food

O CHRISTMAS TREE | PINE NEEDLE + ROSEMARY SHORTBREAD

 

Ah, December—how we missed thee. 'Tis the season—a very special season—for, oh, so many reasons. When we walked into the barn and turned the calendar page to December 1st, we were greeted by the following tidbit: "the beginning of winter." Although that is not quite true, technically speaking, it sure feels like it. We have had our first snow; the fire in our wood stove burns on perpetual; and, yes, Christmas is nigh! In our family, this is cause for celebration—true, full-hearted and full-bellied celebration—all month long. Believe it or not, winter is our favorite season (as it well should be, given our Northern locale); and Christmas, perhaps more believably, is our favorite holiday.

As such, we needed to get a few things straight around here. First, we set "A Charlie Brown Christmas" a'spinning. Next, we had to get our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. We trekked over a river and through the woods, past the furthest pastures on the farm. With our trusty bow saw in tow, we searched and searched for the wimpiest pine we could find. We found it, thanked it for all of the joy it would bring into our home and for all that it had provided in the forest, and cut it down. We hauled it back through the woods, back over the river, and up the farm road to our home; and when we got there, we found that our wimpy Charlie Brown Christmas tree was still too big for our space. We trimmed it's leggy limbs until it fit just right, snuggled between our two couches. But what to do with all of those fresh, fragrant pine branches on our cutting floor? Well, 'tis the season, indeed: and if a Christmas tree was our first priority, then Christmas cookies were next in line.

Seasonal adventures call for an adventurous seasonal recipe—and was this ever. The first step was to triple check that the Eastern Hemlock tree that we cut down was not the same poisonous hemlock used to carry out Socrates' death sentence way back when in ancient Greece. It isn't. Whew. From there, our task was a bit less daunting, but no less important: figure out a way to incorporate pine needles into cookies that doesn't feel like you're just eating pine needles. Thankfully, my favorite kitchen tools—the mortar & pestle—were up to the task when the food processor was not. Our (mis)adventures continued: we melted the butter when we meant to soften it, and we froze the dough solid when we'd only meant to firm it up before slicing it into cookie-rounds. Nevertheless, these shortbread cookies—baked in the dappled light of the setting December sun (which, in Vermont, means shortly after lunch)—somehow turned out just as we'd hoped. Mildly sweet and butter smooth with a flavor befitting of the season. O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, How lovely are thy branches . . .


PINE NEEDLE SHORTBREAD
makes roughly two dozen cookies

STEPS
— preheat oven to 350
— strip pine needles and rosemary off branches
 — combine pine, rosemary, and sugar in mortar + crush with pestle until needles are fine
— in a large bowl, with a wooden spoon combine pine sugar mixture with butter, salt, and lemon
— slowly add flour to mixture, gently combining with your hands until a buttery dough ball forms
— divide dough in half and roll each into a log shape, then wrap with parchment paper and freeze for 15 minutes to firm up dough
— cut dough into small 1/2 inch thick rounds, and place 1 inch apart on a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper
— bake for 10 minutes, or until bottoms of shortbread are just barely golden
— let cool for 10 minutes before eating (if you're more patient than we were)

INGREDIENTS
1/4 c. pine needles (any edible variety; we used hemlock)
1/4 c. fresh rosemary
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. white sugar
2 tsp. lemon zest
pinch of salt
 


—M

MEDITTERANEAN PICKLED CUCUMBERS | FERMENTATION

 

If married life were a stone crock, filled slowly and methodically with the vital ingredients that eventually transform a food from raw to fermented — wholesome, nutritive, and new — then Mark and I just started chopping the cabbage that will one day, God willing, become sauerkraut. Likening marriage to sauerkraut may very well be the worst analogy I have ever conjured, but if I have learned anything in my twenties it's that you have to do whatever works. Thinking of marriage in food terms provides a measure of calm for my aching heart. As I have relied so heavily on my husband's strength of heart when I feel anything but strong, it seems the best I can do is offer food sustenance. 

The truth is I have hardly felt myself since returning from The Vacation About Nothing. The foremost thoughts that fill my brain are deep feelings of longing for my family, most especially for my sister who is becoming a nun. (At first I wrote 'feelings of loss' but quickly corrected to 'feelings of longing' because this is not death; this is not true loss). I have sobbed with abandon at night on my husband's chest, quietly wept in the middle of the work day, and cried joyful tears during moments of peace in the Mass. I know the proper words are forming in my heart and will make their way here, but today is not that day. Instead, today is a day for writing a bit about the fermented Meditteranean pickles we made a few weeks ago. They take 20 minutes to prepare and will carry you through a month in the refrigerator. No matter what the month holds, you will have pickles.

Throughout our summer blog posts, we peppered in mention of Lehman's Hardware, a truly exceptional homesteading / off-grid hardware store back home in Ohio. They sent us a 3-gallon stoneware fermentation crock for putting away food for the winter sans refrigerator. Three gallons of anything is a seriously hefty portion, so we decided to practice with a 1/2-gallon of something that would not get us sick if we screwed up. (Although, a few years ago I made a questionable batch of sauerkraut that sat on the counter for weeks and my dad still ate the whole thing in one go.). This recipe calls for the cucumbers to spend three to four days on the counter and then — once they are up to your pickled liking — place them in the fridge. You could even scale down to a pint jar if you have just one cucumber and not ten, like we did. Refrigeration acts as a preservation method rather than using a hot-water bath or pressure canning. Avoiding use of the stovetop was a very important consideration for us in the camper. An average pickle benefits greatly from zesty Mediterranean spices, something I learned from Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbook Jerusalem. Really, the world is your pickle oyster.

MEDITTERANEAN PICKLED CUCUMBERS
makes 1/2 gallon jar

INGREDIENTS
5-6 sliced cucumbers, not too seedy
1 bunch fresh dill
1 T. dried dill
1 T. dried coriander
2 bay leaves
7 cloves garlic
1 t. dried fennel
1 t. salt
6 or so cups of water, for brine

 

STEPS
—Sanitize your jar by filling it up with boiling water and allow to sit for a few minutes. Dump the water just before filling with ingredients.
—Bring water and salt to a boil. This is your brine.
—Meanwhile, fill your jar with spices first, then sliced cucumbers. I was liberal with spices, and frankly could have added more. 
—Slowly and carefully pour the brine over the cucumbers, leaving about 1 inch of headspace. 
—Set pickles out on your counter and taste one on the third day. If you want them more pickle-y, leave out for another day. Otherwise, store in your refrigerator for up to a month (or so).


 


—S

MISSING THE MIDWEST | CAST IRON CORNBREAD + HONEY BUTTER

 

At the heart of it all, we are but two Midwesterners who grew up driving by cornfields and eating cornbread made up from a box. Cornbread just may be the dish that most embodies the sprit of Americana. It is comfort food, not particularly good for you, but good for the soul. It is the kind of food that has its place at any old backyard barbecue and at Thanksgiving dinner, too. Both of us have memories of battling siblings for the last piece of sweet, sweet Jiffy cornbread. We won some; we lost some. Being that we are all grown up now, it goes without saying that we are still not above battling for the last piece. Cornbread continues to hold a place in our hearts and bellies because it reminds us of home. Comfort food has earned its name for a reason, and we are no strangers to the special power it holds as we lead our lives in a tiny camper many hundreds of miles from home. In the face of homesickness: we bake and we eat.

Last week, we wrote about how our forest shower is at the center of our camper life. What we did not say, which rings as true as ever before, is that the kitchen is at the center of our life anywhere. We have noticed a strong correlation over the years between our spiritual wellbeing and the amount of time we are spending in the kitchen cooking together, working with our hands together, and eating together. We have heard the same from several people that we admire and love. The wellness that we derive from being in the kitchen has its roots not only in the fruits of our labor, but also in the labor itself and the wares so lovingly used time and time again.

In consideration of a homesick heart, a fail-proof recipe is the best sort. Having been guilty of crying over spilled milk in the past, we knew that our day off needed to start with a well-worn recipe reminiscent of home. The sort you slice with a pocketknife and don’t bother to get your fancy dishes out for serving. We needed a recipe that, at best, can be eaten on its own en masse, and at worst can be wholly redeemed by dunking it in soup. Cornbread. We may have grown up loyal devotees to Jiffy, but these days we come back time and time again to Karen Mordechai’s cornbread recipe in Sunday Suppers: Recipes and Gatherings. She calls for high-quality cornmeal, and we call for cooking it in cast iron.

A love for cast iron is something of a learned trait, isn’t it? Your grandma used the same skillet every day for half a century, and she probably did not worry about every drop of condensation that touched it. Her skillet was an extension of her arm; an extension of her maternal nature. Best of all, the skillet probably was not Lodge or Griswold; it was just old.  (The other day, we scored a 9-inch cast iron skillet for five bucks at a garage sale, or “tag sale” as they call ‘em in the Northeast. We can’t find a brand anywhere on it, but it works significantly better than the Lodge we’ve been seasoning for years. Go figure.) We inherited the love of cast iron from our mothers, who learned it from theirs. In earnest we will spend our marriage seasoning our cast iron pans not with store-bought treatments, but with olive oil and butter and no-fail cornbread. 


CAST IRON BUTTERMILK CORNBREAD WITH HONEY BUTTER

from Karen Mordecai's cookbook Sunday Suppers: Recipes and Gatherings
A note on baking: We did not have light brown sugar, and instead used 1/8 cup white sugar and 1/2 tablespoon molasses. Use less honey if you want it slightly less sweet and a little more savory, as we did. 
We halved the recipe to fit our 9-inch skillet.

INGREDIENTS
cornbread
2 sticks unsalted butter
1/2 c. light brown sugar
1/4 c. good honey
4 large eggs, at room temp
2 c. buttermilk
1 tsp. baking soda
2 c. yellow cornmeal
2 c. all purpose flour
1 tsp. salt

honey butter
2 sticks unsalted butter
1/4 c. honey

STEPS
for cornbread
— preheat oven to 375 F. Grease a 9-inch cast iron skillet with butter.
— melt butter in a separate skillet over medium heat. stir in brown sugar and honey + remove from heat. quickly add eggs and beat until combined.
— in a cup or small bowl, combine buttermilk with baking soda. add that to the egg mixture. in a larger bowl, stir together cornmeal, flour, and salt until well blended and few lumps remain. add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients.
— pour the batter into the greased cast iron skillet and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
or honey butter
— 
mix butter and honey in a small bowl until well blended. add herbs if you'd like, or leave it as is. spread it on the warm cornbread and enjoy.


—M&S

GETTING BETTER | ON REDISCOVERING GOOD FOOD

 

For working day-in and day-out at the first level to create high-quality, delicious food for others, it would seem ironic that we, the ones working on a farm and devoting ourselves to food, have failed to eat well. But we have, or we did. It is the paradox of so many farmers we have talked with or heard from: too tired, too consumed, too overcome to prepare a good meal. In our case, we managed to spend our first month back in Vermont eating canned beans almost every night. Sometimes eating nothing until supper. Eventually, and rightfully so, our bodies and brains revolted. Sam broke down in tears, unable to pull the grain bin up the ramp—an ordinarily menial task. 

Our food did not have enough nutrition, was not very tasteful, and was not at all aligned with our life's passion and ethic. But there we were — strawberry season gone, garlic scapes almost gone, turnips and other early brassicas (Sam's favorite genus of vegetable) on their way out the door — with another ill-flavored can of black beans in our bowls.

We were decidedly overambitious. Plans of finding a full-season CSA** and foraging every other day were terribly unrealistic in the context of all that we had on our plates already. Making sure to eat breakfast would have been a better goal. The Grain Bin Incident is what we now refer to as the moment we reached 'critical mass', from which time our eating habits improved tenfold. Unsurprisingly, so did our moods and therefore our marriage. The ol' one-two punch.

Living in a camper without lights and with very limited space to move around in made cooking daunting. The prospect of reaching an arm into the back of the oven to light the pilot light, with the gas running, was sort of horrifying in itself. This camper is from 1986 and will surely blow up, we thought. So for four weeks we forwent using the oven. But Sam's self-named Pink Birthday was fast approaching, and the plan was to cook a “Mediterranean Farmstead” supper for our gang of pals—complete with a lemon olive oil cake with rosemary buttercream icing. We buckled on our proverbial boot straps and Mark lit the pilot light (his arm is fully in tact!). Conversations about nourishment of body, ecology, and economy returned. Our opinions on food are many, but the gist is this: we are incalculably privileged to research, to understand, and to eat what food we choose. It is our responsibility, then, to make good on that privilege. Eating need not be a difficult business.

So we found a CSA with a model that we could afford. Our kitchen is full of in-season produce once again. A veggie farmer taught us how to shuck and skin fava beans, but not before he had us touch the impossibly fuzzy, beautiful casing the beans rest within. Chalk that up as an experience we won't forget. Two days ago, we shared a Pennsylvania peach and proclaimed to the heavens that this, the first peach of the whole year, was glorious and worth the wait. Mark cracked open tins of tomato paste from Greece, a can of imported San Marzanos that we found at our local grocer, and cooked an exceptional shakshuka with eggs from the farm. This is what we call our “Mediterranean Farmstead" way of eating, where culinary aspects of our homes near and far coexist.

On the subject of canned versus “fresh” foods, we believe whole-heartedly in opting for a quality canned tomato over one that was harvested too soon. Quality canned goods preserve freshness — and preserving bounty has been the modality for staying alive for millenia. This is in contrast to the black beans we were buying, which were stripped of nutrients and merely a means to an end: becoming full. Good food knows no category. There are good canned foods, and bad ones. There are good fresh foods, and bad, not-actually-fresh ones (think corn in the winter). In partnership with Lehman's Hardware, who has generously supplied us with the tools needed, we are in the midst of embarking upon a few age-old food fermentation projects. The plan is to put up the summer bounty in order to make it through winter a little more color on our plates (many blog posts to come!).

As Pink Birthday came around, so too did the comforting feeling of full coffers and full stomachs. If we have learned anything at all, it is that we should listen to our stomachs; go with our guts. In a world where food is analyzed endlessly—where butter and eggs are bad for you one day and good for you the next—it seems that we would be better off to acknowledge that there are few hard-and-fast rules that apply to us all. Good food could be any food that makes you feel good and sustained; that which gives you sustenance and allows for your body and mind to function in good health. On certain mornings that looks like farm fresh eggs cooked over-easy in a cast iron skillet sizzling with butter, while on others it is strained, full-fat yogurt — always full-fat for us — with a drizzle of raw honey and a topping of dried dates. So goes it and so go we: in search of good food, as producers and consumers. In the words of our favorite Liverpudlians, "It's getting better all the time."

**Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is a partnership whereby the consumer pays an upfront sum to the farmer, who uses your money to invest in necessary growing supplies: seeds, equipment, irrigation, etc. In return, the consumer receives a hefty amount (typically weekly) of what the farmer was able to harvest that week. By investing in the farm directly, you commit to the ups and downs of the farm (one week might be an exceptional harvest, while the next is awash from drought). CSA is a model of farming that sustains so many farms that otherwise could not exist, and it allows the consumer to truly impact their local farming economy and know exactly where their food is coming from. It is a partnership that greatly benefits both sides. To find what CSA farms are in your region, try here.


—M&S