Tuesday, August 25, 2009
As I've written before, for my grandmother, a survivor of the Great Depression, summer canning and preserving were as expected a part of the yearly cycle of homekeeping as spring plowing or fall planting. I still remember jelly bags hanging off of the same tree that the apples came from, dripping amber to "feed the ground." A sweet simmer of raspberries from the briars by the wellhouse perfumed the air as an apronned church woman stirred a big enamel pot on the stove. A group of women sat at the kitchen table, each perfectly preparing vegetables from their own gardens for chow-chow: Mrs. Eden's green tomatoes, Mrs. Clark's peppers, Mrs. Cross' cabbage, my grandmother's onions. To me and my tiny hands (and, unlike my siblings and cousins, thanks to my interest in doing it) fell the task of washing jars in tubs of suds and setting them to dry on racks.
I admit that I am viewing this through the lens of memory -- colored, therefore, by nostalgia -- but it seems that these women worked together instinctively. I recall no arguing, no competitiveness among them. I understand that, as I was a child, they may have shielded me from contretemps, but I really don't believe there were any. These were women who had survived long, hard times -- some on the same collective farm where my own grandmother had weathered the Depression with a husband who literally worked himself to death and three stairstep kids -- because they worked collectively. They even learned how to turn necessity, which can so easily become a chore, into an expression of positivity; practicality into hope. Every jar of tomatoes was a meal of the future, even if it was to be heated on coals and served over what was left of the white rice. Every jar of jam is a promise that things were once good, and will be good again -- so much a promise that uncapping the jar was as much a celebration of the moment as the popping of any champagne cork.
Appearing on Martha Stewart's tv show a while back, Martin Franklin, Chairman of Jarden (home of the Ball jar), mentioned that home preserving sees a spike upwards during times of economic uncertainty. Whatever other pleasures they offer, canning and preserving are fundamentally insurance against future want. But what a beautiful expression that insurance takes, for canning and preserving are also a way of preserving moments -- the moment of peak freshness, and the moment of opening the jar.
Here is the tally of this year's promise: pear and cranberry jam, apple jelly, pepper jelly, macerated cherries, tarragon vinegar, chile vinegar, dill pickles, and fennel relish. This fall, I'll make filling for Thanksgiving pies, chow-chow for relish trays, and some of the spiced apple rings that speak of another grandmother, whose stories were not of the Oklahoma dust bowl but the Pennsylvania mountains.
Friday, August 21, 2009
|photo: Eric Diesel|
Of course, the centerpiece of this trip is the great American diner. Though there's currently a vogue to view diners through the lens of kitsch, they did not seem like relics at the time. Then as now, the diner played a vital role in the community, as a place where people gathered for good food, hot coffee and discussion. The diner met, and meets, no less important a need than sharing the simple pleasures of companionship and food.
One thing you could always count on was that, whatever the regional specialty was, its ultimate expression outside of private kitchens could be found at the locus where local diner met highway traffic. Local ingredients plus local culture becomes regional cooking, and folks thereabouts like to show off their treasures. This became evident to me when I moved north to go to college, where I first encountered pepper slaw, shoo-fly pie, and spiced apple rings on the Pennsylvania roadside -- and, eventually, egg creams and souvlaki in New York City coffee shops.
Back at the Oklahoma border, every spot with a fry cook served its food with a Southwestern twist. Western omelets were towering creations alive with cheese, peppers, onions and at least two kinds of chiles. Your toast likely arrived with two choices of jelly made from local crops: apple or jalapeno. Steaks, for those fancy enough to order them, were rubbed with coffee and cayenne before being grilled. Even the wide, flat, soft chocolate cookies under the dome on the counter were spiked with a hit of chile.
|photo: Eric Diesel|
For a green chile cheeseburger, a mixture of green chiles, onions and garlic is mixed into ground beef before grilling. The chile mixture is then heaped atop the grilled burger and buried under a blanket of white American cheese. Properly, the green chiles in this burger are Hatch chiles from Hatch, NM. These are available online and, if you've the patience to await your shipment, will guarantee you the most authentic green chile burger. You can achieve a good substitute with the right combination of supermarket chiles -- smoky and sweet poblanos, hot and smooth Anaheims, and direct-hit jalapenos. The paste for my version of this burger has a hint of cilantro, which purists might decry but adds a nice zing; omit it if you prefer.
Serve your green chile cheeseburger on a toasted roll with a bit of char on the edges and mayo (if you must), a tall stack of fries and a cold cerveza crowned with a lime wedge. If you've never had a green chile cheeseburger it will be a great change for burger night at home, and if you have, maybe it will cause you to holler yippie-ki-ay!
Green Chili Cheeseburgers
This recipe makes two burgers; it can be doubled. Buy your cheese at a deli and get two hard rolls while you're at it. You can make the chile mixture in a food processor; I use a handheld blender.
One pound lean ground beef
4 large or 6 medium Hatch chiles or 2 poblano chiles, 2 Anaheim chiles and 2 jalapeno chiles
1 small onion
2 medium cloves garlic
6 slices American cheese
2 hamburger rolls
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Rinse the cilantro (you will only be using the leaf end) and set aside to drain on a double layer of paper toweling.
2. Working over a mixing bowl, pull the ground beef apart. Pre-heat a grill pan over medium heat and pre-heat oven at 200 degrees.
3. Wearing a clean pair of food-safe gloves, chop the stem end off of each chile and then slice each in half lengthwise. Remove the pith and seeds and flatten each half. Set a heat safe medium bowl beside the stovetop.
4. Spear a flattened chile with a metal skewer or fork. Turn a burner to medium-high heat and hold the chile over the flame until the chile is soft and fragrant, about one minute per side. It is okay if the skin chars. Once each chile is roasted, place in the bowl.
5. Once all of the chiles are roasted, cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
6. Remove the stem and root ends of the onions and chop to equal about 1 cup.
7. Chop the leaf ends of the cilantro to equal about 1/4 cup packed tightly. Peel garlic.
8. Add onions, cilantro and garlic to the chiles and process until they form a fragrant, minced mixture (see photo, top of post).
9. Split buns and place in oven to warm.
10. Measure out 1/3 cup green chile mixture. Mix into ground beef. Form beef into two patties. Season each patty with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
11. Grill each burger to desired degree of doneness; approximately seven minutes bottom side followed by five minutes top side for medium well. Resist the urge to press on the burger as it's grilling as this releases the juices.
12. A minute or so before serving, spoon about 1/3 cup green chile mixture on top of each burger. Top each with three slices American cheese.
13. Slide each burger onto toasted bun and serve.
Friday, August 14, 2009
I was also reminded of a necessity for every home: a sewing kit. They can be stored in a small space but they solve big problems when the need arises. My recommendation for a home sewing kit is below. Cigar boxes are a classic vessel for sewing kits, but I have seen them housed in everything from plastic storage boxes to Mason jars. I keep my sewing kit in a leather storage box deep enough to hold good scissors and shears along with the clasp envelope in which I keep fabric samples and scraps.
The sewing went so well that Carrie and her family joined us for an Italian dinner and a movie. To honor his memory, we watched a John Hughes movie. I was in college when his films hit their high water mark. This is also when I first started sewing. So if I'm hip enough to remember John Hughes, do I still sound like a maiden auntie if I suggest that, as college kids pack for school, a basic sewing kit is as important in a dorm room as it is in any other home?
Basic Sewing Kit
One pack of needles in assorted sizes
One pack of straight pins
One pack of safety pins in assorted sizes
Pin cushion or pin magnet
Thread: black, white and beige
Buttons: matched to clothes, plus a card of small white shirt buttons and one of black all-purpose buttons
Elastic: one card of thin width and one of medium width
Fasteners: one card of snaps and one of hook-and-eyes
Patches: one card in assorted fabrics to include black, navy, brown, beige and denim
To supplement this basic kit, add:
Heavyweight needles (sometimes identified as tapestry or coat needles) for mending jackets, coats and household textiles
Thread: navy, red, yellow and brown
Buttons: beige, making sure that some are heavy-duty
Finally, it is good to include a mini flashlight and either reading glasses or a magnifying glass. And don't forget to include a manual. I've written before about the Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book, but for mending and simple household purposes, the Singer Guide to Simple Mending and Repair is excellent.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
I make my martinis clean, with an exact two-to-one ratio of gin to vermouth. The recipe is below. This is a shaken martini, which results in a satiny texture; for a more strident stirred martini, build in a pitcher. I brine the olives briefly in the vermouth and include plenty of them in a glass so icy it shocks. And before you ask, remember: absent gin, it's not a martini!
Martinis for Two
For the olives
One small jar pimento-stuffed green olives
Two tablespoons dry vermouth
For the martinis
Two shots gin
One shot dry vermouth
One lemon, preferably organic
1. Set a small colander or sieve over a small bowl and drain the olives, reserving the brine.
2. Place olives into a small bowl. Add the vermouth and toss to combine. Set aside to marinate while you build the martinis.*
3. Ice down two martini glasses: place ice in the well of each glass and fill with cold water. Set aside.
4. Clean and dry the lemon. Use a zester or small paring knife to exise a strip of peel about one inch in length.
5. Empty the ice water from the martini glasses and set in freezer. Settle a few olives into the well of each glass.
6. Fill a shaker with ice. Add the lemon peel. Measure the gin and vermouth into the shaker. Place the lid on the shaker and shake vigorously -- up and down, not side to side -- until the top is too cold to touch.
7. Decant martini into iced glasses and serve.
*Note: return any unused olives to their jar with the reserved vermouth; add reserved brine to the fill line.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Wherever it came from, penne alla vodka is so simple to prepare that it is the perfect meal to end a busy day, and such a pleasure to eat that it salvages the evening. Like many boozed-up dishes, the trick is that, you shouldn't taste the vodka in the sauce. But if you omit it, you notice the difference. Some versions of penne alla vodka utilize the technique of stirring some pasta water into the sauce and some are garnished with fresh basil or fried pancetta; none of these is necessary for this version. But good vodka is: I use Absolut or Grey Goose, the standard vodkas in our home bar.
Here is my original recipe for this main dish, piquant with tomatoes and lush with cream, with a pleasant heat at the back of the throat and a gossamer gleam of vodka. As it is a rich but simple dish, respond accordingly: serve your penne alla vodka with a vibrant green salad, lots of grated Parmesean, and either a sexy red wine or -- buon appetito -- martinis.
Penne Alla Vodka
1 pound penne
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion
2 medium cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 28-ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes, preferably Italian import
1/3 cup grain vodka
1/3 cup heavy cream
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add penne and cook to al dente, approximately 12 minutes.
2. While the pasta is boiling, drizzle a three count of olive oil into a saute pan and heat on low.
3. Peel the onion and remove the root and stem ends. Halve the onion from root to stem; halve each half. Cut each quarter into crescents and then cut across the crescents to dice. Measure 3/4 cup diced onion and add to the saute pan.
4. Peel the garlic and remove the root end. Half each clove; remove and discard any sprouting from the center. Press the halves through a garlic press and add to the onion in the pan.
5. Cook until onions are soft and garlic has blonded, approximately three minutes.
6. Add the tomato paste and red pepper flakes to the onion-garlic mixture; stir to combine.
7. Add the tomatoes with their juice; bring to high heat.
8. Once the tomatoes are bubbling, add the vodka. Cook, stirring constantly, until the alcohol has evaporated and the sauce has a shiny finish, approximately one minute.
9. Turn off heat and cover pan.
10. Once pasta has cooked, drain.
11. Drizzle cream into warm sauce, stirring to combine.
12. Serve sauce over pasta.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
This photo below is affixed to a postcard-sized piece of photoboard, a common technique for memorykeeping from an era in which people kept mementos in everything from shirt pockets and jewelry boxs to cigar boxes and coffee cans. On the back is written in painstaking script the name of my grandmother (the little girl in the photo), her parents and her brothers, and the year 1900. Looking at the picture closeup, one can discern a third child peeking over my great grandmother's shoulder; too shy or hon'ry to show their face.
This is a tintype of western settlers, which from the plate quality and their dress I guesstimate to be circa 1880's. From their facial features I believe them to be my grandfather's people, but the picture is not marked, so I can't confirm that.
From these two generations came my grandmother and grandfather. This is an early homesteading picture of them. It's not dated but from my grandmother's marcelled hair and t-strap shoes, and the fact that there are no babies in the picture, I date this to circa 1927. The glazing on this photograph illustrates the good fortune of having technology to preserve these heirlooms.
It's appropriate that I'm working with old photographs today, as today would have been my oldest uncle's 80th birthday. So in honor of him, here are two pictures of him with grandmother, the first clearly marked on the back as being of him, the second which I believe also to be.
On the next Old Photograph post, I will share some more settler photos -- including some early relatives who went west to work in the movies!