Saturday, April 27, 2013

Simple Country Pleasures

Stretching toward spring
Spring comes slowly to the north. It creeps up the valleys where rivers once sheathed in ice now rush swift and black with melt water from the deep woods.  This morning the back field is framed with the last remnants of melting snow. Although the midday temperatures rise to the fifties, the mornings are still cool, the air thin and clear as water. Along the dirt road, the hard packed mud is pocked with prints – deer and moose, coyotes and the occasional lynx.  We rarely see them, but when we do, we are all startled, and freeze wide-eyed for a few moments, staring, and then they disappear into the dark woods like ghosts. 
The days lengthen; the sun stretches across the broad sky, and the hills beyond are blushed pink with new swelling buds.  Popples on the edges of the fields and the shoulders of the roads are furred with catkins that will soon litter the ground, pushed off the bare limbs by new leaves. As the temperatures climb, crackling wood fires are forsaken for morning coffee in the backyard as the sun breaks above the tree line or a few moments of rest in the lee of the garage as we bask in the caress of new warmth.  The kitchen is crowded with what grandson Silas identified as a grow operation.  Folding tables, covered with trays of new seedlings, line the windows and the dogs are frustrated that their view of the world is blocked by these silly human efforts.  There are Brussels and leeks, peppers and tomatoes, onions and herbs, bright sprouts of summer pushing up through the dark soil, stretching toward spring, all the result of hours spent pouring over the bright seed catalogs during the dark of January.
The run-off from melting snow in the woods beyond the edge of the dun fields has eased, but the ground is still spongy beneath our rubber boots. We make our way cautiously around the ragged garden beds, inspect the blueberries and raspberries for winter kill and moose nibbling, take stock of mulch and shavings, and inspect the rock piles from last summer with new walls and boundaries in mind.  The dogs stand, noses in the air, ears cocked, staring into the distance, imagining new adventures.  Bruce and Emerson spent one whole day clearing the asparagus and iris beds where new green pushes up through the dark, cold soil.  They loaded the dead leaves into the wheelbarrow and piled them on the compost, then climbed ladders to the roof, much to Kasey’s horror, to inspect the shingles and chimneys for winter damage.
Emerson is a busy boy whose heart is filled with adventure and the outdoors.  He likes high places, he told his grandfather, but clung tightly to Bruce’s hand during their lofty adventure, and warned that they should stay away from the edge because it is so high. And, he was glad to be on the ground, walking the dogs, taking delight in the gravelly mud and finding wedge shaped rocks perfect for axes. It was a good day.
Spring was late this year, or so it seemed, and has come in fits and starts, first warm then chill. For a month, we have gone to bed with bare grass in the front yard where the afternoon sun bakes it warm, and then risen in the morning to find the world coated in snow that fell silently throughout the night.  We made it through March only because of Salmon Brook Valley Maple Producers’ great Maine Maple Sunday breakfast.

While Vermont may be known for its syrup, we find this locally grown product every bit as good as any from the Green Mountain state, and we like that it is local. We packed my mother up in the car and made our way across the valley to the narrow dirt road that traverses a ridge of maples linked with tubing that feeds the sap downhill to the sugar house.  The Connelly clan does a stunning job with this breakfast, making everyone feel welcome by serving up terrific pancakes and warm organic syrup, maple baked beans and plenty of good Maine coffee, all at a remarkably low price. And for those, who aren’t quite sated after that feast, they also offer vanilla ice cream with warm maple syrup on top!  It’s a wonderfully indulgent feed served to guests who crowd into the series of dining rooms that are steamy and sweet with the aromas of boiling sap and wood smoke.  The company sells syrup and other maple products throughout The County, and we try to make sure we are never without a quart of the sweet stuff that we use through the year.  Of course, it’s easy for us to run up the road and pick up syrup, but for those farther afield, they offer mail order with details available by emailing info@
Although, this breakfast is a sure sign of spring, we are restless with the continuing cold and snow and anxious to get on with the procession of chores and projects that move us forward through the summer. There’s the greenhouse to set up, clearing dead plants from the herb beds, pruning winter kill from roses, tuning the tiller to open up the rows for early plantings, but most of all, harvesting new foods to spark our jaded appetites.  Last night’s supper was Roasted Vegetable Pizza, which I made often as the kids were growing up, and it meets all the requirements for an early spring meal: easy, light, and delicious. 
It starts, of course, with the crust, which is easy if there is Light Bread dough in the refrigerator, but even if there is not, pizza dough is among the easiest doughs to make because all it needs is 3 cups of flour, 1 and 1/3 cup of hot water, 2 and ¼ teaspoons of yeast, and ¼ teaspoon of kosher salt.  Bruce made it this week, dumping the water, flour, salt and yeast into the pan of the bread machine and setting it on the Dough cycle.  While the bread was processing, he preheated the oven to 400 degrees and chopped the veggies:  two baby eggplant, skin on, sliced lengthwise in half-inch thickness; one yellow pepper seeded and sliced in rings; two red onions quartered’ a cup and a half of mushrooms sliced; and a cup and a half of broccoli florets, coarsely chopped.
Combine the veggies in a large bowl, then mix together 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, and ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper.  Place all the veggies into a large baking pan and drizzle with the oil and vinegar mix, then pop it into the oven and roast for about 20 minutes, or until the veggies are tender.  Remove from oven and set aside. Turn oven temp up to 500 degrees.
Now take the dough and divide into four sections and roll out to eight-inch circles.  Sprinkle a cookie or pizza sheet with cornmeal, and place the dough on the pan as they will fit.  For starters, we top the dough with about a quarter cup of our homemade spaghetti sauce, but any good sauce will do, right up to a half inch from the edge of the dough.  Sprinkle up with shredded mozzarella cheese – we use low-fat – and then pile on the veggies.  Now bake in the hot oven for about 12 minutes. You should know by the smell when it is done.  Remove, cut and enjoy!
While such meals satisfy our longing for fresh produce from our gardens, as they days lengthen, we begin to dream of new greens: dandelions, lambs quarters, and the queen of forage crops, fiddleheads, to add to salads, omelets, soups, or just eat on their own.  Dandelions come first. For a few years we gathered enough dandelions to give away bagsful to some of the older residents here in town, but in recent years, we are lucky if we can find time to harvest enough for a few meals of our own. As for the fiddleheads, we leave that wet rigorous work to a young friend who makes a few dollars every year seeking out, harvesting, and selling the tender fronds.

Our ancestors regularly foraged for these wild plants as a way to supplement spring meals when the pantries and larders were thin, but many people today don’t know the pleasure of gathering these wild foods. It’s always a toss-up as to whether dandelions or fiddleheads will come in first, and often we find ourselves scrambling to take advantage of both.  While it’s always important to use care as to where one harvests wild foods, and proper care must be taken in processing it,   we are lucky that dandelions grow all around us and we have a friend who harvests fiddleheads which spares us from the hard, cold work such a venture can be. Thus, dandelions become our plant of choice, and we wait until Brock delivers fiddleheads to us rather than stalking them ourselves.
Harvesting dandelions is easy, and usually Bruce undertakes this job. Clad in rubber garden boots and armed with a bushel basket and a sharp knife, he starts at the far edge of yard where lawn meets field.  This is where the grass is the shortest and it gets plenty of water from melting snow so the greens come in early and big.  Dandelions are especially healthful, high in Vitamin C and carotenoids and Vitamin A that all have a variety of benefits.  Most of us think of dandelions as nuisances, but the toothed greens that give the plant its name – literally lion’s teeth – are delicious in a salad when very small and equally good boiled as a pot herb as they grow larger.  One critical point is that the greens must be picked before buds or blossoms develop or they become too bitter for all but the most diehard fans. 
To pick dandelions, first scope out the spot where you’ll dig, and if necessary, get permission from the property owner.  It’s also a good idea not to pick too close to things like roadways or power lines where there might be chemicals in the soil and on the plant.  We use only the leaves, so Bruce cuts the plant off just at the soil line, shakes off the dirt and plops them into the basket.  We find it takes about a half bushel of greens for a feed big enough for the three of us. We’ve even gone as far as picking the blossoms and making wine, but that is another tale!  If I am just picking leaves for salad, I choose the smallest and most tender leaves, usually from the center of the plant, and separate and wash them twice in cold water and then set them on paper towel to drain before adding them to salads.
For boiling as pot herbs, the greens get a first wash on the same screen where we wash lettuce, beets, and carrots later in the summer, and we use a fine mist spray from the hose.  Let the greens drain a bit and then bring indoors. My great grandmother always said that dandelions need two boils to get them table ready, and I continue with this practice.  I first rinse the plants again in cold water, then put them into a large kettle, and add about two inches of water. Cover, place over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Stir the greens once or twice then drain thoroughly.  This first boil helps eliminate some of the bitterness that people often complain about.
For the second boil, I dice a piece of lean salt pork, about one-inch thick by two inches long, and then add it and a tablespoon of olive oil to a large pot. For vegetarians, add another tablespoon of olive oil.  Place over medium heat and slowly render the salt pork – you want the salty-smoky flavor.  Sometimes I add a medium onion minced, but more often, I’m happy with just the greens.  When the lard is rendered, toss in the parboiled greens and add water to cover.  Bring to a gentle boil, cover and reduce heat.  Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, drain and serve with good vinegar or butter.
There are those who say that dandelions can be frozen and eaten throughout the winter, and that may well be true, but for us, the digging and cleaning and boiling of the first batch of greens marks the real beginning of spring, and we do not want to dilute that joy by making dandelions part of our regular diet. So when you reach the point where you think spring will never come, get out a knife and a basket and go pick some of these spring greens. They are well worth the effort.

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