot to buy any so I just sautéed all the veggies in bacon fat. Fabulous. We have this big jar in the fridge that we dump bacon grease into and I like to joke that when the shit hits the fan it will be worth a fortune. Anyway, actually using some of it made me think about other things to do with it and now I am obsessed with popping popcorn in bacon fat. When I first proposed this to B he was like, “Umm, but our popcorn is already really good with butter” and he looked kind of terrified. And I was like “No goose, we wouldn’t put bacon grease ON the popcorn, we’d POP the popcorn in bacon grease.” I got a tacit ok on that and I will report back. (Note: yes, the blue background above is the extremely bizarre exterior of our home. We are going to paint the house silver so that it looks like one big truck bed tread. Just kidding. Someday we will win the lottery and do something exciting to it.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Thursday Morning Fall

Geez people, what a week of news. Has everyone else been as plastered to it as I am? (Well, as plastered as I can be without a television.) I love elections and around here it’s especially exciting because I am hopeful that North Carolina might finally knock Elizabeth Dole off her lazy Senatorial butt. I did recently read a terrifying article about the potential for a Bradley Effect type of outcome in this election so now when I see polls with Obama way out front I am less psyched and more worried. I know there’s a lot of noise about polls shmolls and there’s got to be a margin of error in them that accounts for all the youngish folks who don’t have a landline and thus are not being polled. Anyway, are you all registered to vote? B and I have been making small donations to the races we care about, which makes me feel grown up and weird, give it a shot. And all this news about financial meltdown? It definitely freaks me out, but to be totally frank: it makes me grateful that we are a poor scrappy couple with not much to lose besides each other. I do feel sad for the folks who might have just seen their retirement slide down the drain, especially if they were getting close to their dreams of puttering away the days in their garden.

What the heck else? I am worried that we put the fall garden in too late; we’ve had pretty good germination but slow growth. It’s a much cooler fall this year for sure which is probably the bigger issue. Nice rain though, and the ambient green is a relief to the eyes after our parchy summer. Hey, has anyone dealt with major mushroom action in their garden after buying mushroom manure? (I was told that it’s the composted medium that mushrooms are grown in.) Makes sense, but this year when we turned one of our beds practically the entire layer just beneath the top was white and very dry and crumbly. And now that we have gotten some rain, HUGE mushrooms are pushing up all over the place and when I pull them up their roots are surrounded by the same white crumbliness. It has been kind of distressing, I will definitely not be using mushroom manure in the future which is too bad because I felt better about buying unknown vegetarian compost than I do about buying unknown mammal manure.

Anyway. Oh hey, Maine was great. Kind of rainy and fall like, although we did get one clear day for the requisite boating and swimming and man, saunas are awesome. What fun.

This weekend we are playing a gig with my favorite guitar player in the world and we are going to press apples somewhere out in Madison County and maybe we will even start building the raised bed I keep talking about. And make that curtain. And... And sleep in and make pancakes and take a nap.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Baths, Bok Choy, Ball Pitcher

Ok, since I was at work until 9 last night and up running around pickup up our car from the shop at 7 this morning, I don’t have much to report since my last rant. Except that when I got home last night B put me in the bathtub with nice smelling things and a glass of whiskey and the latest New Yorker and the best part is: he didn’t even read the post from yesterday. He just took one look at my tired little face and said, “I’m running you a bath.” Last night was also the first time I have had to drive the scooter in the rain at night. Give me a bicycle any day, I was terrified the whole time. Ok, maybe mostly just at the beginning.

Oh gosh, I do have news: this morning the baby bok choy is up too! I love fall gardening! Frost schmost!

And because I prefer posts with pictures, I leave you with a photo of the cutest little ball pitcher in the world, recently given to me by a friend who is an insane collector of all things Hall. She gave me this one because she had three others just like it, how crazy is that? Anyway, we hate our Britta pitcher but it is a necessary evil in our current situation (which is to say, too broke for any other water filtration options). I hate Brittas because they take up space on the counter but I really, really hate them because they’re so ugly. I have long argued that there is a fortune to be made for the person who designs an aesthetically pleasing filter/pitcher. A fortune. Anyway, for now we just kind of tuck the Britta in the corner and fill this guy up for general use and I permit myself to get a kick out of how cute it is every time I use it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Picking Peppers

Oh guys, I'm sorry. I feel like I can't stop posting about how busy I am and I know it must be getting old. But fuck. People, I need a break. Honestly, I am not really sure what is going on. I am a busy girl because I like busy. But lately? Seriously, this weekend I had to have this to-do list pried out of my hands by my husband: pick blueberries on Mount Mitchell, make pesto, clean garden beds and plant the fall garden, make curtains, floor the second story of the chicken coop, build a raised bed, finish my book, spend four hours at the attorney's office I used to work for but am now just helping out on the weekends, make a birthday present, go to a birthday party, and play enough music. Plus get ready for a scary presentation on Monday morning at work and all the less exciting stuff like laundry. Yesterday as I was riding my bike to work I actually began to wonder if I might need to stop trying to pack so much expectation into my life, which kind of felt like a brand new thought, sort of odd shaped and unfamiliar, kind of scary and liberating at the same time. I am definitely a hyper productive person but lately I am not so sure it's making me happy. I think I need to lounge around in my underpants and sleep in more. Take long walks with no route in mind and put myself in the bathtub with something that smells nice.

Anyway, sorry to rant. The good news is: we did pick blueberries on Mount Mitchell, and although we were about a week late there were indeed blueberries up there and they were way bigger than we had any right to hope for considering the drought around here. We got maybe two gallons and it was pretty tough picking but man, I don't know if there's a more beautiful place to spend the day. You reach for a berry and once your fingers close on it you look out beyond yourself onto waves and waves of green mountains rippling out away from you. Seriously epic Appalachian action. We also made pesto and it rocked. And, biggest relief of all: we finally planted the fall garden. Four kinds of lettuces, peas, baby bok choy, two kinds of kale, chard, broccoli, spinach, beets, cilantro. And, the big winner: arugula. B and I planted everything Sunday morning, and it's already up. Hello two day germination rockstar. I will probably post a photograph of arugula coming out of the ground every year for the rest of my life because just as I will laugh at jokes even if I've heard them before because I can't remember any jokes for the life of me (wait, that's not true: Rachy I have a new one for you and you will fall over dead because it's so funny!) I also seem to get just as excited about the same old seeds popping up every season. Amen to cheap thrills.

The other good news is that B and I are headed to Maine this weekend for the 91st birthday of his grandmother. They have an annual party at this super swanky place on the most beautiful lake in Maine you have ever seen and there is ping pong and kayaking and a sauna and midnight skinny dipping and although it could not be coming at a worse time for me in terms of work I know that once I get there it will be a total blast. I am really lucky to be able to so genuinely look forward to spending time with B's family.

I am also really lucky in 9000 other ways having to do with B including this way. I left this recipe out and he cooked it up yesterday and it was so damn good. We used Marrow Beans from my favorite bean purveyor and they were amazing - Gran, were these the ones you said you liked so much? They were incredibly flavorful and super creamy, yet didn't lose their shape or skin. The only thing about the recipe is that she has you chop the mirepoix (leeks - from our own garden and I swear I will photograph them soon because they are soooooo long and lovely - carrots, celery) into really huge chunks which I totally disapprove of. I am not the biggest fan of huge hunks of cooked celery. Anyway, this is a fantastic fall dish that will kick down tons of great leftovers, highly recommended. (We made it with sausage from the farmer's market. Of course.)

Ok. May you all be just the right amount of busy.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pass It Out

Oh my goodness people, how does it get so busy??? The photo above is where we were over the holiday weekend: in West Virginia for the family reunion doing really important things like eating and swimming and playing wiffle ball and eating some more. It was so great, I freakin' love my family to the moon and back and the farm was so beautiful.

We got home Monday night and I feel like we got dropped into the middle of a marathon. B is back in school and work is crazy and I have yet to plant the fall garden and I have been trying to ride my bike to work which just means up earlier and home later and then I had a date to cook dinner with one of my friends which was really fun and then all of a sudden there's a pie contest at work and so pie had to be made last night at about 11. (I made this tart because I happened to have everything and it's pretty quick, but this time I used this crust recipe and although it was a total bear to roll out, I have always had a problem with shrinking tart shells and this one did not shrink one bit.) Then in all that craziness, I have an eye appointment super early this morning and after he numbs my eyes I passed out. Not all the way out, but just my usual trick of my vision graying out and getting all woozy and nauseous and my hearing diminishing until everything is a whine. This happens to me more than I care to admit, although it's gotten better the older I am, I still hate it so much, it is the worst feeling. Grrr. The doctor was very pleasant about it and I wobbled out the door bolstered by his verdict that there is nothing wrong with my eyes, but geez louise. I called B right away and immediately felt better. I am totally going to drag him with me if I ever have to go back to an eye doctor, which I sincerely hope will never be the case. When and if I need glasses I will follow in the proud family tradition of buying them at the drugstore, thank you very much.

Anyway. I have slowly been cleaning out the garden (pesto tonight!), and in the next few days I hope to get it all planted. This is a week later than last year, and I am really pushing it for things like broccoli, but I figure we mostly just eat the broccoli greens so who cares. I am always glad to see fall coming but this has been the sweetest summer of my life and part of me wouldn't mind if it just went on forever. On to cozy fall though, I am ready for cider and eggnog and winter squash soup.