Cucumber Sandwiches

It’s a hot July afternoon, steamy with showers and intermittent sunshine. Each round of it builds heat and pressure. Tomorrow’s promise is for an even hotter day, when the temperature will cross the line and go into the nineties, something we find worthy of grocery  line chatter, along with the nor’easters that will barrel in from the Atlantic a mere six months from now.

It’s the perfect day for a cucumber sandwich.

TT got a call this morning from EB, his big-garden buddy, alerting him to the mass of green beans that are ready for picking. I can picture EB standing in the middle of their four acre vegetable patch, cell phone in hand, squash plants tickling his knees. It’s quite a place, the big garden. It’s more than a garden though. Over the years it’s become a little community, with shared spaces, exchanges of onions for corn or potatoes, or vegetables in exchange for planting and weeding help as the season progresses.

We didn’t plant green beans in our backyard garden this year, so this is a welcome call, and I add “green beans” to my errands list and make a point of taking a tote bag with me when I set out.

Well, you know I can’t stop at picking just green beans. I spotted a couple of small tomatoes that had ripened when no one was looking. Their red skins were blushing from underneath the protection of their leaves, so I picked those, which are enough for tonight’s salad. I heard a couple of bright yellow summer squash calling my name, and even though we have some in our own yard, I had to oblige.

Then I meandered over to the cucumber patch, and glory! What a year it has been for cucumbers! Before you could say Israeli salad, I had ten of them in my tote bag, picked from just three plants. I’ll be making an Israeli salad for twenty next Saturday. I guess having enough cukes for that won’t be a problem.

This is the long way around to tell you this:

I got home, mixed up a batch of double chocolate zucchini bread and had that in the oven in less than half-an-hour. My stomach rumbled its discontent at being empty as I then eyed the cucumbers, which were still warm from the field.

It was meant to be, so I went for it and slathered my multi-grain bread with more mayonnaise than would be considered respectable in polite company, doused that with salt and pepper, then peeled the best looking cuke of the bunch and trimmed it so its length matched the size of my bread. Then I sliced it into thin lengthwise slices, and stacked the slices on the bread.

Such luxury the bounty of summer brings to the gardener. An entire cucumber on a sandwich. This was no fussy tea sandwich. This was a two-fisted, open your mouth wide to take a bite, feast.

As I was constructing my lunch, a mantra waltzed through my mind.

“Thank you, dear mother earth, thank you, dear mother, thank you.”

And before I knew it, I was sobbing in grief for my mother, who I miss every day, as I have for more than twenty-nine years.

And I was sobbing in gratitude for her, and for the times the two of us would sit at the table on a hot summer’s afternoon enjoying a cucumber sandwich together.

Sometimes it’s the littlest thing that will trigger a flood.

 

 

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Chili Verde

Someone I of whom I have grown very fond mentioned in passing liking a regional style of green chili, and while I had successfully tried making white chicken chili and enjoyed it, “making chili”  always referred to the beef, bean, peppers and tomato style I first made for friends umpteen years ago.

Chili con Carne. Not too hot.  My first bite of Chili was at the Wendy’s on Congress Street in downtown Portland, Maine on a cold January Saturday afternoon decades ago.  I had to crumble the Saltine crackers into it in order to take the heat.

My mother was a classic New England home cook with a narrowly developed palate.  She could roast a piece of beef and make gravy that would bring you to your knees, but she found my culinary curiosity frightening to the point that she openly expressed concern over my desire to learn how to make Lasagne one summer Wednesday afternoon in my 19th year.  On the other hand, she could wolf down Finnan Haddie with the best of them, a dish I can’t even gaze upon without wondering how anyone could consider eating something that looked so grotesque.

We were at our cottage on Cape Cod, and my sister and three nieces were visiting for the week, and since my dad wasn’t there, an attempt at making Lasagne was deemed a safe experiment.  She was probably thinking we could go out for fish and chips if the Lasagne turned out to be a disaster, scary as that fragrant and cheesy pan of bubbling deliciousness seemed to be.  I digress.

Back to Chile Verde.  When I noticed it being mentioned, I decided to take a stab at making it.  With a friend coming over for a New Year’s Day dinner, it seemed like a perfect time to experiment with something I’d never before made.  What are friends for if they are unwilling to eat our culinary experiments?

Ten web-based recipes and an hour or so of pawing through my 142 cookbooks later of looking for a formula, I decided that nothing of what I found seemed quite right, so I took the hint and came up with my own recipe.  It was a hit all around the table, and my tried and true friend, who would honestly tell me if it were off the mark, swooned.  JT & KC who love spicy food found it to be delicious and a nice balance of flavor and heat.  TT simply refilled his bowl as a slight flush from the heat bloomed on his cheeks.

Forgive me for being so bold, but as I was recording how I prepared it, I thought it might make for a different sort of blog post.  The garlic was some of the last of our homegrown.

And thank you to the person who inspired this.  You have been inspiration for more than you may ever know.  Namaste’.

Andrea’s Chili Verde (Green Chili with Pork)

Expect about 1 ½ hours to prepare and a long slow cooking time, can be adapted to pressure cooking – about 20 minutes with a few minutes to cool and thicken a bit after cooking

This recipe is a perfect fit for my 5 quart LeCruset Dutch oven.  Makes 8-10 servings.

Ingredients:

3 pounds pork loin, trimmed of most of its fat and cut into ¾” cubes  (tenderloin can be substituted or used to make up the third pound, as pork loins often run about 2 pounds, or use boneless pork chops to make up the difference)

2 medium to large onions, peeled and chopped

4-5 Poblano chilies  (I chose the largest ones I could find – about 2 1/2 cups chopped)

1 large Jalapeno – about 3 tablespoons, finely chopped.  I remove the membrane and seeds but if you want the extra heat, leave them in to taste.

1 can fire-roasted green chiles, chopped, with their liquid

3 cups (a generous pound) of fresh tomatillos, skins removed, washed and chopped

1 good Tablespoon minced fresh garlic

2 Tablespoons ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

Dash ground cloves

A pinch of oregano

2 ½ cups Chicken stock

Flour for dredging pork, about 4 tablespoons

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Garnishes:

Sour cream

Thinly sliced scallions

Fresh cilantro

Toss the cubed pork with the flour while you heat over medium-high heat a heavy pot large enough for all ingredients.  I use my 5 quart cast iron Dutch oven.  When the pan is hot, add about 4 Tablespoons olive oil, let it heat up to a shimmer, then add about 1/3 of the cubed pork.  Brown lightly on all sides and remove from pan.  Add a bit more oil and repeat until all of the pork has been browned.  There will be a fond on the bottom of the pan.

Add the onion, chiles with juice, garlic, spices.  Cook 3-4 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionaly until the vegetables begin to soften.  Add about ½ cup of the chicken stock and scrape up the fond from the bottom of the pan.  Add the browned pork, the chopped tomatillos, and the remaining chicken stock.

Bring to a boil stirring occasionally, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook on low heat for 3-4 hours, until the pork is very tender.  Do not taste or adjust seasonings until it has been allowed to cook for an hour or so.

Serve with sour cream, thinly sliced scallions, and fresh cilantro to garnish as desired.  Hot crispy corn bread on the side is a nice accompaniment.

Comfort + Food = Comfort Food

It’s a cold rainy Thursday night, and exhausted is not enough word to describe how I feel tonight.  I would like to be treated in the way I treat freshly picked leaf lettuce.  Washed clean, then gently wrapped in a towel.

Bottom line, I need comfort, and I’m hungry.  So I guess tonight is a good night for comfort food.   Comfort + food = comfort food.

The chocolate chip pecan banana bread, which is baking away in my oven, is beginning to send its soothing aroma through the house.  I had some overripe bananas on hand, so that’s a pretty good start.  Dessert first.  It takes an hour to bake, so it will be lovely and warm when it comes out of the oven and the chocolate chips will still be soft and melty when we cut into it after…..dinner???

Uh-oh.  I forgot to plan for dinner, so that will leave TT and me indulging in a dazzling array of leftovers with which to nourish ourselves when he gets home from the office.  It will include a single chicken leg, some cottage cheese, a container of blueberry yogurt, leftover pasta sauce, (so I guess I can cook some pasta), and some wilted and slightly brown cilantro.  Oh, I have some slivered almonds too.  I cook from scratch most days, so tonight, I’ll let myself off the hook, but I guess it’s time to make a list and do the grocery shopping.  Tomorrow, maybe.

Tonight, we have banana bread.

Houston, We Have Cucumber and Tomato Plants Growing on the Porch

Can’t wait to see this month’s electricity bill, but ah, forget the cost of keeping these little babies warm and bathed in the artificial sun of grow lights – if all goes well, we’ll be eating our first homegrown cucumber of the season sometime in April and maybe, just maybe, our first homegrown tomato of the season on Memorial Day.

This race to the first vegetable started innocently enough, I thought, but I didn’t realize just how strong the competitive streaks ran in my mother-in-law and her son.  Willine and my father-in-law, Al, were not just gardeners; they were subsistence farmers in southern Maine, and they raised all of their own vegetables for their family of nine, and they raised their own beef, had cows for milk and sometimes would have chickens for eggs.  Strawberries, corn, and cucumbers were cash crops which they sold to the local grocery store, to a pickling company in Oxford, Maine, and from their front yard. The money was used to buy school shoes, clothes and other necessities in the fall.  37 acres and some hard labor can produce a lot of food.

And Willine did not like it one bit that our growing season was two weeks ahead of hers, which she realized the first summer we were married and we were comparing notes on how our gardens were coming along.  Within a couple of years, she was after Al to build a greenhouse off her kitchen, and the race was on.  Year after year, Terry would make sure his parents knew when we had pulled the first radish, eaten the first spinach, or lettuce, or whatever he had managed to pull out of the ground early that year (the asparagus was a favorite “first” because, well, it was a favorite to eat), and he would always be satisfied with a mournful cry from his mother when she knew she had lost the race again.  I must state here, however, that a race was never officially declared, but there was no denying it, either.

Now that Al and Willine have both departed the fun of friendly gardening competition has passed with it, but we do both like defying the winter by having a taste of spring before the snow season is officially over.

Gardening in the Winter Happens in the Imagination

Ah, the seed catalogs. Johnny’s, FEDCO, Territorial, Cook’s Garden, and my favorite, Kitchen Garden Seeds, begin to arrive around Christmas. A gentle tease, I make myself wait until after the holiday season to crack them open in order of least preference, which allows me to clear out early on the catalogs that offer me no inspiration for our next garden, leaving me with one or two from which to dream and imagine what to grow in the coming seasons.

Last year, since we finally, finally finished building our little (9’ x 16’) greenhouse and set up a cost efficient way to heat it on especially cold nights we decided to try some greenhouse cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes. The seeds were expensive, but for twenty bucks we got to start early and ate our first homegrown cucumber in late April, which for a New England gardener is very early. We enjoyed early tomatoes also, but last year’s crop succumbed to the blight that made its way around, and most of our plants died, leaving us only with cherry tomatoes. Better than no tomatoes. The zucchini looked lovely on the vine, but we found them to be tough and aged, even at only medium size, so we won’t try those again this year.

Gardening is hard work, make no mistake, but the dreaming and planning for what we will produce in our small suburban raised beds is a source of joy for me. I love the possibilities, accept the work, and hum with delight as I meander through the plants and vines from April to November (sometimes even December) picking vegetables for our next meal or two.

During Thanksgiving weekend, we had the pleasure of two of JT’s college friends visiting for an afternoon, and I learned, much to my surprise, that JT had told stories of her parents’ garden for the four years she was away at school. One guest was skeptical of it, but as luck would have it, that morning I had spotted a near-perfect head of broccoli exactly ready to be cut, and I knew there were carrots that could be dug. When he expressed his doubts, I just smiled at him and said I’d be right back. When I returned with the broccoli and a fist full of freshly dug carrots his skepticism departed quickly, and as he bit into one of the fresh, live carrots, the look of astonishment on his face was satisfaction enough for me.

Maybe we have converted another to the concept of real, live, homegrown vegetables, which is the greater gardening, if you ask me.