Nuts to You!

Nuts to You!

Please don’t take that title as an insult.  It’s really a compliment; let me explain just why.

Fall harvest means many different things to many people, but to most consumers here in middle-America, it’s the season when we start seeing big bins of nuts in the stores.  Usually they’re featured front and center at the head of the produce aisle, right there where God and everybody will be sure to see them.  Nuts in the shells, sorted by type and then mixed, loose in the bin with a big scoop you can use to shovel them into the waiting bags.  Shelled nuts in one-pound bags (or sometimes 12 ounces:  see my earlier post called “Size Matters”).  Almonds, English Walnuts, Peanuts, Hazelnuts (aka Filberts), Brazil Nuts, Pecans . . . probably the only common nuts I don’t find here are the pistachios and the cashews.  Is that because they’re purchased so often during the rest of the year as snacks that the Nut Society doesn’t feel the need to promote them for the holidays?  I don’t know.

While it’s true that bags of shelled nuts are available in the baking aisle year-round, there’s something special about those open bins of nuts in the shell.  It’s probably a tradition thing.  As I was growing up, our family had the ubiquitous Walnut Bowl (complete with varnished bark around the rim!) made from a three-inch slab of wood cut from a log and hollowed most of the way through into an open container for nuts.  It had a little spool in the center with drilled holes to hold the metal nutcracker and picks that helped us open and extract the hidden treasure from within those shells.  From Thanksgiving through New Years, that set was out on the coffee table in the living room, and Mother kept it filled and available for anyone who chose to crack and snack.  It was a treat of a tradition that followed me into adulthood and was carried forward into my own home.  I still smile when I remember Larry telling me (and Lily showing me) how–too small to grasp or squeeze the nutcracker–she had figured out how to use one of the curved-end metal picks to insert very specifically into a strategic spot at the top of the shell of an English Walnut, and then carefully wiggle and lever it just so until the shell popped open in two perfectly boat-shaped halves and the goody was exposed for her to eat.  She was two!

Speaking of boat-shaped halves, who else did the grade school project where they stuffed clay into the open Walnut shells, then stuck a stick mast upright into the clay, upon which was impaled a bowed paper sail with a Spanish cross to mimic the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and floated them in a container of water while learning about Columbus and his discovery of the New World?  Or how about spreading glue on the interior surfaces of those halves and sticking them back together with a loop of yarn or rick-rack coming out of the top, then spray-painting them silver or gold to use as Christmas ornaments?  The possibilities are probably endless.

Nuts are neat.  Whoever figured out that the stuff inside those hard-covered things falling off certain trees were edible deserves a medal.  And from what many reports are saying, they’re good for us.  So believe me, I’m truly wishing you something pleasurable when I say:  “Nuts to You!”

Got Hips?

Got Hips?

First of all, my apologies for being on hiatus so long without arranging for a sub or working up some posts in advance.  The reason was a worthy one, though:  the Trip of a Lifetime!  After more than two years of planning and saving and anticipation, my particular friend Peggy and I were super-fortunate to be able to take a 17-day vacation in historical, scenic Scotland.  It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit, and each day was such a discovery.  Still floating!

The temperate weather and abundant rain lend their efforts to what must be a national devotion to gardening.  The flowers (like the castles and the churches, and the mountains and the lakes–er, lochs), were plentiful and amazing.  Along with a plethora of stone walls, there were more hedges than I ever imagined could grow in such a relatively small country, and many of those hedges were comprised of old-fashioned rose bushes.

If you’re not familiar with an old-fashioned rose, they’re similar to a multi-flora rose bush, with several blossoms grouped closely together on the stem.  The blooms open out a bit flat, since they don’t typically have a lot of petals, but the fragrance is rich and pleasing.  And if the flowers aren’t clipped for display, or pruned before this time of year, they produce their seeds in a round or oval-shaped pod called a “hip”.  The hips start out green, then turn yellow, then sometimes progress to a deep red or even burgundy or almost black, depending on the breed of plant.  Deer, rabbits, and squirrels have the common sense (or God-given instinct) to eat these morsels, which are full of Vitamins C and A, antioxidants and all sorts of other good stuff.

Provided that no chemical pesticides, herbicides or fungicides were used on the plant, we can enjoy the benefits of rose hips as well.  For centuries, they’ve been harvested for use in tea, jams and jellies, and even soup.  Rose hip oil is used in cosmetics and in ointments for treating burns and acne or scars.  They may be helpful in preventing cancer and treating arthritis.  The more I read about their various uses, the more I start to think I should plant a rose hedge of my own!

The pity is, that I didn’t harvest a sackful of the little things myself, when they were right in front of me, since 24 hours after our return, Peggy and I both turned out to have contracted a cold somewhere along the way.  All that Vitamin C from a good dose of rose hip tea might have helped.

Have you used rose hips?  Were they good, and did they accomplish what you hoped?  Let me know!

Roses in Scotland!

Curse of the Sphinx

Curse of the Sphinx

Sure, we’ve all heard of the Curse of the Mummy, but who ever knew there is also, right here, real-life-as-I-type-this, a Curse of the Sphinx?! The Sphinx Moth, that is, which looks benign enough as it hovers around the honeysuckle vine that twines over and through the wrought iron railing by my front porch steps. In fact, it acts quite a bit like a hummingbird, flitting from blossom to blossom, siphoning out the sweet nectar in much the same fashion. But then the blasted thing lays eggs on the underside of a leaf somewhere, and those eggs hatch into larvae, which immediately look for the food on which they grow the largest and the fastest. Today, that food source happened to be my tomato plants, of which I have only two, but those two growing in five-gallon buckets placed on the concrete front steps just mere feet away from (you guessed it) the honeysuckle vine.

What looked like a reasonably healthy tomato plant just yesterday, complete with little green fruits promising a delicious treat in the near future, had become–before noon today–a spindly, spiky, collection of stems, at least on the north half of the thing. And there, blending in discreetly on the undersides of the few remaining leaves, the larvae of the Sphinx moth. FOUR of them! Never having seen these before, I snapped a quick photo with my trusty phone, and showed it to my good friends Peggy and Bert at lunchtime. “Tomato worms!” they exclaimed. “Mash ’em flat, or they’ll strip the entire plant to nothing!” I told the girls that the little stinkers had already made a good start of that job.

When I arrived home from town I wasted no time in plucking the worms off my poor unfortunate tomato vine, but put them in a plastic container with some of the already-damaged leaves and fruit, to save for a few hours. After work, I did a quick internet search to learn more about them. As it turns out, these particular specimens are most likely tobacco hornworms (manduca sexta) as opposed to tomato hornworms (manduca quinquemaculata – easy for them to say!). The diagonal stripes on their sides are slightly different, and the pointy “horn” on their back ends is reddish colored on this type, rather than black as on the other. But they both devour the leaves of the tomato or tobacco plant indiscriminately, and with a rapid pace that will amaze, leaving dozens of little green and black caterpillar turds in their wake. I know for a fact that those weren’t scattered all over the edge of my porch yesterday!

So, if anyone knows of an organic remedy to discourage the blighters (also called goliath worms, for obvious reasons), let me know, and I’ll keep it in my files for future reference. For now, however, I’m not going to stomp these jolly green giants. I’m going to cradle their little plastic temporary domicile in my hands, and walk it carefully up the hill past the orchard, where I’ll ever-so-gently open the lid . . . and introduce the contents to my chickens.

Pluperfect Peaches

Pluperfect Peaches

Here’s the honest truth: I wasn’t sure that “pluperfect” is an actual word. Now and then over the years I’ve heard it used, as in “Ed Earl, you’re a Pluperfect Fool!” (bonus points if you can name the movie that line is from!). But this afternoon I had to look it up to be certain, and sure ’nuff, there it is: pluperfect: utterly perfect or complete; more than perfect; supremely accomplished; ideal. The dictionary also had something about perfective verb tense, but that went right over my head. Besides, I digress. What I’m really writing about here is Peaches!

Two weeks ago I bought a box of five peaches at the local produce market.  They were reportedly grown in Georgia, and they were pretty good, but small, and the ones I didn’t eat immediately began to shrivel rather quickly.  Last week I stopped at a roadside stand about 60 miles away, and paid more money for the same number of peaches, but the sign said “Missouri Grown”.  That made me think they were probably allowed to ripen on the tree longer, since they didn’t have to be shipped so far before selling.  Well, the color of that fruit was pretty inside and out, but the taste was more tart than I’d expected.  Three of them are still in my kitchen, not looking so great.

This morning, however, after the dogs had their first run, then their breakfast, then their second run, I went up the hill to the barn and let the birds out for a good long day of foraging.  On my way back toward the house I checked the two peach trees in my tiny orchard.  Jackpot!  The taller “standard” tree has quite a bit of fruit on, but they aren’t exactly ready yet.  Next week, maybe, or the week after.  But the “dwarf” tree–the one that had so much deadwood pruned out last November that I was afraid it might need to be replaced–the peaches on that tree were ripe.  Whether it was the super cold winter or the winds this spring or a combination thereof, there were only a baker’s dozen of pickable peaches on that poor little tree, but they were each about the size of a softball.  One of the branches had been hanging so close to the ground that the sphere of fruit hidden behind its leaves had been chicken-tested.  But don’t worry; I got the other half.

So here I sit, with a bowl next to my keyboard.  The peach wedges in that bowl are bright orange-yellow, the skin a rich blush, the juice that bursts out with each bite tasting of pure sun-ripened sweetness.  (sigh)  Pluperfect!

Keep On Growing

Keep On Growing

Yes, that’s more than just the title of a song by Eric Clapton.  Bonus points if you can tell me what album that’s from without looking it up online . . . (!)

Summer is exciting in so many ways, not the least of which is all the growing going on.  My friend Michelle brought over two heirloom tomato plants from the dozens she had started from seed.  One should produce low-acid yellow fruit–yes, a tomato is technically a fruit–and the other is supposed to be orange.  Because I wasn’t putting in a big garden this year, she repurposed a couple of heavy white plastic buckets, drilling a few holes in the bottom of them for drainage.  With a few rocks in the base for ballast and to help facilitate the drainage, then layers of potting soil, compost, peat moss, and old chicken litter, the tomatoes are going to town, figuratively speaking.  Last weekend I saw the first few blossoms, and now there are little baby tomatoes hanging around.  It’s so neat!!

Up the hill in the orchard between my house and the barn there are pears and peaches.  Not as many peaches this time as there have been before, but this does vary a lot from year to year, and the folks in Georgia are still trucking some very decent fruit up this way for us Midwesterners to enjoy.  One morning this week after an overnight rain, though, I caught a glimpse of the half-grown apples on one of those trees out by the dog kennel.  The raindrops hadn’t yet been evaporated by the heat of the sun, and it made for such a pretty sight.  There’s more than one reason the supermarkets install that misting equipment in their produce departments.

Wheat harvest around here is over, the corn has mostly tasseled out, and the soybean fields are starting to show some definition.  Farm country is a great place to live if you like to watch things grow, especially when Mother Nature cooperates with sufficient rain on a timely basis.  So far, the drought conditions suffered during the few years previous haven’t been a problem, and crops are looking good.  To all my farming friends and neighbors:  Good Job, and Keep On Growing!


Size Matters

Size Matters

Yes, at least to some of us, Size Matters.  But hold on there, it’s not what you think . . . what I’m writing about here tonight is packaging, or rather, what’s inside that packaging.  Specifically, what’s not inside that packaging any more.

As you shop for your household staples, have you noticed the gradual reduction in the sizes of the packages on offer?  Coffee used to come in one pound bags, or three-pound cans.  Now the bags are twelve ounces, and the cans have crept their way down to something ridiculous like two pounds, one-point-nine ounces. Who thinks of these measurements?

It may not show very well in the photo, but the Charmin roll on the right is about half an inch shorter than the one on the left.  And both of them slide back and forth with lots of wiggle room on the spindle, which I guarantee you did not happen three years ago.  The packaging gurus have tried to fool me with “Mega Rolls”, but those don’t fit in the handy storage cylinders in my powder rooms.  Why make a Mega Roll, but then shave width from the sides?

Other items I’ve noticed are bacon (often twelve ounces now, rather than a pound), sugar (went from the standard five-pound sacks to four), and even cake mixes.  For decades we’ve come to rely on an eighteen ounce cake mix.  Now some of those are sixteen-and-a-quarter or even fifteen ounces.  Did they think we wouldn’t notice?

Mother recently shared with me a “Three Ounce Cake Mix Upsizer” recipe:  1 1/2 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda.  Sift these together and store in a sealed container. Add 4-6 tablespoons of this mix to the newfangled skimpy cake mixes to bring them up to par.

My point here is, we shouldn’t have to do that.  Some things just don’t need to change.  Call me an old curmudgeon if you will, but is nothing sacred any more?  Because I would bet money the Oreo cookies they’re selling these days are not as big around as they were when I was a kid.  And Double-Stufs?  Hah.

Ok, it’s your turn.  Leave us a comment with your pet peeve from the grocery aisles.  Not that we can do anything about it, but maybe it’ll help to commiserate!

Hush Puppies!

Hush Puppies!

It’s not yet Summertime, but the fish are biting, anyway!  Warmer temperatures and sunshine perk up those little lake (and river) swimmers, and if you’ve got the line and the pole and the hook and the worm and the sinker and the bobber and the net and . . . well, maybe we’d better stop right there.  It’s amazing what we can spend on a hobby that used to be so simple, isn’t it?

Bluegill and Crappie are two of my favorite fish.  I like ’em filleted, dipped in a mixture of egg & milk, rolled in a blend of flour and cornmeal with some salt & pepper and fried to a golden brown.  Catfish are pretty good too, and right now several of my cousins are snagging Spoonbill.  These guys really know how to fry the fish, too, let me tell you!  It’s a skill passed down through the family, and a mighty fine tradition.

Some folks like Hush Puppies (or is it Hushpuppies, all one word?) with their fish dinner.  I made an online search for hushpuppy recipes, and there are a lot of variations out there.  Which to choose?  My only trial with making this simple fare was during my junior high days, when a friend and I decided to mix up a batch in her mama’s kitchen.  The result was not quite hockey-puck tough, but they were fairly tasteless, and not at all what we’d had in mind.  When you add in the thundercloud expression on Mrs. L’s face upon seeing the mess we’d strewn across the counter and stovetop, it probably is little wonder that I’ve been in no hurry to repeat the experiment.

Anyway, I copied down the ingredients listed in three separate recipes, mixed up what seemed like a reasonable combination of the trio, then tweaked it a little more, half-way through.  Here’s what I’ve settled on for now:

preheat cooking oil (2-3″ deep) in a deep pot to 365 degrees.

In a medium mixing bowl, place:

1 cup self-rising flour

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

2 shakes from the garlic powder can

Stir together the dry ingredients, then add:

1 small onion (or half, depending on your taste) chopped fine.

Then mix together:

1 egg, well beaten

1 cup buttermilk  (I used fresh milk, with a splash of white vinegar added)

Pour this into the dry mixture and stir just until moistened.

Drop (carefully!) by teaspoon into the hot oil.  You can use a second spoon to scrape the batter/dough off the first one, but I just used my finger.  Fry for about 3 minutes, turning occasionally with a heat-proof slotted spoon.  (Some of mine kept popping back over after I turned ’em).  Remove  from grease before they get too dark, drain on paper towels.  Best eaten fresh.

Next time, I’m thinking about adding a little fresh ground pepper to the mix.  What about you?  Got a recipe to share?


Calf Slobbers

Calf Slobbers

My good friend is moving.  Actually, it’s been a progressive process for quite some time, but now it’s official.  The house has been sold and Saturday they had a Sale.  If you live in the city, you probably call it an auction, but if you live–or grew up in–the country or a small town, you likely call it a Sale.  Basically, it’s a method of dispersing, in short order, of lawn and garden equipment, furniture and other household goods that one doesn’t intend to take along when they move.  If the owner has died, it’s referred to as an Estate Sale.

People can find some really good bargains at Sales.  If you’re just starting out on your own and don’t have much in the way of Worldly Goods yet, try to catch a few of these events.  It’s amazing what you can pick up for a small investment.  If you’re lucky, there will be food available (for a price, of course).  And if you’re really lucky, as we were on Saturday when the food was provided by some folks from a little local church congregation, the offerings at the concession table will include Pie.  Not just any pie, but honest-to-goodness, made from scratch by someone who truly knows what they’re doing, homemade pie.  With Meringue!  Is it chocolate, lemon, or coconut filling hidden underneath that fluffy, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth topping?  Who cares; it has meringue!

Not everyone likes meringue.  More than one person I’ve met (my mother included) call it Calf Slobbers.  They’d rather have a chocolate cream pie adorned with whipped topping than meringue.  Is it whipped cream?  Dream-whip or Cool-Whip, or what?  Do they even care?  If not, that’s ok, too; it’s their pie, after all.  But given the choice, I’ll pick meringue for my cream pie every time.  And Baked Alaska?  I’m pretty sure that’s what Heaven’s all about.

Now it’s your turn.  What’s on–and in–your pie?


photo credit:  Michelle Furnell, used with permission

PS to “Served”

PS to “Served”

Although I wasn’t able to get this photo in time to go with the post last Saturday, it is the view that inspired it.  Miss Dot was kind enough to repeat the pose this evening with her supper.  She didn’t even complain that I caught her chewing with her mouth open!

And How Would You Like That Served?

And How Would You Like That Served?

Now is the perfect time to write a post about food, because I am not the least bit hungry.  Having gone to the grocery store ‘way too many times when I was hungry . . . you ‘ve probably done the same thing, and already know how that story ends.

My D.G. dog Albert and his new companion Dot are getting along very well.  They’re of a similar size and build, and Dot can almost keep up with Albert in the running department, which is really saying something.  They play well together (if a bit rambunctious at times), and have been fairly decent about sharing beds, toys and bones.  I’m careful to give them both their share of attention.  The main challenge arrived at mealtimes:  Dot’s a Chewer, whereas Albert is an Inhaler.  Putting the chow in two similar-sized bowls at opposite ends of the room makes no difference.  Albert devours his ration and then wants to help Dot with hers.  And while he doesn’t have an overly dominant personality, seniority apparently trumps femininity, and she lets him!  Being young, and probably a healthy percentage Coonhound, Dot is skinny enough already.  And Albert?  Well, he used to be skinny.

So, I’ve worked out a new method.  Albert still gets his breakfast and supper in the kitchen, as usual.  Dot’s bowl is put down in the living room, near the sofa, where I sit to supervise.  About the time Dot takes her second or third piece of kibble, Albert trots in, where he’s invited to join me on the sofa for a little snuggle time.  He casts occasional glances at his friend (and her bowl), but seems mostly satisfied with the trade-off.  Dot just takes her time, crunching each morsel thoroughly before moving on to the next.  Sometimes she tips the bowl with her foot, spilling the dry food across the floor.  Often the meal takes long enough that she actually lays down, with her front legs stretched out on either side of the bowl.  Eventually, she finishes, Albert jumps down off the couch, and they both look toward the door.  I open it, and they hit the ground running.

People sometimes have funny food habits, too.  Some tend to eat a meal one food at a time, while others swirl everything on the plate into a hodgepodge.  My late step-father-in-law John would eat for a while, then lean back and smoke a cigarette, then continue eating.  Larry had dentures and believed in chewing everything to smithereens, so he was always the last one to finish, even in big groups.  I tend to eat fast, unless there’s a lot of conversation going on to distract me.  Some people like gravy on almost everything.  Others think the dinner spread is not complete unless there’s bread and butter on the table.  Some will salt their meal before they even taste it.  And as for chewing habits?  Hmm.  Not gonna go there.

The picture above shows a plate of nachos served as an appetizer at the Gourmet Café and Pie Company in Los Alamitos, California.  I dined there with my aunt, uncle and cousins on New Years Day.  The food was fantastic and plentiful.  The usual yellow tortilla chips were supplemented with red and green ones, presumably for the holiday season.  My uncle can really pick the restaurants, and we had some incredible meals during my visit.  And if they observed any silly idiosyncrasies on my part while at the table, they were kind enough not to say so.

Bon Appetit!   Got a food funny to share?  Leave a comment!