Chicken soup

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Thanks, Campbell’s. You’ve inspired me.

I recently read an article in the  business section of the Washington Post (on a rare visit to this section when I fled the bad news in section A) about how Campbell’s, the soup that was the only soup of my girlhood, is struggling.

It’s no surprise, really. Campbell’s is old school. It was part of lunch back in the ‘60s, when Mom’s grilled cheese and tomato was on Wonder bread and always came with CampbellsCreamOfTomatoSoup. That’s one word.

I also remember spelling out my name with alphabet soup noodles, courtesy of Campbell. G-I-N-N-Y. And cracking open a can of chicken noodle if someone was sick. And there was that gloppy-looking mushroom soup that Mom used in at least one of those recipes with an ingredient list that included a can of this, a box of that.

I’m not disappointed that my old pal Campbell’s is no longer popular. People are more interested in eating fresh food, and that’s a good thing. As the article pointed out, shoppers are avoiding the dreaded “center aisles” of the grocery store, where we’ve learned all the processed foods reside. Stick to the perimeter, nutritionists tell us, for fresh vegetables and fruits, fresh meat and dairy products. Reject the canned and boxed goods – what Michael Pollan’s Food Rules  calls “edible foodlike substances,” as opposed to “real food.” “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” he says.

The Post article goes on to say that Campbell’s is remaking its image, pivoting like a savvy politician to keep up with new preferences. It’s launched three variations on healthier soup options: Garden Fresh Gourmet, Souplicity and Well Yes.

My favorites are Well Yes!

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Who can resist a brand called Yes!? Also, those fun labels! Tiny pictures of corn cobs and peppers! How do you make a pile of quinoa look so appealing? And the article illustration shows the cans stacked, pyramid style. I just want to try every one of them.

Except I too am all about the fresh food. And I haven’t eaten Campbell’s soup in decades.

My solution: I am recreating each of these appealing flavors in the soup pyramid – my pyramid of inspiration. Yes!

Half the battle of getting dinner on the table is figuring out what to make. Problem solved!

So far, my little game has been a success. I made a black bean-red quinoa soup that everyone at Tuesday night family dinner  liked. As the first one out of the box – or out of the can – black bean-quinoa showed me it might take a few tries to get this exactly right. I’m thinking less quinoa and more broth next time.

But the chicken noodle soup – amazing. It helps that I had it on a cold, grey day in February, tailor made for chicken noodle soup making. And that the soup had overnight to meld all its delicious flavors together.

I could pretend I planned it that way, but here’s the irony:  I started the chicken soup late, at 7:45 p.m., because I got hung up at work, and then I had to stop at the co-op for carrots and celery. The soup was going to take at least an hour to make and I was just too hungry to wait. I wound up defrosting a box of Indian food for dinner and ate it while the soup bubbled on the stove.

I guess there is a place for convenience food, too.

PopTarts

PopTartsOnce in a while I take a bite of something so divine that I just want to stop, and never have any other version of whatever delight I’ve just experienced, because there will never be one that is quite as good.

Like right now.

I am eating a PopTart.

No. Not that kind. This is a home-made PopTart from Patty. I am always excited when she brings goodies to sell at the Takoma Park Farmers Market – and that is not every Sunday, since she is also running a farm. When does she even have time to bake? I don’t need to know – I’m just happy when she does.

Patty is part of Audia Farms, which sells herbs and organic veggies and fruits – plus turnovers, pastry-wrapped baked apples, and something called a butternut squash ho-ho. But usually I can’t get past the PopTart. It is amazingly flaky. When I get home from the market, it is just the right amount of warm from my toaster oven, a little brown on top. The insides are oozy with pear jam that Patty made herself. How much purer can you get than that? And she was right when she wrinkled her nose at my remark: “I like the kind with frosting!” Too sweet, she said. Turns out she’s right. This PopTart could not be more perfect, and there’s not a dot of frosting on it.

When I was little, old school PopTarts were part of the standard breakfast rotation – Cheerios, PopTarts, raisin toast, corn toasties (who remembers those?). I loved PopTarts, so much that when I was a young, crunchy-granola mom, I was tempted to buy them even though the commercial variety is full of evil things like preservatives and corn syrup. I did occasionally buy the health food store variety. They were not so great.

Then a couple years ago I discovered home-baked PopTarts at a bakery in Charlottesville, Va. Oh, man. Awesome. They were in a heavy pastry, and gaudily decorated with white icing and colored sprinkles. One was almost too much to eat at one sitting. But I wanted more of that, please, closer to home.

SONY DSCHence my delight when I saw Patty’s PopTarts, with their much-lighter pastry. Maybe I could recreate this at home? In fact, I’d love to try my hand at some of the classics I remember coveting from other kids’ lunchboxes: Hostess cupcakes with a squiggle of white icing on the top, Ho-Hos, Twinkies, Snoballs. I don’t actually love the taste of these things now – too sweet – but the idea of them still charms me. And we don’t have to swallow what we’re given: We can re-invent it to be something even better.

Or we can let Patty do it. Thanks.

Christmas venison

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One of the youngest Salatins on slaughtering day; his job, emptying the crates of live chickens, is done. Chalk one up for country living.

I feel as though I wrestled a beast and won, though this is not entirely true. In fact, for the man who actually did most of the wrestling it is laughable. But it is a first step. And I am celebrating it.

My honey and I were invited to a holiday party in Poolesville last week and while there was much to recommend it – fun, generous people, cozy home, great shepherd’s pie, delicious enchiladas and fine whisky – it was most remarkable for the level of country acumen collected in that kitchen where, just like the old adage, we all gathered. Many of these folks, our host included, know a whole lot about growing and pickling vegetables, raising farm animals – and slaughtering them. Many are also experienced hunters.

One guy told us his friends had bagged four deer earlier in the week – is that right? Can you “bag” a deer, the way you bag a duck? Anyway, Mike went on about the quality of the venison from upper Montgomery County, where Poolesville is located – the deer graze on farmland full of corn and soy so they get nice and fat and flavorful (unlike the scrawny specimens nibbling their way through “downcounty” Sligo Creek Park. Though it should be noted, one downcounty hunter felled a buck in his neighbor’s yard anyway, spurring the predictable outrage in Takoma Park).

Mike had dressed four deer that day, an enormous task when you think about it. Which I did, for about a minute, then stopped. Because that is where the real wrestling lies: killing, then “dressing” a living animal, dressing being an odd term because actually you are undressing it of its animal-ness, and making it into a naked piece meat. For these men, it is part of living in the country. I’m not quite there yet.

But I have taken baby steps to embracing the fact that the meat I eat was alive once. When I stumbled on slaughtering day during a visit to Polyface Farm outside Charlottesville, Va. (for a story about the local food scene there), I loved it. The family had gathered, from Grandma to 6-year-old brother, and the clueless white-feathered birds went so quickly from flapping around in the back of a truck to quietly and inanimately wrapped in cellophane, it felt like processing vegetables for canning. But it is true I did not order chicken at a nearby restaurant that night.

Back in Poolesville, I enthused about the venison, caught up in the spirit of the party. I said things like, “Wow!” and “Four deer in one day!” and “I love venison!” And this generous man offered to share.

What a treat!

But there were a few caveats. Mike, a tall guy with a kind face, a quick laugh and an appetite for beer, explained that this was a big hunk of meat. It was the loin – and he slapped his own hip, several times, to be sure the point was getting across. It might have some hair still stuck to it – not skin, of course, but hair, left from the messy process of butchering. He explained that I’d want to cut the bone away, and the silvery membrane that clings to the outside of the meat.

It’s going to get messy, he warned. I told him no problem. He said get a sharp knife. I said I have one. He said cut close to the bone. I said like filleting a fish? I can fillet a fish. And I felt for a quick second like a capable country man myself, like one of the gang, “Yes! I can dress a fish!”

We talked a bit longer about how to cook the roast, until Mike signaled the conversation was over by telling me there’s always YouTube. My visions of Little House on the Prairie disappeared. But I was still convinced my best source of info on all things venison was Mike, and the others in Poolesville who had cooked deer meat the way I’d cooked stir-fry veggies and rice and beans – about a million times. I vowed not to turn to YouTube, but also stopped asking questions and moved on to other topics, like the bowling game going on at the Wii in the next room.

Later, I looked up recipes in Joy of Cooking and, briefly, online, and then put together my own plan of action. But my best sources were real people: first Mike; then my neighbor who, as we chatted outside my house during his daily dog walk, advised that I be sure the venison didn’t dry out; and, finally, my sister, who has turned countless deer from her hunter husband and sons into family meals – she also stressed the importance of keeping the meat moist, and added that serving it hot is key. Unlike beef fat, venison fat congeals quickly and unappealingly. Ew.

I decided to prepare the venison for Christmas Eve family dinner – my kids, my honey’s kids, my honey and me, a special but low-key meal. The night before, I marinated the meat – a technique suggested by a couple of web sites, and one that sounded like a good idea for tenderizing and flavoring – but the tricky part was that I didn’t remember this step until 11:30 p.m., after another late-night holiday party. But this was part of the adventure! Wrestling the beast into submission!

So  after my honey had gone to bed and while the children were still out playing with friends (no nestled all snug in their beds for them), I took the beast out of the extra refrigerator I am so thankful to have in our basement (otherwise, where do you put a whole loin of deer – tap your own hip here?).

It wasn’t so messy, really. There were a few weird, coagulated-looking blobs tucked into the curvy bits, but for the most part it was a smooth, very big hunk of meat. I found the bone and cut it out, as instructed. I peeled back the silvery part. I cut it into two roasts, trying to visualize serving-sized slices to determine how much each person would eat, remembering it might shrink as it roasted (but shrink less than a beef roast, I’d been told). I froze one roast for later, then tucked the other into a Ziploc bag swimming in red wine and half as much olive oil, an entire bulb of crushed garlic, a big handful of dried sage from last year’s garden and a spoonful of dried thyme.  Then I put it in the frig and went to bed.

As it turns out, all that advice paid off. Before the roast went in the oven, I seared it to seal in moisture. I placed a loose tent of foil over it and put a little water in the pan, to keep it from drying out, and I added quartered onions for flavor. I started it at 400 and then immediately turned the temperature down to 325 to cook it slowly, for two hours. I based the time on my estimate of its weight, since I don’t have a kitchen scale – it weighed a little less than a five-pound bag of sugar.

I held my breath when I sliced it, and had my own private moment of “hooray!” when it looked exactly as I wanted it – pink, but not too pink; firm, but not tough. Then I tasted it: perfect.

I am grateful for all the advice. I am grateful this bit of country living made it into my suburban kitchen. And I am grateful to this upper Montgomery County deer for one of the most outstanding Christmas Eve meals ever.

Amen.

Dutch apple cake

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These looked a little better when they were first picked!

It’s apple season! Especially in my basement. I have buckets of them. Thanks to my honey, who ventured out into our friend’s apple orchard high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains (thank you Linda!), I have the sorts of buckets that once held paint and primer, now mounded full of speckled yellow apples, and gnarly red ones.

Picture this: my honey, on top of a step ladder on a beautiful, blue-sky day in an ancient apple orchard where the trees are twisted and fantastically branched, shaking the branches and hearing the plunk of apples as they fall onto the tarp he’s spread below. Linda’s apples are heirloom varieties, and I must confess I don’t know their names, but here are a few likely varieties: Macoun, Spitzenburg, Grimes Golden and (this one I know she has) Pippin.

And now, they are all here in these neat buckets, waiting for me to make applesauce from them. They have been waiting for two weeks.

I did manage a terrific apple pie, and I’ve sliced a few apple chunks into my oatmeal in the morning. Then yesterday I remembered that my mother had a recipe for Dutch Apple Cake.

Where is that recipe? Thank goodness my sister is more organized than I am.  She finds it in her own collection, snaps a photo of it and texts it to me from her kitchen, far away in upstate New York. We may be old-fashioned girls sharing recipes, but we know how to use our technology.

The bonus is, my sister gives me a story as well as the particulars for Dutch Apple Cake. The cake was originally from my grandmother’s kitchen, and because it is “Dutch,” I already associated it with our family name, Myers – a Dutch name, my father always told us. As a little girl, I loved this – with my super-blond hair and blue eyes, all I needed was the wooden shoes and apron and I’d have been the iconic Dutch girl. But my sister, who has spent hours researching our lineage, has discovered that the name is actually German. Break out the lederhosen.

Actually, it’s more complicated than that. Here’s the story: Back when “Protestant” meant “protest-ant” and battles with the Catholic church raged, (think Martin Luther and the reformists), a group of German Protestants were so mistreated that they were relocated to a sympathetic region called Palatine.  The conflict, however, continued, and on top of what amounted to constant warfare, there was a particularly brutal winter. The Palatines, as they were called, fled down the Rhine to Rotterdam (there’s another Dutch touchstone!) and out to England and “the new world.” This was early 18th century, so our American Revolution hadn’t even begun.

The tale of traveling to America could easily be imagined into a movie: the four- to six-week journey down the Rhine, followed by a bone-chilling winter in London, where the Brits had a rough time handling the estimated 32,000 immigrants from the continent. Finally, according to one account, 3 000 Palatines, sailed off for New York on 10 ships. Four hundred seventy of them died during the passage, or shortly after arrival. Do the math: about 300 people lived (or died) aboard each ship. For weeks. And you can bet they were not Titanic-style vessels.

It takes my grandmothers’ Dutch Apple Cake to show me that being a WASP was not always so easy.

The Myers family wound up in Herkimer, N.Y., where they were active in the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. Then they sealed their history as “Dutch” by marrying into the Dutch Van Schoonhoven family. As my sister says, “Yes, we are Dutch, yes, we are German, yes, we are even Scottish and Irish and English, but mostly we are American.”

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I think about all this as I follow my grandmother’s recipe, noting my sister’s variations (less sugar, lower oven temperature) and add my own (butter instead of oil drizzled on top).  I peel the little apples from Linda’s orchard, leaving spirals of skin on the cutting board, then slice them  and place them on top of the cake “point side down,” as my mother described, so that the round backs of the slices rise from the batter.

And that evening, when I share the Dutch Apple Cake with my local “family,” the friends who have become like sisters and brothers and children to me while my own sisters live so far away, I tell the story of the Dutch Apple Cake.

It turns out to be pretty tasty.

Now, what to do with the rest of my buckets of apples?