Southern Maine, Season by Season

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Third Week in August


Late August already - and turning the corner towards the start of the new academic year, and the fresh season of autumn.  This time of year is always really difficult for me.  On the one hand, I am looking forward to the feeling of renewal and purpose that the beginning of the semester instills, along with the new rhythms of the academic schedule. There is a heady feeling to it - almost as if anything is possible and every day can being new accomplishment and fulfillment.

But then there is the letting go of summer. And that is what is hard.

Leaving Southern Maine is leaving home. There is no mistaking that. Taking up life (for most of the week, anyway) in the city is exhilarating, but my soul resides in Kennebunk, off Mill Street.

The last couple of weeks of August must therefore be celebrated.

And that's exactly what happened, at the end of the week! Paul and I went off to Cummington, Massachusetts to visit family, to renew acquaintance with his family farm, and (most of all) to enjoy the Cummington Fair!

The Fair is almost 150 years old, and still going strong. It's at once a celebration of agricultural life and an end-of-summer revel, complete with corny entertainment, a cheesy midway, and tons of junk food. Fresh french fries with malt vinegar are a must, as is soft-serve ice cream and greasy sandwiches.  The oxen and horse draws are prime attractions. The soft bleats of the sheep and moos of the cows in the barns during the daytime give way to the crashes and screams of the crowd at the nightly demolition derbies. The antique tractor and car parade draws the largest crowds of all, it seems. What fun!!

The first day of classes is still days and days away.  There's still time to enjoy the green hills and blue cloud-filled skies, or the pop of a campfire as the stars appear overhead. Time to wish on a shooting star and listen for the hoot of an owl. Time to eat and laugh and relax in the shelter of family.

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Some of the color of the Cummington Fair



Looking east from the farm. The glow of the sunset on the opposite side of the sky is reflected in the clouds.










The Garden

This week's best flowers

These aren't from my garden, but they are certainly lovely. This is a border of bright zinnias at the observation building on Mt. Sugarloaf, in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.



The phlox in bloom.



Lovely roses, in my favorite color, in their second bloom.


Not a lot going on in the garden at the moment, so here is a shot of my pet orchid, a phalaenopsis, which has recently come into bloom again. These blooms will last weeks if I'm careful not to overwater the plant.

Blue lobelia continues to bloom in a Nantucket basket on the porch.

It's clear fall is coming! Small pansies are beginning to bloom again in the midst of the salad greens in this blue bowl.
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An arrangement of backyard flowers: 

For this large arrangement, I chose a shallow birchbark container, fitted with a glass bowl. Since sunflowers and hydrangea are heavy, I used a chunk of well-soaked Oasis and taped it securely into the glass bowl. I keep a block of Oasis around for those times when flowers need to be well-anchored in their container.  In addition to the white hydrangeas and golden "teddy bear" sunflowers, I used two small ears of sweet corn, partially shucked,  from my miniature corn patch as accents. The lines of the arrangement are defined by branches of white rose of sharon (which look and smell like small gardenias) and the linear, airy blooms of clethra, or sweet pepper bush.


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Recipes for the Week

Gourmet: A Love Story 

The demise of the venerable, splendid, food and lifestyle magazine Gourmet in November of 2009, has been widely mourned, but allow me to add a belated tear or two more to the general lamentation. I loved that magazine. I first encountered it when I lived in what amounted to a rooming house for young women in Boston's Back Bay, when I attended medical/grad school. I was cat-sitting for a neighbor whilst she vacationed in France one spring, and I soon was spending all my free time on her couch (far more comfy than mine) reading her collection of back issues of Gourmet. The magazine changed my entire approach to cooking. Cooking was, until that time, a necessity - something I did two or three times a day to feed my Dad and two brothers, when I still lived at home. But Gourmet slyly suggested that cooking could be more: luxurious, sensuous, an activity that offered the possibility of creativity and accomplishment. Okay, I'm in. 

After my first marriage, I subscribed to Gourmet as a gift to myself and my new husband. My subscription never ended, but my December 2009 issue just - well - never came. It was as if a trusted friend had passed away. 

I have saved many of my favorite issues. Not all - that would be foolish - but many. And every month, I look forward once again to the Gourmet invitation to the culinary life, well-lived. Here's a menu from this summer's back issues. All three recipes are easy and  - yes - luxurious and sensuous. Enjoy. 

Basil Caesar Salad:  Cut several pieces of leftover bread (ciabatta works well) into chunks. Toss the bread chunks with 2 Tbsp. olive oil and salt, and bake in a 375 degree oven until crusty. Stir the croutons once or twice while they are baking.  Meanwhile, process one garlic clove in a food processor until it's chopped. Add one egg, 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, 1 Tbsp. anchovy paste, 1 cup chopped basil, and 1/2 cup chopped parsley. Process, and with the motor running, drizzle 6 Tbsp. olive oil into the bowl. Process basil dressing until emulsified. Chop heads of romaine lettuce, and toss lettuce with croutons, dressing, and 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately. 

Salmon with Citrus-Yogurt Sauce:  For sauce, mix 1 cup plain Greek yogurt, 2 Tbsp. olive oil, 2 Tbsp. water, 1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice, 1 tsp. fresh orange juice, 1 tsp. grated lime zest, 1/2 tsp. grated orange zest, 3/4 tsp. kosher salt, and 1/2 tsp. honey.  This sauce is superb with any grilled or baked fish!  Grill or slow-roast one large salmon filet or four salmon steaks, and serve with the sauce.  For slow-roasting (a superior way of cooking salmon, in my opinion), rub the fish with olive oil, and season well with salt and pepper. Cover the fish tightly with foil, and roast in a pre-heated 300 degree oven for about 30-40 minutes, depending on the size of the filets. The fish should be opaque, but should not be dry.

Raspberry (or Blueberry) Buttermilk Cake:  Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and buter and flour one 9-inch round cake pan. Whisk together 1 cup flour, 1/2 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. baking soda, and 1/4 tsp. fine salt.  Cream 1 stick softened butter and 2/3 cup granulated sugar until fluffy and pale-colored. A stand mixer will do this best. Beat in 1/2 tsp. vanilla, and then 1 large egg. Add flour mixture alternately with 1 cup well-shaken buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour. Mix until just combined. Scrape into prepared pan, and scatter 1 cup fresh raspberries (or blueberries) over the top. Sprinkle fruit with 1 1/2 Tbsp. sugar. Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 25 to 30 mintes. Cool slightly, and (if possible) serve while still warm. 

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Late August Repose

Monday, August 18, 2014

Second Week in August

This has been a week filled with music, socializing, and very unpredictable weather. Work on the syllabi and courses is in full swing as well. But the second week in August should be re-named the Week of Frenetic Music. Let's see - we attended a really terrific concert in Portland by the Irish traditional duo of David Munnelly and Mick Conneely, on accordion and fiddle, respectively.

During the concert, Portland experienced an historic downpour ... over 4 inches of rain fell in about  two hours. And this after a full day of heavy rain. Manhole covers were blown from their fittings by gushing storm sewers, and streets filled with water. We tried three different ways to drive home from the city, and were met with sudden floodwaters the first two times. Eventually, we were able to make it to the highway, and were able to make it home safely.

And on Saturday, we welcomed flutist Peter Bloom, guitarist Mark Leighton, their managers and significant others - as well as flutemakers Forbes and Yola Christie to our house for a weekend stay that ended with a superb concert of classical and jazz pieces played by Peter and Mark.

All this was happening whilst Maine Fiddle Camp and the Fleadh Cheoil na h√Čireann were ongoing in other locations. My fiddle remained in its case throughout the week, however - a humbling admission. But I really hope that will change this week, as we finish off the course work and prepare for the Cummington Fair!

The Fair is an end-of-summer delight that makes the transition of seasons a bit sweeter. It is an old-fashioned rural agricultural fair, with the addition of a fine midway, musical acts, and (my favorite) contests of animal (and human) training and performance. A family cookout on the farm is the highlight of the weekend - everyone gets to enjoy each other's company as well as a terrific meal and the unforgettable vistas of the hill country of western Massachusetts.

The Garden

This week's best flowers

Oriental lilies are really popping in the garden about now. Here's one gorgeous cultivar, surrounded by the leaves of one of my hydrangeas. If you look closely, there are a couple of insects enjoying these beauties too!

Another shot of the Oriental lilies, this time surrounded by gooseneck loosestrife, at the end of its bloom. 
Annual New Guinea impatiens are still adding a lot of color to the front of the borders. There's an art glass ball here, as well as the foliage of sweet woodruff, German iris, hydrangea and lupine. The blue ceramic bowl holds leaf lettuce. 

Roses are well into their second bloom now! After their first bloom, in late June, I deadheaded them, sprayed them with an organic fungicide, and worked Epsom salts into the soil with some well-rotted compost. This is my David Austin English Rose, called "Carding Mill". I love the color - and the fragrance is wonderfully heady. 

What may be my favorite color of daylily in the garden. It's a peach-yellow combination that is not well-shown in the photograph. I bought a bunch of these at a closeout special from White Flower Farm about twelve years ago, and they have followed me to the new house from the summer place in Wells. 

The rose border. Catmint and cranesbill (also called wild geranium) are the mounds at the front of the border.

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A couple of arrangements of backyard blooms: 


It's finally zinnia season! These spectacular and practically foolproof annuals are just so bright and sturdy that they need no further embellishment. I like shades of hot pink and orange, and I have arranged a bunch of very bright blooms simply in a white alabaster footed vase. There's nothing in the neutral background to detract from the hot pop of color. 

Sunflowers need some extra care and patience when arranging. They are almost always topheavy, and thus need support from a broad or sturdy vase, as well as the flowers surrounding them. The hardest thing is to arrange them so that their sun-seeking blossoms are shown to their best advantage. Here I have chosen an Irish crystal biscuit jar for an unsymmetrical, dynamic arrangement of small sunflowers. I've added sweet corn tassels as linear elements and dill flowers for their airy texture, a counterpoint to the solid sunflowers. 
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Recipes for the Week

An informal summer dinner party

When you're expecting summer guests (and, if you live in Southern Maine, that seems to be often - a true delight!) a make-ahead menu allows you to enjoy your guests as well as your own cooking. Last-minute preparation is minimal with this menu, and will happily accommodate offers of help from guests. Here goes: 

Appetizers: Cheese board, with honey and hot pepper jelly as condiments. Chopped tomato and basil bruschetta on baguette toasts. Almonds.

I like to serve appetizers with an aperitif. Wine is fine, but for a bit of extra interest, try well-chilled white Lillet (a French fortified wine) with a thin slice of fruit.

Mains: Grilled turkey kebabs with chimichurri sauce, wild rice salad with grilled vegetables and za'tar, tossed green salad with steamed green beans, fresh corn, and bacon, with French vinaigrette.  Warmed ciabatta or other crusty bread.

Dessert: Cornmeal butter cake with mixed berry sauce

Here is the plan: the bruschetta, both salads, chimichurri sauce, salad dressing, cake and berry sauce can all be prepared in advance and wait for you either in the refrigerator or on the countertop if it is not too hot.

For bruschetta: I cheat. I used a can of Hunt's fire-roasted diced tomatoes with garlic. I added salt, pepper, and chopped basic and oregano to the drained tomatoes, and allowed the mixture to mellow for several hours in the fridge. Thinly slice a baguette on the bias and brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with herb salt and bake until crispy. These will remain crisp on the countertop in a bowl or on a platter until you need them.

For chimichurri: There's a huge number of recipes for this all-purpose (and addictive) sauce for grilled meats. Here's an easy one: Wash a bunch of cilantro, and a bunch of flat-leafed parsley. Cut off the heads of the bunches (with some stems attached) and throw the leaves into the food processor bowl with four sliced cloves of garlic, 1-2 Tbsp. red-wine vinegar, a teaspoon of kosher salt (you may need more), 1/2 tsp. fresh-ground black pepper, and about 1/2 cup olive oil (you may need more). Process until the herbs are finely chopped and the sauce is spoonable. You may need to add more oil, or a tablespoon or two of water. Taste, and adjust seasoning. You may need a bit more salt. Scrape the sauce into a screw-top jar. It can remain on the countertop for many hours; the salt and oil preserve the herbs.

For the rice salad: pre-grill a bunch of vegetables such as sweet onions, zucchini, and red pepper strips - brush the veggies with olive oil and sprinkle them with salt and za'tar (a spicy North African/Middle Eastern herb mix) before grilling. After the veggies are grilled, chop them coarsely and mix with wild and white rice that you have cooked beforehand. Moisten the salad with olive oil, salt, and more za'tar, to taste. This can sit, well-covered, on the countertop for several hours as well.

For the green salad: steam the green beans and cut the corn kernels from the cob. Store separately in the refrigerator, before mixing at the last minute with sliced romaine and chopped bacon. Mix with a vinaigrette that you have made beforehand, or a bottled dressing is fine as well. I like Penzey's Country French Vinaigrette mix, mostly for its bracing hint of chervil.

Kebabs: You should pre-cut the turkey into (smallish) cubes for the kebabs. Toss the cubes with a little bottled Italian dressing to provide a little flavor, oil for the grill, and preservation. Keep turkey well-chilled until ready to grill. Then, thread the cubes on wooden skewers that have soaked in water for an hour or so, and grill over high heat. Brush kebabs with an equal mixture of light brown sugar and balsamic vinegar at the end of grilling.

Cornmeal cake: This is one of my favorite recipes, adapted from an ancient (1991!) issue of Food and Wine magazine. I've made it for years, and each time it is a little different, but always very buttery, very good, with a distinctive crunch. First, preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a pan well with butter and dust it with cornmeal. The original recipe calls for a loaf pan, but I have a cake mold in the shape of a scallop shell, and I use it exclusively for this cake. Then, combine 1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) butter and 3/4 cup sugar in a mixer, until the sugar dissolves and the butter is very light. Add 1 tsp. pure vanilla, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 3 eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. The mixture may separate at this point, but don't worry.  To the mixture add 1/2 cup cornmeal, 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, and 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for 30-35 minutes (for the scallop mold) or 45 minutes or so (for the loaf pan), or until a cake tester comes out clean. Run a knife around the perimeter of the cake, and invert over a cooling rack. After 15 minutes, lift off the pan, and cool completely. This cake needs no more than a sprinkle of powdered sugar for decoration, but a sauce made of mixed berries and some lightly whipped cream are delightful additions.

Make most of this ahead, and enjoy your own dinner party!

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Paul and I were fascinated witnesses to the approach of a huge thunderstorm the other day, at Kennebunk's Parsons Beach. Here is a photo of a portion of the Mousam River estuary, with layered thunder clouds above. 







                   

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

First Week in August


August is a difficult month. On the one hand, the heat inspires langour, and the garden bounty is proof that summer is still very much with us. The ancient Irish knew this, as we have just passed the festival of Lunasa (Lughnasadh), a cross-quarter day that marks the middle of the summer, or the height of the growing season. High summer indeed.

But we are also hastening towards the fall. Back-to-school sales have taken the place of post-July Fourth sales at the big-box outlets, and teachers are beginning to think about fall classes. I'm guilty on that front; my colleague Kari and I are thinking about syllabus revisions for our Evolutionary Biology course at BU, and Paul and I are revising our American Traditional Music online course, due to start right after Labor Day.

I don't want to think about that right now. I want to think about the fruits of summer - what the garden is doing, and the flowers that mark this season. So here are a few photos from the flower garden for this week, the first full week of August. High summer, anticipating a Supermoon on Sunday the 10th, and days full of indolence, sunny heat and sudden thunderstorms.  The syllabi can wait ...

The Garden

This week's best flowers



Hydrangea "Everlasting Summer" and Gooseneck Loosestrife (Lysimachia), around the patio in back.
This loosestrife always reminds me of Acadia National Park, where I first saw a huge bunch of it outside the Jordan Pond House. This is the third season for the hydrangea, and they have been practically carefree and reliably blue.


Daylily season is past its prime, but there are still some gorgeous blooms to be enjoyed. Gardening centers are marking down their plants about now, and I've just bought two additions to the Hemerocallis collection to plug holes.



Oriental lilies, large and fragrant, are putting on a show right about now. This is a lovely, unnamed, cultivar.




An orange rose bud can be seen between the Black-Eyed Susans and the Spirea.

Our pet frog, Fillmore, is happily at home in the fountain puddle. The water lily is a small hardy variety - but it has not yet bloomed. I am still hoping. The hot pink cosmos make a nice fringe for the puddle, as does a small pink Spirea.




An arrangement of backyard blooms:


Here is an arrangement of some of the more colorful flowers now at their best. I've laid the foundation with ferns and Everlasting Summer hydrangeas, and added gooseneck loosestrife, whose curves mimic those of the hammered silver pitcher, which I found at a local antique shop. Red Spirea adds color, and I've mixed in some buds of native Joe Pye Weed and some parsley seed heads for texture and balance. 

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Recipes for the week

What do you do with a monster zucchini? 

Vegetable gardeners, at this time of the year, often face the problem of plenty. Squash plants, especially, produce far more fruits than bargained for when the seeds went into the ground in April. I did not plant squash this year, as the plants always seem to outstrip our appetites. I also knew that we might be the recipients of some other garden's bounty. Sure enough - a box of football-sized zucchini showed up at church last Sunday, with a written (and Biblical - ) plea to "take and eat". Okay. But just ONE. 

So - what to do with a monster squash? Grilling it is not an appetizing option - the center of such behemoths is wooly and tasteless. So I opted for two alternatives for the vegetable, and built a menu around them. 

First, I halved the well-scrubbed squash and scooped out the center (into the composter. Bleah.)
Then I grated two cups of the unpeeled remaining squash, and used it in a really easy and tasty chocolate cake. To wit: 

Chocolate Zucchini Sheet Cake

Preheat  the oven to 325 degrees. 

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 1 stick softened butter (I always used salted butter - for reasons of taste - with only one exception. More about that later ...), 1/2 cup canola oil, and 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar. Mix until the sugar dissolves (this is known as creaming. With the added oil, it's more like emulsification).  Add two eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract and beat well.

Measure into another bowl 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup cocoa, 1 tsp. fine salt, and 1 tsp. baking soda. You can add 1 tsp. ground cinnamon if you like, but it is not necessary.  Mix the dry ingredients together with a whisk - there is no need to sift!

Add the dry ingredients to the butter and egg mixture alternately with 1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix just enough to combine. Fold in 2 cups shredded unpeeled zucchini, and spread the batter in a buttered and floured 13 x 9 inch baking pan.

Sprinkle 1 cup chocolate chips and 3/4 cup chopped walnuts over the batter, and bake for about 40 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean (or almost clean; this cake will continue to bake in the center after it comes out of the oven).

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Well, the cake only used up a portion of the monster zucchini.  As for the rest - it was time to make ratatouille.  This iconic Mediterranean vegetable stew has as many recipes as there are cooks. There are a few constants, though: eggplant, summer squash, onions, tomatoes and peppers.

There are many different ways of making it, as well. I have to agree with Julia Child, however, when she prescribes that the different elements should be cooked separately, and then layered for a final heating to merge the flavors. Here, then, is my way of making ratatouille, in the spirit of the indomitable  Mrs. Child:

Ratatouille

Stem two small eggplants and slice lengthwise into 1/2 inch-thick segments. Place these on a baking sheet (lined with parchment paper or a Silpat mat) in a single layer. Brush the slices with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt, pepper, dried (or fresh) oregano, and dried (or fresh) thyme leaves. 

Stem and slice two small (or the remnants of one monster) zucchini, and place them on another baking sheet. Add slices of red or orange bell peppers. Prepare these vegetables for roasting as you did the eggplants. 

Roast these vegetables at 350 degrees until they are soft and slightly caramelized on the undersurface, about 20-30 minutes. 

Meanwhile, coarsely slice one large or two medium sweet yellow onions, two large portobello mushroom caps, and 3-4 large garlic cloves.  Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a large covered Dutch oven over moderate heat, and add the onions. Cook the onions slowly, until they are translucent and aromatic. Sprinkle them with salt, pepper, thyme, and oregano, and cook until the herbs are fragrant. Add the mushrooms and garlic, and cook, covered, until all the vegetables have wilted and combined well. Add two 14-oz. cans fire-roasted diced tomatoes, and cook until everything is hot and fragrant. 

Remove the roasted vegetables from the oven, and pour the sauteed vegetables out of the Dutch oven. Now, beginning with the zucchini, layer the sliced roasted vegetables with the sauteed vegetable mix, back into the Dutch oven, ending with a decorative layer of eggplant. Cover the pot and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes to combine flavors. 

Let the stew sit on the stove until you want to serve it. I like it best just warmer than room temperature. Add a drizzle of very good olive oil and a sprinkle of finishing salt when you serve it. 

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I served the ratatouille with a simple roasted bone-in chicken breast. My favorite way to prepare this is to marinate the meat for about 30 minutes in Ken's (original) Italian Dressing - NOT the low-fat kind, which is an abomination. Tuck a sprig of fresh rosemary under the skin, and either grill it or roast it. I roasted the chicken this time, using the same sheet I'd used for the eggplant. Yes, with the remnants of the olive oil and herbs still on it. Extra flavor! 

Add some ripe cherry tomatoes to the plates for fresh taste and color, and a loaf of crusty bread, and you've got dinner. 

Plus chocolate cake for dessert! 

Cross off one monster zucchini. 

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In August, preserving gets into full swing. I enjoyed some especially good dilled green beans as part of a ploughman's lunch at a nearby brew pub this past week, and - well - I had some fresh haricots waiting to be picked in the garden.  These are some of the jars from the second pickling episode of the year (okra was first, a few weeks ago, and they are almost ready to be sampled). The other pickles are bread and butter cukes, also made with vegetables and herbs from the garden.  I also started a crock of Edna Lewis' best pickles - they must be finished this week! Stay tuned.