Friday, June 28, 2013

We're On the Road to Nowhere (Maine)

Of course there will be music. 

The Boy doesn't realize it yet, but there will be music I love which he doesn't on this trip.  Not because I've planned it or stored it or downloaded it, but because it will sound out when we're not listening to anything else and hearing what's around us.  When the neglect of sufficient preparation becomes most apparent and the silence is all there is.  When we're most vulnerable to hearing the World which so gloriously surrounds us.  Never truly silent, always moving and growing.

This is what I hope for most of all.  For my connected and boastful and proud all-knowing 15-yr-old son to find The Space Between.  Regular Time.  Unconnected and disconnected.  The world OUT there.  Cure his Nature Deficiency.  Life, unorchestrated, at least for a few weeks.  Hooray for  us.

We've heard that there is a moose who has been by our designated campsite and left familiar tell-tale traces.  We've seen pictures of the pine trees and the lovely lake; we've viewed satellite maps.  We are truly going to Nowhere, Maine.

For a month.

We leave tomorrow, the last Friday in June.  Return is planned for August 1.

The girls at work are worried about Idiots and the images they've seen on YouTube of break-ins and beatings.  They think we need "protection".  I'm more concerned that there might be a sensitive black bear mama in the neighborhood.  Perhaps I'm na├»ve, maybe they are over-media-stimulated.

What I know is this:
  • I will miss, terribly, those we are leaving behind.  Husband, daughter, work folks, clients, friends, dog. Not so sure about missing the cat.
  • We will grow, my son and I, both together and apart.  We'll have kind and constructive and harsh words, all of which will (I trust) coalesce.
  • Maine is my home.  I want more time for my little family to learn, experience, and embrace it.
Stick with us.  If we can connect, we'll share what we can about our journey.  If we can't... well... hopefully we can find a chance to be together soon.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Good Enough to Eat Cake

Hi, all!

After a long hiatus (um, seven months IS a long time, even when you're not counting), I'm back with a few recipes, a neat story, and (of course) a personal challenge.  Or several (maybe seven if you feel you must count).

I've been caught up for the last sixteen months with what may best be described as mission work here in our little corner of Appalachia.  Mission in the many ways one might define "mission".  In fact, has 20 - TWENTY - definitions for the word "mission".  Suffice it to say, I've covered most of them, except perhaps the one which involves furniture and style in the same sentence, because you know we still decorate in the "Early American Hand-Me-Down" style.  You can read the definitions here:

I particularly like #16-18.  Calling. Vocation.  Sent for duty or purpose. 

DO something.  My new mantra.  My mission in life.

In March, our church family celebrated Missions Month.  We spent time and some talents  highlighting the missions (definition #13, "organized missionary work or activities in any country or region") which we support with donations of money. 

And for some, missions supported with time.  Time, the new currency.

We featured several Sunday School hours-worth of presentations on missions (definition #10, "missionary duty or work" and #16, "an assigned or self-imposed duty or task; calling; vocation").  One doctor's trip to Zimbabwe met closed gates, then redirected to the needs in front of him, resulting in opened doors for many to follow.  The same family's trip to Guatemala to provide needed medical care with fledgling medical students.  Our own work here at home to support recovery efforts in our community after last year's devastating tornados.  Our minister's family trip to Haiti, a graduation present for a son, reaching out and supporting his friend's mission-career building hospitals.

My contributions were, of course, last-minute and frantic and completely spirit-inspired. 

But that's not the point.  It's not about me.  At all.  Even if this is my blog.

We shared our stories with words, pictures, and music.  The best photo (after FJ's Medical Spouse's picture of the sewage ditch he tripped into, while his luggage was detained) was of a lovely Haitian girl in an orphanage, with birthday cake frosting all over her face, in an adorable dress.  A dress that made several of us sit up straight and said "we can make those!" 

We may not be able to travel to do "real" missions work in other countries, but we sure can stitch up a storm here and send lovely little dresses to lovely little ladies in the orphanages of Haiti.
This is how stItching for Change began.  I've been ITCHING for a change in our lives for some time now... itching to turn our attention and our resources toward those who are far more needy than we can perceive here in our gluttonous United States.  I've also wanted to have a group of friends who will get together to (pardon me) stitch and bitch.  A group who'll share my need to create garments or quilts or afghans or dolls or shorts or anything to give away, while creating a community together which we can keep.

This summer, we've spent more than 24 hours over four days creating lovely little dresses with donated supplies.  Even the most bland of fabrics from my stash have resulted in darling dresses.  The yards and yards of fabric I've been able to part with will look far better on the little girls in the orphanages than they will stacked on my shelves.  So far, we have over 65 dresses.  Our goal is 100.  100 dresses.  Just like that sweet little book.  We might have to send copies of the book with the dresses.  Anyone able to translate it to Kreol for us?

Along the way, we've learned to love and support and cheer a little bit for each other.  Julie joins us from a land far away (Massachusettes.  Yeah.  I know.  So foreign.).  Mary Beth and FJ joined us on each's first outing after hip replacement surgery.  Liz, who doesn't sew a stitch, found an important role in prepping lunch, tying bows, and entertaining us all with her amazingly dry humor.  Erica, who also "doesn't sew", sat gamely at a complicated machine and stitched away, later founding her true calling in design - matching fabrics and ribbons for maximum beauty.  SJ found solace in slicing and dicing the many patterns and salads to relieve anxiety and frustration with offspring.  Dr. P reconnected with her sewing machine after a difficult year and is now scheming a comfort quilt for her dear friend recently diagnosed with cancer.

Men anpil, chay pa lou.  Many hands make light a heavy load.

We've shared endings and beginnings, hopes and anguishes.  MB came close to tears when seeing the adorable dresses made from fabric her mother left behind.  Dr. P and Susette both left rewarding teaching positions for new challenges.  One Saturday half our families were without power at home due to recent storms.  Several of us have uttered, independently, "because my kids are idiots."  Our little group has worked together to support and sustain each other, perhaps, as much as we will touch Haitian orphans.

I think this is what Life's all about... touch.  Touching others with healing love.  I'm SO moved by anything involving laying-on-of-hands.  This week my children visited with a young minister and his family in a benign "hello, my mom says we know you, I'll hold the baby, he's so cute, he's drooled all over my shirt, please take him back" kind of way.  Just a few years ago, my same children were the first invited to the altar to lay hands on this now-papa minister during his ordination.  I'm not sure my eldest understood the symbolism and strength her few minutes holding baby Neely displayed, but I trust she'll hear Papa Neely's voice in her life, and these tenuous touching connections will be strengthened, yet to grow and blossom in ways we could never imagine.

I digress.  Happily, but unproductively.

Here's the best, latest, most famous cake recipe I have.  It's not so healthy, but oh-so-delicious.  Somehow we came home with half of it after Sunday School today.  It's from Taste of Home, a magazine my Aunt Dawn and Uncle Joe sent us a subscription to this year.  It's fantastic.

So... follow me (trust me) here, from a birthday-cake-smile in Haiti to a shared delight while stItching for Change.

We can do great things, even unexpected things, together.  And when we do, we need to eat cake - we need to celebrate - together.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

This One's Really Corny

Welcome to "Ordinary Time". 

We're eating well at home, and often, but truthfully, if I plan 5 meals each 7 days, we need only three.  I can shop and chef and create all I wish, but we only need new meals three out of five days.  Our schedules are so crazy that "heat and eat" is often the best we can do.

On a good Saturday, I'll prep and prepare meals for the seven-day stretch ahead.  When I'm chauffeuring on Saturday, it'll be my Sunday project.  When I'm busy BOTH days, we're not eating any sort of way I'm pleased with.  Our schedules have made "family meal time" an unusual experience.  Woe to us.

That said, after more craziness claiming our "free" time to create meals for the days ahead, I turned to my slow-cooker and my go-to recipe collection for a nutritious, made-from-scratch meal for our family on a busy, busy day.

We've finally had a cold stretch which tells us it's Winter.  Winter means soups, stews, and chowdahs.  I've been in the mood for a good chowdah (corn chowdah is the only one I care for).  We have ingredients in our refrigerator and freezer just waiting to be used up, and I have a fantastic recipe.  Didn't pass up the two-for-one 5# bags of potatoes at the grocery yesterday.  Hooray!

While I'm at it, I'll include a from-scratch recipe for corn muffins I've adopted recently.  We grew up with the blue-boxed Jiffy Baking Mix, a less-expensive version of another popular mix in a yellow box.  We used it a LOT, mostly for pancakes.  We also used the little blue boxes of corn muffin mix, prepared with simple ingredients (egg, milk) from the refrigerator and baked in the cast iron muffin pan.  Crunchy outside, soft and sweet, but a bit dry on the inside, just asking for a tiny bit of melting butter.  Leftover Jiffy corn muffins were great "grilled" - cut in half and toasted with butter on the griddle until slightly brown and crisp.

My food kitchen friends, two lovely old southwest VA ladies, detest Jiffy corn muffins.  TOO sweet for them.  They prefer a savory, somewhat dry buttermilk cornbread baked in a cast iron pan laced with hot oil.  I've made this a few times myself, and I love it too.  My offspring, though, prefer the sweeter muffins from the mix.

SO, I found a recipe for "cheater" mix on the internet.  Basic ingredients, excellent results, no preservatives.  It's here, with Substitution Queen's influence.

Crock Pot Corn Chowdah
based on a recipe from Fix it and Forget it Lightly by Phyllis Pellman Good

1/4 lb. turkey bacon, cut into 1/4" strips
2 c. potatoes, diced (about 3 fist-sized potatoes) - a little extra is better.
1 c. onions, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 c. plain yogurt
3/4 c. skim milk
1 recipe homemade cream of chicken soup* (link below)
1 1/2 c. frozen corn kernels
Ground pepper and salt, to taste

*Prepare homemade soup mix according to previous post.

Cook bacon in large nonstick skillet until brown and crispy.
Place bacon, potatoes, bay leaf, and onions into slow-cooker.  Add a generous grinding of black pepper.  Cover with water.  Add the homemade soup mix and corn.
Cook on LOW 6-8 hours, until the vegetables are done to your liking.
Thirty minutes before serving, stir in yogurt and milk.  Continue cooking on LOW.
When soup is heated through, remove bay leaf.  Place 1/2 of the chowder mixture in a blender and puree until smooth.  Return blended ingredients to crock pot and stir thoroughly.  Add salt and additional ground pepper, to taste.

Skip the blending step if you wish; I find it thickens the chowdah up a little and I like it that way.

Serve with a dash of nutmeg or paprika on top and boiled hot dogs with toasted Yankee buns OR Janet's Mixed-Up Corn Muffins (see below).

Janet's Mixed-Up Corn Muffins
makes 2-dozen mini-muffins or 1-dozen regular muffins

This muffin recipe is REALLY flexible.  Add any sort of cheese and relatively dry vegetable you wish to the mix, and it'll be fine, as long as you don't add too much additional liquid.  Try muenster and leeks, cream cheese and chives, pecans and bleu cheese.  YUM.

Start with Faux-Jiffy-Muffin-Mix (my non-preservative version):
2/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. yellow cornmeal
3 T. sugar (less if you prefer your corn muffins less-sweet)
1 T. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 T. oil (if you plan to store this mixture, otherwise, substitute 2 T. yogurt with the wet ingredients)

Note:  You can make this recipe in triplicate (up to this point) and store it for later if you wish.  If you do, add the vegetable oil per the recipe and mix until it's completely incorporated.

Add to dry ingredients:
1 c. cheese, shredded (I used cheddar)
1/4 c. jalapeno peppers, diced (from one of DH's experiments)
1 c. frozen corn
If you have them, add a few diced pimentos as well.  Nice color!

Mix thoroughly.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients.  Add:
1 egg
1/3 c. milk

Mix ingredients lightly, until most everything is incorporated.  Scoop into greased muffin tins.

Bake at 375 degF for 8-10 minutes (mini-muffins) or 15-20 minutes (regular sized muffins), until muffins are lightly browned and crusty on top.  Let cool for a few minutes (until cool enough to handle) before unmolding, but be sure to get them out of the tins before they cool completely (and stick to even the best non-stick muffin pan).

* See previous post

Monday, January 9, 2012

Reality Check

I remember when this intended artisan blog turned into a food-and-social-commentary blog.  It began just over a month ago with a whim to clean out my refrigerator and freezer.  To reduce the store of perishable goods which crammed our life full.  To focus more on what we have than what we want or what's easy or what's convenient.  To use what we already have and give the rest to those who need it more.

My friend FJ put much more eloquent words to this notion here (despite or in spite of her description of a questionable taco meal):

It's amazing how an inanimate 26-cubic-foot appliance rules our life.  Don't think so?  Recall how stressed the family got last time the power went out for a few hours.  This appliance speaks to us.  It saves the day.  It's definitely an elephant in our kitchen.  Maybe those science experiments growing in its recesses are what's speaking.
ANYWAY, here's the check-up.  Six weeks into my pledge to clear out the refrigerator and freezer: we're still a long way from clear.  I cheated.  I AM using up food in creative and nutritious and wonderful ways, but I'm also buying groceries.  Maybe not at the original pace, but I'm still procuring ingredients to suit our palettes, fill our bellies, and satiate our minds.  We're so fortunate to be able to do so.  At least I recognize and appreciate this.  Maybe one day those "starving" teens of mine will get it.  In the meantime...

A sneaky leaky pan of lasagna caused me to inventory what's left today.  Inventory - as in, wash every single item in the fridge because it has tomato sauce all over it.  We have 1/2 gallon containers of milk (that'll be gone after breakfast tomorrow) and maple syrup (thank you MOM!!).  We have 10 carrots, 9 tangelos, 8 stalks of celery, 3 crowns of broccoli, a discolored lime and a partially-shaved lemon.  One beautiful Harry and David pear (no partridge): the last of TWO boxes sent by Mom.  Thanks MOM!!  A bunch of slimy parsley which moved directly to the compost bin.  Several cheeses (thanks, Sis).  Dairy products I picked up yesterday in my quest to healthify some baked goods recipes.  A package of chicken for Thurday supper.  Leftovers packed for lunches and dinners between now and Thursday.  A door full of condiments - although a mere half of what was there a month ago.

What we are out of: meat.

What we have LOTS of:  frozen veggies and refrigerated condiments. 

That bottle of pickled ginger and DH's garden experiments are still with us.  Well, some of the pickles made it onto my plate last night.  Not too bad.  With us as well is the cheese-making kit and a package of egg roll wrappers.

Oh, this is going to be a fun month of menus.  Everything Must Go.  What began as a social justice effort has become a creative game.  I never said it would be dull.

Today I "unloaded" a couple of fun freezer items.  The frozen peaches, brown-ish apple slices from the fridge, and some of the bottled ginger were cooked down, pureed, and baked into bread.  The loaf with pecans was devoured by the largest Sunday School class I've ever seen.  The nut-free loaf became my first pay-it-forward homemade gift of 2012.  The rest went into muffins, an attempt to make over the original recipe.  Most of the fat was eliminated and additional grains introduced.  The muffins went back into the freezer for breakfasts later in the week.

I also used up the last pie crust.  I found a nice, heart-healthy recipe for frittata on the WWW and adapted it into a pseudo-quiche.  Sunday brunch and breakfast this week.

Tonight's no-boil lasagna used up the rest of the tomato sauce (what didn't leak all over the refrigerator), meatballs, and mozzarella cheese.  We also had salad (diet salad); I think ONE of the two blue cheese dressing containers is finally empty.  We're getting there, even if the original point has been mislaid somewhere along the way.

Here's where we're going:  a much, much more intentional eating plan.  I love that word, "intentional."  I really mean it.  Not a diet in the deny-yourself-of-the-things-you-love diet, but an eating plan to adapt to our physical challenges (which includes active teenagers and the death of the family mealtime) and our nutritional needs.  That, and a clean fridge.  Shine on!

Canadian Bacon and Potato Quiche
adapted from
Serves 4 to 6, depending on what else is served with it.

1 prepared pie crust, baked until golden (about 8 minutes in a 375degF oven)

6 eggs

2 T. fresh chives or 1 T. freeze-dried chopped chives
2 milk
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1/8 tsp. pepper
1/4 c. red or green bell pepper, chopped
2 c. refrigerated southern-style hash-brown potatoes (or one fist-sized potato, shredded)
1/2 c. Canadian bacon or cooked ham, coarsely chopped
2 T. Cheddar cheese, shredded
Paprika (for dusting)

Beat eggs, chives, milk, salt, thyme and pepper in medium bowl; set aside.

Spray a nonstick skillet with cooking spray. Add bell pepper; cook and stir over medium heat 1 minute. Add potatoes; cover and cook 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently until potatoes begin to brown. Stir in Canadian bacon; cook and stir 1 to 2 minutes or until thoroughly heated.

Spread mixture into pie crust.  Pour egg mixture over pie crust.  Sprinkle with cheese and paprika.

Bake at 375degF for 45-50 minutes, until quiche is set and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cut into wedges and serve.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Grammar School

Toe-may-tow, toe-mah-tow, poe-tay-tow, poe-tah-tow.  Same thing, right?  Sure.

How about Appalachian?  I can spell it, but don't ask me to pronounce it.  If it's a Trail, it's "The AT."  If it's a University, it's "Appy State."  If I make the mistake of saying this proper noun aloud, in its entirety, a chorus of "you're not from around here, are you?" questions, smirks, or other peculiar noises result.  Ayuh, I'm not from around hey-ah.

I received quite an education in mid-Atlantic colloquialisms my first year or two in Virginia.  I recall writing a top-ten-type translation dictionary for my Northern family one holiday season.  One of the finer points was that here in Virginia you carry your friend to the grocery, where they pack your goods in a sack after you tote them around the store in a buggy.  In Maine, buggy (as in, "a little bit buggy") refers either to the density of the black flies in the neighborhood or someone who's a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

My favorite, though, BY FAR (eclipsing even "over yonder", which is away to the left or to the right or even both at the same time), is "barbecue".

I came to Virginia in the mid 1990s, a month short of my daughter's first birthday, just in time for the winter holidays.  One of my inaugural activities was the rather large Engineering Department's Christmas feast, a "covered dish" (translation: pot luck) mid-day meal held at the office.  This is not to be confused with the department Christmas Party to which spouses were invited, ties and fancy shoes were worn, and "set-ups" provided (translation: drink mixers).  Navigating the first two MONTHS was an education in learning a new language by "full immersion."

I remember bringing the very large, extremely delicious fruit cake (I am NOT kidding about the fruitcake) which my mom sent from Maine that year.  Snicker all you like, but this was a super-delicious fruit cake.  A Jimmy Howard fruitcake.  More cake than fruit.  Shaped like the State of Maine.  Or, as one engineer noted, North Carolina (the border of which was just a few miles away).  Who knew?  Turn Maine sideways and it looks like North Carolina.  At least to an engineer.  Fit right in, yes I did.

Until they uncovered the chafing dishes and presented "Barbecue."  What?

The same geographically-gifted engineer translated:  I'm from The North.  Where barbecue is a verb, meaning "to cook outside."  I now live in The South.  Where Barbecue is a noun.  A slow-cooked pork product.  Oh, by the way, there's Virginia Barbecue and North Carolina Barbecue and all kinds of other pretend-Barbecues.  Or BBQ, as I've seen it lately.  Maybe the abbreviation distinguishes it from the verb; it certainly fits on a roadside stand more efficiently.

Celebrity chefs and food critics share a passion for barbecue - either as a verb or a noun - and embrace their own version as they would a signature.  Bobby Flay's barbecue involves cilantro and southwestern spices which make me think of black beans and corn rather than slow-cooked pork.  Steve Raichlin, with whom I've worked (once, anyway) and associate more with rich Alsace-Lorraine foods than with cooking outside, has made his fame and fortune grilling anything and everything.  He's written several BBQ Bibles, even.  He is a verb-barbecue King.  He has a FABULOUS recipe for root beer barbecue sauce.  Somewhere.

Jane and Michael Stern, of and regular guests on The Splendid Table, discuss barbecue and its regional flavors often.  The noun barbecue.  Some have more vinegar taste, some are sweeter.  Some are made with barbecue sauce (think sweet and bottled), some are not.  If I spent as much time on the road as they do, I'd probably see the patterns and understand which ingredients indicate which region of origin.  I don't, though, and so I focus on what I think tastes great.

I'm not exactly sure why Z, a Pennsylvania boy by birth, is my King of Barbecue, but he is.  Z and Mrs. Z enjoy what I lovingly refer to as a "mixed marriage."  He is a Virginia Tech grad.  She is an alum of the University of Virginia.  For many, this is a rivalry which challenges Alabama/Auburn or Ohio State/Michigan in ferocity.  They are the most fun, most generous, most caring people I know.  Period.

When DH and I announced our intention to wed and relocate, the House of Z geared up for a party in our honor.  House of Z parties are, simply, phenomenal.  Great guests, abundant food and delicious drink, all set on beautiful grounds.  These folks throw a fabulous party.  All this after being up the entire night babysitting the barbecue - in both the noun and the verb forms.

Z made what seemed like TONS of his famous slow-cooked pork delicacy.  His process involves soaking Boston Butt in a delightful concoction, then slow-cooking on the grill.  All night.  There is typically a generous amount of beer involved, too, although the recipe he provided indicates that the beer is for the chef, not the pork.  When it's ready, Z slices this delicious dish and piles it high on the table for all to admire.  Moaning is appropriate.

Not sharing this same penchant for overnight slow-roasting on the grill, I've adapted Z's recipe for the crockpot.  Rather than slicing the finished product, I find it's perfect for "pulling", or shredding.  I finally understand where the term "pulled pork" comes from.  Add a little of the cooking liquid back in and it's EXACTLY the noun I enjoy on a bun with coleslaw on the side.

Z's Boston Butt (or, Chateau Jeaux-Naus Pulled Pork)

Boston Butt (about 5#), rinsed and patted dry.  Place in slow cooker.

Combine in this proportion:
1T each garlic (raw, pressed), olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, and Essence
Add two times as much Coke as vinegar to cover pork in slow cooker.

Cook on LOW for 8-12 hours.

When done, remove pork to a clean pan.  Shred (I use two forks and pull the pork apart).  Add enough cooking liquid to bring to desired consistency.  Discard the remaining liquid and rinse slow cooker.  Return pulled pork to slow cooker to keep warm until serving.  Serve on hamburger buns with hot sauce.

Chateau Jeaux-Naus Cole Slaw

1/2 head cabbage, shredded
1 carrot, shredded

1/2 c. mayonnaise
2 T. horseradish
2 tsp. cider vinegar
1 pkt. sweetener
1/2 tsp. celery seed
freshly ground pepper, to taste

Combine dressing ingredients and mix well.  Add to cabbage and carrots and mix well.  Serve with additional mayonnaise, if desired.

My kids like this dish because it's the only time I'll spring for a big pack of soda and leave it mostly unattended for them to pilfer at will.  I know there's a whole Coke-vs.-Pepsi cola war out there and one's preference indicates their region of origin.  I've been known to use Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and even root beer (a nod to BBQ King Raichlin).  Oh well.

Not-so Extreme Makeover, Menu Edition

There's nothing like a little hospital drama and a surgical procedure to steer things back into focus.

DH has two sets of parents (well, four, if you count the two older sisters and their significant others, but I'll leave that one for another time).  Both sets of parents have passed their 80th year and have substantial medical histories.  One ushered in the New Year with an emergency heart procedure.  After a single night of "recovery" in the hospital (as much as one can recover in a bright, noisy place like a hospital), this inlaw was sent home with an arterial stint, a nice big bruise, and a healthy diet plan.

DH remarked that any individual on the other side of 80 might have a difficult time changing practically everything about their diet.  A change like this might be good for someone, oh, say, in their mid-40s who's been having trouble sleeping and was told by the doctor to lose weight and exercise more.  DH and I both have heart disease, diabetes, and blood pressure complications in our family histories.  The first recommendation for prevention of each of these conditions is to eat less and move more.  Eat better, eat healthier.  Move under your own power.  We can do this.  Our lives depend upon it.

The Dog is COMPLETELY on board.  Walk, walk, walk.  The Dog knows the word "walk" and practically leashes herself when she hears it.  Wag, wag, wag.

Truthfully, this won't require much change around our kitchen, because (as we've demonstrated well already) I love to cook.  From "scratch".  I'm a veteran of many, many diet plans (mostly healthy and focused on fresh foods and portion control) and a life-long Weight Watcher.  When I heard this buy-in from DH, I sprang into action.  Well, not really, but it's given me something to really sink my teeth into.  Figuratively, at least.

Seeing myself not only as the feeder of the flock but the caretaker of their nutrients and physiology has given me pause.  I appreciate the daunting task ahead.  Not only will I love my people by cooking them tasty food, I will cook them healthy food so I can love them all that much longer.  Scaling back on the fats, sugars, and meats is a challenge, but not one we can't overcome.  This does not mean a constant menu of diet salad (hold the mayo) and cottage cheese.  Portion control is the elephant in the room.  So to speak.

Well, this artisan blog has turned into a food blog as well, so why not?

How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.

Today's bite is to reduce chemicals in our lives.  Specifically, the additives and preservatives prevalent in prepared foods.  I'm not a big fan of prepackaged food or mixes or anything, well, "convenient" because I find them high in sodium and other chemicals.  That's not to say I'm a purist, and certainly not perfect, because you are still likely to find convenience foods in my cart on any given trip to the grocery.

However, as I cook more and experiment some and consult the world wide web of electronic information, I'm getting better at this.  Better at finding healthy, tasty substitutions for some of the more-convenient and less-nutritious products out there.  I get frustrated by company websites which use more prepackaged ingredients (which, of course, they sell) than what I call "elemental" ingredients, or food in its somewhat close-to-basic form.  I'm not grinding my own wheat for flour, at least not yet, but I am perfectly capable of mixing flour and baking powder together.  I don't need to buy it in a box and pay for the brand name and the chemicals required to give it a long shelf life.  In the box.

As we cook more at home with fresher or simpler ingredients, we find it increasingly difficult to accept the saltiness of prepared-by-others foods.  This means eating out less, because our choices here are limited.  That's OK, too.  We'll save the eating out for when we travel.

So, here's my favorite make-from-scratch, save-the-sodium, love my heart and DH's blood pressure substitution for... condensed cream of chicken (or cream of anything) soup.

Many, many of the working-mom-time-saving-recipes out there call for some sort of condensed cream soup.  I've jettisoned a host of recipes simply because I refuse to keep these little cans of high blood pressure bait in the pantry.

Hold on, though.  These little conveniences, laden with so much sodium one bite makes my body feel like it's at high tide, came from somewhere to fill some need.  They were canned to replace something that was important to a lot of someones before they became so convenient.

That something is White Sauce.  Sauce Bechamel, if you would like to be fancy - named for 17th-century French financier and courtier Louis de Bechamel.  Probably found its way to the United States via Monticello.  It has an "unassertive characther and smooth texture, which make it the ideal agent to thicken and bind a wide range of dishes".  Thank you, Ethan Becker and Joy of Cooking

If you make Bechamel the Joy way, it takes about 30 minutes and involves simmering milk gently to infuse the taste of bay leaf and cloves.  I've done this and it makes a truly lovely sauce.  It's worth it if the sauce is for finishing a dish.

If it's used for a binder in a casserole or a thickener for soup, however, the Joy version is far too fussy.  Noted author and voracious reader Madeleine L'Engle wrote in her autobiography that she read constantly, even as she stirred the white sauce for dinner.  That is the sort of not-fussy thickener/binder I want.

Here's what's in a white sauce:  a little flour, some butter, some milk, some stock, and a little elbow grease.  That's all.  Maybe a dash of nutmeg to finish it up.  No more time required than it would take to open and scrape out a tin can.  A few fat calories and a couple of carbohydrates, but nothing a portion-controlled diet can't accommodate.  Easy peasy lemon squeezy.  Hold the lemon.

Cream of Chicken Soup Substitute (for healthy hearts)

1 T. flour
3 T. butter
1/2 c. chicken broth
1/2 c. milk
salt and pepper (and a grind of nutmeg), to taste

Melt the butter in a small sauce pan over medium-low heat. When melted, whisk in the flour and continue whisking until smooth and bubbly.
Remove from the heat and slowly whisk in the chicken broth and milk. Return to the heat and bring to a gentle boil, whisking constantly, until the soup thickens.
Add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste.
Substitute this for one can of cream of chicken soup.

Substitution Queen thinks cream of celery or cream of mushroom are just as simple, with a little simmering of the vegetable in slightly salty water to make the veggie stock, then continue as written. I'll let you know.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Primarily New Hampshire

Ah, Silly Season.

I'm not referring to the off-season of professional sports when drafts, posturing prior to contract negotiation, and other crazy team changes are made. Nor do I refer to the time when nothing happens in Parliament due to recess. Nor do I refer to an alien invasion unrealized until it's too late. My Silly Season is definitely IN season and completely in the realm of the realizable for those who consult any sort of mass media.

This is the season when two American states with tiny populations and a mere 11 Electoral College votes between them become the focus, and in some cases deciders, of the candidates opining for a place on the ballot for our next Presidential Election. This is the time when folks throughout the world, even here in southwest Virginia, learn that New Hampshire is, indeed, in the United States of America and is not a Canadian Province.

Having spent the majority of my formative years a resident of New Hampshire (who can resist the State Motto: Live Free or Die!), I feel at liberty to make some tongue-in-cheek observations about this very Silly Season.

Outside the single week following the Iowa Caucus and prior to the New Hampshire Primary, the population in New Hampshire is around 1.3 million*. People. Not counting moose, who are hard-pressed (haha) to hit that VOTE button with their cloven hooves. During Silly Season, though, you'll be looking for hotel rooms in Boston, because all those in (southern) NH are filled with the swelling population of candidates' entourages and mass media representatives.

Folks from "New Ham-sha" can be a fiercely independent bunch. Witness their state laws permitting voters to register as Undeclared and vote for whomever they choose, regardless of party affiliation, in whatever primary or election they wish. Freedom of choice: freedom to choose any candidate out there. Imagine my shock and disbelief when handed a primary ballot with only one party's candidates on it in a large mid-western state. New Hampshire also has the country's highest density of Libertarians. Live Free or Die.

As tiny as NH is in population, so is it in size. NH covers a mere 9,000 square miles, ranking 45th of the 50 US states. At its widest point (its border with Massachusetts), NH is only 68 miles wide. It has only 16 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline, and a 58-mile meandering border with Canada. There are only 190 miles between its borders with Canada and Massachusetts.

That's not to say that presidential hopefuls criss-cross every part of New Hampshire, attempting to shake every hand and meet every primary voter. Most candidates, particularly the serious ones, spend the majority of their time in the southern portion of the state where the majority of the population resides and the Boston stations cover news. Occasionally presidential hopefuls make that long trek (about 30 minutes on I-93) North to be seen in Concord, the state capital. Any candidate seen north of Concord has obviously lost their way and been separated from their entourage.

Outside Silly Season, in many ways New Hampshire's two distinct parts (Southern NH - that is, where the population is, south of Concord - and "The Boonies", all parts North) take on the appearance of their nearest neighbors, Massachusetts and Maine. Middle school students here in Virginia can't distinguish it from Vermont (in fact, they don't think of VT as a state at all but as the local Polytechnic University).

Again, though, the Granite State and its residents are very, very independent. Strongly independent. New Hampshire has a very high population of families from 'old colonial' ancestry, descendants from those original colonists who fled European tyranny. Several towns in NH carry my father's family name; I come from this stock, flavored by grandparents from Northern and Eastern Europe. Certainly this explains a lot.

NH is the only state in the Union which allows for revolution. There you go.  Live Free or Die.

Remember that term "rugged individualism"? Herbert Hoover, our 31st President, from (coincidentally) Iowa, is remembered for this term and his belief that those in trouble should help themselves rather than expect others to help them. To me, rugged individualism is status quo in New Hampshire, or at least in our corner of it. Help yourself. Make a change if one is needed. Take charge of your own fate and fortune. Be responsible. This doesn't mean you oughtn't help others less fortunate or accept gifts gratefully, because folks in New Hampshire, despite the hard granite exterior, do have a deeply-seeded tradition of helping neighbors. Helping neighbors helps community. Helping community helps individuals. It's a wonderfully supportive concept. Just don't expect it. Help is a gift, not an entitlement. Now THAT explains a lot.

This isn't to say that New Hampshire folks are all the same, because they're certainly not. They're independent. Sometimes fiercely so. Right, wrong, rarely indifferent. Do not stereotype New Hampshirites as clothed in plaid and fur, huddled around a potbellied stove, riding snowmobiles to school. The political pundits know this, and recognize the power in the independent nature of the New Hampshire primaries. We'll know who wins the primary when all the votes are counted. Not one minute earlier. I'll be right here in my corner of Virginia rooting for my New Hampshire friends to make their choices honestly and independently, and to bask in the limelight before it turns away for another four years and New Hampshire goes back to the beautiful, quiet, unknown state I love.

Saturday's Weekend Edition on NPR brought back one of the fondest memories from my elementary school years: a field trip to a nearby sugar house. Many who travel to New England during the fall are taken aback by the beautiful colors deciduous leaves will turn when the weather becomes crisp. Much of New Hampshire's brilliant color (and subsequent tourist income) comes from the cascade of maple trees dotting its mountainsides. These trees also provide the clear-colored sap which, when collected and distilled in the sugar house, becomes rich, dark maple syrup. I can still smell the vats of syrup and wood fires burning.

I'm spoiled by many great memories and a taste for the finer things I've discovered while travelling through life. Fortunately, my family in Maine feeds some of these tastes regularly. We particularly appreciate the gallons of pure maple syrup which find their way via post to us here in Virginia around the holidays. I've never been able to tolerate the maple-flavored high fructose corn syrup, and as such, I don't order pancakes at a restaurant. So when we have them, it's at home and with The Real Thing.

Today, in honor of New Hampshire's brief 15 minutes of fame and in the spirit of using up what we have (the rest of the 2011 maple syrup stash), it's pancakes for breakfast at Chateau Jeaux-Naus.

Multi-Grain Flapjacks
based on a recipe from Joy of Cooking c1997.

Whisk together the following:
1 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. cornmeal
1/4 c. rolled oats (old-fashioned or quick-cooking)
1/4 c. wheat germ
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon and a pinch of freshly-grated nutmeg

Whisk together in another bowl:
1 3/4 c. milk
4 T. butter, melted and cooled
1/4 c. honey
3 eggs

Pour wet ingredients over dry ingredients and gently whisk them together, mixing just until combined. Spoon onto hot, seasoned griddle. Cook until the top of each pancake is speckled with bubbles and some have popped, then turn and cook until underside is lightly browned. Serve immediately or keep warm in a 200degF oven.

Serve with pure maple syrup. Nothing else tastes quite right. Or left. Or undeclared.

*Facts from