Category Archives: Life in the Big Woods

Winter to Summer

There wasn’t much spring here in New Hampshire this year–it’s gone straight to summer, and right now it is 85 degrees. The good news is that we have nice cool nights, much like back home in Oregon, so the sleeping is still good. The birds, however, are not sleeping well–they were up at 4:30 this morning, and so was I until I found earplugs.

We were in NY last weekend, and then Ben was in Boston, so I haven’t been cooking much. I had a spartan few days, using up whatever we had around, and eating a lot of bread and jam:


Tonight, despite a late start for dinner (9:30), I am going to actually cook, and it will be a Spring Special: Halibut, asparagus and fava beans. I’ll report back with what I decide to do with it all.

Spanakopita Fest

Last Thursday we hosted a surprise 30th birthday party for our friend Chris. Preparations involved quite a few weeks of subterfuge by his wife Ann, and we spent several days shopping and cooking before the party, all uner the guise of driving lessons for me. The week before we spent a memorable afternoon making about 90 spanakopita using Chris’s mom’s recipe.

Making a double (triple?) batch meant using a LOT of frozen chopped spinach, which we squeezed out using flour cloth (very chilly):
spinach sink

Into the spinach went a bit of egg, a lot of feta, some ricotta and cottage cheese, green onions, and….I think that’s it? I need to get the recipe from Ann. My hands proved to be the best mixing tools–this is the bowl from the Kitchenaid, for scale.
spinach mixing

The miserable thing was the folding. The phyllo was dry (Ann taught me that you must always blame the phyllo for any problems you have), so it was frustrating buttering each sheet and trying to keep it intact while layering, filling and folding the little triangles. After a few dozen we switched to an eggroll shape, which was somehow less splinter-inducing for the dough.

We popped our trays of triangles and rolls into the freezer, and once they were hard as little rocks I transferred them into ziplocks. Ann made another batch or two at another friends house, as well. The night of the party I baked them at 375 for about 45 minutes, and they were fabulous. The filling had a good bite to it, great texture and flavor, and despite being such a royal pain I had to enjoy the crispy buttery phyllo.


We ended up having decorating with Cinco de Mayo stuff, including a pinata, which Chris beat down to great effect It was all very festive.

And Ann and I put together quite a spread—and artichoke/spinach dip, the spanakopita, really great homemade hummus (heavy on the garlic and tahini), chips and salsa… Also many, many margaritas and daiquiris. Chris was very surprised and everything went great, but I have to say I prefer 6-8 people coming over for dinner, instead of the 25+ for cocktail madness. With a crowd like that I spend the whole night refilling drinks and bowls, instead of eating anything myself!


For the second night feeding the boys, we grilled burgers and sausage and ate outside. We invited Chris and Ann over to talk marketing with the college kids, and then Brian and Liz came over to play catch and we asked them to stay, too. All 8 of us squeezed around the table on the porch, which gave it a fun party feeling. It was a little chilly to be eating outside but I don’t think any of us noticed, in part because Ann, who is always cold, was sitting by the open window to the kitchen, where I accidentally left the oven on at 480 degrees long after taking the potatoes out…

Liz mixed up some more wonder concoctions in the freezer–a sort of strawberry margarita improvisation–and the guys drank a lot of beer. We grilled 14 1/4 pound hamburgers and 10 sausages and every single one was eaten. I also made a huge salad and some oven fries, and Ann brought a delicious cake from King Arthur.

The oven fries were an experiment, and worked out remarkably well. I usually parboil potatoes that I’m trying to make crispy in the oven, and the few times I’ve skipped that I’ve regretted it (see the chicken dinner back in December where the potatoes took an extra 45 minutes to cook). But I forged ahead, cut 8 big bakers into wedges, rubbed them around in oil, salt and pepper, then baked them at 450 (later cranking it to 480) for about….45 minutes?


When I pulled them out to test them a lot of the wedges were sticking; they hadn’t crisped up enough to release from the pans. That was when I cranked the heat up. Basically just keep baking them until they release from the pan without too much trouble! I dusted them with some truffle salt (another product sample from my magazine days) before serving.


Dinner—the best shot I could get in the midst of the utter chaos (fun chaos) at the table:



Grilled chicken with eggplant

I am trying to avoid falling back on pasta for non-company dinners, so last night I tried a recipe from Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist Cooks Dinner, a chinese-inspired eggplant/shallot/ginger mixture to serve with chicken.


The shallots get browned for a while, then in goes the eggplant until it’s nice and browned and soft. A bunch of minced ginger goes in towards the end, and I served it over rice with grilled chicken.


The eggplant was pleasantly bitter with the sweet shallots, which were really delicious. Another time I might just cook a ton of shallots this way–they were slightly caramelized and a really nice side dish.


We ate out on the porch even though it was a bit chilly. Frogs have woken up in a stream a block or two away, which reminded me of eating on my parents’ deck in Oregon. Spring must really be here!

I tried Bittman’s rice recipe from that book and it didn’t work nearly as well as his method in How to Cook Everything. This way made wet rice, blech.


Spring threatened to finally arrive this weekend, hitting us with incredible hot days and lots of sun, but it has already vanished again–today is grey and cool. Between trips to Boston on Friday and Tuesday, and Ben taking a business trip Monday and Tuesday, I feel like we’ve barely been home (or seen each other) in ages. As a result, I haven’t been cooking much, since evenings at home alone don’t inspire me to cook anything worth taking photos of. Last night I had a delicious but hardly impressive dinner of fried eggs, a toasted english muffin, and some salsa.

I am vowing to be better, though. This weekend Ben’s brother and a friend are visiting, so I’m gearing up to feed some extremely hungry 20-year-olds. A big pan of lasagna should work… We have a couple dinner parties in the next two weeks, as well And when it’s just me and Ben, I’d like to branch out a bit, get my hands on some nice spring vegetables, maybe cook with fish and chicken for a lighter change of pace.

Over the weekend while it was hot and sunny, Ben got a bee in his bonnet to plant flowers in the beds and window boxes in front of the house. It’s a pretty grim sight right now—heavy storms pulled hundreds of sticks and branches out of the ugly trees out front, and our grass is barely existent and full of tire tracks from various trucks pulling onto the lawn. Still, we went to Home Depot and stocked up on pansies and violas, and then I spent the afternoon sanding and painting over the ugly stencils on our porch table while Ben planted the flowers.


The violas are particularly charming:


And though it’s hard to tell from this photo, the house does look a little happier now:


That evening our friends Ann, Chris, Brian and Liz came over to help us break in the porch and welcome spring with margaritas. Liz is from Milwaukee, and suggested a bratwurst barbecue, so she made caramelized onions and we grilled the sausages and ate them with a big salad and a succession of tasty, tasty frozen margaritas. The power of the margarita is such that I completely forgot to take any photos. Oops. We got the call from our broker asking if we wanted to grab the apartment midway through the first round, so the dinner was very celebratory!

Stirfry by candlelight

Last Wednesday, two days after the big storms here in the Northeast, our power went out at about 5:20 in the afternoon. A few hours later it was clear we wouldn’t be getting it back until nearly midnight, so, accompanied by the unearthly racket of our neighbor’s obnoxious generator, I went ahead with the stir-fry I had planned for dinner!

It was still somewhat light out while I was chopping up the veggies and meat, and by the time it was really dark I was mostly mincing ginger and making sauces. Ben brought in a bunch of candles and took some hilarious photos of me looking confused while trying to read the recipe.

dark kitchen

I didn’t really follow a recipe in the end, since I had a random selection of vegetables and I wasn’t in the mood to velvet the pork. I took Barbara Tropp’s sauce and marinade recipes from a pork stir-fry and used whichever ingredients I had. The marinade had some sesame oil, soy sauce and garlic; the sauce included sugar, soy sauce, sherry vinegar (subbing in for cooking sherry and rice vinegar!), hoisin sauce, etc. For aromatics I just used garlic and ginger. Veggies: orange pepper (for Ben), a big head of bok choy, zucchini. The pork was from the tenderloins; I had trimmed the skinny and fat ends and frozen them for stir-fry.


I cut them up into ribbons and cooked them halfway in a little corn oil, then stir-fried the aromatics and vegetables, cooked them in the sauce, thickened the sauce with cornstarch, and at the end threw in the leafy parts of the bok choy and the pork to finish cooking.

Served with jasmine rice, it was quite good, and the leftovers were even better the next day.

stir fry

Things that are making me happy

Berries in the snow:

Siamese Dried Porcini:

The cardinals that live in the trees outside my window:

Major snow:

My paperwhite:

The nutcracker ornament my grandmother sent me–very similar to my favorite ornament growing up, the one I *always* put on the tree:

Chef Yossi “Lotion de Chef,” an oil-free lotion designed for cooks. I got a package of CY stuff while I was still at [Magazine] last summer. I only opened it when my hands started cracking a couple weeks ago, and it actually is the first hand lotion I haven’t hated–since it’s oil-free, it doesn’t leave your hands slimy.

Finally, my Valentine’s present, a set of four demitasse cups, creamer and sugar bowl, all in Wedgwood Basalt. One day I will have a wall of silhouettes in a dining room, and in the middle I’ll hang a floating shelf and put the basalt-ware on it–like 3D silhouettes, how meta!
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Farmer Boy dinner for two

As kids my brother and I both read the Little House series until our copies fell apart, and recently I picked up a used copy of Farmer Boy at a library sale and we both reread it. FB was always my favorite because instead of detailing the brutal struggle of pioneer life, it talks about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband Almanzo’s childhood, on a prosperous horse farm in upstate New York (WAY upstate, by the Canadian border). A lot of time is devoted to talking about the amazing food that Almanzo’s mother and sisters prepared to keep everyone fueled up for dawn-to-dusk manual labor, and I always loved the detailed meal descriptions. Breakfasts on the Wilder farm involved ham steaks, pancakes, pie, cheese, etc.—huge piles of food. At one point Almanzo and his brother Royal talk about what they like best to eat, and Almanzo says his favorite is Fried Apples ‘n Onions. Tom and I were discussing that after we reread the book last fall, and when I brought home a ham steak to fry for dinner the other day, I also picked up a few granny smith apples and figured I’d give it a try.

There are lots of Apples ‘n Onions recipes on the internet (there appears to be a Little House cookbook, which I should investigate), and Bittman also has a recipe in “How to Cook Everything”—I read them all and then kept it simple. I sliced two onions very thin, and then peeled and cut up two apples. I used a tablespoon or two of butter, sautéed the onions until they were starting to brown, then added in the apples and cooked until they were starting to soften (I could have cooked them a little longer).


I also baked baking powder biscuits, then pan-fried the ham steak and plated up a nice big Farmer Boy breakfast for dinner.

biscuits.jpg ham-dinner.jpg

Very satisfying, and I want to play with the apples and onions a bit more. I could have cut the onions a little thicker and put the apples in earlier so they could soften more while the onions browned. Some recipes also recommend adding a tiny bit of brown sugar, which would have been a nice addition.

December catch-up: Cocktails for 35+

12/13: We had a slightly last-minute cocktail party for our friends who were still in town by the second week of December. Ben bought a very large quantity of cheese at the Coop, and we still have tons of cashews from an unfortunate bulk-buy this fall. Our friend Nancy (the Foods that Begin with P genius) volunteered to bring sweets, so I was off the hook for dessert, thank god. I had made a double batch of the strange flavor eggplant earlier in the week so I’d have a bunch for the party, and we put that out with fresh croutons. Note to self: those flavors don’t just pull together as they sit, they strengthen. What had been sweet and spicy on Sunday was CRAZILY garlicky on Wednesday. Very potent.

For hot snacks we grilled sausages and cut them up into coins, which we passed around hot. I made about 80 little mozzarella balls wrapped in prosciutto, inspired by an appetizer I’d eaten in Boston that week. These were broiled and served hot, but sadly I didn’t think it through AT ALL, and I used fresh mozzarella balls instead of cutting up a wedge of firm mozzarella. The water content, of course, was far too high, and they melted all over the place instead of staying in tidy balls. They tasted great, though, and I want to try again soon with the right cheese! Here’s the top of my prepared mountain of them, before they met their melty fate:

Inspired by an old, old post on Chocolate and Zucchini for creatively flavored palmiers, I set out to make a savory version, using a couple spreads I bought at the Coop: one sun-dried tomato (not usually my favorite, but it worked here) and an olivata. This is SUPER simple and a useful trick. I thawed store-bought (Pepperidge Farms) puff pastry, laid it out flat, spread it with the…spreads, grated a bunch of parmesan over it, and then rolled it up from both sides. Once it was rolled all the way up (I don’t have a photo of that stage) I pressed the whole thing together firmly so it wouldn’t unroll, then threw it in the freezer for a few minutes to firm up. You don’t want it frozen, just hard enough that you can cut thin slices off with a serrated knife. I baked those, and voila, savory cocktail nibbles!
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There was slight confusion over the desserts and palmiers: one of the desserts was a fabulous batch of little turnovers filled with chocolate and nuts. I had couple people tell me they bit into those expecting meat, and the palmiers expecting sweet!

It was fun, though I didn’t have a sip of wine until all but a couple friends had left (we forced them to stay and visit and help us eat the cheese.) Amazing how many people can cram into a little house if you push all the furniture back against the wall…