Hope and Humidity

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We’ve got ourselves a good case of the Marches. 

I’m hungry but picky at the same time lately, like I don’t know what I’m hungry for. The house plants are reaching hard for the window sun and the starts are still too young to baby. The front yard is busy melting and freezing and refreezing into a treacherous topography. (Around here we rarely see a midwinter melt, so the returning heat has to burn through all of the piled-up ice and snow, all the way down to October’s first layer. It’s an ice crust that contains history.)

In other words, we really appreciate the spring here in Minnesota. Honestly, just the prospect of wearing real shoes again after months of clomping around town in snow boots—or as my mother would call them, clodhoppers—thrills me. So when that electric-green chive spire finally pokes its brave tip through the earthen matting of the herb bed (not yet, but really soon) I might choke up a little. I will definitely slip my feet into my cold, stiff, long-lost shoes and walk out into the sog and pick it.

But as for now, back in the kitchen, I am still making cold-weather food: huge meatballs bobbing in marinara over cheesy polenta … potato-bacon soup ladled over quick-boiled cabbage … vegetables with cream, pasta with bacon, squash with coconut milk, all new kinds of creme caramel. There’s not a single thing here that can stand up on its own. Everything squishes and oozes dramatically into its own luscious puddle—which might not be a bad definition for winter food. Good stuff, for sure, but I’m ready for the upright, energetic ingredients of summer to start walking through the door. I miss the brittle green beans, the light tufts of lettuce, the crisp hollows of the shelling peas. Even though I don’t love them, I miss the zucchini flowers attached to the ends of the baby zucchini and their five fleeting minutes of puff. They remind me of the soaring bangs I created in middle school: the stiff crest of curls that began to wilt soon after I exited the hair-spray cloud. Similarly, zucchini blossoms taste rather airy to me, but I do admire them for their volume and good looks, and I’m not opposed to frying up a few when they arrive.

We’ve started a bunch of garden seeds already. Last year, after losing most of my starts in our little unheated greenhouse (great for growing greens but not newbie tomatoes at the moment) I decided to farm out the lot to our friend Christine at Forest & Floral in town, so that they could grow up right in a controlled greenhouse. She planted our onions and brassicas (cabbages, collards, broccoli and the like) a few weeks ago, but called us in to plant the tomatoes, and I’m glad she did. It was heaven to sink my hands into her trough of potting soil. My niece, pictured above, did an excellent job helping out. Turns out, her tiny fingers are good for dropping single seeds. (Hank and her brother much preferred to scale the snow mountain outside.) It felt glorious to just be in the greenhouse, back in the land of the living. Even in mid-March, the air in the greenhouse feels heavier—bound down with growth and humidity, but high on hope.  

Speaking of that, here are some of my garden hopefuls this year. We will plant so much more—four kinds of tomatoes, four kinds of beans, two kinds of winter squash, two zucchini, two kinds of eggplant, two kinds of peppers, three kinds of potatoes, and of course all the lettuces and asian greens and root vegetables, and I know I’m forgetting something. We pack a lot into that garden, or try to.

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Fava beans. These grow very well in Minnesota, and if you can keep them upright long enough, they’ll fruit twice. Aaron runs a midsection of twine around them for stability and I harvest fresh favas in June and then again in September. Some people say that you can eat the baby favas raw and unpeeled, but please enlighten me, because I just don’t get that one. I slip the raw beans out of their fleecy pods into a pot of boiling water for a bare minute, drop them in ice water, and then squeeze them out of their skins, and they are amazing. Meatier than green peas, but just as sweet, and larger. This year I’m growing these purple ones.

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Kohlrabi. Mine never grow to this size, but they’re fast sprouters and we might have some to nibble on by June. If layered in crushed ice or soaked briefly in ice water, they turn impossibly crisp and sweet, becoming the kings of the crudité plate.

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Cour di Bui cabbage, prettiest conehead ever. These varieties are usually earlier than the massive ballheads and meant for fresh eating, not storing. The bluish tip-blush and lovely crooks and corners of these leaves reeled me in.

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If it was all for fresh eating, I’d only grow a couple of cucumber plants, but I grow at least twenty—all with the intention of making lots of pickles, mostly my grandmother’s fermented dills. For these I need a variety that stays petite and slim and doesn’t get too seedy. I always grow one called Homemade Pickles, but in recent years I’ve been supplementing with an Israeli-type, burr-less and slender, and they make excellent fermented dills.

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My interest in eggplant has grown into a full-blown weakness. Fresh eggplant is so delicate, sweet, subtle but somehow addictive. And they’re gorgeous. I think that the West African name for them—garden eggs—is exactly right.

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This will be the year of the Japanese squash, as I fell for two kinds. This  goofy, corseted one and another bumpy blue-green monster. Oh, that they will actually get 95+ days of sunshine to fully ripen! Let’s hope.

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My German Pinks. I grow them nearly every year. These tomatoes actually feel heavier for their size than the other beefsteaks, and I can’t get over the color, which seems to hover indecisively between red and pink. They’re even lovelier in person.

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Black Trifele, a pear-shaped black tomato from Japan. I love the slow, sneaky flavor of a good black tomato—and the way their richness stands out against the pop-sugar of the cherry tomatoes—but one in this shape? I  just couldn’t resist.

Happy gardening to all! And to those who don’t grow their own, happy eating.

(By the way, these images came from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog, from which I did a fair amount of ordering this year. But I always get my reliable bulk seeds from Fedco, and most of my pretties from the pre-eminent Seed Savers Exchange, out of Iowa.)

This is likely the last ski of the year. Unfortunately, it was also my first ski of the year! (I’d hoped to get out more, but it was such a cold winter.) Spring is barreling down the pipe, though, and I am anxious to leave this black-and-white business in the dust and enter the technicolor spring. (In between those two we have the lovely mud season, which is truly not without some charm.) My garden seeds are started and I’m dreaming about my flowerbeds. More on that soon.

This is likely the last ski of the year. Unfortunately, it was also my first ski of the year! (I’d hoped to get out more, but it was such a cold winter.) Spring is barreling down the pipe, though, and I am anxious to leave this black-and-white business in the dust and enter the technicolor spring. (In between those two we have the lovely mud season, which is truly not without some charm.) My garden seeds are started and I’m dreaming about my flowerbeds. More on that soon.

Temporary Housing

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Some traditions are meant to be broken—quite literally in this case. When we moved back home, I’ve instituted the gingerbread house tradition, and soon after I tacked on a ritual for its demise, too: every year on New Year’s Eve, the kids get to tear it apart and eat it.

For me, homemade pieces make the house come alive. I realize, in this age of gingerbread house kits, that making your own gingerbread walls and doors and roof pieces feels hopelessly retrograde—but let me tell you, chomping the house is a lot more fun when the gingerbread and the frosting both actually taste good. And like my husband, Aaron, said as he carefully moved the house from perch to perch, real gingerbread houses smell so incredible.

I used to cast about for any holiday baking recipes, but now I just keep it simple, and turn to my very favorite Christmas baking book: Visions of Sugarplums, by the former New York Times critic and food writer Mimi Sheraton.

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It’s a slim book packed with recipes that sound amazing and work even better: delicate Swedish gingersnap dough that begins with 1 1/2 cups of whipped cream and yields brittle, spicy cookies that actually snap; unusual Finnish rye cookies; Island-spiced eggnog from the Caribbean; and a recipe for a gingerbread house which includes an indestructible, yet truly delicious, citrus-laced molasses dough.

A single recipe makes enough for one house plus a bunch of rolled cookies. Hank and I went to town.

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I think I love this guy best. He reflects Hank’s interest in the body, and has a heart (albeit a little low) and a single “nerve.”

And then we have Aaron’s glam warrior. And my pom pom man.

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But the best part of a gingerbread house remains the story spun around it—the idea of entering the house, living in it, and nibbling on its trim. As we were making it, I told Hank the Hansel and Gretel story in all its dramatic, gory detail. His eyes widened, and it made me want to fill the insides with candy couches and chairs and reading lamps.

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Hank didn’t want to let it go, but so sad, we couldn’t keep it around forever, gathering dust. He relented to its New Years Eve destruction, and he and his friend enjoyed the take-down, even though the gum drops were a bit hard and chewy. Hank had had his eye on the chimney for weeks. Was it as good as he imagined, I asked? Did it taste smoky?

He thought it did.

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Beets in Red Wine with Cream

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If you’ve planned your Thanksgiving menu and feel like it still needs a jolt of color to combat the brown-brown-brown, here it is: a roasted beet salad with tart dried cherries, radicchio, red wine dressing, and a garnishing pour of cream. With its big flavors and vivid contrasting hues, you’ll want to serve this one on the side, in its own little salad bowl.

I’ve pined over this concoction for years, after having committed to memory a photo of a beet salad with a pour of cream from a nameless, faceless, long-since-lost Scandinavian cookbook. When I set out to recreate it, other old influences demanded to be includedwhich happens.

I have never been able to shake the memory of an old dish we made on the fish line at Danube: beet juice and red wine were combined and reduced together to an inky deep red liquid which was used to coat fine strings of fresh square-off chittara. A coil of the red-stained pasta shared the plate with a puddle of melting horseradish cream, butter-glazed lobster tails and claws, and spots of shaved black truffles. Of course I don’t cook with the high luxe stuff in my own kitchen, but the notion that tart, reduced red wine can temper the natural sweetness of beets still hangs out in my head.

The red-and-white tiger striping on the radicchio makes visual sense, but it isn’t just there for our aesthetic pleasure. Every third bite, the bitterness is a welcome scene-stealer, toppling the goody-good, perfect sweet-and-sour.

It goes without saying that digging into this salad, forking around its center, rewards you with a riotous, blooming pinkness. In a way, it seems kind of like the way an adolescent might mood-shift, minute by minute, from sweet, to sour, to shocking.

Beet salad with Radicchio, Sour Cherries, and Cream

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds beets

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup water

2-3 sprigs thyme

1/3 cup dried sour cherries

1 cup dry red wine

2 Tablespooons lemon juice

3 Tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste

4 ounces radicchio (1 small head), ripped into bite-sized pieces

1/2 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Wash the beets, throw them in a 9 x 13 baking pan, and season with salt, pepper, olive oil, and thyme. Pour 1 cup water into the bottom of the pan, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake until the beets are tender when poked with a thin fork. Depending on the size of the beets (and their age) this will take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours.

Uncover. When the beets are cool enough to touch, rub off the skins (holding them in a paper towel works well here) and cut into bite-sized pieces.

Combine the dried cherries and red wine in a small pan, and simmer gently over medium heat until the wine clings in a thin syrup to the cherries. Let it cool slightly, then add the lemon juice, olive oil and sugar to the cherries. Taste for balance, and season with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, toss the radicchio with a bit of the dressing to coat. Add the rest, including cherries, to the beets and toss to combine. To serve, divide the beet salad mixture among the plates (6 to 8). Pour a little cream into the center of each and serve immediately. 

Time for a deer hunting photo essay

They refer to it as knife season, or the time of year that hunters walk around with knives on their belts. (And they do.) But I’m pretty convinced that deer hunting weekend revolves around the table: the meals we share around it and the future roasts/sausages/pâté centerpieces that the hunters run around pursuing.

In fact, I’d say that for those who like to eat, this weekend is like a collective tuning-in. Setting something wild on the table gives even the most jaded eaters pause. And the hunting feast itselfflush with venison, venison liver pâté, and whatever wild thing I have in the freezer: wild duck saltimbocca, grilled hearts with garlicky chimichurri—feels like a rustic, ancient, Thanksgiving.

At the very least, it is Thanksgiving’s pre-party. It seems to magnetize our dearest and most far-flung friends and draw them in to our house. This year we were thrilled to pull in friends from both coasts and Wisconsin, in addition to friends who drove up from Minneapolis.

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I don’t hunt myself, but I’ve spent the past five consecutive years of deer camp installed in front of the stove playing camp cook, and last weekend was no exception. Over the course of the three days of hunting I pulled together some stews, some simple lunches, big pots of wild rice, countless batches of strong coffee and, to cap it off, a grand venison feast for 15-20 people, which began with an incredibly fresh pot of venison liver pâté, well-lubricated with bacon, butter, and booze (the three b’s that give venison liver its unique palatability).

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The above pan of apple cider scone cake (which overflowed so sweetly onto my oven floor) was a scene-stealer, or would have been if our bellies hadn’t been so drum-tight. A bowl of the moist, crusty cake atop the cider caramel beneath made a good breakfast, too. 

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Trimming venison is putzy work, and Brian and his brothers Todd and Darrin were up early, getting to it. The fat and the gristle don’t have good flavor, so we trimmed every bit of each.

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Oh! Hank in his orange vest. He was by turns photographer and videographer throughout the weekend.

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Cubed venison and pork sits in the porch-fridge (around 30 degrees F), awaiting the grinder.

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By our estimation, we made 80 pounds of venison sausage this year: a ruby-red merguez, an all-purpose sweet Italian, and a kicking hot Italian. And we did not even fight over it.

(For more, here’s deer camp 20082010, and 2011.)

one day

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Certain days in the late fall in northern Minnesota drift hourly, indecisively, between the seasons, and Sunday was one of them. Afternoon brought some seasonal duck-plucking in the bright fall sun, but the morning began much gloomier. When I woke up and stepped outside, it looked like this:

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My fuchsia. I’m sorry, you were a lovely companion but now you’re done.

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Aaron had rented the tiller from town the day before, so snow or no snow, he was going to till the manure and compost into the garden beds. He plans to throw a big plastic cloche over one of the beds, the one with carrots still in it, to shield it from future impending snow. That bed will also heat up the quickest in the spring and will be the one we plant with early lettuce.

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I took these cabbages in and they were still finefrost-nipped enough to add sweetness, but by no means frozen through.

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And dug some more beets (chiogga and golden) and gilfeather turnips, otherwise known as rutabagas, their gem-tone skins glowing even brighter against the drop cloth of snow.

By the time we were sipping our celebratory first-snow hot chocolate (with cinnamon and an indulgent dribble of cream), the sun was beginning to shine and melt the snow, and we drove over to our neighbor’s house to pick up some of the chickens they had raised this summer and—I was hoping—one of their barnyard ducks. I was relieved to see that the ducks weren’t still quacking, but they weren’t quite yet in the bag, either. Hank ran off to play with TJ and Esther’s boys and we stood at the clothesline and helped them pluck.

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(Loose thought about feathers: does anyone know how to clean these to use for pillow stuffing?)

None of us had ever cleaned ducks, including TJ and Esther, but once we started tugging it seemed pretty obvious. As TJ says, he’s “an internet farmer,” and has been learning how to raise his two cows, two pigs, and flock of chickens via a combination of googling and good old-fashioned trial-and-error. (Now if only some kind company would run the fiber optic cable past both of our houses, he could be a proper high-speed internet farmer.)

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TJ and his friend Joe had a hot pot of paraffin waiting and we each dunked our ducks, one at a time, into the wax, and then after waiting a minute for them to set, into a clean bucket of cold water. If we did it right, peeling back the wax did remove most of the feathers. The stubborn pin feathers required finer tools, though. Esther ran for her eyebrow tweezers (which I can work like nobody’s business, due to practice) and some needle-nose pliers.

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I worked so long on this baby, they gave him to me.

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We invited them back to our house for dinner where a pork roast was baking, but they had the very same meal in process in their house. (Two pigs in the freezer; of course they did.) Walking in our front door was like entering a humid cloud of 6-hour-pork roast potpurri—a deep-reaching, addictive, memory-tugging aroma for me. To be honest, it’s the only kind of perfume I like. 

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