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Everybody’s Favorite Vegetable

There are people who don’t like sweet corn; I think they’re nuts, but there’s no accounting for taste.

There are people who don’t like tomatoes; I encourage them in their hatred, because that leaves more ‘maters for me.

There are people who do like Brussels sprouts; I contend there is nothing you can do to them to make them edible.

But there’s no one I know who doesn’t like green beans. People who never eat vegetables at all eat green beans. They’re abundant, inexpensive, they taste good and yes, they’re good for you (vitamin C, beta carotene, fiber).

Up to now I’ve had three or four ways to prepare them, but as of last night, I now have another method.

Man, are they good in a stir-fry!

I’ve been on a stir-fry kick for over a week now. Bob, Marcia and Ote were here last week; Bob’s an Episcopal priest, Marcia’s a Presbyterian minister and my spiritual director. Ote (short for Otis; pronounced Oatey) is Marcia’s hubby and maybe the most interesting of all of us. I invited everyone for a house Mass, followed by an agapé meal as the early Church used to do it.

It was very important to me, with these two clergy here, that we celebrate the Eucharist. I don’t get to go to it often enough, and one should always take advantage of the chance; plus this was a way for me to recognize Marcia’s ordination – her right to celebrate. That’s a real breakthrough for me theologically; I’ve never known a Presbyterian before, and my tendency is to consider Communion said by someone outside the Apostolic Succession as of doubtful validity. If I were present at a Presbyterian service and they said, “Take, eat,” I would, but I wouldn’t be sure what I was eating.

But it’s been nearly two years since I’ve been working with Marcia; she’s been a godsend, and I’m really clear that we are sister and brother in the faith. With Bob here concelebrating with her, there couldn’t be any doubt about the validity of the sacrament, and I wanted Marcia front and center.

It turned out great, and I was very, very pleased – spiritually happy, even though we were all so busy doing our parts and trying to follow the rubrics, which Marcia and Ote had never dealt with before, that the service was probably a little out of focus.

But no matter; we know what we did, and it meant a lot to all of us. Episcopal mass, celebrated right at my house, maybe the first time it’s ever been said in town history!

We got through it, then it was time to feed the hungry people, and for that I was ready with the stir-fry, which is all preparation and chopping beforehand, then the food’s done in ten minutes. (Bob did most of the chopping, then while I was cooking, they all stayed in the dining room and I missed out on the entire conversation! That’s never happened before; usually people congregate in my kitchen, since I have seating there. Next time I’ll say, “Won’t you bring your glasses into the kitchen so we can be together?”)

I made my standard chicken cashew, which they all raved about; Ote had three helpings and Bob had two. Ote’s a marathoner and I was glad to see him eat.

I may have written about this recipe before; I’ll reproduce it in a minute, but meanwhile here’s the news. Bob stayed another day and a half; the next night at his suggestion we did something different with the chicken breasts, grilled them outdoors with my scandalously simple lemon juice and Worcestershire marinade. He kind of hacked away at making twice-baked potatoes but they turned out good and we had a fine conversation. He left early the next morning, and when I got up (at 8:30, I’ll have you know), I couldn’t wait to eat the leftover stir-fry.

I never wake up with food on the brain, but I did that day. I ate those leftovers for the rest of the week, and then I made the whole dish again slightly differently.

That’s when I discovered how fabulous green beans are when you stir-fry them. I didn’t include them the first time around.

Until last night, these were my ways of making green beans: boil them frozen out of a poly bag and add some butter; steam them 5-8 minutes with fresh rosemary; simmer the crap out of them for an hour with some bacon (Southren Indiana Style); or cook them the standard way and throw them in with sauteéd mushrooms, a can of soup and French-fried onions, also out of a can, in Thanksgiving Cliché #1. They’re popular because they’re good.

But oh, honey, stir-fried, them babies is fabulous!

The key to stir-frying, of course, is using high heat and not overcooking anything, so veggies still have all their color and the crunch.

I would never eat a raw carrot; I just don’t like the taste. But two or three minutes in my wok, with some onion, red pepper, celery, mushrooms and whatever else I’ve got, and carrots are definitely in business.

But I never tried green beans before last night; not Chinese, any more than I am.

But when we imagine how Chinese mothers came to develop their national and regional cuisines, we can certainly visualize a cook surveying what she’s got, using rice as a staple protein, figuring out how to make a little bit of meat go a long way, then seasoning everything so the poor kids don’t know any better.

It’s an old culture and they’re brilliant about their food.

I think from now on, when I need to make a vegetable side dish, whatever it’s going with, I’ll probably just stir-fry whatever’s in my crisper. The sauce in the recipe below works with everything.

(With a roast, throw your vegetables in a pan, drizzle with olive oil, stick in the oven with the meat and forget about it.)

Josh’s Chicken Cashew

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 C rice, 2 C water, 1 T butter, 1 t salt
1-2 stalks celery, sliced diagnoally
1-2 carrots, the same
1 bell pepper, any color, chopped
1/2 can water chestnuts, sliced
1 large onion, sliced haphazardly
1 head of broccoli, cut in florets OR
1/2 head of bok choy, chopped rough
2 T sesame oil (tolerates high heat)
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1/3 C roasted cashews
1/3 C chicken broth
1 T cornstarch
2 1/2 T soy sauce
1/2 t hot sauce, or more to taste
1 1/2 t fresh chopped gingerroot
(or 1/2 t ground ginger)
2 scallions, white part sliced, tops julienned

Cook rice. Chop vegetables. Chop chicken bite-sized. Heat wok to medium-high; add 1 T sesame oil and cover sides. In covered jar, mix broth, cornstarch, soy sauce and hot sauce; shake well.

Stir-fry chicken until cooked through, 5-7 minutes; remove and keep warm. Re-oil wok and let it heat up. Stir-fry veggies 3-5 minutes, just past raw. Add brown sauce and stir to thicken. Return chicken to wok, add cashews and heat through. Serve over rice; garnish with scallion.

With Ote, Marcia and Bob, I did something unusual for me; I spread the rice on a platter and served family-style; this keeps the rice hotter than using separate bowls. They ate it up.

And the best moment of the night: Ote reaching for more. Then Bob. Then Ote. Then Bob, just a little more. When you put the food in front of people they get themselves some more.

I think the next time I serve Joshua’s Patented Spaghetti, it’s also going to be family-style, one platter, not separate plates I bring in from the kitchen. We are not a restaurant.

A week ago Monday, when we had our Mass, we were family.++

The Verdict Is In on My Leeks

Are they gorgeous? Are they delicious?

Guilty as charged!

Were they somewhat mishandled during their upbringing? Um, yes, the judge has decided. “What we have here,” he said today in an opinion being released right here and now, “is a woefully ignorant gardener.”

The jurist kind of went on and on from there, detailing just how woeful and how ignorant, but I’ll spare you the gory details. He did not accept the gardener’s excuse that there were “too many seedlings.”

The defendant told how it all began. “I spent 97¢ on the smallest container Murphy’s sells. I’ve never even eaten a leek before, Your Honor. But people say they’re good so I bought some.”

“What happened next?” the judge inquired.

“Well, the little plastic marker didn’t really give much information, so I looked up how to grow leeks on the internet,” the defendant claimed.

“Oh,” harumphed the judge. “You looked it up on the intranet.”

“But the information there wasn’t that helpful either. It was all about starting them from seeds, but I was trying to transplant them as seedlings.”

In a harbinger of the final decision, the judge declared, “This is what you get when you try to look things up on the intranet.”

“When I went to plant them, there were dozens of these little bitty seedlings,” the defendant testified. “Hundreds maybe.”

Actually, mine were even smaller than these guys.

The judge looked down at him over half-moon glasses. “Hundreds. For 97¢.”

“At Murphy’s,” the defendant nodded.

“Retail malpractice,” the judge wrote in a note to himself. Then he added a question mark, since no foundation had been laid for this conclusion. “What exactly did you do?”

“Well, I separated them into 9 or 10 little bunches. I only had so much space in my garden, Your Honor, and this is the first year I’ve had a proper vegetable garden. I mean, with planks and everything.”

“I see. Could we pick up the pace now? Only the information that’s relevant to this case.”

“Sure. I planted them in bunches.”

“Did you get that?” the judge asked the court reporter. “He planted them in bunches.”

She nodded, an experienced hand in the courtroom. The judge returned to the witness. “Then what happened?”

“Well, judge, they kind of took off. They started growing, and where I’d thought before that after a few weeks I should thin them a little maybe, I never got around to it. But I kept them weeded.”

“Gardener malpractice,” the judge wrote, and this time he left off the question mark. “So, did you set out to abuse these poor seedlings deliberately? Or is this more a case of neglect of a dependent?”

The defense attorney finally spoke up, “Objection, Judge. These things were like vegetables the day he got them.”

The defendant answered, “Actually, Your Lordship, I had a theory I was testing. A scientific experiment, you might say. After all, these seedlings were my own personal property.”

Ooh, a clever defendant invoked his Constitutional right to dispose of his property however he saw fit. If the judge wasn’t careful, soon Tea Partiers, Libertarians and Mad Hatters would be wanting his scalp. “What experiment?”

“I believed, and wanted to test the thesis, that even a person inexperienced with leeks, but who was otherwise somewhat knowledgable in the garden, could figure out how to grow them next year, by monitoring how they acted this year.”

“And what did you learn, young man?” the judge scowled.

“Well, they really should be planted more thinly, in rows, in a trench. But even when you handle them like I did, you get some nice ones. And they taste good.”

The defense lawyer approached the bench. “Exhibit A, judge.” She handed him some specimens.

“They look like fancy onions,” the judge frowned. He’d never eaten one either; no one in Kentland has. They’re a foreign food, from Europe or somewhere.

“Pretty tops, don’t you think?” the defendant asked. “Especially when they’re trimmed.”

“Silence in the court,” the judge ordered. He picked up a leek and smelled it; vaguely oniony. “What were the results of your experiment?”

“I first tried picking one in July,” the defendant testified. “It wasn’t much bigger than a scallion, not at all like the leeks one finds on the internet.”

“Ah,” the judge muttered, “again with the intranet.”

“So I let them grow awhile longer,” the defendant stated. “By August they were getting to be a decent size, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. In September, though, they really start coming on.”

“Can you cook with them?”

The defense lawyer motioned to an assistant, who disappeared momentarily outside the courtroom, then carried in a foil-covered baking dish.

“What have we here?” the judge inquired, suddenly interested. The clock on the wall said it was getting toward lunchtime.

“Exhibit B,” said the lawyer. She personally placed the glass loaf pan on the bench and removed the foil. Steam rose.

The judge sniffed, “Baked beans?”

“Yes, Your Worship,” the defendant replied. “Made them myself this morning.”

The attorney handed the judge a spoon. The judge looked at his reflection in it, then wiped it off on his robe and dug into the beans.

He ate a bite, savoring, or maybe judging.

“Mustard,” he said finally; “a bit of Worcestershire, I think.”

“Oh yes,” the defendant agreed, “a tablespoon each.”

“Brown sugar, judge,” the defense lawyer asserted, glancing at her notes.

“I love brown sugar,” the judge said. “A bit of vinegar, perhaps? For a little sweet-and-sour action?”

The defendant nodded eagerly, “Just a teaspoon, Your Excellency. I measured carefully, too.”

The judge ate another bite, tasting, pondering. After a third spoonful he said, “Aha!”

“What’s that?” the attorney asked worriedly.

“You left something out,” the judge thundered at the defendant. “No hot sauce!”

The defendant collapsed momentarily in the witness box. He didn’t want to make any incriminating statements in open court, but yes, he had indeed forgotten the hot sauce. Besides, his recipe only called for a quarter-teaspoon.

He asked, “What about the leeks, Your Honor?”

“No objection,” the jurist pronounced. “The leeks are fine.”

“Judge, the defense moves for an acquittal on all charges,” the attorney said confidently.

The judge moved the whole pan of baked beans in front of himself and began eating. “Denied,” he said. “This defendant’s guilty as hell.”

“Of what?” the attorney asked.

“Mistreating leeks. And a second count of neglecting them. Claims he weeded but forgot to thin.” The judge banged his gavel. “Guilty!” he shouted. “Now let me think of a suitable punishment.”

He wiped his lips with the hem of his robe and asked the defendant, “What else can you make?”

“I was thinking of potato-leek soup, Your Worshipfulness,” the defendant said sorrowfully.

“You’re hereby sentenced to make a big pot of potato-leek soup. On my desk one week from now – at lunchtime. Court adjourned!” Bang bang bang.

Then the judge made off with the baked beans. Before the defense attorney could say anything, the judge told her, “Evidence.”

The attorney then wanted $500 from the defendant. “I thought you took my case on contingency,” the miscreant exclaimed.

“That was assuming I got the baked beans,” she answered.

But the defendant was quick; “Trade you for your own batch of potato-leek soup.”

“Deal!” she cried. Everyone went home happy, and the defendant made plans to sell his own leeks next year at Murphy’s – for 97¢ a half-dozen, planted carefully in trenches and rows.++

Good at twice the price.

Once She Started, She Couldn’t Stop

Purple echinacea stand tall in the backyard garden of Janice Becker. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Every now and then the Chicago Tribune reminds me that it’s still a great newspaper. It doesn’t happen often anymore — the talent level has dropped dramatically from the glory days — but occasionally I’ll run across an article so well written, so thoughtful, so obviously made of love for the languages of communication, that I think, “Well, the Trib’s still got it a little.” Today is one of those times; read the whole thing by Barbara Mahany here.

It’s about gardening. Years ago a woman and her husband went looking to buy a townhouse so they wouldn’t have any yard to deal with. They ended up with a house in the suburbs instead, with a yard that was a mess. She ignored it until one day, after her children were born, she took a notion to try and straighten up a little. Once she got started, she couldn’t stop. Now she’s a master gardener.

I do want you to read the whole piece, but I’m going to quote and comment on some of her tips. I found them helpful; maybe you will too.

Here are her sure-fire suggestions for the finest garden you can fit in any size plot:

Mulch, mulch and more mulch. Becker has 5 cubic yards of organic leaf mulch dumped on her driveway every spring. She hauls it by the wheelbarrow to every breathing inch of her garden. It’s all about amending.

Who says Chicago’s growing season is too short?: Extend your season, says Becker, whose beds are in bloom from March to November, beginning with thousands of bulbs in early spring. (“Pick any area you can see from the house, not next to house,” she advises, to provide an emotional pickup after the long dark winter.) Then wind up with the last of the asters, fall-blooming crocus and a host of colorful berries.

There are two ideas here really, and I want to separate out the one that struck me the hardest: Don’t just make beds next to the house; plant in the yard so you can see your flowers from inside.

When I bought my house, one of the things I liked best was that the entire perimeter of the building had already been made into beds. There were bushes in front and along the sides, most of them planted decades ago, perhaps by the original owner. But there weren’t many flowers, just a few crocuses here and there. Aha, I thought; I will put in flowers, and over the years I have, tulips from Amsterdam as well as Holland, Michigan; irises, mums, petunias, marigolds, pansies, peonies, whatever I could get my hands on. I didn’t have a plan; I didn’t know what I was doing, but I enjoyed myself. Spring planting is my favorite time of year.

I screwed in hooks on the ceiling of my covered side porch and hung baskets of impatiens; I learned over time not to buy plastic pots. I turned my porch into an outdoor room, with a tree and plant stands, table and chairs, lights and a charcoal grill. Everyone who’s ever visited knows I love that porch.

But when I look out my front windows I don’t see flowers, except for my cherry trees when they blossom; otherwise it’s just green trees and green grass. I have to go outside to see my flowers, and I don’t do that often.

What Ms. Becker is teaching me is to plant colors I can see when I wake up in the morning. My first thought is to dig up some of the grass along the sidewalk leading to my front door and plant tulips and daffodils there; when they start to fade, I can put in begonias. (I have begonias in planters on the back deck, and oh, are they gorgeous this year.)

Then I thought, however nice that idea might be, why not create a similar path along the public right of way, the sidewalk that crosses my lot? What would a person walking up the street feel if she suddenly encountered flowers at her feet? Wouldn’t that be a joy?

My dog Luke and I take walks every night, and one of the things I get out of it is seeing my neighbors’ landscaping. Last night we took a new route on less-familiar blocks and I saw the most amazing stand of zinnias (I think); multiple colors planted in bunches, 50 yellows, then 50 reds, a whole rainbow, 20 feet or more. When Luke and I walk and I find beautiful flowers in yards, I always want to get closer to see and maybe smell; but I respect the homeowner’s private property, so I have to enjoy from a distance. Last night at this particular house on 2nd Street, a woman was watching TV in her living room, with the windows open; I wanted to call out, “Your flowers are beautiful!” But I turned shy instead.

People in my hometown are pretty good gardeners and landscapers. I’m envious, in awe; I wish I encountered people in their yards more often so I could tell them how much I love what they’ve done. But alas, Luke and I take our walks in the cool of the evening, and by that time most people are indoors watching the boob tube.

It’s fashionable lately when pseudo-sophisticates write about landscape gardening to decry the “airport runway” look with outdoor lights; but they’re just snobs with deadlines and 750 words overdue. These are the same kinds of people as those who write about food trends, invariably nasty, stuff you’d never want to eat — because they have to write about something and they’re totally completely bored. The New York Times is full of that crap, because New Yorkers can’t stop competing long enough to have a good meal. Here’s my point: anything you do, including landscape lights down the sidewalk, that you can see from indoors, is good. A flowered walk is a great idea, especially one built with the neighbors in mind.

I have a friend Chris who used to walk her little dog past my house all the time. Her husband’s since had a privacy fence built, and Chris and her dog have stopped coming by; I miss them. But if they had a sidewalk landscaped just for them to enjoy, I bet they’d always come this way; wouldn’t you?

My next-door neighbor Debbie has built an amazing garden spot on the corner; it’s got a boulder or two, figurines and wonderful plants. But there’s no reason I can’t do more with my space, even though I’m not on the corner. Some homeowners in town have built flowered areas under their hardwood trees, full of hostas or impatiens or other beauties. It takes time and money, but I think I’d like to do something similar.

And all this is suggested by Janice Becker’s little comment. Here’s more of what she told the Trib.

Sun, yes, but water moreso. Sure, you need to pay attention to shade versus sun, but drainage is too often overlooked. Becker contends it’s more important than sun, and she urges you to pay attention to what the label says — and take it to heart. “The label might say, ‘Will survive dry conditions,’ but what they really are saying is ‘We won’t tolerate standing in water.’ And with so much clay in the soil around here, that’s key.”

I don’t have clay in my yard; that’s Chicago, this is Northwest Indiana, a long-drained swamp. I’ve got 99% black loam from the last time the Iroquois River flooded five miles away. This is the richest soil on earth, according to Purdue University. We’re even the home of the high school soil-judging National Champions 2005!

Shop nonstop.”Don’t stop shopping for plants or planting just because it is July and abysmally hot. If succession of bloom is the objective (and it is), you will miss some great late summer and fall blooming perennials if you don’t frequent the nurseries. For example, chelone (also known as turtlehead) is an absolutely great late summer bloomer that you will never see unless you shop later in the season. And everything is usually on sale then.”

Be ever on the lookout. “Visit gardens all the time. There is practically nothing in my garden that I did not see someplace else and copy. Take notes; take pictures; and ask questions, particularly why that plant is growing successfully here when you haven’t had any success with it.”

That’s good advice too. Don’t get so enthusiastic with spring planting that you fail to keep at it when the weather gets hot, or much of your work will go for nothing. I weed and tend my gardens every day, pick tomatoes and peppers, strawberries and leeks. As Jamie says in The Centurion’s Boy, my novel in progress, “Every day is a new opportunity to excel.”

That’s true whatever your occupation, pastimes and pursuits. Every day is new; no matter how much you screwed up yesterday, today is a new opportunity. Maybe you don’t like digging in the dirt; maybe music or art or furniture-making is your thing. Do it better than ever, because it’s today. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or a CEO, a monk in Mississippi or a gardener in Deerfield, today is a new chance. Build something; touch your loved ones gently; take your dog on an outing. Write, cook, plan, build, take a risk, pull out the deadwood, get dirty so you can get clean; let yourself be fully alive.

And who knows, maybe once you get started, you won’t be able to stop.++

Asters, from gardenersnet.com.

Tomatoes in abundance, dill to flavor the world!

Oh God, you are too good to me.

I’m eating lunch as I write this; pasta salad, a bacon and tomato sandwich. No lettuce; as James Beard said, “You could add lettuce; but why would you?”

The tomato on my sandwich is so fabulous it doesn’t even need salt — and all tomatoes need salt in my opinion. But this one is juicy and sweet, chock full of that great red flavor of my favorite food.

This particular tomato is a bit darker in color than others I’ve picked and eaten so far; a different breed from a different plant. Tomato varieties vary greatly from each other, and to me the best tasting ones are more juice, less meat. Tomato-lovers can easily tell the difference.

My friend Bob in New Jersey has been bragging about how good his local tomatoes are (though he has to buy them, the poor man); we have a friendly rivalry going about New Jersey vs. Indiana tomatoes. The Garden State does grow tomatoes on a commercial scale; there’s a reason Campbell’s Soup is headquartered in the state. So I hope the Jersey tomatoes are as excellent as he says, because then I’ll know he’s getting some good eating.

However, the largest tomato canning company in America is headquartered 90 minutes from my house, in Elwood, Indiana, a family-owned outfit called (appropriately and lovingly) Red Gold. Because that’s what they sell, red things good as gold.

Tomatoes are very nearly the best food you can eat; chock full of vitamin C and antioxidants, nutritionists say. People who eat a steady diet of tomatoes get a lot fewer cancers. But me, I just eat ’em ’cause they taste so good!

And this one from my garden is a gem, perfectly formed, free of all blemishes, ready for the grocery store or my stomach!

But there’s a story behind today’s bacon, too; I bought it from Jessica Smith, one of the owners of This Old Farm in Darlington, Indiana, an innovative farm-to-market operation that’s winning all kinds of grants and recognition. I bought the bacon at the farmers’ market in West Lafayette. It’s more expensive than the commercial bacon at the grocery, but I know the hogs weren’t tortured on their way to my sandwich.

Chicks getting comfy at This Old Farm

This bacon looks different, it behaves different when you cook it up in the pan; there’s less fat, so that changes your cooking technique slightly, as the bacon is done faster. Less fat makes home-grown bacon a better buy pound-for-pound because you get more meat. The lean-to-fat ratio is also far greater with beef I’ve bought from This Old Farm. The taste isn’t greatly different, but you can tell on sight that this isn’t what you’re used to.

Commercial beef and pork producers artificially speed up the growth rate of their animals; they fatten them up faster so they are ready for market quicker. CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) pen them in concentration camps so they never see the light of day, never eat their natural diet; factory farms inject their prisoners with growth hormones to cut costs and move the animals to market faster. And of course, with the animals crammed in barns where they can barely move, the owners inject them with antibiotics so that if one animal gets infected, the others don’t come down with it and the whole herd gets sick.

Are these hormones and antibiotics good for the humans who eat commercial meat? Last week the USDA told Congress there’s a big problem in our food supply. The Des Moines Register reported:

Antibiotics in Livestock Affect Humans, USDA Testifies
July 16th, 2010

Des Moines Register

There is a clear link between the use of antibiotics in livestock and drug resistance in humans, President Barack Obama’s administration says, a position sharply at odds with agribusiness interests.

In testimony to a House committee on Wednesday, even the Agriculture Department, which livestock producers have traditionally relied on to advocate for their interests, backed the idea of a link between animal use of antibiotics and human health.

The Agriculture Department “believes that it is likely that the use of antimicrobials in animal agriculture does lead to some cases of antimicrobial resistance among humans and in animals themselves,” said John Clifford, the USDA chief veterinarian.

The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates antibiotics in animals and humans, has recently proposed to end the use of many drugs as growth promoters in hogs and other livestock. Only antibiotics such as ionophores that have no human use would be permitted to speed animals’ growth. The FDA has set a schedule for phasing out the drugs’ use or proposed specific restrictions.

Officials said the ban is needed to ensure that the [antibiotic] drugs remain useful in human medicine.

Now the thing about gardening, family farming and rural life in general, is this: it’s slow. Not much changes from one day to the next. Maybe that green tomato you’ve had your eye on is a little bigger, or maybe it’s not; it’ll “get here” when it’s good and ready. You can’t speed it up, you can’t slow it down, Mother Nature’s in charge.

Of course this doesn’t sit well with agribusiness, which is always looking for efficiencies to maximize profits, but a piggy gets born or a tomato turns red when it’s good and ready.

There’s one other big advantage to this bacon I’m eating; I know where it came from. It didn’t pass through a hundred different hands like that Big Mac with makeup and lipstick that looks glamorous on TV. If God forbid that burger makes you sick, the USDA has no way to know where it came from, which is why more people will get sick until a food detective finally figures out “it was the Big Mac.” Meanwhile a dozen kids and senior citizens are dead. THAT’s the kind of self-regulation/no regulation that agribusiness lobbies for. If you really knew what you were eating you wouldn’t eat it, so they have to keep you in the dark and put lipstick on it.

We can expect more and more emergency food recalls as time goes on, because in the minimally-regulated world of agribusiness, someone’s always going to be looking to cut another corner and make another buck. Remember that peanut warehouse down in Georgia, where they knew their nuts were contaminated, but resold them anyway? The food business is cutthroat (because so much food is sold, there’s so much money to be made), so what did they care if the throat that got cut was yours?

But this bacon now disappearing from my plate? It came from a hog raised at Skillington Farms (Stan and Laura) in Lebanon, Indiana, which was processed at This Old Farm’s facility in Colfax, where the owner loaded it into her van and sold it to me in West Lafayette, where I drove it home to Kentland. Their names (all two of them) are right there on the package.

Portioning feed for the animals at Skillington Farms

As a customer they’ve treated me with respect, they’ve met me with accountability.

Well, in the time it took to compose this I’ve eaten two bacon and tomato sandwiches and eaten two bowlfuls of pasta salad; and I promised you something about dill, which I’ve got growing right outside my back door. The plants are three feet tall and flowering now — but I don’t want flowers, I want leaves, so last night I cut off all the flowers. (Believe me, the plants will make more.) I’ve also deflowered my chives and some of my oregano. I’ve got far more of these herbs than I can use.

My pasta salad is very simple; you don’t need to buy an overpriced box of mix. I use half a pound of rotini, a quarter pound of cooked ham or pepperoni, a medium cucumber peeled and sliced, and 4-5 medium tomatoes, skinned. (A bell pepper is optional; mine are growing but I decided to leave them on the vine this time.) Then dump on 6 ounces of whatever salad dressing you like, then chill overnight. I decided on dill vinegrette, as follows.

Josh’s Dill Vinegrette

3/4 C of your best oil
1/4 C white vinegar*
1 T chopped fresh dill (1 t dried)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 t salt
3/4 t dry mustard
3/4 t paprika

Whisk or shake together in a cruet.

* Flavored vinegars (red, cider, balsamic) overwhelm the dill, so don’t use them.

Kraft and Wishbone would go out of business if people knew how much better homemade vinegrettes are; cheaper, fresher, no preservatives.

And when you grow your own herbs you feel like the master of the universe. Ah, dill!++

Dill is pretty when it's in flower, but you want leaves, not blooms. Off with their heads!

Ta-da: 1st Tomato Arrives!

Everyone in Indiana knows that the arrival of the First Tomato of the season is both a cause of great rejoicing and a danger; since state law provides that anyone caught stealing the First Tomato may be shot dead with impunity, its arrival can be an anxious time.

Some gardeners, eagerly watching the First Tomato candidate slowly turn red day by day, have been known to pick it too soon. Since everyone knows you don’t pick it without eating it immediately, this tactic invariably leads to Premature Taste Disappointment. So most people pride themselves on having the self-control to wait until nature takes its course.

Other tomato gourmands pitch a tent next to the garden, haul out lawn chairs and hold a shotgun vigil; tomatoes grow and ripen overnight, so the most likely time for the tomato gang to strike is between 4 and 5 a.m. Unfortunately people who are going to be up all night turn it into a party with lots of alcohol, and sometimes innocent people get shot accidentally; guns and alcohol don’t mix.

And then there’s the little old lady next door, who’s been eying your tomato patch greedily for the past month; everyone knows little old ladies are up at the crack of dawn, so she tiptoes over, snatches your First Tomato, hides it in her apron pocket and tries to walk away nonchalantly. If you sleep in when she strikes, you miss the chance to bump her off scot-free and get some better neighbors next door. At any other time except First Tomato Day, shooting her is a felony.

In the ’90s some people tried installing elaborate security systems, with motion detectors, floodlights and screechy sirens to chase away thieves. Unfortunately this expensive method didn’t work; it caught a lot of rabbits who don’t eat tomatoes, and it kept the neighbors up all night. Several cities passed noise ordinances against this practice.

I was lucky this year; my First Tomato came earlier than most other people’s, so I slept well and picked it as soon as I woke up.

So far there have been no reports of violence, but the season is still young.

How did I eat it? I made a tomato sandwich. No bacon, no lettuce, just substantial white bread sliced thin, and good tomato sliced thick, with mayo. I served it on my mother’s fine china, as all your better families do.

I did not, however, put on her old CD of Mantovani’s Greatest Hits. Some traditions ought to be retired. Nor did I put on formalwear, a tradition the nouveau riche tried to start back when Reagan (“Greed is good”) was president. It never caught on anyway; tomato juice has a tendency to drip onto your pants.

How was my sandwich? Quite satisfactory, but not the best I’ve ever had. I blame the variety; modern hybrids are bred for more meat and less juice, to be less messy. But this is senseless, because the flavor a tomato is in the juice and pectin, not the meat. You wouldn’t want a dry watermelon; why would you want a dry tomato? Modern varieties are seemingly bred for people who don’t even like tomatoes.

I try to buy several different varieties; I can tell them apart when I slice into them, but I can never remember the names of the ones I like. I prefer the older varieties, now called “heirlooms.” In the good old daze you knew you ran the risk of having tomato juice drip off your chin, so you wore an old pair of jeans and kept your napkin ready.

The meat and skin of a tomato are only there to house the juice. Every recipe that calls for removing the juice and seeds should be tossed out. Tomatoes do not exist so you can hollow them out and use them as containers for chicken salad. That may look cute but it’s pointless; serve your chicken salad on the side and slice a good tomato for eating with a fork. Don’t ruin your best ingredient so it will look cute.

The First Tomato arrived three days ago; an earlier candidate was deformed and tossed out. Yesterday I picked another, which is now half-gone, and today I picked four more, two little ones, a medium-sized and a giant. My friend Scott came by and I gave him three of them, including the big one. He said, “You’ve got tomatoes already?” I was so pleased. Later he informed me he gave the two little ones to a co-worker who loves tomatoes, so I was pleased they found happy homes. This also means Scott kept the giant one for himself; human nature has not been repealed.

I got to show him my first-ever real garden; we looked at the peppers, which are still babies but twice as big as they were a few days ago. And he noticed my strawberries. Maybe I was showing off a little; human nature hasn’t been repealed.

Tonight I’m going to make my Famous Peach Cobbler; these came from South Carolina and are well-ripened. I also notice that my pal Peter has a goodlooking recipe for Peach Bread on his site; he’s even got it in PDF so you can print it out.

Now, having bragged about my Famous Cobbler (human nature still goes strong), here’s the recipe.

Josh’s Famous Peach Cobbler

3-4 ripe peaches (2 C)
2 T butter
3/4 C white flour
3/4 C sugar, depending
1/2 C milk
1 t baking powder
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 400º.

Melt butter in 9×9-inch baking dish in the oven. Peel, pit and slice peaches. Remove baking dish and dump in peaches. In medium mixing bowl, mix dry ingredients well, add milk and stir to a smooth batter. Dump on top of peaches and bake 25-30 minutes until golden brown.

Two things make this great; it’s so simple and so good, and how it looks going into the oven is not how it looks when it comes out. You think it’s going to be a conglomerated mess, but no, the batter rises around and over the peaches, forms a soft crust and looks fantastic.

The same formula works for other kinds of fresh fruit, even canned peaches and pie fillings. Even a novice cook will get compliments on this one, while the fancy cooks who like to slave over their desserts may even realize that sometimes simpler is better.++

First Tomato a Total Bust, but Ice-Licking Dog Makes Up For It

Here's a nice specimen; mine was rotten.

Yesterday I picked my First Tomato, which was nice and red but lying on the ground, so I knew it wouldn’t be any good. Tomatoes need to hang from the vine or they rot. I took it inside because I wanted to see what happened to it.

It’s a law here in Indiana that any thief who picks your First Tomato may be cheerfully shot with total impunity. But even the Tomato Gang wasn’t interested in this one.

You don’t think there’s a Tomato Gang? You don’t live in Indiana. We all belong to the Tomato Gang (and we’re thieves).

I brought it inside and sliced into it. The bottom half was rotten because it lay on the ground. But the top wasn’t much better, very woody, not juicy at all. I put it in the compost box.

Let’s get this clear, shall we? Tomatoes are supposed to be juicy, and I couldn’t care less if this does not meet the needs of McDonald’s, Burger King and Hardee’s. They don’t like juicy tomatoes, which drip on your skirt while you’re driving up I-65.

Those things are tasteless, which fast food specializes in. Don’t eat in your gol-dang car, hokay? That skirt never did much for you anyway.

Tomatoes, like oranges, exist for the juice. That’s where the flavor is. Never, ever buy a tomato hybrid designed for fast food chains.

Would you want to eat a dry orange that was all meat and no juice? Then why would you design a tomato that way?

It’s not my fault that people like to put tomatoes on their burgers and not oranges. (They’re both very rich in Vitamin C.) If you’re going to eat a burger Be Prepared. It’s called a napkin; you can do it.

My First Tomato was a total bust. I wasn’t that sad, I’ve got a lot more ‘maters on the way; the timing (practically the 4th of July) vindicates my decision to plant tomatoes early and wait to see if the frost got them, which it didn’t. Replacement vines would only have cost a buck or two, so I learned something this year. My tomatoes look like a rainforest, while my next door neighbor’s got these spindly pathetic things.

I’d have eaten part of the First Tomato if it hadn’t been so woody, but I threw it all away. (“Woody” is when the green part of the vine extends down into the flesh. It’s inedible, the whole thing is deformed.)

It was a hot day, and once I cut into it and saw it was worthless, I began to be concerned about my dog. Luke spends most of his time outside on a 30-foot lead, and it’s been hot here, our first hot dry spell of the season. He so likes the sunshine that I worry about how he eats and drinks. When we wake up in the morning he’s never interested in breakfast, he only wants outside, and it’s not because he’s desperate to pee; he takes forever to do that. What he wants is the sun, so I pour out food and water as he clamors to go outdoors. I take him out, and bring him back later, and sometimes he eats or drinks like I want him to. Sometimes he doesn’t, he just wants back outside.

I’ve tried taking his chow-and-water dish outdoors so he can feed when he wants to, but ants got into it and that was a mistake. In the morning I offer him food and water, but he’s not interested, so we go outside and play, and later I bring him back in case he’s hungry or thirsty. Then clamor clamor clamor, jump and turn in circles, “Outside!” Okay, dude.

But it was hot out, and I’d already given him a second chance at the doggy dish, which he rejected, and I didn’t know what to do. I took him an ice cube.

He loved it.

I held it in my hand and he lick-lick-licked; when he got tired I rubbed it on his belly. But then he wanted to lick it again, so we did that. He paused and stood up, and I rubbed it on his back. He thought that was great. Then he licked it again; in a minute it was just a nub. I finally dropped it and he licked it on the grass until it disappeared.

It’s an amazing thing to have another creature eat out of your hand. He totally charms you, while you feel strong and protective and goofy.

Since he likes being out all day, but I can’t trust him to stay in our yard, I check on him all the time; he can’t say if he’s hungry or thirsty, I have to interpret the signs. I wish I were better at doggie-speak, but maybe we’re doing okay.

Luke ate an ice cube; highlight of my day.++

Luke, ice cube-licker. Prettyboy, little wuss, total favorite.

Uh-Oh, Josh & Machinery, Not a Good Sign

Machines and I seldom get along together.

With great trepidation, I bought a new lawnmower last night, my third one since I’ve lived here.

I shouldn’t have had to buy it at all, but my next-door neighbor, who’d agreed to mow my lawn for $20 per, suddenly decided not to do it, and be passive-aggressive about not doing it.

Instead of picking up his 20 bucks each time he was done, he let things ride until one day his wife asked for 60 when I thought I owed him 40. I paid her the 60 but told her I thought he’d only mowed twice.

Didn’t hear a word back and my grass got long. So I bought a new mower, a better one than before, self-propelled and all, in case my problem with the previous mowers was that I wasn’t spending enough for a quality machine. This one promised to start “first time, every time.”

It came in a huge box. A young man at the store helped me load it into my back seat, but wasn’t around to help me unload it at home. Still, I got it out of the car and looked inside. It was all put together, so that was a relief.

I followed the directions. I can usually make something workable if I’ve got very specific directions; shelving, mini-blinds, anything that comes in pieces to assemble. But the directions had better assume I don’t know a thing.

I am no mechanic, and I’m retarded when it comes to building or fixing things. I’ve learned over the years not to even try unless I’ve got step by step instructions. Most of the time I don’t feel bad about this, unless I’m supposed to fix something. But I am programmed to believe that “men can do anything mechanical” (my next door neighbor can), so I really dread these kinds of tasks. I feel ashamed at my lack of ability and knowledge. My father didn’t teach us kids and I had a terrible time in 7th grade shop class. It took me all semester to make a ping-pong paddle while my male classmates were building room additions.

Fortunately I met the course requirement because we only had to build one thing. I think my paddle lasted about a week and a half before its rubber surface started peeling off, but by then I didn’t care. I passed.

These same classmates thought I was the smartest kid in the county until they saw me in shop class.

So: I got my lawnmower ready for the big test: Handle chest high. Oil in the reservoir, fuel in the tank, cord threaded through the slot; depress the bar next to the handle, push the “engine engage” lever till it clicks, then pull.

The bitch started right up! So I mowed my yard. And despite my panic over spending $260 on a lawnmower, it will only take 13 mows to pay for itself. Plus I’ve now got my neighbor out of my hair.

I’d forgotten how much better my yard looks when I mow it instead of paying someone else to do it. Or maybe my perception is altered because I did the work myself. I know this, it helps to have the mower push itself. I wasn’t nearly as tired afterward as I used to get with my cheap mowers.

I also have a better idea of what’s going on with my yard when I’m paying close attention to it. I need to trim more low-hanging branches off my trees; the cherry trees in front make life especially miserable when you’re mowing. Maybe that’s why Tony didn’t want the job, though I suspect he feels insulted that I questioned him. Still, he ought to have been a man about it and simply said, “No, it really was three times, Josh.” Okay.

He bult a privacy fence this year, and boy, am I glad about that; I don’t have to look at his ugly back yard anymore, or have any contact with him now.

But the biggest thing is, I solved my own problem. I got the job done. I am not a total wimp after all.

Meanwhile, my dillweed planted next to the house is looking gorgeous. Last year when I planted it I didn’t harvest any, and then it was gone; I didn’t realize it would come back again this year. So I think I’ll bake a couple of chicken breasts tomorrow so I can make chicken salad for sandwiches.

Josh’s Chicken Dill Salad

cubed cooked chicken or turkey
chopped sweet pickle
chopped onion
poultry seasoning

You can use it as a sandwich or a salad; spoon it into a custard cup and invert it on a lettuce leaf.

Will fresh dillweed make a taste difference? We shall see.

This year I will also try making a cold cherry soup.

James Beard’s Cherry Soup

2 pounds tart red cherries, pitted
2 C water
2-inch cinnamon stick
2 cloves
1/4 t salt
2 C red wine, port or sherry
sugar to taste
2 egg yolks, well beaten

Cook cherries in water with cinnamon, salt and cloves until cherries are very soft. Remove cinnamon and cloves; put cherries in a blender with some of the liquid and puree. Return to saucepan, add wine and sugar. Mix a little soup with the egg yolks, then stir back into the cherries. Reheat, stirring, until slightly thickened. Chill well in refrigerator. Serve cold with fresh cherry garnish.

(You could also add sour cream or whipped cream as garnish, dusted with a little ground cinnamon. If you like your soup sweet, add the sour, and vice versa.)

Serve on the veranda and pronounce yourself the master of all you survey.++

My cherries are ripening already.