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I am pleased–and most importantly, my mother is pleased–to report that it looks like we are returning to Atlanta in just a couple of months. I’ve accepted a new job there and am looking forward to getting back. Fred has already laid bets with his best friend on the chances of Braves third baseman Chipper Jones suffering a season-ending injury before July 4. One of them will get a steak dinner out of this. It’s entirely possible I’ll end up cooking it either way.
In any case, posting will be sporadic over the next couple of months, much as it has been over the last few weeks as we made this decision and worked to get our house(s) ready to sell.
Today, I’d like to pay homage to the Durham Farmers Market, which I will miss when we return to Atlanta. Specifically, I’d like to honor the pea shoots that have been available there for the last three weeks, if you arrive early enough.
I sincerely hope that they will be available this Saturday. They are a miraculous little green, with the taste of tender, leafy snow peas–a little sweet, somewhat crunchy, with a delicate, almost minty flavor.
You don’t really need to know how to cook them. It’s okay to stand in the kitchen and stuff them into your mouth by the handful, like potato chips. They also infuse any salad with a gourmet air–add them to your mix of lettuces and put a little sign by the serving bowl that says, “Local lettuce and pea shoot mix with something-infused oil.”
So far, though, my favorite way to enjoy them is over pasta.
Here’s the recipe, such as it is. It is very forgiving. I never seem to make it the same way twice, and it’s always good.
Pea Shoots with Pasta
Makes 2 meal-size servings. This dish will also work with other tender young greens, like cress or creasy greens, also available now.
1/2 lb. linguini, spaghetti, or fettucini
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
6 small scallions, sliced, including some of the green part
3 – 4 cups pea shoots, rinsed and dried
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup coarsely grated Parmesan
Following directions on package, put salted water for pasta on to boil. Meanwhile, add butter and olive oil to large skillet. Heat on medium high heat until butter melts. Add scallions and saute until tender, 3 – 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Finish preparing pasta according to package directions. Drain well. Add pea shoots to skillet. Pour pasta over top. Add generous amounts of salt and pepper and mix until pea shoots have just wilted. Pour additional olive oil over pasta, to taste. (About 1 – 2 tablespoons should be enough.) Transfer to two serving bowls. Top with Parmesan cheese and additional salt and pepper if desired.
For a farm girl, I’m inconsistently squeamish about killing things. Flies in our house are caught with a cup and freed outdoors, but roaches are mercilessly squashed. Ants might be allowed to roam across counter tops for days, then tortured to death with poison from traps placed in strategic corners. Meat from sentient creatures such as cows, goats, and chickens is consumed with abandon . . . and I can’t put a live crab in boiling water.
The crabs caused a lot of trouble a couple of weeks ago, when Walking Fish, our CSF (Community Sponsored Fishery), let us know that North Carolina blue crabs were in the next delivery.
I’d been avoiding the crabs, and apparently so had many other Walking Fishers. Originally, members were simply told that crabs would be arriving as part of their weekly share; those who didn’t want the crabs could write to the group’s e-mail list and arrange for an exchange with another member. But it seems there was so much switching around, and too many crabs not being taken, that Walking Fish changed the policy. Now, when crabs come in, those brave enough to face them down have to add their names to a list.
Fred wanted to be on that list–the list of mighty crab killers. Why remains a mystery, but it is probably the same impulse that propels him–my sensitive, bookish artist–to yell at hapless pitchers and treat interstate on-ramps like entryways to the Indy 500.
“Will you just have it all done when I get home?” I pleaded.
“Sure,” he said. Perhaps it was my imagination, but his chest puffed out the tiniest bit. “I’ll look up how to do it on the internet.”
That should have been my first warning.
As usual, he picked me up from work on Thursday.
“How are the crabs?” I asked.
He couldn’t seem to look at me. His head drooped. “It was awful,” he said. “I couldn’t get any meat out of them. I tried and tried and I got just enough to put on a cracker.”
Confused, I asked, “What do you mean there was no meat?”
“There was just this watery stuff, mostly, and then I couldn’t get the meat to pull away from the shells.”
I pondered this. “That’s odd.”
Then it came to me. “Did you cook them before you tried to get the meat out?”
He looked up, and the life drained from his eyes. “Cook them? The internet instructions didn’t say anything about cooking them first.”
At moments like these in married life–like when the Braves lost to the Giants in the playoffs, or when a man struggles with assembly instructions you figured out an hour ago–it is important to be gentle. “Honey, I think you need to cook them first.”
He put his head in his hands. “But the instructions didn’t say anything about cooking them first. They just talked about cleaning them. I thought it was like fish, or chicken. You know, you clean it, then you cook it.”
I put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up again, despair clouding his face. “Why didn’t they say anything about cooking them first?”
Now is probably not the time to mention crab boils, I thought, or all the stories you hear about cooking live crabs, or children’s movies like The Little Mermaid, which admittedly Fred probably never saw. Instead, I patted his hand.
“We can probably salvage something,” I said. “I’ll take a look when I get home.”
“I don’t know,” he moaned. “There really isn’t much there.”
I figured he was exaggerating. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.
If you’ve ever wondered how much meat you can get from six blue crabs without cooking them first, here it is.
Luckily, Fred stopped his cleaning efforts before he got to the claws. We boiled the carnage, seasoning the water with herbes de Provence and salt. We made an appetizer of the meat we salvaged. It was sweet and tender, possibly the best I’ve had.
Fred’s been pondering the meaning of this incident ever since. He’s wondered how many times, at 50, he’s missed critical first steps. He’s even considered the crabs as a metaphor for his whole life.
That may be true. If so, then it’s also true that a few good things can be salvaged from a mess. And that we’ll get another shot at the crabs, if we want.
It’s been a busy few weeks.
The cats have helped me with my crosswords.
Cleo admired Fred’s latest painting.
Fred cooked supper, even involving vegetable matter in the process.
And we visited the family farm in Tennessee.
Posting will continue to be sporadic over the next few weeks, as we travel around the country for holidays. I’ve been cooking a lot and hope to share recipes for the holidays soon, but will certainly be back in January.
Return to Farming
Before I married Fred, I was an avid gardener. Unfortunately, I was not very good at it. Though I fantasized about pantry shelves lined with bright jars of home-canned produce, and snipping fresh herbs from my deck to toss into various dishes, my gardening efforts over two years yielded about 30 tomatoes, 2 mealy yellow squash, about ten pounds of rosemary, 3 tablespoons of parsley, 4 green beans, and possibly the tiniest piece of okra ever grown.
The problem was that while I liked to dig and put things in the ground, I didn’t like to plan. Thus I’d inevitably find myself in mid-May with a strong desire for home-grown vegetables in the summer, but I’d have no beds prepared and no real sense of where the plants might do well. So beds would hastily be dug in a spot that seemed sunny; a few bags of dirt from the garden store would be added; plants would thrown in, watered, and randomly fertilized; mulch might be distributed. But I had no understanding of the soil and the nutrients that might be needed, or what plants should go together, or how to prevent disease.
This year, however, I’m turning a corner. My work at the St. John’s community garden has led to a resurgence of my gardening interest, and it has peaked at a time of year when the only thing you can do is plan. Thus I have familiarized myself with measuring tape, stakes, and gardening books to create a map for a converting our weedy yet sunless back yard into a cornucopia of home-grown, organic produce.
Last weekend, I took the first step, measuring out Bed 1, a 10′ x 3′ space right behind the house. The effort renewed long-dormant math skills that revealed that I’d have 30 square feet in which to plant my crops.
The area is typical of our back yard: a swath of unidentified weeds scattered with leaves. Daffodils appear in the spring, but the photo below reflects the state of the area for the remaining 11 months of the year.
I dug here industriously for about three hours, scraping down about 8″ until the crummy clay surface, and my back, could yield no more.
I removed the sod and weeds, added a little store-bought compost, covered everything with a layer of newspaper, then leaves.
I’m afraid that the only difference between the “before” and “after” photos is that the largest weed is gone and the leaves are in a more organized pile. But I am hopeful that the earth will go to work, and that next year, I might get enough tomatoes for at least one batch of salsa.
Everything’s Better with Bacon
A few weeks ago I went to the doctor for my sort-of-annual check-up. “Your cholesterol levels are amazing,” she raved. “Your overall number is a bit over 200, but it’s because your good cholesterol levels are so incredible. I just don’t see this very often.”
I felt as smug and self-satisfied as I did at age six when I was the first student in Mrs. Hyberger’s class who could read from the “Dear Cubby” page in the textbook. I hadn’t worked very hard to learn to read–it just happened. And certainly I haven’t worked very hard to lower my cholesterol levels. It’s just my natural ability, I thought. My innate talent. A special gift.
I’m celebrating by eating bacon. With my cholesterol levels, why should I worry about it? And it certainly keeps Fred happy. (Miraculously, his cholesterol levels are excellent too.)
The bacon has been a surprising boon to the the fish we’ve been getting from our CSF (community-sponsored fishery), which is in the middle of its fall season.
As usual, we’ve gotten some beautiful fish, but the flavor has been unexpectedly strong in some cases. There’s no funky smell, but when cooked the fish was briny and earthy all at once–in other words, too fishy even for my taste.
In desperation, I turned to some of the recipes provided by the fisheries themselves. I had my doubts about these recipes, which relied heavily on bacon and cream and baked the fish for what seemed like far too long. It didn’t make sense to me. Why smother fresh-caught fish with other flavors? But after trying to face down some of these powerful creatures with mere lemon juice and garlic, I’ve come to accept the wisdom of attacking them head-on with pork and cream. This technique mellows the pungent flavor of fishy fish without covering it up completely (though covering that flavor would be a miracle on par with Fred choosing to eat a salad over a steak).
It also turns out the somewhat longer cooking time is necessary when the fish is all together in a casserole dish–laid close together this way, the fish take a bit longer to heat up than they do when separated into individual pieces. Just be sure to check for doneness frequently to avoid overcooking.
Fish with Bacon, Onions, and Cream
1/2 – 2 lbs white fish (you can use fish that is headed and gutted but not filleted, but you will have to watch for bones)
6 slices bacon, cut into 1″ pieces
1 large onion, cut in half and sliced
Cream or half and half (enough to partially cover fish in when spread out in a casserole dish)
About 1 tbsp. sage (optional)
Chopped chives for garnish
Preheat oven to 350. Generously salt and pepper fish and place in a casserole dish large enough to hold pieces without layering. Cut up bacon. Place in large skillet and fry on medium-high heat. Cut a large onion in half and then slice thinly. When bacon is cooked about halfway, scatter in onion and saute until translucent. Pour over fish. Pour a mix of cream and half and half, or just half and half, over fish until bottom of pan is covered and cream covers fish partway. (Unless you pour off the bacon fat, I suspect that using cream alone would make the dish too heavy.) Sprinkle sage over fish, if desired. Cover dish with lid or foil and bake until fish is tender, anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes depending on the individual size of the fillets. Check frequently for doneness to make sure fish does not overcook.
Remove fish from oven. If fish is not filleted, remove the bones as best you can. To do this, gently scrape off the top layer of flesh with a large fork, then peel out the spine and ribs and discard. You won’t get all the bones, but you’ll reduce some of the hassle of removing them at the table. Plate fish and spoon generous amounts of sauce and onions over the top. Garnish with chives and serve.
Three reasons not to tell your husband that he has good legs
Hamburger a la Fred
Upon returning from the beach, the mood in the Wise household has tanked. Hurled from the glamorous freedom of vacation back into the plodding reality of ordinary life and work, we’ve both been a bit downtrodden, even grumpy.
My own irritability has been exacerbated by a sprained ankle I acquired on the way back from the beach–not by slipping on a sundae dropped by a careless toddler at McDonald’s, or in a 12-car pileup on I-40, or even by tripping over the entryway at a rest stop. No, I managed to do this in the car. Sitting down. With my feet up.
After examining my X-rays, the doctor at Duke Urgent Care explained that the damage occurred because of an old injury, an avulsion fracture, in which a ligament had torn and pulled a little piece of bone off with it. I well remembered the injury, from my senior year at Duke in 1987, during a volleyball game held as part of a scholarship competition at Vanderbilt Law School. (I did not win the game or the scholarship. I suspect the committee questioned the sense of a candidate who could not bear the thought of not wearing her brand-new five-inch heels to the interview and so wore the heel on one foot and a splint with a cotton sock on the other.) And the results apparently are still with me, because it seems that the ankle is more susceptible to additional injury–including holding my ankle in a stretched position a little too long.
I’m now splinted and wrapped, able to wear only flat sandals to work, and not really in any shape to stand in the kitchen and cook. So Fred stepped bravely into the breach, offering to try his hand at dinner tonight.
As he did a couple of years ago, the last time he was allowed in the kitchen, he made hamburgers. This time, he consulted Mark Bittman for starters but decided that he wasn’t going to grind his own meat. He used 2/3 lb. ground beef for two patties, added a splash of Worchestershire sauce and salt to each one, and fried the two thick patties with some jalapenos and garlic. We debated the merits of bread vs. bun, and Fred’s preference (sourdough bread) won out because he was cooking. I hate to admit it, but he was right. Served with fresh tomato slices and onion, the flavor of the meat stood out, with the bread a nice complement to t he flavor rather than an overwhelming presence. And we ate them so fast it didn’t have time to get soggy.
I’m still grumpy, but I’m grateful that I have a husband who takes care of me when I most need it.
Several events converged in the making of cucumber-avocado soup yesterday.
The first was last month’s family trip to Kiawah Island, South Carolina, where we made our annual pilgrimage to Hege’s. Hege’s is a “brasserie Francais classique” focusing primarily on seafood. (Fred, of course, ordered steak.) On this trip, they offered a cucumber-avocado soup as a special. It was so good that even my seven-year-old niece loved it. The color was the perfect green for this kind of soup but it’s hard to describe exactly what it was–the only thing that comes to mind is a very unappetizing comparison to a 1970s appliance, only about six shades lighter. Or maybe the minty color of a bedspread you’d get at Pottery Barn.
Color aside, the soup somehow managed to taste like neither cucumber nor avocado, but a summer evening, with a dash of cream and chives. (The server claims there was no cream in the dish, but I am sure he lied–see below). I was determined to try this at home.
The second event was the avalanche of produce that is coming out of the nascent community garden at our church, St. John’s Presbyterian.
You can see the cucumber plants in the fourth box from the front. There are a lot of cucumbers buried in those plants–so many that our small congregation can’t quite manage all of them. And there’s parsley, enough to supply the entire city of Durham for the remainder of 2010.
Here, of course, was my opportunity to re-create that spectacular cucumber-avocado soup, only this time with parsley in place of the chives. I was a bit reluctant to replace those chives, since they complemented the other flavors of the soup so well. But I hated to see that parsley go to waste, and there’s only so much tabbouleh that one person can eat.
The parsley was a stroke of genius. As a garnish, it added crunchiness and a gentle undertone, with a hint of creamy pine nut balancing its natural sharpness. And like the original, this soup tasted just like summer.
4 large cucumbers, seeded and roughly chopped
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 tbsp. Salvadoran or Honduran creme
2 tbsp. heavy cream or half and half
6 – 8 large Italian (flat-leaf) parsley leaves, plus generous amounts for garnish (about 1 cup)
2 mint leaves, torn (optional, but these smooth out the flavor)
Salt to taste
Scoop avocado from peel and remove pit. Puree cucumber, avocado, and garlic in food processor until finely minced. Add remaining ingredients except for water and pulse in food processor a few seconds at a time until ingredients are combined. Add water until soup reaches the consistency of thin grits or whatever you prefer. Garnish with very generous amounts of parsley.
The soup is best if served immediately. The avocado will create a brownish film on top of the soup if it is kept overnight.
Note: The creams and avocado make this a rich dish, and I noticed a bit of greasiness around my mouth after each bite that some might find unpleasant. To correct this I would suggest reducing the Salvadoran creme to a teaspoon and substituting half and half or whole milk for the heavy cream, or even omitting these and adding chicken broth until the dish is the proper consistency. I did not have chicken broth on hand when I made this, and that may well be what Hege’s used to get the right flavor instead of cream. But I still think the server lied.
Fred turns 50
Fred turned 50 earlier this month–on the Fourth of July, to be exact. The event was marked with a weekend of Fred-filled activities. These included lunch at the North Carolina Museum of Art . . .
. . . with his adoring wife . . .
. . . who tried to ignore the fact that he was wearing white tube socks with Italian shoes and carrying books in a battered lunch bag with a prawn on it.
Of course, there were fireworks at the Gwinnett Braves games–I mean, at the Bulls game where they played the Braves.
(Aside: It’s important to understand the role that the Braves play in Fred’s life. At about ten o’clock last night, I was reading in bed when I heard Fred cry out, “Oh God!” from the study, followed by a stream of worried muttering.
“What’s wrong?” I called out anxiously, concerned that he’d received news of a death in the family or that some tragedy had struck a friend.
“It’s 10 – 5 at the bottom of the ninth and the Braves have nearly wrapped it up but this stupid pitcher is throwing BALLS! JUST THROW A STRIKE, WILL YOU? For cryin’ out loud!”
I returned to my book.)
The weekend was capped off with dinner at Angus Barn, the Triangle’s go-to place for an old-fashioned steak dinner with a martini. Even Fred couldn’t finish the 15 ounce Porterhouse he ordered, so it ended up in a sandwich the next day.
Fred is very excited about the new venture into cooking and food photography that this image represents. He chopped things and assembled them. Perhaps one day he’ll venture into turning on the stove.
But I’m glad he’s spent 5 of his 50 years with me, and I’m hoping for many more.