Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stuffed with Tradition

Mrs. Bomblatt’s Way

Mrs. Bomblatt woke calmly to the scent of sage and with no undue expectations nor worries. The big turkey, she began to remember, with her eyes not yet open, was crammed into the cooler on the porch, the big wooden bowl was full of bread cubes that had been tossed with the rendered suet, and onions that had been melted in the suet for a long, long time, as well as torn fresh sage and the Thanksgiving seasoning. How many years had she been using that same little yellow box of seasoning? A quart of oysters sat in the fridge awaiting her decision: She did not want to use saltines – which were mainly awfully unhealthy though tasty white stuff – to scallop them, though that was traditional, and she had not bought saltines for the occasion, was rethinking the technique.

The turkey broth from the neck and giblets rested in the pan on the porch counter. Mrs. Bomblatt hoped that it had gotten cold last night, but then she had grown up with chancy food temperatures and never gotten sick from them nor, to her knowledge, had anyone else. Just another way to make us fear our food, she thought with finicky irritation.

Mrs. Bomblatt rose from bed and paused at the window. The mountains were rusted brillo pads, the sky seventy-nine shades of gray that contained every other shade in the palette watered down to almost nothing. It looked to be your average gloriously restrained Thanksgiving day.

Arriving in the kitchen Mrs. Bomblatt was met by more shades. “I don’t know when you think you’re going to get that bird in the oven, Kid,” admonished her grandmother, “lying slugabed so late!” Her mother tossed her head and languidly sipped coffee. Father dipped the newspaper and winked at her over its top, and Grandpa held a bloody axe in his gnarled hand while a headless turkey scrambled under the table. Her aunt hovered near the refrigerator door just itching to start the oysters. Mrs. Bomblatt smiled to herself and began to grind the coffee beans. It never failed, they all came back on Thanksgiving day as on no other.

Mrs. Bomblatt turned from the shades and toward the telephone. She would call her daughter, she decided, to see how the instructions she had given her the day before had worked out. But with her hand on the receiver she checked herself, the recollection of the two hour time difference and Lizzy’s sleeping habits rising through the Thanksgiving haze in her head. She withdrew her hand. She would wait an hour or two, and in the meantime figure out what to do with those oysters. Stew would not do, nor raw, since there were no half shells. Something puddeny, slightly bready, something like scalloped but without those awful white crackers.

Her mind wandered to Lizzy, making Thanksgiving dinner in her own kitchen out there in that god-forsaken place.


“Mum, I know I’ve made stuffing with you every Thanksgiving since I was born,” she’d called to say yesterday, “but I can’t remember the fine points.”

“You know you’ve got to find some suet,” Mrs. Bomblatt had said sharply, fearing her daughter’s Thanksgiving hopes would come to naught without it. It was Wednesday afternoon and Lizzie did not yet know what ingredients she needed? How mobbed the grocery stores would be? Mrs. Bomblatt calmed herself. She began to give the needed instructions. Lizzie could deal with the mobs herself.

“You’ll need suet,” she said, “about a pound of it – that’s beef fat, of course, and most grocery stores have it. And a loaf or two of a good substantial white bread – think something as close to Baba-a-Louis as possible. And,” she put down her own loaf of Baba-a-Louis and rummaged through the spice cabinet, “some... Bells Seasoning. And fresh sage. And two or three large onions. Are you writing this down?”

“Got it, Mum.”

“All right. And if there’s something else you want in the dressing, like chestnuts, or sausage, or ... oysters, get them, too.

“Now, as soon as you get home take the bread and spread it out so it will dry a bit. Then take the giblets – don’t use the liver, just stew that in butter and eat it for lunch – and the neck, and any other trimmings of the turkey, put them into a saucepan and add about 6 cups of water. Bring that to a boil and then turn to a low simmer, add some salt and vinegar, maybe a teaspoon of each – vinegar and salt help pull the flavor from the bones into the water – cover, but tip the cover so steam can escape. Okay?”


“Okay, now you make the stuffing. Chop up the suet into a large flat-bottomed skillet over low heat and let it render the fat out. You’ll end up with little crispy things after an hour or two. Scoop them out and throw them away, as they aren’t very tasty. Try them, though, sprinkled with salt, just to prove me wrong.

“Slice 2 large onions thin and add to the melted suet and, over low heat, let them just melt, stirring occasionally and turning them over and about. They will become golden but don’t let them get dark. This will take about an hour. Let the onions cool a bit in the beef fat.

“In the meantime, tear the bread into half-inch sized chunks into a big bowl. Balance your weight on your two feet, pull in your stomach muscles and breathe deeply while doing this. You will have less stress on your back, and become less tired and irritable.”

Her yogic advice met with silence at the other end, Mrs. Bomblatt plowed on. “Strew the bread cubes with a handful of torn sage leaves and a tablespoon or so of Bells Seasoning. The kitchen will begin to fill with the scent of Thanksgiving, and thus the spirit, too. Toss this mixture with your hands several times while you’re rendering the suet and melting the onions. That will help them dry out a little bit more.

“When the suet has cooled enough not to fry the bread on contact, pour it and the onions over the bread cubes and toss until each cube is coated with fat and has onions to snuggle up against, which will scent the bread. You see, Lizzy, the waxiness of the suet on the bread prevents it from becoming soggy with the turkey juices and permeates it with flavor.

“Cover the bowl with dish towels and leave overnight. Cover the giblet broth and put it in the fridge or out on your porch, if you’ve got one. Do you have a porch in that godforsaken place you live in?” Mrs. Bomblatt asked her daughter delicately.

“Sure do!”

“By then, you’ve made your pies?”

“Yes, Mama Dear.”

“All right, then, go to bed. Sleep well.”

“Nighty night, Mum.”


The telephone rang. “Mum! The house smells heavenly, just like Thanksgiving!” said her daughter delightedly. “I almost imagine you’re here!”

Mrs. Bomblatt, thinking of her own shades, looked out the window onto the far-away brillo-pad peak and smiled undecidedly.

“But now what?” asked her daughter, “something about eggs...?”

Shaking herself back to the present, Mrs. Bomblatt set about the next operation. “When you’re ready to stuff the bird, pour several whisked eggs over the bread – maybe three to a loaf of bread – and more fresh sage, and toss that all up. Then you check it for taste and texture. It might need more sage, or salt, or even another egg. When it’s just right, add whatever is extra for this year – are you adding extras this year, Dear?”

“Nope. I want it just simple, like Grandma and Great Grandma did it, and you do it! I just need that taste,” she continued wistfully, “something to remind me that the Thanksgiving we’re having in this crummy kitchen stems from something tried and true. And delicious.” She turned brisk, “Now Mum! What about the gravy?”

“Dear, the main thing to remember is you’re going to want lots of gravy. So, when the turkey’s out of the oven, and you’ve wrestled him onto a big platter – you DO have a big platter, don’t you, Lizzy? – well, you can use a cookie sheet or... whatever! Cover him with tinfoil! Then put the roasting pan over a burner or two, and turn the heat to low, and scrape up the bits and pieces off the bottom. Put about a cup of flour into a jar with a lid and add some water and put the lid on the jar and shake it up until it’s smooth. Skim the giblets and neck and stuff out of the broth. Toss the neck, but chop up the giblets very finely and put them back into the broth.”

“Mum! Joe HATES giblets in gravy.”

“That’s why you chop them up so very finely, Lizzy. But, do as you like. Back to business!

“If you think there’s too much fat in the pan, pour some off. But there probably isn’t too much fat in the pan with turkeys bred as leanly as they are nowadays.” Mrs. Bomblatt’s tone was ever so slightly disapproving.

“Then pour in half of the flour slurry and stir until it thickens and browns a little bit. If it’s too dry add some of the broth. Keep adding the broth a ladle at a time, and if it gets too thin add some more of the flour slurry, until you’ve used all the broth and it’s the right thickness, then add some salt until it tastes right, and some pepper. Then cover it and keep it very hot. Be sure to simmer it long enough to cook the raw flour taste out. It’ll thicken, but you can always add a little water to thin it.”

“Oooo, Mum, I can’t wait! This is going to be a great Thanksgiving!”

Mrs. Bomblatt smiled through her damned tears.

But Lizzy spoke again. “You didn’t forget oysters, did you? Have you scalloped the oysters yet?”

“They’re sitting right there in the fridge,” said Mrs. Bomblatt, “But I don’t want to scallop them with those awful crackers. I’m trying to think of something different.”

“But it’s tradition,” Lizzy wailed. “Great Aunt and then Aunt and then I made them. You’ve got to keep up your end of it, Mum – just because I’m not there...!”

Mrs. Bomblatt sighed and reached for a pencil, thinking that tradition could be carried a bit far. “Let me just jot down the recipe then, Dear.”


Mrs. Bomblatt was stuffing the bird when Mr. Bomblatt walked into the kitchen. “Anything I can do to help,” he announced confidently, knowing there would be nothing required of him. But he was to be disappointed, as “Yes, as a matter of fact,” said Mrs. Bomblatt, bent directly over the gaping crotch of the turkey, “If you wouldn’t mind, you could try to find a store that’s open and see if they have saltines.”

There was a flurry of movement in the corner of the kitchen, but when Mr. Bomblatt tore his dejected eyes from his wife, there was nothing more than shadows to be seen, but shadows from which emanated a distinct aura of intense satisfaction.

this twice bitten column was published in the Rutland (vt) Herald November 20, 2007

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Simmer Time

Stick season –compelling time of year! Leaves stripped off boughs to cover the ground in drifts of pale and rusty yellow, bereft limbs and bark shading from mauve to chocolate against a lavender sky, flowerheads mellowed to dull copper and steel, while grass remains brilliant in its green, like a ninety-year-old running the marathon. Brrrrr!! You know what comes next.

But if you’re honest with yourself there was that time in the second week of August that you looked at all the marauding green growth and longed ever so briefly for an early freeze. What you did not wish for was less light, shortened days with no evenings, and dawns that come long after the eye of the clock nudges you from sleep. Winters would be wonderful if their chill whiteness were to be lit by long days to urge us outdoors to do outdoor work.

Well dream on, my little chickadees! Because it is our cross to bear, and how do we bear it? We gather inside and begin again to enjoy quiet and long-lasting processes, performing warm and comfy and indoor tasks, like cooking, at least once in a blue moon.

...the long and the slow of it...

Instead of tossing halved tomatoes and peaches on the grill towards the end of chicken roasting or steak grilling – while the sun still blazes but the clock shows nearly half past seven – and going about our gardening business in-between, now it’s barely mid-afternoon when we put the lamb shanks in the big cast-iron pot to brown in olive or coconut oil, or lard, and while they’re doing that the kitchen gets those little attentions it’s needed since May when you abandoned it for the great outdoors, and the house begins to fill with the deep and appetizing smells of lamb.

When the shanks have browned they’re taken from the pot and a leek is shredded, garlic chopped, both added to the juices in the pan and briefly wilted; a frozen packet of sauce, made from last summer’s Pratico tomatoes, is added, and then a glug or two of red wine before the shanks are put back in, the pot covered tightly and put into a slow oven for two or three hours. What the heck, you’ve got the time!

I did this recently, and nestled the shanks on top of baby turnip greens from Boardman Hill Farm, that I curled on top of the leeks and garlic, then scattered the teensy turnips themselves on top of the shanks. I find my low oven – 200 degrees for four to six hours or 300 for two to three hours, who’s counting? – approximates all day in a slow-cooker. The shanks themselves were from South Freeport Maine’s Wolfe's Neck Farm.

I served them with a side of butternut squash a friend had given me, that I steamed and then mashed with lots of butter, a mere touch of maple syrup, and a bit of curry powder. I was angling towards a middle-eastern touch, however subtle, because that’s what lamb reminds me of. A friend had given me a bag of Trader Joe’s blend of Israeli style couscous, orzo, baby garbanzo beans, and red quinoa, and I soaked a cup of that in water for a couple hours before adding more water and simmering it for half an hour. On the plate, these three items were accompanied by home-made raw-milk yogurt, and Man, was that a splendid meal!

I know how precious that sounds, how spoiled I seem! Absolutely! Who has the time for this kind of food intensity? I must be nuts, right?

Well, this is the kind of meal that comes together over time, a little bit here and a little bit there, and then it all goes rather quickly. The browning of the lamb shanks and getting them into the oven or crockpot took about half an hour. If I remembered to soak the grains at the same time, that would take another three seconds. Finishing the whole thing up later in the day – cooking and mashing the squash, and simmering the grains – took another half an hour. The yogurt had been made for days. My point being – and because you’re reading this you probably already act on this conclusion – that if you keep a running food commentary in the back of your mind, making connections with this ingredient and that, you’ll be ready to construct a final product when the time is right.

The leftovers were fabulous. Next night I took the remaining lamb off the bone, chopped it up, put all the sauce and well-cooked veggies in the blender, buzzed it, thinned it out with more liquid – chicken broth, water, and more red wine – added a handful of small pasta, some leftover cannellini beans, the chopped meat, simmered, and had a great supper soup. Leftovers of that provided Leo a couple of lunches.

There are certain meats that benefit from that long and slow cooking. It’s tempting to think that they all do, but ‘t’aint so! I used to roast most meats, except for pot roasts and other tough, flavorful, gelatinous cuts, at a high heat – 425 degrees, at least – but lately, for the last several years, I’ve been roasting them slowly, not above 325 degrees. Congruently, I’ve bemoaned the lack of flavor in the pork roast or the chicken. Hmmm, as my grandmother said, “Too soon old, too late smart!”

I took a rather small Boardman Hill chicken – three and a half pounds, I think – and roasted it at 450 for about 15 minutes, then 425 for the better part of an hour – no seasonings except some butter smeared over it to hold the sprinkling of salt – and it was exceptional! I served it with brown rice that I had soaked for several hours before cooking slowly for about an hour, and cannellini beans that had also been soaked before cooking. I served this with an apricot/tomato chutney that I’d made for a Friends of the Library Eastern Indian dinner.

Next day I refried the beans in coconut oil and lard and made burritos with shredded chicken, the warmed up brown rice and refried beans, with added arugula from the garden, Salsa-From-the-Gut and cheese. Then I made a stock out of the chicken bones and – full circle – used it to stretch out the lamb soup I talked about.

...old wives’ tales...

Soaking grains for hours and days? Where does that come from? Well, this is a real change for me – I used to advocate NEVER soaking beans, unless they were so old they wouldn’t soften anyway. After all, they cooked just fine in an hour or two with lots of water, a bay leaf, and no salt until the last half hour, without soaking. It was an old wives’ tale, I said.

Well, yes, and what is wrong, anyway, with old wives’ tales? Are we assuming those old wives didn’t know what they were talking about? As it turns out, beans and grains, and for that matter seeds and nuts, are rendered much more digestible by soaking. Soaking triggers the sprouting process and deactivates the enzyme inhibitors, softens the action of phytic acid and breaks down tannins, complex sugars, gluten and other digestive stumbling blocks. As an added bonus the brown rice I’d soaked cooked up very nicely – none of the messy broken kernels I associate with the stuff.

I began to soak oatmeal overnight for breakfast and, “Yum, that oatmeal hit the spot,” said Leo the next morning. I told him it was simple, just soak a cup of organic oatmeal in a cup of water overnight, then add another cup of water and a pinch of salt and simmer it for about seven minutes the next morning.

“Or of course there’s instant,” he mused.

I looked at him sharply. He was grinning...

...passing it on...

The question this posits is: How do we – you and I – disseminate this hard-earned food-intuition to those who most need it, those harried and hard-working young people with families who need to be fed good food who simply don’t have the time? How to impart the importance of being jealous of their sources and guarding them against the encroachment of big business and intrusive government?

...above all, be sure it’s safe...

Couple weeks ago I picked up a gallon of apple cider and happened to read the label – “UV LIGHT TREATED” – it said. “Will,” I said to William Apple of Apple Orchards (names have been changed here TPTI), “What’s this all about?”

Will ran with that. It is, apparently, the long-ago fault of Clinton and Gore who, Will tells me, received money galore from big juice companies and then had to heed their demands. Then he handed me a homemade CD recording of a This American Life segment called “Ladies and Germs” and dated 10-02-98. I guess I’m not quite up to date.

Apparently in all the history of cider making there have been 4 instances of E Coli 0157:H7 found in cider. In 1996 a little girl died of Odwalla juice into which had been dumped a truckload or so of rotten juice composed of drops – apples that had dropped off the trees, apparently on to cow patties.

Buying industrial fruit juice (juice made by an enormous company, of juices from hundreds if not thousands of farmers that you do not know) is a far cry from buying apple cider from a local maker. Small cider makers use only ripe apples that have not dropped from the tree. The apples are washed before using, and the machinery used for crushing and catching the juice is also washed after using. And if you doubt it you can go to the orchard and see for yourself. Too, apple cider that has not been treated with heat (pasteurization) or UV light retains more vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.

Frank Browning, apple grower, cider maker, and author of Apples, was the narrator of the piece. He talked to a spokesman for the National Food Processors Association, which represents many of the world’s largest multi-national food conglomerates, who said, “Juice companies want to know ABOVE ALL that their product is safe. If there’s something effective that you know you can do, that would render the industry completely free of the charge of not being safe, that that would not be an issue anymore; if there is an existing technology there that can be applied and is widely being applied, we don’t really see a reason why you wouldn’t go ahead and acquire it.”

Will Apple could think of a reason, as could most small producers: his UV light apparatus cost him $18,000. Last year it was four years old and needed repairs that cost $1,000. On top of that there’s $500 a year for maintenance. But he got off comparatively cheaply, as pasteurization units cost $25,000 to $30,000.

And I could think of another reason, and that is that processed cider is another food that is being skeletonized – all its vitamins, minerals, trace-minerals degraded in the name of safety by big business, with no thought as to what is being destroyed. Our bodies, just like our brains, learn from experience; and if they don’t experience a myriad of bacteria they don’t learn how to deal with them. When a potentially harmful bacteria gets into a knowledgeable body the body knows what to do with it; when it gets into an innocent body it can wreak havoc.

This is a big impetus to eat local, to buy food from your neighbor farmer, and to support her when she’s faced with costly and unnecessary and only so-called improvements. When big business and intrusive government reaches down and throttles the last small farmer with a campaign of fear, what will we do? Where will we go to acquire our food? This becomes a personal freedom issue.

...this just in...

Like so many others’, my heart just swelled right up and tears came to my eyes on Saturday when I walked through the Co-op on Wales Street, through their new hallway (sheetrocked, taped, and mudded) into the old theatre where some thirty to 40 vendors displayed their bounteous and beautiful wares to a steady stream of patrons who arrived even before the opening ten o’clock hour and lingered, reluctant to leave, through the two o’clock closing.

It was the inaugural session of Rutland’s Winter Farmers’ Market, and it was only then that I realized what a miracle Greg Cox, of Boardman Hill Farm and RAFFL, whose dream it was, and who organized the whole thing, and the volunteers who cleaned and painted and pounded and swept, had accomplished! That cavernous old place, filled with music and chatter and food and good smells, was positively warm and intimate.

Some old faces from the outdoor summer Market were missing, but several new ones from points west – just over the New York line – and north from Orwell gave new meaning to the word “local”. There is rabbit, now, to round out our fresh meat needs (the Co-op is selling it now, too), and more free-range chicken, beef, and lamb. Two boys (twenty years old!) from Kilpatrick Family Farm in Middle Granville showed an incredible array of vegetables highlighted by a mountainous display of Brussels sprouts on the stem. “How do you stick all of those little cabbages on that log?” asked one customer with a grin. Nugget of information: Michael Kilpatrick told us he uses a small pruning chain saw to harvest the sprout stems.

When everyone had left, Greg splayed back against his stand and couldn’t quit smiling. “I’m going to sleep well tonight,” he sighed.

Ah, it was a happy day!

this column was originally published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on November 6, 2007