The Flexibility of Mushroom Barley Soup

Fall ferns in the woodsI remember when my kids were little hearing again and again the advice that they needed to have a routine. Routines were the mantra of experts, parenting magazines, and well-meaning friends. Of course if you skipped a nap or missed a meal there would inevitably be a parental price to pay (often in the form of a spectacular meltdown), but looking back what I recall from the months of baby and toddlerhood is not how we found and stuck to a predictable schedule, but rather how incredibly flexible my kids were. We had all sorts of adventures when they were little which ceased not because I suddenly bought into the idea that a regular regime was the best way for them, but rather because there were such rigid expectations at school. I’m not dismissing the benefits of routines, but in my experience they aren’t everything. Kids are, in my experience, pretty darn resilient – basically the humanoid equivalents of silly putty. The irony of this dichotomy between communal wisdom pointing towards regulated patterns and my personal experiences raising two kids is I now find myself gravitating towards the rhythm of a grown-up routine. Though perhaps what I seek is more rut than routine.

Bittersweet, the bane of my existance

As Indian summer has slipped into fall Shawn and I started to find our new regime as empty nesters. Nothing radical, just a gentle morphing from two plus decades of parenting into a new pace of just us and the dog. It’s not that we stopped being parents because to be honest you never stop being a parent, but we were no longer expected to be part of the day to dayness of our children’s lives. We had to trust in the job we did of raising them to be independent, kind, curious, resilient young adults. There are no do-overs when it comes to raising kids. Once they are off to college, heck once they are in high school, you are essentially done with the teaching portion of parenting. For better or worse. As we gradually adapted to this new reality of empty nesthood and started to not only find different patterns, but to enjoy life sans teenagers, it all evaporated with fall break.

Don't eat these fall berries

Perhaps evaporate is too strong a word, since it wasn’t as if we were back to doing the dreaded bus run. For the span of a week and a weekend we found ourselves living with people who wanted to borrow the car, needed to be driven to doctor’s appointments and who were capable of consuming 3,000 calories a day. Trust me when I say that no empty nester I have ever known needs or is able to consume 3,000 calories per day. It was simultaneously glorious and overwhelming. There was lots of cooking, which meant there were also loads of dishes. I got hugs every time someone walked past me, which was wonderful. We heard details about classes, roommates, and professors which never made it into letters, texts or Skype calls. Comfort food was made and inhaled including Chicken Pot Pie Goo (basically chicken pot pie without the topping), Matzoh Ball Soup, Arlene Sullivan’s Molasses SnapsCrêpes, and Carrot Soup. As much as I am figuring out how to enjoy this new phase of my life it was fantabulous to have both kids home for the break.

A bit of fall color

Then of course the vacation culminated, as they always do, with everyone packing up and returning to their real lives.  First there was the 5-mile-per-hour snail ride past an accident clean up on the Massachusetts Turnpike as Russell and I headed back to Simon’s Rock. We debated the merits of getting out and walking versus staying in the car and poking along (we opted for the second option since there was so much stuff to carry) as we crept along. This two hour slow down was even more spectacular when we later learned it was caused by a three truck pile up which had occurred two days prior! Once Russell and I were past the clean up, off the thruway, and had fortified ourselves with some hot cider donuts at Taft Farms we unloaded his things and then I zipped over to the Amtrak station for one last hug from Isabelle. She and Shawn took the now very familiar, and thankfully this time quick, trip to the station in Springfield so she could pop back down to UNH. Then we parents got back in our vehicles to head back north to our very quiet house and our newish routine.

My favorite mushroom, barley and lamb soup

In our little corner of western Massachusetts fall is at the stage where it transitions from colorful, crisp and autumn-y to oceans of crinkly leaves underfoot, Canadian geese honking their way south, and snappy mornings which border on frost most days. I was craving something hearty and filling so I made a pot of Mushroom Barley Lamb Soup. As I puttered around the stove I realized that this soup is as flexible as my kids were when they were little. It is open to endless variations and can be adjusted and tweaked to please most (though unfortunately not all) palettes. For my vegetarian friends I would leave out the lamb chops and chicken stock and boost the vegetables and mushrooms. For my brother who abhors mushrooms I would delete the dried mushrooms, or because I am that kind of big sister I might leave them in, but chop them up so finely that there were no discernible mushroom bits for him to find and complain about. I love thick soups so there is a generous amount of barley in this recipe, but for people who want a bowl of something that is more of a soup than stew I could cut back on the barley. Do those people really exist? Nah, probably not. I guess the barley stays as is.

rehydrating dried mushrooms

I used a combination of mushrooms which had been given to us as gifts. There were some wild Alaskan mushrooms our friend Eric had picked and dehydrated as well as handful of the Porcini my friend Rick brought back from Italy. Both had that delicious concentrated smell of earth and fall that I associate with dried mushrooms. This soup is one that gets better once it’s had a chance to meld flavors, but honestly it is great the first night too. Every time I make it I wonder why I don’t do so more often. Obviously it should be part of the new routine.

Mushroom, barley, lamb soup

Mushroom Barley Lamb Soup

2-4 Tablespoons olive oil

1/2 – 3/4 pounds lamb shoulder

1 large onion, chopped (or you can use leeks)

3 carrots, peeled and chopped

3 ribs celery, chopped

1/2 – 3/4 cup dried mushrooms soaked in 2 cups boiling water

4 cups chicken stock

1 cup barley

2 teaspoons thyme

salt and pepper to taste

Start by pouring the boiling H2O over the mushrooms and allowing them to rehydrated in a small bowl. While they are plumping up and making mushroom broth, sauté the lamb chops and olive oil in a large heavy soup pot until they are browned on both sides. Add the carrots, onions, and celery and sauté a few more minutes. Pour in the chicken stock, sprinkle on the thyme, cover and simmer for half an hour. When the mushrooms are ready pull them out of their soaking water (which you will save) and chop. Carefully pour all but the last few teaspoons of mushroom soaking water into the soup pot (the last little bit will have a smidgen of dirt that clung to the mushrooms and trust me when I say you don’t want dirt in this soup) then add the chopped mushrooms. Throw in the barley, cover and simmer another thirty minutes. Give the soup a stir every so often, but if you don’t no worries – it will take care of itself. Add salt and pepper to taste before ladling out a few bowlfulls.

To end I offer you my last fall flower – a nasturtium snuggled against the porch wall and a haiku to fall.

The last nastursium

Brown and yellow leaves

The trees have disrobed
Orange, yellow and brown leaves
Cover the dog shit.

 

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Soup is the Answer

I have not missed doing the school bus run at all. Not one little bit. When I emailed my friend Amy to say that I’ve been sleeping in until 7:30 she thought I was goofing on her, but I wasn’t. Doing the bus run means you have to be up by 5:30 – 6:00 if you oversleep. So staying in bed until half past seven seems luxurious. Of course not having to do the bus run is akin to that proverbial double-edged sword. No bus run means no kids are at home. So a couple of  weeks ago we went to see Russell. For no reason. Just to say hi and hang out before he went to calculus. It was fabulous to see him and made me feel very, very short.

Myself and the tall one

 

Maybe this transition to being an empty nester is easier for me since both our kids chose to go to colleges near to where we live. Not so close they could live at home, but close enough for us to see them, take them out to lunch, and then be back in time to let the dog out. Simon’s Rock is just over the Berkshire mountains and UNH is a short train ride along the Connecticut River. I’m sure I’d be handling this shift in parenting and family differently if they were going to college somewhere in California or Canada. Lucky for me they aren’t.

As our offspring have settled into their semesters, Shawn and I are figuring out how to settle into our new family size of two plus the dog. Much has stayed the same – work, chores, taking care of the dog. Other things have shifted, the afore mentioned bus run, bedtimes and meals. Bedtime now has a glorious fluidity. If we’re tired at 8:30 we can go to bed. Or we I can stay up until 3am binge watching episodes of Outlander. It helps that we’re both self-employed and can write our own schedules, which though it usually means working seven days a week we can choose what time on those seven days we work. Meals, or more specifically dinner, are one of the biggest changes, which I wrote about in my last blog post.

It’s not just us. I’ve chatted with other empty nesters and they too find themselves having meals that aren’t really what I’d classify as proper meals. Gooey, stinky, oozy cheese smeared on bread with a glass of wine. Avocados sprinkled with Worcestershire sauce. Plates heaping with vegetables, just vegetables (try feeding that to most teenagers). Or a bowl of cereal if you had a big lunch. Those are some of the dinners we’ve been having. Plus the timing can be whenever we want it to be – 6, 7, 8 or even 9. While I never managed my Mother’s record of having dinner on the table by 6 every night for 20+ years (you rocked the dinner scene Mom!), I certainly tried never to make my kids wait until 9 before feeding them. It just wasn’t humane after a long day at school followed by sports and homework. With kids out of the equation an early dinner has changed. Sure there are days when we decide to nibble on something at 6-ish, but basically we eat when we’re hungry or when someone gets around to scrounging something up. Of late that something has included many pots of soup.

Not your grandmother's imatzo ball soup

 

Soup works in so many ways because it is endlessly flexible. Immensely adaptable. Satisfying to eat and easy to make. So get ready because I am going to bombard you with be sharing some of my favorite soup recipes as we slip into fall. There are already a few of my favorites on this blog like Laurie Colwin’s Black Bean Soup, my friend Marisa’s Ceci e Pasta or my go-to super-easy carrot soup. This go round will be my matzo ball soup à la Allison. Just so we can get the obvious out of the way – I am not Jewish. I did not grow up eating matzo ball soup. This is a shiksa’s version of classic Jewish soul food, using a recipe from my half Jewish-half Italian friend. I even use -gasp- boxed matzo ball mix, so sue me. Enough said.

Makings for matzo ball soup

As Allison explained to me the key to matzo ball soup is all about how your mother made it. If you had a mother who made her matzo balls light as clouds that is what you look for in the “perfect” matzo ball soup. On the other hand if your mom made them like lead shot puts then you will probably think only a heavy, sit-in-your-stomach matzo ball will fill the bill, or in this case, soup bowl. Having grown up in an Episcopalian, matzo ball-less house I had no preconceived notions of how they should or shouldn’t be. I fell in love with those not-so-heavy and not-so-light matzo balls my friend fed me thirty odd years ago.

Seltzer is the key to the perfect matzo ball

If you want to see some hilarious reactions to people eating Jewish foods for the first time check out this BuzzFeed video. I cracked up when one tester referred to matzo ball soup as “the gateway drug to Jewish food.” You have been warned.

Simmering the best matzo balls ever!

Not Your Jewish Grandmother’s Matzo Ball Soup

1 box matzo ball mix (I use Manischewitz)

4 eggs

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

2 Tablespoons seltzer

2-5 Carrots, peeled and chopped

1 onion, peeled and diced

3-6 quarts chicken or vegetable broth* (I use home made chicken stock and add water to it, but you can use canned in a pinch)

Handful of chopped parsley (optional)

Couple of handfuls of chopped or torn cooked chicken (again optional)

Allison is in the in between matzo ball camp. Not super fluffy, but not heavy either. Her answer is to add some seltzer to the mix. It lightens things up, but doesn’t make them fall apart. These middle of the road matzo balls are what my kids have grown up on. So if you’re feeding a whole family, or don’t want leftovers half all the ingredients. Otherwise here’s what you do-

Mix the eggs, oil and seltzer together then whisk in both packages of matzo. Stir until everything is moistened and place the bowl in the fridge for 15-45 minutes, depending on how long it takes you to make the soup part.

While the matzo mix is merging I add the chopped up carrots and onions into the broth and simmer everything until they are al dente, about 10-15 minutes. How much broth I hear you asking because you gave a pretty broad range of amounts. Well that depends. I like to cook my matzo balls right in the broth, which means they soak up a lot of broth. So I either start with what seems to be way too much broth, or I add a quart or two of water to my chicken broth, or I enjoy my broth-soaked matzo with a tiny bit of broth and a whole lot of matzo and veggies, sort of like dumplings. I can’t make those decisions for you. You have to decide what kind of matzo ball soup person you are. For even more options the package says to cook the matzo in a pot of salted water. It’s an option, but I don’t really see the point of dirtying up another pot and I’ve never tried it that way. All I can advise you to do is know thy self. Or experiment. There really are no bad answers.

Once you’ve got what seems to be the right amount of broth for you, and your veggies are partially cooked then it’s time to make the matzo balls. Wet your hands with water, scoop out some of the matzo ball mix and roll into a ball. How big? Again, that is a personal preference. I like mine the size of small oranges when done, so I start with matzo balls the size of giant golf balls. Some people like humongous matzo balls the size of a grapefruit. Again, you get to decide. Once you’ve found the right size for you, make them and plop them into the pot to simmer with the lid on. Fifteen minutes then I gently flip them over to simmer on their other side. If you’re going to add chicken to the mix throw it in at the turning point to warm up.

To serve ladle out as many mazto balls as will make you happy (or as many as will fit in your bowl), along with some broth and veggies and chicken if you’re having any. Sprinkle with chopped parsley if you’d like. It’s all pretty free form, and if you’re an empty nester than there are just the two of you and you can do whatever the heck you want to do.

*When I’ve known vegetarians are coming over I’ve made this with vegetable stock and it is delicious too. Obviously leave out the chicken if you’re making a vegetarian version, but don’t try to sub in tofu or tempeh. I think just straight veggies, matzo balls and broth will be fine. If you’d like, you could boost the amount of vegetables you use and add a stick or two of celery.

 

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Grammy’s Advice

Mist on Mountain Street

Grammy Caldwell believed in advice – both giving and receiving. She loved quoting from the witticisms and proverbs in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, and she was known to make up quite a few of her own words of wisdom which she happily passed along. I’ve ben thinking about one in particular lately,

“Have overnight guests once a month and dinner guests once a week. That way you’ll have a clean house once a month and enjoy eating a good meal every week.”

When the kids were still home I gave up on the clean house part. Okay, let’s be honest. Whether or not I had kids I never worried too much about the clean house part because cleaning has never been a major priority for me. Ironically I am actually quite good at removing dirt, grime, and tarnish; and spent one summer during college cleaning houses for other people. It’s not that I live in squalor (and trust me I don’t-it’s just a bit dusty and there may be a few bits of dog hair to be found), but a good book or an interesting knitting project or a yummy batch of biscotti all seem like much better choices of how to spend one’s time as opposed to wielding a vacuum cleaner to banish dust bunnies from under the couch or picking up a bottle of windex and rags to vanquish fingerprints (or in my case paw prints) from windows and doors. Having disclosed that I’m not the world’s foremost cleaner, I will admit to becoming a whirling dervish prior to anyone’s announced visits (especially when it’s my Mom). If folks show up unannounced I try to distract them with a cookie or three. It’s amazing what people will overlook when you feed them.

Sunrise on North Farms Road

The dinner part was never an issue when there were children to feed, but it turns out that Grammy was right about the once a week dinner part when you remove offspring from the equation. With no kids to make meals for Shawn and I have become quite casual when it comes to our evening feed. I won’t say I haven’t cooked for the entire time since Russell and Isabelle departed to their separate institutes of higher learning, but the suppers I’ve produced since the drop off dates can be counted on less than ten fingers. Since I’m no longer responsible for feeding growing bodies I can feed myself hors d’oeuvre for dinner. Or a bowl of cereal. Perhaps even some eggs on toast. Any funny thing that catches my fancy when I open a cupboard or happens to be sitting on a shelf in the fridge. It’s rather astonishing how infrequently I find myself in front of the stove. I haven’t lost my appetite (or any weight for that mater) but I have lost a significant portion of my culinary audience. Plus my husband seems quite content to putter in the kitchen and whip something up for the two of us, or just himself if I happen to be so engrossed in a good book that I don’t feel like eating.

Add to this adjustment of empty nesthood the fact that when I make enough food for eight it actually lasts two people for four meals! With the kiddos home I’d make enough for what I thought was a small army and it would be gone in less than 24 hours. I began to lovingly refer to them as, “my teenage human locusts”. Our grocery bills are a fifth of what they were. Which is, I suppose, in part to compensate for the thousands of dollars we are now spending on their college meal plans.

Honestly I can’t say I’m feeling compelled to become a house cleaning maniac, but it would be nice to actually get back into the habit of cooking dinner – at least once a week.

Beginnings of fall

I took these photos on my way into church yesterday. Fall was one of Grammy’s favorite times of year and I think she would have loved the misty morning vistas I happened upon as I wove my way through the hilltowns to worship. ♥

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Launch Number Two

Last Saturday I got up at 6 am to help pack the car and take Isabelle back to college. The start of year number two was completely different than it was for year number one. For starters it was just the two of us. No whole-family entourage like we’d done for her freshman year. Just two girls, a loaded Prius, and a couple of energy bars in case we felt peckish between Whately and West Haven. Even the weather was different –

UNH Weather

These screen shots from my radar app show the difference from one year to the next. Despite the lack of precipitation, for which we were very grateful, there was still some pretty intense cloud action to gawk at as we zoomed south on 91.

Coulds in the Pioneer Valley

Clouds in New Haven

Instead of the cutie little house she was in last year she’s in a big dorm, smack dab in the middle of campus. There are pros and cons. One of the pros was we could load all her stuff into a gigantic orange crate on wheels then ride it up the elevator to her room in two trips. Yeah for giant orange crates and elevators!

Easy Transport

One of the cons of said elevators is that she won’t be able to use them on ROTC days since there is a regulation which states that when cadets are in uniform they may not use the elevators – they have to use stairs. I think the government just wants them to get a little bit more exercise. Of course for my kid that is just fine and dandy since she loves to work out. When she was describing her dorm to us after the housing lottery this past spring the main pro of this dorm (in her eyes) is the fact that the gym is right behind it – literally a hop, two skips and a jump, which makes her very happy. After I left there were some texts saying she’d been to the gym, had gone out to dinner with friends, but somehow hadn’t quite unpacked her room (this via snapchat) -

Unpacking - not

 

I’m sure being on the quad will be noisy, but she went prepared with earplugs plus we picked up a box fan for the window which should at least provide some white noise to counteract the boisterous revelers who decided to skip the gym. And let’s face it – any college campus would be noisy compared with our house in the country.

As for me, once we finished with the requisite last minute trips to Target, Whole Foods and IKEA (which somehow took hours), I toodled home for my first night as an empty nester. Since Shawn had gone up to the Cummington Fair to watch the demolition derby, it was less empty nest and more a night of having the house to myself. Just me and the dog and about six loads of laundry left behind by my sophomore girl. I unpacked boxes and bags, threw a load in the washing machine, and settled onto the couch with some crackers and this amazing Morracan Carrot Purée. I’ve been whipping up vats of this stuff ever since my sister took me to Sofra Bakery and Cafe in Cambridge. It is delicious and zippy, exotic (the spices) yet familiar (carrots) and I am in love with it. I’d had something similar at a African restaurant in another part of Cambridge years ago but never managed to get my hands on the recipe. Now I have a recipe and it is a winner.

Sofra Meze plate with Basil Lemonade

Above is our platter of five meze dishes – the offerings change every day – including the Moroccan style carrots with dukkah (second from the right) all of which is served with crick-cracks. The green drinks were a very refreshing basil infused lemonade. Honestly it was some of the best food I’d had in ages, so much so that I made my sister go back with me the following day for breakfast.

Breakfast at Sofra

I know I’m a bit intense about this recipe, but I need to be honest with you –actually this recipe is three recipes (well four if you realize that one of the three has another recipe within it) in one, which probably will seem a bit daunting. I took the lazy woman’s way out and bought two of the components ready made, and when you do that this recipe becomes easy peasy. Hey, I bought Ana Sortun’s cookbook Spice just to get my hands on this recipe, so it seemed silly not to pick up a packet of dukkah and a jar of harissa paste at the same time. Even if you’re not near Cambridge you can call their store manager at 617.661.3161 and ask them to ship you your own supply, which will last for many batches of Moroccan Carrot Purée. Empty nest or no, you will be a very happy camper.

Harissa and Dukkah

Empty Nest Moroccan Carrot Purée

2 pounds of carrots, peeled

5-7 Tablespoons olive oil

2-3 teaspoons cider vinegar

2-5 teaspoons harissa *

1 teaspoon cumin (ground)

1/2 teaspoon ginger (ground)

1-2 cloves minced garlic

salt and pepper to taste

Dukkah **

French bread or crackers

Chop the carrots into smallish chunks and put into a medium saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil, then simmer on medium high heat 20-30 minutes or until fork tender. Timing will somewhat depend upon the size of our carrot chunks. Drain the carrots but leave them in the saucepan and return it to the stove. Over medium high heat “dry” the carrots by shaking the pan constantly, sort of like you would for jiffy pop popcorn. You may be tempted to skip this step, but don’t or it will make your carrot purée watery. It only take a minute or so.

Then with a potato masher mash the carrots, cider vinegar and harissa to taste, cumin, ginger, garlic, and enough olive oil to loosen the whole mixture. You don’t want mashed potato smooth, you want the mixture to be smashed up, with a few chunks left for texture. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

You can serve this the way they do in the restaurant with a scoop of carrot purée, the dukkah sprinkled on top and crackers or bread to scoop it all up with. Or you can serve it in separate bowls of carrot purée, olive oil and dukkah. I’ve even spread some of the purée on a piece of bread then topped it with with a few slices of leftover steak and a handful of arugula to make a divine lunchtime treat. It would also be great to pack for a picnic.

Empty Nester Moroccan Carrot Puree

So you really want to go all out and make your own harissa and dukkah? Here are the recipes (though I have not tested them myself). All three come from Ana Sorten’s cookbook Spice.

* Harissa

1 cup ground Urfa chilies

2 teaspoons chopped garlic

1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes, soaked in warm water for an hour

3 teaspoons kosher salt

1 cup water

1 Tablespoon Moroccan Ras el Hannout (yep, another recipe)

1/4 cup olive oil

Combine all ingredient in a blender and purée until smooth. Sore in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Moroccan Ras el Hannout

1/4 cup cumin seeds

3/4 teaspoon saffron

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 Tablespoon tumeric

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 Tablespoon fresh ground black pepper

1/2 cup paprika

In a cast iron frying pan toast cumin seeds for a couple of minutes until fragrant, shaking the pan vigorously. Cool seed and grind with the saffron in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Mix with remaining spices.

Dukkah

1/2 cup blanched almonds

3 Tablespoons coriander seeds

2 Tablespoons cumin seeds

2 Tablespoons sesame seeds

1/4 cup unsweetened dried coconut

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a cast iron skillet over medium/medium low heat toast the almonds until golden. Cool, then chop.

In the same iron skillet toast the coriander and cumin seeds until fragrant. Cool, then coarsely grind in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.

In the same iron skillet toast the sesame seeds until just browned. Cool.

And yet again in the same skillet toast the coconut until golden and then cool.

Once everything is toasted and cooled combine together and grind or pound slightly to combine.

 

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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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