Just peachy

Life isn’t always just peachy, but on those rare occasions when life goes right, it’s important to celebrate.  Just so seasonal peaches.  The peach harvest isn’t always perfect, and indeed some years are so poor the peaches need to be scrapped altogether.  But when everything goes right, and the Spirits of Fruit bless us with an abundance of perfect peaches, it is our pleasure, nay, our obligation, to enjoy and preserve that gift so we can savor it long into the future.IMG_0787

Peaches are one of my favorite fruits.  Many a summer past I have looked longingly at what is on offer at my local supermarket in June, or even July, and imagine it might be tasty and delicious.  I imagine it’s sugary juice and perfectly ripe density as I bite into it.  I’ll pick up a peach and gently prod its unyielding flesh or bring it to my nose in hope of catching the sweet aroma of summer.  Foolishly, I may even be convinced to pay the outrageous sticker price for one or two with the notion that this time will be different, that these peaches were perhaps allowed to stay on the branch a little longer than most, or better yet were picked nearly ripe.  I’ll gently take the fruit home and set it on the counter to fulfill its natural destiny of becoming delicious.  When it’s stiffness finally yields under my thumb, it smells like actual peaches, and I deem it ripe enough to eat, I bite into its softness and feel tasteless mush coating my tongue like wallpaper paste.  Into the compost they go.  How did I get fooled again?

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The only good peaches are the ones you pick yourself, ripe from the tree.  And not always those.  Years past have given us hard nuggets that never ripen or worse, fall off the tree when they are the size of walnuts.  We’ve seen fruit with thick hairy skin and crunchy flesh, as well as wormy bland fruit that has the consistency of blueberries and leaves a slimy film on the tongue.  Timing and weather play important roles in a successful peach harvest, and only one of those things is within our control.  You make your own luck, my dad used to say.  God helps those who help themselves, my mom’s voice calls out from my past.  Every gardener knows those expressions are only partly true.  If nature won’t cooperate, and inclement weather strikes at in-opportune times, no amount of hard work can fix it.  A frost after the trees blossom will kill a harvest overnight.  Excessive heat, too much rain, blight, insects and many other things can ruin peaches.  But some things are within our prevue, and timing is essential.  Choosing which days to apply horticultural oils to protect the blossoms from egg laying insects, fertilizing the trees at the proper times, deciding when to thin the fruits; all these things can affect the harvest.  Once the fruits are established and ripening it is time to decide when to pick.

If you see a bunch of rotting peaches under the tree, you’re too late.

Start testing the fruit once one or two peaches have dropped on the ground.  If you are impatient, give the tree a gentle shake and see if any fruit falls off.  Once the first fruits drop the time is right to test the peaches for ripeness.  A gentle press with the thumb on the bottom flesh will give you an idea of the readiness of the peach.  If the flesh doesn’t yield, its not ripe.  When the bottom yields under the thumb, check the top of the peach near the branch.  This should just give under the finger.  If it is still firm-not ripe.  If it yields, give the peach a twist.  If it pops off-hurrah, it’s ripe. If the tree gives some resistance, perhaps it’s not ready to give up the fruit yet.  It’s telling you to wait another day.  Accept it.

There is only one reason to pick the peaches before they ripen on the tree and that is if the birds find them first.  Once the crows and their cronies get a taste of those lovely peaches, it’s all over.  They have an maddening way of pecking only the ripest part of the fruit, usually where the sun hits it, and leaving the harder unripe side intact.  They go from peach to peach and ruin each one, leaving the unprotected flesh open for fruit flies, ants and other pests to crawl in and spoil the fruit.  If you don’t want to share with your feathered friends I suggest that at the first sign of beak marks, you pick the fruit that’s unblemished and mostly ripe.  A few days on the counter, covered by cheesecloth to protect it, will eventually ripen the fruits.  Better yet, net the trees to protect from the birds.  IMG_0773

Once the fruits start to ripen on the tree, they come like a wave.  At first there are just a few ripe ones to tempt the appetite, eaten just rinsed in the sink, or grilled. As the days pass they ripen by the basket full, and soon the counter is covered with fruits in various stages of ripening, too many to eat each day.  Soon fresh peaches are a part of every meal, and the pies and kuchens and cobblers feel more like an obligation than a treat.   It’s time to put up the abundance so that when colder breezes blow, a mouthful of sweet deliciousness will recall to us the sun and warmth of humid August days.

All the ways to preserve the harvest start with the same first steps.  Jammed, jarred, frozen, liquored, candied, dehydrated, or even salsa-fied , the peaches must first be relieved of their fuzzy skin.  This is done by blanching the peaches in boiled water for 1 minute, and then plunging the peaches into cold water.  One minute.  Time it.  Longer and the peaches will begin to cook and become mushy, and then your only choice is jam.  Less and the skins won’t slip off.  You can tell during this first step if your peaches are indeed perfectly ripe because if they are, the skins will slide off leaving smooth peachy flesh underneath.  If they are a bit under-ripe, the skin will peel off taking some of the flesh with it, and the peach will be nubby looking.  See the difference in the picture below.

 

Once they are blanched there are endless choices for using or saving them.  If I have too many to process and not enough time, my first choice is to freeze them sliced into quart bags.  This is fast and easy, and allows for more creative uses when I have more time to spare.  Take care to fill the bags only partway full or they won’t stack well in the freezer.  To minimize the mess, I roll the top of the bag over to fill it.  Freezing the peaches does not require the use of citric or ascorbic acid to protect the color, but if you might want to jar them at a later time I suggest using it prior to freezing.  When they thaw out the bright peach color will tend to brown slightly, and pretty jars lined in the pantry look so much better if the peaches have been rinsed in a bit of acid first.  I use Ball brand Fruit-Fresh.

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Canning is another way to keep them safe for months to come, but it does require more effort, and some specialized equipment.  While you don’t need a pressure cooker for canning peaches, it does shorten the processing time. I can my peaches in a very light syrup if they were allowed to ripen on the tree.  I want to taste peach, not sugar, when I open the jar.  IMG_0795

If you are not patient enough to grow your peach trees, or don’t have the space, don’t despair.   Take a trip to a pick-your-own orchard, find a farmers market, or as a last resort, buy some from your market when it is peach season in your area.  Ask the provenance of the fruit and if it is local, give it a try.  Smell is the best way to judge ripeness in market fruits.  If you can find good fruits, it’s wise to invest now for a payout later.  Buy a bushel. Winter peaches are worth it.

If you have an interesting way to preserve peaches, or a receipt to share, post it here.

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Which season is this, anyway?

IMG_1781I bought myself a new pair of galoshes.  I love that word, galoshes.  It brings to mind yellow rubber duckies and chubby kneed toddlers jumping in puddles.  Purple umbrellas, rain streaking down window panes, and good books.  So I have a new pair.  Sleek, navy blue and mid-calf, with a bright orange lining, they are my new favorite shoes.  Partly because I get to wear them every day, morning and evening, and sometimes in between.  They are made by a company called Hunter, the Rolls Royce of rubber boots.  The last pair I had were made by Hunter too, although I cheaped out and bought them slightly used on Ebay.  I got  what I paid for, by the way.  They must have been more than “slightly” used, because they only lasted a few seasons.  After a few weeks of doing my chores in wet socks this spring I broke down and bought a new pair directly from the company.  And not a moment too soon.  The pretty box lined in bright orange with the fancy Hunter logo gave me almost enough gratification to justify the price.  At least they are getting a good workout.  IMG_0747

It’s been a wet summer here in the northeast.  Wet and hot.  A wet summer following a cold late spring.  Following a weird winter.  But no one needs me to tell them that the weather is out of whack, all you have to do is look out the window, or better yet look at your garden.  I’ve got tomatoes splitting open on the vine before they ripen, peppers dropping all their leaves and huge eggplant bushes with no blooms on them.  My carrots are two inches tall and as fat as sausages, the watermelon, winter squash and pumpkins have no fruit at all, and the raspberries mold before I can pick them.  I have cabbage spitting open like hatching eggs and basil plants with leaves as brown and slimy as pond scum.  Things are composting before I can harvest them.  It’s wet.

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It’s in my nature, sadly, to point out the tragic and flawed first.  When someone comes for a tour of the garden, or is just walking through, I’ll delightedly complain about all the garden failures.  Maybe it’s my way of deflecting blame, as if I’m somehow responsible for the weather.  I need everyone to know that despite all my efforts, things are not perfect, and I recognize it.  I make them note the worst so they know that I know the flaws exist.  That I’m not proudly displaying what is obviously not the way it should be.  It’s a terrible way to behave, and not very self-serving.  Most times, not only would they not have recognized the not-perfectness of things, but it robs them of the desired delusion that things really are perfect, and just the way they should be.  They leave thinking either I’m a downer, or just not very good at what I do.  Or worse, they feel the need to reassure me, and make me feel better for my multitude of failures. Ridiculous.

So, now that you’ve heard the worst, both practically and subconsciously, I’ll tell you the good news.  Onions the size of softballs.  Leeks that are three feet tall.  Abundant parsley, mint that is overflowing (isn’t it always) and cucumbers that just keep coming.  The garlic harvest was successful, fat white and purple heads drying on racks in the garage. The kohlrabi, while a bit tough on the outside, was none the less plump and crunchy.  And the summer squash.  Oh, the summer squash.  I’m reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Miracle where she informs her children that they lock the car doors in summer not to deter someone from stealing the car, but to prevent neighbors from dropping off  bags of calf sized zucchini on their back seat.   Lock your doors folks, it’s that kind of year.

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And I can’t forget the flowers. Almost everything was abundant, tall, vibrant and with enormous blooms.  My ‘Dinner Plate’ dahlias are actually the size of dinner plates.  It’s the best year I’ve seen for poppies, and the Sunflowers are 10 feet tall.  Of course the weeds are 10 feet tall too.  Some of the grasses growing in my flower beds have become ornamental.  I’m trying to go with it and resist loudly declaiming to whomever will listen that I didn’t plant it there, and I haven’t gotten around to pulling it out yet, and if it weren’t for all this blasted rain you wouldn’t notice it.

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I’ll let out a little secret.  We harvested about 6 gallons of honey from our two hives last week.  This is big news for all the folks to whom we give honey as a Christmas gift.  While a few of them no doubt have jars of honey stacked in the back of the pantry, I know for a fact the majority can’t wait for their Christmas bag of goodies from the Winter Pantry, the honey being the golden prize.  This years honey was pale, golden and sugary, redolent of clover blossoms, honeysuckle and apple.  Much different from previous years, when we’ve seen honey that has been almost molasses-like, dark amber and thick.  The weather makes a difference for the bees, too.

Not being a bee person didn’t stop me from helping this year.  Helping is a misnomer, really, but I was there, standing several yards away and trying to breathe deeply and radiate calm normality.  As if that’s my natural state.  Ha.  Only once did I do what I had promised myself not to; shreek, hop, and swat hysterically at my hair in an attempt to dislodge one furious lady trying in vain to defend her home.  Of course my husband, who is a bee person and for whom calm normality is a way of life, came to my rescue, and plucked the poor thing from my head before she could sting me and ruin both our lives.   He had repeatedly picked the angry things off his arms and neck without a peep, lifting out the heavily laden frames with calm aplomb.  Different nature, I guess.

And I must mention the fruit. The abundant rain and humid weather has certainly been a blessing for all the fruit setting plants.  Fat yellow plums are dripping off our diminutive trees and for some strange reason the birds haven’t yet discovered them.  Perhaps they are thrown off by the color?  It is wonderful to harvest so many unblemished fruits.   The downside being that they don’t spoil as fast, so I’m disinclined to make jam, or even to freeze them.  Sorry friends, no plum jam in the Christmas bag.   Instead they sit in big bowls on the counter and get gobbled down five at a time.  This time of year it’s not unlikely for me to make an entire meal of plums, blueberries and peaches while I stand at the counter dripping juice on myself.  Elegant.

 

Conclusion?  The weather is weird.  It’s different than last year, different than any other year before.  Science says it’s going to get weirder.  But nature will win out, in the end, I think.  And us gardeners, what can we do in the meantime?  We have to deal with what we get, acknowledge the bad and celebrate the good, and then go forth and try to be more responsible to the planet.  We plant and harvest and eat, we fail and succeed and mostly do the best we can.  It’s in our nature.

 

Morning Score

This morning, as I walked up the cool dewy driveway to feed the horses, I noticed something in their pasture that hadn’t been there yesterday.  The pasture grows rocks;  I know because I pick them up and toss them over the fence regularly, yet there still seem to be plenty around.  This didn’t look quite like rocks though, or any of the other paraphernalia the horses lose in the pasture, so I walked down to investigate.

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Hooray!  It was what I was hoping they might be…some puffball mushrooms.  They must have blossomed in the field after the hard, much needed rain we had yesterday afternoon. The horse had stepped on some of them, but I managed to salvage some good mushrooms  “for the pot”.  I didn’t have my camera with me, so I can’t show you, but there was clear swath of darker color in the grass where the fungus was growing, like a big comma, and there was a sweep of puffballs, the fruit of the fungus, blooming right down the center.

As I walked back home with my loot I got to reflecting about mushrooms, for which I have a deep fondness.  They often grow in dead or dying material. In other words, they are a product of decay.  It amazes me that nature is structured in such a way  that life flows naturally from death.  Take compost, for instance.  I have a compost pile into which I tossed a rotting pumpkin last year, as well as all my other garden waste.  This year I can’t see my compost pile for the hybrid squash/pumpkin Audrey III growing there.  Abundance from decay.  And yet we still see death as a finality.

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Back in the kitchen putting away the mushrooms, I was chagrined to remember that I have two dozen jalapenos, 10 ripe tomatoes, 4 cabbages, 6 cucumbers, 2 giant zucchini the size of my arm, 3 peppers, a basket of green beans and a watermelon already stuffed in the fridge.  Why can’t I find a score of puffball mushrooms in February, when there is nary a fresh thing in sight?  So I’ll make some hot sauce, roast the tomatoes for the freezer (a yummy trick I learned from my mother-in-law)  whip up  some coleslaw for dinner, jar some pickles, freeze the green beans, and leave the zucchini in my neighbors car, but I am definitely having a mushroom omelet for breakfast.

 

MUSHROOM OMELET

2/3 cup mushrooms of any kind, diced

2 fresh local eggs (3 if you are hungry)

2 tsp. butter divided

1 oz. goat cheese

Salt and pepper

Heat a nonstick pan on medium low heat.   Crack the eggs in a bowl and scramble lightly with a fork.  Saute the mushrooms in 1/2 the butter until tender and most of the water has evaporated.  If the mushrooms dry out before they are cooked through, add a tablespoon of water to the pan and cook until it’s dry again.  Add the eggs and the rest of the butter and cover for 2-3 min.  When the eggs are mostly cooked, add the cheese to one side and gently fold the eggs onto the cheese. Turn off the heat. Cover again for a few more minutes until eggs are cooked through.

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Pretending, and other stuff.

Hello friends

You may have wondered whatever happened to me and my sometimes blog.  Well, I’ll tell you.  Last spring I was offered my dream job.  I was hired to design, build and manage a teaching garden for the Marvelwood School, a small Connecticut private school that both my sons attend.  I get to spend part of each day planning, organizing and actually digging in the dirt.  It was a very successful first season, and it just keeps getting better.  I was offered the use of a small greenhouse on the campus so I can continue puttering about with growing things this winter.  I’ll tell you a little secret…I’m experimenting with aquaponics too!  I already have 8 little goldfish working hard to produce nitrogen for my sprouts.  Well, they actually produce ammonia that will turn into nitrites that will turn into…that’s a story for another day, though.  Today we’re gonna talk about a freakishly warm December.

It’s freakishly warm, right?  What the heck!  I waited until late late late in November to plant garlic, which I usually plant in the end of October, and still the garlic has sprouted and is 4 inches tall.   Further disturbing evidence of this unusual weather is the fact that my parsley is actually growing.  I have been pulling it in fist-fulls to use in the kitchen, but still it grows.  Hard not to when it’s 60 degrees out.  IMG_0679

I have still been able to plant narcissus bulbs, as the ground isn’t nearly frozen yet, and whenever I hit one that’s already there I find it has sprouted and is trying to pop out of the earth.  My strawberries have actual flowers, for crying out loud!  What gives?  Anyone?  Even I, who loves growing things, am ready for the season to end.  Enough already.

I’m trying to pretend it’s winter.  Despite the fact that they are still green and healthy, I pulled out my leeks today.  IMG_0677They last almost as long in the fridge as in the ground, and I keep telling myself there has to be a hard freeze soon, so I might as well get them out now.  Of course I was wearing a T-shirt while I dug, so it really was pretend.  I could have probably left them in another month.

I decided to make a real one pot winter style meal tonight with some of the leeks and other put-up foods to try to get in the winter mood.  I used the parsley, some potatoes and onions I have in the cellar, and some pheasant leg meat I had left over from a broth I made.  IMG_0682

I also had the good fortune to trade a venison sirloin for some guanciale with my good friend Sarah.  For those of you who are scratching your head (like me the first time I heard of it), it’s a pork jowl.  That’s right…pig cheeks.  and I’m here to tell you that it’s one tasty item!  It’s an Italian specialty food traditionally used in carbonara, and it is super yummy.  More delicate than pancetta, and with a stronger taste than bacon, it ramps up the flavor of any dish.  Here I sauteed it until crisp, removed it with a slotted spoon and cooked the leeks and onions in the fat left in the pan.

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The potatoes I diced and cooked until soft in salted water, added them to the leeks and fried them until a little crispy.  After that I added the removed guanciale, the parsley, the pheasant, salt and pepper to taste, a pinch of cayenne and finally shredded Havarti on the whole thing, covered it and turned off the heat.  Meanwhile I had a nice winter cocktail to get me in the holiday spirit.  Nothing wrong with rum and eggnog, am I right?

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The final product was a stick to your ribs one-dish meal that made everyone happy.  It’s still about 50 degrees out, but I’m going to go decorate my Christmas tree and pretend.  Happy Holidays!

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Fall Harvest, peppers and tomatoes

Wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote!  I had a very busy summer in the garden.  This New England summer was very mild, and the cooler than usual weather made for a lush and productive garden.  It was an exceptional year for tomatoes, and as we head into October I am still picking.  Most of my tomato plants got the blight, as usual, but this year it was so late as to not affect the fruit.  In fact as the days get shorter the plants are having a last comeback and still producing.  To prevent the fruit from splitting on the vine, I pick them under-ripe and mature them on the counter or in paper bags for a few days.  The flavor is a bit tangier than the full sun ripened fruit, but they are still delicious.  I will still have many green ones on the vine when the first frost comes in, so I’ve been perfecting my recipe for green tomato salsa in advance.

Green Tomato Salsa

This time of year is almost as exciting for me as the spring.  It is as much a time of abundance and good eating as the peak of summer.  This may be because I usually plant a garden heavy on fall producing veggies like kale, peppers and potatoes, parsnips, beets and carrots, but it’s also a time for preparing foods for the winter.  I’m spending my days chopping, stewing and freezing tomatoes, roasting hot and mild peppers and making chili sauces to spice up the long winter.  I’ve got quite a few things going on in the kitchen as well as the garden.

The peppers had a nice year.  I planted a mixed variety and like always, quickly lost track of what I planted where.  While this might bother some, I find it exciting to watch the unknown plants grow and see how they eventually reveal themselves.  This year we had a cayenne variety, jalapenos, poblanos, banana peppers, green chilies and regular old green bells.  The mix was great, as some we used for stuffing, some for fresh sauces, some for cooked sauces, some roasted and jarred, and some fresh with dip.  As peppers are perennial, I have even planted some in pots to bring inside and have for the winter. This is a first for me, but I have been reading up on it and I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Another first for me is fermenting cayenne peppers for sauce.  I’ve made plenty of hot sauce over the years, but I’ve never  fermented the chilies before hand.  It is exciting to watch them bubbling away on the top of the fridge.  I have them soaking in a sugary Reisling mixed with 2 % salt.  It can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks for the fermentation to be completed, so I just bide my time and watch the process in fascination. I’m making up my own recipe, but there are quite a few good websites on the process, and here’s one I like.  http://talesofakitchen.com/raw/fermented-hot-chili-sauce/

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Remember to always wear gloves when handling hot chilies.  Even the milder chilies can get under rings and nails and cause irritation and burning.  Lingering chili oil can make itself known when you try to take out your contacts.  Never never wipe your face or eyes.  I have learned these lessons the hard way and I always wear the kind of rubber gloves you find in the doctors office.  They fit close and keep the capsasin off the skin.   Also, instead of using a cutting board and knife, try snipping the chilies with scissors right into the bowl.  This will keep the oil out of the cutting board and therefore out of the next thing you cut on it.

 

One of my favorite things to do with the abundance of peppers is to make green chili sauce.  I first had it prepared by a very good friend and former roommate Rachael Risley (nee. Coulehan), who makes it with a slow cooked pork shoulder.  As it’s very difficult to get organic free range pork of any kind, let alone a shoulder roast, we usually make it with chicken.  Served with cornbread or tortilla chips, it’s a hearty and satisfying dish perfect for the cooler fall temps.  I make the sauce first, pour it over shredded or cubed chicken and bake it with cheese like a casserole.  The trick to really good sauce is to roast the peppers first, skin and seed them and then make the sauce. Chopped and sauteed, they just don’t have the rich flavor that roasting adds. It is an extra step, but well worth the effort.

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Blister the chilies on high heat, flipping once to get both sides.  Put the chilies in a glass bowl, cover with a plate and let cool.  This will steam the chilies and make it easier to remove the skins.  When cool, remove the skin, seeds and ribs, reserving the liquid in the bowl.  Set aside.

Green Chile Sauce

2 tbs olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tbs flour

2 cups broth

a dozen or so roasted and seeded green chilies, about 2 cups (any variety, but mostly not too hot)

Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium sauce pot, saute the onions in the olive oil until fragrant, about 10 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute two minutes more. Stir in the flour.  Add the broth and cook until thick and bubbly.  Add the chilies and cook for 5 minutes more.  With an immersion blender puree the mixture, leaving some peppers and onions whole.  If you don’t have an immersion blender, add 3/4 of the mixture to a blender, cover with a dish cloth to allow steam to escape and blend on high 1 minute.  Return to pan.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve over chopped or shredded chicken, pork or enchiladas.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

My First…Morel

For those of you mushroom fanatics in the know, and those who desperately wish you were in the know, finding your first morel is about as memorable as your first kiss.  Mushroom hunters spend months and years wandering around in dead fall and through mushy forests in search of these precious gems of the spring, and once found, guard the secret of the location like treasure.  Many’s the time I have engaged mycological foragers in conversation trying to ferret out information about when, where and how they found these fungal delicacies, and never did I get a hint of a reliable clue.  Sure, anyone will give you generalities that you might find in any book on the subject, like look at the edge of the woods near old orchards, or where there are lime deposits, or near dying ash or elm, but disclose their secret spot to an outsider?  Never.

A few weeks ago my husband came back from hunting turkey with a giant brownish fungi that he imagined I’d find interesting.  It was about 5 inches tall, hollow, and had spongy pits all over its “cap”.  Although his hunt was unsuccessful, I was much more delighted with his efforts than if he had brought home a fat tom.  Little did he expect my shrieks of delight and demands that he take me immediately back to the exact location where he had found it.   We agreed to go back and I spent the next half hour poring over my books and through mycology websites to ensure that what he had found was indeed a true morel.  I’m sure I’m not the only newby mushroom forager to worry about poisoning my loved ones!   In fact it was a real morel, albeit an old one, and off we went to see if there were more.

After a short hike through some soggy march and then woodland brambles, we found an old tree with a half dozen large morels under it.  Mushroomers say that in order to know mushrooms you must know trees, so I suppose I’m not much of a mushroomer.  It’s no wonder I haven’t found any myself.  I can’t identify an ash from an elm, so I have no idea what type of tree they were growing under or why.  They were easy to find as they stood 5 to 7 inches tall, and were about 2.5 inches wide.  Morels are best when young.  As they mature they tend to get drier and more brittle, less tender and moist.  We decided to give them a try anyway.  After picking off a few slugs and a good long soak to drown any other bugs inside, I cut them into chunks for a soup. IMAG0293

I decided on a soup for two reasons; they were old, and my sons hate soup.  It’s not that I didn’t want to share, it’s just that they might be less likely to try mushroom soup than something like mushrooms in pastry crust, and therefore I had less of a chance of poisoning them if I had somehow made a mistake in my identifications.  Did I mention I was nervous to eat them?  I sauteed them in some butter and took a nibble.  The flavor was surprisingly good for slightly out of date mushrooms.  Earthy and pungent and very…mushroomy.  I waited a half an hour and didn’t develop stomach cramps so I decided to go ahead.  The recipe that follows is a delicious and decadent way to eat a morel.

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CREAM OF MOREL SOUP

4 to 5 cups sliced mushrooms

3 tbs butter

3 tbs flour

2 cups broth

1 1/2 cups half and half

1 tbs dry sherry

1 tsp fresh chopped thyme

Cut the mushrooms into small pieces and saute over medium heat in the butter until soft and tender, about 5 minutes.  Add the flour and stir.  Add the broth and stir until smooth.  Cook until the broth starts to thicken, about 5 to 10 minutes minutes.  Using a handheld puree tool or a blender, mix until smooth.  (if you like you can leave some chunks for texture)  Add the half and half and the sherry, making sure to keep the heat to a low simmer.  Serve topped with the chopped thyme and enjoy!

 

Pheasant Season

As I’ve mentioned, fall is one of my very favorite seasons, in part because beginning in late October and running through Christmas, Connecticut hosts a hunting season for pheasant.  Throughout the state there are controlled releases of birds on state land at irregular times during the week.  These are then hunted by upland bird hunters, usually with dogs to help them find, or flush, the birds.  Peasant is by far my all-time favorite animal to hunt, and I look forward to the beginning of the season all year.  They not only are a blast to hunt, but they make a delicious addition to the November menu!

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I first hunted pheasant, as well as chukar and grouse, with my dad.  I was perhaps in my twenties (I can’t remember because it was SO very long ago!) when he invited me along on a private hunt.  At a private club, the way it works is that when you arrive you determine how many birds you want to hunt, usually 2-4 per person, and the guides will set them out for you in the hunting area.  The birds are raised in huge pens nearby.  You relax for a while and then off you go to find the birds.  We didn’t have our own dogs then, so we used the dogs that came with the guide service.  This may seem to some like an unfair advantage over the birds, but let me assure you it is not.  Pheasant are not like wild chickens.  They are crafty and very fast and can often outsmart a dog by leaving a confusing scent trail, running in circles, or just generally blending into their environment the way God made them.  It is neither easy to find the wily creatures after they are freed nor is it easy to fell them, although I must say that pheasant are slower in the air then the average game bird. That’s one of the reasons I like to hunt them!  I need all the advantage I can get.

Back then with my dad I was an average shot.  I remember missing the first bird, but I got some that day.  Over the years when I lived in Colorado, my husband and I would often head south and east to Blanca in the fall and hunt birds there.  I was never a crack shot, like he was, but I hit most of what I aimed at.  Recently, when we were back in Connecticut, he and I decided to tune up our game by going over to Millbrook  New York and spending the day at the Orvis shooting grounds called Sandanona.   http://www.orvis.com/sandanona  They have a world class sporting clay course for wing shooters.  This was a real treat for us, and not something we could do very often.  100 clays at 20 stations each to practice on.  By the end of the day we had sore shoulders and tired arms, but we were smiling. He was smiling somewhat more than me, as he had schooled me at each station, hitting  approximately 70% of his targets to my somewhat less then 50%.  Needless to say I was a bit discouraged.  So the following Christmas, after a whole bird season of listening to me gripe about what a bad shot I was, my darling husband gifted me a trip to the Sandanona shooting school, where I would be taught the proper techniques and principles of wing shooting in a half day class with an expert.  I couldn’t wait.

The class was super fun, and I learned a ton about how to shoot.  I learned that my gun doesn’t really fit my body.  It’s too short, and canted too little to line up with my eye when I draw it up.  But I love my gun.  My dad gave it to me and I’ll never get rid of it.  I learned that even though I am right handed, I am “left eye dominant”, which means that my left eye leads and my right eye follows.  I learned that because of this I should be shooting left handed.  So I tried that.  It’s like walking with shoes on the wrong feet tied together. Not even safe.  I learned that I could compensate by using a patch over my left eye, to force my right eye to work.  I tried that and actually fell down. With a loaded gun. My shooting went below 30%.  I spent the next season practicing closing my left eye instead of my right while I draw.  Draw, close, aim, fire.  I hit a few birds, but didn’t even make my bag limit for the season.

What now?  I’m trying to get back to a place where I can forget my limitations and just shoot.  Where I can let instinct take over for ability.  I need to un-think shooting.  I’m trying to be OK with the fact that, for whatever reason, I’m just not a very good shot, and I’m trying to remember that even though I love to shoot, what I really love is to walk in the woods on crisp fall days with my husband and my son and my dog.

Here is a recipe for one of our very favorite fall meals.  If you want leftovers, you had better make 2.  It takes a bit of work, but is well worth the effort.  FYI the easiest way to get the meat off a pheasant is to cut the skin of the breast and peel it back, and then filet the breasts off the bone.  Then continue to pull the skin down over the thighs, exposing the legs.  Break the leg joints at the end of the ‘drumstick’ and again at the hip.  Use a knife to separate the legs from the body.

Pheasant Pot Pie

6 cups water

1 pheasant, breasted, and legs skinned

salt and pepper to taste

1 tsp parsley

1 tsp. thyme

1 bay leaf

1 cup diced potatoes

1 cup diced turnips

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup diced leeks

1/2 cup frozen peas

1/2 cup chopped onion

4 tbs butter

3 tbs flour

1-2 bullion cubes

1 pie crust.

In a stock pot, bring the water to boil and add the pheasant and the spices.  Reduce heat to low and simmer the pheasant for 20 minutes or until cooked through.   Allow to cool, reserving the liquid.  Meanwhile, chop the vegetables and mix in a large bowl.  In a heavy cast iron pan over medium heat melt the butter and then add the flour, stirring constantly until the roux begins to darken.  Stir in the bullion.  Add about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the reserved liquid broth to the roux and stir until you have a smooth gravy.  Freeze the remainder of the broth for future use.  Mix the gravy into the vegetables.  Cut the pheasant into bite sized pieces and mix into the vegetables.  Put all of it into a pie plate or a 9″ round cake pan,mounding to fit.  Cover it all with the pie crust, sealing the edges to the pan.  Bake in a 350 oven for 1 hour.  Serve warm with a nice salad.

Ah Ah Ahhh Asparagus! Bless you.

Springtime for some is a horrible season of allergies.  Stuffy, runny noses, red eyes and sneezing abound as the deciduous and fruit trees blossom and spread their pollen throughout the warming springtime air.  For some, it is a time for Claritin, Allerest, Zyrtec.  What does this have to do with asparagus, you ask?  Not much, except that they coincide, and they were both on my mind after our short trip out to Martha’s Vineyard last weekend.

I have never had seasonal allergies, but my son does.   He gets great purple bags under his eyes and has a terrible grouchy attitude.  So terrible, in fact, that when he was 11 I brought him to the doctor, explaining that he was just a miserable person and what could I do about it?  She took one look at his purple shaded eyes and diagnosed him with seasonal allergies, prescribing a daily dose of Claritin.  It worked marvelously.  His attitude improved, the purple diminished and we went our merry way, but it caused me to wonder about allergies; why some people get them, and what I could do about it for my son.  Over the years I have found some homeopathic remedies that work with varying success.  

Quercetin is a natural substance found in the skin of onions and apples.  Sadly, apples and onions are not seasonal to springtime, but fortunately quercetin is available over the counter as a supplement.   

Stinging nettle, found in many allergy medications, is a useful herb in curbing the annoying symptoms, and can be taken in a tea form.  Stinging nettle is available now, and grows best in weedy lots and near manure piles.  Do not forget your gloves and long sleeves, as well as shoes and socks.  The effects of touching the plant itself are uncomfortable in the extreme.  Chop it, steep it, season it with honey, and enjoy!  If gathering it is too much for you, most health food stores will carry it, but it is best fresh.  

Honey is another supposed remedy for allergies.  It is recommended to take a teaspoon once a day, but the honey must be unblended and from your area in order for it to have a benefit.  Some swear by this, but so far the evidence is inconclusive.  It can’t hurt, anyway.

Acupuncture may help alleviate allergy symptoms, especially if you start treatment about a month before peak season.  Apparently opening certain meridians can help to suppress an overactive immune system.  

Last weekend, as I was indulging in the abundant asparagus that grows in the garden there, that we have patiently waited for years to mature and produce, my son was miserable.  He wanted only to lay inside and play on his Kindle.  He was tired, and grumpy, by turns sarcastic, caustic and irritable.  We couldn’t even get him to enjoy going fishing.  And only later, as I consider writing a post about the lovely asparagus, does the reason occur to me.  Duh! What is it about mothers who are always the last to figure it out?  I really should have known.

So.  To the asparagus!  

Any aficionado of that strange plant will tell you with fervent belief that fresh cannot compare to store bought asparagus, and we are right.  The ONLY time to eat it is when those tender shoots get to be just the right height to cut, and there are just enough to take without killing off the plant.  Harvesting asparagus is an exercise in patience.  A strong asparagus plant will send out shoots when the weather warms, but you must not cut those first delectable morsels!  They taunt you as they harden into stalks, but in order for the plant to thrive it must have foliage to photosynthesize. Those first stalks are necessary to the plant’s health, and only after they begin to mature and more shoots emerge may one gently cut and enjoy some of the delicate stalks.   The flavor is sublime.  Below are some of the ways we indulged our culinary fantasies and savored this most precious springtime treat.

Roasted Balsamic Asparagus with pancetta and caramelized onion

Oven temp 400.

2 lbs of fresh cut asparagus, peeled if the outer skin is tough.

4 tbs olive oil, divided

3 tbs good balsamic vinegar

2 large onions 

1/4 lb. pancetta. Ham, prosciutto, or bacon would work as well.

Chop onions in half and slice thinly   Chop pancetta into small squares.  In a skillet heat 2 tbs. oil on med heat.  Stir in onions and cook, allowing to brown.  When onions are almost done, about 15 minutes, add pancetta and cook, stirring, for 5 more minutes.  Meanwhile, place asparagus in a single layer in a roasting pan lined with tinfoil and coat with the remaining 2 tbs oil.  Sprinkle with the balsamic and roast in 400 F oven for about 20-30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus.  Remove, top with hot onion and pancetta mixture and serve.  

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Asparagus Yorkshire Pudding

Oven temp 400 F

3 eggs

1 1/2 cup organic flour

1 1/2 cup organic or raw milk

Salt to taste.

1/3 cup roast drippings, bacon fat or lard.

1 lb asparagus

Peel Asparagus if necessary.  Place a roasting pan in hot oven for 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, mix together first 4 ingredients into a batter.  When the pan is hot, add the drippings or bacon fat and coat the pan.  Place the asparagus in a single layer and cover with the batter.  Return to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, then lower temperature to 350 degrees and bake an additional 10 – 15 minutes or until pudding is puffy, lightly brown and beginning to crisp.  Refrain from opening the oven until you remove the pudding.  If you must check the progress, use the light and window.   Allow to cool for a few minutes and cut into squares.  Serve immediately.

  

 

Kitchen Essentials and Venison Sausage

Eating locally and seasonally in Connecticut is a hard task unless you plan ahead.  Making things and storing them for future times is essential to a happy cook and a well-stocked kitchen.  In order to put up produce and meat, sauces and fruits, I have some essentials in my kitchen that I could not live without.  Below you will find a list of must-haves for preparing for leaner times. 

Freezer

I can’t say enough about investing in a good chest freezer.  The simplest way to store meat, vegetables, and fruit is to freeze them as soon as possible after picking or harvesting.  It maintains the vitamins and nutrients far better than canning or other methods, and in most cases keeps the food safe for months or even years.  It is the easiest and fastest way to put up a harvest at its freshest, and to store produce for the winter months.  I have a deep chest freezer that I bought new from Sears for about 350.00, and I store thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh meat and vegetables in it every fall to last through the winter months.  If you don’t have one, don’t want to incur the cost of a new one, there are several online sites where you might shop for a used one for much less.  So much of the excess produce from my kitchen garden goes into the freezer right after picking, and it is such a delight to browse the shelves for a cooking idea knowing that my choices are ripe, delicious, healthful, and clean.    

                Canning pot or Pressure cooker.

A canning pot is a lovely thing to have, and very useful for storing jellies, sauces, broth, fish, and some veggies.  Not all veggies are suitable for canning fresh, so we can mainly prepared foods, like chili and tomato sauces, sweet butters and jellies and cooked vegetables like sauerkraut.  We use ours most often during the fall months when we make and can sweets and sauces to give as gifts during the holidays.  We also jar hot sauces and pickles of all sorts, chilies, beans, corn and tomatoes.  If you lack a proper canning pot, take some time to look for one at your local thrift or consignment store, where they can often be picked up for a few dollars.  Without one, you can still make many canning recipes in a regular sturdy pot.

                Juicer

I love my juicer.  It was given to me by a dear friend who lived off the grid.  He had a generator for electricity, but every time he tried to juice he would blow a fuse.  When he parted with the juicer, he made me promise to make him juice anytime he came to visit, and even though he still lives at about 10,000 feet, deep in the mountains of Colorado, with no phone,  I’m still waiting to make good on my promise.  The juicer is a Champion, and very old and outdated.  It is essentially a big motor connected to a shaft that drives a shredder and some plastic implements to strain the juice, but it will juice anything.  I could put a potato in and get potato juice.  I use it for fresh fruit and veggie juice during the summer months, (carrot beet apple is my favorite) and in the fall I juice leftover kale and spinach, freeze the juice and add it to soups and stews during the winter to add flavor and green nutrients. 

                Dehydrator

Anyone can use their oven for a dehydrator, but it’s just so quick and easy to use one made for the purpose that this is on my list as well.  With the dehydrator there is no need to turn the produce, as it gets evenly dry in a much shorter time than using the oven.   We use ours to dry fruit for snacks, beef jerky, dried fish to be used in soups, and most especially mushrooms.  Dried and then frozen, mushrooms can be stored for years in the freezer, but they never make it that long.  Wild mushrooms are a treasure and  we hoard them in season and use them sparingly for the rest of the year.  I’m learning more and more about the wild world of fungi and I’m excited for a season of mushrooming this summer and fall. 

                Grinder/sausage maker

When you hunt or gather the majority of your own protein, having a grinder is a blessing.  Meatloaf, hamburgers, hash, and meatballs all require the meat to be finely ground.  The added benefit is, with a small attachment, ground meat can be stuffed into casing to make delicious sausage!  I love venison sausage, and many of our friends and family have come to love it as well.  It’s one of the things we give as gifts during the holidays and it is always well received.  My husband makes a garlic cheddar sausage that is mouth-wateringly good.  The recipe follows.

                Cheddar Garlic Venison Sausage

4 Lbs. Venison, ground fine

1 ¼ Lb. Pork fat, ground fine

8-10 cloves garlic, chopped fine

½   Lb. Cheddar cheese

2+ Tbsp. Crushed red pepper, depending on your spice tolerance

½ cup white wine

2 Tsp. Sugar

1+ Tbsp. coarse ground Black pepper

1 Tbsp. salt

5 feet medium sausage casing (you can get this from a butcher).

 Mix the fat and meat together and then mix in the remaining ingredients.  Mix by hand until everything is uniform.  Stuff the casings with the mixture into 4 to 5 inch lengths.  Allow to settle in the fridge for a day or two, to allow the flavors to blend.   Cook in water or stock, on a grill or pan fry over medium low heat.  These can be used like any sausage, served alone or with pasta, in a salad, or on sandwiches.  They freeze remarkably well.   Try substituting any game meat.  We made them with caribou once and they were just as delicious.

Local, Sustainable, Healthful and Clean

Whenever I consider eating something, I try to stick to some basic rules.  Each one is not hard and fast, and I do tend to make some exceptions, but I try to stick to them most of the time to ensure that my diet stays at least relatively healthful, wholesome and environmentally sound.  My rules are that the majority of what I bring into the kitchen and eat should be from local sources, sustainable, healthful and clean, and by doing this each time I shop or prepare, I know I’m making good choices for myself and my family.

Questions to ask yourself.

Did I grow/harvest/collect/hunt or fish this?

If it came from my garden, or I got it in some other way and know its source, I know it is good for us. Ideally you should be able to answer yes to this question most of the time.

 Could I have grown this?

Maybe I didn’t grow it, but it is something that I could have grown if I had the time/space/energy.  This is a dangerous one because lots of things might have been grown locally, but were in fact planted with genetically modified seed, sprayed with toxins, picked before their prime by exploited workers, packed in non-renewable packaging, and trucked from 1000 miles away, like most veggies we find in the store.  If it passes the “I could have grown it” question, see below.  Anything from a farmers market should answer yes to this question.

 Did it come from my area?

Is it something that has been eaten in season by people from your area for eons? If it’s a kiwi in December, and you don’t live in the tropics, you might want to put it back.

 Did someone I know make this?

This is a good test, and an easy one.  It is a pleasure to answer yes to when you have something special, like a gift of honey, or fish.  If you know who got it and where, it’s probably safe.

 Is it fresh/clean/organic?

Has it been polluted in any way? Is it rotten?  Poisonous?  Has it been cleaned properly? This question rules out lots of stuff in the supermarket.  Most produce items have been treated with pesticides or other chemicals.  Organic is a good choice, but not always enough.   This question also pertains to things you might hunt, fish or gather for yourself, like mushrooms, squid, or rabbit.  I will emphasize that all gatherers should have knowledge about what they are seeking and how to collect and clean it properly.  That is one benefit of technology today.  All the information we need is at our fingertips.

 Is it seasonal?

Most fresh foods should be in season before you decide to put them on your menu.  While there are a multitude of ways to store fresh produce and staples for later times, if you will be eating it fresh, you want to make sure it is in season.  It is one way to insure that it doesn’t come with too high of a carbon price. 

Exceptions

Olive oil is a must in our house, and we try to choose extra virgin organic oil.  For important information on olive oils, check out http://www.truthinoliveoil.com/ The book Extra Virginity has some shocking information.  A must read for olive oil lovers. 

Nuts are another staple.  Almonds, especially, are very beneficial to health, so we usually keep a supply of them in the house.  Good, fairly inexpensive nuts can be found at Trader Joe’s.  

Salt and spices.  Every kitchen need a good supply of fine herbs and spices, and I only grow herbs.  For salt I always use Norton’s coarse kosher salt or natural sea salt, never table salt.  Here is a photo of Trout baked in Salt.  Coated entirely, the salt makes a crust that can be cracked off.  For the recipe, see here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/mario-batali/whole-fish-baked-in-salt-crust-recipe/index.htmlImage

Today I am out to hunt the abundant cattail root.  A delicacy in spring, and a staple for the summer, cattails grow wild in any swampy area throughout New England.  The roots are mild and can be eaten raw, while the new shoots, paired down to reveal the white inner parts, are similar to leeks.  Sauteed with butter and salt, they make an excellent side dish. 

Happy Eating!