Gardens


The day before, I’d started a no knead bread recipe, as it’s the easiest bread that I can make that doesn’t test my patience. I’d gotten some sunflower seeds from work, and added a little bit of pumpkinseed oil to the mix. The bit of sugar from the oil and seeds, in addition to the perfect bread rising temperature inside the apartment, leavened the bread to more than double size faster than anticipated. Into the oven on the hot day it went, as did a flatbread with caramelized onions and chickpea flour. A little tomato sauce topped the flatbread, and it was set aside for cutting into wedges after cooling.

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Another thing I’d started the night before was the dessert. A big hit with everyone, and one again something that requires surprisingly little technical effort, is a profiterole. I made a choux pastry with eggs, flour, water, and butter. Half of it was given the sweet treatment, to be served with cherries reduced in a bottle of Coca Cola. To the other half, I added grated cheddar for savory gougeres. As the time ticked closer to service, I realized that cherries and cream puffs wouldn’t be enough, so I set out with a recipe for a simple semifreddo, semifrozen ice cream. No churning needed.

I didn’t want anything too complex. All I wanted was something that would be light and complimentary. The recipe was simple enough. Whipped Cream, Whipped egg yolks with sugar and vanilla, and whipped egg whites. Fold them together, and freeze in a mold. Slice and serve when set, after about three hours.

Let me pause for a moment to let you in on a couple of key points. I have a hand blender, which works well for 95 percent of the things for which I use it. It purees my sauces, makes smoothies, and whips cream exquisitely. What it positively does not do well is whip egg whites. This is due to a couple factors: 1) Human Error. PROTIP- When you are whipping egg whites, you cannot stop. You cannot add sugar at the wrong moment, or they won’t set. You shouldn’t use a glass bowl, for they don’t have sides that promote the egg whites creeping up the sides as you whip, falling into soft or stiff peaks. You can’t have even a tiny hint of egg yolk in there, or they won’t whip. Did I know any of this before I began?

No. This is why my first attempt failed. This is why I don’t enjoy patisserie. Try again? Okay. This time, (Ugh) by hand.

After looking up the best way to whip egg whites, (use a wire bulb whisk), I cleaned and dried my bowl, and separated five more egg whites into my bowl. I added a splash of white vinegar as recommended, as I didn’t have any cream of tartar lying around. I whipped. Slowly at first, and then gradually with more speed until my arm was about to fall off.

In the kitchen, this is when having a mom around comes in handy.

“Mom, my arm is about to fall off!” I yelped from the kitchen.

“Okay, just let me know when you want to switch,” she replied calmly from the couch, not missing a word in the book.

At this point, about five minutes in, my forearms felt like, to use a comparison of Olympic size, the arms of a tired kayaker. It was starting to be downright unpleasant.

In comes mom to bat cleanup. Why is it that moms can accomplish things with far more accuracy and precision than we can? The difficult things. Like whipping egg whites. Two minutes, and she had it to stiff peaks. We folded in the remainder of the sugar, and then incorporated all our parts together for the resulting semifreddo, which was then put into the freezer.

When the last of our party finally arrived after delays at the airport, my lady, her mom, her aunt, and our traveling companion from Martha’s Vineyard, we were ready with dinner. The bread was still fresh from the oven, the chickpea flatbread had cooled and was dressed with the tomato sauce, the caprese salad was attractively arranged on the service platter, and the soup, finally chilled, was ladled into tiny espresso cups and garnished with sungold tomatoes and a parsley oil float ringing a single leaf of Italian parsley procured from the neighbor’s plant.

Bottles of wine were opened, hugs exchanged, and we were able to finally relax in each other’s company, ready for a fulfilling week of excursions, museums, food, family, and friendships both old and new.

This week has been a whirlwind of activity. I’ve had some great meals, and certainly done some things that have I’ve been personally impressed with in the kitchen. Things in the kitchen come about because of a desire and a need to come up with something that will taste good and also feed a crowd.

As I mentioned in my last post, two mothers came to town this last Wednesday. My mom came down for the day from Madison to Chicago, and in preparation, she called up and asked what she could bring.

“I have some wonderful vegetables from my garden, including three beautiful Cherokee Purple tomatoes that you gave me. I could bring those, and some fresh mozzarella, and some sweet corn, and some…”

The list went on. She ended up bringing down all the above, as well as fresh chard from her garden, which I used in a frittata this morning, some herbs that I made into oils, some beautiful edible nasturtiums, and a lovely little basil plant. The hit, of course, were her tomatoes.

A couple of months ago, through the G.E.E.E. project at Hyde Park Art Center, we picked up a few red solo cup tomato plants, and sent one home with my sister for my mom to transplant in her garden. Planting it in her garden, she recently harvested the first bounty of three gigantic tomatoes from the plant. Where ours have languished in the off and on heat from the summer, her transplants have flourished and provided us with a fresh and delicious caprese salad that we enjoyed on her visit.

As she sliced into the tomatoes, I heard a gasp. I ran over to see if she had cut herself, as she’s used to knives much less sharp than those in my kitchen (her words, not mine). No, it wasn’t that. Looking at the first slice of tomato was a glorious sight. I marveled as slice after slice peeled off from the fruit, and I snacked on the top, sweet and juicy like a tomato should be.

We cooked in the kitchen for a couple hours. She paused to read a little bit, and joined me in shucking a dozen ears of corn that she had brought down from a friend’s local farmstand. The day was hot, in the 90s as it had been all week, and as we had a few hours to kill before the rest of our party came over, I figured I’d have some time to make a chilled sweet corn soup.

Good sweet corn is one of the best things you can have during the summertime. From the first time this season that I had a sweet corn broth this summer on Martha’s Vineyard, I wanted to continue celebrating the simple flavor of the season with little complication.

Rather than boil the corn and serve it on the cob, I sliced the kernels off the cobs, and then simmered the cobs themselves for 45 minutes in water. In a separate pan, I put some onions in to sweat with a bit of salt and pepper, and added a splash or two of white wine to bring out the aromas.

When the cob broth was producing a fragrance of its own, I removed the cobs and threw twelve ears worth of kernels into the pot. After a minute or two, really all the cooking that corn needed, I pureed it, and then strained out the matter directly over the onions.

I checked the clock. About two hours until everyone arrived. Reserving the corn matter for a later dish of fritters, I turned the heat of the large stockpot to high, and did the quick reduction method between two pots. After the giant ball of steam died down from the first transfer, I pureed then strained the now floral broth back into the sizzling saucepan and let it reduce for about twenty minutes until it was ready for a mounting of butter and addition of salt and pepper.

Tasting it when it was warm, I got a sweet, candylike flavor, but I also got the simple flavor of buttered popcorn. I poured it into a vessel to chill and let it sit in the fridge until the remainder of our dining party arrived.

One of the things that I love about travelling and meeting new people is that within each new acquaintance, I strive to find something familiar as a jumpoff point to build or build upon a relationship. That concept is nothing new. First impressions give root to the blossoming idea that a minute coincidence could instantly form a positive bond between new faces. Something familiar only serves to comfort both parties, whether it be a warm reception or a token of welcome to this new experience. When I travel home, and I’m sure it’s the same with many if not all of us, I want to have something familiar. The best thing I can hope for is that I can go home, head to the kitchen, open the fridge, and find a sandwich with my mother’s bread. I know it’s there. All I have to do is dig around in the freezer if it isn’t there at first glance.There’s turkey, and cheese, and fresh lettuce, and tomatoes “from our garden”, she’d always say. I’d make that sandwich, and eat it. With great relish. (Seriously, there are piccalillies and sundry condiments of all kinds when and where I want them). That is the sentiment that I enjoy- being able to sit down and enjoy a slice of comfort.

When we got off the plane last August on our trip to Connecticut, and made our way through the winding maze of neverending, oxymoronic terminals at LaGuardia, I was to keep an eye out for the parental units as a secondary lookout. The lady was on her phone, and I was in a permanent state of eye-peeledness searching the baggage claim area for a somewhat familiar yet heretofore unrecognized face.

Eventually, the connection was made, hugs and introductions were exchanged, and we were soon on our way to the commuter lot for the drive back up to the Northwest corner of Connecticut. In the foremost sense, this was already a pleasant positive, as I genuinely appreciated the effort put forth to make the trek down to meet us at the gate. When we got back to the car, I was even more at ease, as from within a lunchbox, the mistress of the house produced sandwiches.

Sandwiches. Sandwiches and grapes. There was a cheese sandwich for their daughter, and a turkey sandwich for me. The house is mostly vegetarian, and as I found out when we made it all the way back up to the homestead, at least 15 to 20 minutes of a country drive from the nearest Grocery store. That’s why the turkey tasted extra fine.

And there were tomatoes. The sandwich was on a thick, crusty hoagie roll, and it was just right. After a solid day’s travel on the plane, it hit the spot.

Suspicious dog is Suspicious

Back at the homestead, I got the grand tour. A lovely country home on a lane tucked back from the world, a recently installed flagstone pond, and the familiar, well-manicured yet more natural than simply ornamental garden similar to one that I’d find in my own mother’s backyard. As we had escaped the oppressive heat of Seattle (103 degrees on the day of departure), the weather was fantastic. Not too hot, not too cool, and idyllically sunny. I took my shoes off and walked around the yard. There was a curious dog following us with a suspicious look on his face. He was pretty alright in the end.

We scoped out the flower patches, watching the bees in full swing, flitting from bloom to bloom. We ducked under the fruit trees and between the raised vegetable beds. There were red and green lettuces, upside down tomato plants, wily stems of two-foot tall garlic, broccoli, and a bit further down, running along the property line were bushes of raspberries.  It was far enough out of any town, without cellphone reception, I might add, to be considered a place where far away from the everyday summer affairs of the market, I could relax.

Where normally, I would have an avenue two patio bricks wide in front of my icy yet fragrant fish case to traipse back and forth on any given afternoon at the market, there was so much space. The air was clean, and there were no constant blasts from the ferry terminal to alert me to the time of day. It was just right.

That evening, all hands were in the kitchen. We were all busy chopping vegetables, fixing up the cheese, putting the chiffonade on the basil while our grillmaster, Lord of the manor, was outside firing up the grill. We brewed up a pitcher of iced tea with a quick trip to the garden for some fresh mint, made a lovely salad, and sat down on the deck to enjoy pizza on the grill.

Curry Favor and Flavor with a Favorite Curry!

Over the course of the next ten days, we had a few memorable food experiences in the kitchen. We prepared a birthday dinner for our Connecticut hostess with one of our own house standby dishes, curried shrimp with caramelized fennel and pears. With it, we had a lovely bottle of wine, and for those of us who liked potatoes, (and really. Who doesn’t?), we had a delicious dish of layered thinly sliced potatoes and shredded romano cheese, baked in the oven until crispy and golden brown. If you think it sounds delicious, you’re right. It was. It was so delicious that we ate it all.

When relatives came into town for a day or two, with the cheese curds I brought from the Market and fresh basil from just out the back door, we made fresh mozzarella and rotolo with a mother and aunt, which we took the next day to a family gathering on Long Island. There were three ladies and me. As with my own aunts and mother, there was much giggling, sisterly in-jokes, and singing of familiar girl group tunes late into the night.

We made our way down to Long Island the next day, where I met the rest of the aunts and uncles. Our host, Tommy, immediately cracked the cooler and tossed me a beer. Greg, brother number two, introduced himself at the window of the car, swooping in for the Italian Long Island hello, as he put it. Lisa was soon after to show, accompanied by three smiling kids, beachcombing gear, and soda.

We sat around on the porch as the rain rolled in, and retired to the living room as the uncles went out to get some more food. We sat and ate chips and listening to Billy Joel and Bon Jovi blast through the speakers, watching the Yankee game with newly minted AL East powerhouse and former Milwaukee Brewer C.C. Sabathia on the mound. Another something familiar and simultaneously new, the known face in a new uniform.  Ten minutes later, in came the uncles with armloads of food. Eggplant parmesan, grinders, pizzas, an ice cream cake, and meats. Cold cuts. Sandwich fixings.

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Garlic Spears in the Garden

So the lady is out there right now, doing all of those wonderful things, I am sure. Hanging with the family, eating delicious food, enjoying the sunshine, and I have to wait just about a week to go out and meet her. I’m looking forward to the time off from work. This year, we visit two months earlier than last year. I have an entirely new crop of things to look forward to. To the right is a picture that was taken this morning from the garden. If I can make it happen, I’m going to cook with those fresh garlic spears. I don’t know what, just yet, but when I do, I’ll let you know.

Yep

And below is what I have to look forward to greeting me on the morning I arrive. Maybe she’ll bring sandwiches.