Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Maple Season

Winter is finally, slowly, fading and as we’ve had almost 180 inches of snow this season we are ready for spring. I still had to scrape a little snow off my car windows this morning but at lunch time I was able to take a walk with no coat on. And that means it is time for maple producers to get busy. For it is precisely this in-between-season time, with its cold nights and warmer days, that makes maple tree sap run. This fact leaves maple farmers with only a short amount of time – if they are lucky six full weeks – to collect sap and make all the syrup they will sell for the rest of the year.

Last weekend I very happily visited Maxon Estate Farms, owned and operated by Helen Thomas (nee Maxon) along with her two sisters Arlene and Carolyn. The sisters grew up on this farm which has been in operation since 1802. But now the barn that once housed cows has been converted to a sugar house and the sisters concentrate solely on producing one product: their award winning maple syrup. Last year it took first prize at the New York State Fair!

I became acquainted with this delicious syrup because Helen’s husband Art, a professor at the university where I work, sent out a promotional flyer a couple years ago. I got some for myself and some to give as gifts along with some locally produced buckwheat pancake mix. I like to show off New York state products when it’s gift giving time.

      

Art and Helen Thomas (with photo of Helen as a little girl)

My friend Lilibeth and I arrived mid-afternoon on Sunday and were met at the shed by Art for a tour and maple making lesson from start to finish. Outside the shed was a 3000 gallon tank holding crystal-clear sap. The first step in production is to run the sap through a reverse osmosis machine. Reverse osmosis is a filtration method by which pure water is separated out of a liquid. Traditionally it’s the pure water you’re after, but in maple production the water is removed to increase the sugar content of the sap. By drawing off some of the water here, you can cut the amount of time spent cooking down the sap in the evaporator.

  

Holding tank and reverse osmosis machine

Ah yes, the evaporator. Once this meant flat pans set over wood fires, the sap boiling away. But the modern age has come to syrup making. The evaporator at Maxon Estate Farm is an amazing, beautiful, huge stainless steel machine that looks like it was designed in the Art Deco era. Art calls it “the Ferrari” and with good reason – it is shiny, pretty, and expensive. To my unscientific mind it appeared to be quite the Rube Goldberg contraption with pipes and pans and air hoses and dials and serpentine chambers. But the basic premise is that the water is being evaporated as the sap boils, the sap is kept moving all the time so it doesn’t burn or stick to the pan, and the syrup comes out amber-colored and delicious into a container. I got to taste it, still warm from the evaporator. Oh. My. God. Liquid amber nirvana! Helen thought it was so good that it might be the batch she enters in the State Fair. I predict more blue ribbons in her future.

 

The Ferrari

Some interesting information on sugar content: when the sap comes out of the tree it has about 1.5% sugar. After going through the reverse osmosis the sugar content has doubled, and by the time it is syrup it must have 66% sugar content. As you can see, you have to collect an awful lot of sap to produce syrup. Helen estimates that they need to boil about 50 gallons of sap on average to produce just one gallon of finished syrup.

 

Maple syrup is graded by color

Helen’s goal is to get a half gallon of syrup from each tree and she is getting close to that. This year the farm has produced about 700 gallons of syrup so far from about 1700 trees, and there is more to come. One thing that has helped increase sap collection was the installation of a vacuum system. Used to be farmers relied on gravity to get sap from the elaborate maze of tubes tapped into the trees to a holding container. But the vacuum system moves things along much better than gravity – Art said the amount of sap collected doubled immediately after the new system was installed.

 

Sap lines and vacuum tank collection

The kitchen in the house where the sisters grew up has been converted to a bottling station and we were lucky enough to see Arlene and Carolyn in action at this last stage of production. Four big stock pots bubbled on the stove for the final cooking. The syrup is done when the sisters say it is done! The hot syrup goes into bottles, gets sealed, labeled, and is ready for sale.

 

The final, award-winning yumminess!

You can find this delicious product at the Rochester’s Farmers’ Market on Saturdays or you can go to the web site at http://www.maxonestatefarms.com/ Of course, if you live anywhere in the northeast United States I encourage you to find out what’s available in your area as well. Look for various events. For example, the NYS Maple Producers (executive director Helen Thomas) has an annual Maple Weekend when many producers have an open house where you can see this unique product being made. Many organizations also have pancake breakfasts to tie in with this event. So look around and see what you can find near to home.

Old-time display: more Model T than Ferrari

And to enjoy this delicious syrup: Of course, we all love it on pancakes and waffles. It’s wonderful drizzled over ice cream, yogurt, or fresh fruit. Stir a spoonful or two into a mug of hot milk for a soothing bedtime drink. Also, don’t neglect maple for savory dishes. I happen to like dishes that have a little sweetness combined with a good dollop of spiciness and maple combines quite well with black pepper as well as with lemon. Really.

My first recipe I adapted from Savuer magazine. Their original boiling mixture had more syrup in it but it cooked down before the dumplings were cooked through, then it burned. So I made it mostly water and I added blueberries to the batter. Pour syrup on when they are done. My second recipe is an easy one dish dinner.

Blueberry Maple Dumplings

1 ½ cup flour

4 ½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter (cold)

1 egg

½ cup milk

1 cup blueberries

¼ cup maple syrup, plus more for serving

In a food processor pulse the flour, baking powder, salt, and butter until crumbly (like cornmeal.) Add the egg and the milk, pulsing briefly after each addition to just mix. Put this batter in a bowl and stir in the blueberries.

 

Fill a deep pan with water, add the ¼ cup syrup, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Once this is boiling, drop in spoonfuls of the batter. Cover the pan and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until dumplings are cooked through. Serve with crispy rashers of bacon and lots of hot coffee.

 

Chicken with Apples and Sweet Potatoes

(Amounts listed are per person. Increase as needed.)

1 sweet potato

1 apple

½ onion

1 piece chicken (I prefer thighs)

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

4 tsp. maple syrup

Salt and pepper

Thinly slice sweet potatoes, apples, and onions. Melt butter with the syrup and pour over sliced vegetables, add salt and pepper, and toss well.

 

Arrange slices in a buttered baking dish. Top with chicken pieces that have been patted dry and salted. Bake at 375˚. After about 20 minutes, tilt the pan and use a spoon to baste the chicken with any accumulated juices. Return to oven and bake another 20 to 25 minutes until the sweet potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife tip and the chicken is nicely browned and crisp.

 

Advertisements


I’ve mentioned this before but there are very few things I disagree about with British cookbook author Nigella Lawson. I find both her writing and her cooking to be down-to-earth, non-prissy, and enjoyable. Her enjoyment of food – and of life – is evident in her writing. One of the things I agree with most is her repeated assertion that a good roast chicken is just about the finest thing you can eat. Shout out to the Brits: that is spot on!

Today we take an abundant supply of chicken for granted but this wasn’t always the case. Any kind of meat has traditionally been doled out in smaller amounts that we are currently used to. The phrase “a chicken in every pot” has come to signify a certain prosperity. (This phrase is often attributed to Herbert Hoover but it was first uttered by Henry IV of France who made that promise to his subjects. Never actually uttered by Hoover, it was used in Republican campaigns in 1928.)

Chicken was not every day fare and I still think a roast chicken is the best Sunday supper. First, there is the appearance. A whole bird is still something special, perhaps because of the ubiquity of all those individual parts, wrapped in plastic, so readily available. Also, the preparation is not difficult and I quite enjoy spending some lazy Sunday time putzing in the kitchen, chopping onions, boiling the chicken neck (for my cats) and the giblets (for a gravy), peeling potatoes, etc.

For whole roast chicken especially, I urge you to seek out a good, local source for your bird. A supermarket bird will do, but if you manage to get a real farm-raised chicken, one that has supplemented her feed pecking at whatever bugs she can find in the grass, you will be happily surprised.  The other ones pale in comparison.

I’ve got two different recipes for you to try. The stuffed chicken requires a little more work, though it is also a bit more of a feast. I consider it more of a fall or winter meal and I serve it with mashed potatoes and a lovely fall vegetable – Brussels sprouts perhaps. Cranberries would not be unwelcome here.

The lemon-roast chicken is super easy, delicious, and good in any season. I like it with rice; I spoon the onions and pan juices over both the rice and chicken. Whatever seasonal vegetable you like on the side – green beans work well here as do peas and carrots. In summer I like to toss some butter lettuce leaves with coarse salt and lemon juice, then wilt them slightly with a little of the pan juices.

Both recipes call for a rack to keep the chicken out of the juices in the pan so that the skin crisps. An inexpensive folding rack that adjusts to the size of your bird works just fine. No trussing required (or even recommended.) What you want, of course, is crispy, slightly salty skin covering dense, juicy meat. You couldn’t ask for a finer Sunday meal.

The ingredients readied

Stuffed Chicken

1 fresh whole chicken

For the stuffing:

4 cups cubed Italian bread (cut and let sit overnight to dry it slightly)

1 Tbsp. butter

1/3 cup chopped onion

1/3 cup chopped celery

2/3 cup chopped mushrooms

1 tsp. chopped garlic

1 cup chicken stock

1 Tbsp. parsley

1 egg

I usually secure the opening with small metal skewers

For the gravy:

2 Tbls. fat (from the roasting pan)

2 Tbsp. flour

2 cups warm chicken stock

½ cup chopped, cooked giblets

1/3 cup half and half

First boil the giblets and neck in about two cups of water (you can use this water for the stock when you make the gravy; alternately use store-bought stock.) Boil about 20 minutes then set aside to cool. When giblets are cool enough to handle, chop them into small pieces. Chop up the neck for your cat.

Next make the stuffing. Melt the butter in a pan and sauté the onions, celery, and mushrooms for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté an additional minute. Add the stock, stirring and scraping up any browned pan bits. Pour this over your bread cubes. Add the parsley, the egg, and salt and pepper. Combine well – it’s best to mix everything together with your hands. It should feel slightly damp and stick together when you squeeze it in your hand. Scoop this mixture into the chicken, gently pressing it in. Close up the flaps with metal skewers.

Place the stuffed chicken – breast up – on a rack that you’ve placed on a roasting pan. Place in a 375˚ oven. Cooking times vary, depending on the size of your chicken, but count on about an hour.

When an instant read thermometer registers 165˚ your chicken is done. I don’t generally baste except right at the end. When the chicken starts to brown tilt the pan and spoon up some juices over the bird.

Remove the chicken from the oven and let rest 10 to 15 minutes. This helps the juices to set up and gives you time to make the gravy. Set it on a cutting board and cover loosely with a piece of foil.

Some people make the gravy right in the roasting pan but even though I deglaze the roasting pan I make the gravy in a sauté pan. First, tilt the roasting pan and spoon the melted fat in a small bowl. Next, pour the warm stock into the roasting pan and scrape up the yummy brown bits. Heat a pan on medium heat, add 2 Tbsp. of the reserved chicken fat, then sprinkle the flour over that. Stir constantly until the mixture is a light, nutty brown. Be careful not to burn it! Pour in the stock from the roasting pan, whisking the sauce so you don’t get lumps. Cook until sauce starts to thicken, then add the half and half, the giblets, as well as salt and pepper. Keep stirring until it has the desired consistency. Keep warn while you carve the chicken.

Roast Chicken with Lemon

1 fresh roasting chicken

2 cups sliced leeks (regular onions work as well)

2 cups stock (or water)

1 Tbsp. butter

1 lemon

Salt and pepper

1 to 2 Tbsp. savory jelly/jam (such as pepper or onion) – optional

Use tongs to flip the chicken

Pre-heat oven to 400˚. Put the leeks, stock, and butter in a roasting pan. Set your rack on top of that. Rub salt and pepper on the inside of the chicken. Cut the lemon into quarters and squeeze the juice into the roasting pan; put two of the squeezed out rinds in the chicken cavity. Set the chicken breast side down on the rack and put in the oven. After about half an hour – when the up-side of the chicken looks nicely brown – flip the chicken breast side up using tongs. Continue roasting until nicely browned; the internal temperature should reach 165˚. If you are using the jelly, melt it in the microwave and brush it on the chicken for the last five minutes of roasting. When done, let chicken rest for ten minutes before carving.

Delicious, oniony, lemony chicken

Northern Spy

She let the colonel get her some punch after they had danced. She smiled sweetly at him and even allowed herself to be so forward as to let her fingers brush his as she took the cup from him. By careful planning she would be seated next to him at dinner. Through genial conversation, the judicious use of wine, and the promise of letting him accompany her to church on Sunday before he had to return to the front, she hoped to discover the planned movement of the troops he commanded. Much depended on her charm and her brother was waiting to deliver this information to his contact behind the Union lines.

Okay, just kidding! Not that kind of Northern Spy. The kind I’m referring to is an old-fashioned apple, much beloved by pie makers. It is native to the north-east coast,  ripens late in the season – October/November – and stores very well.

I had heard older bakers sing the praises of the Northern Spy apple and bemoan how seldom these apples were to be found anymore. I had never seen them anywhere until fairly recently when I spotted them at the Farmers’ Market. I snatched up a small basket of them, excited to try these mysterious apples I had heard about for so long.

The rumors proved to be true. These apples were pleasingly tart, crisp, and juicy. They were aromatic and kept their texture well through cooking. In other words, perfect for pie.

I like a somewhat crisp pie crust, rather than soft, so I use a fair amount of butter in the dough with just enough vegetable shortening to make it manageable. (Though apparently not manageable enough. No matter how I try I can never get a pie to look as good as it tastes.) When making pie crust, your butter, shortening, and water should all be very cold. This helps produce a flaky crust.

I remembered reading in an old issue of Cook’s Illustrated – a great resource, by the way – that they had tried cooking the apples before putting them in the pie crust. Because the apples are already cooked down you don’t get that big, empty air gap between the filling and the top crust. I couldn’t find that recipe but decided to try that method.

It worked beautifully. Not only did I get a great, dense filling with no air gap, but I liked that I could adjust the filling to taste for sugar and spices before baking.

My Northern Spy apples lived up to their reputation and I certainly will seek them out again. If you ever come across them anywhere, snatch some up and see if you don’t agree. Of course, this pie can be made with any apple though I would stick to a tart variety. You want the flavors to be nuanced, not sickly sweet.

The gorgeous Northern Spy.

Northern Spy Apple Pie

Crust:

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter

½ cup vegetable shortening

3 cups flour

2 tsp. sugar

½ tsp. salt

5 Tbls. ice water

Filling:

4 ½ lbs. apples

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated is best)

1 ½ tsp. cinnamon

2 Tbls. butter, cut into small pieces

2 Tbls. flour

1 egg yolk

For the crust, pulse butter, shortening, sugar, salt, and flour in the food processor until it has the consistency of course cornmeal. (Alternately, use a hand-held pastry blender.) Slowly start adding the ice water until the dough just holds together. (If the dough remains too crumbly to stick together, add a little more ice water until it does what it is supposed to.) Turn out onto a work table and pat into a disk. Don’t overwork the dough or you’ll end up with a tough crust. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 20 minutes.

A wine bottle stood in for my MIA rolling pin.

For the filling, peel and slice the apples. Put them, along with the sugar, in a pot and gently heat until they release their juice and cook down somewhat – probably about 15 or 20 minutes. Add the spices to taste, then stir in the butter and flour.

This makes a nice sized deep-dish pie so I divided the dough into 2/3 and 1/3, using the larger piece for the bottom of the pie. Lightly flour the large piece of dough, then roll it out between two pieces of plastic wrap. Handling it gently, line your pie pan. Roll out the smaller piece of dough. Fill the pan with the apples and top with the smaller piece of dough.  Roll the edges of the dough together and pinch them between your fingers to crimp. If you have some little pieces of dough left, roll them out and cut out shapes to decorate the pie. Beat the egg yolk with a fork and brush the top of the pie; if decorating lay your cut-outs on top of the crust. The egg wash will make them stick. Cut a couple slits in the top to allow steam to escape.

I covered my cut-outs with colored sugar.

Bake in a 400˚ oven for about 45 to 60 minutes, until the crust is a beautiful maple-brown. Let cool about half an hour if you want to enjoy it warm but it is also good fully cooled. Needless to say, it is delicious served plain, or with ice cream or whipped cream.

Enjoy!

How’s that for a crazy mix!

I regularly check out a blog with a unique set-up called Kitchen Play. Every month they hire five or so bloggers to create a dish using a sponsor’s ingredient. The sponsor changes monthly; this month’s sponsor is Canadian Beef. Tied into this set-up is a contest: bloggers recreate one of the dishes and post the link on Kitchen Play.

Which is how I came up with this crazy combo. The creator of Kitchen Play’s main dish this month, Joy from Gourmeted, created an Asian-inspired chili. Well, as I’ve written previously, I can’t just follow a recipe. I’m always playing around with it, adding, subtracting, substituting.

While playing around with this recipe I started thinking about Cincinnati chili. For those of you who don’t know, Cincinnati chili, a regional specialty, is a style of chili made with ground beef and seasoned with the somewhat unusual spices of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and chocolate, and served over spaghetti. (Not so very odd. Certainly chili is quite similar to a Bolognese sauce with the seasonings changed. Cincinnati chili changes the spices yet again and puts it on pasta.) This dish was created in 1922 by Macedonian immigrants who wanted to attract more customers to their diner by serving more than their ethnic dishes. It has since become very popular throughout southern Ohio and northern Kentucky.

I stuck pretty closely to Gourmeted’s original recipe but with these changes: where Joy uses 7-Up I used a tamarind drink which I like for the tangy kick it gives to sauces. I used slightly more coconut milk and replaced the liver pate and sriracha sauce with Thai red curry paste and a dollop of peanut butter. And, as in Cincinnati, I served it on noodles, though I used Thai rice noodles.

Finally, I added toppings. Cincinnati chili can be ordered 3-way, 4-way, 5-way, etc. which refers to the number of toppings you would like. The most popular are cheese, onions, and kidney beans. For my Asian twist I chose scallions chopped with cilantro, bean sprouts, and peanuts. I garnished with lime wedges.

I was quite happy with the results. The spices gave it a nice kick and the coconut milk and peanut butter made the sauce silky smooth. The tamarind and squeeze of lime gave it a fresh, bright note and kept it from being too rich.

A beer is perfect with this. I served a local pale ale.

Cincinnati- Bangkok Chili 3-Way

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil (or vegetable oil)
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped (about ½ cup)
  • 4 garlic cloves, cut into slivers
  • ½ cup tamarind nectar
  • ½ pound (~230 grams) top sirloin steak fast fry, cut into thin strips of 2”x.5”x.25”
  • ½ pound (~230 grams) ground sirloin
  • 1 teaspoon salt, and more to taste
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ground chipotle chili pepper
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ½ red bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 creamy peanut butter
  • 1 cup tomato sauce (or ½ cup tomato paste + ½ cup water)
  • 1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste
  • ½ cup canned coconut milk
  • 3 small carrots, chopped (about ½ cup)

To serve: rice noodles cooked according to package directions and chopped scallions, cilantro, peanuts, bean sprouts and lime wedges for toppings.

1.     Heat coconut oil in a Dutch oven or medium sauce pan over medium heat. Cook onions for 2 minutes, then add garlic and beef strips. Sauté until the redness on the meat is almost gone, about 4 minutes. Stir in tamarind drink and simmer for 10 minutes.

2.     Add ground sirloin and spices, and mix thoroughly. Cook for 6 minutes, or until meat juices become clear and reduced but not dry.

3.     Stir in bell peppers, carrots, peanut butter, tomato sauce, Thai curry paste, and coconut milk. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add salt or hot spices to suit your taste.

Enjoy with rice noodles and toppings.

Remembering the 808

The 808 was a small diner and soul food restaurant in San Francisco when I lived there in the late 1980s. A counter with a few seats ran the length of it, a few tables parallel to that. There was a second room with some more tables and a pick-up window in the back that looked into the kitchen. A signed poster of Danny Glover hung on the wall; apparently he had stopped by once when he was in town. Everything they served was inexpensive and plentiful.

The specialty of the house was chicken and waffles, though they also did fine versions of fried fish, greens, grits, and, my favorite, smothered chicken livers.

A friend of mine first took me there for the chicken and waffles. I had never heard of such a thing before and I pictured a kind of non-sweet waffle with creamed chicken over it. Instead it was a waffle with a piece of fried chicken, served with a small pitcher of syrup. I thought it was an odd combination though I’ve since learned it had a heyday of popularity in the 1930s. In fact, in James Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce, it is the title character’s specialty, along with pies, with which she starts her restaurant success. I liked it enough to return to the 808 on other occasions.

It was a great place for breakfast. Fried eggs, a side of grits, biscuits. Decent coffee, generously refilled. Their fried fish was very tasty. Often it was catfish but it changed according to what was available and fresh. It was served encased in a thin, crunchy batter.

Once a friend and I went for dinner and we asked the waiter what kind of greens they had that day. The waiter was a skinny white kid, obviously out of his element and clueless about the menu.

“Oh,” he stammered, “I think they’re some kind of Swedish thing.”

My friend and I looked at each other, then back at the waiter.

“Swiss chard?” we asked.

“That’s it!” he said.

We ordered some but two minutes later we heard the booming voice of the cook yelling, “I told you two hours ago we’re out of greens!”

The hapless kid slunk back to our table to deliver the bad news. We let him off the hook. “It’s alright,” we told him, “we’ll have the sweet potatoes.”

Then there were the chicken livers. Somehow the outside of them managed to stay crispy despite being smothered in a rich, oniony sauce. A big pile of them came served over biscuits. Dense, chewy, and creamy all at once, they were filling and comforting and the best hangover food ever. I could linger over them with coffee and a newspaper; the 808 was not a place that rushed you in and out. The guy behind the counter knew when to chat you up, when to leave you alone. A plate of those livers and a finished crossword behind me, I could face the day anew.

I haven’t lived in San Francisco in years; I don’t think the 808 is there anymore and I no longer party enough to have hangovers. But those chicken livers hover in my memory, and on gray, nostalgic days I want them.

Here is my attempt to recreate them. I don’t think the chopped vegetables were in the original but I like to add them to make this an easy meal. Serve over biscuits or with rice.

Smothered Chicken Livers

¾ lb. chicken livers              2 Tbls. butter

1 cup buttermilk                   ½ cup chopped onion

1 cup flour                               ½ cup chopped red pepper

¼ cup cornmeal                  ½ cup chopped celery

Salt and pepper                     4 tsp. flour

2 cups chicken stock         ½ tsp. cayenne (optional)

Oil for frying                          salt and pepper

Put the chicken livers in a small bowl and cover with the buttermilk. Let them marinate ½ hour.

Mix together the flour, cornmeal, salt, pepper, and cayenne.

Heat about an inch of oil in a frying pan. Dip the livers in the flour mixture and pop them in the hot oil. Fry in batches, without crowding, until they are crisp and nicely brown, about a minute or so on each side. As each batch finishes, remove to a paper towel lined pan and keep warm in a low oven.

Livers frying                      Sauce cooking

In a deep frying pan (cast iron would be ideal) melt 1 Tbls. butter and sauté the onions until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the peppers and celery and sauté another minute or so. Add the remaining butter and when melted add the flour, stirring constantly until the flour starts to darken a little – about 2 minutes. Add the stock, stirring briskly. Season to taste and simmer until it has the consistency of gravy. Stir in the chicken livers and serve.

Smothered livers a la 808
               

Feeding Hank

I was standing in the corner of the veterinarian’s office, crying. They had just told me that my cat, Hank, who I found lying on the floor breathing heavily, with one leg up in the air as if he couldn’t put his legs together, had urinary tract disease. The bill to treat him (not cure, mind you) would come to just over $200.

At the time, about ten years ago, I was working for the government program Americorps/VISTA and making barely $10,000 per year. Every cent I made was carefully allotted for. I had managed to find a small apartment I could afford and after all my bills were paid I had a whopping $10 per week set aside for “entertainment.” This usually consisted of going to the $2 movie house and occasionally treating myself to coffee out, though only after mid-morning by which time someone would have left their newspaper at the café and I could nab it for free.

The vet’s receptionist came over to me after a couple minutes and put her hand on my shoulder.

“Is that a hardship for you?” she asked.

I nodded yes.

“It’s alright,” she said, “we can set up a payment plan.”

“I can give you $35 a month,” I told her.

There went my $10 a week.

In addition to my small stipend, I qualified for about $85 a month in food stamps and I ate pretty well on that by shopping carefully and knowing how to cook. I grew up with women who had lived in poverty after World War II and who never threw any food away. Everything was used up, mostly in delicious ways, so I knew how to eat well on little. Hank’s food was also figured into my budget and I fed him mostly dried food which he supplemented by mousing whenever he could.

After he got sick, I started reading up on cat health. In The Natural Cat, author Anitra Frazier claimed that most commercial cat food is not particularly good for cats. The dry food, in particular, can aggravate the tendency in male cats to urinary tract disease. She had very definite ideas on the proper pet diet.

I started cooking for Hank.

The basic recipe I followed was 60% meat, 20% grain, and 20% vegetable. The weeks when I found chicken leg quarters on sale for 49 cents per pound I would buy huge piles of them and boil them in a stockpot. I would save some of the cooking water for Hank. Cats are notoriously poor water drinkers and that can exacerbate urinary problems, but Hank was always happy to slurp up a bowl-full of “chicken juice.” Vegetables changed seasonally, some mix of carrots, corn, spinach. Always a little garlic, which I consider to be nature’s best medicine. Oatmeal or rice. All of it mixed in the food processor, put in baggies, the baggies piled in the freezer. Also, after I had pulled all the meat off the chicken bones, I would roast the bones with a couple onions and some carrots, then boil them in with my share of the “chicken juice”, making a big pot of good rich stock that I use for braising and in soups and sauces.

The ingredients gathered

It helped. Hank did have one or two more episodes but the infections were milder and then they stopped altogether.

Grimalkin sneaks a bite

He lived for a number of years more, though in the last two years of his life he was plagued by other illnesses. He had a heart attack and died in the car while I was trying to get him to the vet. Sometimes I still miss him. People thought I was crazy to cook for my cat but I am convinced good food not only prolonged his life but gave him a healthier life. I still cook for the two cats I have now.

Roast the bones with onions and carrots to make stock

And I like to think my aunt would be happy I’m not wasting all those chicken bones.

The happy recipients:Grimalkin and Sam E. Spade

About a week ago my Slow Food chapter organized an outing to Cayuga Ridge Winery for a winery tour and pizza lunch. We are fortunate here in Central New York to have the Finger Lakes at our back door, a region which is not only beautiful but produces some really wonderful wine. The area is best known for white wines – particularly Rieslings – though some decent reds are around as well.

My friend Stacey and I drove down and as we pulled into the parking lot the first thing we noticed was a big copper dome sitting on a flatbed trailer. This turned out to be the outdoor pizza oven (and can I just say that I desperately want a small version of one for my back yard!)

The gorgeous copper oven

About fifteen of us showed up and we were greeted by Susie Challon, who along with her husband Tom owns the winery. Susie is a vivacious woman who so very obviously loves her work and enjoys talking to visitors as well.


Dramatic sky but the rain held off

She led us out to the edge of the vineyard, mostly devoid of grapes this late in the season, and she talked to us about grafting stock, training vines, harvesting. She proudly told us, rightly so, that they use only their own grapes in their wine. She explained how so many different factors affect the taste of the wine: when the grapes are picked, how they are trellised, what’s in the soil, and the type of yeast used are just a few things that will make a difference in the taste of the wine.

Susie Challon

We wandered over to the machine that presses the grapes and separates out the skins and seed. After that we were off to the cellar. The Challons use both steel tanks and oak barrels, depending on the wine. Then it was time to head to the tasting room.


The wine press                                                  Steel tanks and oak barrels

We placed our pizza orders, then lined up at the tasting counter. We started with a very nice un-oaked Chardonnay that had a great fruit finish. I don’t much care for a lot of oak in white wines so I enjoyed this one, though my two favorites were the Riesling and the Gewürztraminer.

The 2008 Riesling placed first in a German competition in the New World category. (In this particular competition the categories are Best German Riesling, Best European, and Best New World.) it was delicious with a honey scent and a great, slightly mineral finish. The Gewürztraminer was bright and fruity, with a great nose. I’m saving the bottle I got for an Asian dinner. In fact, during the tasting we were offered pretzel sticks with a Thai chile/roasted garlic dipping sauce to try with it and the wine held up quite well.

Then our pizzas were ready. There was one vegetarian option and one meat option so Stacey and I each got one to share. They were wonderful. The crust was cracker-thin, crispy, and slightly charred. The meat pizza was topped with bell peppers and sausage from a local company (Autumn Harvest Smoked Sweet.) The vegetarian pizza had caramelized onions, silky baked butternut squash, and another local product, Lively Run Chevre (goat cheese).

Almost ready

After lunch I talked to the pizza tender, Seth Kircher. He said he wanted to get a wood-fired sauna but his wife, Susie’s daughter Mary Jane Challon, told him the pizza oven was the better option! The real inspiration came when they noticed that while touring the wine trail they would get hungry about three in the afternoon and there weren’t any good food options at that time of the day. There are a number of good dinner places but they were hungry mid-afternoon and figured other wine-tasters were too. They wanted to offer something that was local, quick, and affordable. Thus, the pizza oven.

The Saturday I was there, Mary Jane and another woman were putting together the pizzas inside, and Seth was baking them off outside. It was their last weekend for pizza for the season – it’s getting a little cold here to cook outside – but the oven will be fired up again come spring. Both the winery and the pizza oven are well worth a visit.

Delish!

I don’t have any recipes today. I was going to try making pizza dough but ran out of time. Instead I bought some naan bread at the grocery store, topped it with some sautéed onions, sliced red peppers, and some goat cheese I had that needed to be used up. I baked it for about seven minutes at 375˚ until the bread was crispy and the cheese melted. Any number of toppings could be used here, including any leftovers you might have in the fridge, and pita bread can be used if you can’t find naan.