Tuesday, December 15, 2015

No-Bake Peanut Butter–Oatmeal Cookies: The Christmassy Version!

Middle of December: As you can imagine, in addition to work and all the other stuff I’m doing, I’ve been completely busy making cookies, which is a great deal of my overall holiday “gift-giving” effort. I’ve made three kinds of lebkuchen; I’ve made springerles; I’ve made billy goats. I’ve made date-nut bars, rum balls, orange balls, and more. (Wait: I haven’t given you the recipe for orange balls yet? That’s another “must-have” cookie!)

This year, in part because Mrs. Ferber is feeling much better than she did last year (yay!!!) and is making her own cookies again, I’ve decided not to make a bunch of the ones she usually makes. Which frees me up a little to make some other types.

So this year one of my “extras” is the famous chocolate and peanut butter no-bake cookies I told you about back in 2009 when this blog was only three months old!

I won’t repeat the recipe now, since you can find it on my earlier post.

However, because these cookies, though delicious, aren’t very attractive, or Christmassy-looking, I did want to show you how I doctored them up, so they’ll look nice on the cookie platter I set out for guests!

And here’s the fun part: Back in 2009, if you recall, I wrote about how Sue’s brother-in-law referred to these shapeless chocolate-brown, gooey-looking blobs as “yard sausages.”

You know—“yard sausages” is a euphemism among dog owners for the “presents” that dogs leave in the yard for you to inadvertently step in.

So we’d be sitting around the big dining room table, and the cookie tray would be there, and Gene would say, “Please pass me one of the yard sausages.”

It’s true that they aren’t much to look at, but this year, with the decorations, I think they’re much prettier!

But I suppose it could simply be that the dog “got into the Christmas decorations”! I’ve heard of dogs having glitter in their poop after the holidays. If fact, I chose the silvery sprinkles because it kind of looked like tinsel.

There! Now you have another lovely picture to go with these cookies!

But seriously, now, these are really good! Bon appétit!

This post is dedicated to the memory of Buffy Davis: Gone but never forgotten.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Easy and Reliable Kimchi

My kimchi is ready! It finished fermenting and I packed it into jars: Now I’m having a hard time keeping out of it! The recipe comes from my friend Bonnie, who calls it “bomb-proof”—but even more compelling than that is the addictive, fresh flavor of the finished product.

Before I pass along the recipe, I want to give you some sense of its provenance. Bonnie’s brother Jim, who lives in Washington, D.C., sent the recipe to her about a decade ago. He created the recipe from instructions he got from two people: An octogenarian named Mr. Woo, who owned a dry cleaning shop and convenience store in Dupont Circle, and a friend’s wife, Sue, who is Korean.

Bonnie suggests we call it “Jim Woo Sue’s Kimchi,” or perhaps “Woo Sue Jim’s Kimchi,” for a more chronological lineage. Or, I suppose, “Woo Sue Jim Bonnie’s Kimchi,” since I got it from her!

And I’m grateful to her for sharing it with me!

I’ve amended a few details, not very important ones (for example, I prefer smaller chunks, so I’ve given a range of chopping sizes).

See the notes below the recipe for additional ideas.

Easy and Reliable Kimchi

3 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. Kosher salt (divided)
6 c. water
1 lg. head (approx. 2 lbs.) Napa cabbage, cut in ½–2 inch squares
6 green onions, slivered lengthwise, then cut in 1–2 inch lengths
1–2 tbsp. minced fresh ginger (see note below)
2 T Korean ground dried hot red pepper (see note below)
3–4 minced garlic cloves (I use a garlic press)
1 tsp. sugar

1. Dissolve 3 tbsp. salt in water to make a brine. Put the cabbage in a large glass bowl and pour the brine over it. Weigh the cabbage down with a heavy plate or glass pie pan (or similar nonreactive object). Let it stand (at room temperature) for 12 hours.

2. Drain the cabbage, reserving the brine. Mix the cabbage with the remaining ingredients, including the remaining 1 tsp. salt. Pack the mixture into a 2-quart jar (or two 1-quart jars) (wide-mouth jars are a good idea). Pour enough reserved brine over the mix to cover it. Push a freezer bag into the mouth of the jar and pour remaining brine (or fresh water) into the bag to seal it. Set the jar(s) in a Pyrex baking dish (or similar nonreactive tray) to catch any brine that might bubble out. Let it ferment in a cool place (less than or equal to 68 degrees F) for 3 to 6 days, or until it’s as sour as you like.

3. Remove the brine bag and cap the jar(s) tightly. Store it in the fridge, where it will keep for months.


What do I eat it with?
Bonnie says this pairs well with foods that are spicy, smoky, or rich, such as barbecue, chili, smoked fish, canned tuna, and so on. Basically, think of this as another kind of pickle or relish to enjoy. Plus, of course it goes well with Korean foods!

Minced fresh ginger. Asian recipes got a whole lot easier for me when I started batch-processing fresh ginger ahead of time and freezing it flat in a thin layer in a freezer zip bag. I described the process when I told you about a cantaloupe sorbet recipe.

Dried hot red pepper.
The recipe calls for the Korean kind, but I used a combination of “regular” crushed red chili flakes and Indian ground red chilis. You must use your best judgment, based on your own heat preference and how hot your dried chilis are. (You can always add some chili and make it hotter, but it’s hard to do the reverse.)

Alternate veggies.
Bonnie says this recipe works with lots of different kinds of cole and root vegetables. I’ll bet thin-sliced bok choi, turnips, or cucumbers would be good variations.

On a grilled cheese sandwich. Bonnie loves to caramelize the kimchi and put it on a grilled cheese sandwich. She caramelizes it by chopping ¼ cup of the kimchi rather finely and mixing it with 1 tsp. brown sugar, 1 tsp. rice wine (I think mirin would do nicely), and 1 tsp. soy sauce. Then, she heats a little oil in a skillet and cooks the mixture until it bubbles.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pickled Cabbage, Kimchi, First Steps

There are lots of reasons to enjoy food preparation. In addition to producing something that people can enjoy, the process itself can be pleasant and fun.

This is true whether the cooking is challenging or simple. When it’s challenging, the process can provide the satisfaction of mastering something hard. When it’s simple, then sometimes it’s about witnessing a miraculous, synergistic, seemingly alchemical process.

The latter is what I’m up to today.

Making kimchi is ridiculously simple: Basically, you just throw a bunch of stuff together in a bowl, and let it sit. But the results are bafflingly good, thanks to some biochemical “miracles.” In lactic acid fermentation, naturally occurring bacteria convert carbohydrates (sugars) in the cabbage into lactic acid, raising the acidity of the whole, which helps preserve the cabbage. The process of brining softens the cabbage and also helps preserve it. Both the fermentation and the brining make it tasty!

In addition to being a practical, cheap, no-cook method of preserving and flavoring foods, lactic acid fermentation—when you do it at home and don’t heat-sterilize the jars—provides so-called probiotics that assist and improve your digestion. It’s very similar to the process that creates yogurt, sourdough bread, Japanese miso, and many other dishes.

To our ancestors, to our grandparents, this method of pickling was a boon for surviving and enjoying winter. Fruits and vegetables had to be preserved, if you wanted them at all. In western Europe, fresh cabbage was turned into sauerkraut. In Korea, China, and other southeast Asian lands, kimchi and its variants were about the same thing, only flavored differently—with ginger, garlic, green onions, chilis, soy and/or fish sauce, and so on.

In Europe, the finished kraut can be served straight up, or it can be drained, rinsed, and drained again, then simmered with sautéed onions, tomatoes, and/or chicken stock, flavored with such things as juniper berries, caraway seeds, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Meat, such as pork chops or sausage, can be cooked in a bed of this kraut. Or you can make sauerkraut salads or other dishes out of it, using drained kraut as an ingredient and not an entire dish in itself.

I hear it’s pretty much the same way in Asia, where kimchi can be served right out of the crock, or it can be sautéed or otherwise further prepared, and used in other dishes.

I’ve often entertained fanciful ideas about the parallels of Germany and Korea—proud mainland nations divided into two by war, yet united in language, culture, and family ties; nations historically dominated by a hard-working peasant agriculture economy, now transformed into industrial powerhouses; nations whose most famous (or notorious!) dish is funky, fermented, pickled cabbage. Isn’t that interesting? Do you suppose there are other shared cultural characteristics, as well—a similar mind-set, similar outlooks and attitudes?

Anyway—my musings aside—a friend gave me her brother’s recipe for kimchi, and I’m finally trying it!

I’ve never made kimchi or sauerkraut before, and I’ve been wanting to try making both for a long time. Especially once I figured out that homemade krauts are much tastier than the “store-boughten” kind!

Last night, I chopped up a big head of Napa cabbage and set it to soak in a salt solution (brine) overnight. This morning, I combined the various ingredients, packed it in two quart-size wide-mouth jars, “sealed” them loosely with a plastic bag of water, so bubbles can escape . . . and now we wait.

If it turns out well, and if my friend says it’s okay with her, I’ll share her recipe with you!

More to come!

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Optimist Christmas Trees Are Here!

The weather today is turning sharply colder, and we’re getting the kind of spattery rain that hints of sleet, slush, and snow. It gets you thinking about winter. I even baked some cookies this morning!

I had to run a quick errand this afternoon, and look what I saw: The Optimists’ Christmas trees arrived today!

Yes, I’ve blogged about this before, so if you don’t know who the Optimists are, why they have a Christmas tree lot, or any of the other “back” story, then look at that previous post.

The trees go on sale November 27 (the day after Thanksgiving). Considering that most places start selling Christmas stuff as soon as Halloween is over, I think the Optimists are showing some tasteful restraint! But they do want to sell out of the trees; not only are they perishable, but this is one of their big fund-raising projects.

I just love having them just a block away from our house. I love being able to look out my living room window and see their glowing strings of lights illuminating their lot, down on the corner, on these chilly evenings.

I love walking by the trees on my way to church, and breathing in that pleasant scent of fresh pine and fir. I love how little stray sprigs of firs lay on the sidewalk, releasing their aroma as people occasionally step on them.

I love the longevity of the Optimists and their Christmas tree sales. For as long as I can remember, my family has always gotten our Christmas trees from this nonprofit Friend of Youth.

So far, the trees are just laying there; they haven’t been set up for sale yet—but I’ll bet they begin selling them this weekend. If you’re going to buy a genuine tree this year, I can endorse the Optimists. They do good work with their funds.

Here in the Munichburg neighborhood in Jefferson City, you can find them on the corner of Broadway and West Dunklin, on the lawn of the Carpenters’ Building (originally Broadway Elementary School).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Aramco World: One of the Best Magazines You’ve Never Heard Of

Dear foodie friends, dear inquisitive, appreciative, humanist friends, here is one of the best magazines you’ve never heard of: Aramco World.

But you have heard of National Geographic, right? And that’s the closest magazine I can think of to compare it to. Aramco World, however, focuses specifically on “Arab and Islamic cultures and connections.” I suppose if you have a cold, cynical attitude, you might view the magazine skeptically, as propaganda, published in Houston by Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco.

But there’s nothing charitable or even accurate about such an assessment, since oil, economics, and extremist politics are not the focus. It really is about cultures and connections, and that is something our world badly needs.

Too often we get our news in soundbytes and headlines, which objectify people and portray them, at best, as total strangers. “Others.” We need to be reminded that “those people” who live “somewhere else” are just as human as anyone else we know. Just like us, they have cherished customs and traditions. Just like us, they get up in the morning and go to work, God willing, and try to do something that makes the world better, or more beautiful, more fruitful, or healthier.

Aramco World magazine shows and celebrates the worldwide spectrum of Arab and Islamic cultures. They have articles about exploration and history; about medicine and science; about art, architecture, music, and crafts; about age-old customs of hospitality, charity, and family.

The art and food articles are my favorite. One real standout, in 2004, was Eric Hansen’s twin articles on the agricultural and ethnobotanical history of dates, “Looking for the Khalasah,” about date growing in California, and “Carrying Dates to Hajar,” about Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, the world’s largest date-growing region. (Click here for those articles. That July/August 2004 issue was full of excellent articles—one on the city of Marseille, France, long an international crossroads; one on an Arab music store owner in Brooklyn who delights in helping people find Arab music CDs; and one on a surprising Minnesota discovery of a trove of unknown glass-plate negatives showing Jerusalem in the 1850s.)

Aramcoworld.com is a truly excellent website, containing a complete and wonderfully organized archive of all their well-written, beautifully illustrated articles. But if you’re like me, you might prefer to read the actual printed magazine. I like to read an article with my cereal in the morning! And guess what: Subscriptions are free!

There’s a section in the back of the magazine that offers educators ideas for using the issue in a classroom; another section in the back provides an “Events and Exhibitions” calendar—global in scope—that feature Arab and Muslim art and history.

My dad has gotten this magazine for decades—he’s a geographer, see, and anything remotely resembling geographic knowledge is something incredibly nourishing to him.

Once he’s read them, he passes his issues on to me. When he gave me the July/August 2015 issue, he told me, “You have to read the article on Uzbekistan flatbreads!” And he was right! What a beautifully written article, with equally engrossing photos. (Again, by Eric Hansen.)

A few years ago, there was a similarly fascinating, colorful article on “Morocco’s Threads of Red Gold”—saffron, the most expensive spice in the world. To my delight, it included recipes for saffron tea (pretty simple) and for “lamb tagine with oranges, saffron, and candied orange peel.” (A little more complex!)

But ultimately, it’s not about the food at all—it’s about the people, their traditions, their culture . . . their humanity. And this is the true gift of Aramco World: seeing the broader perspective that we are, in our heart of hearts, all in the same family. We must always keep this in mind.

I encourage you to check out this magazine. Look at it online, and if you like what you see, consider getting a subscription, or a gift subscription, for someone you know who’ll like it. (The holidays are coming up!)

P.S. Aramco World doesn’t run any advertisements, and it’s not available in bookstores, much less grocery-store checkout lanes. You have to get it online or by mail.

Note: Sorry about my crappy photos of the magazine; I just wanted to give you a small idea of what kinds of images greet you when you open its cover! Do go to Aramcoworld.com and check out the current and back issues!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Sage-Walnut Pesto

It’s autumn. Before the freeze, those of us with herb gardens are wondering what we’re gonna do with our lovely herbs, because we sure don’t want to lose them, and they’re so perishable!

Sage is a special question for me. I grow it every year, partly because it overwinters and comes back for free in the spring, but mostly because it’s de rigueur to have sage in one’s herb garden. But I don’t cook with sage very much. It’s strong, and it doesn’t figure into many of the cuisines I tend to cook. (Honestly, I’d do much better to have a private supply of cilantro and fenugreek!)

The main things I can think of to do with sage are: 1) poultry; 2) brown sugar–winter squash concoctions; and 3) frying the leaves and using them as a garnish.

“Why don’t you dry them?” —I usually back away from drying herbs, because no matter what, they always taste like straw. Yes, I have a dehydrator, and I agree that drying one’s own is much better than buying it pre-desiccated. But it still loses so much in the process. (Parsley is an exception: Dried, it can still be used as a visual garnish, and since it retains respectable vitamin content, it can go into grilled cheese sandwiches or scrambled eggs as an easy nutrient booster.) But most herbs? Like everything else, it’s just sad to dry them.

Fresh or old, dried sage always tastes old.

But if you can get your fresh herbs melded with oil, they tend to freeze okay. And frozen pesto is great to have on hand, because when you use it, you can make some pretty humdrum foods into something you’d have to pay $6.60 or even $8.80 for in a New York restaurant.

This is based on a recipe I found on the Internet, but I’ve tripled the quantities, plus increased the amount of sage compared to parsley, since I usually have more of the former that I want to use up. So feel free to adjust the ratio of sage to parsley, even to the point where there’s much more parsley than sage. (This isn’t exactly rocket science.)

Sage-Walnut Pesto

1/4 cup parsley
3/4 cup fresh sage leaves
3 garlic cloves
2-3 teaspoons salt (to taste)
3 cups walnuts (English/Persian walnuts this time, not black walnuts)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Put the walnuts in a food processor, first, by themselves, and pulse/grind until you obtain a rather coarse, meal-like texture. Then dump that into a mixing bowl and set aside.

Then, put the rest of the ingredients in the processor, and process until it’s well-blended (puréed).

Then pour it into the ground walnuts and stir to combine. It will seem rather dry, for pesto. It should make about 3 cups of pesto.

Pack into two or three 1-quart freezer zip bags and flatten to about 1/3 inch thick; as you do so, squeeze as much air out of the bag as you can (air causes freezer burn). Freeze the bag flat on a cookie sheet for easy storage. To use, open the bag and break off the amount you need (be careful, since you probably don’t want to tear the bag). It will thaw quickly in a bowl.

Note #1: If you are using it to stuff, say, chicken breasts, you might just leave the pesto frozen as flat little chunks, since it handles better that way. Why not?

Note #2: I suppose you could use pecans instead of walnuts . . . but then it would be “sage-pecan pesto,” eh?

Note #3: I don’t know how your food processor works, but with mine, I kinda have to pre-chop the herbs, and press the garlic, before I process it. Maybe my blades are getting dull; it’s an old machine. Anyway, be advised . . .

Using Sage-Walnut Pesto

This probably isn’t the kind of pesto you’d put on pasta or use as a spread on sandwiches or pizza. It’s rather crumbly. And its flavors don’t seem to go with stereotypical “Italian” or “Mediterranean” dishes. However, here are some things I’ve done with it, and gotten good reviews:

Filling for stuffed chicken or turkey breasts. Great for chilly evenings. Not great if you don’t like sage. (But then, if you don’t like sage, why are you reading this?) Cut a pocket into chicken breasts, or pound them to about 1/2 inch thick (sprinkle water on the chicken, put it in a large resealable bag and don’t seal it all the way, or put it between layers of plastic wrap, and then pound with a rolling pin, say, or an empty wine bottle). Put a big bunch of the sage-walnut pesto into the pocket, or wrap it in the pounded chicken, and then tie with butcher’s twine or fix it closed with toothpicks. Oil it, brown it, and cook however you want—covered with foil in the oven, or in a heavy, lidded pan on the stovetop. Serve with mashed potatoes and gravy.

Sage-walnut turkey pan meatloaf. Make a meatloaf mixture out of a pound of ground turkey, 1 beaten egg, 1/2 cup bread crumbs, 1/2 to 1 cup sage-walnut pesto, and some sautéed-and-cooled chopped shallots and mushrooms, plus salt, pepper, and a jot or two of Worcestershire sauce. Shape into big oval hamburgers about 1 inch thick and pan-fry in olive oil about 6 minutes per side, set aside and keep warm. Then, melt a few tablespoons of butter in the pan drippings, and make a roux with a few tablespoons flour. Add about 2 cups of chicken stock and whisk to make a gravy, and season it with poultry seasoning, salt, and pepper. Pour over the patties. Again, mashed potatoes are a good accompaniment.

Sage-walnut turkey meatballs. Make like the pan meatloaf above, only shape into flattened meatballs. Sauté until done. Use in pita sandwiches or tortilla wraps, with mayo, lettuce, fresh tomatoes, sliced onion. Or, go all “Thanksgiving” with it and fill the sandwich with some leftover dressing, cranberries, and cooked sweet potatoes. Or, dip into plain yogurt as an appetizer or light lunch.

Use your imagination—poultry always goes well with sage, but I’ll bet this would be great mixed with sweet potatoes or winter squash, stuffed into large pasta shells or ravioli, and served with a brown butter sauce. I think it would be a great addition to a bread- or cornbread-based stuffing recipe—use it like you would dried sage, only expect it to taste much fresher and stronger, with a slight crunch from the nuts.

I’m sure you can think of more ideas!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Woooo! Happy Halloween!

For as warm as Christmas can be, and as bracing as New Year’s Eve, Halloween remains my personal favorite holiday: There are no expectations, no “shoulds.” You do what you want. It’s not particularly religious (though you can make it so), and there are no travel or familial requirements. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do anything at all.

It’s not everybody’s cup of tea! Don’t like trick-or-treaters? Well, hand out tins of liver pâté, or handfuls of cough drops, to les petits monstres.

But little kids generally love Halloween, and so do adults. It can be as adorable as a little kid dressed in a clown suit, or draped with a bedsheet with holes cut for eyes and the word “BOO!” written on it for good measure.

Or it can be as raunchy and lewd as “acting out” one’s secret Dracula fantasies. (Ooh-la-la!) Or . . . fill in the blank. (Look at all the “sexy” and “naughty” doctor and nurse, cops, pirates, etc. costumes made these days for adults.)

Or it can be anything in between. People have always had a great time at costume balls. You’re in charge of your own Halloween fun!

If you haven’t been to one, go visit one of those seasonal “everything Halloween” stores. Or, better, go to downtown Columbia and visit the costume store Gotcha! this time of year. What fun!

Halloween gives us a chance to “be” something we are not, or are not allowed to be. Halloween, for instance, has traditionally been popular in the LGBT community, in part because we can dress quite gloriously in ways society generally is uncomfortable with. Such as drag. Or police outfits. Gay folks can be particularly creative and hilarious with all kinds of costumes. Maybe, like a bunch of thespians, we’ve had a little more practice in “thinking outside the box” regarding “who” we can be.

And there’s an “edgy” side to Halloween—it’s scary, spooky, dark . . . thrilling. Mischievous. Naughty. (Though some people, however, take this waaaay too far. I mean, these days, it can be just sick. I blame those over-the-top disgusting movies.)

As a kid, if I had been given a choice between going to a kid’s birthday party, or to a Halloween party, there would be no question! Halloween parties were (and still are) incredibly fun! You never know what to expect!

The treats are great—pumpkin-spice “everything,” apples in all their permutations, cookies, candy, hot dogs that look like mummies, popcorn balls, etc.

And then there’s the decorations! Maybe I’m a frustrated stage and set designer, but I love creating scary-looking effects with dummies and masks, fabric, and lighting.

Which leads me to the following pictures—I’m particularly proud of our decorations this year! Photos don’t do it justice, since you have to see it in the dark, and there’s a strobe-effect light.

The “dummy” is a “Reaper” I bought at the local Walgreen’s. I’d passed it by, resisting my urge to buy it on the spot, during a few previous visits to the store, but I finally purchased it a few nights ago. When you press a button, its face and hands flash with internal lights, and a ridiculous recorded voice cackles “AH—ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! AAAHHH—ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-haaa!!!!”

But I thought it looks cool, anyway. It has just that wicked touch. But not revolting. And it’s very lightweight.

First thing I did when I got it home was hang it from our living room ceiling fan and turn it on low speed—Ha! It looked really cool! Wooooo!!!

Originally, I’d thought to hang it on a stiff rod outside our top front dormer, so it’d look like it was flying into or out of our house! But it’s not quite weather resistant. Plus, all the spiders and the multicolored Asian lady beetles and the box elder bugs . . . nah. . . . So, Plan B!

I hung it so it’s looking out of the window of the third floor facing Broadway, then rigged a bunch of lights, including a green light and a strobe-type light, to flash and shine on it.

I put those on a timer, so all evening long it flashes up there for all to see. It’s in a spare bedroom we don’t use much, so I just keep the door shut (so the flashing won’t give me a seizure or anything).

Anyway—this didn’t take a lot of work, but I had a blast putting it together. The moon gives it an especially eerie glow!

If you’re in Jeff City, drive by and check it out. It’s not a huge-scale thing, but I suspect it would be kinda interesting to a passerby—it would make you look twice!

I hope you have a happy Halloween, however you celebrate it!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Our Musical Opossum

Every once in a while, I’ll awaken in the night to hear Grandma’s windchimes* dinging and donging far in excess of what any current breezes might naturally cause.

I came to the conclusion that it must be a “critter” out there on the handrail at the top of our back porch steps. We have had raccoons, opossums, and half-feral cats perch, at times, on that wooden railing. The long, metal tubes of the windchimes stretch down from the soffit nearly all the way to the railing.

Maybe critters view the windchimes as a possible way to access the roof of our house. Like an incredibly noisy, hard-to-grasp rope ladder. Maybe that’s the attraction.

Anyway, we finally caught ol’ “Tuffy”** in the act a few nights ago. Sorry, there are no pictures—I’ll have to paint it for you with words.

It was well after dark. We were sitting on the sofa on the sunporch, reading Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley to each other—and that clanging started up. It was not particularly windy, but the chimes were dinging and donging so vigorously that it might have been someone swishing his hand among the pipes: Ding-dong-dinga-donga-ding-dong-ding-ding-donga-dong!!

“Sue! Shh! Let’s see what’s out there!”

We snuck up quietly to the door between sun and screen porches—unlocked it carefully—swung it open—and caught “Tuffy” red-handed!

No joke: He (or she) was on his back haunches, with his arms upraised, “playing” the windchimes with his little pink opossum hands as if he were stroking the strings of a harp.


He quickly sensed we were watching him and immediately withdrew to a crouching pose, still perched on the railing. He turned his head to face us, nose-down, unblinking, in that way they do—like they’re looking over their eyeglasses. You know—that opossum deadpan expression that always seems to sigh: “Seriously? Surely you are not going to make me have to run away—are you? Come on . . . seriously??

We retreated quietly back into the sunporch, closed the door between us, and “Tuffy” likewise retreated silently down the back porch steps.

A half hour later, it occurred to me that we had an extra apple we’d acquired during our recent trip to northern Ohio. A mini-Cortland, ooh-la-la. I placed it at the top step, in case “Tuffy” returned.

Musicians should be paid for their efforts, I believe.

No, we don’t make a habit of putting food out right by our back door for the opossums. But just this once, I did.

About 4:30 the next morning, I again awoke to “dinga-donga-ding-dong-dinga-donga!” By the time I arose, the apple was gone.

And that’s the story—so far—of “our musical opossum.”

* Realize that I’m compelled to call them “Grandma’s windchimes,” because from my perspective they were “always” here at Grandma’s house, and seemed an extension of her personality. One could always hear them dingle-donging just outside the bathroom window, or while sitting out on the sunporch. When we bought the house, we saw no reason to take them down or move them. Like so much else at our house that we technically own, I feel like I’m just a “caretaker.”

** We call every opossum “Tuffy.” We just do.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Head to 4M Vineyards—It’s Concord Time!

Oh, joy! The concord grapes are ready at 4M Vineyards! You can buy 3-lb. boxes, 20-lb. half bushels, and 40-lb. whole bushels of them at excellent prices through about the end of October. (The grape season usually starts in early to mid August and extends into October.)

Most people make jelly or juice from concords, but I like to make them into grape pies, tarts, and kuchens, and “pickled grapes” (which is really a spiced grape jam, akin to pickled peaches). The latter is a favorite of Dad’s.

Right now, I’m giving you links to 4M’s website and Facebook page—look at those for official info and updates on what’s currently available.

During grape harvest season, they’re open 7 days a week, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. When it gets to be late October and the grape crop is finishing, to make sure to call ahead to make sure they’re open: 573-265-3340.

Once there’s a hard frost, that’s the end of the grapes: 4M typically has them available for about a week after the frost, but then that’s it. So call ahead if it’s late October.

4M Vineyards and Farms is located at 20670 State Route KK, which is 4 miles east of St. James, Missouri. Where they’re at, Route KK, actually old Route 66, runs along the south side of I-44 like an outer road, and 4M and some of its vineyards are plainly visible from the interstate.

If you’re on I-44, get off at the Highway 68/St. James exit, go south, and turn left (east) at the first stoplight (James Blvd., which becomes Route KK). (Often, people actually park on the shoulder of the interstate and walk up the grassy slope and across Route KK, but that’s not recommended!)

This, by the way, is the Ozark Highlands/St. James/Rosati grape-growing region of Missouri, a distinct American Viticultural Area (appellation) designated by the U.S. government (TTB). For more about that, visit the St. James Winery on the north side of the interstate.

Okay: Of all the places to purchase grapes in Missouri, why am I telling you about 4M Vineyards?

Because they’re the real thing, they’re local, they’re friendly, and their products, though unpretentiously presented, are deserving of the highest praise. It’s been a family business since 1984. My blog has always been about things like that.

One look at 4M’s annual letter and price list says it all. (Seriously, click on the link, and you’ll find an informational, entertaining announcement about 4M Vineyards’ progress and offerings this year. You’ll especially enjoy the story of the grapevine-chomping deer, the air cannon . . . and the neighbors!)

I love 4M Vineyards, and I deeply admire Mike and Jody Rippelmeyer, who own it. There are incredibly good reasons why their vineyards are expanding, why their preserves and baked goods are so delicious, and why a visit to their market is so pleasant.

We always make an annual trip to 4M! It’s worth it. I need my nice big box of concords!

I process (deseed) grapes in 3-cup batches, put them in quart-size freezer zip bags, and freeze them—each is enough for a pie or a kuchen, or a pint or so of pickled grapes.

But at 4M, we can also start our Christmas shopping: They sell a glorious variety of homemade jellies, jams, and other preserves that you can’t purchase just anywhere. Think how much your impoverished friends who live in big cities will love these goodies!

I mean, seriously! Here is a PARTIAL list (partial, because I ran out of room on my notepad!):

  • Apple butter; amaretto apple butter
  • Blackberry jelly
  • Cantaloupe marmalade
  • Catawba grape jam and jelly
  • Concord grape jam, jelly, and juice
  • Corn cob jelly
  • Cucumber pickles (various kinds)
  • Elderberry jelly and jam
  • Green tomato chutney
  • Jalapeno jelly (several kinds)
  • Niagara grape jam and jelly
  • Pear jelly; pear honey
  • Pineapple jelly
  • Pumpkin butter; pumpkin pie jelly
  • Relishes of various kinds
  • Salsas of various kinds
  • Tomato jam and jelly
  • Wild plum jelly and jam
  • Wine jelly (this is incredibly delicious!)
  • Zucchini pickles (various kinds)

—Wowsa! Doesn’t that sound tempting? Their shelves and shelves of preserves make me feel proud, and I didn’t lift a finger. And yes, they have samples for you to try.

And they make these goodies themselves—this isn’t just shipped in from Pennsylvania or someplace.

They also sell homemade banana bread, zucchini bread, pumpkin bread, and apple chip bread. (Just typing this, my mouth is watering.)

And they also make and sell grape pie—which is my favorite kind of pie. Not many people in Missouri make grape pie, but it’s well worth the extra effort. It is not only exquisitely delicious, but also a joy to behold, being a glorious, deep, royal purple.

Local honey and low-priced, top-notch fresh fruits and vegetables round out the edible bounty.

There’s also a fun selection of antiques and collectables, with an emphasis on cooking supplies. (Christmas is coming; and you know you could always use another cookie sheet, baking pan, or casserole dish!)

And although they don’t make and sell wine themselves, they sell wine-making supplies, including a selection of yeasts and (of course) bulk grapes! You can buy grape plants, too.

This is the best time of year to be in Missouri, and while you’re driving around enjoying the crisp air and scenery, stop at 4M and get some concords, while they last!

4M Vineyards and Farms
21000 State Route KK
St. James, MO 65559

  • Farm stand is typically open Aug. 7 to Nov. 1
  • Opening depends on ripening; closing depends on how long the crop holds.
  • Call ahead in early August or late October, to ensure they are open.
  • Open daily, 7 days a week, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Millet: “Often Called Birdseed in the U.S.”

It started with Aunt Carole giving me a bag of millet seed: “What do you do with this stuff?” She’d bought a bunch of it somewhere and hadn’t found anything decent to make with it. I suppose you can cook it simply, as a grain, like rice or quinoa or buckwheat kasha. It was flattering that she would think I had a clue about its usage.

It’s taken me a while to act on this uncommon gift. Millet. Millet.

It’s like tiny yellow balls.

Here in America, it’s a primary ingredient in birdseed mixes—in fact, of the inexpensive birdseed mixes. What birds eat it, exactly? Most simply flick it out of the feeder onto the ground. Mourning doves, with their muscular crops, can digest the stuff, I believe.

As I’ve told you (see sidebar “About Me”), I’ve been teaching myself Indian cooking. One of my references has been India Cookbook, by Pushpesh Pant (London: Phaidon Press, 2010). It’s thorough, well-organized, and provides a good introduction to the different regional cuisines.

In the glossary of that book, millet is defined as “an alternative to rice. The seeds can be used whole or ground and have a slightly nutty taste. Hulled millet is also often called birdseed in the US.” . . . Called birdseed? No, Mr. Pant, it is birdseed!

Why don’t more people here cook millet as a side dish, a grain? I know there are people interested in it because it’s gluten-free. But as a side dish, I guess it must be hard to beat rice and other more popular grains. So millet, I thought, might be better as a flour. And, being interested in flatbreads recently, I consulted my book.

There are some recipes in the “Breads” section of the India Cookbook that use millet flour. I decided to try the simplest one first.

And it is simple, indeed! Bajare ki Roti (Millet Bread) is not something I’ll try again. It is, essentially, millet flour plus water and a pinch of salt, mixed to a “semi-hard dough,” and allowed to sit for half an hour. Then (more or less) you make it into “flattened rounds” with your hands, then cook on a hot griddle or tawa on both sides . . . well, maybe I wasn’t doing it right, but it sure didn’t “puff up,” and instead of getting “crisp,” it just got hard. Like you might expect, actually.

And buttering it didn’t really help much.

For a breakfast, it was pretty grim. I’d gotten up early to grind the millet seeds into flour in my spice grinder, straining it through a wire sieve to make sure it was smooth. I’d followed the instructions pretty carefully, and the results were flat, hard disks that might have been used as hubcaps, if they were not brittle.

Sue and I gnawed on them for a bit, sipping coffee, then Sue got up and found a cup of yogurt. I kept chewing on the one I’d taken, just for the point of it. The flavor was indeed kind of nutty. Yeah . . . nutty, gritty, dense, hard, dry, bland. We agreed they might be welcome if you were, say, going on a long sea voyage, in the eighteenth century.

We didn’t throw them away, however. Because I had another plan!

I redeemed them, and also my labor in making millet flour in the first place: Another recipe in Mr. Pant’s book is “Bajari-Methi na Tepla,” or “Shallow-fried Fenugreek and Millet Bread.” This flatbread recipe uses many more ingredients, including whole wheat flour, and it definitely showed more promise. And apart from my time, what did I have to lose?

These teplas use equal parts whole wheat flour and millet flour. I made “millet flour” by pulverizing, then running through a sieve, the “Millet Bread” I’d made previously (yes, it was that dry, even with the oil it was fried in).

Additional ingredients include coriander powder, cumin, turmeric, chili powder, ginger, brown sugar, salt, and fenugreek (methi) leaves (although it’s harder to find fresh methi leaves, you can buy them dried at an international store, and they keep for a while if you seal them up really well).

The dough is moistened with yogurt (it calls for “soured natural yogurt,” but I used plain yogurt). (You can see why my bread-baking often doesn’t “turn out,” since I often don’t follow recipes very closely . . .)

And guess what! These were great! They even puffed up a little—how exciting! The methi/fenugreek leaves give it a distinctive butterscotch-like flavor. They’re really delicious alone! I had one of the first teplas out of the pan and noshed on it while I fried the rest. I had to restrain myself from having any more!

And that is the story of the millet. Aunt Carole, this is a great recipe! If you are wanting a recipe for millet (flour), here you go.

Fried Fenugreek and Millet Flatbread
Based on Pushpesh Pant, India Cookbook, p. 622.

Mix together the following:
1 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. millet flour
1 t. ground coriander
1 t. ground cumin
1/4 t. turmeric
1 t. chili powder (to taste; depends on how hot your chili powder is!)
1 t. ground fresh ginger
2 T. brown sugar
pinch of salt
4 T. dried fenugreek leaves (find these at an International grocery)
2 T. vegetable oil (plus more for shallow-frying)
1 c. plain yogurt (or more, to make semi-soft dough)

Dough should be semi-soft, light, rather sticky.

Knead the dough briefly on a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 12 equal portions and roll into balls, flattening them with your hands (hence the name tepla, apparently), and roll with a rolling pin into rounds 4–5 inches in diameter. Keep rolling them out as you fry them.

Heat a little oil in a heavy-based skillet over medium-high heat (as for pancakes). Add a tepla and shallow-fry about 2 minutes until dark patches form on side facing pan. Turn over and cook another minute or two, until dark patches form on the second side. Repeat with remaining dough balls until finished. Serve hot.

I would recommend having these for breakfast, perhaps with some plain yogurt, or yogurt and chopped tomatoes. Or chutney, if you’re into it. I think they’d be a yummy platform for simple soft-cooked eggs, too.

They are great as a snack, too!

Here is an informative cooking video for making a very similar recipe: “Methi Thepla or Dhebra, by Bhavna”. Bhavna points out that her family really enjoys these methi thepla as a snack while they’re traveling. What a great idea!

Though teplas are slightly sweet, I think they are definitely more in the “savory” category.