Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What Else I Didn't Do on My Summer Vacation

I began the summer with a listful of good kitchen intentions, the foremost of which had to do with breadmaking.

First of all, I wanted to make homemade tortillas, like the wonderful tortillas offered by Tony's in Standish. Partner in Food had requested a comal, a tortilla griddle, last Christmas for that very purpose. The comal was oiled as directed and has been seasoning nicely in the oven every time we bake something...but no tortillas, or chapatis, or crepes, have been placed on it so far.

I had also wanted to try Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day -- a recent visit to Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, and experiencing the crusty goodness of their breads, reminded me of that plan -- but so far I've not gotten around to doing that either.

We had begun the summer with plans to expand our home canning to include peaches and pears and several more kinds of pickles...but we have been so busy traveling in the last month for various family get-togethers that we've had to fall back on our Amish neighbors for our winter canned fruit and pickle needs.

We have made some kitchen progress, however. We finally melded our two households' worth of kitchen equipment and dishware into one and either sold or given away the excess, and our kitchen implement drawers are now arranged by theme. We've discovered the joys of a rice cooker -- a rejected Christmas present that we decided to keep for ourselves and have found to be absolutely invaluable not only in cooking rice but also in making other grain- and bean-based dishes and in steaming vegetables. We've further unplugged from supermarket food by purchasing more directly from farmers. And, despite a horrendous summer in terms of growing weather, we've been able to enjoy a few home-grown vegetables of our own -- heirloom lettuces, snap beans and tomatoes -- with more on the way.

The beauty of not finishing a to-do list, of course, is that goals are very recyclable. We have placed a month-long moratorium on traveling, just to regroup and enjoy our home during our favorite season...the comal might finally come out of the oven between now and November.

What I Didn't Do on My Summer Vacation

I didn't blog.

The truth of the matter is, I lost the bug; I lost the motivation. I came very close to pulling down the shades of this little online enterprise and turning the key for good.

But then I saw the film Julie and Julia. And it helped me see why I was dissatisfied with this blog as it was, and what I really want to do with it.

No, I have no intention of creating an online paen to a culinary hero or cooking my way through a favorite cookbook.

But I do want to write with greater authenticity; to let readers know not only what and where I eat, but who I am as someone who enjoys and cares about food and who finds rural Michigan a good place to be.

Because I have another, non-foodie blog where I am more inclined to self-disclose, I originally intended to keep this one, by contrast, rather thematically focused and semi-anonymous; all about the food of mid-Michigan and surrounds. I put on my PR hat and wrote entries in the way I would if I were writing a food column for a Michigan tourist-industry publication. Informative, maybe; but not particularly engaging for me, at least not after awhile.

So I am going back to the kitchen, so to speak, to find my voice and use it more liberally in the dishes I serve up here. I also want to share more about life here in mid-Michigan -- oh, there will be recipes and excursions to foodie destinations; but also some reflections on the rural life; on the kitchen as the heart of a home (even unconventional ones like ours); on the victories and defeats of growing one's own food. I hope you'll enjoy it, and come back for seconds.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dinner Plait

We ran out of bread a few days ago -- one of the disadvantages of homebaking bread is that it disappears so quickly -- and we needed to use up some eggs, so I thought I'd change things up and make challah, the festive Jewish egg bread. My thought was to knead the dough in the machine (I love hand-kneading bread dough, but we frankly don't have a good kitchen space for getting down and dirty with flour), then take it out, loaf it and bake it in the oven.

This worked out beautifully. I used an old trick of my baker great-grandfather and my grandmother and placed my plaited loaves in greased breadpans -- this improves sliceability while still maintaining the aesthetics of a braided loaf.

Challah is intended to be a rich bread, but the amount of eggs and butter usually called for in recipes may make one's arteries shudder in dread. The recipe I used was a bit leaner, and I bumped up the health quotient further by swapping no-transfat, good HDL "buttery spread" for the real stuff and 2 percent milk for whole milk.

Bread Machine Challah
makes 1 1/2 pound loaf or two 3/4 pound loaves
3/4 cup milk, scalded (I do this in the microwave) and allowed to cool to lukewarn
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons butter/margarine
3 cups bread flour
1/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast

Glaze, if baking in oven: 1 egg beaten with a tablespoon or so of water

Add ingredients into bread machine pan in order recommended by the manufacturer. Process for white bread, Light setting. OR...process on Dough setting; punch down; remove from bread machine pan, knead -- adding flour if necessary -- and divide into halves; then divide each half into thirds. Roll each third between hands until it forms a rope; try to make lengths equivalent. Pinch ropes together firmly at one end braid; pinch other ends together firmly and fold both ends of braid underneath. Place braids in greased pans; push down gently to fill corner spaces; cover and let rise until at least doubled in bulk.

Heat oven to 400 degrees (375 if using glass pans). When loaves are sufficiently risen, brush with egg glaze. (Glazed loaves can be sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds if you choose.) Place bread in oven; immediately turn down heat to 350 degrees (325 for glass pans). Bake for approximately 1 hour, or until loaves are browned and sound hollow when tapped. Immediately remove from pans and cool.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Where's the Beef (in Smaller Quantities)?

One of the problems for small households like ours when it comes to buying meat directly from farmers is the issue of quantity: Farmers can't legally sell meat by the cut without opening their own meat processing businesses or jumping through other bureaucratic hoops in order to have their meat processed and packaged to government specifications. Most of them can only legally sell by the full, half or quarter animal.

We don't have the freezer space to accomodate this much beef or pork -- nor do we necessarily want all the cuts of meat from a particular section of the animal.

Graham's Organics is one local purveyor of beef by the cut. K&J Feeds in Farwell is another. And now we've found another source for local beef and pork that doesn't necessitate purchasing most of the critter: Hensler's Country Market, just east of the MBS Airport on Freeland Road.

Hensler's is a small farmstead store selling freezer beef in both large and small quantities, and a small amount of pork sausage in various varieties. It also sells a limited amount of non-local chicken and an assortment of country-themed packaged foods (including Rosie's Roasters soynuts from Ann Arbor) and handcrafts.

One interesting feature of Hensler's meat case is the variety meats; on the day we visited there was both tongue and heart in stock. (I am not a fan of tongue, but I do enjoy beef heart made German style, sweet and sour -- and like tongue, heart can also make good sandwich meat.)

We enjoyed our visit here -- and meeting the farmers and food artisans is as much a part of the pleasure of eating local as the food itself. So if you're near MBS, do check out Hensler's, 7520 Freeland Road -- look for the red barn and the sign by the road.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

You Have the Right to Remain Full...

Here is a great foodie story from the next county over. Thanks to Clare City police, a downtown Clare landmark bakery is not only surviving but thriving in tough times. If you're planning on visiting the "Gateway to the North," take the time to venture off Burger Row and purchase a doughnut from Cops & Doughnuts.

Soup is Good Food

It was a rather dreary, drizzly day today, so even though it's slouching toward the middle of July I made a big pot of chicken noodle soup.

The noodles were delightfully fine, airy homemade egg noodles we found on an evening adventure trip into Clare County -- a small roadside stand on the east, unpaved end of Surrey Road. (This farm also offered canned pickled beets and "pork and beans" -- actually a homemade beanie-weenie mixture of navy beans and sliced hot dogs -- both of which we've eaten and declared very good.) The chicken came from the Gingerich family, also of Clare County. And thanks to a burgeoning herb garden, I was able to use fresh-from-the-backyard seasoning.

I've said it's worth it to take a meander off the freeway into the farmlands of the state and see what direct farmer-to-consumer products are out there. Even if you don't find anything at first, you've given yourself permission to have a pleasant excursion into the countryside. And if you do find may be something worth coming back for again.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Strawberry Fields Forever?

Evidently not here in my county.

Today we were looking for strawberries; lots of strawberries; about 12 quarts, to be exact, mostly for freezing.

I knew of one small you-pick operation near the Midland County line, but we didn't have time to pick our own. After a fruitless (pardon the pun) Internet search of strawberry growers in our area we settled on buying ours from Buckeye Market, a venerable produce grower/seller east of Gladwin; while they don't grow their own strawberries, they do sell Michigan berries, and they have a local reputation for quality.

When we got to the store, we found lots of summer people provisioning for the long weekend...but no strawberries. A shipment from Traverse City was due to arrive at noon, I was told. I left my number and asked for a call when the berries were in.

We ran some errands in town, then came back around noon just to see if we could meet the truck. The truck was running late. Customers were beginning to loiter in the store, waiting. The counter people told them that they might have to wait an hour or more for the new shipment. Some disappointed shoppers left, while others hovered around the produce cases.

I decided to hold my ground, inside the store and finally a worker emerged from the warehouse with a box of berries. With the determination of a fashionista at a department-store bargain-basement sale, I grabbed my dozen baskets as soon as I could, as tourists glared at me. I emerged from the store with a big smile on my face and a Tiger Woods air-punch of victory.

En route home we stopped at an Amish roadside farm stand west of town, just south of the M-61/Bard Road intersection; we often buy produce and pies here. The family did not disappoint this weekend -- I snagged lovely raspberry and strawberry-rhubarb pies to take to Ann Arbor in a couple days when we visit The Kids. But when another customer inquired if there were any fresh strawberries for sale, the woman at the stand sadly shook her head.

Later we had occasion to talk to the Buckeye people again. They said they were pretty sure they'd sell out of strawberries by sunset.

What all this is telling me is that Gladwin County and surrounds could sure use a strawberry farm with a ready-picked option. I know there are numerous barriers to such an enterprise; but I'm just sayin'.