Sunday, August 31, 2008

Magical Moments by the Campfire

One of the best things about camping is you have more time to indulge in your favorite relaxing pastimes. For us, cooking is right up there, and it took center stage this trip. We managed to cook most of our favorite campfire foods and even entertained two nights and one morning.

My cousin Deanna and her two boys, EJ and Noah, were camping for the first time just a short walk from us. It was wonderful to hang out together and watch the next generation bond together on the beach and around the campfire. We invited them over for dinner on Wednesday for steaks cooked over the fire and “campfire potatoes” from my childhood.

The steaks were thick and juicy and the potatoes got rave reviews, but I forgot to take photos so you will just have to take my word for it. After dinner, the kids had s’mores and then lit off sparklers. My uncle joined us and we all sat by the fire, talking and listening to quiet music on the radio.

At 10:15, a park ranger stopped by to gently remind us that 10:00 was quiet time. “Your living room is your neighbor’s bedroom,” he said. I recognized his voice and soothing manner and asked if he was the poet ranger. “Yes, how did you know?” he asked.

Well, I wrote a story about him for the Cape Cod Times a few years ago and we hiked the same area we were camping in during our interview. When I told him who I was, he gave me a big hug and then burst into verse, reciting one of his poems to our stunned little group. Way cool.

Then later while Julie and I were in the bathroom getting ready for bed, he stopped by again and left a typed up copy of the poem for me with Steve. Here’s the poem by Eric Levy, poet and park ranger at Nickerson State Park:

Dearest Rock of Ages

Dearest Rock of Ages sits,
As the Sea breaks at her fingertips,
And woes kiss toes as she naked strips
Away the emperor’s old clothes.

Defiant alone against dominating waves,
Behind her swim the loved ones saved,
With a hardness of kindness the wildness behaves,
The ocean’s motion just goes.

Beau barnacles and seaweed cling
As winded Sirens around her sing,
Within her sight I keep sailing,
The heart to heart just knows.

So I do try to sail up close,
And bring the butter for her toast,
And show that Rocks do form a coast,
A place where wonderment grows.

The next morning Deanna and the boys came by for breakfast. Steve made a small fire as soon as he got up and when the coals were low, he fried up some bacon and eggs for bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches on Portuguese muffins. The leftover salt potatoes made yummy home fries.

Great company, tasty food and spontaneous poetry – now that’s the ultimate camping experience.

The Recipe:

Campfire Potatoes
Serves 4

4 large potatoes, diced
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, diced
8 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper

Place four large squares of aluminum foil on counter. Put one diced potato on each piece of foil. Divide celery and onions evenly among the four potatoes and add two tablespoons of butter to each. Season with salt and pepper. Wrap each potato packet by bringing two sides of the foil together and folding to seal. Then fold over other two sides. Place each packet on campfire or grill and cook over medium heat for 20 - 30 minutes, turning once halfway through.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cooking at the Campsite

We had so much fun camping that I didn’t want to come home – ever. And the tent didn’t slow us down at all. With just a one burner camp stove and a fire pit, we ate better this week than we have all summer. But we didn’t get off to a great start. The first night was a test of my will to camp. It took us three hours to set up camp and then it was almost dark and too late to cook. Here's our kitchen:

Steve and Tommy headed to the Hearth ‘N Kettle restaurant for take out, while Julie and I finished settling the camp and built a fire. The food arrived about 30 seconds before a torrential rain began and we ended up huddled in the big tent, sitting on the floor to eat dinner while thunder and lightning raged above us and the little girls across the street screamed.

Here's our tent and the kids "bedrooms":

We all hung out together in our (amazingly) dry tent for a while. I read a book, Julie watched How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days on her portable DVD player, and Tommy and Steve played Connect Four. It was cozy and relaxed - not the disaster I expected. Sleeping proved to be a bit less comfortable. The air mattress we borrowed from Steve’s friend Kevin was as high off the ground as our bed at home (one of my requirements). A river could have run through our tent and we would have been dry.

But the mattress was so slippery the sheets kept coming undone and Steve commented it was like sleeping on a bag of potato chips – very loud and crunchy every time we moved, which was quite often because we were freezing and couldn’t get warm or comfortable. The next day the kids complained that they heard us crunching around in our sleep all night long. To solve this dilemma, I added a warm blanket on top of the sheets to insulate us from the cold air mattress and two more blankets on top. We were still noisy, but much warmer.

The next night I could finally test my cooking skills. I actually planned a whole meal around a story I read in the “Escapes” section of the New York Times, captioned, “Finger (Lakes) Food.” Every so often I come across a story that I wish I’d written and this is one of them. The writer traveled around my hometown region, sampling the food and I was so envious I decided to do the next best thing - recreate the experience at my campsite.

Even though there was no recipe for “Cornell Chicken,” I gathered enough basic info to make my own. Folklore (and the New York Times) has it that the recipe for “Cornell Chicken,” also called “Baker’s Chicken,” was created by Robert Baker, an animal science professor who introduced the recipe to Ithaca in 1957 in an attempt to get people to eat more chicken. Apparently Baker also invented the first chicken nugget.

I made the marinade at home and the chicken (bone in breasts and thighs) soaked in it for two days. Steve cooked it over the fire and it was simply delicious. The taste was evocative of something tastily familiar – spiedies!

I decided to pair the “Cornell Chicken” with salt potatoes from the same article and the recipe seemed like it might be the origin for the Beans and Potatoes my family makes, only instead of a cup and a half of beans, they use a cup and a half of SALT. I actually couldn’t bear to put that much salt in; I lost my courage after dumping the first cup and ended up reducing the salt to one cup and the butter to a half a stick rather than the whole stick the recipe called for. They were still plenty salty and buttery.

This might not be the healthiest dish for those with high blood pressure, but it sure was tasty. The trick is to cook small potatoes whole with the skin on.

To complete the hometown meal, I added some sliced tomatoes and cucumbers from our garden just like my Mom and grandmother regularly did when I was a child. This dish was lost on Steve who wanted a more traditional salad and wondered why I didn’t put dressing on them, but I love the fresh taste of plain tomatoes and cukes. The result was a nostalgic blast from the past for me that was perfectly suited for camping, which is after all revisiting another childhood pleasure.

The Recipes:

Cornell Chicken

1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon fresh savory, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
1 teaspoon fresh sage, minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
4 chicken breasts, bone in
4 chicken thighs, bone in

Place chicken pieces in a shallow plastic container with a lid. Mix all the remaining ingredients together and pour over the chicken. Marinade for two days, and then grill, preferably over an open fire or charcoal for 20 – 30 minutes or until juices run clear.

Salt potatoes

1 cup Kosher salt
8 cups water
2 pounds of well scrubbed red or while potatoes, uniform in size, skins on
1/2 stick butter, cut in pieces

Bring salt and water to a boil. Add potatoes and cook until tender, about 15 – 20 minutes, depending on size. Drain potatoes and add butter to pan and return to burner on stove. When butter is melted, add drained potatoes and toss.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Going Camping!

Enough with the domestic gardening and canning! For the next five days, we will be camping in the wilderness and foraging for our own food in order to eat.

Just kidding. We will actually be camping at Nickerson State Park, parts of which are only a five minute walk from our house. It is an annual tradition, and sadly, it is usually the one week of the summer that we actually enjoy this gorgeous place we live.

Those mushrooms aren’t a joke though. We have had a particularly damp season on the Cape and mushrooms have sprouted everywhere. We have so many mushrooms in our yard that the hubby and grandchild have spent half the summer walking around after dinner kicking them for fun. Then the hubby had a better idea. He actually wants to EAT them. He bought a book titled, Mushrooms of Cape Cod and the National Seashore, and went out last week and picked all the specimens he could find in the yard. If you don’t believe me, look at the photo.

After laying them on our counter, he tried to identify them. He thinks the ones with the greenish tops are edible and the tiny white one that looks like a brain is edible “when the spore mass is white.” Yeah, okay. But the big orange ones that he thought had to be edible because they smelled so good are highly poisonous.

All I can think of is that 1971 movie The Beguiled with Clint Eastwood. He plays an injured Union solder deserter who lands at a private girl’s school. They heal him, but when he plays one off the other, they ultimately poison him with mushrooms.

Scary stuff so I won’t be trying any of those mushrooms, and I’m shopping for some life insurance policies on the hubby.

But back to camping - For the past 10 or 12 years, we have camped in our 1969 Starcraft Pop-Up camper, but this year even I had to admit it was time to let it go. When Steve opened it up, the mice had eaten a HUGE hole in the canvas and nibbled the corner off our bed mattress. The canvas was already being held together with duct tape, and that hole was just the last straw.

I thought. Until I tearfully went back inside the house and heard Steve yelp. When I ran back out he pointed to a cute little mother mouse with wide bead shaped eyes scurrying around amidst the rope in a drawer he had pulled out. Two of her babies were still attached for their morning feeding.

Steve set the drawer in the woods so the upscale mama who was looking for a condo for her babies could go live in the wild where they belonged. But really, that sealed it. So now we are going to try to be tenters! The exclamation point is Steve’s as he has been trying to sell me on this fact for a week. I’m not convinced and every argument discussion we’ve had makes me less sure.

I love camping. I even adore camping. BUT, I like to be comfortable too. Every time Steve tries to tell me that tent camping is more honed down, with less stuff, I balk. I want to sleep in a bed that is not right on the ground and I like to cook nice dinners and eat off real plates when I camp. I always make campfire pot roast in my cast iron Dutch oven and Steve makes campfire steaks. I don’t even mind washing the dishes, even though it takes about 45 minutes to heat the water.

So there will be good food, but as for the rest, I’ll let you know how I make out.

I might not post any entries to the blog this week, but then again I just might. I have to get in my car to drive to the public shower, so I’ve always figured why not drive a few more minutes (like ten) and shower at home. My older daughters used to balk at this as cheating, but my younger two kids have no such compulsions. They will probably welcome the electronics (MySpace and Wii) treat.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tomatoes and Zucchini and Cucumbers, Oh My!

Tonight’s dinner was inspired by the garden and every dish had tomatoes or zucchini or both. For a fun appetizer the hubby made a hummus style grilled zucchini-white bean dip to serve with some toasted whole wheat pita wedges. Then he made a zucchini based salad dressing that had tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. It was very tasty and very low fat. There is only 2 tablespoons of olive oil in 2 cups of dressing.

For our main dinner, we had the quick summer tomato pasta sauce from this post, using more tomatoes and zucchini. Cooking the garlic and shallots was the way to go. A salad with the the zucchini salad dressing completed the meal.

The pickle making continues. Today I canned 16 pints of pickled products bringing my total to 11 jars of bread and butter pickles, 11 jars of sweet pickle relish and four jars of dilly beans. So we won’t buying pickles or relish for the next year.

Making relish is a fairly time consuming process. On Thursday, I spent an hour and a half chopping cucumbers, peppers and onions into teeny-tiny cubes. All that time only yielded three pints! My Mom uses her food processor, but I was determined to have my relish be square, instead of chopped.

Today I started with a double batch of bread and butter pickles. After an hour slicing cucumbers, I was tired, but I stuck to my principles with the first batch of relish. Looking at the five pound pile of cucumbers still left to chop made me concede defeat, especially since right by my side, Steve was zipping through his dip and salad dressing in no time at all with the handy dandy food processor. Since it was already out…

Four quick pulses multiplied by four batches of veggies meant that the entire process took about five minutes instead of an hour and a half. Mom wins for pure practicality.

There is something so very satisfying about lounging on the couch after a long day of canning and hearing the pings and pops in the kitchen as the jars seal. There's another one.

The Recipes:

Grilled Zucchini-White Bean Dip

1 medium zucchini, thinly sliced the long way
1 tablespoon Montreal seasoning
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Preheat grill to medium. Place zucchini in a grill basket and spray with olive oil Pam and sprinkle with Montreal seasoning. Grill for five minutes, turning once, until slightly charred and fork tender. Place zucchini in food processor and add all the rest of the ingredients. Puree until smooth. Serve at room temperature.

Zucchini Salad Dressing

1 medium zucchini, peeled and sliced
1 large tomato, peeled and sliced
1 small cucumber, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup chives, chopped
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

Put all ingredients in a food processor and puree until vegetable are chopped very fine. Shake before serving.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cukes and More Cukes

Every marriage has funny quirks and mine is no exception. The hubby is making me a little crazy lately with the garden, and I’ve had to think about why it is bothering me so much. Every chance he gets, he runs out there and starts picking stuff. This would be a really great thing if we had a huge garden and I needed some help. But no. We have a small back yard garden that I planted.

The key to my irritation lies in those last two words. I fully acknowledge that he sifted the big pile of compost our friend Sean dropped off, and even spread it on the garden my step-dad Tom created. But I planted the garden, I weeded the garden, I thinned the plants. (I realize I’m starting to sound a little like “The Little Red Hen” and now I know why that was one of my favorite childhood stories.)

For any gardener, the best part of all is the harvest – picking the vegetables you have worked so hard to grow. Guess who picked the first beans? The first tomato before it was even ripe? The first cucumber?

Yep, the hubby. He sneaks out there after work or on weekends, when I’m still hard at work writing, and starts picking. It reminds me of my short crossword puzzle craze. Our son Tommy got a 1000 piece puzzle that we all started together. Tommy quickly grew bored and Steve eventually turned on the TV. But I was obsessed. All that night and most of the next day. I just kept thinking, “one more piece,” until suddenly it was late afternoon and I hadn’t even showered.

With only a small circle in the center to go, about 50 of the easiest pieces, I took a shower and then went to the store to get something for dinner. When I got back, Steve had finished the puzzle. Kind of infuriating.

But last weekend I was on to him. When he disappeared, I went out back and found him in the garden and deadlines be damned, picked right alongside him. The cucumbers have become our biggest bumper crop, so we are experimenting with pickles - lots of pickles, because really how much gazpacho can you make?

First Steve made a big jar of Polish Pickles using my Grandpa Palmer’s recipe in my Mom's Cookbook. You can get one of these big jars at any local restaurant. Just ask the chef to save you one, and most chefs are intrigued enough that they will. That was his project and I handed him the cookbook and let him have at it.

Then I made bread and butter pickles and dilly beans. Both recipes came from the Ball Blue Book. This project is not for the faint of heart. At the end of the day I looked at the four pints of dilly beans and four pints of bread and butter pickles and laughed. All that work – so little to show for it.

And yet…so much, too.

The Recipes:

Grandpa Palmer’s Polish Pickles

6 cups water
2 cups white vinegar
6 tablespoons non-iodized salt
Four dill heads (or large sprigs of dill)
4 garlic cloves
2 grape leaves
2 tablespoons pickling spice

In a one gallon jar, place the dill, garlic, grape leaves and pickling spice. Pack the jar full to the top with cucumbers. Bring water, vinegar and salt to a boil and pour over the top. Let pickles sit on the counter for three days and then refrigerate.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Summer in a Bowl

The garden is not only producing, but overwhelming me. For weeks now dinner has been planned around what I simply have to use up. We had two weeks of beans, beans, beans. There's still a big bag in the fridge, but the plants have been pulled up to make room for the squash and cucumbers. Now the cucumbers are coming on like gangbusters and the tomatoes are ripening faster than we can use up in salads.

So what do you do when you have piles of cucumbers and tomatoes on the counter? One word: gazpacho! I got the idea from a story in the Cape Cod Times that listed 12 things to do with tomatoes. It gave me the basic proportions of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers and then I improvised on the rest. The idea to add carrots came from my dear friend Candy, who used to make gazpacho all the time.

It wasn’t an entirely homegrown recipe. Unfortunately, I ran out of space to plant onions (next year!) and since I couldn’t find yellow pepper seedlings when I was planting the garden, I planted from seeds. This was a mistake. The seeds took forever to germinate and even though I planted a whole row, only five plants came up. Even worse, my yellow pepper plants are currently the size of green pepper seedlings I saw at Agway in early June.

It will be a miracle if they produce a single pepper before frost comes and kills them. The biggest thing I’ve discovered from this garden experiment is that it is a “live and learn” experience.

And there is still all those cucumbers…

The Recipe:

Garden Fresh Gazpacho

4 cups tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 cup cucumber, chopped fine
1 cup yellow pepper, chopped fine
1/2 cup Vidalia onion, chopped fine
1/4 cup carrots, chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and chill until time to serve. Great the next day too.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Tommy's Birthday

My youngest child just turned thirteen, which actually means I no longer have any children – just teenagers and (young) grown-ups who call me Mom.

Tommy is the only one of my four who has a summer birthday, and we usually have a big family blow-out. This year was no exception. We had a cookout for twenty people. The first guests (Tommy’s friends) arrived at 4 in the afternoon and the last guests (family members) left at midnight.

For our kids birthday we usually cook their favorite food for dinner. This presents a problem when it comes to Tommy because he only likes food the rest of us aren’t terribly interested in eating. To make everyone happy we cooked a little bit of everything.

There was a big pot of clam chowder, a bowl of chips, a platter of hotdogs and a fruit salad for Tommy and his friends. For those with a more sophisticated palate we added ribs, grilled marinated chicken, potato salad, and three bean salad.

Putting out that kind of spread isn’t nearly as nerve wracking as THE CAKE. I love to cook, but baking – not so much. For me, cooking is an art. Baking is pure science, and science was never my favorite subject. Not that my family suffers. Did you notice the hubby made the last two desserts in the entry below?

The only thing I love to bake are pies. Cookies and cakes make my head hurt, but occasionally I still persist in trying to bake cookies (tons of them at Christmas, and no other time) and cakes (for my children’s birthdays, depending on my mood).

My mood was adventurous on Tommy’s birthday, so I flipped open my Mom’s cookbook and made the chocolate cake I grew up with. Every time I make this, I’m disappointed with the result, but still I persist. This time was no different.

Even though a hint of memory cautioned me to follow the directions to grease the cake pan, add wax paper and grease that too, I simply don’t remember ever seeing wax paper ever in my childhood home. Thinking about the bathroom I still had to clean, I simply greased and floured the pan, put the two nine-inch round pans in the oven, set the timer and went clean the bathroom.

Thirty minutes later, my bathroom was spotless, but my cakes wouldn’t come out of their pans. Using knives and spatulas, I managed to ease them onto the waiting racks, but I lost the bottom corner of one and seriously panicked about how the cake would look. The other one came out, but the thin bottom layer stayed in the pan, leaving a crumbly top that looked impossible to frost neatly.

Luckily, Tommy wanted the same cake his sister Julie decorated for him last year, something called a dirt cake that involves crushed Oreos and gummy worms. Crushed Oreos cover a multitude of crumb and frosting errors. I highly recommend them.

For those with sharp eyes, did you notice my photos are getting (slightly) better? Thanks go to Elise Bauer, food blogger extraordinaire, whose blog Simply Recipes has some awesome recipes and gorgeous photos. On her site, she has some extremely helpful tips for better photos of food. My husband won't let me I can’t really afford to buy a new camera with changeable lenses, but I did discover my camera has both a macro setting and a super macro setting. Check this out.

Macro of Three Bean Salad:

Super macro of Three Bean Salad:

Isn't that amazing?!!! Thanks Elise!

The Recipes:

Three Bean Salad

2 cups green beans, ends trimmed and snapped into thirds
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 can chick peas, drained and rinsed
1 medium Vidalia or walla walla onion, sliced and then cut slices in half
1/4 cup Ken’s Steak House Lite Olive Oil Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Mom's Favorite Chocolate Layer Cake

3 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
1/3 cup coffee
3/4 cup butter
2 1/4 cups brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour sifted
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup coffee

Melt chocolate in 1/3 cup of coffee over very low heat, stirring. When melted, set aside to cool slightly. Measure dry ingredients and sift them together. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and brown sugar very well. Add eggs one at a time and beat well. Add vanilla and then blend in chocolate. Beat well. Add dry ingredients, alternately with 1 cup of coffee, missing just enough to combine well on lowest mixer speed.

Pour into well-buttered 9-inch cake pans lined with buttered wax paper. Bake at 350 degree oven 35 to 40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Do not remove cake too soon or it will fall. Cool 10 minutes in pan, then remove and cool on racks.

Butter Cream Frosting

1/3 cup butter
4 1/2 cup sifted powdered sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

In a bowl beat butter till fluffy. Gradually, add 2 cups powdered sugar, beating well. Slowly beat in the 1/4 cup milk and vanilla. Slowly beat in remaining sugar. Beat in additional milk if desired.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Desserts from the Garden

I’m not a big dessert person, but lately the hubby has been making all kinds of desserts inspired by the fresh produce we have. My Uncle Foster gave us a giant zucchini that sat on our counter for a couple of weeks, just begging to be eaten.

One day Steve couldn’t take any longer. He dug out a recipe for Chocolate Chip Zucchini Cake he found on the RecipeSource website that the guys love at the men’s cooking class he teaches at the Yarmouth Senior Center. It is so moist it doesn’t even need frosting. Just add a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

We finally found a way to serve vegetables that even our son Tommy will eat!

No sooner was the cake gone and Steve found another recipe to use up the whole loaf of French bread that I bought but we never got around to eating. It was rock hard stale, but he hates throwing out food. A quick look in the fridge and he found lemons and blueberries and decided to make Lemon Blueberry Bread Pudding.

Baking is different than cooking and a recipe is usually a necessity. Steve found a recipe from Food and Wine magazine that Emeril Lagasse created. The biggest change he made was he left out the dried blueberries and substituted all fresh ones. A few tweaks to accommodate the ingredients we had and a new recipe was born.

Lemons and blueberries are two of my favorite dessert flavors. Served warm with a drizzle of light cream, this was total YUM!

Have I mentioned that I’ve gained five pounds since this food blog started…

The Recipes:

Chocolate Chip Zucchini Cake

Cream together:
1 3/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup oil

2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup sour cream (or yogurt, which we substituted)

Mix together and add to Liquid Mixture:
2 1/2 cups flour
4 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

Beat well, then stir in:
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup chocolate chips

Grease and flour a 13 by 9 inch baking pan. Pour batter into pan. Bake in 350 degree oven for 40 – 45 minutes or until cake tests done with a toothpick.

Lemon-Blueberry Bread Pudding

2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus more for baking dish
4 large eggs
2 cups heavy cream (we used half and half because that’s what we had)
2 cups milk
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
10 ounces stale brioche bread, cut into 1 inch cubes (6 cups)
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries

Generously grease a 10 by 14 inch baking dish. In a large bowl whisk the eggs with the cream, milk, brown sugar, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the bread cubes and the blueberries and stir well. Add the melted butter. Let the bread soak for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Pour the bread mixture into the prepared dish and bake on the upper rack of the oven for about 1 hour, until firm when pressed in the center. Let cool on a rack for about 20 minutes. Serve warm.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Picking My Produce

The garden is finally starting to produce! This week I picked my first green beans and a cucumber. Snapping those beans brought me right back to my childhood, sitting alongside my mother snapping grocery bags full of yellow and green beans from her garden so she could can them. I remember those days so fondly that I wonder if my kids are missing out. I’m pretty sure they don’t think so.

Here's my Mom's HUGE and very orderly garden from my teen years:

And here's my not so huge and very crowded garden:

I didn’t really know what I was going to do with the beans. Even though I love fresh green beans, they’re actually kind of boring to cook with. There aren’t a whole lot of recipes that use them and they aren’t a natural complement to other foods, like beets are with blue cheese or tomatoes and garlic.

That line of thinking gave me the aha! moment I was looking for. Beans and potatoes! This was another favorite dish from my childhood that my mother and my Grandma Palmer regularly made in the summer when they had fresh beans from the garden. I still had some white potatoes from the farmer’s market in Maine so I was good to go, without even a trip to the store.

The original recipe was actually kind of plain. It was basically boiled beans and potatoes that were drained and tossed with butter and milk. Yep, that was it. I’m not sure why I loved it so much as a kid, because my kids won’t even try it and even I have to admit, it’s a little bland for my adult taste buds.

I wanted to see if I could kick that recipe up a notch and make it something special. I decided to add sautéed shallots and garlic, fresh tarragon and I substituted light cream for the milk. The result was sublime.

In the meantime, Steve made a fresh herb marinade for the steaks that was so yummy we tested it again the next night on striped bass, which I liked even better.

In other garden news, the tomatoes are turning colors and even though I loved calling the compost plant “the mystery plant,” it really can’t be called that anymore. We now have six pumpkins that germinated all by themselves from our compost.

The Recipes:

Kicked up Farmhouse Beans and Potatoes
Serves 4

4 medium sized potatoes cut into 3/4 inch cubes
1 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of fresh beans trimmed and snapped into thirds
4 tablespoons butter
3 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon
1/3 cup light cream
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook potatoes in boiling salted water for 8 minutes. Add beans and cook for another 7 minutes or until veggies are as tender as you prefer them.

In the meantime, melt butter in a skillet, and sauté shallots and garlic until tender, about five minutes. Add tarragon and cream and simmer for five minutes on lowest burner setting until tarragon is aromatic.

Drain potatoes and beans and wait a minute for the steam to evaporate remaining water. Toss with tarragon cream mixture.

Herb Marinade for Steak (also GREAT with Grilled Striped Bass)

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
2 teaspoons fresh parsley
1 teaspoon fresh summer savory
4 garlic cloves
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Put all ingredients in mini food processor and blend until smooth. Pour over steaks (or striped bass) rub in and let marinade for 30 minutes. Grill until desired tenderness.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Goulash or American Chop Suey?

My teenage daughter Julie has been really sick for the past two weeks, so even though it’s summer I decided to make some comfort food just for her. When I was growing up, we ate goulash once a week. I’ve since learned that what we called “goulash” in upstate New York is called American Chop Suey in other parts of the country, like here on Cape Cod where I now live.

For my mom, it was an easy, economical meal that everyone in our family loved. So imagine my surprise when my own kids didn’t really take to it. In fact they seemed to hate it when they were younger. I would tell them how this was one of my favorite meals as a child and they would roll their eyes and say, “You say that about everything, Mom.”

Well not everything, but certainly goulash...and halupkis...

Despite the flack, I persisted because it is still an easy, economical meal and if I doctored it up for each fussy family member, everyone would tolerate it. I would make the original recipe for some of us. Then in a separate pan, I’d make a vegetarian version for whatever daughter/daughters was going that route by using the frozen veggie crumbles that look like ground beef.

It was during those years that I started adding cannellini beans in both the vegetarian version and the meat version. One can of beans was too much for the smaller vegetarian version and I didn’t want to waste them. Then I’d save some plain noodles and toss them with butter and parmesan for my son Tommy, who hates all casseroles.

I guess what makes comfort food so comforting is its familiarity. Now Julie loves goulash (and the rest of the clan does too – except for Tommy). Maybe someday…

The Recipe:

Goulash (or American Chop Suey)
Serves 4

1/2 box pasta in your favorite shape
1 1/4 pounds ground beef
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, diced
1/4 cup yellow pepper, diced
1 14 ounce can diced tomatoes
2 - 3 cups crushed tomatoes, according to taste
1 can cannellini beans
1 teaspoon fresh basil, chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped
1/4 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in salted boiling water according to directions on package and drain.
Brown ground beef in sauté pan. Drain fat and add onion, garlic, celery, yellow pepper and sauté over medium heat until tender. Add diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, herbs, salt and salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes. Add cannellini beans and three quarters of the cooked pasta. Stir and check for moisture. If too juicy, add the rest of the pasta. If too dry, add more crushed tomatoes. Simmer five more minutes until heated through. Top with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Note: If fresh herbs aren’t available, substitute 1 tablespoon Italian herbs.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Time for Lobsta!

We spent our second day in York exploring the region. We visited Cape Neddick Lighthouse and walked the Cliff Walk in York and Marginal Way in Ogunquit. We climbed over big rocks and built a rock tower. We snacked on some blackberries and searched out other local food. It was harder to find than I imagined it would be. I wanted to visit the Spiller Farm in Wells, but Steve thought it was too far to drive. Besides, he had seen a sign for a farm stand in York Beach.

Well, we looked and looked and looked for this farm stand. There were signs from two different roads on opposite sides of town. When we finally found it, it was abandoned – and it was too late to drive north. So we ended up back at Hannaford Supermarket, where we bought some new potatoes and corn on the cob.

Local lobsters were easier to score. Even though lobsters were selling for $5.99 a pound (for 1 – 1 1/4 pounders) at Hannaford, we were determined to buy them from a local fisherman. We found Mary Coite’s York Harbor Lobster down at York Harbor where the lobster boats unload every day. It was right across the harbor from the Dockside Guest Quarters where we were staying and could watch those same lobster boats come and go. We got 1 1/2 pounders and they were only about $1.50 more a pound, so still very much a bargain.

Steve wanted steamers but the local fish store was out, so he settled for little necks. He also picked up a couple of scallops. He cooked the clams in the mussel broth he saved from the night before and we ate them with the remainder of the loaf of bread from the night before.

Then he sautéed us each one large scallop and a couple of stalks of broccolini for a second small appetizer.

After our appetizers, we decided to go exploring once more. We checked out the Wiggly Bridge, where Steve cast a few lines in Barrels Mill Pond.

No luck with the fishing, so we headed back to Cape Neddick Lighthouse to see their Christmas in July. Very beautiful.

When we got back to our room, we ate a refresher course of pepino melon from Ecuador and mango from Mexico (very definitely not local, but we were splurging) and popped a bottle of Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine, while the lobsters cooked.

Finally we had our lobster feast. Now that’s why we love Maine!

The next day we headed into York Beach to buy souvenirs for the kids. We checked out a ludicrously expensive antique shop and then stopped by Stonewall Kitchen and snacked on their yummy samples and collected some new recipes. On our way out of town, we stopped by the Gateway Farmer’s Market and guess who was there? Some folks from Spiller Farm!

I bought blueberries, rhubarb, corn, cukes, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and of course beets – all for just $14. From other venders we bought organic garlic and turnips and a loaf of homemade bread. It was a pretty good score and the perfect end to a wonderful get-away.

The Recipe:

Lobster Dinner for Two

2 live lobsters, 1 1/2 pounds each
4 new potatoes
2 ears of corn
1 tablespoon pickling spice
1 lemon, sliced

Fill large lobster pot with cold water. Put potatoes in pot. Bring to boil. Add lobsters, pickling spice and lemon. Cover and cook over medium high heat for 8 minutes. Add corn and cover and cook for another 8 – 10 minutes. If you want to add steamers, wash them and put them in the center of a square of cheesecloth and tie opposite corners to make a bag with handle. Add during last five minutes.

Serve with melted butter.

Anniversary Dinner in York, Maine

Every year for our anniversary we try to get away for at least one night, but the last couple of years we’ve expanded to two nights. Maine is my favorite place to visit, partly because I love it there and also because we spent our honeymoon in Bar Harbor. Even two days isn’t enough time for us to drive all the way to Bar Harbor, but we’ve discovered the beaches on the southern coast of Maine are quite lovely.

This year we returned to the Dockside Guest Quarters in York, Maine. We first went there three years ago and it is one of the most peaceful places I have ever stayed – even in the height of summer. Most rooms have a deck with the most gorgeous view. This was ours:

Since we are trying to be more budget conscious, I reserved a room with a kitchenette. It was only $30 more a night and I figured we would more than make up for that cost by fixing our own dinners instead of eating out at the (very nice) Dockside Restaurant right on site.

On the way up, we stopped in Weymouth at the Hilltop Steak House Butcher Shop and picked up some filets. Steve shops here all the time, but it was my first visit. The prices were so good, I vowed we would be buying all our meat here from now on. Seriously, everything was about half the price of what I normally pay.

With our steaks in the cooler we headed north. For the rest of our meal, we stopped at Hannaford Supermarket and picked up some salad greens, mini mozzarella balls, tomatoes, fennel, shitake mushrooms and some local mussels.

Our kitchenette had a two burner stove, mini-fridge, sink and microwave. There was even a small table for two, perfect for romantic dinners. It was like camping – the ultimate cooking challenge. We discovered it is not only possible to cook gourmet meals, but fun. The trick is to eat in courses and keep it simple. We weren’t sure how well the kitchen would be equipped so we brought our lobster pot, a large sauté pan with cover, a chef’s knife, a small cutting board, two lobster crackers, olive oil, salt and pepper.

The kitchen was much too small for two people to cook, so Steve did most of the cooking. Who needs to eat out when you have a personal chef at your beck and call? I sat at the little table and made salads and kept him company.

First he made mussels with fennel, garlic and tomatoes, cooked in a little white wine. The recipe was inspired by a similar dish we ate at Zephrus Restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard the week before. They were absolutely scrumptious. The mussels were small and tender and the broth was briny and tasted like the sea. We sopped it up with some crusty bread and reserved some for the next night’s dinner.

Then I did the dishes and we sat on the deck watching the boats in York Harbor turn pink as the sun set behind us. For dinner, Steve sautéed the steaks with the shitake mushrooms and we had the salads I made. Simple, but delicious!

The Recipe:

Mussels With Fennel, Garlic and Tomatoes

3 tablespoons butter
1 large fennel bulb
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup dry Italian sausage, sliced
2 pounds mussels
Juice of half a lemon

Cut the top off the fennel bulb and reserve some fronds. Thinly slice fennel. Melt butter in large sauté pan. Add fennel and garlic and sweat them over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add wine, sausage, tomatoes, lemon juice and fennel fronds. Wash mussels and examine to make sure they are all closed and have no cracks. Discard any mussels that don’t close when you flick them with your finger. Add mussels to broth, cover, and simmer until open, about 10 minutes.