The Cherry Tree Knows

IMG_0234The cherry blossoms popped out this past week, throwing their abundance in my face. I wasn’t ready for this. The large tree behind our house in Brooklyn declares that Lucian’s birthday is approaching. I watch the tree each year, holding a small hope close to my heart: that it blooms its lush, pink petals just around April 27th, that they will hang over us like they did on his second birthday when one little friend came over. We ate cake with strawberries and cream, and my curly haired boy sat on my lap to blow out his candles. Or like they bloomed for his third birthday, when we invited other children to bring their tricycles and scooters, and they raced around on the driveway under the pink canopy.

I’ve been peeking at the buds all around our neighborhood, able to enjoy their occasional bursts of color and frivolity with a peaceful sense of appreciation.  At the same rate as the buds themselves (tiny, timidly at first) come out, I’m drawn back into the circle of growth, dormancy, regrowth.  Life, death, life.

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Tiptoeing Away, and Taking Tomatoes With Me

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That’s it for summer as we knew it, 2016… School is open and I’m getting back in the swing of some things I had almost, just almost forgotten about.  Like fitting in everything I need to do before two fifteen on most days so I can get to school, and having to plan dinner when I’m not anywhere near ready to think about eating. I’m not sure I’m ready to button up and stop living from moment to moment. Among other ways I’ve let it all go: I’ve ignored my pantry and my freezer. Now it’s time to wipe those shelves, throw out last winter’s uneaten candy, and restock. Can I have my cake and eat it too?

During the first days of September I tiptoed slowly towards fall, but I kept a strong hold on summer. I lingered upstate in our quiet, Hudson-area village, and spent long days with my son Theo before he had to go back to school, to the third grade.  My little boy will soon grow into a big one, leaving only a trace. There are only some things you can hang on to; the days were getting shorter. I made a last grasp, just to see how much of the summer I could keep.

At the farmstand up the road, tomatoes were selling for ten dollars per case… that’s heavy: a  25 pound box, about 11 kilos, or about half a Theo. The tender ears of corn were five dollars for 13 – a baker’s dozen- and so very, very sweet.

The linoleum-covered floor in my summer kitchen tilts comically, and there isn’t much counter space. When we moved into the house I purchased a small kitchen island for chopping on.  Now I stationed myself there. Before long, the narrow wooden surface was fully covered in tomatoes. I don’t have a lot of equipment, nor was I prepared with jars and supplies for canning- but I do have a new foodmill and I was very excited to use it. Truthfully, in my heat-induced torpor I was looking for the simplest possible way to preserve the summer.  So, in between our yard sale adventures and an afternoon visit from friends, I made a batch of tomato sauce in my largest pot. And when that visit turned into dinner, I decided I would save my energy and work in stages (in fact, two days is preferable so that your sauce can chill down nicely before you need to put it away for its hibernation). That night I stood in the little kitchen after everyone had gone to bed, turning the handle of my food mill and watching slips of tomato skin pile up in its metal teeth. When the tomatoes were effectively a purée, I cooked it down until it was a light sauce, and then returned the giant pot to the refrigerator for the night. The following day I divided it into smaller containers and froze them. Any extra tomatoes were peeled and frozen whole. And before we tidied the house and loaded up the car for the city I quickly cooked the corn cobs, then shaved off yellow kernels into a pile… I watched the steam rise, and when it dissipated I knew it was time to bag those little bits of sunshine up and pop them in the freezer; not saying goodbye, but more like arrividerci. Until we meet again…

img_4984September Tomato Sauce

Recipes for tomato sauce sometimes call for a pinch of sugar.  Towards the end of cooking time, taste your sauce to see if it is lacking a certain mellowness that a bit of sugar can help along. But I can’t imagine that any September tomatoes you cook with aren’t sweet, holding inside, as they do, all the sunshine and warmth of your summer days.

15 pounds plum (Roma) tomatoes

extra virgin olive oil to coat the bottom of your pot by 1/4  inch, about 1/2 cup

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

coarse salt (kosher or sea salt)

a handful of fresh herbs stems: basil, thyme and marjoram or oregano, or a mixture

crushed red chile, optional

1. Quarter tomatoes through the stem. Place a large, heavy pot or a stockpot on the stovetop and add oil and garlic over medium heat. Cook just until you can smell the fragrance and garlic is becoming soft, do not let it brown AT ALL. Add the tomatoes all at once, and a large pinch of salt. Raise heat to medium high and cook until the tomatoes on bottom begin to collapse, about 10 minutes. Add herbs and continue cooking, stirring often to distribute tomatoes, until the pot is full of bubbling, juice and tender tomatoes, about 30 minutes. Mash the tomatoes up a bit with the spoon.

2. Let tomatoes cool, at least 20 minutes, and up to two hours. Strain through a foodmill fitted with the coarsest blade. The skins and some of the seeds will be left behind, and you’ll need to scrape them out of the food mill from time to time. The tomatoes will be a coarse purée. For a smoother sauce, use the smaller blade.  Return all of this loose purée to the pot.  Place it over medium heat and cook again, stirring occasionally until deep red, saucy and as thick as you like it. I didn’t cook mine for very long; a sauce with a light body and fresh tomato flavor can be a lovely thing to have on hand in winter. When you defrost it, you may need to add a bit of simmering time until it’s thick enough to coat your pasta, but it will be a versatile thing, and can be used in place of canned ground tomatoes- and so much more flavorful. Taste and add more salt, and a pinch of hot pepper if you like. Cool to room temperature before transferring to smaller containers and refrigerating or freezing.

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Monday Sunday Blues

Summer of Solace

Just as Sunday is the end of the weekend, so Labor Day is the Sunday of the summer- the day before it all begins again.  In the morning I remembered what a Sunday used to feel like: it felt like a luxury, borrowed and treasured. It felt like there was all the time in the world for whatever we wanted: bacon, french toast, waffles or pancakes.  Sunday mornings were elastic and we let things unfold until the children needed to be released to the outdoors- shepherded, as city life necessitated, to the parks and playgrounds.  But that was before.

Beautiful Vermont!  We have, of course, fallen in love with you. I knew this could happen. But what I didn’t know was that a whole summer of seeing your cool green, hearing your frogs and crickets and just being, could not heal me.  A salve is all I can hope for. “Healing?! Whatever that means” another mother of a boy killed by a car last year, said to me.  She’s right I’m sure: there is no such thing as healing now.  For me what’s helped has been space to breathe, with the knowledge that I’m always held close by friends and family. Retreating from too much noise and activity has made me calm. I’ve worked to treat myself well.  This was to have been our summer of solace. But loveliness was crowded out by sadness, and this has been the summer of watching my surviving son learn to be an only child.  He has also been learning to swim, daring himself to go a little bit deeper and a little bit longer every day.  And he’s reading pretty well now, dipping into favorite books again and again- some of these books were inscribed a long time ago with his brother’s name. He’s working hard all the time, and he’s doing all this without his big brother to cheer him on with his sweet smile and words.

After my little boy awoke on this Sunday, he ran down the lane to play with his friends. His dad had gone fishing early, so I had the house to myself, space to stretch out- and time to bring my tea to bed. I finished the Laurie Colwin novel I’ve been reading, in which the sudden death of a young woman’s husband teaches her to see her own depths. Looking out the window over green rolling fields to Mt. Ascutney I felt the ripples of the moment wash over me.

I needed this quiet morning to myself. After I finished the novel I thought about breakfast. I could skip cooking completely if I wanted to. What would make me feel most free?  I tried to imagine eating a simple boiled egg, outside on the grass by the pond. Or toast with a slice of gorgeous, ripe tomato, and salt. Hmm, cereal? No cooking involved there. Give yourself time to do something else, I told myself- get out of the kitchen!

But I knew what I wanted to eat: a Sunday breakfast. Earthy buckwheat pancakes, big as a plate; deep blue, local berries and maple syrup. The sun shone through the glass bottle of syrup, refracting amber onto the kitchen table as I stirred batter in a bowl. I fed myself today, and made enough for us all to eat tomorrow.

Buckwheat Pancakes and Syrup

Delicate Buckwheat Pancakes

This is an adaptation.  There is a copy of The Joy of Cooking in this kitchen which has been used so often it’s lost its cover and its spine; therefore I can’t say which edition it is – but my research leads me to guess 1964.  The recipe for Buckwheat Cakes on page 215 calls for buttermilk. In the absence of buttermilk, I used a combination of yogurt, milk and water. The recipe produces a batter which can be spread almost as thin as crepes in the pan; it makes light, slightly crisp pancakes. But what really drew me to the recipe is that, according to The Joy of Cooking, the batter stands up very well to “several” days in the refrigerator.   I like to make these individually in a small skillet so I can really swirl the loose batter into a crepe-like griddle cake.

Sift before measuring:  1/2 cup all purpose flour

Resift flour with:

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

Whisk in: 1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour

Pour into a large bowl: 3 1/4 cups buttermilk (or substitute 1 cup whole milk, 2 3/4 cup plain, whole milk yogurt and 1/2 cup water)

2 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for skillet

Add dry ingredients into liquid ingredients, and stir just enough to combine. If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate.

To cook, pour a large spoonful of batter (about 2 tablespoons) into a medium-hot skillet of sizzling, melted butter. Reduce heat to medium and swirl pan to spread batter into a thin pancake.  When pancake is filled with bubbles, flip; if it won’t flip easily, wait a few more seconds until the bottom has crisped slightly, and try again. Cook just until set on second side, and transfer to a plate or a a warming tray; raise heat to medium-high and repeat. Serve with blueberries and Vermont maple syrup, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

The Garden Gives

 

Dill, Mint, Cilantro, Garlic Chives

Dill, Mint, Cilantro, Garlic Chives

Green things, LIVING and growing in front of my eyes- so audacious!  Shouldn’t you hide yourselves from me, spare me the sight of time moving on?  How am I expected to react to this loveliness all around me? Can’t stop myself from picking your leaves, sniffing the air, and imagining food to share- a future, even.

But that brings too much sadness with it, so I stop – and exist only for this moment.