Archive for August, 2012

my aunt’s bulletin board

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012




This post is a short detour from food to houses, namely one of my favorites, my aunt and uncle’s home in Baltimore, Maryland.

The source of the “File Under ‘I’” column on the blog, my aunt Marilyn is famous for her files, her style, and her kitchen bulletin board.



(The “File under I” story, told here before, goes like this: I was a kid playing croquet with my cousins.  We were fighting about the rules.  My aunt overheard, and ran into the house.

My mallet froze mid-strike when two minutes later Marilyn came back holding a slim pamphlet.

“Marilyn! you OWN ‘The Rules to Croquet?’ – and you found it that quickly?” I asked, now certain I wouldn’t be allowed to pass backwards through the wicket.

“Of course, it was in my files – filed under ‘I’ for important.”)





There’s not a moment in Marilyn’s house that doesn’t inspire eye and mind, not a surface upon which there isn’t a provocative vignette or a book title you didn’t realize you were dying to read until you saw it in one of many stacks.



Marilyn has her office.  Henry has his office.  And then there seems to be an entire room dedicated to gardening books.




But the best is Marilyn’s bulletin board, the real thing, not Pinterest.  I’ve been watching it  evolve my whole life.  I remember as a child coming downstairs for breakfast, waiting for her to finish cutting melon, and devouring sixty square inches of tactile, dreamy, pithy, silly, quippy, literary, newspaper, magazine, and just other clippings. Marilyn is a clipper;  to know her is to receive an envelope of newspaper content spearing the subject of a recent phone call.





A teensy bit over eighty, Marilyn just purchased her first ever computer.  First. Ever.  But email, facebook, blogs, even Pinterest are no threat to my aunt’s bulletin board.  She’s got better taste than most of the world, and thus knows exactly how beautiful are the curled edges of scissored newspaper upon which are printed in two sentences, or an image, something that confirms one of our thousands of selves.  We are all an assemblage of our dreams and loves, realized or not.  Marilyn knows they are all a little closer posted on cork board.


Summer Squash Tempura

Friday, August 24th, 2012


Eat summer squash now; they are not called “summer” squash for nothing.

Eat them now, when they are small and sweet, firm and dry, and scant on seeds.  Eat them now;  Eat lots of them.  Treat them in all sorts of ways – grill them, saute them in butter and fresh basil; roast them in a ratatouille.

Keep eating them, and then stop, because they are not called autumn, winter or spring squash.  Eat them now, because they taste like a tilting shaft of summer light, but after September they become the wet, mushy, seedy child of bad vegetarian food.



My recent summer squash exercise involved a simple tempura batter; and there was nothing simple about the results.  The lightest of batters – flour, cornstarch and seltzer water –  crisped like a web over the sweet yellow flesh.

I was aiming at a composed summer salad, a variety of farm share vegetables prepared a variety of ways:

 roasted cherry tomatoes

grilled eggplant

steamed beets

fresh fig

tempura fried squash



No matter how well prepared, anything roasted, grilled, steamed, or fresh will have a hard time being desirable if there’s something crispy and fried beside it.  This was kind of true with my salad; the fried summer squash was the center piece, the other vegetables were the bridesmaids – delicious and beautiful, but bridesmaids.

But, like bridemaids, they served a purpose beyond splashes of color:  the illusion of good health the other vegetables provided somehow eliminated any evils associated with frying, although this batter is so light, and the vegetables so perfectly cooked, there is probably less oil here than most greens tossed in vinaigrette, and a fraction of the badness – fat, fat, fat – lurking in a typical Caesar Salad.





Summer Squash in Tempura Batter



2 medium summer squash

approximately 2 tablespoons salt, divided

1 cup flour

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 1/2 cups seltzer water

olive oil for frying



Slice the summer squash lengthwise as thinly as possible.  Lay them in a colander and salt them well.

Allow to sit for at least 15 minutes – longer is fine – so the squash begin to release some moisture.

Stir together the flour, cornstarch and seltzer water with a pinch of salt.

Heat to almost smoking a half-inch of olive oil in a large skillet.  When the squash  is ready, dip in the batter, and lay the pieces in the hot oil, working in batches, making sure not to crowd the pan.  Check the squash by peeking with tongs.  Turn over when the bottom side begins to brown well.  Brown on the other side.  Remove, and let drain on paper towels.

They are best served hot, but they are not terrible at room temperature.




My Mother’s Orchard and The Boston Tree Party

Sunday, August 19th, 2012


At the risk of exploiting grief, I have one last (I hope!) post about my mother who died this past January.

Her house is in the process of being sold.  I was there to pick up some things yesterday, and the saddest part was seeing the orchard of heirloom fruit trees – apples, pears, and quince –  she planted and nourished (she never sprayed once!) dripping with a glorious weight of fruit.  I happened to be there in the spring, and noted with sadness the richest burst of blossoms I’ve ever seen in her meadow.  It’s an easy trick, seeing messages in nature; I went straight there.  It was probably just a great year for fruit trees, but to me the joyous bloom was her orchard’s kiss goodbye.

And now the mass of limbs bend and bow with the fruits of those blossoms.  As I said, I’ve never seen my mother’s orchard like this.




I have no idea if the new owners of the home will preserve the orchard or not, but my mother strongly believed in preserving heirloom species, and she believed in the beauty and gifts of fruit trees.

There’s an organization in Boston that believes the same:  The Boston Tree Party is working to plant heritage apple trees throughout Boston and its suburbs.  Having begun the project on the Rose Kennedy Garden, The Boston Tree Party hopes to have a garland of heritage apples bearing fruit anywhere they can enlist people to help – from schools to nursing homes to town greens – by 2015.

The Boston Tree Party is an urban agriculture project, a performative re-imagining of  American political expression, and a participatory public art project.  At its core, the Party is a diverse coalition of organizations, institutions, and communities from across the Greater Boston Area coming together in support of Civic Fruit. We call for the planting of fruit trees in civic space and promote the fruits of civic engagement. Each community has committed to planting and caring for a pair of heirloom apple trees. Together, these trees form a decentralized public urban orchard that symbolizes a commitment to the environmental health of our city, the vitality and interconnectedness of our communities, and the wellbeing of the next generation.

I hope my mother’s orchard is preserved, but I hope even more, on her behalf, that we see apple trees grow casually in our communities again.  Climb them, raise noses to the blossoms, picnic beneath their crooked branches, gather their fruit.  I’m hoping to become a North Shore delegate for the Boston Tree Party, and to help them encourage cities to plant fruit trees however I can; check out their website; think about where you can plant two apple trees, or even an orchard.

The point is to plant now; remember, my mother’s orchard took only thirty years, not even half a life time to become a beautiful space lovelier than any church or even cathedral four seasons of the years.  Here are some photos from a happier time in her orchard not too long ago.



Bluefish Gravlax

Friday, August 17th, 2012



The bluefish run meets Swedish craft.  It’s mid-August, the time of year that begs the question, “What else can I do with bluefish?”  At Andrew’s Point in Rockport they’re fat and many.

It’s also the time of year to make dinner be cocktails and appetizers on a cool porch with a breeze and some friends.

Our neighbor addressed all of the above by taking a bluefish fillet, creating bluefish gravlax – the Swedish method of quick-curing fish, and bringing it to Howlets for cocktails.



We’re drinking a Provencal Rose – Magali, and then a Chinon, but the appetizers are all Cape Ann terroir:  Andrew’s Point Bluefish on homemade Anadama Bread from George’s Breakfast in Gloucester.  (No, the photos reflect Alexandra’s cobbles, but that was before I picked up this beautiful loaf of Anadama.)

Time for another August favorite: a swim before drinks.




Bluefish Gravlax


2 bluefish fillets, about 3 – 4 pounds in total

1/4 cup sugar

4 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons coarsely ground white pepper

1 cup fresh dill, plus some for garnish


At least 2 days before serving, rub the flesh of the filets with the sugar, salt, and pepper.  Place one fillet on a work surface, flesh side up.  Cover the entire surface with the dill.  Place the other fillet on top, skin side up, pressing the flesh against the dill.

Carefully slide the fillets into a large clear plastic bag.  Fold over the top and place in another plastic bag.  Arrange some heavy cans on top of the salmon and refrigerate 48 hours, turning every 12 hours, and replacing the cans.

Remove the fillets.  Scrape away the dill and cracked pepper,and with a very sharp knife slice thinly at an angle almost parallel to the board.  Serve on hearty bread, garnished with dill.  The gravlax will keep refrigerated for at least 1 week.


The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard College

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012


You long for the recipe for the cold lemon souffle your mother once made from that totem to the 1970’s, printed long before food blogging was a verb, The Vegetarian Epicure.  You wouldn’t mind browsing through the book again, but not enough to purchase a used copy from Amazon; you really just want that lemon souffle, a cold, tower of fluff, sharp with citrus that could be made in advance…



For that, and any other culinary research – an 18th c. walnut catchup?  the history of vegetarianism? –  I send you to the stacks of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, in which, among its 100,000 volumes tracing the history of women in America, are 20,000 cookbooks and cooking related materials.   Stars within that collection are the papers of M.F.K. Fisher, the Joy of Cooking’s Rombauer Beck team, and everything Julia Child, from her cookbook collection to television scripts to private letters.

De Conservanda Bona Valetudine, “to conserve good health,” published in Antwerp, 1562, is in the Schlesinger Library, as is the oldest American cookbook:  American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life. by Amelia Simmons, “an American orphan,”.

The latter was the first cookbook written by a colonial American, using American ingredients like cornmeal, the first use of the words “cookie” and “slaw.”  Marylene Altieri, curator of books and printed material at the Schlesinger Library, and my guide for an afternoon, suggested that colonial housewives had, until this point, still been assembling grunts from British cookbooks they’d carried across the Atlantic.  The Historic American Cookbook Project of Michigan State University thus called American Cookery, “in its own way, a second Declaration of American Independence.”

The Schlesinger people understand the treasure of social history written in the pages of a cookbook; that’s why the culinary collection exists.  Here’s a Schlesinger cookbook whose title and publishing history tells a breathtaking story:  What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, written by former slave Mrs. Abby Fisher, published in 1881 by the women’s cooperative printing press, San Francisco.

These books and The Vegetarian Epicure are in The Schlesinger Library for anyone to examine; the library is free and open to the public.  (The library advises to call ahead if there is a specific text that interests you, only because much of the collection is housed in the Harvard Depository forty miles away; the kind librarians just want to be sure your book is on the premises when you visit.)

Interested in the first chafing dish cookbook, published in 1898? – Altieri says the subject was appealing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when fortunes were declining and aristocratic women were cutting back on kitchen staff, thus “preparing” food themselves table-side.  Altieri adds that as women began to join the work force, and live in “bedsits,” a rented room and shared bath, they began to cook single meals for themselves with chafing dishes.   Like so much here, this vessel has social meaning far beyond warming Swedish meatballs for a crowd.

Indeed, a prominent example of a good social history told through cookbooks is the culinary collection at the Schlesinger Library itself.  Founded in 1943 with the donation of the Maud Wood Parks suffragist papers, the Schlesinger Library began with the women’s rights movement at its center.

Soon the library shelves swelled with the works of not only Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Earhart, but of Betty Friedan, NOW, The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, who produced Our Bodies Ourselves, even Shere Hite’s work on sexuality.   Today the library boasts “the finest collection of resources for research on the history of women in America.”

In 1960 there really was no culinary collection yet.  That year Harvard College offered the Schlesinger Library its first cookbooks: 1500 historic texts long forgotten four stories beneath the Widener Library, along with the books on mortuary science and premature burial.   The Schlesinger people’s reflexive reaction was, Altieri says, eyes twinkling, “No way.  We don’t want your cookbooks! We just got out of the kitchen!”


Later came a great cookbook donation by the Gourmet Magazine food writing couple Samuel and Narcissa Chamberlain. Still, according to Altieri, the key to repositioning academia’s staunchly planted opposition to the stove was in the 1970‘s when, at the urging of her friend and editor Avis De Voto, Julia Child donated her papers to the library.  In the late 1970’s, she promised to gradually release to the Schlesinger her collection of 5,000 cookbooks, many old and rare.

We can thank Julia Child for many things, but it was the donation of her papers that brought esteem to the culinary arts, thus launching the immense resource for an art form celebrated by each of us everyday, saying everything about who we have been and who we are.

Honoring Julia Child’s 100th birthday, The Schlesinger Library will host a symposium this September, “Siting Julia,” in which distinguished speakers will discuss three venues important to the cookbook author and television host:  Post World War II France, Cambridge and national television.  The symposium will be free and open to the public, but advance registration, starting August 15th, will be required.

The following is my adaptation of the Walnut Catchup recipe from The Ladies handmaid, or A compleat system of cookery on the principles of elegance and frugality, by Mrs. Sarah Phillips, London, 1758, from the Schlesinger Library Culinary Collection, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.  Here is the original recipe, photo credit:  Marylene Altieri.


According to that other great resource, Wikipedia, British sailors in the early 18th century discovered a pickled fish and spice condiment in Malaysia, originally from China, called kê-chiap in the Amoy dialect.  The condiment traveled back to England, where it became many recipes in which vinegar seems to have been the only constant.

Because of the vinegar and spices, even made with walnuts this tastes surprisingly like a ketchup-y condiment.  Spread on a baguette with fresh cucumber, radishes, and homemade paneer cheese, walnut ketchup made a hefty, spicy sandwich, nuanced in a modern way.   Still, this is as true now as it probably was in the 18th century:  cold chicken or meats would be improved to the point of special with a side of walnut catchup.

After I return to the library I promise that lemon souffle recipe.



Walnut Catchup adapted from a recipe from Sarah Phillips in 1758

makes approximately 5 cups


1 1/2 pounds walnuts

2 tablespoons chopped shallot

4 tablespoons sea salt

6 ounces apple cider vinegar

5 anchovies

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon mace

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

2 cups water


In a glass jar, mix together the first four ingredients.  Let stand for one week, turning regularly to mix.

Press mixture through a food mill or puree in a food processor.  Add the remaining ingredients, put all in a large saucepan and simmer for a half-hour.  Cool, and put into jars.   The mixture should keep well refrigerated for up to two weeks, but store in sterilized, processed jars or freeze for a longer time.




Jen Perry’s Pea and Ricotta Bruschetta

Monday, August 6th, 2012


“There’s nothing more real than handing someone a plate of food – you can’t connect on a deeper level,” Jen Perry, Nutrition Development Coordinator at The Open Door, says, describing what she felt the first time she volunteered to serve a community meal.

“The first time I came (to the Open Door) I loved the experience; I returned every week until they hired me.”

That was nine years ago; Perry was twenty-five.  What began as a part-time position – managing the meals on Saturday –  evolved quickly to managing the entire community meal program, which itself has transformed since Perry’s first days.  There are fewer pans of heavy-starch dinners and more balanced, nutrition-conscious dishes.   Around 2006 a serious focus on nutrition emerged, mandated by the guests themselves, who knew their diets needed to improve.

“The guests knew they needed to eat differently,” Perry said.  “The older adult guests were requesting better nutrition; many had diabetes and oral health issues.”

“We started asking the churches and organizations who provided our meals to change one element at a time.”

Beginning with bread, Open Door staff began requesting that groups who provided meals offer only whole wheat breads.  Next they asked providers to make all milk lowfat.  Fresh fruit or fresh fruit desserts replaced cakes and cookies next.

“This past year we began the most extensive requests:  fewer pastas and more lean meats,” Perry said, an important shift for diabetics.

In the mean time, in response to a guest survey, The Open Door installed a salad bar, providing fresh vegetables, fruit and a lean protein option at every meal.

The Open Door’s Summer lunch program, sites organized around the city where kids can receive a bag lunch, eliminated juice in favor of fresh fruit; again, breads are whole grain; dairy is lowfat; chips and trans-fats are absent.

“The low-income are the most at risk to be sick, and the least able to manage their disease through diet…That’s why I love what I do,” Perry says, “ – trying to make good nutrition accessible; it’s not about free food; it’s about free nutrition.”

Perry and her staff developed the following recipe as a sample to be served at The Open Door’s Mobile Market.  The Mobile Market program sets up a look-a-like farmers market in low-income neighborhoods, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables directly into communities, getting people outside to gather them, and taste samples, usually an imaginative way to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into diets.  Perry looks for recipes that list ingredients available in the Food Pantry; if something isn’t, Perry hopes that the money a Mobile Market participant is saving on free produce may be used to purchase that odd ingredient, like mint or feta cheese that a recipe may require.

This brilliant green appetizer packs lessons for all of us: it’s eye-catching lovely.  It makes magic of an ordinary grocery staple – frozen peas cooked briefly with garlic, then mashed roughly or pureed.  Spread on a slice of toasted baguette, topped with a dot of ricotta cheese and a radish slice, this is a snack, appetizer, or light lunch evocative of farm stands, mediterranean diets, and boutique purist chefs.  Simple whole foods beautifully presented; every neighborhood needs these.

Watch Perry teach me how to make these bruschetta in the video here:


Pea, Radish and Ricotta Bruschetta




8 slices baguette, thinly sliced

8 ounces frozen peas

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves (or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

2/3 cup ricotta cheese

4 radishes, trimmed, halved and thinly sliced



Toast the baguette slices in a preheated 375 degree oven until crisped.

Warm a large skillet over medium heat.

Add olive oil and garlic, and saute until garlic turns light golden.  Stir in defrosted peas and a pinch each of salt and pepper.  Cook for three minutes.  Remove from heat as soon as they are tender and bright green.  Lightly mash with a fork or puree in a food processor, leaving the mixture slightly chunky

Put the ricotta in a small bowl and mix in measured salt and pepper

To serve, spread an equal amount of pea mixture over each slice of bread.  Top with a dollop of ricotta and slightly press into the peas.  Top with two slices of radish.



Sidehill Dairy, Ashfield, MA

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012



I’ve been coming to a writer’s retreat in Ashfield, MA, the beginning of the Pioneer Valley, for seven years now, and I’m still mystified by this place:  The Ashfield population as of 2010 was 1737.  The median income was about $52,875.  Much of Ashfield looks like this:



Yet, here’s what they have that I don’t at home:

– a wonderful hardware store owned by two women with a corgi.  In the winter the woodstove cranks and the ladies never stop being cheerful.

– A much better than average pizza place, last time I checked.

– An amazing meeting place called Elmer’s that has a few groceries, serves New Orleans-style breakfast, lunches, and dinners on Friday.  It has a real bakery that makes sure the town is never without excellent scones, muffins and homemade bread.

I’m pretty sure the people at Elmer’s have no idea there is bad coffee in the world.   The Elmer’s staff serves their organic, free-trade coffees with an “of course, here’s your wide, white cup of strong, milky latte (milk from the organic cows up the street), and it will go perfectly with a newspaper and a seat on Elmer’s front porch; can I get you anything else?”


Freshly baked baguette in satchel, life is perfect.

The one gas station in town has a small convenience store attached to it.  Today I bought some local honey and freshly picked blueberries there.  This 7-11-look-alike is also a source for yet another wonderful homemade bread.  That’s two homemade bread sources in a half-mile, and I swear the hardware store sometimes sells homemade bread, so make it three.

The mystery endures:  why in a tiny town like Ashfield, MA are homemade bread, good coffee, and local blueberries convenience foods, and where I live they are rare?



I’m not done yet.  The other thing Ashfield has is a raw milk.  Fabulous yogurt.  Local Paneer cheese.

I consume more yogurt than those Russian ladies who lived to be 120, so when I discovered Sidehill Dairy’s yogurt the first time I came to Ashfield I knew I would be able to write well here.  Go to the Sidehill Dairy website just for some great reading.

Amy Klippenstein and Paul Lacynski are the Sidehill people.  They have 35 Normandes and Jersey cows.  The website reminds us the fields in which the cows graze (the cows have names) is certified organic, but sometimes the winter hay is not, only because Amy and Paul would rather purchase their local friends’ hay which is grown well but not necessarily organic, rather than increase the fossil fuel burden of trucked organic hay.

Sidehill sells raw milk, which many people claim is much healthier as the nutrients, including vitamin D, have not been blasted out of it through pasteurization, a process that saved many lives but supposedly made what’s left of milk less worthy of consuming.

Sidehill milk isn’t homogenized either, meaning it’s not shaken so much that globules of cream blend in with the milk.  In other words, the Sidehill cream floats to the top.  The Sidehill people reference a study that links homogenization to heart disease.  Those little fat particles have something in them called xanthine oxidase that causes plaque.  Before we started homogenizing milk, those XO guys were large, and got caught in our gut and digested properly.  With homogenization, the particles are so small they get through, and head to the arteries.  That’s a simplified version, but here’s a link to a discussion of it.

The Sidehill yogurt is light and tastes like fields; I swear.  It’s a bit runny right now, and that’s because, the Sidehill website tells me, the proteins in the pastures grasses take a dive mid-summer, making the yogurt a little thinner.  I still love it.

Although Sidehill sells their yogurt far and wide (I’ve even found it in Formaggio in Cambridge), Massachusetts law requires that farms can only sell raw milk from their premises; Here is the Sidehill store, a small hut with a couple of refrigerators in the middle of some Ashfield woods.  Just follow the signs.





My favorite discovery this year is the Sidehill Paneer cheese, which I brought straight home to serve with the local tomato I bought at the convenience store.