I woke up to the sound of a soft steady rain. A perfect day to play in the kitchen. I’d found an Emeril Lagasse recipe for Ratatouille that I wanted to make. It was chock full of vegetables – my favorite. I’d never cooked with eggplant before but any vegetable that pretty had to be delicious.
I love cooking with fresh produce and there is nothing like fresh vegetables straight from the garden. I very seldom use canned or frozen vegetables. This also means my cooking is geared to what is in season. Late summer is a bountiful time and the variety of vegetables to choose from is never ending.
The origin of my ingredients for the ratatouille was a story of its own. The eggplant, yellow squash and green pepper came from the farmer’s market. The zucchini, basil and parsley were from my garden and the tomatoes and red bell peppers were dropped off by a friend who had grown them in his garden. He’d stopped by to pick up my lawnmower that had decided it didn’t want to start anymore. The vegetables were a nice surprise.
I did all of the slicing and cutting up early in the day when I’m most productive and at my best, except for the eggplant. It will brown like an apple when sliced and it was best to wait until cooking time. I knew if I waited to start cooking until late in the afternoon, I wouldn’t make the effort and would end up with something quick and easy but much less delicious for supper.
The recipe called for the vegetables to be diced, but I like bigger pieces and “chunked” them instead. I also didn’t have any fresh thyme so I decreased the amount to ¼ teaspoon and used dried. I eye-balled the amount of parsley and basil. As you can see, I am not an exacting kind of cook.
I decided to serve the ratatouille over a bed of angel hair pasta and added a few cooked shrimp. After a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, dinner was ready.
Here is the recipe I used:
Emeril Lagasse’s Ratatouille (with adaptations)
¼ cup olive oil
1 ½ cups diced onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 cups diced eggplant with skin on. One eggplant made 2 cups for me
¼ teaspoon dried thyme or ½ teaspoon fresh
1 cup chunked green pepper
1 cup chunked red bell pepper
1 cup chunked zucchini squash, unpeeled
1 c chunked yellow squash, unpeeled
1 ½ cups chunked tomato
1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
DIRECTIONS: Pour olive oil into a 12 inch skillet. I used a 10 inch and it was really full by the time all of the vegetables were added. I think a wok would work well, too. When the oil is hot, sauté onions and garlic until onions are wilted and turning transparent, about 6 minutes. I love the smell of onions and garlic cooking. It tells of delicious things to come. Next, add the eggplant and thyme, cook and stir for 5 minutes. Add green and red peppers, zucchini and yellow squash. Cook for 5 more minutes. Add tomatoes, basil, parsley, salt and pepper. Cook for an additional 5 minutes or until the vegetables look tender but not cooked to mush. Serve as is for a side dish or serve over pasta or rice, with a few cooked shrimp and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese for a main entree.
How many times have you gone to an event and something else ended up being the gem of the day? That happened to me during my trip to Bay City to see the Tall Ships. While the old vessels were impressive, what knocked my socks off was a presentation/documentary later that evening at the State Theatre.
STORM WARNING by Ric Mixter and Dan Hall was captivating with its original score, vintage footage, interviews and video of dives to some of the historic shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. It also told of the days when Bay City was a major ship building area that continued until the close of the Defoe Shipbuilding Company in December of 1976. Many of the sunken ships were built in Bay City or the boats that came to the rescue of their crews were built there.
The shipping industry began on the Great Lakes in the seventeenth century with the French Canadians using the water to move boat loads of animal skins. Then in the nineteenth century shipping iron ore that was mined in the Upper Peninsula began. It was followed in the twentieth century by the shipping of limestone that was mined in northern lower Michigan. Shipping is still an important industry today. Needless to say, the documentary was over way too soon.
I find that living in south-central Michigan, it is easy for me to become disconnected from my water-based heritage. Even though I’m surrounded by small lakes – I believe the local lore says that if you live in Michigan you are no more than six miles from a body of water – I need to visit one of the Great Lakes from time to time and experience their wide open waters. It reminds me that an important part of my Michigan heritage and the lives of Michiganders today are based on the vast freshwater seas that surround us.
Also that weekend, I was given the chance to visit the Saginaw River Rear Range Lighthouse. It is owned by Dow Chemical which is collaborating with the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society to preserve the lighthouse. Access is limited to special events, such as the Tall Ships and visitors must be accompanied by members of the Historical Society with representatives from Dow Chemical on site.
And, of course the chief attraction of the trip was the Tall Ships. I was able to get down to the dock early in the morning of the first day, before the crowds of visitors filled up the park and the walkway. Standing next to the Spanish Galleon was both awe inspiring and humbling. The crews that manned these wind driven vessels were courageous and daring; true pioneers of shipping on the Great Lakes.
The Tall Ships will also be stopping in Chicago from July 27th through the 31st, Green Bay, Wisconsin from August 5th through the 7th and Duluth, Minnesota from August 18th through the 21st.
There’s nothing like spending a morning at the landfill. I was skeptical, to say the least, when I heard of plans for a nature hike.
Gary Siegrist, Naturalist/Stewardship Coordinator, at the Dahlem Conservancy, was to be our guide. My vision of wildflowers growing in the garbage couldn’t have been more wrong.
Come to find out, our hike was to take place on forty-four acres that the Liberty Landfill had set aside to mitigate two acres of wetlands and wet meadow that had been destroyed. The acreage is monitored by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). And the Dahlem Conservancy is under contract to write annual reports, conduct surveys, monitor activities and do restoration work which includes controlling non-native invasive plants.
Here is a sampling of the astounding nature our group witnessed on this tract of land. The next time someone says “ Let’s go hang-out at the landfill” I’ll be right on board.
A special Thank You to Gary Siegrist for helping me with this information and making sure I got my facts straight.
Hanging clothes out to dry on a beautiful sunny day gives me a Zen-like peace. It is a ritual that I practice every year, once the warm days of spring arrive. Women (and sometimes men) have hung out the laundry as far back as when clothes were washed down by a stream and pounded with rocks to get out the dirt.
The smell and feel of sheets warmed by gentle breezes and bright sunlight is like nothing else. My mom hung her clothes out to dry until the last two years of her life, when she sold her home and move into an apartment. She was an environmentalist before it was politically correct and abhorred using energy to run a clothes dryer when the sunshine was abundant and free.
Not only is line-drying laundry one of the earliest uses of solar energy, it is ecologically sound and leaves no carbon footprint. The sun is also a natural disinfectant and the bleaching effect of its rays leave your whites, whiter without the use of chlorine. Air dried towels have a nice, rough texture that will give your skin an invigorating rub, exfoliating old dry skin without the use of creams and chemicals.
Drying your clothes outside in the fresh air is THE BEST in so many ways. I find my life slows down, even if for just a few minutes, when I’m hanging out the wet-wash. The breeze and sun gently touch me. I take a deep breath, smell the warm earth and listen to the birds calling to each other across my backyard. One of the finest moments is when I see Canada geese in their familiar V formation and hear their throaty honk high overhead.
A mile outside of the village are several Amish farms. It is a glimpse into a simpler world: buggies waiting by the back stoop, horses in the paddock and, of course, clothes on the line.
It is a shame that my grand-daughters’ generation won’t know the sun-sweet scent of line dried sheets or the rough touch of a towel. But, maybe they will remember the good old days when Grandma hung her clothes out to dry.
March is Women’s History month and I’ve been thinking of the amazing women who have touched my life – women who persevered and kept on keeping on even when it wasn’t easy. There were so many but a few stand out in my memory.
Bonnie and I were in our early twenties but she was way older than me in so many ways. One day she told me she was pregnant and her boyfriend had hit the road running. We worked in a department store for little more than minimum wage. I still lived at home with mom and dad.
Her parents had just kicked her out. But Bonnie kept doing what needed to be done. She came to work every day, wearing the same pair of maternity pants. She could only afford the luxury of one pair and washed them out every night. She added extra time to her commute to accommodate pulling over to the side of the road and losing her breakfast most mornings.
When I think of her, all these years later, I am still humbled by her courage. Sadly we lost touch. She is someone I wish was still in my life.
Another mom-on-her own was Donna. Her doctor had told her that she would never conceive a child, but low-and-behold she did. The father wasn’t a man she could count on or one she wanted in her life. He agreed to forfeit his parental rights if she wouldn’t seek child support. For her it was an easy choice. She made up her mind to do whatever it took to raise her son on her own.
Donna had long ago moved out of her parent’s house and even though she had their loving support she didn’t want to burden them. This left her on her own financially but free to decide her future and her child’s.
She knew her focus for the next twenty years would be providing a stable home, lots of love and an education for her son. She set out to acquire the skills necessary to take care of her small family. That included going back to college for her Bachelor’s degree and also signing up at Vo-Tech for a class in auto-mechanics. I think she eventually took a shop class, too. She was a classy and courageous woman. I’m still in awe of her.
I know most daughters think their moms are amazing – but mine really was! She met my dad during WWII, married him and had a son. When the war ended a few months later, she left her home in England and said good-bye to friends and family. She didn’t know if she would ever see them again. My brother and mom came across the Atlantic on a ship; she not knowing if the young American sailor she’d married would still want her now that the intensity that came with war-time was over. When she arrived, my dad’s family didn’t know what to make of his English bride. It took a while before she was accepted into the family. I can’t imagine leaving my life behind and starting new in a strange land. She was one brave woman.
Then there came a time when I would live a life on my own. I faced some dark hours but, I was fortunate to have the remarkable examples of the women who have woven their way through my life to help me get through the tough times and realize there were better days ahead. They had shown me what true courage is.
This time of year, at the end of winter, my thoughts wander out to the garden. I’m already thinking about what vegetables I will grow in my raised beds. The other day my green thumb got to itching and I planted some basil and dill in pots on the kitchen counter. I’m one of those people who keep a five-gallon bucket of garden dirt in the basement, so it doesn’t freeze. I never know when I’ll get the need to have my hands in some good black loam.
The older I get the more I realize that some of the old-time life skills that were a given in my mom’s day are becoming lost in today’s busy, plugged-in lifestyle. One of those skills is preserving food by canning and freezing. When my son was a preschooler, a farmer friend let me have a large garden plot at his mom’s farmhouse on the edge of the village. I grew everything from the usual tomatoes and cucumbers to brussel sprouts, red Pontiac potatoes and cantaloupe. The vegetables from that garden feed us for many winters. Around that same time, I worked with a woman who took her two-weeks vacation every year at harvest so she could can fruits and vegetables.
Preserving food for the winter still has its advocates, at least in my corner of rural America. While some families depend on their home canned and frozen foods, grown in the family garden or purchased from the local farmers’ market, other people enjoy canning up their own specialty foods, just for the fun of it.
A good example of the canning hobbyist is my neighbor, Ron. Last fall, he canned a batch of tomato-based vegetable juice. He handed me a pint to try, over the backyard fence. It was tasty with a nice spicy flavor. (I’ve included his recipe at the end.)
Another canning hobbyist I know is Karen who lives a couple of counties north of me, out in the country. She involves her husband in canning up salsa from beginning to end. They grow all of the ingredients in their backyard garden. They both take care of the weeding, the harvesting and the slicing and dicing on canning day.
Food preservation begins in the late spring with the earliest vegetables including peas and rhubarb. I prefer to freeze both of these vegetables over canning them. Rhubarb is easy to freeze: just rinse and dice. And peas retain better color and texture when frozen.
Freezing and canning is also a way to save on your food budget. I love the color of yellow, orange and red sweet bell peppers in my cooking. I buy them on sale and freeze for later use. The process is easy: rinse the peppers then remove seeds and pith. Cut into thin slices, spread out on a cookie sheet and freeze overnight. Then scoop the pepper slices into zip-style plastic bags or into freezer containers. When ready to use, just take out the amount needed. That’s all there is too it.
Green beans and broccoli need to be blanched, which is the process of dipping the prepared vegetables into a bath of boiling water for a couple of minutes, cooling in ice water, draining and then freezing.
Again, if you’re processing a small amount of vegetables, spread them on a cookie sheet to freeze and store in zip-style bags. That makes it easy to take out only the amount of vegetables needed.
Canning can be a year-round activity. I enjoy making up a big batch of turkey vegetable soup, using the turkey carcass and leftover meat and gravy from Thanksgiving dinner. A ham bone from Christmas can be added to navy beans for a pot of delicious bean soup that can be canned or frozen to enjoy all winter.
An important advantage to canning and freezing your own fruits and vegetables is knowing exactly what is going into the jar or freezer bag. There are no chemical preservatives or artificial colors and flavors added. Salt can be eliminated and the amount of sugar can be decreased.
My canning “bible” is Ball’s Blue Book of Canning. Everything I’ve ever wanted to know regarding recipes, processing times and pressures is in that book.
RON’S TOMATO-VEGGIE JUICE
10 lbs tomatoes, peeled and chopped (about 8 quarts)
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 large onions, chopped
2 carrots,cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 c chopped celery
1/2 c chopped green pepper
1/4 c sugar
1 T salt
1 t Worcestershire sauce
1/2 t pepper
DIRECTIONS: Combine tomatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, celery and green pepper in a large Dutch oven or soup kettle. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Cool. Press mixture through a food mill or fine sieve. Return juice to Dutch oven. Add sugar, salt, Worcestershire sauce and pepper. Bring to a boil. Ladle hot juice into hot sterilized quart jars, leaving 1/3 inch head space. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to each jar. Adjust caps. Process for 40 minutes in a boiling-water bath. Yields 7 to 8 quarts.
The stark and desolate beauty of a northern winter leaves me in awe. While the lushness of summer and soft warm breezes are welcome after months of cold and snow, there is a sense of the divine in the silent splendid wonder of winter.
I am a cross-country skier and I love being out in the brisk clear air hearing the swoosh of my skis on fresh snow. The best way to enjoy the winter is to get outside and play. I’ve kicked around the idea of snowshoeing for a couple of years and finally bought myself a pair as a Christmas present to myself. L.L. Bean offers a package deal including a set of poles and a very nice carrying bag, so I placed my order on-line and waited for the UPS guy to come.
Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are inexpensive activities and a great way for a family to spend time together. Once you have your gear the rest can be free. There is no need to travel to a ski resort, no lift tickets to buy or expensive rooms to rent, unless you choose to go that route. There are many local places where you can go for little or no charge. Just a few are, Hidden Lake Gardens, MacCready Reserve, Waterloo Recreation Area and The Dahlem Conservancy.
My favorite, when I’m going out alone, is the Dahlem Conversancy. There is a variety of terrain, from the open prairie to the pine forest. The trails are well marked and I feel safe out on the trails all by myself. I also have the office number on speed dial. If I run into trouble – a twisted ankle – they will quickly come to my rescue. The use of the trails is free, but it is well worth the small fee for a membership.
Last week I took a stroll through the woods on my snowshoes. When I got back in, I found I’d been out for two hours. I had no idea. The time went by so fast.
Here is a sample of what I saw while I was in the woods:
I’ve never made a layer cake in all my days of baking, but I talked myself into giving it a try.
I belong to the Addison library book club and we were just finishing up reading To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Our monthly meeting was coming up and I wanted to surprise everyone with a Lane cake. For all of you who’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ll remember that Jean Louise mentioned the neighbor Maudie’s, Lane cake.
Little did I know what I was getting into. It turns out that an authentic Lane cake has three layers – I had two 9-inch round cake pans. I needed one more. Checking in the housewares department of a local store I found that the cake pans to match what I have only come in a two-pack; one more than I needed. I wanted to stay with the same kind of pan so the layers would bake evenly. A dark pan will cook faster than a shiny aluminum one. Buying the two pans cost me just north of ten dollars.
I also needed a bottle of brandy. Not being a whisky drinker I asked the man stocking the shelf the difference between whisky (which is less expensive) and brandy. Come to find out, he wasn’t a drinker and didn’t know. He offered an assumption that is must be in the brewing. The cheapest bottle on the shelf was almost fourteen dollars. Then I needed cake flour. I thought about using regular white flour, but decided at this point I was going to stay as close as possible to the “authentic” recipe. Next I bought unsalted butter and parchment paper. So far, the cost of the cake was pushing close to thirty dollars. I was grateful that I had the rest of the ingredients on hand.
Back when I turned thirteen, I asked my mom to make me a layer cake for my birthday. She’d always made us – our birthdays are on the same day – a nine by thirteen inch single layer cake. This would be her first attempt at a layer cake. She did her best. I realize that now, but it was nowhere near as pretty as the picture in her cookbook. I was at that ignorant age and selfish and I didn’t hide my disappointment. Never once, did I think of asking if she would like me to make her a birthday cake. I hope I made it up to her after I grew up and saw what a great mom she was.
Now it was baking day. I looked over the Lane cake recipe. I decided to start with chopping the pecans, then set the butter on the counter to soften, removed the eggs from of the fridge and forgot to get the milk out so it would warm up to room temperature. The microwave took care of that.
It is impossible to line round cake pans with parchment paper. I finally gave up. I greased the paper and just let it sit on top of the pans in a sheet. I wanted the edges to be long enough to hang over the rim of the cake pans so I could lift the layers out once they were done baking and cooled.
I sifted the dry ingredients into a bowl and set it aside. Added the vanilla to the warm milk and using my mixer, I creamed the butter. Once I had the batter ready to spoon into the cake pans it hit me that there wasn’t any sugar listed in the ingredients. That just didn’t sound right. I tasted the batter and it wasn’t good.
I turned on my computer and found a recipe for Lane cake on the Southern Living website. Ah ha! The recipe was the same as the one I had except for the two cups of sugar that should’ve been creamed with the butter. It was too late for that now, so I dumped the sugar on top of the batter and mixed it in. That was a close call!
I dropped a large serving spoonful of batter in the center of each piece of parchment paper and then tucked the paper down into the cake pans as best I could.
Because of the way the paper fit into the pans, the edges of the cake didn’t come out nice smooth and round. They were a bit scalloped but that was easy to hide with frosting.
While the layers were baking, I started making the filling. At the last minute I noticed that the raisins were supposed to be chopped. I almost said the heck with that then let out a sigh. I started chopping. I muttered “keep it authentic” a couple of times. Chopping a cup and a half of raisins takes a while and by the time I was done, my finger was sore from pushing down on the knife.
The layers were done before the filling was heated up but they needed to cool anyway. I let the cakes layers cool for about 5 minutes then lifted them from the pans using the edges of the parchment paper.
The recipe said to heat the filling pecan/coconut/raisin/butter mixture to 170 degrees on a candy thermometer. Once it was hot enough, I took the pan off the burner and added the rest of the ingredients. Low and behold, the filling needed to cool too. I set it out in the cold garage to speed up the process.
Now it was time to assemble to cake. The parchment paper was worth the trouble because it peeled off the cake layers clean and without any trouble. Once the layers were all stacked, with filling between each one and on top of the last, the cake looked pretty good. It listed a little to one side, but all in all, not bad.
Next came the frosting. I’d forgotten about the frosting. The first recipe – the one without the sugar – called for a whipped cream frosting made with unflavored gelatin. I didn’t have whipping cream or gelatin in the house. The other recipe called for 7 minute frosting that is made by using a mixer over a bowl of boiling water. That sounded like a sure plan for disaster to me. I looked in my Good Housekeeping Cookbook from the early 1970’s. I found a frosting recipe using Karo Syrup, egg whites and vanilla. All things I had on hand.
The frosting looked and tasted pretty good. I painted in on the sides of the cake like troweling plaster on a wall. All was well until I noticed the frosting slowly sliding down the sides of the cake and pooling on the serving plate. What to do? I put the cake in the refrigerator to see if cooling down the frosting would thicken it up. Thank goodness it worked.
The next morning, the day of the book club meeting, I did some patch work with the extra frosting I saved and scraped off the pool of frosting from the plate. I warned everyone that I had no idea if the cake was any good. Much to my surprise and relief, it was delicious and it all held together.
There was plenty for the book club, the librarian and a couple of patrons who had the good luck to come to the library that afternoon.
Here is the recipe I used:
To Kill a Mockingbird’s Lane Cake
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
2 cups white sugar
3 ½ cups cake flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 teaspoons baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk at room temperature
8 egg whites at room temperature – save yolks for filling
¾ cup of unsalted butter
12 egg yolks – save two whites for frosting
1 ½ cups white sugar
1 ½ cups chopped pecans
1 ½ cups chopped raisins
1 ½ cups coconut
½ cup bourbon
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups dark corn syrup
2 egg whites at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
DIRECTIONS: Cake – Line three 9-inch round cake pans with greased parchment paper. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar with an electric mixer. In a separate bowl sift together cake flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Measure out milk and add vanilla to it. Alternately add dry ingredients and milk to creamed butter. Set aside. Batter will be pretty thick. In a separate bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Add a good scoop of egg whites to the cake batter and mix. Add rest of eggs whites and mix well. Divide batter evenly between the three pans. Bake at 325 degrees for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean and layers are lightly browned. Set aside to cool.
Filling – Melt butter and set aside to cool but not re-harden. In a large saucepan, mix together egg whites and sugar. Add cooled butter. Heat mixture, whisking constantly, to 170 degrees on a candy thermometer and mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Mix in the coconut, pecans and raisins. Cook and stir for two more minutes. Remove from heat then add bourbon and vanilla. Stir to combine and let cool before spreading on cake layers.
Assembly – place one layer on a serving plate and spread 1/3 of filling mixture over top. Add the second layer, repeat with filling then add third layer. Spread remaining filling over the top.
Frosting – In a small saucepan, heat corn syrup until boiling. Remove from heat. In a large bowl, beat egg whites until foamy. Add salt and continue beating until soft peaks form. Slowly pour in hot syrup continuing to beat for 6 to 8 minutes until frosting is fluffy and forms peaks when beater is raised. Beat in vanilla. Cool before using.
The memories of the people and pets who are missing are bitter-sweet and best shared, but I tend to keep my sadness close and only bring it out in the quiet dark times. Although, there are moments I’m hit hard from out of no where, by a memory. For years, after my dad passed away, I could be anywhere: driving down the highway, having lunch with friends, in church, listening to music – anywhere – and WHAM!, there would be the pain of losing dad all over again.
But it is always worse during the holiday season. At least I know that now he’s not alone. Mom and my youngest brother are with him, along with all but two of the aunts and uncles.
And there was Fluffy, before him, who is buried under the bleeding heart in the back corner of my yard.
New additions to the family have saved the holiday season and are a delightful blessing. I can see my late husband in our granddaughters. The oldest one has the family look that has been passed down from generation to generation. And I can’t help but smile as they laugh and go through their antics. They do a lot to fill up the empty spaces.
And thank God for old and new friends, they laugh when I need to laugh, cry when I need to cry and carry me when I can’t carry myself.
In the evening I look at my Christmas tree, bright with colored lights and filled with precious memories. I raise a glass of wine in a toast to all of the amazing people who have shared my life, to all of the people I am still to meet and to the adventures we will have. I am looking forward with joy and anticipation.
I wish you all a happy holiday season and a prosperous New Year.