Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Off with the old, on with the new roof!

Today's is a rare, non-food-related post (although there is a passing reference to blueberry pancakes). This is partly because it's been extremely hot and humid, my kids are heading back to school, a busy new semester looms on the horizon, and I've had little time or energy for cooking. I'm hoping that when - if? - the weather cools off, I'll be newly inspired, but right now, not so much.

More to the point, a half dozen shirtless men are crawling all over my house as I type this, banging and pounding and generally making a hellish racket as they remove three layers of shingles from the roof, the bottom one dating back to the 1930s. Outside is a hideous, chaotic mess: two entrances are impassable due to tarps, ladders, and piles of ancient asphalt, and the yard is a disaster area. Inside, it's really noisy, and our animal friends are more than a little freaked out; thus far, we've been keeping them sequestered with us in one of the quieter rooms, which seems to help a bit.

These are the times that try the humble homeowner's soul, and make one question (not for the first time) the quixotic myopia that led them to purchase a circa 1895 timber frame house boasting no insulation, 60 amp fuse service, a kitchen in need of a total overhaul, and a roof that was already peeling the day we laid eyes on it. From the initial home inspection - two months before the birth of my youngest son - it was a given that this job would have to be done (someday), but there were always other things to do first and/or instead. In the event, we managed to delay the inevitable much longer than expected, and only the merest trickle of water during a torrential downpour eventually forced the issue.

But the fact remains that this sort of project is absolutely no fun. For one thing, it's ruinously expensive. For another, on a house like this it's basically an archaeological dig in the sky: on Day Two, we've already learned of rotten wood that needs to be replaced, jacking up the price still further. For yet another, it's loud, messy, and inconvenient. Okay, that's three "others," but you take my point. Yes, it's necessary, and in the end we'll have a nice new roof, which will be a vast improvement on a state of aesthetic affairs that suggests Boo Radley might be taking his ease on our porch. BUT. Aside from keeping the rain and snow off us and placating the neighbors so they don't show up some dark midnight brandishing pitchforks, torches, and shingles, there's not much to recommend the experience.

The truth of the matter is it's stressful to have people literally taking the roof from over your head and wantonly tossing sections of your home onto the ground below. Maybe it has something to do with another summer ending and another school year beginning, maybe it's that my mother has been ill (a guaranteed threat to one's sense of security), or maybe it's just my hormones, but for some reason this particular bout of domestic disruption has me feeling emotional.

This has been my home for longer than anywhere except the house where I grew up: it's been the scene of so many significant episodes, occasions, and changes for my family, good, bad, and ugly alike. I've raised three children (well, I'm still at it), decorated fourteen Christmas trees (so far), and hosted innumerable holidays, parties, and events joyful and somber. Sure, I shake my fist and curse it for being a drafty old barn - as George Bailey so eloquently put it in It's A Wonderful Life, "It's a wonder we don't all have pneumonia!" - but it's my drafty old barn, and I love it. It's hard to conjure an image of any other house that could mean "home" in quite the same way.

So. Despite our occasional disagreements and misunderstandings (what is up with that draft under the front door?), I hope the old pile will forgive the indignities it's currently suffering, and realize how very much it is loved and cared for, once this latest installment of its ongoing makeover is complete. 'Be it ever so humble," etc.

(Please note that the illustration above is from Old Black Witch, one of my favorite books as a child. It concerns a single mother and her small son, who buy a ramshackle old New England house - sound familiar? - intending to turn it into a tearoom. Unfortunately, the resident witch of the title isn't on board with the proposed renovations: again, not unlike my own feelings and those of my animal familiars this week. Suffice to say it all works out in the end, and there's even a recipe for Bewitching Blueberry Pancakes that I used to make with my own children, complete with batter-stirring spell : "Gobbledy gook with a wooden spoon; the laugh of a toad at the height of the moon." I include this particular picture because our house actually resembles the one in the book, with its lattice windows, multiple gables, and tall chimneys. I've never yet taken my broomstick and flown out the attic window, but I might have a go once the roofers are finished and the coast is clear!)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Mushroom Quiches

At this time of year, I often find myself with a refrigerator that looks like Mother Nature has finally taken leave of her senses, unleashing her plenteous bounty in almost menacing fashion. Between farmer's markets, the generosity of gardening friends, and the beautiful summer produce available in any supermarket, I can get a bit over-excited, and wind up surrounded by enough fruit and vegetables to feed a small village.

Some things (squash, beans, leafy greens) will keep in the fridge, but others, like fresh shiitake mushrooms, really need to be cooked ASAP. And so it was that on a Sunday night when nobody was very hungry but there wasn't much going on, I headed into the kitchen and made these quiches. NB you could sub pretty much whatever veggies you like for the mushrooms: sauteed broccoli or asparagus, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, etc., or any combination of these would work beautifully. (Now to figure out what to do with all the other stuff.)

Mushroom Quiches (makes two)
The Filling
~ 1 tbsp. olive oil
~ 2 tbsp. minced garlic
~ About 10 cups thinly sliced brown mushrooms (they cook down!)
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, marjoram
~ ½ tsp. each: tarragon, white pepper
~ Fresh black pepper
~ 1 cup raw cashews, soaked for at least an hour
~ 1 lb. extra firm tofu, drained and crumbled
~ 2 tbsp. nutritional yeast.
~ 1 tsp. salt (black salt is nice if you can get it)
~ 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
~ Paprika for garnish
~ Pastry for two single-crust pies, homemade or store-bought

~ Preheat the oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit.
~ In a large skillet or wok, heat the oil and saute the mushrooms (adding in batches) over medium-high heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has cooked off and they smell all 'shroomy. Add the minced garlic and dry seasonings, and cook about another minute.
~ Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
~ In a food processor, combine the cashews, tofu, salt, nutmeg, and nutritional yeast. Process until smooth, adding up to a cup of the cooked mushrooms. (You can also add a splash of water if it seems too thick, but remember you want it to slice after it's cooked.)
~ In a large mixing bowl, combine the mixture from the food processor and the remaining cooked mushrooms. Stir thoroughly and divide equally between two prepared 9" pie crusts, homemade or store bought (I used frozen).
~ Smooth the tops with a rubber spatula, then sprinkle with a little paprika.
~ Bake for 40-50 minutes at 375 degrees, until a butter knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Check occasionally to make sure the crust doesn't burn; if it looks like it's browning to quickly you can cover the pies (loosely) with aluminum foil.
~ Remove the cooked quiches from the oven and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before slicing.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Classic Corn Chowder

Right around this time last year, I posted a corn and zucchini bisque recipe that's a tasty way to use up some of Mother Nature's overly generous August bounty. My partner and middle son recently voiced their desire for a more traditional chowder, and now that corn season has finally, officially arrived here in central Massachusetts, I was happy to oblige. (Particularly since we had about 8 huge ears left over from a gluttonous Saturday night feast that also included vegan Glamorgan sausages, onion gravy, and a huge pan of baked mashed potatoes and greens. OOOF!)

Using the Fannie Farmer Cookbook recipe as a prototype, I substituted soy milk for moo juice, added some herbs to an otherwise pretty boring recipe, and - since my mom always started any chowder with a few strips of bacon - I also tossed in smoked paprika. The result was entirely satisfying, came together easily, and was remarkably filling without being heavy. Add some cold white wine, a green salad, and crusty bread for a perfect late summer meal.

Classic Corn Chowder
~ 1 tbsp. each: olive oil, vegan butter (I use Earth Balance)
~ 1 large yellow onion, chopped
~ 1 large stalk celery, diced
~ 3-4 mid-size potatoes, diced
~ 6 cups sweet corn kernels, fresh or frozen
~ 1 tsp. each:  smoked paprika, marjoram, parsley
~ 1/2 tsp. each: salt, thyme, sage
~ ¼ tsp. cayenne (more or less to taste)
~ A few generous grinds of fresh black pepper
~ 4 cups "no chicken" broth
~ 2-3 cups plain, unsweetened soy milk, depending on how thick you like your chowder
~ Fresh parsley, for garnish

~ In a large, heavy pot, heat the oil and butter over medium heat. Add the onion and celery; saute about 5-7 minutes, until softened but not brown.
~ Add the potatoes, corn kernels, and dried seasonings. Stir to combine and cook another 10 minutes, adding a splash of water if necessary to prevent sticking.
~ Add the broth to the pot,  stir, and raise the heat to high. Bring briefly to a boil and then lower to simmer; cook, stirring occasionally, for 20-25 minutes.
~ Remove from heat, add the soy milk, and partially puree the soup with an immersion blender (you don't want it completely smooth like bisque, it should still have some texture). If it seems too thick you can add a little extra water.
~ Taste for seasoning and heat through; sprinkle with a little chopped parsley and serve.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Are We Having Fun Yet? (Or: Mr. Pete's Polish Peasant Food, Adapted)

Everyone who was ever anyone in my hometown's retro-hippie and/or punk scene knew Peter Kudron; the man was a legend. An actual hippie, as opposed to wannabes like yours truly, he had a pyramid in his living room, every conceivable herb stockpiled in ancient Bugler tobacco tins, and a heart of pure gold. (I swear he cured my mononucleosis with Golden Seal powder; let's just say that the taste "builds character.") Sadly, Pete was too good for this world, but I can safely assert that anyone who knew him while he was here recalls his light, his humor, his energy, and his irrepressible personality with as much affection as I do.

Peter grew up and lived most of his life in the once-largely-Polish Vernon Hill neighborhood of Wormtown, USA., and there is one thing that I distinctly recall him cooking in his (epically untidy) apartment. He referred to it as "Polish peasant food," and it involved egg noodles, onions, and shredded cabbage, sauteed to a fare-thee-well in about a ton of butter. (The kielbasa that his mother would have included was omitted in deference to my vegetarianism, about which he was unfailingly kind and respectful, being himself an omnivorous martyr to chronic ulcers.) Anyway, these many years later I still think fondly of Pete and all the road trips, parties, random shenanigans, government conspiracy theories, and long, goofy evenings spent deconstructing Zippy the Pinhead.

So. Being all about the cooking these days when I'm not all about early modern proto-nationalist medievalism(s), I'd been contemplating a veganized version of Pete's signature dish for awhile, and this week I did it! Eggless "egg" noodles - which exist - can be like hen's teeth to find, but the noodles I subbed were actually perfect. Nowadays, we can also get soy-based kielbasa, which I include here as an optional ingredient. I didn't have cabbage and substituted mushrooms because they harmonize nicely with the whole Eastern European vibe; if you have it, add it to the pan about five minutes after the onions.

In addition to its sentimental qualities, this dish has the virtue of being seriously kid-friendly; each of mine ate a huge plate, and we had hardly any leftovers. And while I don't pretend to any sort of culinary "authenticity," eating this made me feel close to an extraordinary person who paid me the compliment of his friendship when I was barely more than a child, and to whom I raise a glass as I finish this post. Wherever you are, Mr. Pete, I'm eating noodles and thinking of you. YOW!

Mr. Pete's Polish Peasant Food, Adapted
~ 4 tbsp. Earth Balance (or other vegan margarine), divided
~ 3 cups yellow onions, chopped
~ 1 tsp. each: smoked paprika, dill
~ 1 tsp. kosher salt
~ Lots of fresh black pepper
~ 4 oz. beech mushrooms, separated from their stems and washed (or 8 oz. other 'shrooms, sliced)
~ 1 14 oz. pkg. vegan "kielbasa" such as Tofurky, sliced (optional)
~ 1 12 oz. pkg. noodles (eggless "egg" noodles if you can find them; I used Francis Coppola ricciolini), cooked according to package directions

~ Cook the pasta, drain, and set aside.
~ In a large, deep skillet or wok, melt 2 tbsp. the margarine over medium heat.
~ Add the onions and dried seasonings; stir to combine, cover, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden but not browned.
~ Add the sliced veggie kielbasa, if using, and cook another 5 minutes.
~ Add the mushrooms, raise heat to high and cook another 10 minutes.
~ Remove from heat and transfer to a large bowl.
~ In the same pan, melt the remaining EB over medium-high heat and add the cooked pasta.
~ Cook, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes, until the pasta starts to get ever so slightly brown around the edges.
~ Add the onion/mushroom mixture, combine thoroughly and cook another 5 minutes or so, until everything is all happy with itself.
~ Serve with cheap jug wine and (if you're ambitious) a green salad and maybe some crusty bread; we just heaped it onto plates and dug in.