Sunday, June 24, 2012

Confluence and Contemplation

In this week of summer’s solstice, Papa’s garden is rolling along precisely according to his plan - like an avalanche.   I spend an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen in the summertime preparing meals with the freshest ingredients we’ll enjoy all year and preserving our garden’s bounty for the coming winter.  At this point I am having an unhealthy degree of difficulty conjuring something innovative to do with produce despite having loads of recipes and years of thinking outside the box to nudge my elusive kitchen muse into action.  Maybe she evaporated right along with the heavy steam coming off of that last cauldron of boiling vinegar on my stovetop.  It’s possible she abandoned me somewhere after the mountains of spinach gave way to endless heaps of broccoli which then, Lord help me, gave way to a seemingly constant stream of zucchini and yellow squash.  She might have fallen into either of the two 6-gallon earthenware crocks of pickles sitting in their brine baths in a corner of my kitchen.  And now the banana peppers have decided to ripen all at once?

Yes, being able to enjoy such an overabundance of good food first requires one heck of a lot of work and some imagination, but I actually enjoy it.  My mind finds ample opportunities to wander when I’ve committed to slicing several gallons of cucumbers, making the same repetitive motions for a few hours straight.  And though my mind can traipse some entirely pointless paths at times, I sometimes find a few things on such mental walk-abouts.  For instance, while sorting and washing a colossal cache of banana peppers I mulled over two words - confluence and contemplation.  I first thought of the two terms as existing independently of each other entirely but pretty quickly decided that they provide balance when considered cohesively.  Confluence describes a coming together of two or more things and, at least for me, prompts a mental image of tension before an eventual peaceful and productive coexistence (two rivers colliding to become one).  I regard contemplation as requiring focus but also as providing a certain serenity for going to the trouble (sitting just a bit downriver of the confluence).  And it was precisely at this epiphanous moment that my muse reappeared, thumping my skull with her knuckle and chiding  “Are you still trying to figure out what to do with all those peppers? Make mustard.  You’ve already pickled everything that ain’t nailed down in this kitchen.” 

And just like that, she was back!  My muse and I butt heads often; our union is frequently a tug of war.  But I’ve learned that she plays by her own rules...and usually wins.

Muse Mustard

40 banana peppers, stems removed
4 cups prepared yellow mustard
3 cups white sugar
1 cup honey
*5 jalapeno peppers, seeded
1 cup water
4 cups apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons salt
2 cups brown sugar
1 bulb garlic, cloves peeled and minced
*5 jalapeno peppers, unseeded
1 cup all-purpose flour

*Note:  Add more jalapeno peppers if you like your mustard like Curtis likes his women - hot and spicy!

Remove the seeds from the banana peppers and place them into a blender or food processor.  Add seeded and unseeded jalapeno peppers and minced garlic.  Process until smooth.  Pour into a large heavy pot and stir in the mustard, sugars, vinegar, honey and salt.  Bring to a hard boil which cannot be stirred down.

Whisk together the flour and water until smooth in a medium-sized bowl.  Whisk in one cup of the boiling mustard mixture, whisking until completely smooth and add it back to the pot of boiling mustard.  Continue to boil, stirring constantly for 5 minutes.  Pour into sterile pint jars and seal with new lids and rings.  Process in a boiling water bath for 5-10 minutes. 

And finally, a poem gifted to me by my muse while watching my daughters in kayaks last weekend. 

oars in tandem
water lapping
at their differences

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Mentor Stops By

Last month I sat in Susan’s living room talking poetry with her and her daughter Deedee. I commented that Paul MacNeil, one of the editors of The Heron’s Nest, a haiku journal, would soon migrate north from his home in Florida to his cabin along the shores of Onawa Lake in Maine. Paul spends summers there enjoying his beloved cabin by the lake, writing poetry, entertaining family and friends before migrating back to Florida when autumn’s chill sets in.

I’ve known Paul for over a decade (thru email correspondences) and I’ve had the good fortune to meet and talk with him a couple of times, once at a Haiku Holiday and then at a Haiku North America conference. Paul is an excellent conversationalist with a great sense of humor. He has also become a great friend and mentor, instructing me in the fine art of haikai no michi (The Way of Haiku).

When I commented that it would be nice to see Paul again, Susan spoke-up and said, “Why not invite him to stop by on his way to Maine?” I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of inviting Paul to Mayodan sooner. Entertaining family and friends is something that I’ve wanted to do since I became a resident of Poet’s Cottage. What a great idea! I thought. I hurried home and sent the following email:


Susan and I are wondering if you'll come thru NC anytime soon?

Bottom line, want to sip moonshine and stay a day or two?

Can you find Mayodan? ;-)

To which Paul replied a few minutes later: 

Dear Scottish Bro,

Getting your latest recipe, I was putting the final edit on one.  This very evening!
Great minds?

I am heading north in June and will consider when I get a narrower time frame.  Big thanks for the invite to visit you and Susan.

- Paul

recipe to follow

With a little cellphone assistance in navigating Mayodan’s three stoplights Paul arrived at Poet’s Cottage on June 9th. Upon his arrival, The Heron’s Nest editor gifted Susan and me two bottles of wine and copies of The Onawa Poems 1999-2008, an anthology of haiku and renku with poems by Paul and the numerous visitors to his home in Maine.

Here are a few poems from the anthology:

summer haze
a long wake curls ashore
lifting a frog

    --Paul MacNeil

short night
loon calls echo
our laughter

    --Yu Chang

long days
the wild roses
glow at dusk

    --Hilary Tann

we tolerate the heat
with the help of
a single malt

    --John Stevenson

Susan and I wanted to entertain our friend The Frugal Poet way. I made southern style biscuits and gravy for Paul on Sunday morning and Susan, well, my phenomenal cooking sensei prepared one of the best meals I think I’ve had the pleasure of eating: broccoli casserole, creamy rosemary onions, pork loin (drizzled in a homemade honey mustard sauce) and for dessert, homemade vanilla ice cream.

Suffice is to say that we all had a great time. Paul continued his trek to Maine on Monday morning, inviting Susan and me to visit his cabin by Onawa Lake. I fully intend to visit Paul at his cabin in the not too distant future.

Here's a quick and easy recipe for cucumbers.

Cucumber Salad

2 1/4 cups vinegar
6 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
dash of pepper (to your liking)

Slice cucumbers and onions. Add veggies to the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper marinade. Refrigerate overnight.

I’ll close with a poem from The Onawa Poems that best describes the time we had with Paul.

warm kitchen
the rise and fall
of friends’ laughter

        --Yu Chang

Curtis Dunlap, Susan Nelson Myers with Heron's Nest editor, Paul MacNeil
Photo by Alana Dunlap

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Birddog Mouths and Hummingbird Rears

We’ve a relatively new addition to our household, a black labrador who had lived on the lam in a neighboring town until the police picked her up. After a brief stint at the police station, she was relocated to the local veterinarian’s office where my husband and I met her and offered her a home. Black Dog loves her morning walks with Hubs. She wakes him early with a cold nose to his face and dances around until he leashes her to greet whatever awaits them outside. After an especially long walk this fine morning, Black Dog re-entered the house and was simply beside herself with pleasure. She immediately pounced on a squeaky toy, chomped on it giving it a full chirpy voice and then flopped over onto her back to wallow on the rug. She’s an especially vocal girl so she grumbled and growled her delight. Her floundering about turned into gleeful tail chasing. Her frenzy so completely absorbed her that she bit her own tail! Bear with me because there’s a moral to this story.  

In last week’s Frugal Poet post fellow poet, Curtis Dunlap, thought he’d caught me making an egregious error in the kitchen by using self-rising instead of plain cornmeal to make squashpuppies. Curtis was just beside himself with pleasure over his discovery that I’d taken a shortcut. He immediately pounced on the idea to call me out on my sleight-of-hand, chomping on the notion until giving it a full chirpy voice. He’s an especially eloquent man so he politely and delightfully rhapsodized his revelation in his blog post. His glee was so complete that he entirely missed my point! Shortcuts aren’t the problem - it’s what sneaks in through the back door when using them.

The only difference between the one cup of self-rising cornmeal I used when making squashpuppies and one cup of all purpose corn meal is the inclusion of 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder and ½ teaspoon of salt in the former. There was a huge difference in his using a canned biscuit shortcut in his Crockpot Chicken and Dumpling Recipe from my insistence that biscuits from scratch are better. For those wishing to indulge themselves in a pure buttermilk biscuit, you can find the recipe with a full ingredient listing here. In the spirit of further educating our readers, I went to the grocery and bought a sleeve of canned biscuits to save you the trouble of sorting out the differences and to better illustrate precisely what sneaks in a back door when taking his suggested shortcut. The ingredients in a sleeve of one major brand of canned biscuits is as follows: enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, soybean and palm oil, sugar, hydrogenated palm oil, baking powder, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, wheat gluten, dextrose, whey, mono and diglycerides, xanthan gum, propylene glycol alginate, TBHQ (preservative), natural and artificial flavor and, finally, added color. All sorts of things traipsed with an engraved invitation into Curtis’ kitchen by using canned biscuits! So I suppose the moral to this story is twofold. Firstly, beware who you invite to dinner. Secondly, don’t let your birddog mouth catch up with your hummingbird rear.


¾ cup self-rising cornmeal
¼ cup all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground red pepper
6 medium-sized yellow squash, finely diced
1 small onion, minced
½ cup buttermilk
1 large egg
vegetable oil

Combine first 5 ingredients into a bowl. Add minced squash and onion and toss. Lightly beat the egg into the buttermilk, add to vegetable/cornmeal mixture and blend well. Pour oil to a depth of ½ inch in heavy skillet and heat to 350 degrees F. Drop batter by tablespoonfuls into hot oil and fry a few minutes on each side, until golden. Drain on paper-lined plate and lightly salt while still hot. Since you’re working in batches, the batter may eventually thin to an undesirable consistency; if so, add just enough additional cornmeal to tighten its consistency. Zucchini works just as well in this recipe as yellow squash.

A good recipe and a poem for your health. Salud!

a slight turn
reveals something new -
mango moon

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mayberry, Mayodan and a Rebuttal

Living in Mayodan is the closest I’ll come to living in the fictional town of Mayberry, that splendidly wholesome place made famous on The Andy Griffith Show. The towns share many similarities: May, my favorite month, is at the beginning of both town names; it takes the same number of syllables to say Mayodan as it does to say Mayberry and they are both located in the fine state of North Carolina.

The huge selling point for me in calling Mayodan home, this sister town to Mayberry, is not in town names, but in the quality of life and people who live here. Many of you may recall that food was often a focal point in Mayberry and the same can be said for Mayodan. I’ve lost count of the number of times my daughter and I have been gifted food from our neighbors. Soups, stews, breads, pot pies, cobblers, casseroles, cakes and a variety of homegrown vegetables are but a few of the tasty goodies that have been given to my daughter and me for no other reason than out of the kindness and caring of good people. In fact, while writing this article, Susan’s daughter Deedee Grummett, delivered a deliciously fresh (still warm) homemade pineapple and ginger pop tart to my front door. Talk about impeccable timing! This giving of food, of course, fuels my desire and need to reciprocate that care and giving as I have, on occasion, whipped up something to eat for my neighbors. I love to cook and it pleases me to see someone enjoy something I’ve prepared in my kitchen. 

Mayberry had its fair share of cooks and, with the exception of her kerosene pickles, Aunt Bea reigned queen of the cooks in that town. Blue ribbons were highly prized and seldom, if ever, did anyone share the ingredients of an award winning recipe.

My good friend, Susan, is one of the best cooks I’ve ever met. Watching her in full blown cooking mode in her kitchen is a sight to behold. I’d wager that she can hold her own against a Food Network chef when it comes to handling a knife and a chopping block and she can follow or ad-lib a recipe and produce a masterful meal in a matter of minutes.

My kitchen skills weren’t too shabby prior to my having the good fortune to meet Susan, but her willingness to become my cooking sensei, to share her recipes and to teach me how to be more frugal in the kitchen and at the grocery store has made me a better, more cost efficient cook today.

A few days ago Susan phoned and invited me over to sample a few of her squash fritters. Thinking that I’d likely glean something from watching her cook fritters using fresh squash harvested from her father’s garden and being a might hungry, I hurried out the door. The squash fritters were awesome! Coated in cornmeal, deep fried to a golden brown, the fritters looked like a large hushpuppy but tasted soooooo much better. My taste buds begged for more and Susan was kind enough to put several in a bag for me to carry home.

When I asked for the ingredients, Susan handed me the recipe and turned to make a new batch of fritters. I sat, munching a fritter, reading the recipe when, suddenly, something caught my eye. The main ingredient, self-rising cornmeal, was not the cornmeal my cooking sensei had recommended that I buy at the grocery store. I had been encouraged, and rightfully so, to buy the cheaper regular cornmeal and flour and use recipes that called for baking soda and baking powder as an ingredient when cooking. Why, in my mind, I was witnessing a food scandal worthy of being written into an episode of The Andy Griffith Show! When I questioned her use of self-rising cornmeal in her squash fritter recipe, she turned, smiled and said, “You’re going to post this on The Frugal Poet, right?”

And so it is with good humor and a huge sense of trepidation that I make this post today. I dearly hope I’ve not eaten my last squash fritter or anything else cooked by my friend in her kitchen. A few weeks ago in her "Well, I never!" post, Susan called me on taking a short cut when I used canned biscuits in my crock pot chicken and dumplings recipe. It seems, in my mind, that using self-rising cornmeal or flour in a recipe could also be considered a short cut.

“Well, I never!”...?

I think maybe you did sensei, at least once. ;-)

Today’s recipe is easy to make. My daughter and I call this one “A Keeper” here at Poet’s Cottage.

Chicken and Noodles in Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce


        4 to 5 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
        1/4 cup soy sauce
        1 to 1 ½ teaspoon ground ginger
        2 tablespoons minced garlic
        2 tablespoons olive oil
        2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
        3 tablespoons honey
        4 chicken breasts (cubed)
        3 chopped green onions (cut diagonally)
        2 cups shredded carrots (or more to your liking)
        1 (16 ounce) package of wheat noodles
        Sriracha sauce (rooster sauce) for heat and taste
        sesame seeds


Sauce: Combine peanut butter, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and honey in sauce pan. Simmer, covered, on low heat for 5-10 minutes or until hot, stirring occasionally.

Chicken: Cut and sauté chicken breasts in olive oil. Add vegetables when chicken is almost finished cooking. Salt and pepper to taste.

Noodles: Cook wheat noodles in water with salt, according to package instructions.

Serve chicken and vegetables over noodles with sauce poured on top. Top with sesame seeds.

A couple of notes: I added the rooster sauce to the peanut sauce toward the end of cooking time, adding and stirring until I reached the amount of heat that a normal human can tolerate. (I’d add more if I were cooking just for me.)

The peanut sauce thickened a little during the simmering and stirring process. I added small amounts of water until I reached a desired consistency.

If you don’t have rooster sauce, toss a chopped cayenne pepper or two in along with your vegetables, but be careful and don't overdo the heat. Overdoing heat is seldom a problem with me. :)

And finally, a one line haiku to sample along with your Asian cuisine.

drinking sake until I'm ready for the blowfish

Frogpond Volume XXXI:1 - February, 2008