Friday, January 29, 2010

Wolf Moon

The Wolf Moon in January is the largest and brightest of our full moons each year because it is at its closet point to the Earth in its 12-month cycle. Last night around 6 o'clock, as I was shutting in the chickens for the night, I watched it rise against the dark blue winter sky. It was an odd cast of blue, perhaps a midnight blue, and unlike any night sky I had seen before. There was also a ring around the moon–a sign of bad weather to come–and I'm sorry that my camera does not do it justice.

Tonight, the actual date of the full moon, we are getting an unusual snow storm for Kentucky: 8-10" inches predicted over the next 24 hours. This monstrous storm has girdled the country, barreling right through the Midwest but at its own leisurely clip. So I expect that is why it will slowly work its way across Kentucky–and, of course, is the reason why we can't see the moon tonight. A year ago we had a major ice storm here but fortunately we were too far south to be affected by it. This storm is the opposite: the further north you go in Kentucky, the less snow that is expected.

The almost full Wolf Moon over Hickory Nut Ridge: January 28, 2010.

I have enjoyed this January: lots of time in the house, puttering, some writing, working on projects, closets, office, working on the diet again after a self-imposed plateau. We've kept to our goal of not going out to restaurants too often, we're working our way through freezers and foodstuffs, and enjoying a bit of winter weather here. We've had cold and snow off and on throughout the month. I like a bit of winter and a month or so of it here will be just enough (the rest of the winter seems like a perpetual muddy November). By mid-late February here it can be quite balmy: it even was last January when they were building our chicken house and shop.

School was canceled this morning but the snow didn't really start until 5pm. Oh well. No one complained–as the cold will go right through next week, the snow that falls will be on the ground for a while. It will be interesting to see how that affects school for our boys next week. Today they were supposed to have celebrated their 100th day in the school year but now it will have to wait. They've more than passed the midway bump now. The years just pass so quickly, the older they all get–the older I get! I have a good feeling about this decade for some reason: my daughter and I were talking about this on the phone last night. How we as humans seem to go through 7-year cycles in our lives, some better than others. But there is this necessary sloughing and growth, a renewal of sorts, that occurs within me every 7-years or so. Wintertime provides a sort of annual sloughing and soul-renewal, too: I welcome the introspection and occasional solitude, as long as I do not get consumed by it.

Picturing that first snow felt comforting. But why?...something deep inside me seemed to relax when I thought of seeing, just outside my window, those first thick white flakes begin to a white curtain, closing off the rest of the world. They would cover everything. I could sense them muffling my grief, hushing my tumult, damping my sense of loss...The world will be fresh and white, and I will start again.
~ from Leaning Into the Wind–A Memoir of Midwest Weather by Susan Allen Toth [University of Minnesota Press: 2003]

So a snow day–or a whole stretch of winter confinement–is just permission for lots more puttering, some blogging, cooking (I'll post some more recipes, too, and that "Friendship Quilt" blog at last!), ordering chicks and some seeds, and just hunkering in. I need that for a bit of time each year as I am, by nature, an old crazy hermit woman. I embrace this now where I used to fight this aspect of my nature. I'm going to finally get to our Christmas cards, too (besides, they say "Season's Greetings" and our printed letter says "Happy New Year-ish"). It would seem the perfect weekend to sit down in my big comfy chair with a cup of tea and a pile of holiday cards. It's just been that kind of season: leisurely, no pressure, lots of rest, sleep, time for reading, and a renewed sense of who I am and what I'm trying to do. Hopefully it will also be a time of renewal for the world and for our country. We can only hope. In the meantime, I know what I can manage in my own little haven here on our Kentucky ridge and sometimes, most of the time, that is enough.

Here's to comforting blankets, warm food in our bellies, the love of friends and family, peace down in the valleys and high on the ridge tops, and to a better decade ahead. Hurrah for the 2010s!

NOTE: While adding a few more thoughts and the Susan Allen Toth quote here tonight, I was serenaded by a chorus of howling dogs. I guess they don't call it the "Wolf Moon" for nothing! [If you are obsessed with weather, like I am, you might enjoy Toth's book of ten essays on Midwestern weather, Leaning Into the Wind. She also wrote three excellent travel books on her love affair with England that I highly recommend. Her writing style is seamless and approachable and there are times I feel like I'm reading chapters, or at least excerpts, from my own life and perspectives. ]

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Note about IN THE PANTRY

I will be doing some needed blog cataloging in the next few weeks–going back into the huge archive of posts at In the Pantry (over 300 now) for almost the past five years (hard to believe, really). This year is about archiving–and new projects–on so many levels, not just at my blog. But here "in the pantry" I will be doing some reorganizing and reconsidering labels for archiving and also giving many earlier posts links and labels. Back in the early day of this blog you couldn't do certain format things or links without understanding HTML formats. Also, photos were limited by size and other factors.

While I want to tidy up, I know I will be tempted to edit my earlier blog posts and will only do so if there is a glaring error. Otherwise, apart from maybe italicizing or providing a link or two within the posts, or making a consistent format change, I will leave them alone. [After all, we can't really go back and rewrite a journal, can we?]

It's been a great journey and I often consider moving this blog to another location (like Wordpress) or leaving this one here and starting another blog that has more to do with our new lives and journey here in Kentucky (to include pantries and recipes, of course).

But then I am just lured back to my familiar, to the pantry, and I'm comfortable with that place. And yet, new horizons or formats always beckon. If I did depart from this site, I would still keep this one in place and perhaps add something pantry-related to it from time to time but move all other future posts to a different blog and format. I would certainly want you to come along for the ride, too.

In the meantime, as I have valued everyone's reading and comments through the past five years, I would appreciate your thoughts on this idea. [You are also welcome to email me privately at] Would you prefer to stay here In the Pantry and visit occasionally to see if there is a pantry-related post or to also visit newer pastures along with me?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Real Simple Suppers

Chicken-Broccoli Casserole a la Catherine (see below)

This blog post today is honor of Real Simple Magazine's 2009 Essay Contest–of course I entered it and remembered a few weeks ago that winners (first and runner-up) would be announced by phone and/or email "after January 3." The topic was "When Did You Realize You Were a Grownup?" (Mmm, now that I think about it, maybe I was not convincing enough–there are days that I still feel about 22 or 12, in my head, of course.) I spent a week crafting that essay back in early September, after hearing about it from my friend Edie, a Cupcake (the hardest part was reducing it to less than 1,500 words–is that a surprise?). I liked my essay, very much, but they got thousands of them and you never know what the editors are looking for in an essay contest. However, if you are a writer, or an aspiring one, I highly encourage entering any essay contest.

I rarely buy Real Simple because I find it really hard to slog through at times because it's far from simple in execution–it also bothers my ADD between having to surf over the huge amount of ads (even in this poor economy, so that is good for the prosperity–and popularity–of the magazine) and the brief snippets of information. [I had to also chuckle a few weeks ago while watching The Joy Behar Show. She was talking to the woman who did everything Oprah told her to do for a year, while blogging about it. Of course she also got a book deal! At the end of the conversation, Behar said, "A lot of these Real Simple is the most complicated magazine I've ever read–it just gets you doing more things!" Exactly. Or to quote Fred Armison on Saturday Night Live impersonating Behar, "So what! Who cares?"]

And let's also point out here that the magazine title is not even grammatically correct: here is their defense of that in a response to a letter to the editor: "You are right to notice that Real Simple as our title is not grammatically correct. Although, we chose to emphasize the magazine's focus on the real and the simple, so we decided to go with the colloquial title over the strictly correct one." No sour grapes here, just some objective observations as it can be the gimmicky dumbing down in life which sometimes cloys.

Even though I can be a competitive person, I'm not a sore loser. The award went to Andrea Avery Decker of Phoenix, Arizona and she deserves congratulations for winning out of the thousands of essays submitted and I look forward to reading her essay. She will receive $3,000 for the publication of her essay ($2 a word is a good price in this magazine market, even though I was getting $1 a word twenty years ago) and a trip to New York City to meet the editors, see a Broadway show, and stay in a nice hotel.

To be honest, I was starting to obsess, how can I tell them that I don't want to fly? Or that I'd want to bring my 9-year old boy whose life goal at the moment is to go to the top of the Empire state building, even though his mother is terrified of heights? So I'm not terribly disappointed–who needs that kind of pressure? [But I had wanted to be the second essayist in my family to win an award and that kind of recognition. My grandmother Louise Truslow Grummon wrote "An Individual Struggles in the Age of Automation" in the early 1960s and won first prize and $5,000 with the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company! And my grandmother should have published more than the occasional magazine article, too. Her essay, is still relevant almost 50 years later and one day, when I can find it again (I am working on family archives this year), I'll reprint that essay here.]

In the meantime, here is an easy and tasty recipe we tried this month from Real Simple (I can't find the issue again but the recipe is also on-line–just click on the recipe title, below). And in their honor, I hereby christen this occasional "In the Pantry" segment: "Simple Suppers". I also follow it with my own recipe for a similar dish that I made last night. Both are good for a cold winter's night when you really want something warm and creamy but pseudo-healthy, too. You could also substitute whole wheat or other pasta for the shells or noodles–and go nuts with fresh herbs if you have them.

Cheesy Baked Shells and Broccoli from Real Simple
  • 3/4 pound medium pasta shells
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsps flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese (or other cheese or a combo)
  • 1/8 tsp ground or grated nutmeg
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1-16 ounce package frozen broccoli
  1. Heat broiler.
  2. Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 4 to 5 minutes.
  4. Add 1 1/2 cups of the cheese and stir until melted. Stir in the nutmeg, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1⁄4 teaspoon pepper.
  5. Add the pasta and broccoli and toss to combine. Transfer to a broilerproof 8-inch square or another 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄2 cup of cheese. Broil until golden, 3 to 4 minutes.

This recipe reminds me of the creamy noodly-ness of Stouffer's® Tuna Noodle Casserole that my mother sometimes liked to get–they also had a really good Scalloped Apple dish and Spinach Soufflé, which I've used to make the base of a very good Northern Italian pasta sauce.

Simple Chicken-Broccoli Casserole a La Catherine (this is an easier variation of this recipe)
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 3 Tbsps garlic, minced
  • a splash of olive oil and a bit of butter
  • 4-5 chicken breasts (I used some pre-marinated ones we had in the freezer to use up)
  • 1 18-oz can Progresso® Creamy Mushroom Soup Vegetable Classics (finally, canned soups with only a few ingredients and ones that you can read–and NO MSG! I find it fairly cheaply at my local Walmart and stock up on it for this reason)
  • 1 head broccoli (or a bag of frozen broccoli florets)
  • 8 handfuls of egg noodles (When I can't get homemade noodles from a local friends, I like to use Mrs. Miller's Old-Fashioned Extra Wide® which we get at Sunny Valley bulk foods)
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 2 Tbsps melted butter
  1. Set oven to 350 degrees. Boil water for pasta, add a bit of salt, and cook broccoli al dente in a steamer basket over the pasta if you are set up for that–or separately.
  2. Sauté shallot and garlic in melted butter. [You might also want to add some sliced fresh mushrooms but I didn't have any.]
  3. Add chicken chopped into chunks.
  4. Cook chicken only a few minutes, gently tossing while stir-frying until almost done.
  5. Add mushroom soup and salt and pepper. Set aside off burner.
  6. Drain noodles and broccoli (make sure broccoli is still quite green) and toss in with the chicken mixture. (I sauteed and baked in the same pan–my Le Creuset Dutch oven.)
  7. Top with topping that you've made by melting butter, tossing in bread crumbs and cheese.
  8. Bake for about 30 minutes until bubbly–or broil, briefly, until bubbly.
  9. Serves 5-6 people.
And now for a teaser: this Gooseberry Crumble with Vanilla Pouring Custard looks much better than it actually was, in my opinion (although my husband loved it and that speaks volumes–our boys wouldn't go near it, sadly, but they do love my casserole creations). I made it and baked it along with the casserole. The custard was passable but could have been thicker. The crumble was my own assemblage of ingredients but the gooseberries were a bit tart on the old pucker, despite the added sugar. We picked them last summer and I've been wanting to do something with them ever since (they freeze as easily as cranberries). But I need to tweak the recipe first, having never baked with gooseberries. Thanks to our own lovely eggs, the custard is really that yellow! I'll work on this for a future installment.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Entertaining 101: Have Lots of Hobbit Pantries

It is hard to imagine that after looking for pantry references in so many books when I was writing The Pantry several years ago, that I should have forgotten about Mr. Bilbo Baggins' pantries at his hobbit-hole in Bag End, Hobbiton. I read and loved The Hobbit when I was about twelve but I never got into J.R.R. Tolkein's other novels. There was something about the wee folk in the lovely English countryside that seemed familiar and less menacing to me then the greater adventures with scarier creatures in Middle Earth.

The hobbit-hole of Bilbo Baggins was a sizable hill and is introduced in the first chapter:
No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.
Today on Facebook, a friend put up this quote: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world," which one of the dwarfs says later on in The Hobbit in reference to Mr. Baggins. As someone who likes to eat, cook, sing and entertain, this sentiment rings true for me. And, I was reminded, again, of how pantries ("lots of these") were a part of Bilbo Baggins' home in the shire and how a full larder is a good thing to have when a wizard–and thirteen dwarfs–show up on your doorstep, unexpectedly, for tea (and tea in England can be more like an American supper). PHOTO–Our guests, which included mostly children, were appreciative and did not make any extra requests like the dwarfs who came to tea at Mr. Bilbo Baggins' hobbit-hole. And no, our humble hobbit-hole is not tilting–it almost looks like the crooks' hide-outs in the old television show, Batman!

Like myself, Hobbits tend to be reclusive little people, "inclined to be fat in the stomach...(with) good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it)." They also are about three and half feet tall and have full heads of curly hair. I expect I've heard a "fruity laugh," or uttered one once in a while, myself, although it has likely been a while. [Come to think of it, my dear husband reminds me of a taller, balding Bilbo!]

On Monday we had some friends over for lunch and I could somewhat relate to Bilbo's angst. However, unlike with Mr. Baggins, I knew I was expecting a lot of guests (sort of–we did have a "snow day" reschedule) and my anxieties tend to occur in advance: I fret about how the house looks, how the food will work, and oh so many things not tended to (and that in the end don't really matter). I used to entertain in New Hampshire quite often, for small groups of friends or dinner parties or around the holidays, but here I've gotten rather rusty and the old perfectionist streak creeps in again. It is so unnecessary, but there it is.

When Baggins invited the wizard Gandalf to tea he asked himself (and don't we always second-guess ourselves after sending out a party invitation? I know that I do! What was I possibly thinking!?):

"What on earth did I ask him to tea for!?" he said to himself, as he went to the pantry. He had only just had breakfast, but he thought a cake or two and a drink of something would do him good after his fright.

Then the dwarfs, whom Gandalf had invited, kept piling into Baggins' hobbit-hole, one after another. Baggins went "scuttling off" to "the pantry to fetch two beautiful round seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon for his after-supper morsel." They begin asking Baggins for more and more food.
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"And raspberry jam and apple-tart," said Bifur.

"And mince-pies and cheese," said Bofur.

"And pork-pie and salad," said Bombur.

"And more cakes, and ale, and coffee, if you don't mind," called the other dwarfs through the door.

"Put on a few eggs, there's a good fellow!" Gandalf called after him, as the hobbit stumped off to the pantries. "And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!"

"Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!" thought Mr Baggins, who was feeling positively flummoxed, and was beginning to wonder whether a most wretched adventure had not come right into his house. By the time he had got all the bottles and dishes and knives and forks and glasses and plates and spoons and things piled up on big trays, he was getting very hot, and red in the face, and annoyed.

"Confusticate and bebother these dwarves!" he said aloud. "Why don't they come and lend a hand?" Lo and behold! there stood Balin and Dwalin at the door of the kitchen, and Fili and Kili behind them, and before he could say knife they had whisked the trays and a couple of small tables into the parlour and set out everything afresh.

Gandalf sat at the head of the party with the thirteen dwarves all round: and Bilbo sat on a stool at the fireside, nibbling at a biscuit (his appetite was quite taken away), and trying to look as if this was all perfectly ordinary and not in the least an adventure. The dwarves ate and ate, and talked and talked, and time got on. At last they pushed their chairs back, and Bilbo made a move to collect the plates and glasses.

"I suppose you will all stay to supper?" he said in his politest unpressing tones.

"Of course!" said Thorin. "And after. We shan't get through the business till late, and we must have some music first. Now to clear up!"

Thereupon the twelve dwarves–not Thorin, he was too important, and stayed talking to Gandalf–jumped to their feet, and made tall piles of all the things. Off they went, not waiting for trays, balancing columns of plates, each with a bottle on the top, with one hand, while the hobbit ran after them almost squeaking with fright: "please be careful!" and "please, don't trouble! I can manage." But the dwarves only started to sing:
Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates?
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
Cut the cloth and tread on the fat!
Pour the milk on the pantry floor!
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat!
Splash the wine on every door!
Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl;
Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you've finished, if any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So, carefully! carefully with the plates!

~ excerpted from The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkein:
Chapter 1. "The Unexpected Party"

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As a hostess I am terrible about two things: delegating any kind of task or letting people help me in the first place. I am awed that my Mennonite friends are able to do both with great ease and efficiency and aren't afraid to ask for help or to offer it, either. They think nothing of swooping into another woman's kitchen and pitching in–but somehow that is less a part of our own culture and more about their communal one where the kitchen is not only the center of the home but an extended living room, too, as well as work room. And everyone in their home–man, woman, child–has a specific role or is able to learn to do many things. There is something inviolate, at times, about coming into another woman's kitchen and over the years, with good friends, as welcome as we've felt in each other's homes, we just seem to respect this unwritten code of conduct.

Ironically (and I always enjoy good irony and symbolism), I wouldn't let anyone bring anything but one person who did not attend had a bouquet of flowers delivered and they arrived a half hour before the lunch. And frankly, I hadn't thought about a centerpiece so it was a kind and unexpected gesture and it graced the center of our table. One thing I love about entertaining, as in life, is to expect the unexpected in situations, and in others, and be glad of it–embrace it, even. Taking a good cue from the poet Emily Dickinson, I try to always "dwell in Possibility," from a poem that explains as much as I feel about heaven on Earth in a shared transcendentalist stance with the poet, as I seem to feel about entertaining and having visitors in my home:
I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise–

~ Poem #657, c. 1862, by Emily Dickinson

My husband knows to make himself scarce in the hours before a party, if not the day before. This week, one of our boys helped me to get the house ready in the morning and did some vacuuming and was a great sous chef for last minute things. Regardless of any advance mayhem, we always have fun once the gathering begins–and there's always plenty of food.

When one of the toddlers at the lunch opened our bedroom door, which is just off the living room, he made this discovery. I was able to say with a sweeping gesture, "See!? This is how we really live..." (But at least the bed was made!!) Around the corner from this bedroom, and fortunately only accessible from the bedroom, is my unkempt hobbit-hole of an office. (And no, I'm not proud of it...)

Unlike in Mr. Baggins' hobbit-hole we have no cellars here to hide stuff in. So here's my entertainment advice for what it's worth:
  1. Unless you are planning a huge open house or garden party, you'll always have enough food no matter what you make or how many people are coming (and you can freeze leftovers). I've never had this fail.
  2. Do your major cooking and "light cleaning" ahead of time.
  3. When all else fails, pile every stray bit of clutter on your bed a few hours before company comes and shut the door!
  4. (Plastic cups are also good for a crowd.)
  5. (Nice days help when you have a lot of kids–so do games.)
The varied women of Cranforda series of novels by Elizabeth Gaskell set in Victorian rural England and adapted in two sagas by the BBC–always seem ready for tea-time. But they are just as adept as brushing over any conflict with each other and value love and friendship above all. I am blessed to have made friends like this in my life.

Another parting "party tip": do your major vacuuming in the day(s) after the party and only a bit before hand–and let your children do the before hand "sweep" (if you are like me, you'll be less hard on them and happily have them do it while you tend to other things). You'll thank me–and unless you have some one who is doing a white-glove inspection of every nook and cranny in your hobbit-hole, no one will really notice...or care. And if they do, they probably won't want to come back any way.

Take it from Mr. Bilbo Baggins: it is always easier to entertain thirteen raucous, hungry, messy but grateful dwarfs–and a kind old wizard–than it is to please one imperious queen. Not that royalty ever visited the hobbit's shire, that Tolkein wrote about or that is in my memory, but a good hobbit must be prepared for anyone, at least, with his ample larders and seed-cakes. And, above all, dear readers, we must always allow the time in our day and in our homes for tea-time.

[I just discovered that The Hobbit will at last be made into a (two-part) movie: get ready for more Hobbit fever in the next few years.]

Monday, January 18, 2010

Her Kind

Tonight a very good friend of mine mentioned wanting to live in a cave one day. Well, not really, I don't suppose, but there are days I can relate to that idea. And then I remembered a poem by Anne Sexton: Her Kind. So here it is, for no particular reason other than that it is one of my favorite poems–and that it mentions a cave pantry, of sorts. And yes, even though this poem flirts with the idea of madness and death, which both took Sexton in the end, there are times that I have been that "possessed witch": rearranging the disaligned... misunderstood. I have been her kind. [Here is a recording of Sexton reading "Her Kind".] PHOTO of Anne Sexton, 1973–© Nancy Crampton.

Musician Peter Gabriel wrote "Mercy Street" about Sexton, which appeared on his "So" album in 1986, twelve years after her suicide.

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
~ Anne Sexton

NOTE: "disaligned" is not an actual word in the English language but here its meaning seems to be self-evident.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Old Chestnuts

An Appalachian Spring is the most sweetly-savored seasonal experience I've ever had: long, with gradually emergent flora–and certainly fauna–over the span of about two or more months, and filled with bird song. While I was delighted to find that we have four seasons here, of varied durations from a New England year, the spring is my most favorite time to be in the knobs and hollers of Kentucky.

Composer Aaron Copland's glorious symphony, Appalachian Spring, captures that beauty and emergence of spring in music. I often listened to it as a young girl with my father on the hi-fi in our suburban living room, where Appalachia seemed like a distant and dreamy place somewhere on the map south of our little corner of northeastern Ohio. Little did I know that one day, by way of New England, I would be living here or that "Appalachia" also technically includes most of New England and much of the northeastern corridor. Now we live in its most westerly foothills, the lovely, rolling "knob region" of south-central Kentucky.

Over at Cupcake Chronicles, we're getting back on track with our mutual reading and blogging. This month we are enjoying Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. This is the first novel I have read by her, having enjoyed her essay collections and her nonfiction gem, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which we read together last summer. A Kentucky native and a biologist by training, the natural world, landscape and its people inform much of Kingsolver's writing and especially this novel. She is certainly one of our finest living writers.

I don't often do this but I am double-posting today at Cupcake Chronicles and here at In the Pantry. I needed a bit of spring today as we begin to thaw and warm again, and hope you might, too. In the meantime, perhaps you'd like to read this book along with the Cupcakes–you are more than welcome to join our conversation!
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In Chapter 3 of Prodigal Summer we are introduced to Garnett at the start of a morning in May. Already I know that this novel is so richly tied to Appalachian place and landscape and the people in it: home places, farms, cabins, hollows. Last night I had to pause to reread this short and luminous chapter again. Because of its beauty, and its resonance for me here in Kentucky, I couldn't wait to include it here this morning in its short, breathtaking entirety:
Eight years a widower, Garnett still sometimes awoke disoriented and lost to the day. It was because of the large empty bed, he felt; a woman was an anchor. Lacking a wife, he had turned to God for solace, but sometimes a man also needed the view out his window.

Garnett sat up slowly and bent toward the light, seeing as much with his memory as with his eyes. There was the gray fog of dawn in this wet hollow, lifted with imperious slowness like the skirt of an old woman stepping over a puddle. There were the barn and slat-sided grain house, built by his father and grandfather in another time. The grass-covered root cellar still bulged from the hillside, the two windows in its fieldstone face staring out of the hill like eyes in the head of a man. Every morning of his life, Garnett had saluted that old man in the hillside with the ivy beard crawling out of his chin and the forelock of fescue hanging over his brow. As a boy, Garnett had never dreamed of being an old man himself, still looking at these sights and needing them as badly as a boy needs the smooth lucky chestnut in his pocket, the talisman he rubs all day just to make sure it's still there.

The birds were starting up their morning chorus. They were in full form now, this far into spring. What was it now, the nineteenth of May? Full form and feather. He listened. The prothalamion, he had named this in his mind years ago: a song raised up to connubial union. There were meadowlarks and chats, field sparrows, indigo buntings, all with their heads raised to the dawn and their hearts pressed into clear liquid song for their mates. Garnett held his face in his hands for just a moment. As a boy he had never dreamed of an age when there was no song left, but still some heart.
I am already reveling in the natural and peopled world of Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer and perhaps am enjoying it all the more because it has been a very cold and snowy January.

NOTE: I had to look up prothalamion: it is a song or poem celebrating an upcoming wedding, from the title of a Tudor-era poem by Edmund Spenser, written in 1596.

NOTE on MY PHOTOGRAPHS: The indigo bunting is a common bird here in south-central Kentucky. At first we thought they were bluebirds darting back and forth in front of us, but the feathers of an indigo bunting are an even more intense blue. I actually saw our first bluebirds here a few weeks ago on a fence post behind our house. [Apologies for my not owning a zoom lense–that would have enhanced these photographs.]

As you might expect by now, old home places are a recurring photographic subject of mine: the window image is from an abandoned Greek Revival farmhouse near the community of Forkland and Gravel Switch (now used to store hay and farm equipment) and the root cellar is built into a cool, shaded northern hillside across the street from it on another property. Both images were taken in May 2009.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Simple Pot Roast

Pot roast is the ultimate comfort food–serve mashed potatoes or whipped parsnips along side of it, or hearty, buttered egg noodles. Gravy made from the reduced juices is also delicious. I made this for supper last night which was the perfect ending to a winter day.

Roast beef and pot roast are among two of many reasons I probably could never become a vegetarian, even if I wanted to for ethical reasons. OK, and steak and a good hamburger, and the occasional roast lamb, too. They are also two of the dishes that I feared making properly for years. Most of us have suffered through really tough pot roast in our lives and I've certainly made a few of those myself. But I learned through trial and error–and this really fabulous and easy recipe–that the secret to making both perfect roast beef or pot roast is similar: slow and low.

Look for boneless, pink cuts of meat with lots of good marbling–that's what you want for the most tender, fork-cut pot roast.

With pot roast it's a slightly different process because you want to first braise the meat on all sides in order to start the necessary break down of the connective tissues–those great grisly bits marbled into a cheaper cut of meat (which is ideal for pot roast–you don't want anything too lean). And yet, it is similar to roast beef, too, which I like to cook quite high for about 20 minutes to sear it and form a good crust before reducing the oven temperature. This essential braising is what eventually leads to tenderizing the meat with its slow-cooking in the oven. It is also what gives a "well done" (in the flavor and texture sense of the word) pot roast its melt-in-your mouth characteristic.

You can use almost any combination of vegetables and additions to cradle your pot roast while it's cooking, but here are the basics.

I rarely use a crock pot any more but you could probably make this in a crock pot–I just can't guarantee the outcome. I fear those, too, for most varieties of slow cooking because "crock pot" pot roasts are what created my anxiety about making them in the first place: after a day of stewing, even after the requisite braising and then in the cooker on low, they were tough and awful. Fortunately, you can replicate that slow-cooker process in your own oven with even better results.

My cooking dish of preference for most things is my Le Creuset® covered dish–the medium baker, which I think is a bit more than a gallon capacity. The nice thing about Le Creuset® cookware, which is now being widely imitated, is that it's baked enamel-over cast iron finish means that it is already seasoned–and it's also easier to clean. It's my favorite pot in the house and when lidded it works like a Dutch oven. A few years ago my husband got me a starter set for Christmas at Sur la Table and I use this particular piece practically every day and for all sorts of things. [I even got one for a friend and she calls it her "magic blue pot"–and it was Edie who taught me about braising. In fact, I used up some of her Bee's Wing Farm garlic, which was a welcome gift.]

So here is the recipe for "Simple Pot Roast," from my edition of American Classics by the editors of Cook's Illustrated. It has since been updated and I've made many recipes from this cookbook, and many from a few others in my collection that they published. What you can count on from their cookbooks, like their magazines (they also publish Cook's Country, to which I subscribe), is that you know they have tested the recipes–and tweaked them–dozens of times. They also write about their methodology, and sometimes the background of a recipe and its history, in further detail which is ideal for anyone who might want more information on what went into the end results. Or you can just cut right to the well-defined recipes. I don't always like a wordy cookbook and theirs can be short on photographs, but it's like following the detailed steps of a scientific experiment while also easy to make–as long as you first do what they say and embellish on your own later.

Simple Pot Roast from American Classics
[This is the basic recipe–in true form, only broken down into more steps. It also goes on for several pages of commentary and variations, which I did not include. I highly recommend this cookbook and others from Cook's Illustrated. Here is more information about the book.]

The editors recommend chuck-eye roast. I'm not sure what our cut was but I bought it two years ago at the co-op outside of Hanover, New Hampshire and it was another "bottom of the freezer" find. I'm convinced that with double-wrapping, meat can be frozen forever and taste just as good when it's thawed.

  • 1 boneless chuck-eye roast (or any pot roast cut), about 3.5 pounds
  • salt and ground pepper
  • 2 Tbsps. vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped medium (I used a large one)
  • 1 small carrot, chopped medium (I used a 1-lb bag of baby carrots and halved them)
  • 1 small rib celery, chopped medium (I used half a bag of celery)
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced (I added more garlic)
  • 2 tsps. sugar
  • 1 cup canned low-sodium chicken broth (I used my own from the freezer)
  • 1 cup canned low-sodium beef broth
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme (I rarely have this on hand!)
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 1/4 dry red wine (I omitted this part because of time issues)
1. Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees. Thoroughly pat the roast dry with paper towels; sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.

2. Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven (see Le Crueset®, above) over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking.

3. Brown the roast thoroughly on all sides, reducing the heat if the fat begins to smoke, 8-10 minutes.

4. Transfer the roast to a large plate; set aside. [The roast might look done in this photograph but it still has to be slow-cooked in the oven. We like Penfold's Shiraz with beef and lamb dishes. You can also add shallots with your onions, which I forgot to do.]

5. Reduce the heat to medium; add the onion, carrot and celery to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and sugar; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

6. Add the chicken and beef broths and thyme, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits. Return the roast and any accumulated juices to the pot; add enough water to come halfway up the sides of the roast. Place a large piece of aluminum foil over the pot and cover tightly with a lid (this step is very important!); bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat, then transfer the pot to the oven.

7. Cook, turning the roast every 30 minutes (I don't bother with this step), until fully tender and a meat fork or sharp knife easily slips in and out of the meat, about 3.5 to 4 hours.

NOTE: At this point you can take out the vegetables and cook down the juice and transform it into your own meat gravy (much better than just the reduced juice, I think). If you don't want to add the wine, drink it while waiting or preparing the dish. I also serve the root vegetable mass on the side as there are many good cooked carrots which are too good to toss.

8. Transfer the roast to a carving board; tent with foil to keep warm. Allow the liquid in the pot to settle about 5 minutes, then use a wide spoon to skim the fat off the surface; discard the thyme. Boil over high heat until reduced to about 1.5 cups, about 8 minutes. Add the wine and reduce again to 1.5 cups, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

9. Cut the meat into 1/2-inch-thick slices, or pull apart into large pieces; transfer the meat to a warmed serving platter and pour about 1/2 cup of the sauce over the meat. Serve, passing the remaining sauce separately.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Snow Days

Eli led the way to the sleds, which surprised me as I'd forgotten all about them, and then I only had to give Henry a nudge out the door and the promise of homemade cocoa later on. Once outside they had an absolute blast. Who knows, I might even join them tomorrow!? [But I don't have a Carhartt® jumpsuit!]

Assembled winter decor on our mantel. The little log cabin came with balsam incense years ago. Our son Eli made the popsicle stick snowman in school this December and the painted outhouse was made by local artist and historic Penn's Store owner, Jeanne Penn Lane, over in Casey County, near the Forkland community and Gravel Switch. [I've blogged about Penn's Store several times in the past few years.]

I didn't realize how much I actually missed having snow around in winter until our two "snow events" in the past month. The first storm was a sloppy slushy snow which barely lasted a day but gave us about 4 inches for a brief time. The snow didn't pack on the roads and melted quickly–those kinds of storms can produce ice or a treacherous "icy mix," however. It happened a week before Christmas and just got us all into the spirit of things, especially while I was getting packages shipped off via the U.S. Postal Service's "if it ships–it fits" campaign (not only that, the packages got everywhere they were supposed to by Christmas Eve: for one price, flat rate and mailed within a week before Christmas Eve–I'm sold on that concept or maybe it was the luck and good spirit from a festive snow storm).

I bought that lit cabin a few years before we moved here–little did I know that it is a reminder of a Kentucky-style home place. The "Frosty" hat was bought at a nearby local craft store in Liberty, Kentucky. I like to pick up handcrafts whenever possible, especially for the holidays.

The past few days we've had flurries and periods of snowfall. We've also had sustained cold which guarantees that the snow will stick around a bit. While it's just barely a few inches, at least on our ridge, I now understand why they cancel school so readily down here: our ridge road is 8 miles long and it hasn't been plowed, or at least sanded or salted. Meanwhile, the state highways and parkway are supposedly fine. However, our road, more like a long driveway/lane that connects between two points of our ridge road (which makes it lovely and private), is quite hilly and treacherous right now because it has nothing on it to treat it. Our wimpy Toyota 2-wheel drive remains at the bottom of the driveway. Even our 4-wheel drive Honda Pilot is not too happy about climbing our hills with these road conditions.

Dashing past the chicken house...

The other factor about roads here is that they are usually narrow with few, if any, guard rails, let alone any shoulders for emergency breakdowns. I'm not complaining except to say that people drive way too fast in general and it's always the other guy I worry about. [Or maybe it's just advancing old age and I'm becoming more cautious.] Our neighbors and friends tell of us of heavier winters, back in their childhoods within the past fifty years, of such heavy snow fall that school would be canceled not just for a few days or a week, but often a few months. Talk about cabin fever! An ice storm hit our ridge several years ago, before we moved here, and people were without power for several weeks–the same thing happened just a bit north of us last January. It's good "in these parts" to have a full pantry and root cellar, a reliable spring, a wood stove and perhaps even a generator. [Just remember if you have a tomten or two around your farmyard to leave him some food and warm hay to keep on his good side.]

The red tin match holder was an eBay purchase a few years ago–part of the estate of a Kentucky farm and only a few dollars.

Another eBay "find" and a gift to my husband a few years ago was this Warfield cardinal, a rare catch on eBay and I was astonished at the bargain. Robert and Virginia Warfield used to carve and paint birds (he carved and she painted) in my hometown of Jaffrey, New Hampshire and became quite renowned for them. Their cardinal graces our mantel year round and I was reminded today–with a flurry of birds raiding the dog food on the back porch–that I need to get a good feeder and seed this week.

With the sustained cold for a few more days we're guaranteed that the snow will stick around a bit longer. We're making the most of our possibly brief glimpse of winter weather–a window on the old-fashioned kind of winters we used to know that aren't mixed with sleet or just damp rain for four months. It's still a great pleasure to know there are four seasons in Kentucky–but with a shorter, generally milder, winter. [But hey, remember all of those squirrels running around all fall for nuts and how cold October was here? If you believe the old-timers and folklore, which I generally do, signs were pointing to a colder, snowier winter.] PHOTO–What, you don't have a bobble-headed gnome in your home? A gift from my friend Linda a few years ago with a "Snow" ornament sent from my dear sister-in-law (the gnome is out all year).

Aunt Cynthia amidst the post-Christmas decoration pick-up. We both like to make "meany faces" at each other. Sometimes it is a guaranteed cure-all for cabin fever! [And she loves the Christmas sweater we gave her a few years ago.]

This weekend I've been (slowly) putting away our Christmas decorations. It's not that I want them lingering around but that I actually hate to pick them back up again and put them away–but once I do, it feels like a new year and a clean slate again. So, because I also enjoy some holiday decor throughout the seasons, and we are down to one mantelpiece, I decided to do an homage to winter for another month or so–OK, until the end of February. PHOTO–My sister-in-law gave me this primitive-style snowman just this Christmas (with a Cracker Barrel® gift certificate–yee ha! We all enjoyed that last weekend already) and I love it.

I have a growing collection of snow men–some vintage, some made by our children, some made locally, and some made in Occupied Japan or more recently, China. [Sometimes I wonder what I don't collect...] It was fun to redo the mantel with some lingering Christmas decorations, that didn't exactly say "Christmas" (alright, yes, two of the snow people are holding a "Noël" sign)–and that could segue well into "winter decorations." And, to be honest with you, right now it is the most orderly part of the house–so I look at that mantel and its tranquil snow scene and I think, yes, it is possible to organize things and have them in some kind of harmony around here. PHOTO–The salt & pepper snow people were $1 finds at Dollar General last Christmas. And yes, I'm not above buying cheap "junk" from China on occasion, especially if it's well made. And besides, the kids love them.

We're hunkering in for the rest of the weekend and dealing with some frozen pipes at Ida's house across the street. I'm doing a lot of cooking (I'll post some recipes tomorrow) and relaxing. I was supposed to have friends for lunch on Monday but with the freeze lasting through then, pipe stress, and the state of our driveway and lane, I decided to enact our "snow date" instead. By Martin Luther King Monday, who knows? It will likely be back in the 50s again, our winter magic put away for another time.
Some winter scenes from a vintage c. 1950s linen Christmas apron in my collection–the recent snow makes it feel like Christmas all over again.

Snow or no snow, may your days be merry and bright all the year!