Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Good Time Was Had By All

You will allow me a bit of a smug, good feeling today.  These higher-than-normal highs are always interrupted by life's normal bumps and bruises, so I promise this one won't go to my head.  But our inaugural North Carolina party last night was damn good!

Not that some major adjustments didn't become necessary as the hours leading to the event wore on.  Early in the morning there was a true disaster:  one of the cakes I had made a week or so before and frozen--the chocolate one--slipped out of my hand as I picked it up off the counter and landed, splat, face down, on the floor.  Unfortunately, it had thawed out, in all its moist, oil-and-buttermilk richness.  Not only did I have a hideous brown-black mess to clean up, but I had to whip up a duplicate and fast--it had been promised as a surprise to mark the birthday of one of the guests.  Thank God the day was still young.

The purpose of the party was to show off the new deck, so we were all set up for outside.  Zero hour was 4 PM.  At 3:30, the heavens opened and a downpour ensued that lasted most of the rest of the evening.  As the first drops fell, we switched gears and set up inside, moving the dining room table up against a wall to create buffet space, clearing coffee and end tables of their knick-knacks to make room for plates and cups, and moving chairs to unaccustomed places so lots of people could sit more-or-less convivially.

We learned several useful lessons.  One: we will never, ever, plan another outdoor party here for the middle of summer.  It's too hot and the weather is too iffy.  It's enough like the tropics to expect a thunderstorm in the afternoon, as if it were a "rainy season," but it's still temperate enough not to guarantee such a storm, so you're never really sure what it's going to do before it's done.  Two: the house has room for 30+ people to mill about and feel comfortable.  As hosts we sometimes had to break up groups who gathered in crucial spots next to the oven, say, or who blocked a thoroughfare, but that was the worst of it.  Any more than the number we had would be a bit on the sardine side, but we'll probably never encounter that problem.  (And besides, we want to graduate from these cattle-call get-togethers to smaller, more intimate dinners.  I take it that isn't done here very much, but I think it's because people have been intimidated by one guy in particular who fancies himself a "gourmet" and apparently has dinner gatherings that include all the starch of a nun's habit.  Not fun.  I cook good food--sometimes even fancy--but I'm more in the Julia Child tradition.  If the soufflé falls I'll serve it, call it a savory pudding, and pass the wine.)

And three, not least:  we have some pretty great neighbors.  I don't know the religious or political beliefs of a single one of them and I hope it stays that way.  Though none of these people are native to the area, they seem to have been infected with the wonderful local habit of smiling and waving first, inviting friendship rather than argument.  You quickly grow accustomed to greeting a group of strangers in a waiting room, say, as they look up and smile as you enter.  That really is the biggest and most pleasant surprise we've had here--how everyone is just plain nice.  It's a quality that makes for a really fun party.

Oh. And the food, especially the pork, was a hit.  And that chocolate cake? To quote one guest: "The best chocolate cake I've ever had!"  I saw no reason to mention that I'd had extra practice.

Friday, July 16, 2010



I mentioned last week that I've been learning new things to do with the bounty of produce we find here in this agricultural area, both at the myriad farm stands and, it turns out for us, from our neighbors.  A few days ago a neighbor showed up out of the blue with 6 pounds of cucumbers, along with a welcome to whatever else we may want from his garden.  And our cross-the-creek neighbors have blessed us with more yellow squash than I ever thought I'd want to see in one place--and a recipe for them that makes all that squash much more welcome. 

I've always thought those backyard garden old reliables, yellow squash and zucchini, were fine, in their place.  Good sources of fiber and good vehicles for other things, such as a version of moussaka I know, or in vegetable soups and stews.  After my first year with a garden, I resolved never to grow them again because they take up enormous space and you get enough of them to feed the surrounding county, and face it, they don't have much flavor on their own, even when consumed as mere infants straight from the vine.   But this way of presenting yellow squash is a real winner.  You may have heard of it, but it was a revelation to me.  Thanks to Paul from across the creek.

(Note: I chop these squash instead of cutting them into the traditional discs.  Much easier to get a good mouthful on your fork.)

4 strips bacon
3-4 cups yellow squash, cut into bite-size chunks
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper

In a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or a large non-stick pan, fry bacon until crisp over medium heat.  Remove bacon to paper towels to drain; retain rendered fat.

Add squash and onions to hot fat, sprinkle with about a teaspoon of salt and pepper.  Fry 4 to 5 minutes without stirring, or until vegetable pieces have begun to brown.  Stir well to redistribute vegetables and expose the other sides of the squash to the heat and fry another 5 minutes, again without stirring.  Keep this up until veggies are tender (but not squishy) and caramelized to your liking.  Remove from heat, check seasoning, crumble bacon over all and serve.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

31 Years

I'm supposed to be pulling weeds today, but it's pouring rain.  The new grass and the seed still germinating love it.  So does our water bill.  (And me, I'm not complaining!)

Today is July 14.  Yes, Bastille Day.  And Steve's and my anniversary.

We met on a weekend getaway to the Maryland mountains hosted by a mutual friend whose parents opened their doors to us.  Of the crowd of people there, we each knew about two, and that did not include each other.  I was in one of my starving artist periods, singing all over everybody.  Steve liked what he saw.  We were both in deep nesting phases.  We started dating.  A short time later, Steve put it this way:  "My lease is about to run out. I have to move and I want you to move with me. If you don't want to, OK.  It's been nice."  How's that for romantic?

The adventure continues 31 years later.  The gifts I have received from Steve are immeasurable and innumerable; I pinch myself at least once a week.  Oh, nothing in this world is perfect, least of all human beings.  Our relationship has taught us both important lessons in the meaning of true adulthood.  If you ask me the secret to a long relationship, that's what I'll tell you: you must be grownups. The relationship itself takes on a life of its own, it's a living creature you both make, and as adults, you both choose to give it paramount importance.  Your own childish interests never go away; the trick is in acknowledging that inner baby and even humoring him when you can, but never at the expense of the relationship, the precious thing you have created together. 

Is this marriage thing for everybody?  Apparently not.  But for us it's worked beyond our wildest dreams.

Here's to 31 more.

P.S.  Take a look a the new masthead photo.  We're almost there.

Friday, July 9, 2010



This is one of several dishes I've learned to make here in this agricultural area that uses the local produce to its most beautiful potential.  I bought the berries at "Bright's Delights," a farm stand on US 17, just within the limits of Elizabeth City.  These days it is bursting with gorgeous stuff:  huge, sweet beefsteak tomatoes, just the right size to cover a slice of bread, at least 10 varieties of sweet corn (I bought bi-color this time, and next will be Silver King), blackberries the size of golf balls, blueberries, just-shelled baby limas for succotash with some of that corn...I could go on.  We are in vegetable heaven here.

First things first:  thank you to a former work colleague, Sharon Forrence, for giving me the idea for this decadent concoction via her Facebook newsfeed.  What she made was blueberry crème fraiche ice cream, and the very idea set my mouth watering.  I was determined to make it for myself.

I figured it would be a pretty tall order to find crème fraiche in these country-and-proud-of-it parts, and a survey of the grocery chains at my disposal--all two of them--proved my suspicion right.  So I figured I'd just make my own--there are recipes galore for crème fraiche on the internet, and they're all the same: inoculate warmed heavy cream with some buttermilk and let it ripen.  Couldn't be simpler.  The catch is that the cream should ideally be fresh from the cow (as it is in less squeamish countries such as France), or, if you don't have a willing cow nearby, the cream can be pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized, because that process just doesn't leave enough bacteria for the buttermilk culture to do its magic.  Wouldn't you know that the stores here sell only ultra-pasteurized dairy products.  What I found interesting, once I was made aware of this pasteurized/ultra-pasteurized distinction, is that the food manufacturers seem quite proud of the ultra-pasteurized state of their milks and creams.  It's written in huge print on the packages, obviously a major selling point.  The great, lowest-common-denominator American marketplace, with heavy influence from the paranoid FDA, rules.  So much for crème fraiche; ergo the sour cream.  Having said all that, I can't imagine how the end product could be any richer or more pleasingly tart than this, sour cream, crème fraiche, or whatever.

You'll note that this recipe is heavy on the cholesterol, with all its dairy fat and egg yolks.  And it involves a double boiler, the best thing to use if you don't want a scrambled-egg custard.  If it all seems like too much work, search out simpler basic vanilla ice cream recipes on your own.  They're certainly out there.  I just prefer this French custard style for its extreme richness, and figure we have it so seldom it qualifies as an occasional guilty pleasure.  

For the berries:

1 pint (2 cups) fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons sugar

Combine ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat.  When simmering starts, cover and let cook about 10 minutes, until berries soften and begin to burst.  Remove from heat, mash berries with a potato masher so that some whole berries remain but the rest is a slurry.  Set aside to cool.

For the ice cream:

2 cups half-and-half
1 cup granulated sugar (divided)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon ground cinammon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups sour cream

In a heavy saucepan combine half-and-half and 3/4 cup of the sugar.  Cook to scalding (just when bubbles begin to appear around the edges of the milk in the pan) stirring to dissolve sugar.  Remove pan from heat.  In a large heat-proof bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and remaining sugar, then whisk in the hot half-and-half in a steady stream.  Place bowl over boiling water (so it does not touch the water) and stir yolk-cream mixture until it coats the back of the spoon and it reaches 170º F on an instant thermometer.  This will take 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove bowl from double boiler and whisk in the vanilla, the cinnamon, and the salt.  Mix in the sour cream and reserved blueberry slurry and stir all to combine.

Place blueberry cream in refrigerator for several hours until thoroughly chilled.  Process in ice cream maker until thickened, according to manufacturer's directions.  (I use a Cuisinart with a removable freezing tub kept in the freezer between uses.  It takes about 30 minutes.)  

At this stage the ice cream will still be runny, like very soft frozen custard.  If you can wait, remove ice cream to a container and freeze until it hardens.  (Or if you can't wait, eat it right out of the ice cream maker!)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Water, water everywhere

We seem to be settling into something of a routine that gives me some time to sit here and write.  As a matter of principle, I try not to make promises about the future, but I can say that maybe, just maybe, I'll have time to do a little bit more of this now.  I actually fulfilled an ambition of over a year this morning and went out for a good walk.  I am shamefully out of shape--my legs feel like lead weights now and my heart rate was elevated to true exercise mode in a matter of mere minutes once I set out, but I know these signs of rust will polish away with a little practice.

One year ago today we were in the midst of clearing the property.  We'd get here in the cool of the early morning and suit up against chiggers:  long pants tucked into our socks, long sleeved shirts, a do-rag for me to keep the sweat pouring off my head out of my eyes, and clouds of Deep Woods Off.  It was sheer, unadulterated drudgery, but it didn't last long--we could only work until about noon every day before it got too hot, and our progress in those few hours a day was dramatically visible. 

Now, the land is still cleared and my job is to water it.  We finally had what we now call our mud flats--the 2 acres or so of land that was cleared to make the septic field in the front, as well as the two side yards and the back--seeded for grass.  It's Bermuda grass, the kind that wants to grow here because it loves the heat (the soil temperature must be at least 80F--26C--before Bermuda seed will germinate) and it needs to be wet.  So my job these days, while Steve makes sense of his sanctum sanctorum, the garage, is to water. 

When the house was built, Gary, the builder, made sure the plumber put standpipe hydrants at various strategic locations around the yard.  Now we know why.  I water area by area from 6 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, an hour at a time, using three 100-foot hoses stretched to various spots in the yard.  The seed really needs to be saturated, and, in case you haven't heard, we're in the midst of a prolonged heat wave.  It's a dry heat, which means the water that lands on places unprotected by any shade, including the vast expanse of septic field where there can be no trees, evaporates quickly.  We had a couple of days last week of heavy rain, and that gave everything a jump start.  So far, I've been able to keep the ground moist enough to actually look wet, and the work is beginning to pay off.  Our yard looks like the beard of a 13-year-old boy.  That is to say, spotty. Here is what the back looks like as of today:

It's actually a little better than the front, which has long, narrow stripes of green surrounded by dirt containing various amounts of moisture.  This is the three-week point.  There are times when we despair of ever getting rid of the dirt and mud, but I strive for faith that these doubts, too, will pass, just as all the others have.  A few months ago, when we first moved in and a lawn was still imaginary, a neighbor told us we should just get some sod.  They had put down seed, and they'd never do it again.  "It was so much work!"  she said, and I simply couldn't understand what she was talking about.  How much work can there be to turning on a hose and letting it run for an hour? Now I get it.  You become obsessed with maintaining an even level of moisture all around.  You're governed by the clock, going out to re-position sprinklers every hour.  Sometimes the sprinklers get clogged with mud, and a simple operation that should take a few minutes stretches to half an hour or more, as you turn on the hydrant, maybe 100 feet away from the sprinkler, and discover that the sprinkler has become clogged.  You turn off the water, walk the hundred feet to the sprinkler, unscrew it from the hose, walk back to the hydrant, turn the water on to clean off the sprinkler and force the clog out, screw the sprinkler back on the hose, put it back in the place you want it 100 feet distant, walk back to the hydrant, turn it on, and hope for the best.  You've spent at least a good 20 minutes at this.  And then there are the times the only way to move the sprinkler to the next area is to walk over the dirt you've just watered, which has become shoe-sucking mud.  Perhaps reading all that is as monotonous as actually doing the work?  Good, I've shown you what it feels like!  But the photo above makes it all worthwhile.  Pretty soon we'll have a lawn.

There are those who would probably love to point out that all this effort to create a "lawn," an artificial meadow, is unnatural, a colossal waste of a precious natural resource--water--and that we are polluting the very creek whose vista we so enjoy with the fertilizer needed to make this artificial meadow green.  Carry the argument far enough and you'll have stopped us even from building the house:  we should never have had those trees cut down, nor removed that natural thicket of green just to create a view.  All I can say in response is, "I know, I know, your arguments are unassailable, and I don't care."  I invite the environmentally sensitive among you to pitch a tent in the woods somewhere and be one with nature.  Me, I'll take my greensward, my lovely, flat, green meadow, shimmering in the Carolina sun.