Soul Food

Since the Gnome and I took up gardening in a serious way, food has sort of taken over my life. It all starts in January when I sit down with the tall stack of seed catalogs that have been filling my box for the last month or so.

The pictures alone make me drool. The exotic new vegetables, the colorful ones, and especially bean seeds capture my imagination. In truth, beans aren’t my favorite dish, but I’m batty over the seeds. So, beans take up a fair amount of the garden landscape.

After the seeds arrive in February or March, I begin diagramming the garden. How much space to allot to this or that veggie, how to rotate the crops, which plants will be good companions are all questions that come into play during the planning process.

Spring means cleaning up the previous year’s garden, weeding, and watching long-term forecasts to determine when I dare to plant the earliest crops. By late spring, I do an almost daily dance with the weather, trying to outguess its long-range plans. Can I push the planting up a week this year or should I err on the side of caution and wait for that ‘last average frost date’?

At whatever date I settle on, planting begins in earnest, along with mulching and more weeding. Seeds need moisture to germinate, so I find myself in the garden with a hose on dry days. Within days, maybe up to a couple of weeks in some cases, tiny green sprouts begin popping up out of the ground. It’s a magical time and my joy is palpable.

When I’m gardening, I’m following in some mighty big footsteps. Feeding the family from the land was the work of all my grandparents and theirs before them. For them, it was honest work that meant survival. Every moment I’m in the garden feeds me ancestrally.

But harvest time is what truly feeds me, both literally and figuratively. I can’t help but smile when I look at a dinner plate filled with only the bounty of our garden: green salad, asparagus, Swiss chard, squash, rutabaga, corn, kale, eggplant. Whatever the dishes of the day, I’m satiated before I take the first bite.

Harvest time also means preserving, another soul-fulfilling activity. The hours and days I invest in food preservation mean we’ll have tasty, healthy eating from our garden all the way through winter and right on up until the next harvest season rolls around.

Typical grocery list during gardening season

Harvesting food and preserving it make me sing. It doesn’t get much better than that.

My Other Blog

If you’re a dedicated reader of Living on the Diagonal, you know I also began blogging for Mother Earth News a few months ago. Just thought I’d take today to remind you I have a site over there if you’d like to check it out. I Blog for Mother Earth News-1In fact, Mother Earth News is running a contest for its bloggers right now—to see how much traffic we’re getting for articles posted between December 1 and January 31. If you’d like to help me make a better showing, all you need to do is pop over there and click on each of the articles written since December 1st. (Even if it’s not your thing. Do it as a favor.) Simple as that. Thanks in advance.

(Sharing is helpful, too. Just click on your favorite social media icon(s) to the left of each article. Easy peasy.)

My most recent article tells about our early experiences gathering sap to make our own maple syrup. I’ll share more maple sugaring details next week. The week after, you can find my favorite chili recipe. It features sweet potatoes (or winter squash), and it’s delish!

Mother Earth News is where you’ll find other recipes, including my popular vegetarian quiche, my award-winning cornbread, my mom’s delicious pineapple-zucchini bread, and the world’s best kale salad (in my opinion, anyway).

I’ve written about how to make gardening easier with posts on making and using bean arches, growing in raised beds, and letting perennials and volunteers do your gardening work for you.

I’ve also posted a couple of articles telling about the Mother Earth News Fair, a unique sustainable living event that takes place in multiple venues across the country every year.

All that and more to come.  You can find all my Mother Earth News blog posts here.  Hope you’ll stop by for a visit.

Mealtime Dilemma

In a poetry workshop last year, we were challenged to write a poem using the Triolet form: an eight line poem wherein the first line is repeated in lines four and seven, the second line is repeated in line eight, lines three and five rhyme with line one, and line six rhymes with line two. Got it?

You can guess what my inspiration was.

MEALTIME DILEMMA

How do you feed a grandchild

when you’re vegetarian and she’s not?

Try a new food and she goes wild–

how do you feed a grandchild?

My recipes are sorted and filed

but things she likes I’ve not got.

How do you feed a grandchild

when you’re vegetarian and she’s not?

 

 

My Year in the Yellow House: Childhood Vignettes

My Year in the Yellow House: Childhood Vignettes (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

I was five the year we lived in the yellow house. My brother was two. Our little two-bedroom home in Florence, South Carolina, near Cole’s Crossroads, was part of a modest and sparse subdivision, if you could even call it that. There were no sidewalks, and grass grew erratically in the sandy yards. Roads in the development were nothing more than not-too-packed sand.

alan yellow house

My brother’s favorite place to play was on the sandy road in our neighborhood.

Our house sat on a corner of the neighborhood’s main road. Follow it for a block or so and you’d be on old Hwy 301/52. Directly across the highway was Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket, a popular family restaurant and the favorite spot for our very occasional meals away from home. As the name suggests, the restaurant’s main fare was fried chicken, along with french fries and hush puppies,* served in brightly colored, paper-lined plastic baskets—the kind you now see in a few casual dining establishments, but a true novelty then. We usually chose a booth in the knotty pine dining room, and Edwin Turner himself would stop by to ensure we were enjoying our meal.

Out front was the sign proclaiming the name of the place. As I recall, atop the sign sat a large rotating replica of one of those famed plastic baskets. My brother could never keep the words for Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket straight. He always called it Chicken Edwin’s Turning Basket. When you think about it, his literal rendering made perfectly good sense—as children’s name mash-ups often do.CHICKEN BASKET

From the Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, http://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/mg74r003g

We loved the Chicken Basket—for its tasty food, its novelty, the attention of its owner, its prominent role in our lives. In addition to special dinners out, Edwin Turner’s was a true landmark in the community. For us, it was the easiest way to direct friends and out-of-town family to our house.

But the restaurant is only one of many memories I have of that year. They are a mixture of good and bad. It was while we lived in the yellow house that my first real childhood friendships developed. It was also where I experienced my first significant encounters with sickness, trauma, and grief.

My childhood preceded the era of many vaccines in use today, and I was in bed with a severe case of mumps for what seemed like forever. The lumps on either side of my neck felt humongous, and the pain of swallowing was so intense that I demanded something to spit into so I wouldn’t have to swallow. Of course, it didn’t work, but I gave it my best, spitting several times a minute all day every day into the blue and white speckled enamel pan Mother placed next to my bed. To this day, I have an aversion to enamel cookware.

Glory (not her real name), with her white-blonde hair, lived across the street from us. She had a tumor on her lower back, just above her buttocks. Her parents’ religious beliefs prevented them from seeking medical attention for Glory, but the tumor must have been extraordinarily painful because Glory, who only wore dresses, didn’t wear underpants—the pressure would have hurt too much.

Neither Glory’s illness nor her family’s deeply held religious beliefs kept her from being a bully, though. One day when we were playing in my bedroom, Glory locked me in the toy cabinet and refused to let me out until I gave her permission to tear my doll’s hair off her head. I was terrified in the pitch black cabinet, and I was devastated at the thought of what was happening to my precious doll. Mother was in the kitchen just a room away, but the cabinet doors and the wall between us must have muffled my piteous crying.

My very best friend, Teddy, lived on the third corner of our intersection. We played together much more often than I played with was tortured by Glory. One of Teddy’s and my favorite places to play was in the abandoned excavated lot on the fourth corner of our intersection. We loved it down there where our imaginations could run wild.

Then Teddy had a birthday—his sixth. When I got the invitation to his party, I was inconsolable. Six was when children started school; it stood to reason that Teddy would start first grade without me. It took both my parents and his ages to convince me that I, too, would be six before school started. Teddy and I would still enter school together, they assured me. (It turned out to be a moot point, anyway, since our family moved to another state before the school year began.)

Celebrating Teddy’s sixth birthday—no longer afraid he’d start school without me

Another playmate—another Carol—lived on the far corner of our street. She rounded out our little circle of playmates. Carol and I shared more than a name. We were exactly the same age, born the same day. We were also both dark-eyed, dark-haired, olive-skinned little girls. We could have passed for twins. I can still see the heavy bangs that framed her round face.

One day Carol was hit by a car. She was hospitalized for a few days before dying from her injuries. We didn’t have a telephone and Mother didn’t drive, so she had no way of delivering the terrible news to Daddy. When he came home from work that day, he found Mother crying in the kitchen. She blurted through her tears, “Carol died today.” It was Daddy’s shattered look that made her realize he thought she meant me.

You might expect Carol’s death to be my big trauma from those days. But the truth is, I remembered nothing about it until my mother recently reminded me of it. I was either too young to understand what was going on or I was, in fact, so traumatized that my memory blocked the whole experience.

From time to time a few other random memories of our year across from “Chicken Edwin’s Turning Basket” flutter through my mind. Late one night, we were awakened by sirens and flashing lights. The whole neighborhood stood and watched as a nearby house burned to the ground, its occupants standing alongside us in their pajamas, watching helplessly as their house went up in flames.

The image of them, pajamas now the only clothing they owned, was indelibly seared into my brain. Ever since that night I’ve thought losing my home and its treasured contents to fire would be one of life’s worst tragedies. All these years later, when coming home from an out-of-town trip, I reach the bend our house is just around only to realize I’ve been holding my breath for the last little bit, waiting to be sure our home is still there, still intact.

My brother and I shared a bedroom in the yellow house. Our parents were awfully concerned about his incessant thumb-sucking. Afraid his habit would cause future dental problems, they tried every remedy they could think of. I remember his thumbs being heavily wrapped in adhesive tape. That didn’t work. Neither did the last desperate measure our parents employed: swabbing his thumbs with the latest advance in thumb-sucking cures. My little brother was unswayed. He stubbornly sucked away, bawling all the while because his mouth was on fire with hot cayenne pepper, the “cure’s” main ingredient. More than sixty years later, Mother feels guilty about trying that remedy.

We moved back to Florence a year or two later with another brother in tow. In one of those interesting twists of fate, he later became fast friends with Edwin Turner’s son, also an Edwin. Over the years, they shared quite a few adventures of their own. Misadventures, too. But that’s a whole other story—and his to tell. Or not.

*For the hush puppy recipe from Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket, check outhttp://www.familycookbookproject.com/recipe/3394125/edwin-turners-chicken-basket-hush-puppies.html.

Recipes: Rhubarb Syrup and Rhubarb Soda

Recipes: Rhubarb Syrup and Rhubarb Soda

Maybe you’re already seeing ruby-red stalks of rhubarb in the produce section of your favorite grocery store. If so, you need to grab them up and rush home to make your favorite rhubarb dish—in my experience, stores stock the stalks for only a few short weeks in springtime.

For this reason, I used to think rhubarb’s season was short-lived, but if you grow it, you know the plant continues to grow all summer long. If you’re like me, you have more rhubarb than you know what to do with, yet you don’t want any food source to go to waste—especially one that’s so chock full of important vitamins and other nutrients.

Making rhubarb syrup for soda (and other uses) is one quick, easy, and delicious way to use up a fair supply of your abundant crop. Yes, it’s sugary,  but much better for you than that bottled high-fructose-corn-laden stuff that comes off the grocery shelf. It’s simple to make, too—just three ingredients.

I first discovered this recipe in John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist’s excellent Farmstead Chef. More than a cookbook, it’s about real food, sustainability, community. But it’s a darned good cookbook, too, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan recipes (and a  few that aren’t) that take their cue from what’s in season, so if you grow your own or frequent your local farmers’ market, Farmstead Chef is going to be right up your alley.

Their recipes aren’t just tasty; they’re simple and sensible, too—you won’t have to go searching in specialty stores for ingredients you’d likely never use again for any of these recipes. Besides, Lisa and John are the coolest!  You never know what they’re going to be up to next. I highly recommend this book (as well as their books on sustainability).

I’ve tweaked the instructions a tad to suit my tastes and food prep style.

Rhubarb Syrup and Soda

Put twelve cups of fresh, chopped rhubarb and 2 cups of water in a large nonreactive pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook until the rhubarb is soft and pulpy (approximately 20-30 minutes). Alternatively, you can cook on low in a slow cooker for a couple of hours.

Place a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and drain the juice into it. Use the back of a large spoon to press out as much liquid as you can without forcing the pulp through the sieve. (You’re done with the pulp now, so you can add it to your compost,okay?)

Return the liquid to the pot and place over very low heat. Add 3 cups of sugar, stirring constantly until it’s dissolved.

At this point you have rhubarb syrup, which you could use in any number of applications, but since this is a recipe for soda, we’ll stick to that plan for now.

Let syrup cool to room temperature. Now you have three choices. Refrigerate it or freeze* it for later use or enjoy it right this minute. Here’s how.

Lightly mix 1 part syrup to 2 parts unflavored seltzer water.** So, for a 12-oz. glass, 1/4 cup syrup and 1/2 cup seltzer. At this point, you’ll need to do a little taste-testing and, if needed, either add more syrup or seltzer to suit your taste buds. Be sure to make a note of your final proportions for future reference. Pour mixture into an an ice-filled glass (a 12 oz. glass is the perfect size) for some lovely, blush-pink bubbly. If you’re serving a crowd, you can mix up a bigger batch and serve immediately from a pitcher—you don’t want to lose the fizz factor.

* You can freeze your syrup in wide-mouth Mason jars. They’re freezer proof as long as you leave an inch or two of head space. I prefer using these white plastic lids rather than the two-piece contraptions that come with the jars. These days you can find the lids in most stores that carry canning supplies.

Because of the sugar content, the mixture doesn’t freeze solid, so when you find yourself in a winter funk and need a pick-me-up, it’s easy to dish a few spoonfuls of this magical elixir into a glass and top it off with seltzer. Spring in a glass.

Cheers!

**I’ve also tried this with lemon-lime flavored seltzer, and really liked the extra flavor complexity.

(Check back next week for more on versatile rhubarb.  Click here for my easy skillet rhubarb upside-down cake.)

Skillet Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Nothing says Spring like the bright freshness of rhubarb, the earliest vegetable to come to life in our garden each year. Everything about rhubarb is delightful. It’s not fussy. It’s tough—it can take spring’s unpredictable temperature swings. It’s reliable, coming back bigger and stronger every year. It’s a showoff with its gargantuan leaves and showy, red stalks.

Rhubarb’s massive leaves could serve as emergency umbrellas. But don’t eat them, please—they’re full of poisonous oxalic acid.

Perhaps its only flaw is that rhubarb needs winter’s cold to thrive. As a child of the hot South, I’d never even heard of rhubarb before that fateful summer when our family camped our way to visit my Minnesota cousins. I’ll always remember the moment Aunt Ruth handed me a saucer of deliciousness in the form of a triangle slice of rhubarb pie. I fell in love right then and there. Unfortunately, it was years before I made my way to a climate where rhubarb would thrive and I could bake my own rhubarb pies.

It’s images of pie that dance in most of our heads when we hear the word rhubarb, but this odd vegetable has lots of other culinary uses, too. Jam, for one (mm-m good). There are rhubarb breads, rhubarb wines, and non-alcoholic rhubarb drinks. We’ve even made rhubarb pickles. They’re more pulp than anything else, but I think they make a nice condiment, and they give a flavorful kick to stir-fry. I was surprised recently to learn that rhubarb is also used in savory dishes. You can find over 300 rhubarb recipes in the online Rhubarb Compendium. But you won’t find this recipe for Skillet Upside-Down Cake there.

I swear, this cake gives rhubarb pie a run for its money. While it doesn’t pack quite the puckery, acidic wallop as its counterpart with crusts, it still has enough tang to be interesting, which makes it a good way to introduce rhubarb to young, inexperienced palates.

Skillet Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Oven: 350 degrees

Don’t you just hate it when you start mixing up a recipe only to discover these dreaded words: butter, at room temperature. Well, consider yourself forewarned. Don’t start mixing until you’ve given your butter a chance to warm up.

Topping:

¼ cup (½ stick) butter
¾ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 cups (about six stalks) rhubarb cut into ½ inch pieces

Batter:

½ cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature (See? I told you.)
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup milk

To make the topping, melt the ¼ cup of butter in a cast iron skillet.* Add brown sugar, stirring constantly until it melts and the mixture gets all bubbly. Remove from heat and layer pieces of rhubarb on top of butter-sugar mixture. You should have enough rhubarb to cover the pan in a more or less single layer.

In a mixing bowl, cream room temperature butter and white sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in salt and baking powder. With your mixer on a low setting, mix in flour, about a ½ cup at a time, alternating with milk and ending with the flour.

Pour batter over mixture in skillet. Batter may be so thick that you’ll need to dollop it into the pan by the spoonful, instead, and then gently spread it to even it out.

Bake about 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of cake and about halfway down (not so far that it encounters the rhubarb) comes out clean. (I always start checking after about 30 minutes. You don’t want it to get too dry.)

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Fresh from the oven

I never have the courage to turn my cake out onto a plate so that it really is upside-down, though the Gnome has had success with that method. If you want to give it a shot, let the cake cool a few minutes (5-10 max), loosen the edges with a knife and invert onto a serving plate.

First slice–just add fork

Serve alone or with ice cream or whipped cream.

NOTE: If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, you can substitute a nine-inch square cake pan. Heat your butter-sugar mixture in a frying pan or saucepan and transfer it to your baking pan before adding the rhubarb pieces.

Abundant is too tame a word to describe well-established rhubarb. If you have some in your garden or a corner of your yard, you know what I mean. Tune in right here in the coming weeks for a few more ideas on cooking with rhubarb.

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Quiche

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Quiche

Quiche, anyone? If you’re like me, quiche seems like a pretty elegant dish. Lots of folks confuse elegance with complexity, but quiche proves that simple can be elegant, too. I was reminded of this when I was at my first Mother Earth News Fair (more about this event in a future post) where a presenter was providing tips for easy, cheap, and green living.

What got my attention was when she told us quiche was her go to dish whenever she had dinner guests. She went on to explain that since she raised chickens (we don’t), eggs were usually in strong supply and that quiche was a really simple dish to prepare, especially if you go crustless. (I don’t—more about that in a minute.) And it never failed to wow her guests. Sounded good to me.

You’d think proportions would matter with a dish like this. But I’ve seen recipes with anywhere from four to eight eggs. Some recipes call for cream, some for milk. And the amount of cheese varies significantly, too.

About that crust. The easiest thing of all is to skip it. Just be sure you spray or butter your baking dish well. I like a crust, though, for the added texture. But I’m no pastry chef. My attempts at making piecrust from scratch have usually been pretty dismal, and I find those in the refrigerated section of the grocery story—the ones in the red box with the puffy dough boy on the package—do just fine. I almost always have a package in my own refrigerator, just in case. You could use frozen, too, but I’d suggest you go for deep dish.

The neat thing about quiche, I’ve discovered, is that it’s more method than recipe. When I come across something as simple as this, I keep the ingredients and oven temperature info on a 3 x 5 index card that I stick inside a kitchen cabinet for quick reference.

Here’s my favorite take on this deceptively simple dish.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

If using a crust, lay it in your pie pan and crimp the edges. (If you’re making it from scratch, you’ll have to seek out your own recipe.)

2-4 cups veggies of your choice (We like a combo of mushrooms, onion, and Swiss chard or some other leafy green. Broccoli and bell pepper—red for color—are other favorites.) Lightly sauté or steam your veggies, depending on which ones you’re using. Remember,they’ll keep cooking in the oven, so you don’t want to overdo it.

1 ½ cups grated cheese (Again, your choice. Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere, whatever tickles your fancy—or whatever you have on hand. A mixture of different cheeses works well, too.)

Mix the following together:

4 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
1 tsp salt, or to taste
½ tsp pepper, or to taste

Place prepared vegetables in pie pan. Cover with grated cheese. Pour egg mixture over all. Bake for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

Add a tossed salad and a side of fresh fruit and you have an easy and sophisticated meal.

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