Category Archives: Food

Canning Notes for Next Year

photo (2)Every year for at least ten (to judge by the date on one dusty jar that I can’t bring myself either to open or to throw away), I make and can salsa and sauce with tomatoes from our garden. Every year, I have to remember how all over again. Same goes for buying school supplies and baking birthday cakes and filling out tax forms—all the seasonal skills that my brain buries deep in long-term storage. I mean, I have the recipes. It’s the timing and the rhythm I lose.

Although this memory problem is not improving as the years pass, I am getting better about preparing to forget. Last fall, for example, after our annual big trip south for Thanksgiving, I sent myself an email alert for the following November with instructions like “make sure the kids do their homework BEFORE the ride home” and “bring Mom a bread basket” and “MORE DISH TOWELS.”

And so, as this year’s canning season winds down, I am preparing a little cheat sheet for 2015:

  1. Although their sheer quantity and inexorable ripening may appear aggressive—even hostile—your tomatoes are not your enemy. Remember the years when, due to blight, you had to buy tomatoes at Indian Ladder Farms, beg heirloom beauties from a kindly green-thumbed librarian, scrounge the culled crops at the Co-op. Remember the year you ran out of pasta sauce.
  2. Everything in your kitchen is about to get wet. Move the damn library books.
  3. Your children and your husband will continue to regard the kitchen as a place in which to locate snacks and meals. This is a perfectly normal misapprehension, which should be corrected gently, if possible.
  4. Even things that are taking forever to cook will eventually burn.
  5. Yes, you’ve done the math, and no, canning your own sauce and salsa does not make actual economical sense, especially if you factor in your billable hourly wage. Or the minimum wage.
  6. Speaking of which, it’s OK to send your husband to Subway, where they put pale pink sliced “tomato” on your children’s subs, so that you can stay home and wrestle with 100 pounds of true tomatoes. I’m not sure why, but it is.
  7. Swim goggles will keep your eyes from watering when you slice onions. For best results, however, you have to put them on. (Note: Aprons also work better when donned.)
  8. Jars of sauce should be left on the counter “to cool” until your backache subsides or until your next dinner guests notice them, whichever comes second.
  9. If you think you smell something burning, you’re right.

If you’d like to try canning your own salsa, you can find the recipe here. Feel free to call my red phone for advice, but do it soon: birthday cake season is fast approaching.

Process This

Lacinato KaleThe season of scratch-foodie bliss has begun! This morning Adam planted more tomatoes, more cucumbers, and some lacinato kale. Tomorrow morning, after I start some focaccia dough, I’m going to take my daughter to a local farm to pick strawberries. Or maybe we’ll go to a farmer’s market, where someone’s beautiful display of homegrown strawberries will pick us.

Wednesday night, however, we had hotdogs for dinner. Not even nitrate-free, certified happy-cow hotdogs. Ball Park. In store-brand buns.

I am certainly not the only parent who keeps hotdogs in the freezer for dinner emergencies. But the other things in my freezer—a gallon of pesto stacked in pints; home-rendered lard in ½ cup portions; homemade breads; blanched collard greens from last year’s garden—were doubtless appalled. How could I serve my family that processed crap?

I’m not going to argue with my baguettes. Cooking my own food—preferably from ingredients I (okay, Adam) grew—is best. Absolutely. Tastes best, feels best, best inspires a sense of mindfulness and gratitude. A person who bakes her own bread will not raise a child who refuses to eat crusts.

And processed food is the worst. It makes us as a society and as individuals sick and careless and wasteful. Who gives a crap about a half-eaten Happy Meal?

But I learned early in my career as a parent to be . . . flexible.

Fourteen years ago, as a righteous, well-read pregnant woman, I had been adamant about not using formula, to the point where I was incredulous that anyone ever did. As opposed to using food that’s free!?! AND healthier!?! AND more convenient!?! How did we all get convinced to buy something at the store instead?

Then I had my baby. And, for first ten days of his life, I couldn’t breastfeed him. He would latch on and get . . . nothing. My milk just didn’t come in. No matter how hard I tried I ended up breaststarving my baby. He lost weight. I completely lost my shit. He wailed and I sobbed, as new-mom hormones coursed through me (apparently bypassing my boobs).  My baby was hungry and I couldn’t feed him.

Except I could. A clever nurse had a plan: I taped a tiny tube from a tiny bottle of formula to my breast, so that when my baby sucked, he actually got fed. He also got used to suckling, and my breasts eventually got with the program.

After that, all my babies were mostly breastfed, until they all ate mostly homemade baby food. I mean, what’s so hard about mashing a banana or overcooking oatmeal? But when I couldn’t manage it—when I had to leave a jar of baby food for a sitter—I forgave myself. Watching my hungry infant finally get fed had cured me of scratch-foodie guilt.

Sometime in September I’ll be (garden willing) in a damp and dirty apron, sterilizing canning jars while cranking quarts of sauce through a food mill. I’ll have no idea what time it is. Then one of my kids will enter the kitchen carnage and, above the blaring music, casually announce, “I’m hungry!”

And I’ll do what any sensible foodie mom would do while putting up a year’s worth of tomato sauce: I’ll order a pizza.

Wellskringle: A Tale of Love and Lying

What follows was my contribution to a reading called “Eat the Past,” held last night at the Arts Center in Troy and hosted by food writer Steve Barnes. (Note: Those of you who signed up for thoughtful essays on atheist parenting will have to suffer through the occasional food essay. Those of you who signed up for amusing food essays, hey: you’re in luck.)

♦ ♦ ♦

batterChild Number 1 looks at dinner and says, “Can we have pizza tomorrow night? I mean, no offense.”

Child Number 2 finally takes a bite and says encouragingly, “It’s not that bad.”

Child Number 3, oblivious to the fact that we were this close to stopping at two kids, wore a look on her face that said, “Do I have to?”

“Do I have to?” she asked.

No matter how often I hear the chorus of complaint—no matter how many desserts I have withheld as a result—I still find it shocking. I myself, a Child Number 2, remember complaining about dinner precisely once. My mom was a rock solid dinner-on-the-table cook, and we enjoyed a regular, slowly evolving rotation of family favorites. Occasionally she tried something new—something clipped from the newspaper or discovered in the encouraging pages of The Silver Palate. One night, Mom served us a new dish called “Indian Potatoes,” which (as I remember it) somehow compelled Children 1, 2, and 3 simultaneously to put down our forks and shake our heads. (Could it have been burned garlic? Rancid mustard seeds? The adult cook in me asks; the child eater in me won’t say.)

Perhaps because we never complained, Mom looked abashed and did not make us finish our dinners. An error had occurred, and that was that.

Things were not so simple with my father. Daddy didn’t cook the daily meals; he made big weekend breakfasts and he fried things. French fries, onion rings, scallion pancakes, donuts. If anything fried emerged from my parents’ kitchen, he was behind it, in an explosion of dishes, on a dusting of flour, getting batter on everything he touched.

Big mess, big food, big gesture. And because he cooked to treat us, not just to feed us, he expected a big, enthusiastic response. One year Daddy found a recipe that suited his twin impulses for drama and generosity: Wellskringle. This was a sort of batter you spread onto a baking sheet and baked into a pastry, which you then drizzled with icing. You could even spread the dough into the shape of a letter; that’s why Daddy decided it was the perfect birthday treat.

It turns out that food should never be chosen on the basis of whether or not you can write with it.

Wellskringle was awful: gooey and eggy and bland and right in the nauseating noodle-kugel no man’s land between sweet and not sweet.

Children 1, 2, and 3—my sisters and I—all hated it. Actually, Child 1 recently told me that she had liked it . . . sort of. She may be telling the truth. But as I recall, in a cruel reversal of the Santa effect, just the smell of Wellskringle baking on our special day could keep us in bed a little longer.

But we didn’t dare complain. We thought that rejecting Wellskringle would be like rejecting Daddy—that he would take it personally. So we grinned thanked him when he presented—ta-da!—the steaming platter of A, K, or S. We glanced at each other quickly for support, ate the drier edges where the icing pooled, and declared ourselves full.

Why didn’t he notice that Wellskringle was disgusting? He refused to eat it because he didn’t like eggs. I wish I were allowed not to like eggs, I thought at the time. But food refusal was a privilege reserved for grownups.

Eventually, after years had passed, and when it was no one’s birthday, Children 1, 2, and 3 managed to allow that Wellskringle wasn’t our absolute favorite thing. I was an extravagantly well-behaved child; I’m pretty sure that was my rebellion.

My father, in case you’re wondering, survived the attack. He still fries things for us and now he makes us martinis, too.

Meanwhile I have become a very good home cook—with my mom’s reliability and my dad’s sense of adventure. I have also become a parent, and my parents obviously influenced that, too. My kids are expected to eat, to try new things, and to value the dinner party as the highest expression of domestic endeavor. What’s harder to teach is that fine line between honesty and rudeness: what I call the “no offense” line.

To judge from the results of my parenting, I have erred on the side where they feel entitled to say “yuck.” I don’t always have the energy to punish them for complaining about dinner. But I try never to get offended. I don’t want my children to choke down something they hate for fear of hurting my feelings. I want them to choke down something they hate because they know they are lucky to have food placed before them.

And because their mother has the fortitude to sit calmly and say sweetly to the little girl who really has no idea she almost didn’t exist, “Yes, dear, you have to.”