Sunday, November 3, 2013

Hearty fare for a late fall day

Fall foods: Long Pie and Casper pumpkins and Sunshine winter squash  

In November, autumn tumbles into early winter.  A series of cold fronts out of Canada blew through last week bringing a thin covering of snow, stripping the last leaves, toppling power lines, tossing the lawn chairs around the yard, and sending overnight temperatures down into the teens.  This morning, a quartet of deer browsed the back field, their pale summer coats darker now, allowing them to blend into the dull landscape and making it hard to see them as they wander back and forth. Then as the sun rose beyond the bare-boned trees, they disappear like ghosts into the woods.  The new beaver pond at the bridge across Salmon Lake Brook is rimed with ice in the morning; the sun sets earlier and we pull the curtains closed against the cold and darkness.  The pace of life slows as we settle in, bracing for the months of snow and cold that follow.
Black ice is a danger at this time of year.  The frequent rains that mark the changing of the season leave the earth damp, the moisture wicking up through the pavement and freezing overnight as the temperatures drop.  We drive slower, vigilant to the deceptive dark stains on the roads that can send cars careening into the ditch, or worse into trees or other vehicles.  We travel less now, planning our trips around the middle of the day when the glassy sheen melts to simple moisture, and we take up indoor activities that will fill our days: fall cleaning, piecing quilts cut during the warmer summer months, grading papers, and catching up on reading we set aside in favor of spending our time outdoors in the golden days of summer.
The grill has been cleaned and tucked into the lean-to, the freezers filled with rainbow rows of garden vegetables we have tucked away for winter meals. We find ourselves craving comfort foods that take longer to cook and turn our attention to old recipes handed down from one generation to the next.  I come from a meat-and-potatoes heritage, and a long line of good cooks.  Some of my earliest memories are of rushing home from school on a cold November day.  I would fairly fly along the sidewalk, and, pushing open the heavy front door of my great grandmother’s house, I would be enveloped in a rush of heat and  the fragrance of fresh baked cookies and pot roast or roasting chicken destined for the supper table. It was a childhood heaven and meant all was safe and secure.

Simmering soup  
Food has always played a big role in our lives, and I find myself flipping through my great grand’s  cookbooks from the beginning of the last century.  Although I have modified the recipes over the years, we still turn more to substantial meals, succulent with the aromas of garlic and roasting meats, homemade breads, and bubbling fruit desserts that come warm from the oven.  Homemade soups simmer on the stove while bread rises in a patch of sunshine. The house is warm from the baking and roasting and we feel secure from the fretful weather outside.  But not all meals come completely from the stove.
Today, a pork roast simmers in the slow cooker.   While most people think that pork is best roasted to a lovely crispness in the oven, this recipe is easy and, because it cooks slowly all day, allows us to focus on other projects and chores we need to finish as the days shorten.  I begin with a three- to four-pound fresh picnic or blade roast, with the fat on, and lard it liberally with thin slices of a clove of our garlic. We grow about twenty pounds of garlic every year and the cloves are always large – one easily equaling two store-bought cloves.  The roast then goes into the cooker, fat side down, and over it I pour a third of a cup of fresh cider, toss in a half cup of fresh or dried cranberries, and sprinkle a quarter teaspoon of rubbed sage, a grind or two of fresh pepper and a generous pinch of kosher salt over the roast. Put the cover on and set the temperature at high for about two hours.  Reduce to low and let simmer for about seven to eight hours total.  Although this amount of time seems perfect, I always use a meat thermometer to check to make sure the pork is thoroughly and safely cooked.  The combination of cider and cranberries, garlic and sage are heavenly to smell and give the pork an especially wonderful taste.

Cranberry –cider slow cooked pork  
The sides for this roast vary from one meal to another, but today, I have chosen a wild rice and mushroom casserole that is a nutty counterpoint to the sweet richness of the pork.  I think the original recipe came off a can of cream of mushroom soup, but I’ve added my own touch.   

The ingredients are simple:

Wild Rice and Mushroom Casserole
6 ounces of long grain and wild rice mix (not instant) – I get mine from an organic supermarket downstate
1 can low-fat, low-sodium cream of mushroom soup
1 cup warm water
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms – any kind will do, but a mix of several is best
1 small onion, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil

First, heat the oil over medium heat in a medium frying pan and add in the onion. Cook, stirring often until the onion softens. Now add the mushrooms, reduce heat to low and cook until they soften and wilt. Remove from burner and set aside.
Combine the soup and water in a bowl and mix well.  Grease a medium casserole dish with olive oil and pour in the rice mix. Add the sautéed onions and mushrooms and gently mix together. Pour the soup and water mixture over all. Cover and bake in a 350 degree oven for about two hours.  You’ll need to check it after the first hour to be sure the liquid doesn’t all evaporate.  You can add an additional quarter cup of water if necessary.    This easily serves four people.

We have picked kale and will sauté it with apples and onions and a pinch of nutmeg in olive oil in a large frying pan.  You need a good sized bunch of kale – about seven to eight stems, two to three medium apples, cored and quartered, and one medium onion, sliced.  Stem and coarsely chop the kale.  Peel and slice the onion and core and cut the apple into wedges about a half inch thick. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in the pan and sauté the onion until it is barely translucent. Add in the chopped kale and the pinch of nutmeg and stir fry with the onion until wilted.  Now add in the apple, cover and reduce heat to low, stirring occasionally.

I also like a good caraway rye bread with this. Caraway grows wild here, lacing the roadsides with a white froth of bloom in very early summer and ripening into umbrels of fragrant seed by mid-August.  I take paper shopping bags, scissors and the grand boys and wander up our road, snipping the seeds into the bags to hang in the garage to dry.  Once dry, I shake the seeds off the stems and pour them into a fine wire strainer then plunge them into a pot of boiling water. Caraway is a sweet herb and attracts insects which might otherwise ruin the seed by burrowing into them.  Boiling thwarts that possibility and sharpens the flavor.  I turn the seeds on a paper towel and let them dry well – usually overnight – before storing them for winter use. 
Rye bread has a reputation for being difficult to make, perhaps because rye doesn’t have as high a gluten content as wheat, but I have never had any problems. It’s likely because my recipe comes from a 1960s version of The Joy of Cooking, I use only King Arthur flours, and I let my bread machine do the kneading.

Swedish Rye Bread
1-1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 packages active dry yeast (not quick rising)
¼ c. dark molasses (preferably unsulphured)
1/3 cup white sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons grated orange rind
4 tablespoons caraway seed
2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
2-1/2 cups rye flour, sifted
3 cups white bread flour

Place the liquid ingredients and the butter into the bread machine pan. Then, in this order, add white flour, rye flour, salt, grated orange peel, and finally yeast.  Place pan in machine and set to the dough cycle, and start the machine.  Add the caraway seeds when the machine beeps for add ins.  This varies from one machine to another.
The dough cycle allows the bread to rise once, and when it is done, turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic.  Some people put their rye bread in loaf pans, but I prefer round loaves, so divide the dough in half and shape into round loaves. Place the loaves on a large cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal. Cover with a light towel and let rise in a warm place until double – about an hour.  Now make four ¼ inch deep slashes on top of each loaf. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the bread gives a nice hollow sound when tapped.  Place on   wire racks to cool.

Nothing says fall more than apples baking, so dessert today is a Swedish apple pie which I learned years ago from Kasey’s godmother, Carleen.  The apples are a blend of our own, wildings from the overgrown fields nearby and store bought.  This fast and yummy pie is great warm from the oven with vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream.

Swedish Apple Pie
5-6 medium apples (peeled, cored, and sliced)
1 1/4 cups sugar (divided)
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch of ground clove
3/4 cup butter or margarine
1 cup flour
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill a 9-inch pie plate with the apples. Mix 1/4 cup sugar with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Sprinkle over apples.
In a saucepan, melt butter and remove from heat.  Add remaining cup of sugar and the flour to the butter, and beat together well.  Beat the egg until light yellow and mix in with butter, sugar and flour mixture and pour evenly over apples in the pie plate.
Bake 45 minutes until golden.

Chicken Pie  
When I was young and my mother tried hard to instill in me the value of being a good cook, I was much too busy with the things that usually preoccupy a teenage girl.  In fact, when I left home for college, I took pride in saying I couldn’t even boil water.  Life’s realities have a way of catching up, and over the decades, food and preparing it well to nourish both body and soul became increasingly important.  Here in the north, where we must plan ahead and guarantee that our meals nourish both body and soul, cooking is essential to our survival and doing it well is never a matter of chance. 

White Satin Carrots  

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