Sunday, January 5, 2014

Seeds and spices and snow

Fretful skies   (Kasey McNeally photo)

This morning, the eastern edge of our earth wore a pearlescent blush of apricot and peach. Above the black silhouettes of ragged firs and bare bones birches, the sky was smoky gray.  To the west, from whence our weather usually comes, thicker clouds menaced, foreboding yet another round of treacherous weather that the forecasters have been predicting for several days now. On the drive to town for the week’s groceries, the snow-covered road twisted through fields mantled in white and through stands of firs bowed low by the weight of the recent storms.  The temperature outside the heated cocoon of the car was a surprisingly warm 10 degrees, the warmest it has been in more than a week of temperatures that plunged at night to the minus twenties and struggled to climb above zero during the day. 
Into the snowy woods  (Kasey McNeally photo)
Two hundred years ago, New Hampshire native son Daniel Webster reportedly described the rugged White Mountains as a place that produced men, but while that well may be true, these Northern Maine woods produce their share too.  It takes a special fortitude and resilience simply to survive the punishing temperatures and the mountains of snow that bear down upon Aroostook County every winter.  So rugged is this northernmost reach that until the late 1800s, long after Webster’s famous utterance, few men, at least few white European men, lived here.  The first settlers were Acadians, reportedly driven north along the Canadian side of the St. John River Valley by British Empire Loyalists settling farther south in New Brunswick, or moving east from Quebec where they had been in exile sometime around 1785.  A few brave settlers also pushed north to the Valley from the Kennebec region of central Maine, and lumbermen settled in the vast stands of forest around Millinocket, soldiers in barracks at Houlton around the beginning of the 19th century.  But the woods remained largely unsettled until the end of the 19th century. 
(Kasey McNeally photo)
Then in 1870, the United States reached out to Swedish immigrants, offering land for the settling in what was then known, and remains still, the Great North Woods. A band of about fifty people – me, women, and children – took up the offer, and the area began to be settled.  It is hard to imagine what they faced, especially after weathering nearly two weeks of brutally cold temperatures and repeated snow, but the small group not only prospered but was also soon joined by others.  They must have been a hardy group, surviving brutal cold and hip deep snows, but also reveling in the beauty and magic that is Aroostook at its finest, whether summer or winter.  That same spirit of determination and resilience is what keeps many here, although the out-migration of young people is rapid now, and draws others who love the wildness and peace as we do.  It is not a place for the faint of heart or spirit, but it is home.
The tree is down and the furniture returned to its normal place. The house is quiet, muted with the mountains of snow banked up around it nearly to the windows, until snowplow patrol begins.  With only two houses on our three-mile-long, dead-end road there is little traffic, especially in winter.  Even in summer, few cars come down the road, and now in the muffled silence of winter, the dogs spend most of the day stretched out before the fire or curled up dozing in their chairs.  Peace reigns, until the plow truck turns the corner off the main road almost a half mile away.
Snow mail   (Kasey McNeally photo)
Monty hears it first. He wakes abruptly from deep sleep and comes immediately to full attention, ears up, head cocked. Then the yelping begins as he warns us and the rest of the world that the monster is coming.  He leaps from being curled up in a ball in less time than it takes me to jump and slosh the coffee I’ve just poured onto my hand, the coffee table, the carpet. And just as I catch my breath and start to set the cup down, Hannah takes up the alarm, although I am almost certain she has no idea what the fuss is about, and she too bounds for the window.
They are not anxious to be outside these days, dashing headlong into the frozen whiteness, getting right to business and then galloping back inside to stretch before the fire, basking in the heat, or curl in round balls upon the bed.  We spend a lot of time tossing the pony ball from living room into bedroom and rough-housing with Monty, who at barely two, is still a busy boy.  Venerable Hannah at nearly 14 has all the dignity of a dowager, and lies in her chair, and casts a baleful eye on his antics.  At bedtime, both are happiest on the bed, swaddled in old wool quilts and Christmas fleeces, and curl up companionably, their difference in age forsaken for the warmth and companionship of dozing comfortably warm.
Now is the time when we turn our attention to perusing the seed catalogs.  They come in flocks at this time of year, and each must be as thoroughly read and as carefully considered as the other, although we usually only buy our seeds from a few regular suppliers. We buy only organic, untreated, non-GMO seeds, and begin the flats inside on tables under the kitchen windows.  Our standbys are Maine-based Fedco Seeds, whose bare-bones, black and white catalog is anything but boring.  Seed descriptions include historical commentary and personal preferences on seeds, a variety of interesting black and white illustrations, and sage advice on planting and other farmerly interests. Then there is High Mowing Seeds out of Vermont, which although sometimes a bit too fervent in proselytizing local foods and sustainable practices – especially to old gardeners like us – offers a truly wonderful and reliable selection of seeds.  Both stand solidly behind their products and have excellent customer service.  We also like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange that always surprises us with the number of heirloom varieties of, well, everything that they carry.  We buy our Golden Bantam corn seed from them because we love the real “corniness” of that variety and few companies carry it at all.  It is the corn of my childhood. 

We’ve given up planting potatoes because in recent years, we’ve lost more crops to late blight than we have harvested, and that blight spreads rapidly to our tomatoes, which we dearly love.  However, anyone who is looking for good organic seed potato would do well to check out the Gerritsen’s Wood Prairie Farm down the road a piece in Bridgewater.  Now as to tomatoes, over the years we have tried dozens of varieties, some just for the heck of trying them, but most in search of the perfect tomatoes to grow in our short and oft cool growing season.  We’ve settled upon Moskvitz for a table and canning tomato, and San Marzano as our paste and pasta sauce.   We order early as more and more people have taken up growing their own, even if only a tiny patch of vegetables, and because we are excited to plan ahead for the yields that fill our freezers and pantry shelves each year.  As Bruce often notes as he takes packages of frozen veggies from the freezer, it’s the best kind of grocery shopping.

These snowbound days are also terrific for a variety of crafts, and I have been indulging this year in rice-filled hot pads for my mother and Hannah’s aching bones.  The flannel, rice-filled pads can be microwaved for one or two minutes and come out toasty warm and stay that way for a couple hours.  The bags take some patience, but are both inexpensive and easy to make, and best of all, by adding a few dried lavender blossoms and a drop or two of lavender essential oil, the warm bags give off a lovely scent that is certain to lull even the worst insomniac into dreamland.

I’ve also turned to making magical ballerina skirts and head pieces that charm little girls. The idea for these came after a visit to my friends Toby and Bobbi in Atlanta and a visit to a local festival.  Several vendors were selling the costumes for exorbitant prices, especially after I examined the construction.  Once home, I bought a few yards of pastel tulle, some wide satin ribbon and began turning out the fairy-like costumes.  They have charmed every little girl who has received one.
It’s also a good time for herbal concoctions.  I’m busily making lemon sugar scrubs, spice mixes for mug mats, and pouring over catalogs from organic herb suppliers to decide which teas and herbal blends for cooking that I will make up this year.  Normally, I grow and harvest most of my own herbs, but this year, the demands of teaching, writing a dissertation and caring from my mother left me ill prepared. I did manage to harvest wild caraway seeds, which have been cleaned and stored in bottles for rye bread and other toothsome goodies, and I harvested enough mint to make a tea mix.  Cinnamon is one of my favorite spices, and I am already planning on ordering several pounds of sticks to turn into wreaths.  I’ve also cut the bags for lavender sachets to tuck into the linen closet and with the extra blankets stored in the guest room closet.  Although getting outside to explore, follow animal tracks and generally enjoy our northern winters has been near impossible this year with temperatures so low, there is plenty to keep me entertained and busy indoors.

As the days grow longer and the cold grows stronger, we turn more and more to comfort food.  Pork roasts basted with cider, hearty soups like the hamburger stews we are having this week, casseroles, and stuffed cabbage and peppers, so cooking also takes up a good amount of time.  One of our favorite dishes is a variation on a classic stroganoff: cube steaks in mushroom gravy.   This is an easy dish but rich and satisfying. 

Cube steaks with mushroom gravy
4 - 6 cube steaks
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
8 ounces sliced mushrooms (about 2 1/2 cups)
1 large shallot (or a small onion), thinly sliced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon dried
1/2 cup dry sherry (or burgundy)
1/2 cup beef broth (I use reduced-sodium)
3 tablespoons reduced-fat sour cream

Sprinkle steaks with 1/2 teaspoon pepper and salt. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add steaks and cook, turning once, until browned and cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes per side for medium. Transfer the steaks to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the pan. Add mushrooms, shallot or onion and the remaining pepper; cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are golden brown and release their liquid. Sprinkle with flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add thyme, sherry (wine) and broth; bring to a boil and cook, stirring, until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat and whisk in sour cream, then stir to blend well. Return the steaks (and any juice) to the pan and turn to coat with the sauce. Reduce heat to simmer, cover and let heat through about five minutes.
Cube steak dinner

I love these served with green peas from the freezer – the best grocery – and buttered noodles with poppy seeds.
Night fall comes a little later these days as does dawn, but the bitter cold prompts us to start the fire earlier, pull the drapes closed against the cold as the faint glow of sunset fades from the western sky.  We are filled with the satisfaction of productive work and good food in spite of what weather rages or freezes outside the door.  
  The dowager Hannah
The dogs snore softly, yip in pursuit of dreams, and we settle in with slippers, a good book, an old movie or PBS, and look ahead to summer when this frozen world remarkably transforms into a paradise. 

Monty burrowed

Cold moon rising   (Bruce Grieco photo)

1 comment:

  1. Always enjoy reading your blogs,very intense (to me) they capture the moments of life in Northern Aroostook County.