Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spring Moons

When my daddy bought a few acres of land adjoining his property a few years back,  you’d have thought he’d finalized The Louisiana Purchase for all the plans we started hatching.  Aside from an idea to expand our existing vegetable garden, we now had ample room for several varieties of fruit trees, berry brambles, a huge herb garden and several flower beds.  Except for the traditional vegetable patch, we only had to plant once to reap rewards for years to come, but we had to be patient - especially when it came to the asparagus.

We prepared one small bed as neither of us had before planted it.  We ordered one-year old crowns to put into soil and had to wait two entire years before enjoying our first harvest.  We reasoned that the crowns should produce for twenty years - plant once and reap for twenty years? - surely following the planting and maintenance instructions would be worth the wait.  But we quickly learned that the hardest thing about growing asparagus is the waiting.

We found it difficult to resist cutting the slim, emerald-green shoots that popped up during those two years.  Well, they looked ready to eat - like spring itself all crisp and pristine, each stalk its own tiny and perfect monument.  But we waited.  And then we waited some more.  Now my daddy would have me believe that he never snapped one of those stalks before its time, and I’d have my daddy believe that I’d done as good a job of following the rules.  That said,  I know for a fact that raccoons don’t carry pocket knives and that their teeth won’t clip a tender shoot at a clean 45-degree angle.  We avoided telling the truth better than we left those first asparagus spears alone.  We liked them so much that we quickly decided to put in another, much larger bed of it.

When shopping for the new crowns to plant, I was thrilled to find that a small family farm in Michigan sold two-year old crowns online for less than I paid first go-’round.  We’d only have to wait one year before harvesting.  We then planted an asparagus bed roughly twice the size of our first.  As we already had the first bed from which to harvest, surely we’d be able to avoid pilfering the newest one for a scant year.  We watched with great anticipation as that bed filled with delicate ferns in fall, red berries weighing down its tall, fragile wisps of green until the first cold snap reduced it to a tangled nest which we’d clean up early the following year.

Spring is a busy time for us and daddy frequently hires a few extra hands for the trimming and mowing of his property.  There are several such men he calls on to help him out.  They usually have two names - the first by which everyone knows them and the second being their real name that no one quite recalls.  Southerners have a deadly accurate habit of nicknaming people so the most commonly-called name is usually the one that suits best.  I won’t go too far into my own speculations about the reasons Southerners like to put their own brand on everything, but my point is how Cosmo showed up to lend us a hand one morning.

Now Cosmo’s a hard worker who doesn’t own a belt.  He’ll tackle just about any task you set before him and be done with it by lunchtime.  If you don’t get all sidetracked with speculation over how he got his name, his gritty zeal is something to behold.  It was with this robust sense of enthusiasm that he took a weed whacker to both asparagus beds already offering up their tender spears before we even knew he’d finished.  I had a few more names for him after that.

some things
better imagined -
full moon

This recipe can easily be tweaked to a lower-fat version by substituting with the ingredients appearing in italics but don’t you dare ever call it by anything other than its proper name.

Not Cosmo’s Asparagus Casserole

roughly 2 pounds (.45 kilos) fresh asparagus
6 tablespoons (86 grams) butter (6 tablespoons margarine)
4 tablespoons (57 grams) all-purpose flour
1 cup (237 ml) heavy cream (1 cup non-fat half and half)
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
2 cups (.45 kilos) day-old bread, cubed
1 cup (.23 kilos) coarsely-crumbled butter crackers
½ cup (.115 kilos) freshly-grated parmigiano-reggiano

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (approximately 176-7 Celsius).  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  While bringing the water to a boil, prepare the asparagus by holding each spear with both hands, gentling bending at its bottom half where it finds a natural snapping point.  Discard the harder, fibrous ends.  Cut asparagus into bite-sized pieces (not too small!) and cook it in the boiling water until just softened.  Remove the cooked asparagus and reserve a cup of the water.

Make a roux by melting 4 tablespoons butter (or margarine) in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat.  Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes.  Whisk in reserved asparagus water, then add the cream (or half and half), stirring constantly until smooth and thickened.  Add a few pinches of paprika, then season to taste with salt.  Assemble the cooked asparagus, eggs and sauce in layers in a medium-sized casserole dish, ending by smoothing sauce over the casserole’s top.  In a medium-sized bowl, toss bread cubes, cracker crumbs and cheese until well-blended.  Scatter this mixture over the top of the asparagus casserole and dot with remaining butter (or margarine).  Bake until golden, about 25-30 minutes.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Comfort Food Craze

Comfort Food - two words that have become the catch phrase for selling food magazines.  While waiting in line to pay for a few groceries at the supermarket the other day, I counted four magazines using the term “Comfort Food” on their covers. After reading Taste of Home Comfort Food, Cooking Light Comfort Food Classics, Southern Comfort Food and Soups and Stew Comfort Food, I must admit that I fell under the spell of those two words and nearly added a bit of reading material to my shopping cart. The sheer cost of the magazines jolted me out of my reverie. After all, the cost of one of those magazines can buy a lot of pasta, rice and beans.

But how do you define Comfort Food? I’d like to hear from you. What do you consider to be a Comfort Food? For me, it’s a bowl of homemade chili with a side of cornbread in the winter. In the summer I would consider a tomato sandwich (with mayo and black pepper), a slice of watermelon or a bowl of homemade ice cream to be comfort foods. defines Comfort Food as “Food that is simply prepared and associated with a sense of home or contentment.” The validity of that definition became apparent to me the other day after I sent a picture of cornbread, mustard greens and pinto beans I'd prepared to a friend who had recently taken a job in Kauai. My friend jokingly scolded me when he replied to my email, stating that the picture made him long for home and that it was no longer possible for him to hop in a car and drive a short distance to taste his mother’s homecooked meals. Perhaps we’ve found Comfort Food of the highest calibre at mother’s and, yes, even grandmother’s table!

The following is a basic crock pot roast recipe. There are many variations to be found on the Internet these days. I offer it here to my friend who resides on a speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and to anyone who would claim that they have no cooking skills. Share this simple, tasty meal with friends or family and your reputation as one who can prepare Comfort Food will grow.

Basic Crock Pot Pot Roast

2 to 3 lbs. pot roast
2 stalks celery (sliced)
1 large onion (sliced)
2 medium potatoes (halved then quartered)
2 carrots (sliced)
1 cup beef broth (water will do)
1 package of onion soup mix

Pour the broth or water into the crock pot. Add the pot roast. Pour the package of onion soup mix onto the roast, spreading it evenly. Add the vegetables. Cook on low for about 7 hours. Serve over rice or with a biscuit.

I paid half price the other day for a two pound pot roast that was set to expire in two days. Using the above recipe, my daughter and I enjoyed several meals out of that pot roast.

I’ll close with this prose piece that was originally published in the November 2009 issue of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

Southern Legitimacy Statement #3

You never formed sentimental attachments to live stock on the farm—dogs, cats, even a mule was okay, but be careful about making a pet of chickens or cattle, anything of that order. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way. I was seven at the time, but a big boy for my age. My family and I had gathered around the supper table to indulge in the delights of one of Momma’s home cooked meals. I had just forked my second sausage patty (for it was not unusual to have breakfast for supper or supper for breakfast, you ate what was available) when it suddenly occurred to me to inquire as to the whereabouts of my pet pig, Sparky, a scrawny little thing that I’d adopted, helped feed, and watched grow into a massive 500 pound hog. Sparky had been missing for a couple of days, which wasn’t unusual as he had an annoying habit of breaking out of his pig pin. Daddy and I had trudge the hills and hallows of Western Rockingham County on more than one occasion, in mud, rain, and sometimes snow looking for that pesky hog. Most of the time we’d find him waiting for us when we returned home, snorting and grunting for something to eat. I’d have inquired about my missing hog sooner, but I’d been preoccupied, of late, with a tree-climbing, freckled-faced, red-headed girl what lived down the road. (Trying to keep up with that girl sure worked on a fellow’s appetite—but I digress.) So, amidst the clatter of forks, spoons, and plates, I put the question to Daddy, “Have you seen, Sparky?” says I, during a lull in the dinner chatter.

“Why yes, son,” says Daddy, looking over his glasses, “I saw him recently.”

“Is he nearby?” I asked, dipping another spoonful of tomato gravy onto my plate.

“Yep,” says Daddy, “as a matter of fact, there’s a sizable chunk of him on the end of your fork.”

Peeing on an electric fence couldn’t have jolted me more than the impact of Daddy’s words. The table fell silent, except for a slight snicker from my oldest buck-toothed sister, Essie, who enjoyed tormenting me whenever the opportunity arose. I stared at my fork, gravy dripping off the remains of my pet pig, wondering if I was looking at the end that snorted or the end I wanted to kick whenever he broke out of the pin. My heart sank… …right into the pit of my ravenous stomach.

“Dang it,” says I, taking another bite of Sparky, “I reckon he had it coming.”

Comfort food can sometimes offer unexpected surprises. ;)

Y’all have a great week!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Waste Nothing

Bones. They make me nostalgic. Strange? Probably. But they remind me of times when I was forced to be more frugal and resourceful. When there was no money for cable television, there was a wealth of conversation or time for reading, solitary contemplation and discovery. When gasoline expenses soared and I opted to stay at home, I found myself spending time with family and neighbors (yes, you’re reading this online...go offline when you’ve finished reading this! It’s where real life happens). Bones and spare times take us to where souls and their expressions most creatively reside. Almost anyone reading this article can name a point in their personal lives when times got a bit financially tight - when you ate leftovers a few more times than you preferred, if you even knew with certainty that your next meal was indeed assured. Such times leave us with a confidence that we can endure another round of paltry circumstances should they occur. They leave us feeling empowered and happy for the lasting it all out. And they certainly serve as a long-lasting reminder of the definition of waste (read here as “don’t!”).

 Bones. What’s left when the meat is gone. All that remains when the energy is seemingly spent. But bones are still capable of providing sustenance and a tasty round at that. Now imagine my delight on a recent grocery trip when I found a 7 pound hen priced at $5.50 USD! The bird’s freshness was set to expire a scant 2 days from my date of purchase, and would have frozen well for later use, but I had more immediate plans for it. The temperatures were frigid and I had no homemade chicken soup on hand - a must in this household. My point here is not the meat on that chicken...nor the soup I eventually made from it. It’s the bones and what I did with them that matters and how my food dollars stretched their legs like a thoroughbred.

 I’m relatively sure that a few readers at this point may deem my frugality in cooking a bit overzealous and simple. If you’re a “foodie”, then will you give me a bit more credit if I tell you that Saveur Magazine’s March 2012 issue features an article on bones and what to do with them? Bones make stock. Stock is the backbone of countless recipes - not just soup. I keep quart-sized plastic containers on hand precisely for the purpose of freezing various kinds of broth for future use.

 To begin, always roast bones before tossing them into a stockpot. Rub them with a bit of oil before putting them into a roasting pan and then into a hot oven (400 degrees F/roughly 204 degrees C) unless you’re using duck bones which are fatty enough on their own. If you’d like for your stock to have a roasted garlic flavor, remove as much paper as possible from a garlic head, trim the pointed end of each clove with a paring knife, and throw it into the roasting pan along with the bones. The longer you roast the bones, the darker your resulting stock will be. When bones look a bit charred and dark, remove all from the oven and deglaze your pan with some water, scraping the bottom of the pan to remove the clingy brown bits. Transfer all contents to a stockpot, squeezing the now molten garlic cloves into the mix (discard papery garlic remains) and cover everything with water. Bring the pot and its contents to medium-high heat slowly, skimming off any foam and reduce the heat to simmer for a few hours. If you want to salt your stock, now’s the time to do it or to add herbs if you want. If desired, one can add chopped vegetables. Simmer for another hour or so, then ladle stock into containers, avoiding sediment at the bottom of the pot. If you have cheese cloth on hand, lining a large colander with it and capturing the broth without the sediment makes the task easier. Fat in the stock will rise to the top of your containers once frozen, and is easy to remove with a paring knife should you prefer a low-fat version. 

Here is a senryu by fellow Frugal Poet, Curtis Dunlap.

All Hallows’ Eve
a blues man dances
to the rhythm of bones

Curtis was inspired to write his short poem after watching Dom Flemons, a musician with The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Flemons often employs the use of bones in his music.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Regional Food Quirks

Banana, mayonnaise and black pepper sandwiches, pouring a bag of peanuts into a bottle of cola, a slice of fresh cornbread eaten with an onion pulled from the garden, spreading grape or strawberry jelly over a sausage biscuit. The quirky things we consume, sometimes in odd combinations, are less of an oddity to people raised in regions where it is acceptable to mix and devour what would appear -- to non-regional folk -- a mishandling of edible delectables.

I posted recently on my Facebook page that I was enjoying a bag of salted peanuts that I’d poured into a bottle of Dr. Pepper, catching and consuming the occasional peanut while I drank. Yes, I know, not groundbreaking news, but my friends in and around the state of North Carolina understood the treat I’d given myself, while my friends in other parts of the nation and the world thought I’d lost my southern mind.

A friend with whom I’d discussed the topic of this column told me recently that he had an out-of-state visitor leave his kitchen because she could not bear to watch someone eat a banana, mayonnaise and pepper sandwich.  

But are we fundamentally that different in some of the foods we eat? Eager to try something I’d never had before, I once ordered scrapple at a diner in Delaware only to taste what we call liver pudding in North Carolina.

What regional foods or unlikely combinations of foods are acceptable cuisine in your area? Have you had someone look at you like like you’d wiggled out of a restraining jacket because of something you were eating? If so, I’d like to hear from you. Leave your responses below or email your food oddities to Perhaps I’ll sample your regional food quirk.

I’m a peanut nut. The local Dollar General store is the cheapest place to buy peanuts in my town. Here's the way I do spicy peanuts.

Wasabi Peanuts

3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons wasabi sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 to 2 teaspoons garlic powder
6 to 8 ounces unsalted peanuts

Pour everything except the peanuts into a sealable container. Shake the container vigorously until all the ingredients are well blended. Add peanuts to the container and shake again to thoroughly coat the peanuts.

Lightly grease a baking pan. Pour the peanuts into the pan; scatter evenly. Bake in 300 degree heated oven for 10 minutes, remove, stir and bake for another 10 minutes.

Ode to the Peanut

Oh lowly pea
masquerading as a nut!
What power
you have over me!

Salty, spicy, bland...
smoothed into butter
slathered in my hand
(if there’s no bread around).

Had I been Eve,
I would’ve chosen you
my diminutive tasty morsel
and not
that pretentious juicy apple!

(With apologies to my Frugal Poet pal, Susan Nelson Myers, who posted an apple butter recipe last week.)