Listen to the Music

CCI28042016_2I was born with music.

My Dad was a failed music major (he didn’t want to learn violin), and an accomplished amateur church organist. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to him play the ancient pump organ in the antebellum chapel in our backyard. Later, he adopted a reed organ from a deconsecrated Catholic Church and rebuilt it in our basement. When we moved to Georgia, the organ got the master bedroom. I grew up to a soundtrack of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues.

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Dad playing the organ

There was classical music, but Dad also loved his German music (yes, complete with accordion). Heino was a particular favourite. Mom was partial to Gordon Lightfoot, especially “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which she must have played a million times.

My Uncle Chuck played piano, organ, and accordion — an instinct I seem to have inherited from him.

I grew up with the usual exposure to pop and rock, with a little country mixed in. I started playing clarinet when I was 11 and later added saxophone. I loved playing classical music, but yearned to play jazz. Dad reckoned if I ever ran away, he’d find me busking on Jackson Square in New Orleans. He’s probably right. In the end, I was either too shy, too lazy, or lacked the confidence to pursue a musical career. When I started university, I packed up the instruments. But over the years to come I explored a world of music.

As a consumer of music my taste has always been eclectic. It is easiest to explain my musical taste by identifying the music I don’t like: ABBA. I’ve told Simon that if I am ever in a vegetative state and he has to decide whether to pull the plug, he should sit by my bedside and play ABBA. If I don’t immediately wake up and tell him to turn that sh*t off, I’m gone. There. Is. No. One. Home.

Please don’t troll me. I don’t think less of you because you love ABBA. My best friend loves ABBA. My husband at least likes ABBA. My dogs would probably love ABBA if I allowed it to be played in the house. Chickens, too.

You hate Brussels Sprouts? Well I love them. There’s no accounting for taste.

I especially love various kinds of soul music, by which I mean, music that expresses the deepest elements of a people’s history, spirituality, and identity. Cajun Zydeco. Appalachian Bluegrass. Portuguese Fado. Memphis Blues. Gypsy Swing. Kletzmer. Reggae. Ska. Dixieland Jazz. New Orleans Funk. Motown. Gospel. I haven’t had much experience with Hip Hop, except in Africa, but I surely do understand its power.

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These Hip Hop musicians in Senegal founded the grassroots political movement “Y’en a mare” – enough is enough — that were pivotal in bringing democratic change to their country. Music has power!

In short, If it reaches into your heart, makes you want to dance, or weep, or praise the lord, I love it.

In the aftermath of my first dance with the black dog, in the early 1990s, my Video tapes of The Color Purple and Terminator II (the one where Linda Hamilton, playing Sarah Connor, goes all gansta on a psychiatric ward), and my Wynona, Willie Nelson, Francine Reed, Lyle Lovett, Gypsy Kings, R.E.M., and k. d. Lang CDs kept me going through many a dark night.

Eventually, the clouds lifted and for the next two decades or so, I collected more and more wonderful music to love from places like Bali, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, and New Zealand. Maori music gives me goosebumps. The Maori musician I heard playing guitar and singing “Born on the Bayou” at the Riverbank Market on Easter Saturday made me stand still and say, out loud, like a prayer, “God, I love this country!” And then I put some coin in his guitar case.

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Learning drumming in Sobo Bade, Senegal

Depression is a thief. And somewhere along the line, depression stole my music. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. It probably came on in stages. My father died and I couldn’t bear to listen to Bach. Organ music sent me into gales of tears. Normal grief? Probably.

Then, sometime after Simon and I got married, I changed divisions at the company where I worked. My new office was in the SCIF — the Special and Compartmented Information Facility, basically, a safe in which highly classified materials, discussions, and people are housed out of the reach of prying electronic eyes. Being effectively locked in my office all day, with no windows (technically, there were windows, but we weren’t allowed to open the blinds), and no access to personal electronics, meaning no iPods and no music CDs, felt like a daily flashback to the psych ward. I was in a sustained panic attack for two years.

Suddenly, music wasn’t soothing, it was searing. I quite literally couldn’t bear it. Looking back, I realise the black dog had been slowly, quietly, shadowing me just waiting for the opportunity to knock me over. We moved to New Zealand, my anxiety shot to previously unknown levels, I stopped sleeping and, eventually, my psyche crumbled under the pressure. Again, for the second time, I had to find a way to want to live.

But I didn’t, I couldn’t, turn to music. I had hundreds of CDs of music I love, and I couldn’t face them. It was as though sound, especially music, might make my head explode. Anhedonia — the inability to derive happiness from things you love — is a well known symptom of depression. But this was something else. It was as though the part of my brain that processed music had somehow been disconnected from my pleasure centres and grafted onto my fight or flight centres.

Of all the cruel things depression has ever inflicted on me, this was the worst. Even when I lost the ability to enjoy eating — and I did — I could, at least, get a positive sense of achievement by cooking for others. I find giving dinner parties is actually an excellent depression coping mechanism. Provided I could get myself to the grocery store (which wasn’t always easy because I had also developed a grocery store phobia), I knew I could chop, sauté, boil, and bake and beautiful food would ensue that my friends would happily come eat. I didn’t have to talk. They’d do the talking. I just had to provide the raw material — food, music — and a party would happen.

But no music? How do you heal in silence? I read loads of books. I worked with a wonderful, caring therapist. I took my crazy pills. I cooked. And eventually, I started this blog.

Then, one day while I was back in the states, I got it in my head that I would learn to play the accordion. The idea had been floating around in my head since I heard a local group, The Wellington Sea Shanty Society, on Radio NZ on International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I could play the accordion. After all, the accordion isn’t really music, right? My friends keep telling me that. But I’ve always loved the accordion. I even enjoyed watching Lawrence Welk with my Grandparents! So I bought a used accordion on Trade-Me for about $300.00. It was waiting for me when I got home. And I went online to find an accordion teacher.

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I’m not, and probably never will be, a great accordionist. But Katie is a great teacher. One day, no so long ago, she was explaining the Circle of Fifths, or maybe it was chord progressions, and something flashed in my head. It was . . . joy! Katie gave me my music back. I think I laughed out loud. I’m sure she thought I was crazy. But then, I am.

JOY! Music and joy! I have my music back! Our “box room” now looks like the Big One has hit, with CDs strewn all over the floor, sorted into piles that mean something only to me. I found myself wanting to share my music, with Katie, with Simon, with the chickens, with anyone who will listen.

Don’t be surprised if I run up to you one day, waving a CD, or my iPod, and saying “You have to listen to this music!”

And CJ loves it when I sing! I promise you, he’s the only one who will ever love to hear me sing. My music is giving him joy.

It is as though I have five years of backed up music clamouring to be let out. My accordion has turned out to have seasonal affective disorder and all the keys have gone sticky. So until I can get a newer, less temperamental one, I’m learning on a digital piano. I’ve ordered a music journal and music staff paper. I’m not talented, but I’m most certainly enthusiastic. I have been, to quote C.S. Lewis, surprised by joy.IMG_0418

A few days ago, I got Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry. Terry describes himself as “Alice Waters meets Melvin Van Peebles.” For each (marvellous) recipe, he includes a “suggested soundtrack” — a song or an album “to be enjoyed while cooking and eating.” He wants to “bring the culture back in agriculture.”

I’m down with that!

Music goes with food, and food goes with music. There is music I love to cook to, music I love to eat to. Music for warm summer picnics, and music for cold, windy Wellington winter nights. I want to tell you all about it!

I have my music back. I want to dance. I want to sing. I want to cook. I want to eat.

I want to listen to the music.

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Zhen Kailian Won Ton Soup: A Forty Day Invention Test, Episode Six

Last Wednesday, I woke up with a bit of a throat. Nothing big, just one of those fizzy, back of the throat tickles that could be allergies or could be the beginning of a cold. The kind of sore throat that makes you crave chicken noodle soup, or a vegetarian equivalent. Fortunately, I had some homemade, Saturday morning after the Market vegetable broth in the freezer. IMG_0249That could stand in for chicken stock, but what about the noodles?  That’s when I hit upon won tons. I’d had dumplings on the brain since I made pot stickers for Chinese New Year. Some yummy won tons in a slightly Asian-ised vegetable broth with a few fresh veggies and lots of tummy-settling ginger would satisfy my desire for throat-and-soul-soothing, brothy soup while constituting a sufficiently hearty meal for my hardworking sweetie.

What, you might ask, qualifies me — an ageing white chick from the Deep South of the US living in New Zealand — to improvise Chinese soup? Well, first of all, I had a poster of Mao Zedong tacked to the ceiling over my bed throughout my teenage years. Why, you ask? Probably for the same reason I wore a dog collar all through High School: to annoy my parents, to get attention without actually DOING anything. My rebellion was pretty wimpy. I also own and have actually read The Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, relics of my Ph.D. studies.Mao

Second, I took — and survived — two semesters of Chinese History at the University of Georgia. The professor, Dr. Thomas Ganschow, was recognised as one of the very best teachers at the University of Georgia. He was also renowned for his marathon exams, the undergraduate equivalent of the Mandarin Eight-Legged Essays, for which the questions were sort of : write down all human knowledge. Be specific and include dates. Tom was the main reason I finally realised resistance was futile: I would be an historian. He also launched me on my lifelong quest to understand how other cultures work. My Dad continued to hold out for accounting in the hope that I might, someday, be gainfully employed.

Tom and his lovely Taiwanese bride, Lisa, became good family friends over the years. Lisa was the manager of the Athens Area Community Food Bank, where my mother volunteered as a board member and Thank You Note writer. Really, everyone who donated food or money to the Food Bank got a handwritten Thank You from my Mum. The Thank You Note is a lost art, leaving the world a less gracious place. Lisa is also a fabulous cook. Before my first wedding, some of Mum’s friends threw me a Recipe Shower. Lisa gave me her recipe for Chinese Egg Rolls. I cherished it. I still have it. In fact, I think I will dig it out and work on a vegetarian version. Watch this space!

I have been to China twice, both times for work. Because I was not allowed to take any technology — no smart phone, no laptop — into China, I actually got out and did things instead of staying in my hotel catching up on work, which was too often what I ended up doing on work trips. On my first trip I visited the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and met Helmut Kohl, despite my falling victim to fairly paralysing food poisoning. I was at the Great Wall on the hottest day in human history. It was 114F/45C. Honestly! I was the only person insane enough to be up there in such weather. It was so hot my hair turned bright orange! Between sweat and food poisoning, I lost about 5 kilos on that trip!

On my second trip, I had the unique “pleasure” of being stuck in a parked aircraft on the ground while Beijing had a rare, early November blizzard. The snow plows were still in dry dock. But the snow did, temporarily, sweep away Beijing’s legendary air pollution, so I woke up the next morning to the truly once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of Beijing under clear, sparkling blue skies!

My adopted Elder Sister, Kongdan Oh Hassig, a Korean China expert and linguistic whiz kid, gave me a Chinese name for my 50th birthday. Zhen Kailian means “triumph” and “lotus flower.” CCI22032016I love that. Triumph means so much to me, given my lifelong war of attrition with depression and anxiety. And the lotus flower symbolises, according to buddhist.org, “rising and blooming above the murk to achieve enlightenment.” My next tattoo will be a lotus flower.

Note to Katy: my reputation is in your hands. If Zhen Kailian actually means “Old Lady with Baggy Knickers,” it’s on you!

Katy and I traveled together a lot. She is fearless and up for just about anything. Sadly, we have never been to China together, although we did drink civet poop coffee in Bali.299900_10150433922303410_1665493123_n

Finally, some of the most interesting foods I find at the Riverbank Farmers’ Market are Asian: the beautiful Asian greens, giant daikons, strange and wonderful bitter melons, snake beans, and snow peas. Then there is the Thai herb lady who sells all kinds of Asian flavour makers: Thai basil, lemongrass, galangal, and turmeric root. And the Chinese gentleman with his handmade tofu and fresh Chinese noodles.IMG_1267

And last but not least, the “I Love Dumplings” ladies serve up the most delicious vegan potstickers ever.  My last stop every Saturday morning is at their stall, where I buy a dozen dumplings for $5. Sometimes they are so busy, I have to wait. And I do. Because the dumplings are just that good. Simon and I arm-wrestle for them for the rest of the day. I could get 25 dumplings for $10. Every week I consider this option, only to conclude that there can be too much of a good thing. But I don’t believe that. Some Saturday in the future, I’ll probably give in to temptation. But not this week. Their dumplings provided the inspiration for my won tons.

So, armed with these questionable qualifications, I set out to invent a delicious and healing won ton soup that would be 1) edible, 2) not insulting to Chinese cuisine, and 3) worthy of the name Zhen Kailian. What I came up with was pretty darned tasty, if I may say so myself.

Zhen Kailian Won Ton Soup

Ingredients: For the Won Tons

200g / 7 oz extra firm tofu

1/2 small napa cabbage, finely chopped, (about 1 lb / 450g)

1 TBSP grated fresh ginger

3 shallots, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced or put through a press

1/2 0z / 15 g dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in 1 cup / 700 ml) boiling water

2 TBSP / 3 ml white sesame seeds

2 TBSP / 3ml soy sauce

24 fresh wonton or gyoza wrappers

1 egg white, beaten to soft peak stage (optional)

For the Broth:

6 cups / 1 1/2 liters vegetable broth, preferably homemade, definitely low-salt

2 pieces dried kombu (optional, but nice)

a thumb-sized bulb of fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half

leftover mushroom soaking water

2 glugs (about 1/4c / 60ml) low-sodium soy sauce

1 glug (about a TBSP) toasted sesame oil

For the Soup:

Broth

1 large carrot, thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 stalk celery, also thinly sliced on the diagonal

a handful of greens, I used thin ribbons of kale, but baby bok choy would be nice, too

Steamed Jasmine Rice, optional

thinly sliced scallions for garnish

Let’s Make Soup:

Set the broth on to simmer at very low heat with the kombu, ginger, garlic and mushroom water. Give it at least 30 mins, but an hour plus would be OK, too.

To make the wonton filling:

  1. Toss the finely grated cabbage with some salt (a big pinch) in a colander and let sit for  an hour or so to drain. If you are careful with the salt, you shouldn’t need to rinse the cabbage, but taste it just in case, to ensure that it isn’t too salty.IMG_0372.jpg
  2. Squeeze out as much liquid from the cabbage as you can, then roll it up in a tea towel and squeeze out even more. The cabbage should be really dry. IMG_0376
  3. Drain and finely chop the mushrooms.IMG_0375
  4. Chop the scallions and garlic and grate the ginger.
  5. Either dice the tofu (I used sesame marinated tofu) or chop it in a food processor.IMG_0373
  6. Heat about a tablespoon of neutral oil, preferably peanut oil, in a medium skillet and sauté the shallots until they are getting brown and crispy.IMG_0374
  7. Add the garlic, ginger, and chopped mushrooms and sauté for a couple of minutes.
  8. Then, add the diced/chopped tofu and sauté until it starts to get brown and crispy.
  9. Add the cabbage and sauté until it is wilted and dry.
  10. Take the filling off the heat and add the soy sauce and sesame seeds.
  11. When the filling is cool, fold in the beaten egg white. If you want your won tons to be vegan, you can leave this out. The egg white sort of puffs up when the won tons cook, so they are fluffy, but this is a purely aesthetic thing. If you don’t mind dumpy dumplings, leave out the eggs!IMG_0378
  12. Lay out your dumpling wrappers. Put a generous tablespoon of filling on each one, then brush the edges with water to seal them.IMG_0380
  13. You have a choice of dumpling shapes: if you have square wrappers, you can make flat triangles (just fold them over once and seal), “nurses caps” (pull the two tips of the triangle on the folded edge together and seal, or “purses” (dampen all four sides, bring them together and twist to seal). If you have round wrappers and you are a showoff, you can make pleated dumplings. I didn’t have round wrappers, so I couldn’t make those. Which shape you chose is just a matter of personal preference. Simon and I were divided. He preferred the purses. I thought the bunchy part was a bit too stodgy. I preferred the nurses caps. The flat triangles turned out to be a bit tricky to eat.IMG_0379

Now, put it all together!

  1. Bring your yummy broth to a simmer and add the sliced carrots, celery, greens. Let them simmer for a couple of minutes, add the soy sauce and sesame oil, then
  2. Add your won tons — yes, you are going to cook them right in the broth. Let them simmer for 2-3 minutes.IMG_0381
  3. If this is dinner, you can bulk things up a bit by putting a scoop of jasmine rice in the bowl. This also adds a little textural interest. IMG_0382
  4. Lay the cooked wontons on the rice, then ladle over the broth and vegetables.IMG_0383
  5. You can garnish the whole thing with some thinly-sliced scallions and/or bean sprouts.IMG_0384

 

Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Kuchen: A Forty Day Invention Test, Episode Two


“A Georgia peach, a real Georgia peach, a backyard great-grandmother’s orchard peach, is as thickly furred as a sweater, and so fluent and sweet that once you bite through the flannel, it brings tears to your eyes.”

Melissa Fay Greene, ‘Praying for Sheetrock’

I grew up in the Peach State.  I’ve lived many places, but in my heart, I will always be a “funny talkin’ honky-tonkin’ Georgia Peach.” Georgia is no longer the United States’ top peach producer, but it still has the best peaches. My High School sweetheart was somehow related to the owners of the local orchard, Thomas’ in the thriving metropolis of Bishop, Georgia. He could get us in early, before they opened to the general public and — more importantly in Georgia in July — before the temperature and humidity rose into the mid-80s.  Still, peach picking was hot, humid work. After an hour or two Thomas’, I’d be sweaty, thirsty, sticky and covered with peach fuzz and the occasional bee sting. But nothing can match the joy of standing on a step ladder in the middle of a peach orchard and biting into a warm, perfectly tree-ripened peach.

Peaches are my absolute, all-time favourite fruit. I came by my love of peaches early. Long before we moved to Georgia. You see, my Great Aunt, Tanta Ida, made the absolutely most delicious peach coffee cake ever.

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Tanta Ida (2nd from the left) with Dad, Mum, Grandma, Janice, Grandpa, and the budgie (circa 1955)

My Aunties tell me she would make huge pans of küchen for all the various boyfriends who visited the foxy Saltenberger girls over the years. She made some for my Dad when we visited Eagle River every summer, and I happily embraced the peachy deliciousness windfall. [The family lore says Dad hated Eagle River — he didn’t — because he was bored without any libraries to hand. I think it was more a matter of vanity: people were constantly feeding him and, as you can see in this vintage photo, he got a bit chubby. And then there were Grandpa’s Scotch and Root Beers.]

All my life, I’ve tried to find that special peach deliciousness. A few weeks ago, while I was going through some of Mum’s old recipes, I found a very old, stained recipe for Tanta’s Peach Küchen. Joy! My next invention test was born.

New Zealand produces peaches. They are tasty, but they are delicate wee things. In the effort to minimise the fuzz, the varieties of peaches they grow here have very thin skins. It’s almost impossible to get them home from the market unscathed. Fortunately, the nectarines are fairly robust. Peaches have fuzz to protect the fruit from water and keep it from rotting. It’s like a little peach raincoat. Nectarines are just peaches without their raincoats. As far as this recipe is concerned, they are interchangeable.

I was, however, determined to work with the real thing. Tanta didn’t use nectarines, so I wouldn’t either. As it turns out, getting the peaches home safely was only the first of my challenges. When I started this Lenten journey of recipe invention, I said I would share the successes as well as the less-then-successes. In this case, there were a couple of false starts before I finally settled on formula that works.

The challenge, in this case, was translating a shorthand recipe from another era on another continent into something that I could recreate in my kitchen in New Zealand. The directions were fairly general, but, obviously, 3 cakes of yeast and 7 1/2 cups (1,065g) of flour was going to make one honking big cake.  But how big? “Spread in pan (greased well)” wasn’t much help. And what is the modern, dry yeast equivalent of 3 cakes of yeast?DSC_0787

For some help, I turned to my trusty copy of The Food Substitutions Bible (see “The Third Cookbook of Christmas”). It suggested that one cake of fresh yeast is equivalent to one package, or 2 1/4 tsp (8g) of active dry yeast. Great. That means I would need over 2 Tablespoons (24g) of yeast for 7 1/2 cups of flour! Argh! An oven explosion was sure to ensue.

I decided I would cut the recipe by a third(ish), since there was only me and Simon to eat it, so I trusted my baking experience and estimated how much yeast I would need. So, for 4 cups (568g) of flour, I would use the equivalent of one package of dry yeast, 2 1/4 tsp (8g). And 3 tsp of salt seemed like an awful lot, so I cut that back to 1 tsp.

The next hurdle was the liquid. Tanta, at least before my Grandfather burned the farm down (long story for another post), would have used whole, raw milk and eggs straight from the chicken. My concern was that our supermarket milk, even whole milk, might lack the right balance of fat and natural sugar. We don’t buy whole milk, but I keep a bag of New Zealand’s #1 export commodity, whole milk powder, on hand for baking. That’s what I ended up using.

I reckon the butter we get here in New Zealand is probably closer to what Tanta would have had than the processed butter we used to get in the States. The fresh (unsalted) butter here is incredibly dense, with very little added water. So no worries there.

Her farm eggs were probably as unpredictable as our farm eggs, so I held back one of the yolks, just in case everything ended up too gooey. It didn’t and I ended up using the whole egg.

The biggest question mark turned out to be the fruit-to-cake ratio. The recipe just says “arrange the peach slices on the dough.” How many peach slices? How many peaches?

In the end, I decided, the first time around, to base the number of peaches on the size of the cake. I guessed that Tanta would have made her küchen in a lasagne-sized pan (9×13 inches). I had inherited a marvellous lasagne-sized pan from the farm that Mum told me was Grandma’s coffee cake pan. Coffee Cake? Küchen? Same pan? I decided to use my 8×8 inch glass cake pan. Based on the reduced amount of dough I had, it seemed a reasonable assumption.

Tanta’s recipe called for 3 cups of sugar and 4 1/2 tsp of cinnamon for the topping. Yikes! Another hint that she was making big, sheet cakes. I cut that back to 1/2 cup (100g) sugar and 1 tsp of cinnamon — you can always add more if you like your streusel really cinnamony.

So, my first effort was OK, but not right. Why? It came down to two miscalculations: too much yeast, not enough pan. So my first küchen rose too much and threw most of the fruit and topping out of the pan and on to the pizza stone that lives at the bottom of my oven. Smelly burning sugar mess.

The good news is that two weeks later I tried again, adjusting the yeast, using a larger pan, and, just to put my own spin on things, adding oatmeal and brown sugar to Tanta’s sugar-butter-flour-cinnamon topping. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the final result.

Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Küchen

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This is not an extravagantly sweet coffee cake. It is an old-fashioned, gather around the kitchen table for elevenses coffee cake. You can eat this for breakfast and not feel guilty. After all, it’s basically peaches and oatmeal. Right? My theory is that my Tanta and Grandmother developed their recipes during the Great Depression, when money was scarce, especially on farms, and the sweetness in food came, as much as possible, from the natural sugars in the milk and fruit.

Ingredients:

1 cup (250ml) whole milk (reconstituted dry works well)

1/3 cup (65g) granulated sugar

6 TBSP (85g) unsalted butter

1 1/2 tsp (7ml) active dry yeast (NOT quick rise or bread machine yeast)

2 large eggs

4 cups (568g) all-purpose / standard grade flour

1 tsp (5ml) kosher or sea salt

Topping:

7 peaches (or more, if you like)

Juice of 1 lemon

3 TBSP brown sugar

1/2 cup (100g)2 granulated sugar

1/3 cup (70g) standard grade flour

1/3 cup rolled oats

2 TBSP butter, melted

1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Butter a 9 x 13 pan. To make removing the cake from the pan easier, you can line the bottom and two sides with parchment to form a sort of sling. Don’t forget to butter the parchment.

  1. Scald the milk. This makes the milk taste sweeter and, well, milkier. You can do this on the stove by putting the milk in a small saucepan and heating it until it has a skin on top, but short of a simmer. It will just be beginning to form tiny bubbles around the edges. The easier way is to put the milk, butter, and sugar in a glass container and microwave the whole works for about 3-4 minutes at high. Just to be on the safe side, I zap it for two minutes, check the temperature, and zap it for another minute or two.
  2. Let the milk/butter/sugar cool to lukewarm (skin temperature), then add the yeast and let it proof for five minutes or so. If your liquid is too hot, you’ll kill the yeast. If your yeast is good, it will go to town and end up looking like this
  3. Gently beat the eggs and add them to the wet ingredients.
  4. Sift the flour and salt together in your mixing bowl. If you are using a standing mixer, using the flat paddle, add the wet ingredients to the flour. If you are mixing by hand, make a well in the flour and add the wet ingredients.
  5. Mix everything just until it comes together into a ball. This doesn’t want a lot of kneading.DSC_0756
  6. Cover the dough and let it rise for at least an hour.
  7. While the dough is rising, peel, pit,  and slice your peaches. To peel the peaches, drop them, one or two at a time, into a pot of boiling water for 20-30 seconds then into a bowl of ice water to stop them cooking. Then you can just rub the peel off with a paper towel. Be careful. They are very slippery.
  8. Toss the peaches with the juice of 1 lemon (to stop them turning brown). You can add a little sugar here, but I don’tDSC_0751
  9. Roll out the risen dough into a rough rectangle slightly bigger than your pan, then press the dough into the pan with the dough going up the sides. Like this:DSC_0770
  10. Arrange the peach slices over the dough in one or two layers. I thought seven peaches were enough, but Simon wanted more. Use your judgement here. Or, you can throw in a handful of blueberries. The photo on the right is my first attempt — the one that exploded all over the oven — you can sort of see the signs already. But the combination of yellow and white peaches and blueberries was pretty, and tasty.
  11. To make the topping, sift together the dry ingredients, then stir in the melted butter with a fork. Mix it all up until the butter is well distributed. DSC_0769
  12. Spread the topping evenly over the peaches, then cover with a towel and let rise for another 30 minutes. This is a good time to preheat the oven, if you haven’t already.DSC_0773
  13. Bake the küchen in the 375/190 oven for about 40 minutes. The toothpick test is tricky, with all the gooey fruit. It should be done when the crust around the edges is nice and golden brown. If you did the sling thing, you can try pulling it up. If the whole thing sort of slumps in the middle, you might need a little more baking time.
  14. This is delicious hot, so you only need to cool it on a wire rack for a few minutes before you grab your fork, brew and cuppa, and eat Not-Quite-Tanta’s Peach Küchen.DSC_0774

 

Snow Soup for You!

I hate snow. I hate shovelling snow. I hate it when I have to get up at 0-dark-thirty to shovel out a spot of grass so the dogs can answer the call of nature. I hate scraping ice off my car. And I really hate it when the snow on the roof turns into ice dams and water leaks into the rafters to come out. . . oh, anywhere. 009When the hundred-year blizzard hit DC in 1996, I was attending a conference at Wilton Park in the UK. I came home to find all my upstairs window wells an inch deep in water. I hated that. I hate that people put salt on the sidewalk that irritates my dogs’ feet so I have to wash their paws whenever we come in from a walk. I hate people who think that just because there is snow on the ground, they don’t have to pick up after their dogs, as though the poop will disappear with the spring thaw. I hate leaky snow boots. Snow ice cream? Yuck. Snowmen? Depressing when they melt. And they always melt. I, ladies and gentlemen, am a snow Scrooge.

So why, whenever there is a big snowstorm on the east coast of the United States like the one this past weekend, do I get homesick? After all, one of the things I like best about living in Wellington, New Zealand, is that it never snows. So why, when CNN started warning, mid-last week, that a huge, hundred-year blizzard was headed toward Washington, DC, did I feel the urge to run to Countdown and stock up on toilet paper, white bread, and milk?

Why do I feel this longing to get my hands on a snow shovel? Why do I keep checking on washingtonpost.com to see if the Federal Government is closed? Why do I want to Scotty to beam me back to DC?

The truth is, while I hate the snow, I love the magic of a snowstorm. It isn’t just the old cliche of waking up to a wonderland dusted with icing sugar. It isn’t just that the sky is never bluer than on the morning after a massive snow dump. 008I love what a snowstorm brings out in people. Some of my best memories of my old neighbourhood in Annandale, Virginia, involved snowstorms, when everyone came together to dig out the parking lot and make sure our neighbours who were unable to shovel themselves would have clean and safe stoops and sidewalks. We built an iceberg in the cul-de-sac from the snow we cleared from our parking spots. It was a kid magnet. We were all in the same boat, and it was, for the time being, a boat that wasn’t going anywhere. You might just as well sit back and enjoy the ride. So we went to each others’ houses for supper; we shared snow shovels; we traded videos. We were neighbours, at least for a few days.

And the dogs. Every dog I’ve ever lived with got in touch with their inner wolf when it snowed. This wasn’t a surprise in the case of our two Samoyeds — Nikita and Piroshki. They were never far from their inner wolf. But Miss Peanut, Crackerjack, Shakespeare, and Cully all got a far away look in their eyes when it snowed, as if they were ready to hitch up  the sled and go mushing.

Even crabby old Cindy Dog got her inner puppy on when it snowed. Granted, in his last couple of winters, Crackerjack, at 16, had decided that he was over snow. But, for the most part, my canine family always went just the teensiest bit feral when the snow began to fly.

I was born in a mini ice-age, between two historic nor’easters that hit the DC area in February and March 1958. I remember there being one or two big dumps of snow each winter in the 1960s. The biggest was in January 1966. CCI26012016_3I got a sled for Christmas the year before — a blue plastic toboggan that looked like a space ship. It was one of those Christmases — much like Christmas of 2015 — when the temperature hit 70F on Christmas Day. My ever amazing Dad pulled me around the yard on the toboggan, on the grass. So, when the snow hit, the sled had grass stains. Jeannie et. al.2Our house was on a steep hill — excellent for sledding and snow fort building. Not so excellent for shovelling out the driveway. And since we lived on a dead end street with only three houses, Dad had to shovel all the way up to Sharon Chapel Road. Dad — a son of Milwaukee and lake effect snow — didn’t love snow.

Perhaps that’s why he decided, a year later, to move us to Georgia, where he could be assured that there would be no blizzards. Now, it’s true there aren’t blizzards in Georgia, but there are ice-storms, which can be much worse, really. All the the cold and wet without the fun and, often, without electricity and cable. Once in a blue moon it would “snow” — which wasn’t really snow but accumulated sleet. And we did have snow days. My freshman year in High School we got an extra week of Christmas vacation because it “snowed.” CCI26012016_2My friend Andrea broke her leg sledding and spent the next several months in a full-leg cast. Usually, though, snow in Georgia meant some version of ice. Any Yankees who are tempted to make fun of how we Southerners panic at the first sight of snow, I defy you, or anyone, to drive on the sheets of ice that form on untreated roads in a Georgia ice storm. One year, during a particularly bad ice storm, one of the pine trees in our yard came down under the weight and took down our electrical lines. It was so cold in the house that our budgerigar and my Siamese fighting fish died. Dad, not one to take chances, and in revenge for the lost, cut down all the rest of the trees in the yard. Overkill? Maybe.

When the first wave of Snowmageddon hit DC in January 2010, I was in the UK, at a conference at Wilton Park. Sound familiar? Spooky, huh? Anyway, I managed to get on the first flight back from London — when we landed at Dulles, we sat on the plane for about an hour because no one who knew how to drive the gate had managed to get to work. Then we waited for another hour in customs. None of the baggage handlers had made it to work, either. That was nothing compared to Simon’s ordeal. My adorable new husband, bless his cotton socks, made what had to be a harrowing drive to the airport to meet me, and we slipped, spun, and slid home in his trusty RAV4. The experience was so shattering, Simon was never able to drive on the Beltway again.

As a newcomer to DC, Simon wasn’t up on the culture of panic  pre-snow shopping, so for the next week or so, while the Federal Government — and hence my place of employment — remained stubbornly closed and our neighbourhood roads remained stubbornly unplowed, I became a pantry cook.

I always keep a sizeable stash of dried beans, flour, and canned things, so there was plenty to work with. I channelled my homesteading ancestors. OK, I didn’t have any homesteading ancestors, but my grandparents lives in Eagle River, Wisconsin during the Great Depression were challenging enough. I baked bread. I made long, slow cooking soups. I baked dog cookies. We shovelled snow. We watched a lot of videos because the snow had blocked the satellite dish — leading Simon to insist we get cable. They were golden days.

One of my blizzard rituals is to make a big pot of stock. This goes back to my carnivorous past, when chicken stock was a pantry staple. The store bought stuff is never as good as homemade, but making large amounts of stock presents a challenge when it comes time to cool it. It isn’t really safe to leave a pot of meat stock at room temperature for the hours it would take to cool down. But put in in your fridge and you run the risk of warming up the cold food faster than you cool down the hot stock. During a blizzard, you can bury your hot stock in a snow bank. It’s the next best thing to a blast chiller.

I don’t make chicken stock anymore, but snow — even snow ten thousand miles away — still triggers in me the urge to get out the stock pot. Instead of chicken bits, I gather up excess veggie bits — the tops of the enormous leeks, green onions and celery I buy at the market, onions, slightly dry mushrooms, carrots, a couple of waxy potatoes, the odd apple or pear, a parsnip, maybe a bulb or two of fennel, and garlic, always lots and lots of garlic. If I’m feeling industrious, I chop everything. If not, I just leave it in chunks. Add enough water to cover the lot, throw in a couple of bay leaves, a few black peppercorns, a handful of whatever herbs you have around, and some kosher or sea salt and bring it all to a simmer. If you want a dark stock that looks and tastes more like beef stock, you can caramelise some of the vegetables (carrots, onions, celery, potatoes) in a very hot oven until they are good and brown. Don’t let them burn, though. Brown is good, but burnt just tastes like burnt.

Caught in a blizzard without a fridge full of vegetable bits? Peel a couple of heads of garlic (yes, the whole thing), add a bay leaf, a spring of fresh thyme (or a teaspoon or so of dried), some black peppercorns, a bay leaf, a teaspoon of salt, a glug of olive oil, and two quarts of water. Simmer that. It smells heavenly and tastes just like chicken stock. I kid you not.

So, next time it snows, forget the white bread and Doritos. Gather up your veggies, add water, and just let the whole delicious mess simmer, and simmer, and simmer. Long and slow. Go outside and shovel snow. Build a snowman. Make a snow angel. Come inside. There’s soup for you!

The Eleventh Cookbook of Christmas: The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook

Jack Bishop

I am a simple soul. I wear jeans and t-shirts. I prefer Chucks to heels. I don’t wear make-up.  And my favourite ice cream flavour is vanilla. Less is more. When watching Masterchef, I am frustrated when the judges and contestants yammer on about “technique” and “plating.” And what is the point of foam? My cooking mantra is “Let the food be the food.” DSC01787My favourite foods are simple: mashed potatoes with butter, salt, and pepper; tomato sandwiches with tarragon mayonnaise; pasta with sautéed vegetables and a little parmesan; pizza margarita with sweet tomatoes, basil from the garden, and milky, fresh mozzarella cheese. I am also a great believer in cooking what’s in season. There is nothing more delicious than a perfectly sun-ripened tomato; and there are few things less appealing than a pale, flavourless winter hot-house tomato — no amount of technique will make it taste good.  I defy anyone to come up with anything more exquisite than an ear of sweet corn straight off the stalk with a bit of butter, salt, and pepper.

I prefer food that is only one degree of separation from the soil.  I’ve dined at three-Michelin-starred restaurants, but too often the experience left me cold.  DSC01792I appreciate the art and science behind modernist cuisine, but I cannot warm to a dining experience that puts so much technology between me and the food. I’m suspicious of “fusion” cooking that confuses me with too many moving parts. Dining in the dark? Spare me. If a recipe has forty steps, I reckon that is about 35 steps too many. I don’t have a single squeeze bottle in my kitchen, unless you count the ones Simon’s HP Sauce comes in.  As my adorable partner put it, I have no time for precious food.

A few years ago, I  spent a month in Sancerre, a picture book medieval walled city in the Loire valley. 1929893_15495843409_3121_nI was immersing myself in French at the Coeur de France Ecole des Langues.  Every morning, I walked into town and bought my food for the day.   A croissant or petit pan au chocolate for petit dejeuner. A baguette at the boulangerie, a handful of haricot verts and champignons at the greengrocer, a wedge of cheese here, a bottle of wine there. We went on a field trip to a chèvre farm where I milked my first goat.1929893_15495833409_2522_n  Most days, I lunched at the Cafe des artes, where the friendly staff would patiently suffer my feeble French (I’m sure I saw their ears bleed). Once, I had a long and spirited argument with the veg vender from the market about George W. Bush. He loved him. I didn’t. 1929893_15495858409_4008_nI rarely ate dinner out. My evenings were given over to homework and working on my vocabulary by watching badly dubbed episodes of NCIS and CSI. And I cooked, simply, and with whatever looked good at the market on the day. It was spring, so the market was teeming with some of my favourite things: asparagus, tiny artichokes, and haricot verts.

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The Bubbles were pretty nice, too!

My neighbour, Anita, and I spent a long weekend in Paris in 2011. I think she would agree that one of the best meals we had there was a simple omelette, salad, and a glass of house red wine at a corner cafe near our hotel. I had a similarly memorable meal in Giverny, just outside Monet’s house. In Lisbon, sardines grill over open wood fires all over the city, and the aroma is tantalising. My favourite meal in Brussels was pommel frites with mayonnaise.

I visited Venice briefly in 2013, and spent much of my time wandering around side streets and exploring the fruit and vegetable markets. I got lost. I got hungry. I stopped for a plate of linguine con vongole and a glass of Orvieto at a cafe at the edge of the vegetable and seafood market. I walked more. I got lost again. I met a lovely man who made carnival masks. I chatted with another artist selling his watercolours outside one of Venice’s ancient churches. I bought two. I walked more.

Got lost more. Ate lemon gelato. Finally, having managed to find my way back to the train station, hot, footsore, and happy, I drank the best mug of beer I’ve ever had. The most expensive, too, but that didn’t matter. It was a golden day.

The Kale Whisperer’s Eleventh Cookbook of Christmas, Jack Bishop’s The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook, honours the beauty of simple food.  This book is full of the kind of simple, fresh food that I love: polenta, pasta, and rice with seasonable vegetables; frittatas, tortas, and pizza; salads and bruschetta. Bishop is an editor at America’s Test Kitchen, and he provides plenty of good, practical advice.  His step-by-step instructions mean the recipes here are manageable by even a beginner. I particularly appreciate the serving suggestions that follow each recipe. None of these recipes require any special equipment. Not a foam canister in sight.

I probably cook from The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook more than any other single book on my cookbook shelf. I especially enjoy it in the summertime, when no one wants to eat hot, heavy food. Packing a picnic for an outdoor concert? This is your cookbook. One of my favourite picnics consists of a vegetable frittata (my favourite is the Zucchini Frittata with Parmesan and mint), the Roasted Potato Salad with Herbs and Red Wine Vinegar, and a loaf of crusty country bread. I am a huge fan of pasta e fagioli, and Bishop’s version, with lots of garlic and rosemary, is among my favourites. I also love the Chickpea Soup with Fennel and Orange Zest. I have borrowed that flavour combination — chickpea, fennel, and orange — as a pizza topping, too.

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Jack Bishop wrote another excellent cookbook, Pasta e Verdure (Morrow, 1994). Sadly, it is out of print, but there are used copies for sale on Amazon. In it, Bishop presents 250 recipes for simple pasta and vegetables. The books has chapters for 27 different vegetables, so if you come him from the farmers’ market with fresh, spring favas, or all you have for dinner one winter night is some pasta and cauliflower, you can find something delicious to cook. I often use Bishop’s flavour combinations as pizza toppings. If you can put it on pasta, why not pizza? Each chapter opens with advice on how to choose, clean, and store each vegetable. Many of the combinations he presents here have become standards for me: the hot pink sauces (tomato + red pepper flakes + a little cream) is a particular favourite. My mother used to make what we called “crummy spaghetti”, which was simply spaghetti tossed with bread crumbs toasted in a little butter.  Bishop has several scrummy variations on that theme: Spaghetti with Wilted Spinach and Breadcrumbs and Linguine with Asparagus, Toasted Breadcrumbs, Lemon, and Garlic. My biggest deliciousness surprise was the Fusilli with Shredded Brussels Sprouts, Orange, and Almonds. Think you hate Brussels’ Sprouts? You won’t if you try this!

Let me finish by mourning another much-loved but tragically out-of-print cookbook: Marlena Spieler’s The Vegetarian Bistro (Chronicle Books, 1997). Spieler does for simple French cooking what Bishop does for Italian Vegetarian cooking. I haven’t even bothered to flag the “to cook” recipes here, because I can literally open the book to any random page and happily cook whatever I find there, knowing it will be delicious. If you can track down a used copy (they are available on Amazon, too), buy it. Then cook the Lentilles “Dom Perignon” (Lentils cooked in Champagne — don’t worry if you don’t have left over bubbles, it works with any dry white wine). Just lentils, shallots, garlic and white wine.

Simply. Delicious. Food.

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Iced Tea

Let me start by warning that, as much a I love him in SVU, I will not be writing about this guy:

Ice-T

We’re just talkin’ a different sort of Iced Tea here. But he does deserve a shout out.

When it comes to per capita tea drinking, New Zealanders are right up there with the British Motherland. I am an enthusiastic convert to the afternoon cuppa — my favourite is Yorkshire tea with a little milk, no sugar. It is a cup that aspires to be coffee, but without the jittery after effects. I like Earl Grey, too, but with lemon, no milk. My all time personal favourite is Lapsong Suchong, which is the closest thing to non-alcoholic Islay Single Malt. But as my beloved is a strict traditionalist, and since it is he that usually puts the kettle on in the afternoon, my usual is English Breakfast, milk, no sugar.  It is important to note that Brits (and Kiwis, in general) believe that strong, hot, very sweet tea, is the cure to whatever ails you. And they’re usually right. I’m not a biscuit dunker, but, Judi Densch’s description of the process of Builder’s tea dunking in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has me thinking twice.

And, just for the record, an oreo cookie just screams for a glass of ice cold milk. I’m a twist-lick-dunk-dunk girl.oreo dunking

I now drink my tea almost exclusively hot, out of a mug. This is a great departure from the South of my upbringing, where tea is drunk only one way: iced and sweet. This shift doesn’t reflect any dampening of my love of iced tea; rather, it is a function of living in New Zealand, where iced tea is just another sugary drink sold in bottles with strange and unwelcome flavours like peach and mango. In most of the world, outside the Southeastern United States, you can’t walk into a restaurant or cafe, order iced tea, and just assume they know what you mean. You are likely to get brewed hot tea poured over ice with some sugar packets or Splenda on the side.

sweet tea

Even where I have to settle for unsweetened iced tea, it is my restaurant beverage of choice. It is more festive that just plain water, less intoxicating (and usually cheaper) than beer or wine, goes with almost any cuisine, and because you actually pay for it, waiters are less cross if you choose to linger over an additional glass after you’ve finished your meal. It plays the same important social function as that last little bit of wine in the bottle. And if you choose not to drink alcohol, you don’t feel quite so awkward hanging around. I costs next to nothing to make, so everyone wins!

Proper iced tea has three ingredients: water, tea, and optional sugar. A slice of lemon is acceptable, as long as I have the option of picking it out. No ginger. No lemonade. No peach, mango, raspberry, or — please GOD — frappe.

Kool Aid pitcher

My Grandpa and Grandma Saltenberger had this plastic Kool Aid pitcher and cup set that made the Kool Aid taste even better

I didn’t grow up with iced tea. My family came from Europe via the Upper Midwest, where the whole point of drinking things was, for the most part, keeping warm. Or intoxicated. When we moved to Georgia, where it is hot . . . DAMN hot . . . for at least six months a year, the refreshing beverage of choice at our house was Kool-Aid. The old fashioned kind that didn’t come with sugar.  And ours didn’t get sugar. It was, to say the least, tart.

I learned about iced tea from my southern friends, who drank the stuff by the gallons.  And iced tea in Georgia is sweet. I mean really sweet. As in make your cavities SING sweet. While the iced tea nation pretty much starts at the Mason & Dixon Line (essentially the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland), the Sweet Tea Nation begins at the Virginia – North Carolina border). If you grew up in Virginia, and you’re accustomed to ordering iced tea and adding your own sugar, you’ll need to change your strategy in the Sweet Tea Nation. Here, tea is sweet. And cold. Even in winter. If you want that other stuff, you will have to ask for it. You will have to say, out loud, in front of God and everybody, ” I would like unsweetened tea, please” and immediately brand yourself as an Yankee. You can also order hot tea, but I won’t promise what you’ll get. It is (sort of) acceptable, and slightly less suspicious, to order half-and-half (iced tea, half sweet, half unsweet).

Now, I know I said I don’t approve of lemon-flavored iced tea, but there is an exception: the Arnold Palmer, which is half iced tea and half lemonade. This is best made with unsweetened tea and real (ONLY real, squeezed) lemonade (not the instant stuff, and not the pub lemonade you get in your shandy). This is not, however, southern. Arnold Palmer is from Pennsylvania.

If you happen to find yourself at Zeb Dean’s Bar-b-que in Danielsville, Georgia, you’ll get: a loaf of Sunbeam Bread (in the bag), a plastic pitcher of sweet tea (you can also get one of unsweetened tea, if you have the courage to ask for it — then you can make your own half-and-half), a serving of “Stew” (aka Brunswick stew, but made with the barbecue detritus instead of the traditional squirrel), a pitcher of Zeb’s peppery, vinegary sauce, and the best damned pulled pork barbecue in the whole wide world. Strictly speaking, however, Zeb’s barbecue is not vegetarian. So this is not an official Kale Whisperer endorsement. But really, if you are ever headed south on I-85, and you eat pork and/or are a slacker vegetarian like me (Shame on you!) it is well worth the 45 minute or so detour. (Sorry, Wee Charlie.) zebs

So, what makes southern sweet tea unique? There are two key factors: the tea, and the sugar delivery system.

First, the tea. Most commercial teas — Lipton, Tetley, PG Tips, etc. — are for brewing and drinking hot with milk. So they are WAY to strong for iced tea. When you chill them, as you must do with iced tea, the tea turns cloudy. Not only does it look awful, but it makes the tea too tanniny. When I was growing up, the mainstream tea companies hadn’t caught on to this yet, so the iced tea brand of choice was Lusianne: “Alway clear as a bell.”

Nowadays, most of the big companies offer special iced tea blends that address the cloudiness issue, but for those who live in non-iced tea cultures, like New Zealand, there is still an alternative to those horrid iced teas in bottles. The answer is sun-brewed tea. I don’t understand the science, but it you brew regular tea in the sun, instead of with boiling water, it doesn’t get cloudy. It works like this:

Sun Tea:

  • Find a large glass container with a fairly tight lid and fill it with the desired amount of COLD water.
  • Add 2 or 3 regular teabags (or the equivalent amount of loose tea) per litre (or quart) of water.
  • Place the jar in the sun for no more than 4 hours (obviously, this only works on sunny days).
  • Then remove the teabags (or strain out the loose tea) and chill the brewed tea as soon as possible.
  • Sweeten (or not) to taste. This works with regular or green tea).

The sugar delivery system for proper sweet tea is easy peasy, and absolutely crucial. You can sweeten your sun tea with Sweet and Low or Splenda, but I don’t want to know about it. Unless you like your tea cloyingly sweet, you aren’t going to add that much sugar anyway. You may, however, add artificial sweetener if you send me a doctor’s note. Here’s the process:

Simple Sugar Syrup for Southern Iced Tea:

  • Put one cup of sugar and three cups of cold water in a saucepan that is high enough not to boil over.
  • Watch it carefully.
  • Bring the sugar and water to a boil and AS SOON as the water starts to boil, turn it down to a simmer.
  • Simmer the water and sugar, stirring constantly, until the sugar has completely dissolved. This usually takes about 5 minutes. Cool for 4 hours.
  • Done. But,
  • If you like flavoured tea, you can, at this point, add mint, basil, a little lemon or orange peel, or fresh ginger — whatever flavour you like — and steep until the syrup is cool. Again, about 4 hours. Pour the syrup through a sieve, and press the flavouring to get out all the essential oils and yumminess. This way, your sugar syrup will taste better and last a long time in the fridge without moulding.
  • You can use the mint syrup to make that other Southern Classic, the Mint Julep, which involves: a mint julep cup (or an old fashioned-sized glass) filled to the brim with crushed or shaved ice to which you add a TBS (or two if you have a sweet tooth or don’t like whiskey), and 1 1/2 jiggers of whiskey — Bourbon or Tennessee mash are traditional, but mild blended scotch works too. What you get is a sort of alcoholic shave-ice. I haven’t tried this with Single Malt because, why would you? But you can try it if you want.
  • Basil syrup makes a nice change, but then you are absolutely not allowed to call it a Mint Julep. Really, though, the cocktail possibilities are endless. Once you try it, you won’t want any other cocktail in the heat of summer, except, perhaps, a nice G & T (with bitters).

And remember:

Sweet Tea Keep Calm

 

Home

New Zealand is my new home. I felt at home here almost from the start. Kiwis get my sense of humor in ways that my fellow Americans never did. Simon and I can live 20 minutes from the center of the nation’s capital and keep pigs, alpacas, and (coming soon), chickens. Work-life balance is a real thing here, not just an aspiration. It is possible to drive from our home in the hills to the beach in 20 minutes or less. Almost nobody here goes back to work on January 2nd. New Zealand is closed in January. The January “blahs” that used to knock me sideways every year just aren’t a thing.

There has been much to learn: driving on the “wrong” side; the metric system; Kiwi English; spelling; that horizontal rain makes umbrellas pretty much pointless; that July isn’t summer, and January isn’t winter; that there are 18 hours of daylight on Christmas and 8 hours of daylight on the 4th of July; the rules of cricket; that the number 10 is pronounced “tin” while 7 is pronounced “seevin.” Footy games are “matches”, the field is the “pitch”, and it takes rugby players roughly 80 minutes to play an 80-minute match. And there are no TV time-outs, special teams, shoulder pads or helmets. So you’d better have your beer and chips ready before play starts.

New Zealand is my home. For me, though, the notion of home is bit slippery. You see, I have many “homes” in places where I’ve never actually lived. In addition to my actual homes (Virginia, Georgia and Wisconsin, New Zealand), I get homesick for, inter alia: New Orleans, Edinburgh, Paris, the Masai Mara, and Antarctica. In pondering how this is possible, I’ve come to understand for me, “home” is about memorable experiences and the people with whom I shared them.

And I remember those experiences in terms of food.

I discovered my love for jazz and zydeco over coffee and biegnets with my parents at the Café du Monde. My friend Anita and I kicked off a long-weekend sharing our love of art with glasses of red wine and the best omelets ever for breakfast (well, an early lunch) at a sidewalk café on the Rive Gauche after an all-night flight to Paris. My two chosen sisters – Susan and Elizabeth – and I ate great piles of mussels and chips (but not haggis) after exploring ruined castles in Scotland, and drank gallons of vino verde in the hot, dusty Alentejo in Portugal. I ate delicious grilled langoustines in Bali while my venerable Elder Sister, Katy, fed her grilled fish to the street cats. Simon and I drank gorgeous Argentine and Chilean wines while watching the penguins and icebergs in Antarctica. And I reveled in quaffing Tusker beers with my fellow campers after a hard day tracking wildlife with my intrepid Masai guide, Josh, at Freeman Safaris in Kenya.

In fact, sharing memorable meals is, for me, the way I end up expanding my chosen family. Conversations and experiences can create acquaintances, but for me, breaking bread creates family. And family is home.

Taste is my most evocative sense. Music is a distant second. Christmas isn’t Christmas until I’ve had one of Auntie Janice’s nutmeg logs and a slice of my mother’s stöllen. Passion fruit (a key ingredient in New Orleans’ famous hurricane cocktail and also popular in New Zealand) makes me hear Dixieland jazz and zydeco. My cheese and nut loaf evokes Thanksgiving dinner with Pete, Anita, Mike and Mary Beth, even in New Zealand in July. Peaches take me take me back to the battered old formica kitchen table at my grandparents’ farm where Tanta comforted me with peach küchen after a run-in with the wasps in the outdoor privvy. Every time I eat oatmeal, I hear Grandpa Saltenberger saying: “If you don’t eat your oatmeal, you won’t grow hair on your chest.” Somehow, that arugment worked for him: I ate the oatmeal. It never occurred to me, at 7, that I might not want hair on my chest.

Not all the memories are happy. I was eating baklava the moment my appendix ruptured, and I still can’t face the stuff. When I was about 6, I ate whipped cream until I was sick (they warned me), and it still gives me pause. At about the same age, I went to the fridge and took a big slug out of what I thought was ice water. It was martinis. Please, never order me a martini! And tuna casserole will forever take me back to the hours and days I spent by my father’s bedside when he was dying in hospice.

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Dad’s winter greenhouse, circa 1969.

With absolutely no disrespect to my loving and all-around-wonderful mother, my Dad was (and remains, eight years after his death) the center of my universe. He was a World War II veteran, a brilliant scholar, and a venerated teacher. But in his heart of hearts, he was a farmer. Not a gardener – he had no truck with roses or posies. That was my mother’s realm. He grew food. Every summer we drowned in bell peppers (capiscums), green beans, snap peas, shelly beans, okra, eggplants, radishes, spinach, and lettuces. He even grew summer squash (courgettes) – crooknecks and zucchini – even though he hated it, because he knew I loved it. Half of the back yard was covered in raspberries – because Mom loved them. His fig tree was legendary – it was the fig tree equivalent of the loaves and fishes. It fed the ten thousand hungry southerners with figs. And with my mom’s famous fig pizzas. Yum.

But what I most associate with my father and, hence, with love and family, is tomatoes: his huge, ugly, sweet, juicy heirloom tomatoes. When I moved away from home, he would pick them green, wrap them in newspaper, and ship them to me. One bite of a vine-ripened tomato, warm from the sun, transports me right back to summertime Saturday afternoons, when we three sat down with a couple of big, fat tomatoes, a jar of mayo, salt, pepper, and a loaf of squishy white bread – no lettuce, no bacon – and ate tomato sandwich after tomato sandwich, washed down with unsweetened grape Kool-Aid. I’m sure, when I die, my last thought of my father will be those tomato sandwiches.167185_10150125454908410_190088_n

I only know how to tell my story, and my family’s story, through food. Family, love, life, and home are all embodied, for me, in food: in the making of it and the sharing of it. In this blog, I will share what I have learned about living and cooking as a vegetarian, and living and cooking as a vegetarian in New Zealand. I will also share my stories: the ones I remember from my past homes and the ones I am making here in my new home. Some are funny, others are sad. All are, for me, full of the kind of meaning that makes ordinary food a meal, makes meals into memories, and makes memories into home.