Monday, May 31, 2010


We had some friends over last night to have a cookout and play some euchre. As they passed through the front patio into the house, they were all struck by some vegetation happening there - some intentional, some accidental.

Before Dad and I started our big-ass garden project, I resorted to container gardening to have some fresh produce of my own, show my children what it takes to grow vegetables, and (as Margo says) "get my fingers in the dirt." There's very little yard at our house, and what we do have has a sprinkling system in it, so a garden would not easily be done. I wanted to see what I could produce with a container garden experiment.

I've done lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, zucchini, onions and herbs in containers on my patio. I don't think I planted any lettuce in pots last year, because I had about thirty feet of it in the big garden in the country. However, I did have "volunteer" lettuce come up which, in my neglect, went to seed and blew their spawn all over the patio area. THIS year, we're seeing just exactly how far and wide the seed did blow, as I have leaf lettuce ruffling about in nearly every pot in the set and even... the cracks of the patio floor!

This year, my containers mostly hold herbs, but I also have the volunteer lettuce, some chili peppers and onions. I like to have onions right outside my door because I often have recipes calling for green onions and if I hadn't planned ahead, it would mean a special trip to Dad's. Here they are, leaning toward the sunshine, as we all seem to be right now.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Early Garden 2.0

It is time to begin eating lettuce from the garden. We like it with a homemade dressing that we remember from Michael's Grandma Chupp. It's made with sour cream, sugar, salt and vinegar. Very simple and delicious. If we're feeling crazy, we add green onion.

Speaking of green onions, they're ready. I like a sweet onion best. That's all I grew last year, and I've got the end of last year's crop in my onion drawer today, just as this year's crop begins to ready. There WAS some waste last year. Apparently, sweet onions are hard to keep through the winter. Still, I feel proud that I haven't purchased an onion in a year. I'll pull small onions as I need them to use green, the rest I'll allow to become gorgeous, sweet globes.

Lookie! Tiny little heads beginning to grow on our broccoli!

The radishes are ready. I lost some to pests, but I have enough. Good flavor.

I've been SO looking forward to the spinach. I have a hot bacon dressing that I love. I got the recipe from the grandma of a friend in York, PA, and now I use it all the time.

This stage of the garden is tremendously fulfilling to me. We've had some warm, even hot days to enjoy. The long sleeves have been packed away. But, for me, winter is not over until I'm planning meals around whatever the garden is producing and I bypass the produce aisle at the supermarket completely. Happy Spring.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Church of Each Other, Part One

I've been working on this post for a week. By working, I mean writing one lame opening sentence, deleting it and closing it up until the next day. I want my words to accurately express what myself and some of the people around me have been feeling recently. Since they can't, I just need to record SOMETHING of it. Over the last two weeks, in our small church in Indiana, we first worried over a nine-year-old boy who fell off the monkey bars and was badly hurt. We were given assurance a few days later that he would be fine, so we breathed a sigh of relief. Then we were punched in the gut when a favorite woman of the church fell victim to a heart attack and did not recover. We are all very sad.

Drema was a gentle woman from the hills of West Virginia who made everyone feel like family. She greeted me every Sunday with a hug and "How are you, Sweetie?" She remembered if a child had been sick recently and asked about them. Anytime a group worked to serve the church or people in need, she and her husband were the first to come, the last to leave and the hardest workers of the day. She was uncomplicated but not simple. She had little and shared everything. We all felt like we had something special with her. She leaves a loving husband and two teenaged daughters, one who is having her high school graduation next week.

I've been thinking about a phrase I read recently and it seems to describe the attitude in our church. Mary Jane Butters is seamstress, carpenter, community organizer, milkmaid, writer and farmgirl. She was raised in a devout Mormon family and her parents were in high standing in their small but tight Church community. While she doesn't practice any organized religion now, she talks with fondness about the intimate Community formed by the people of the church - by Being There for each other in good times, in bad times, in unthinkably tragic times. Today, when asked what church she attends, she says she belongs to the Church of Each Other. Without theology, she carries on the practice of Being There with her employees, her neighbors, her shareholders.

An excerpt from Mary Jane's Ideabook, Cookbook, Lifebook:

"The 'other' part of 'each other' is easier if you decide that people matter, no matter what. For behold, are we not all beggars? For me, then, it's the wheel, work, and a heart full of song - it's the church of Each Other, the church of Lend a Hand, and the church called Gathered Up. The stuff of belief in providing relief to each other is a mighty defense against the passionlessness of modern life. Anyone can attend. And anyone can join."

A mere day and a half after dear Drema's sudden death was our Sabbath, with a scheduled carry-in dinner after services in order to honor our graduating young students, Drema's daughter among them. I am the Chair of the Fellowship committee, which hosted the event. A very large portion of the church turned out in order to Be Together. There had to be some crying together, too. But also laughing together, encouraging together, helping together and certainly eating together.

When the eating part was mostly done came the real work of the event, which also happens to be some of my favorite stuff. My committee consisted of four other women, ranging in age from about 15 years older than me to about 75 years old. "How awkward," some might say, "of course you have nothing in common!" Not so. We have our work in common, and the feeling that the work is important. The people we care about bond us, too, as do the joys and sorrows of the Community. Right now our people are sorrowing and what we know to do really well is serve them from the kitchen.

Aprons were donned, hands got pruney from the dishwater and only two glasses were broken. All the church members bussed their own tables and sorted their plates, glasses and silverware in order to be helpful. Barb didn't want to take all that leftover cake home, so could she send it home with me, you know, for the kids? I didn't know where everything went in the kitchen, but Carol did. Carol knows everything about the church kitchen. We wondered if a certain dish belonged to the church or to one of it's members, but Ruby recognized it as being one of Wendy's bowls. And Sharon, bless her, who laughs at herself for managing to break a sweat when she folds socks, stood melting over the hot dishwater for an hour or more, hair sticking damply to every part of her face and neck, but did not stop until the work was done.

Look again, and I noticed Joann was washing a sinkful of dishes, too. And Darcey was in the Fellowship Hall, wiping down tables and vacuuming the floor. That's not unusual; they're always there when work needs to be done, but neither was on my committee... the work wasn't theirs to be done. No matter, they would pitch in anyway.

A month ago, Drema would have been a part of that crew. A month from now, the cast may change again. But what is evolving stays the same. There will always be people to hold your hand, bring you a casserole, wash up afterwards. The food tastes better in the church basement. The work is more meaningful when the one doing it chose it, was not assigned to it. We are more Family than family.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


So the Mardi Gras that is Ava's birthday is finally over. We had the folks over after church for her family party. Inspired by the teacher appreciation dinner, I served Haystacks.

BFF Rebecca has a cookbook which we once browsed together. I think all the contributors were rural midwesterners. (I'd love to know if this meal is made anywhere else.) There are SO MANY variations of this dish, and each one seems to be sacred to those who eat it. I made it thusly:

A bed of steamed rice is topped with ground beef seasoned with a taco seasoning mix.

Next was salsa, lettuce, cheese and sour cream.

Finally, cheese sauce, diced tomatoes, sweet peppers, onions, sliced olives, crushed Dorito chips... everything but the kitchen sink.

Around "these here parts" you see advertisements from Mennonite and Amish churches inviting you to these dinners which they put on as fundraisers for the youth group or for members in need. I've attended one and I remember the fixings as basically what I offered. A lot of people add crushed soda crackers somewhere in the mix, but the idea offends me. Rebecca (an Easterner - having not experienced a Haystack Dinner)asked me how it was different from a taco salad. I did a little mild research before posting this to be sure that the answer was the foundation of the rice, but I didn't find the rice universal in the recipes I found online. Some recipes were even meatless.

My Personal Answer to her question is that in my mind (and on my plate) a taco salad is a cold dish with mostly lettuce. For me the Haystack has a foundation of rice and a larger percentage of taco meat, making it a hot dish with refreshing crunches of fresh, cool vegetables. What's great about using this meal to serve a crowd is that everyone can fix it according to their personal tastes and all can contribute an ingredient, if it's a "pitch in" kind of scene.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Old Man is Totally Snoring!

I've been meaning to tell you about how the early garden is coming along, but I've been sidetracked by all the ark-building going on around here. It's been raining, or at least drizzling for about four days. On the plus side, this means that a bunch of ball games have been postponed, which means traditional family meals every night. I think we've been hanging out long enough for you to know that that's important to me.

I know I've already posted about Ava's birthday dinner requests. She had a trip to the little local zoo with some of her Besties on Friday. (The rain held off for the three hours required for seeing the whole of the zoo.) And we're not done yet. Her birthday seems like Mardi Gras this year; we just can't seem to stop celebrating. The meal with the grandparents, aunties and uncles is coming up this Sunday after church. I've been inspired by the teacher appreciation dinner and planning to have Haystacks.

We're supposed to have thunderstorms tomorrow, but I'm trying to believe I can go to the garden for a bit anyway. In the meantime, here's a picture of the sweet girls at the zoo.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Perfect Mashed Potatoes?

I'm not great at mashed potatoes. It's a little embarrassing. It doesn't seem like one of those clearly tricky things that everyone struggles with.

I wasn't planning to make them today. It's little Ava's seventh birthday today and the Celebrated One always gets to choose the menu. I asked her to remind my addled brain with a fourteenth recitation of her preferred menu and I think she tweaked her choices. For awhile, there was no meat on her menu, just Egg Drop Soup from our favorite Chinese restaurant, Wok Inn. But today, her choices sounded exactly like what her brother and sister choose every year. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes with BOTH brown and yellow gravy, and salad.

After a long day at the little league field, I was in a rush to prepare this dinner. (An aside: It was Ava's first t-ball game of the season. It was at 9:00 AM. It was 40 degrees. Children were crying. Nobody was having fun. It was like a Greek tragedy.) I peeled and cut up the potatoes and started them cooking, while I waited for Mike and the kids to get home from Mother's Day shopping, bringing with them the chicken pieces for frying. (I'm hoping that wasn't my present.)

The potatoes ended up being tender long before the chicken was done and I got distracted by hurrying the other kitchen work when I should have been mashing the potatoes. The result was gluey mashed potatoes.

I did a quick Google search before posting in hopes that I could give you some clear answers about making perfect mashed potatoes. I found a Taste of Home forum where someone had a similar experience and asked the other readers for helpful hints. What was reassuring was that the number of people who responded indicated that plenty of people have a problem with getting the mashed potatoes right. Less helpful was all the conflicting advice. Some said, "You must have been using old potatoes." Some said, "You must have been using red potatoes." Also, "You must have been using a mixer." "You have to use a potato ricer." "You have to use a hand masher." "You have to heat the potatoes again after you drain them, in order to dry them before mashing."

A few people did mention what I ultimately think was the culprit... waiting too long (and allowing them to cool) before mashing. My mother-in-law also told me the potatoes are fluffier if the milk you add to the potatoes has been heated. All very interesting stuff, none of which was I taught before being unleashed into my own kitchen. What else can YOU teach me about mashing potatoes?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Just Call Me Simple Simone

I got some comments on Facebook and in real life that it was unforgivable that I was asked to bake six pies for the teacher appreciation dinner at school yesterday. I suppose I should mention that the president of the PTO and the hospitality officer both go to church with me and are good friends of mine. They seem to feel sort of reverant about my pies and if you can't ask big favors of your friends, well then, who?

Oh, and they also paid me.

I managed my time well for this project, if I may boast. I made my pie crusts well in advance and put them in pie-sized blobs in the freezer. Two days before the meal, I put the frozen blobs in the fridge to thaw. The morning before the meal, I rolled out and baked the two crusts that needed to be pre-baked before filling. That afternoon, I made a strawberry pie. I use a different pie crust for strawberry pie. It is easily made - mixed up and patted out in the pie pan. That evening, I filled those two pre-baked crusts, and rolled out and fluted two more crusts. I kind of decided at the last minute to do Erika's recipe for frozen coconut pie. I used a purchased graham cracker crust and it went together in less than 15 minutes. Great recipe. No baking required, just popped it in the freezer.

The morning of, I had four chilled (or frozen) pies ready to go and two pies yet to bake that were meant to be served warm. One was a Peach Cream Pie. I prefer to make it when peaches are in season, but since they aren't I had to resort to frozen peach slices. I consider it my best pie, so I didn't want to leave it off the menu. I'll share the recipe with you in late summer when I'm making the pie left and right.

The final pie was Rhubarb Crumble Pie, which I've never made before. My family likes rhubarb, but when I use it, I usually make a crisp. Since pies were the thing this week, I found this recipe for and it was a rousing success. The teachers really liked it.

Rhubarb Crumble Pie

1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust
1 1/2 lbs. rhubarb stalks
1/3 c. water
3 T flour
3/4 c. sugar

1/4 c. butter
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. flour
1/3 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 t. cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Trim and rinse rhubarb stalks. Slice them into 1/2 - 1 inch chunks. Especially large stalks might need to be cut in half lengthwise.

3. Combine the rhubarb and water in a medium saucepan. In a small bowl, combine 3 T flour and 3/4 c. sugar. Mix it up well and add it to the rhubarb mixture. Stir it up in the saucepan and bring the whole thing just to a boil.

4. Reduce heat and stir often while it cooks for five minutes. It will thicken significantly, but another goal is to get the rhubarb tender. Remove from heat. The recipe suggests that you could add some red food coloring at this point to make the filling more attractive, but I didn't do that.

5. Combine the topping ingredients in a small bowl until blended and crumbly. Sprinkle over the top of the pie. Bake for 35-45 minutes, until topping is browned and filling is bubbly.

6. Serve warm.

The run down of the pies was this: banana cream, peanut butter (When I have to make large amounts of pies, I always make these two, because I can just make a big batch of vanilla pudding and line the bottom of the pies with different ingredients: banana slices or peanut butter crumbs.), frozen coconut cream, strawberry, peach cream and rhubarb crumble.

The teachers were very appreciative of the whole meal and couldn't believe they were getting homemade pies. See, that's why I feel sort of evangelical about kitchen work. These are things that our mothers and grandmothers did without thinking they were special. And it seems insurmountable to many of my contemporaries. I really would hate for this kind baking to be lost and I hope my kids will feel like it's something they could do when they are grown.

(Anyway, I forgot to tell you that the rest of the meal was Haystacks. I think this might be a colloquial kind of thing that all of you may not know about. Hmmm... maybe it's another blog entry...)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Morel Mushroom.... (wait for it)... RISOTTO!

That's right, Dear Ones, risotto made with the truffles of the Midwest, Morel Mushrooms.

Let's get right to the recipe. I'm terribly busy today so this'll be just the facts. It's Staff Appreciation Day at the school tomorrow. The PTO always provides a meal for the teachers and they've asked me to provide the pies for dessert. Six. Of. Them.

Morel Risotto
1/2 lb. cleaned and trimmed morel mushrooms
2 T butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 T minced or green onion
1/2 t. salt, plus more to taste
1 1/2 c. arborio rice
1/2 c. white wine
5 c. chicken or vegetable broth
2 T cream
1/2 c. freshly shredded parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish (optional)
fresh mint for garnish (optional)
fresh chives for garnish (optional)

1. Corsely chop mushrooms. Meanwhile, bring broth to a boil.

2. Melt butter over medium heat in medium saucepan. Add garlic and onions and cook until tender, about 1 or 2 minutes. Add those mushrooms and sprinkle with salt. You'll cook the whole affair until the mushrooms release their liquid... another 2 or 3 minutes.

3. Add rice and stir to coat. (Arborio rice is recommended. Most of us have long-grain rice in our cupboards at any time, but this will not produce good risotti. Long grain rice is meant to be fluffy and we want our risotti to be creamy. Shorter grain rice is starchier and will produce the desired results.) Once the rice has been stirred in, add the wine and stir until completely absorbed and evaporated.

4. Add 1 c. of the hot broth and stir often until it is mostly absorbed. You will continue adding the broth, 1/2 c. at a time, letting it absorb between additions. You will want to stir it a lot. You may not use all 5 c. of the broth. Just keep offering broth for the rice to soak up, until the rice is tender, but still firm enough to hold its shape. All this foreplay should take about 25 minutes.

5. When the dish has gotten to the right consistency, remove from heat and stir in the cream and the parmesan. Give it a taste and see if you want more salt in the dish and adjust it accordingly.

6. Divide the risotto between four wide, shallow bowls. Garnish with more parmesan, chives, mint, whatever you like.

I made this dish on Sunday evening and it was such a good dinner. I LOVE risotto and I LOVE morels and the combination was great. Because morels are so seasonal and so expensive (around $30 per pound, at the stand at my favorite gardening center), I wonder how the dish would be with other mushrooms. I'm tempted to give it a try soon, or maybe some of you will and let me know about the results.

My new friend/reader/fellow food blogger, Chris, told me about the practice of frying leftover balls of risotto. I bet that would be absolute bliss with this recipe.

Must get to those pies...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

I Love Fungus!

Every late April or early May, I keep my eyes fixed on the market across the river from our house. Here come the spring offerings... asparagus, check... rhubarb, delightful... and then... what's that in the distance? The fanfare of trumpets? The singing of angels? Yes, all that, and Morel Mushrooms, too.

You think I am exaggerating, but around here the morels are awaited with eagerness and lust. If one finds a place where morels grow, then one tells NOT ONE SOUL, returns to see what that spot has produced year after year, and takes the secret location with them selfishly to the grave.

When I was a sophomore at my tiny rural high school, I sat with my friend Lisa on the bus to a track meet at another school. Behind us sat two farm boys, also on the track team, who talked lasciviously about "gettin' some mushrooms this weekend," with knowing sidelong looks at one another and lopsided smiles. Lisa accused them primly of using it as code for something dirty. They must have been, for all the anticipatory bliss the conversation was producing. Come to find out, really... they were talking about morels.

They are HERE! And they will probably be here only another week and a half, when the fifty week wait until next mushroom season will begin again. I've got mine, and I have big plans for them. I did a morel recipe search online and people definitely seem to have their favorite ways of serving up these wonderful treasures. My usual method is just coating the halves lightly with flour and frying them in butter. My search led me to dip them in egg, then dredge them in cracker crumbs before frying, and bleh... I didn't care for the results. Too much coating, too little mushroom.

I've got half my purchase left and I think the result of my next recipe will be absolute euphoria. I will let you know. Stay tuned.