Mocksgiving Prep: version 18

This is the 18th time I’ve prepared to host my friends for the Mocksgiving meal. I’m perilously close to having had as many years of life with Mocksgiving as without it. Adam and I were married in August of 2000, and moved into a cute little apartment in Roslindale, which I saw for the first time in the 5 hour layover between returning from our wedding in Washington and leaving for our honeymoon in Greece. I worked from home that first year of married life, and I got really bored. Bored enough, it turns out, to try to learn how to cook. Adam’s family had lately been going to restaurants for Thanksgiving. I decided to give them the treat of a “real homecooked meal” instead… just as soon as I learned how to cook.

I was young, but I was no fool. So two weeks before Thanksgiving, I decided to give it a trial run. So I did a “mock” Thanksgiving. But I knew that two people couldn’t eat a turkey (not and repeat the performance a scant few weeks later!) so I invited some of our best friends (and all of our wedding party). That year 13 of us sat around a table and shared a meal and it was FANTASTIC. Also, that year, it just didn’t work out with the inlaws and Thanksgiving. We had such a good time that I repeated the performance the next year. And the next. The Mocksgiving that was most likely to not happen was the one that happened a scant two and a half weeks after Thane was born. But that one happened too, although I barely remember it.

Just as a caveat, I always feel somewhat self-conscious about Mocksgiving. We have long since hit the physical limit of how many people it’s possible to invite. I can say with relative confidence that no more than 30 adults can be seated simultaneously. Even though my circle of friends and welcome faces has continued to grow, my dining room as not. So I cannot invite many people I would wish to invite. If you’re feeling a little wistful about not being able to come, I likely feel a little wistful about not being able to invite you. Please don’t use this as a litmus test of friendship!

Anyway, one of the things about this particular day in my year is that I always spend it talking to you in my head. I’m not sure why. I think there’s something about the continuity. On this day I practice skills and revive recipes that go back in time. My bread recipe, for example, is a simple one. But my mother used to make it as both a therapy for her aching carpal tunnel hands, and as our primary source of bread. My grandmother made it, and served it in neat slices at lunch. My great grandmother, sharp blue eyes and wry smile, made it before her. I can see generations of capable hands making the same mysterious, practiced gestures. As my hands gnarl out of their childish softness, long having left maiden behind and well into matron (on my way to crone), I see the hands of my maternal line. And these recipes are really throwbacks. Adam’s bread, which he makes year round and which is our “normal” bread, is a healthy, whole-wheat, no-knead recipe he’s improved over years. My bread bears all the hallmarks of the fifties – white flour, butter (or margarine, as the recipe calls for) and the Crisco which lays unused in every other recipe but my high holy day recipes.

So, with no further ado, here are the notes I’ve saved for you so far. I’ll likely continue to add as breaks in cooking allow!

Step 1: Get the kids out of the house

There’s pretty much never school on my prep day, due to Veteran’s Day. Mocksgiving and Veteran’s day almost always line up. I probably could do this with them home. It actually would probably be great if I taught them in this long line of heritage. But man, that sounds exhausting. I find it very relaxing and centering to just do this one thing – readying everything – on Mocksgiving day. This year I found out a few days too late that their regular afterschool and vacation program, the Boys and Girls Club, actually had an offering. Oh well, enjoy your LARP lads!

One of the great quests of Mocksgiving is the procurement of the turkey. It falls *right around* the time that stores start getting their fresh turkeys, or rather usually a day or two before. That’s what makes it exciting. I’ve noticed even the fresh turkeys tend to be rather frozenish for Mocksgiving. I went to Wegman’s first (figuring that any place that has an open bin of oyster mushrooms would have, you know, turkey). I was wrong, so then I went to Stop and Shop which had just gotten their shipment. I selected the largest turkey I could find, clocking in at 24 pounds. I once got an artesenal farm-raised, locally grown and ethically sourced turkey. It was terrible. It turns out that places like Butterball inject brine into the birds. I’m here to tell you that’s what makes them DELICIOUS. So I cheerfully buy Butterball turkeys and they always turn out amazing. Unfortunately this year, the Butterballs were all still frozen, so I went with an organic turkey that was marked as fresh. (Although is still rather suspiciously rock-like.) I trust that brine is organic, and I won’t miss out on any deliciousness due to upgrading.

My first task of tomorrow morning is almost always chiseling out the gizzards & neck of the frozen bird, while swearing that next year I’m going to find a turkey that is ACTUALLY not frozen, not one that just claims to not be frozen.

If June Cleaver played D&D

Aprons are most critical when you’re doing stuff that involves a lot of flour. Both making the bread and rolling out pies have this unfortunate tendency to enflour your midriff if you don’t wear an apron. So I wear an apron. I also have learned to seriously sequester my hair while baking.

Checking to see if the yeast is alive

The first step of my ancestral bread recipe is to make sure the yeast is alive. You add the sugar, salt, hot water and yeast and then go clean up the kitchen a bit. If you see this bubbling, your yeast is fine. If you don’t, you might as well stop now or you’ll get unleavened bread. This yeast was particularly vibrant.

Molten dough-flow

I actually really don’t like my KitchenAid mixer, which I know makes me weird. I miss my Sunbeam mixer, but I got one of the “after bankruptcy” models that was poorly manufactured. I find it hard to add ingredients with the KitchenAid, and I can never mix in enough flour. I have to finish off getting the flour in by hand on the kneading table. The dough is warm, and moves like a slow lava-flow. I think the kneading is one of the spots where you need to know what it “should” be like, and where practice makes a big difference. I added almost 3 cups of flour more than the recipe called for to get the bread to the right consistency.

The bread goes through three rises. It doubles in the bowl twice, and then it rises in the loaf pans. While the bread is rising, I clean up the kitchen and get started on the pie starter. I should’ve made it last night, but I was lazy.

Vegetarian pie starter

Once upon a time, I had a perfect pie starter made out of Crisco. Then Crisco took the trans fats out of their shortening. I’ve been complaining about this for like 5 years, and I may complain about it for the rest of my life. Anyway, they’ve improved the recipe, but I still find that the all Crisco recipe doesn’t taste as good as it used to. I really like working with a lard crust. It’s super forgiving. But it’s not vegetarian (which many of my guests are), and the taste also isn’t perfect. The mixed butter-Crisco crust is pretty hard to work (I use a vodka-water mix to help compensate), but has the best taste/flakiness quotient.

It’s possible I have strong pie crust opinions. By my reckoning, I’ve made about 200 pies in my life.

Big crumbs – increases the chance I’ll have to roll out the crust twice which makes it less flaky

I still hate cutting in shortening. I often make Adam do this, but he’s working and I didn’t delegate early enough. The crumb on this isn’t quite small enough (eg the shortening bits should be smaller), but I’m a little lazy and this is good enough for me to work with. Its in the freezer now, getting super cold so I can work it.

Second rise

As I mentioned, my yeast this time was super active. I think it cut nearly an hour off the regular rise time on the bread. (I’ve also learned on particularly cold days – like today – to prewarm my ceramic bowl by filling it with hot water.) This is the second rise on my dough.

Formed and ready for their last rise

My mom does a set of loaf-shaping activities I’ve never quite mastered. I suspect that if you plan on entering your bread in the State Fair they’re an important step. But so far no one at Mocksgiving has complained. I really like forming the loaves – you get to slap the bread with a satisfying “thwack!” that brings me back to being a little girl. I suspect there’s about a half cup of Crisco that ends up in the recipe, from how much I slather my hands with to make the forming possible.

Single crust for lemon meringue

Here’s another task I should’ve done last night – the lone crust for my favorite pie, lemon meringue. Fun fact: I can’t spell meringue. I’m now at the point in the day where I’m watching the clock about when I need to pick up the kids. I still have three pies + the most difficult pie filling to go before I can rest. Maybe four. I saved some rhubarb this summer and I’m pondering whether I can make a pie of it. (I always think about the “extra pie”. I never make the “extra pie”.)

Why a pastry cloth is a must

All the pie crust recipes I use are high-shortening and hard to work. There’s a few things I keep in mind: all ingredients must be COLD. Handle the dough as little as possible (an opposite from the lovingly worked bread dough). But I don’t know how you’d be able to get the crust in the pan if you used a board instead of a cloth. I fold it with the cloth. Sometimes with a particularly difficult roll, I’ll even drag it over on the cloth. Then I can gently unfold it. I still end up having to reroll after this step half the time.

No reroll this time – possibly because it got stuck and I already had to reroll. That makes it tougher but easier to work.

I usually make lemon meringue, blueberry from farmshare blueberries set aside over the summer, peach ditto, and two pecan pies (which are SO EASY compared to all the rest). I didn’t make peach pie this year because, um, I’m lazy. I was really busy when the peaches were in season. It’s a pity because peach pie is my favorite. My mom can make the dough actually round when she rolls it out. I can’t. Also, my edge-crinkling skills have improved, but they’re not up to her standards.

Lone pie crust

This pie crust gives me fits every year. It always schlumps on me, regardless of crust recipe. I’ve tried different pie pans. My mom pricks the bottom like three times. As you can see, no inch goes unpricked. There’s actually specific gadgets you can get for this, although I’ve never tried it. So I take that as validation my schlumping issue isn’t incompetence. This year it came out ok. My mom’s looks way better. It’ll taste great with lemon meringue in it though!

Meanwhile, the bread’s out of the oven just in time to put the crust in.

Baked bread – the sheen comes from the last use of Crisco in my Mocksgiving prep
First offering on the porch

I like how the bread and the wood of the porch are the same color. I keep all my baking on the porch because my cats are jerks. Ask me about the year that some feline stepped right in the middle of my pie and I had to eat it all by myself. Tragic. The lone crust goes in right after the bread comes out.

The schlump. This one is within acceptable tolerances, so I won’t try again.

It’s amazing how interrupting it is picking up the boys. An hour gone, with nothing in the oven! Dark is falling, and I’m not nearly done! I came back and got started on the two pecan pies. The kitchen is a major disaster area – once I get the blueberry prepped I’ll need to clean it again. Then the last pie of the day is my lemon meringue. I should probably make that before I clean up, but I’ll need the mixer bowl cleaned.

I’m pretty sure there’s other stuff I should be doing too, but I’m momentarily forgetting it.

Pecan pie – sometimes I just dump the pecans in. Sometimes I carefully arrange them. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter.
Two pecan pies

I should really make just over 3 pecan pies in Pi plates for perfect geekery. I tried to trace a pie in pecans on one of them, but I think you’d have to be staring pretty hard to make it out.

I’m starting to flag, energy wise. Now’s the hard part.

5:30 pm –
It occurs to me I should’ve been time stamping this all along. Sorry.

Luscious farm share blueberries

I’m in the home stretch now. The blueberry pie is in the oven. The pecan pies are cooling. I still need to make the lemon meringue filler before I collapse, but that’s not so bad. It could also THEORETICALLY happen tomorrow, but that’s not a good idea. I also made a sad discovery with regard to one of my favorite pie plates. It was a gift from a friend, oh, ten years ago. It’s my “go to” for blueberry pies. Lately it’s been a little porous and leaky. But it has now developed a fatal crack. Farewell favorite pie plate. Sniff sniff.

The crack doesn’t look that bad until you look closely

On the plus side, the pecan pies are looking excellent.

You can see the bubbling

8:51 pm –
It’s done. The last pie has come out of the oven. The meringue came out very nicely this time! I could eat that filling by the spoonful. I’m a little nervous about putting on the porch. The temperature out there is currently 34 degrees, and I don’t think the meringue should freeze. There’s no room in the fridge (I moved the turkey from the front porch to the fridge, because the front porch was too cold to help thaw it). So that leaves the oven. (It doesn’t need to be chilled.) But the real question is … will I remember to remove the pie before I preheat the oven for the turkey?

Tomorrow morning – turkey, stuffing, potatoes & butternut squash! And table settings, cleaning house, and other preparing.

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Brenda’s Bruvarian Brew

My most genius Christmas request ever was the time I asked Adam for sourdough starter for Christmas. He got the starter, read all the materials for getting it started, and stealthily started it in the fridge. He presented it to me on Christmas morning, as it was nearing time for use. I expressed my excitement and gratitude! But it needed to get used, and I showed no sign of getting up to make bread… so Adam made some sourdough bread. He kept feeding the sourdough and making delicious baked goods, periodically reminding me that hey! This was ready whenever I was! I kept nodding and saying I was thinking of doing something with it tomorrow. Or maybe the day after.

Basically, I got months of delicious sourdough baking with zero effort, before he figured me out. It was brilliant.

Beer kits – high hopes!

This year for Christmas, I asked for a beer brewing kit. The yeast arts are amazing ones to me. The similarities between bread and beer are striking. They’re the staffs upon which civilization was founded. And hey! Adam has a degree is biochemistry, so this is gonna work out great, right?

Over Christmas, I brewed the first kit. It was a teeny one gallon kit, perfect for a trial run. I read through the book. I watched a Youtube how to video. I cleaned the kitchen and read through all the various steps multiple times, lining up my tools like a surgeon.

The finished product

Over and over again, all the materials stress the dire need for excellent dishes doing. Everything has to be super clean. Very sterile. Completely squeaky clean. I assiduously did the dishes and contemplated how fun a hobby must be in order to be worth doing this many dishes for. I wrestled with the auto-siphon and stared at my destroyed kitchen and thought “This beer better taste good.” Six bottles were all that labor produced. I doled them out to my friends.

“Not bad! I hardly any of that banana taste homebrew usually has. This is actually drinkable!”

Hours of labor. Massive dishes. Incredible expense. All to create something I could buy a better version of for a fraction of the cost. Worst yet, Adam was on to me and wasn’t using his clean room technique to do all the work for me. Curses! Foiled again!

Dishes, testosterone style

Still, I had gotten a second kit – a five gallon one. A neighbor gave me their gear (missing one or two bobs and bits). It included this neato cooling kit that you hook up to your faucet, except we didn’t have that connector. Adam spent about 2 hours going to many hardware stores, coming home with about 7 connectors. None of them worked. D’oh!

Adam was sad his plumbing connectors did not connect correctly

As I brewed the gigantic pot of mash, I thought of my alewife ancestors. If brewing required this much cleanliness, how did they pull it off with pottery instead of stainless steel, creek water and dirty hands? Was ancient beer just really bad? Were there tricks I don’t know about? Did they have extra potent yeast? The mind boggled.

Ewww, gross

I managed to get the beer into the carboy without any major sanitation fails. It pretty much exploded in my closet. (I guess that yeast was really active?!) Then it was “add sugar and move to bottle” time. This apparently includes moving the beer from the carboy to a bucket with a hole in the bottom (at which step you add the sugar that creates carbonation) followed by putting it into the bottles from there.

Recreational kitchen trashing

I had elaborate schemes for moving everything, while keeping everything perfectly sanitary. But then the auto-siphon wasn’t long enough to reach all the way into the carboy and disasters occurred with the sterile environment. Worse yet, at one point the bung came out of the bottom of the bucket and the entire floor was awash in uncarbonated beer. There were many bad words spoken.

Finally, we got the beer into the bottles. It’s about a case an a half. If you take into account what my time is worth, each bottle has to cost about $20. I have no idea if it will even be drinkable.

Finished product

I do not think this is my new favorite hobby.

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing

This has been a hard week for me, and for people I love. For example, I have a dearly loved family member who is transgender and gets life-saving medication with their coverage through the ACA. For them, the current president-elect is an existential threat to their life. And other than my support, I don’t know how to help.

I find that one of my usual consolations – my friends on social media – is full of pain. And I need solace, and to remember the good things in the world.

I'm proud of my church for working to do good in the world!
I’m proud of my church for working to do good in the world!

One of those good things is coming tomorrow! The seventeenth (I think) annual Mocksgiving is tomorrow! I took today off work to bake (and tend to my schooless Thane – Grey is at a church field trip to the Heifer Farm.)

Anyway, I always miss “you guys” on Mocksgiving prep day. I talk to you a lot in my head – but this day especially. As a complete distraction from weightier concerns, I’m going to live-blog my prep for the 31 adults and 20 children who will come to my house in fellowship to be served tomorrow.

Stuffed Squash (with opportunities for garlic, butter, bacon & cheese)
This is a new recipe to Mocksgiving. Part of being a CSA member is defensive recipe gathering. I found this one last year, and blessed my lucky stars!

Recipe & project plan
Recipe & project plan

My cooking got an early start this morning because I had to drop Grey off for church. I’m not a morning person. Usually I’d start my day off at like 9 or 10. I started this one at the appalling hour of 7. (Shudders). I have a complex schedule today, mostly because this is the only time in a one month period I can actually get my hair cut, so I need to get a bunch done before the haircut, but nothing that needs tending between noon and two. So I usually start with bread, but not today.

Instead, I began with the squash. My plan is to adjust the recipe to twice-bake the squash instead. I baked it with butter and garlic. I’ll wait for it to cool completely then prepare the filling. (Mmmmmm bacon…. although I’ll probably make one vegetarian instead.) Then I’ll stick it back in the oven to warm tomorrow while the turkey is resting. It should be noted that pretty much all my cooking prep during Mocksgiving relies on an enclosed porch and cold overnight temperatures to double as a poor person’s ‘fridge.

Pies
Squash cooking, I turned my hand towards pies. Now I am caught on the horns of a pie dilemma. I have three different pie crust recipes at my disposal:

Butter & Vodka
This has been popular lately. It has the advantage of reducing the water content of the pastry (the vodka burns off). It tasted pretty good. It’s reasonably flaky. It’s a pain in the butt to make the starter for. And it’s moderately finicky to work with. Basically – I use this recipe when I have to but it’s my last choice.

Lard
This stuff is like a dream. It’s super easy to work with. It’s delicious. It’s flaky. It is the ideal, ultimate pie shortening. It’s also, um, not vegetarian. Not even a little. Nor is it friendly for anyone with religious based dietary restraints. (See also: bacon). So if I’m making pies for my own consumption, I’ll use this 100% of the time. But by my count I have five vegetarians coming tomorrow, and stealthmeats in dessert is a cruel thing to do. So lard is right out.

Crisco
For many years, this was the only way I made piecrusts, using the recipe my great-grandmother had made before me. It’s a very “short” recipe (high shortening to flour ratio) making it extremely flakey and light. Then Crisco took transfats out of its recipe. I spent a few Piemases and Mocksgivings in tears, trying to understand why the pie crust I’d used for literally a hundred pies couldn’t be worked. It took me a while to figure out the correlation.

But when I went home this summer, my mom said Crisco had changed their recipe again and it was working for her. This is the idea compromise between vegetarian and pain-in-the-rearness. So I’m going to try Crisco again and see how it goes.

First up, pecan pie
First up, pecan pie

2 pm Update
Well, I got my hairs cut. They are now shorter. Mission accomplished.

My pie plate collection. Many of my standard pies have standard pie plates they get made in every year.
My pie plate collection. Many of my standard pies have standard pie plates they get made in every year.

I’ve been cooking pretty much all day. This is the depressing part. Here’s where we are…

Completed:
1 Pecan Pie (I sometimes make two)

In progress:
Twice baked squash (need to mash up the insides and add bacon and cheese)
Lemon meringue pie (fun fact – I always misspell meringue as merangue) – crust made
Bread – dough kneaded and set to first rise

Not yet started and needs to be finished today:
Blueberry pie
Monkey bread if I decide to do it. (Votes? Do y’all want me to try it, or should I use that time for “cleaning” or “sleeping”?

Lemon meringue crust - came out ok. I had to roll it twice and it was really brittle
Lemon meringue crust – came out ok. I had to roll it twice and it was really brittle

Premium pecan placer
Premium pecan placer

A mere hour or so later, I’m in a much better spot. The bread is on the second rise. The blueberry pie is about 5 minutes from done. Before cleaning up the pie stuff, I decided to make another pie. For most pies, the crust is the hardest part. My blueberry pies, for example, are made during the year when Farmer Dave brings me blueberries and kept in the freezer until pie time comes. I tried increasing the water in the starter and it’s handling much better now. I think there’s so much shortening in it, that it looks wet enough when it’s not. So that’s good!

So my bonus pie is a raspberry apple pie. I had raspberries in the freezer from this summer’s haul (not enough to make a batch of jam from alas). And this is the time of year where apples are inescapable. So we’ll see if it’s any good. No huge loss if it’s not.

The lemon meringue is left to be done. It’s the exception to the above “the filling is the easy part” rule. I have the crust ready to be filled and it didn’t shlump too much. Lemon meringue is my favorite.

I remember when I was a kid I used to be appalled at my mom’s lack of creativity in creating pie vents. Here was this amazing decoration opportunity and she just cut slits! Such lack of imagination.

Of course, now I find myself staring down a blank pie crust and wondering if slits are just traditional. I usually inscribe a pi symbol that looks like a smiley face if you see it upside down!

Time to clean up!
Time to clean up!

Well, the kitchen’s a disaster and my back hurts, but everything has been done but the lemon meringue filling. (Guess what the most pain in the rear thing is?) I’ll pull the bread in about 10 minutes. I got the squashes stuffed. I have three completed pies.

It seems patently unfair that this is the time where I need to ask that age old question… what am I going to serve my family for dinner?

Butternut or acorn, bacon or vegetarian, asiago or gruyere
Butternut or acorn, bacon or vegetarian, asiago or gruyere

You’ll be happy to hear the meringue has been meringued. It didn’t set right. I suspect some of the flour on the beaters from the bread fell in and messed up the set. I couldn’t bring myself to remake it. It will still be delicious!

I always feel sneaky when making lemon meringue pie. The yellow doesn’t come from the lemons – it comes from the egg yolks.

The yellow things in lemon meringue pie
The yellow things in lemon meringue pie

In other news, Civilization 6 has civ called Congo, and Congo has Mbuji-Mayi in it. This is a city that is famous in my family history – it’s where the language school my parents attended to learn Tshiluba is – but I’ve never seen a reference to it in any material. Ever. But it’s in this video game.

Mbuji-Mayi
Mbuji-Mayi

Pantry Challenge: Week 1 Report

So we’re just about at the 1 week mark of the Pantry Challenge. So far, I’ve run out of bananas and am perilously short on ice cream.

I expected the first week to being something of a non-event, since I buy groceries weekly. But I learned something after all. (That’s the point of an experiment like this, right?) We eat out or get takeout more often than I realized. It was hard going a full week with (almost) all the food we ate being food I made. Usually there’s pizza (or fast food) on Mondays for Library Pizza night. And then maybe sometime mid week we’d go out to eat. There’s walking to get ice cream at the Dairy Dome, a cappuccino at Kushala Sip… many small purchases over the course of the week. But not this week.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I ended up getting a coffee at Kushala Sip, but I paid for it out of my own allowance. And Adam asked for and got some Five Guys fries which I again paid for out of my allowance. But he’s recovering from a minor surgery and it seemed like it was only the right thing to do to get the poor guy some fries.

It will be interesting to see what genre of food I run out of first. I thought a lot about all the different kinds of dinners I can make, but I suspect that lunch-making materials will actually run out first. I have these thoughts of baking snacks instead, but the kids have a poor track record of eating the moderately healthy things I could bake. Breakfasts might also run out first, but Adam’s bread toasted makes an amazing breakfast, and we have enough ingredients to make that for the full run of the month, even if we eat a lot more than usual.

So here’s what we ate for dinner this week. Just as a reminder, you can follow all the fun during at The Pantry Challenge site! I am not sure I’ll post regular updates here (because I suspect they’re boring).

Monday –
Last Peapod order arrived! Last restaurant trip made on the way back from camping. I meant to take a picture of all the crazy bags scattered across the kitchen floor, but we were in the middle of a board game, so I didn’t.

Tuesday –

Taco day!
Taco day!

Mostly compliant with tacos to use a box stuffed in the back of the cupboard plus perishable veggies. After everyone pointed out it wasn’t June yet, we got one last round of ice creams. Mine is always a twist cone dipped in chocolate.

Dairy Dome twist cone
Dairy Dome twist cone

Adam also baked a batch of scones for his coworkers, several of which didn’t quite make it to work. That led to our first (and so far only) from-budget purchase. He got a pint of heavy cream, sultana (golden) raisins, lemonade, a cumcumber and a lime.

From the Empress Hotel recipe
From the Empress Hotel recipe

Wednesday –
On Wednesdays we often host a number of our friends for gaming. I have thought a lot about how I can feed 10 people a nice meal on this restrictive budget. I think if I plan ahead, I can do it. But it definitely takes forethought. This Wednesday’s meal was sponsored by the color beige. Chicken pot pie is a fan favorite and was spectacular as usual. Adam’s home made bread will be a staple of our penury – he makes it every week and it never gets undelicious. (We have enough peanut butter and home made jam to last far more than a month!) Then we had the scones from Tuesday for dessert. So much delicious beige…

Pot pie and bread
Pot pie and bread

Thursday –
Fried rice is a farm share staple for me, and plays an important role in my standard cooking repertoire. See, you buy a rotisserie chicken (which can often be as inexpensive as $5 if you catch it on a sale night). You strip it and use the meat in fried rice (often along with the “what the heck do I do with this” vegetables from your farm share). Then you take the remnants of the carcass and pressure cook them (along with more random vegetables) to make chicken stock. A tremendous number of my recipes rely on a constant, large supply of homemade chicken broth, so I do this pretty often.

Dietary staple
Dietary staple

Friday –
Pizza night. Honestly, it wasn’t as good as the violet pizza I made last time we had homemade pizza! But it was still pretty darn good.

Pizza - store bought dough. We can make our own though.
Pizza – store bought dough. We can make our own though.

Saturday –
I used this amazing technique called “get invited over to a friend’s house and eat their delicious food”. Like most of the techniques I’m using to not spend money on food, this is probably harder if you live in an impoverished community. But man, it was tasty.

This whole plate was delicious
This whole plate was delicious

Sunday –
I make chili (and cornbread) very often on Sundays. Maybe even as often as every other Sunday. The rest of the family eats leftovers for lunches. (My company provides lunches for us, which is an amazing perk.) Chili makes premium leftovers for lunches, and we all love it. I’m thinking that I’ll run out of ground turkey (which we use instead of ground beef) first of my dinner ingredients. It’s used in a ton of my recipes.

The color filter is off in this picture - too yellow
The color filter is off in this picture – too yellow
Company lunch. No complaints.
Company lunch. No complaints.

Chicory and jewelweed

So, my life is pretty much pandemonium right now. Word just came that our pastor died on Friday. I just got back from a 9 day tour of California that started with my grandmother’s funeral and ended with a work conference. Piemas is happening this coming weekend. I have international travel planned the week after Piemas. My husband is traveling for a week in there. Holy Week hits then, with the church services and trumpeting. I have a great candidate (Anthony Wilson) running for Stoneham Town Selectman whom I’d really like to support. And to top it all off, Grey has a three month research project due on Beethoven – which is brilliant teaching but requires real work to be done at home. I need to finish the final report on the Mission Study Taskforce (maybe Grey and I can work on our reports together?) And I promised the Historical Commission I’d kick off a project to get some signs for Nobility Hill “at the beginning of the new year” (a time quickly passing).

I swamped!

So what does a Brenda do when she’s swamped?

Time for some good old-fashioned escapist daydreams.

Chicory - helping solve the "no coffee if you're lost in the woods" problem
Chicory – helping solve the “no coffee if you’re lost in the woods” problem

I’d love to hear what your favorite daydreams are and were. But a preferred genre of mine is the frontierswoman/forager fantasy. I read “My Side of the Mountain” at a tender age, shortly after having read the extremely influential “Nya Nuki: Shoshone Girl Who Ran“. Both of these books include children whose ingenuity in living off the land and foraging offered a kind of independence – not just from grownups, but from civilization itself. I desperately wanted to be the sort of girl who could safely skin a porcupine, or tan my own leather clothing in an oak stump. I even (oh bliss!) lived in the middle of the woods. Real woods. The kind of woods where if you got lost you were in deep trouble. Woods that had deer and bear and cougars. (I actually saw a cougar in person once only a few miles from my home. Memorable.)

Surely with a hatchet, all the information I’d gleaned from many re-readings of both books (plus Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe and several of the other classics – this was actually before “Hatchet”) I’d be all set to live off the land. I was pretty happy and had no desire to run away from home, but I planned out how I could make it work with my extensive skills if needed.

My favorite northwest trail snack
My favorite northwest trail snack

Only one problem – I had no skills. Sure, I knew the uses of a handful of plants. Wood sorrel is extremely tasty and I still often grab a few when I’m wandering in the woods (happily I didn’t eat enough to discover that overconsumption can lead to kidney stones). There’s an abundant plant in the Cascades called Vanilla Leaf that smells great. I was unaware of its insect repelling properties, but had sachets of it tied in my closet for years. (I’ll probably gather another one this year!) I knew to rub the immature heads of fiddles on my nettle stings (somehow I managed to encounter either nettles or blackberries almost every time I went into the woods). The blackberries of the west are so prolific and numerous that it’s hard to imagine anyone going hungry in August from their sheer abundance. I enjoyed a huckleberry from an old stump as much as the next girl.

But that was about it. I never fished. I never hunted. And I didn’t have any other plants in my repertoire. I would’ve gotten hungry right fast. And I could never find a book that taught me what I wanted to know…

Mountain bog gentian. Mom and I had been looking for this for years!
Mountain bog gentian. Mom and I had been looking for this for years!

I tried various things during my life to remedy this. I looked for books on plants at the library. They were all arcane and above my head and didn’t have nearly enough pictures. I tried to take a class on Ethnobotany in college. They denied me. Something about “300 level botany class” and “your only science course was Chemistry for English Majors”. Mom and I had a precious book of flowers we took with us backpacking and managed to bag almost all of them, except the Mountain Bog Gentian (above) which took me nearly 20 years.

But I was no nearer my goal of wilderness sustenance. I’d read “survivalist” books while camping, but so many of them are long on concept and short on the sort of detail you want before you put a wild plant in your mouth.

Then, the other day I was in Barnes and Noble with a $20 gift certificate ALL FOR ME. I wandered through the shelves of this actual physical book store. And I came across Northeast Foraging, by Leda Meredith.

Northeast Foraging

Folks, this is the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It has great, clear pictures. It has instructions on when to find this stuff, and where. It tells you how to use the parts that are useful. It helpfully informs you about risks or dangers or poisonous lookalikes. It even tells you if the plant is endangered or not. (My favorite lines come from some of the more invasive plants. She says about sustainably harvesting japanese knotweed “You’re joking right? … I guarantee that despite your most ambitious collecting, it will survive. Harvest at will.”

You know Japanese knotweed, whether or not you realize it
You know Japanese knotweed, whether or not you realize it

I’ve been reading about a few plants every night, and it’s awesome. In the pages of this book, I’ve met many old friends whose names I never knew. I used to play with plantain on the playground (man, I would have LOVED to have known uses for it back then!) I first met chicory the first summer I actually spent in New England and have long admired it from the car window. There’s a mulberry tree on the walk to Lindenwood which I now intend to raid this fall. I’ve seen the odd-looking stands of mayapples and the spring-loaded seed-pods of jewelweed provided me with many a happy moment of lightly touching them to make them go SPROING! But I never knew their names, or uses. It’s such a pleasure to finally come to know a friend you’ve known by sight for a long time.

There are some that are theoretically common which I’ve never seen. Perhaps I’m too north in the range. (Thinking of you, paw-paws!)

But now, in the midst of this tumultuous period, I go to sleep thinking of the old friends, the past walks, and the future adventures I’ll have trying to find and eat some of these.

What do you like to daydream of? Which daydreams did you have as a kid that you’ve sadly lost in grownuphood? (Or did they evolve?)