Picnic Baskets

There has been a lot of packing going on at our house of late.

A few weeks ago I watched as our son Russell simultaneously packed for both camp and college since he was scheduled to go straight from one to the other. Seeing how neatly he lay everything out on his bed, along with how well-labeled his boxes were, it looked like he had everything he would need to start school with. He’d even registered for classes and ordered his textbooks before we took him up to camp. This past Saturday we dropped him off at Simon’s Rock. Turns out he’d done a great job of packing since the only things he needed were a longer internet cable (the connection was on his roommate’s side of the room) and some coffee. Not bad for a seventeen-year-old.

Isabelle and Russell in his dorm room.

This week his sister has been scrambling to get packed for her return to UNH. The good news is she’s a sophomore and has a better sense of what she does and doesn’t need at college. Still, when I peek in her room this morning there seems to be a good many piles which have yet to make it into boxes or bags. It’s not that she hasn’t packed anything – her ROTC uniform has been picked up from the dry cleaners and is ready to go, there are bags of bedding, as well as several games for those necessary study breaks organized in a corner of the living room. I also caught a glimpse of a lengthy to-do list she is clearly working her way through. By the time we pack the car on Saturday I am sure everything will be sorted out.

Picnic baskets

 

House sale picnic basket picked up for $3.50

Unlike my two offspring I am not packing to go off to college, but I have been thinking about what to pack in when I go to visit them this fall. The other day I got out my collection of picnic baskets in anticipation of some upcoming Mommy Road Trips. One of the delights of having both kids go to school so close to home is that it’s easy to pop over (or down) for a day. While there are dozens of great restaurants in both New Haven and Great Barrington, sometimes the best thing to do is bring a little slice of home in a picnic basket and go off exploring.

Briefcase style picnic baskets

I have a small metal briefcase style picnic basket just big enough to hold a pair of plates, cutlery, glasses, napkins, and cups – the food clearly has to come in it’s own basket.
Vintage metal picnic basket

There are also mends on a few of the baskets. Ones which haven’t held up as well as one might hope, or which have been nibbled on by a very naughty mouse.

Mended picnic basket handle

Most of my picnic baskets are either hand-me-downs or from estate sales. In a pinch I have been known to throw together a picnic into a market basket or beach bag. Cold stuff usually ends up in a cooler, since most of our destinations are arrived at by car. Truth be told almost anything can suffice as a picnic basket – even a bag from the grocery store – as long as you don’t forget the essential tools. Here’s my list:

  • Small knife and cutting board
  • Corkscrew/bottle opener
  • Clothespins
  • Blanket or plastic table cover
  •  Rubber stoppered bottle
  • Plastic  or enameled tin plates/bowls & utensils
  • Two gallon plastic bag (for bringing home dirty dishes)
  • Paper towels or cloth napkins
  • Water

Picnic basket essentials

So four days until our eldest returns to college, then I can start planning some picnics.

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Farmer’s Market Gifts

Bunches and bunches of carrots

Tomatoes at the farmer's market

I got to the Amherst Farmer’s Market early on Saturday, before everyone had finished setting up their booths, which gave me time to meander the rows of choices as I nibbled a turkish beef roll. I picked up bags of yellow, green and fava beans for a 7 bean salad (which lasts all of 7 minutes at my house with my teenage locusts family). The bags of baby kale could not be resisted, especially after hearing about the upcoming world-wide kale shortage. I added a chunk of local goat feta and some baskets of organic raspberries so that once I was home I could throw together a lunchtime salad with a few toasted pecans and some balsamic vinaigrette.

Huge selection of greens at the farmer's market.

Blueberries, apricots, raspberries and black raspberries

Glorious eggplants and beets

This really is a fabulous time of year in New England to be cruising the farmer’s markets because you never know what you will find. One of the things I contemplated buying was my very own baby fig tree, which came from a cutting off a fig tree that had been brought over from Abruzzi, Italy in 1920. I loved the idea of owning a fruit tree whose great, great, great grandparents had come from Italy. However tempting it was to own this bit of culinary history I decided to wait and let the dust settle from both our kids zooming off to college in the next few weeks before I took on the care and feeding of a baby tree. It turns out that this fig tree needs a very specific organic diet. And who knows – a needy fig tree might be the perfect thing to combat empty nest symptom.

Fig tree with provenance

After I said goodbye to the fig trees and headed back to the car with my basket loaded full of goodies I decided to make one last purchase. A large bunch of red onions for my onion loving husband. To my surprise a free zucchini came with every purchase. Ha! That’s one way to deal with a row or two of rogue zucchini – give them away to all your customers. I guess it’s better than trying to sneak one into every car parked within a four block radius of the market. So I paid for my onions, picked out a zucchini and headed home to make Zucchini Pancakes.

Free zucchini with purchase

When life gives you excess zucchini there are many recipes you can sneak them into. I have a fondness for zucchini pancakes. If you are dealing with the monster zucchini I would suggest you shred from the outside towards the middle until I get to the inner quarter or third of the vegetable where the seeds are. That part can be mealy so you may want to compost it, it’s up to you. I also hand grate my zucchini rather than zap it through a food processor because I feel you can produce longer shreds by hand, which in turn make lacier pancakes. Obviously you choose what you prefer.

Zucchini pancake prep

Zucchini Pancakes

1 humongous zucchini or 4 regular size or 10-12 small ones

1/2 – 1 minced onion

handful of minced parsley

2-3 eggs

Tabasco sauce to taste

Salt and Pepper to taste

1/3 – 2/3 cup of flour

Vegetable oil for frying

Shred the zucchini and gently toss with salt then place in a colander so they weep and lose some of their excess liquid. After 15-30 minutes squeeze dry with your hands (if you want to go nuts use a towel, but it really isn’t necessary). Toss the zucchini shreds into a bowl and add onion, parsley, eggs, tabasco sauce and  pepper. Stir together then add some flour, but go light at first.

While you are doing this heat up your fry pan with some oil. You want it hot, but not smoking. Then make one zucchini pancake. You want to test for salt and to see if there is enough flour. You, the cook, must sacrifice yourself by being the official taste tester. Sauté the pancake until golden brown on one side, flip and repeat. Then see if your seasonings are right. If they are you can proceed to making more pancakes. If not adjust and make one more tester.

In our family we eat as the pancakes are made. If you want to be a bit more civilized you can turn the oven on to low and store the pancakes in there as you cook them and then serve all together. If you do it this you may want to cover them lightly with a piece of tin foil so they don’t dry out. We put a variety of toppings on our zucchini pancakes – salsa, more hot sauce, applesauce, tomatoes and onions. You decide what works best for you.

Zucchini pancakes

 

Flowers at the farmer's market

Tell me about what you’ve found at your local farmer’s market that has delighted you~

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Strawberry Kisses Part 3

Misty morning

At three am I woke to the smell of strawberry air. The gentle, soft essence of strawberries was coming from the kitchen. Not the fake, nasty chemical version you find in lip balms, candles or air fresheners, which in my opinion doesn’t have the remotest connection to a true strawberry, but rather the air in my house was filled with scent of real strawberries because I was making Strawberry Chips, and they take all night to make. Our neighbor Joyce had loaned us her dehydrator and I was trying my hand at preserving strawberries in a slightly different way than the strawberry fruit leather I made in my last post.

Strawberries

 

I’d eaten dehydrated and dried fruit before, but I had never actually encountered a dehydrator in person. They’re huge! Most of my kitchen equipment is the size of a baby, while this sucker was the size of a large toddler. And Joyce’s dehydrator is jacked up like the kitchen equivalent of a monster truck with so many extra tiers it may require a special license to operate. I ended up setting the dehydrator on a card table rather than on my kitchen counter since I wasn’t sure how much clearance the machine would need.

Stacking the dehydrator with strawberries

Before you can turn it on you have to get the food into similar sizes. Dehydrators do the work of sucking most of the moisture out of whatever food you put in them, but they don’t prep it for you. That’s just a lot of old-fashioned slicing and dicing. My husband told me Joyce cuts her fruit with a mandoline to get even slices (which theoretically would then have similar drying times), which makes total sense because Joyce is a physicist and does things scientifically. I chose to go rogue and cut my strawberries by hand. I’m such a wild thing. She also recommended a longer drying time at a lower temperature to preserve more of the vitamins. I did follow that suggestion, which is why I woke up at three am smelling strawberry air.

Strawberries in dehydrator

Before you decide to borrow your neighbor’s dehydrator I need to tell you that strawberry chips are the fruit equivalent of crack cocaine. You will become addicted to them. The good news is there are no withdrawal symptoms, well until strawberry season ends and you realize there are only strawberries from California or Florida to dehydrate and you go nuts and decide to plow under your entire lawn so you can plant every inch of your yard in strawberries. Not that you actually do it, but the lack of more local berries to dehydrate makes you seriously consider the option for a minute or two. I’m just warning you.

Dehydrated strawberries

Strawberry Chips

There is not a whole lot of recipe here. Take 2-4 quarts of strawberries, depending on how many tiers your dehydrator has, and after removing the stems slice them into 1/4 inch pieces. On my second batch I threw the outer slices into a bag which went into the freezer for smoothies, since the outer pieces seemed to dehydrate at a different rate than the inner pieces. You could slice horizontally or vertically – your choice depending on if you want circles or strawberry shapes, I chose the latter. Dehydrate on the low end of the spectrum, 105 – 115ºF for 12-14 hours depending on how juicy your strawberries are. When cool, store in small batches in baggies with the air sucked out.

If you’d rather not go to all the effort of sucking the moisture out of your strawberries you can enjoy them the old fashioned way which my friend Jane Lear did with her husband in this post. Or you can do what Shawn and I did last week when the kids were out one evening with friends. We just opened a chilled bottle of Prosecco and ate a bowl of strawberries au naturel as we sipped our bubbly.

Strawberries and champagne

 

Here are links for Strawberry Kisses Part 1 and Strawberry Kisses Part 2.

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Strawberry Kisses part 2

Strawberry rollup lineup

The remnants of tropical storm Arthur, formerly known as Hurricane Arthur, put a damper on the beginning of the July 4th holiday weekend strawberry picking. Strangely nobody wants to pick their own strawberries during a thunderstorm. Where is their sense of adventure? Oh, they’re more concerned with safety. Once the storm blew through the skies cleared up and the harvest resumed. Inspired by my tinkering with some strawberry fruit leather last week Strawberry Boy and Strawberry Girl both came home with brimming boxes of strawberries and I went back to the kitchen.

Strawberry Boy

I love the idea of fruit leather since it is the distilled essence of fruit. Strawberries, a spoonful of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice, boiled down to a thick paste and then spread onto baking sheets and popped in a very low oven while more of the moisture evaporates. As if you could concentrate a strawberry’s soul. What you buy in the store is like a third cousin twice removed compared with what you can make at home. The two big differences between home-made and commercially made are no artificial preservatives and tons less sugar. Without all those preservatives I wondered how long the fruit leather would last, but then I watched the kids snorffle up strip after strip and realized it wasn’t going to last long enough to bother worrying about it. So I got on with making more and if you still have strawberries in your area I suggest you try these as well.

Whizzing up strawberry goo

A couple of things I noticed as I made batch after batch

  • You want to make sure the strawberry goo you cook down isn’t too thick or thin
  • If you make a 12″ x 18″ jelly roll pan it takes a really long time for the center to dry
  • Cutting the fruit leather is very sticky so try using a pizza wheel or really good pair of  kitchen scissors

Strawberry goo

Strawberry Fruit Leather

4 cups pureed strawberries (about a quart and a half)

4-6 Tablespoons sugar

1-3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

You can puree the strawberries in a blender, food processor or juice machine. The idea is to have absolutely no lumps. If you want to make seedless fruit leather strain the strawberry juice through a very fine sieve at this point. We didn’t bother. Pour the strawberry juice into a wide saucepan or jelly pot and add the sugar and lemon juice to taste. Simmer 40-55 minutes, stirring occasionally until the mixture has reduced to approximately 2 cups or half of whatever you started with*. While the juice is cooking down prepare a jelly roll pan with a silpat mat or piece of parchment paper. If you cook the strawberry juice so that it is too thick you won’t be able to spread it evenly on the jelly roll pan. If you make it too thin it will run to the edges of the silpat mat or parchment paper and seep underneath. When you get the right ratio you will be able to tilt the pan and have the strawberry goo flow to cover the mat, stopping short of the edges by about 1/2″.

Pop the jelly roll pan into a preheated oven set to its lowest setting (mine went down to 170°F) somewhere between 150-200°F. Bake for 3-6 hours depending on your oven temperature until the entire surface of the fruit leather is dry enough to touch without any sticking to your fingers. Every so often turn the pan front to back  since most ovens have hot spots.

Let cool, transfer fruit leather to a piece of parchment (if you baked it on a silpat mat) then cut into strips. Roll up parchment and fruit strips into little logs and secure with a piece of tape or a rubber band. Store in a bag in the fridge.

 

Too thick and just right

The top batch was too thick to spread evenly. The bottom batch was just right.

Strawberry fruit leather

 

Strawberry sunshine

 

Strawberry roll ups

* If you stop here you will have an amazing topping for yoghurt or ice cream. You could also drizzle this thickened strawberry goo over pancakes instead of maple syrup.

You can find links for other recipes that go well with strawberries by clicking here. If you want to dehydrate strawberries you can read about that here.

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Strawberry Kisses part 1

Straw for the strawberry plants

I think 2014 will be the summer of perspective for my family, me included. One teenager has her driver’s license, but not her own car which means we have to share my car every day. I’m thinking of setting up a calendar just for the Suburu. It also means we’re all very aware the price of gas is hovering around $4/gallon. The flip side of Belle having her license is I don’t have to chauffeur her brother Russell (who only has his permit) around very much, which after sixteen years of driving them around is kind of nice. Then there’s the reality check that if you are juggling summer school, work, homework and trips to the gym you will have approximately zero time for socializing. Or the dismal reality that ER tables are not meant for people who are over 6′ 3″ (don’t ask, I’ll just say it was not at a visit to the ER and nothing is broken just badly bruised). My favorite sliver of family summer perspective came after both kids received their first paycheck. It became clear how how little money you actually make when you work for minimum wage. These aren’t bad lessons, they’re just life lessons.

Strawberries resting on straw

The good news is that both teens have jobs at a local strawberry farm. The better news is that with the cooler-than-usual spring weather strawberry season is running a few weeks late. So despite it being early July there are still two more weeks of strawberry season to go! Plus we now have two strawberry experts in the family. Did you know strawberries can get sunburnt? I had no idea but I’m not sharing my sunscreen. They have more vitamin C than an orange which is a factoid the citrus growers don’t share with you. Plus there are roughly 200 seeds on each strawberry. Who knew? Or more to the point, who counted?

Strawberries for sale

My favorite statistic was hearing what  people plan to do with the strawberries they pick on this farm. Ninety-eight percent of them say they plan to make either strawberry shortcake, strawberry jam or freeze them. So I decided I would spend the remaining weeks of strawberry season coming up with some other things to do with strawberries, though all three of those methods are great ways to use the season’s bounty.

Strawberry Girll
There is just one little problem. I keep eating whatever I make with strawberries before I can reach for my camera. They are just that good. Grammy Caldwell would approve because these strawberries are red all the way through, not just on the outside. Since I am hanging my head in shame for my strawberry hoovering tendencies I am going to instead direct you to the half dozen tried-and-true recipes featuring strawberries below.

  1. Crêpes with strawberries & a sprinkle of sugar or honey
  2. Macerated strawberries on Angel Food Cake
  3. Strawberry juice mixed with stewed rhubarb juice for astrawberry-rhubarb Quarantine Cocktail
  4. Jessica’s Silver Dollar Pancakes topped with strawberries
  5. Fruit Smoothies with bananas, strawberries and orange juice
  6. Chocolate cake with strawberries, raspberry jam and chocolate ganache

Flat of strawberries

 

I’ll try to grab my camera sooner when strawberry boy and strawberry girl bring home their next batch of just picked berries.

You can read about the strawberry fruit leather I made here and the strawberry chips here.

 

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Let Summer Commence

It’s over – Oliver’s forty-five days of quarantine are finally done! So now summer can officially commence, and let me tell you that all of us are ready. More than ready.

 

quarantine calendar

 

 

No more rabies shots, no enforced use of the leash for every single walk (though trust me we will  be using a leash more often from here on out), and most importantly no more slamming the door in the poor little dog’s face every time we have to slip outside. We can take him to the park, let him romp with his friends, and he can roll around in the grass outside.

 

Good Dog

To celebrate this momentous occasion my friend Hilary re-gifted our family a charming seed rendition of a raccoon someone gave her daughter. I have to admit I giggled when I first saw it because now that our quarantine is over I can laugh about it.

 

Seed Raccoon

 

 

Hope the rest of summer is full of cooking, trips to the farmer’s markets, and free of visits to the ER.

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Lentils of Love

Yesterday was Father’s Day, and I admit I was at a loss as to what I should get for my Dad. He’s an avid fisherman, but trying to buy someone a present connected to their passion, if it’s not one that you share, is one of the trickiest shopping trips you can embark on. My brother has gone on numerous fishing expeditions with him, and so has a better sense of which fly might tickle his fancy or what the latest fishing gear is that might not already be in his collection. I tried fly fishing a few times, but found I’m more of a cook than fisherwoman. Plus his preferred choice of catch and release fishing doesn’t bring home much salmon or trout.

Joe and Jay at Togaik Lake

While fishing is not where we connect, food is. I love to cook and my Dad and I both love to eat. His repertoire in the kitchen is primarily the grill, his infamous champagne punch, and willingness to help punch down the bread dough. Where he really excels is as a volunteer taste tester. I don’t think I’ve ever had him pass on taking a nibble or slurp or bite of something, “just to make sure it’s good”. Even when he’s not asked. Self sacrificing all the way.

Dad preparing to punch down dough

When I was going through my first vegetarian phase I made a dish called Funistrada. It sounded great in the cookbook – noodles with a cream sauce – but as this was the 70s and because vegetarian cuisine wasn’t quite as sophisticated as it’s become this recipe had a serious flaw. The cream sauce was made using all whole wheat flour and no herbs or seasonings, though it may have had some cheese. It was as if you made a vat of paper maché goop and layered it between seven layers of noodles. For some reason Dad hadn’t wandered into the kitchen as I was putting it all together so there was no taste testing that day. Which is too bad because Funistrada is disgusting.

I told everyone to dig in as I brought the salad and bread to the table and Dad happily dug in and kept eating. My brother, who has not always been known for his tender ministrations toward my feelings, took one bite of the stuff and spat it back out announcing loudly that it was so awful it might kill him. I was horrified, but after one spoonful I had to agree. It was inedible. My father looked relieved and wanted to know if this meant he didn’t need to finish it all. He had been ready to sit at our kitchen table and eat this nasty stuff because his daughter had made it. I don’t think I would have made the parental sacrifice myself if faced with a plate of Funistrada. So as an honest taste tester perhaps he’s not so good, but as a Dad he’s great, plus he let us order out for pizza that night.

For many years I baked Dad his presents. Cookies were easy to bake and mail, but when he was diagnosed with diabetes the gift of cookies didn’t seem like such a thoughtful present. He manages his illness really well, but it seems unfair to give someone gift they had to take a pill for. So I’ve made donations of honeybees and goats in his name, which is actually a great thing to do for someone who has enough stuff (and who shouldn’t be eating sugar). Then yesterday I was wishing I could just make him something yummy and healthy. I came up with Lentils of Love.

Lentils of Love salad

It’s a dish I made last weekend for Russell’s non-graduation celebration (yes, my youngest is skipping his senior year in high school and instead heading off to Simon’s Rock College this fall). It’s what a good vegetarian/vegan recipe should be. Flavorful, interesting, and edible. I’ve made it on and off for years after I was first introduced to le puy lentils. While some foodies will tell you must use the small green pulses grown in the volcanic soil around Auvergne, France I can tell you the world will not stop spinning because you use green lentils instead. I’m not saying le puys aren’t great, because they are, but rather that the secret to this recipe is a lentil that won’t fall apart and get mushy when you cook it.

The real trick, which Russell’s godfather Rick reminded me of, is to cut the vegetables into teeny, tiny squares, hardly bigger than the cooked lentils themselves. In the past I’d chopped my carrots, celery and onion into small cubes, which was just fine. However, when Rick minced those same three vegetables into a micro mirepoix instead of chopping them I found it elevated the dish to the next level.

Micro mirepoix vegetables

Now, as you will probably note this is not something I can send to my Dad in the mail, so the bonus of these Lentils of Love is that I’ll need to take a road trip to see him, and make them for him in person. Maybe he’ll join me in by cooking something on the grill.

Lentils of Love

1 1/4 cup Le Puy or green lentils

2 1/2 cups water

1 small bay leaf (or half of a large one)

1/2 teaspoon thyme

2 carrots, peeled and cut into micro squares (about a cup)

3 celery ribs, trimmed and cut into micro squares (about a cup)

1/2 red onion, peeled and cut into micro squares (about 3/4 cup)

1/3 cup olive oil

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

dash or two of cider vinegar

salt and pepper to taste

Bring the lentils, bay leaf, thyme and water to a boil, then cover and cook until the lentils are they are soft, but not mushy about 35-43 minutes. There should be almost no liquid left, but keep an eye on things so you don’t simmer them dry. If there is any liquid left drain it then cool the lentils a bit.

While the lentils are cooking cut up your mirepoix. Place in a large bowl and add the slightly cooled lentils (you want them to be warm enough to suck up the oil and vinegar, but not so hot they cook the vegetables), olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Salt and pepper to taste. If you need a brighter note to this salad add a few dashes of cider vinegar.

You’ll want to retaste this when the lentils have cooled down to see if you need to tweak the oil/vinegar/salt/pepper ratios. I will often double or triple this recipe thinking there will be tons left over, but no mater how much I make it all seems to disappear in a day or two. Just letting you know.

You could also top this with some chopped walnuts or pecans. Or a crumble of cheese. There is a myriad of possibilities.

Here’s another variation on this recipe (so many tweaks are possible) from Heidi Swanson who tweaked one of Deborah Madison’s recipes.

Dad and me

 

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