Memories on the Land

This is a blog post that I started months ago but never got around to finishing. As you will see, I was going through a mental rough patch. It’s the reason I stopped blogging, because for a while I felt like I didn’t have anything positive to say. And then life got in the way and I got busy (more on why I’m so busy soon) and I just didn’t think about blogging. Hopefully I’m back in the habit.

I haven’t blogged in quite a while. Things have been… kind of crazy and weird lately and I’ve not been able to get my thoughts in order to put anything down. Hopefully I’ll make some sense of a couple of things so I can talk about them but for right now I just want to be a little nostalgic.

Over on one of the forums I read, someone started a thread asking people to post pictures of themselves from their childhoods. It’s a great thread and people are having a lot of fun remembering and sharing. A lot of us realize that our desire to be self-sufficient and close to our food and the land can be traced to our childhood interactions with older people, usually grandparents and great-grandparents, who still embraced older ways of doing things.

This was certainly my experience and I wanted to share it. Mostly, I wanted to commit some of those memories to print so that if I ever start to forget why I’m doing some of these things I have something I can look to. So, this is basically a chronicle of my life on the land.

my mom and I

I was born on a farm in western Tennessee. Well, not ON the farm, but you know what I mean. The farm was owned by my great-grandparents and is where my father’s father had grown up. My parents had grown up in eastern Tennessee, where most of their family lived, but moved to west Tennessee when they got married (at 19) so my dad could run the place. This meant that the only family members I really spent time with when I was growing up were my great-grandparents and my farmer parents.

My great-grandparents with my parent’s at their wedding

My great-grandparents, Ladd and Allie May, had been subsistence share-croppers their whole lives. They struggled a lot but they always managed to make do. When my grandfather made it big as a lawyer, his first order of business was to buy the land his parents had been renting (and as much surrounding land as he could) and set them up for an easier life. But, for them, an easier life didn’t mean grocery stores and modern conveniences (although my grandmother became obsessed with collecting china dolls), it just meant that they didn’t have to worry whether there would be enough or they would lose the farm- there was always enough now.

My great-grandmother’s flour hopper

Growing up, I spent a part of most days with them. Mornings found me, and later my little sister, dodging angry hens while Grandmother collected eggs. She was a serious woman, but not stern, and the most excitable and funny we ever saw her was when she would find a hole in the chicken fence and evidence of a fox intruder. She would scream into the woods and threaten “that damn, infernal fox” with all kinds of horrible deaths if he didn’t leave her chickens alone. After putting the fear of God and an angry Southern woman into all foxes in the neighborhood, we would head into the house to start baking. This is my most indelible memory of Grandmother: the taste of flour in the air, the smell of biscuits rising in the oven, and the whirring arm of an 80-something little granny whipping egg whites and sugar at the speed of light to make the very best meringue I’ve ever eaten. She made those biscuits fresh every day. She made a pie from scratch most days of the week. She bought raw milk from a guy up the street and churned her own butter. She spent hours and hours “putting by” (canning and preserving). And she always took the time to show me how to do what she was doing.

Granddaddy worked a 2 acre garden, growing almost everything we ate, including lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, peas, potatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, zucchini, peppers, strawberries, grapes, watermelons, cantaloupe, and MUCH more. The back yard was full of tart apple trees, peach trees, pear trees, and fence rows full of wild blackberries. Even when money wasn’t a concern and he was getting on in age, he still gardened his whole plot. It was just in his genes. But his real passion was fishing. He’d take off on his four-wheeler (we’re talking a man in his 80s) with his poles and fish basket and disappear into the trees to his favorite fishing spot. He’d always be home just in time for Grandmother to pop those fish in the skillet and for all of us to sit down to dinner.

My dad brought animals home from the fields

My dad was in charge of all the big things going on around the farm. We raised beef cattle and pigs and grew corn and wheat. I was a serious daddy’s girl. During harvests, he spent so much time on the combine that I started going with him so we could spend time together. He kept a pillow and blanket in the little spot behind his seat and I would curl up back there and go to sleep. Dad was always bringing animals home for me to see. He brought home every dead poisonous snake he found so that I would know how to identify them. He even brought home fawns that he found in the fields.

The most exciting part of the year for me was hog killing time. I know that sounds like a gruesome thing for a little kid to love, but believe me, it was fantastic. It’s a community event with family and friends participating and, later, enjoy the fresh pork. When you kill a hog, it’s all hands on deck. There is a lot to do and time is of the essence. My dad and some of the other men would dispatch the hogs, which can be quite dangerous, and the rest of us would be at our battle stations. First, you have to gut it, but you can’t just go in there and start yanking things about. You want the entire contents of the body cavity to come out mostly intact. This keeps nasty things in the intestines, etc, from tainting the meat. Plus, there are lots of useful organs you don’t want to damage, such as the heart and livers and kidneys, which are yummy, and the intestines which are extremely handy later. Once gutted, the hog is parted up. Most of the cuts are then frozen for cooking throughout the year, but bacon and hams are immediately started in a brine (very salty water) or dry-packed in salt.

where pork cuts come from

The part that I loved was making sausage. Basically, you take all the little bits that don’t really add up to anything (the trimmings from steaks and bits from the shoulders and flanks) and run them through a grinder. We had a hand-cranked grinder, so it was safe for me to operate. This, for a 5-year-old, is possibly the coolest thing in the entire world. Once the meat is ground, you throw it in a big bowl or tub and mix in your flavorings: salt and pepper, herbs and spices, peppers, onions, or whatever sounds good. You mix this up really good and cool for a while. By this time, someone has cleaned and scraped the intestines- a delicate job definitely not suited to young hands. The minced meat mix is then stuffed into the intestines, twisting at even intervals, to create links. These usually go into the smoker. And end up delicious.

Mostly, I spent my childhood outside, growing things and playing with animals. I spent a lot of time around cowboys and bullfighters (commonly referred to as rodeo clowns) because my dad rode the rodeo circuit. I went to fairs and attended the World’s Biggest Fish Fry every year. I had an idyllic childhood. It was wonderful.

good luck kiss at the fair

Me at 3 years old

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What’s Cooking: An Ethiopian Dinner

Wednesday night, I decided to try a family experiment. I love “ethnic food,” but my family has a very “American” palette. That’s not to say that they are the stereotypical American’s who love fast food and junk, but they are most comfortable with American and Southern classics. World food for them is usually Tex Mex and MSG laden Chinese. My tastes run to more varied flavors: I love Thai and Indian and Lebanese and Turkish and Moroccan and Spanish and on and on.

One of my favorite meals is Ethiopian wats (spicy stews). Whenever I’m in a good food city, I try to find an Ethiopian restaurant to grab dinner at. I can’t handle the full spice effect, but the milder flavors are just perfect for my taste buds.

I’m always trying to find ways to broaden my family’s tastes, so I figured the best plan of attack was to try my hand at making Ethiopian food myself and force them to eat it! Handy dandy “What’s Cooking” material! For this special dinner I decided to make some of my favorites Ethiopian staples and to make something I’d never had before.

Getting Ready

There are some important vocabulary words to know when discussing Ethiopian food.

  • berbere: A paste, composed of hot spices, used to season many foods.
  • injera: Spongy, fermented bread that tastes similar to sourdough bread and resembles a large flour tortilla or large, thin pancakes
  • wat/wot and alecha: Stews. If a dish has “wat/wot” in its name, it will be made with berbere and be hot, while “alecha” means mild. 

All of the following recipes should feed 6-8 people.

Injera

hecka injera

Injera (Image by artnoose via Flickr)

First up, we had to have the ubiquitous injera. Injera is eaten with almost every meal in Ethiopia (and neighboring Eritrea), but this is not just any bread. It is serving platter, utensil, and meal, all in one.

Injera is typically made with teff flour. Teff is an annual grass, a species of lovegrass native to the northern Ethiopian Highlands. It is believed to have originated in Ethiopia between 4000 BC and 1000 BC. According to Wikipedia

Teff (Eragrostis tef)

Teff (Image via Wikipedia)

the grain is gluten-free and has a high concentration of different nutrients, a very high calcium content, and significant levels of the minerals phosphorus, magnesium, aluminum, iron, copper, zinc, boron, barium, and thiamin. Teff is high in protein. It is considered to have an excellent amino acid composition (including all 8 essential amino acids for humans) and has lysine levels higher than wheat or barley. Teff is high in carbohydrates and fiber.

Therefore, injera made from teff flour is an excellent nutritional staple and has the added benefit of being quite filling and extremely handy.

Because teff flour is very low in gluten, it isn’t suited to types of bread that rise; instead, it is fried much like crepes or pancakes. Typically, injera dough is left to sit for a few days to allow it to ferment. In this way, it acquires a slightly sour taste similar to sourdough.

Since teff flour is still fairly hard to find outside of Africa (and because I didn’t want to wait a few days while the dough fermented) I used a recipe modified by Ethiopians living in North America. This recipe can be found in Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook.

Mix:

  • 3 cups of self-rising flour
  • 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup of cornmeal or masa harina
  • 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
  • 3 1/2 cups of warm water

Let the mix set in a large bowl, covered, an hour or longer, until the batter rises and becomes stretchy. It can sit as long as 3-6 hours. When ready, stir the batter if liquid has settled on the bottom, then whip in blender, 2 cups of batter at a time, thinning it with 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of water. The batter will be quite thin.

Cook in a nonstick frypan without oil over medium or medium-high heat. Use 1/2 cup of batter per injera for a 12-inch pan or 1/3 cup of batter per injera for a 10-inch pan. Pour the batter into the heated pan and quickly swirl the pan to spread the batter as thin as possible. The batter should be no thicker than 1/8 inch. Do not turn. Injera does not easily stick or burn. It is cooked through when bubbles appear all over the top.

Lay each injera on a clean towel for a minute or two, then stack in a covered dish to keep warm. Finished injera will be thicker than a crepe but thinner than a pancake.

Alecha

 

Alecha (Image from katyabaxter.com)

Stews form the basis of most of Ethiopian cuisine and alechas are the milder version, usually made with vegetables but they can also contain meat. I made a basic vegetarian alecha to cool our mouths.

In a large saucepan, combine:

  • 2 tablespoons of oil or niter kibbeh
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped
  • 1 red onion, chopped

Sauté until the onions are soft, but do not brown.

Add:

  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 3 medium potatoes, chopped in large pieces
  • 2-3 carrots, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon of pepper

Cook about 10 minutes until the potatoes and carrots begin to soften.

Add:

  • 1 pound of cabbage, chopped
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 green chili pepper, seeded and quartered (optional, for extra kick)

Cook until the vegetables are tender. Stir gently to combine, taking care not to mash the vegetables

Sik Sik Wat and Beg Wat

Wat or wet, known as tsebhi in Tigrinya (also ...

Wat (Image via Wikipedia)

The basis of all wats, the spicy stews, is berbere. You must first make your berbere paste, but then you can add the meats you prefer to the berbere base. I simplified the berbere a bit since some of the spices are expensive (and not typically used in my kitchen) and because I was trying to ease the family’s taste buds into submission.

To make a simple, less spicy, berbere, in a heavy saucepan heat on low:

  • 1/4 cup of oil or niter kibbeh
  • 2 large red onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced

Cook gently until the onions are soft, but do not brown.

Add:

  • 1/2 tablespoon of crushed red pepper (traditional wats call for a LOT more red pepper)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons of paprika (this is to maintain the rich red color the berbere looses as you omit red pepper)
  • 3/4 teaspoon of pepper
  • 3/8 teaspoon of ground ginger
  • 3/8 teaspoon of ground cloves
  • 3/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  • 3/8 teaspoon of cardamom

Simmer for 1-2 minutes. This is your berbere base!

To the berbere, add:

  • 2 pounds of your preferred meat, chopped in approximately ½-inch squares (for Sik Sik Wat, add beef tenderloin, boneless sirloin, or stewing beef; for Beg Wat, add boneless lamb shoulder)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt

Simmer about 30 minutes until the meat is tender and the flavors are well absorbed.

The Meal

Typical Ethiopian platter (Image via Wikipedia)

Typically, Ethiopian food is served communally: injera is placed on a large platter and the food is placed on the injera. Everyone sits around the platter to share the meal. Diners tear off a piece of injera and scoop up food.

Sadly, neither our platters nor our kitchen table are really designed for this type of communal dining, so we did the next best thing: we actually sat at the table as a family and ate, something we rarely get around to these days.

The verdict was that it was still too spicy for most, even though I SERIOUSLY cut back on the pepper. Other than that, everyone really enjoyed it. The alecha was a big hit and everyone actually tried everything (I’m the only one who really likes lamb, so even that was a stretch). They all said they would gladly eat the meal again, with a little less kick of course!

So, yay me! I didn’t ruin any of it. That’s one international cuisine under my belt… which one will be next?

Note: I had to use free license pictures in this post for two main reasons. Firstly, because my camera is currently not working. And secondly, because I spent the better portion of the day on my feet on a hard tile floor slaving over this lovely meal and by the time it was ready I was too tired and hungry to remember to ask my dad to take pictures. Next time I’ll be sure to get some.

What’s Cooking: Pavlova and Chess Pie

For my first installment of “What’s Cooking” I’m tackling two of my favorite desserts. This is what happens when you are bored on a Monday night and realize you have a fridge full of eggs. First up is Pavlova, a meringue cake from New Zealand and then on to Chess Pie, a Southern favorite.

Pavlova

If you ask a New Zealander (called Kiwis) where Pavlova originated, they will adamantly insist that it’s from New Zealand. If you ask an Australian where Pavlova originated, they will, naturally, insist that it’s from Australia. The one thing they will agree on is that it’s wonderful.

Anna Pavlova, c. 1905

Pavlova is a meringue-based desert that takes its name from Russian ballerina Ánna Pávlova, who is widely regarded as one of the finest classical ballet dancers in history. She toured New Zealand and Australia in the 1920s, and the dessert is thought to have been made in honor of her visit. Historians now believe that it was first created by a New Zealand chef at a hotel in Wellington, NZ, during Ánna’s stay in the capital. This seems to be supported by the recipe’s appearance in the rural magazine NZ Dairy Exporter Annual in 1929 (a similar recipe, unnamed, was found in Home Cookery for New Zealand in 1926). It is not found in Australia until 1935.

I first had pavlova on a holiday in Rotorua, when I was living in New Zealand in 2005. I attended a cultural night at the Tamiki Village, which is a recreated Maori village where one actually stood. Maori performers demonstrate what life in the village was like, from food preparation to war training. Maori performers put on a beautiful show highlighting traditional songs and dances, including the fierce and wonderful haka.

old picture of a hangi (from Archives New Zealand, Maori Affairs Collection)

After the show, visitors are treated to a fantastic meal, a traditionally prepared hāngi. Hāngi refers to both the method of cooking, which involves a pit oven and hot stones, and to the foods that are prepared. (For a quick guide to preparing hāngi click here.)

The meal was really amazing, but the highlight, for me, was the pavlova. It was this amazingly light and fluffy thing with a hint of crispness- cornstarch and vinegar make the outside of the meringue crispy while the inside remains fluffy and moist like marshmallow cream. It was piled high with fresh whipped cream and covered in kiwis, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and a few mint leaves. It was delightful.

a beautiful pavlova (my pictures were terrible)

I’ve been dreaming of pavlova ever since I left New Zealand but I didn’t have the guts to make it. My fear was that it would be terrible and my lovely memory would be ruined. But, nothing chanced, nothing gained. So I went for it.

My pavlova recipe came from this great cookbook that I got for Christmas last year, Extending the Table: Recipes and Stories from Argentina to Zambia in the spirit of More-with-Less published by the Mennonite Central Committee, but there are tons of easy to find recipes on the internet.

  • Preheat oven to 350°F
  • Beat to soft peaks: 6 egg whites, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, and ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Continue beating and slowly add 1 cup of sugar
  • When stiff, beat in: 2 teaspoons cornstarch, 1 teaspoon vinegar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Cut out a 9-inch circle from a brown paper bag. Moisten the bottom of the paper circle with water and lay on a cookie sheet. Pile egg-white mixture on top of the circle, forming a depression in the center. Place in the oven, reduce the temperature to 250°F and bake for 1 hour or until lightly browned. Cool.
  • Slip knife between paper and moist meringue cake bottom. Transfer the cake from the paper to a plate. Serve topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit.

The results of my pavlova experiment were so-so. I think I undercooked it a bit. Ideally, it will retain the shape it had while you were piling the meringue on the paper, all swirly and magical. Mine was, well, pretty flat. From further internet reading, after the hour of baking the pavlova should be left in the oven while it cools. This makes it virtually impossible to undercook.

the only good picture I got of the pavlova

I also think I need to figure out the volume of egg white in a typical large store-bought egg. Naturally, I made my pavlova with my fresh farm eggs, straight from my chickens’ butts (as a friend would say). The problem with baking with these eggs is that they are all different sizes and shapes. I’m pretty sure I was actually a little low on the egg whites called for in this recipe.

But even with those problems, it was tasty. Not as good as the ones I had in New Zealand, or even Australia, but spectacular for my very first attempt.

Chess Pie

To really understand where Chess Pie comes from you have to delve into how it got its name. That, like all good Southern things, seems to depend on who you talk to and how you view the numerable theories. Elizabeth Hedgecock Sparks (also known as Beth Tartan), author of North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery, says it is “an old, old tart which may have obtained its name from the town of Chester, England.” Another story that harkens back to the recipe’s English heritage claims that “chess” is an Americanization of the word “cheese,” since the recipe has a close resemblance to the popular English “cheeseless cheesecakes” such as Lemon Curd Pie.

antique pie chest

The particularly Southern theories get even more interesting. One states that “chess” is a corruption of the word “chest,” relating to the term “pie chest,” which was a cabinet where pies were stored, safe from flies. In a similar vein, one theory claims that the name comes from a cook who was asked what she put in the pie, to which she replied “Anything in our chest.” My favorite, though, is the story about the woman who was asked what she was baking. She answered “Oh, jes’ pie.” The ingredients support this etymology, as chess pie is identical to the custard “base” for other custard pies that have an additional dominant flavor, such as pecan pie and chocolate custard pie. “Jes’ Pie” to Chess Pie… it’s a small leap.

I love Chess Pie. It’s so deliciously naughty (healthwise) and about as simple as can be to make. My great-grandmother used to make it a lot when I was a child and my paternal grandmother (my great-grandmother’s daughter-in-law) makes it still today. It’s just one of those Southern family traditions that should never, ever, under any circumstances, die out. Imagine a custardy, pecanless pecan pie. That’s about the only way I can think to describe it. Other than perfect, of course.

The recipe I’m listing here is from Country Classics, Vol II published by Tennessee Farm Bureau Women but, again, there are many available on the internet (this one just happens to be the exact same as the one my great-grandmother used).

  • Combine: 1½ cups sugar, 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch, ½ cup melted butter, and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Stir in 3 eggs
  • Mix thoroughly
  • Pour into 1 unbaked pie shell
  • Bake at 350°F for 40-55 minutes

my chess pie!

The best thing about this pie, other than the taste, is that there are a million little variations you can do to make a totally different taste. Lemon chess pies are popular, as are meringue topped chess pies (I think that will be my next attempt).

I’m feeling pretty good about my first kitchen experiments. I mean, who doesn’t like to have a house full of baked goods? I’m thinking that the next thing I tackle, which I’m pretty nervous about, is my favorite Ethiopian dish, Doro Wat. I can’t wait!

Whipping Up a New Project

For a lot of people, probably the vast majority world-wide, food holds a special place in our memories. It can be a time machine that, after one smell or taste, transports us back to the people and places and special times of our lives.

Some of my earliest, and fondest, memories are from hog slaughtering time when I, as a 4 or 5-year-old, got to work the hand-crank meat grinder and help make real sausage in real pig intestines. I loved every second of it.

Baking pies or the smell of fresh biscuits always makes me think of my great-grandmother, who was an amazing baker. As a child, I spent so many days with her, collecting eggs from the chickens, picking veggies from the garden, and always being covered in flour from whatever we were baking that afternoon.

Potato soup instantly makes me think back fondly on days I came home from school sick. If I was lucky, my maternal grandmother picked me up and took me to her house, where I spent all day eating homemade potato soup and watching cable. (Cable was an unknown luxury in the boonies where we lived, but my grandparents lived in town.)

Pot roast makes me think of my paternal grandmother, who is one of the best “self-taught” home cooks I’ve ever known. Her pot roast is so fantastically melt-in-your-mouth that it’s been known to make vegetarians weak in the knees. (I used to be a vegetarian, so I know first hand.)

Pork BBQ brings up memories of 2 men: my father and his father. For as long I can remember, my father and grandfather have been making bbq on our GIGANTIC smoker, complete with homemade, secret recipe bbq sauce to go with it.

What you’ll probably notice is that none of these foods items were bought at a store or restaurant, none of them came from the frozen food section. And they are all real foods, lovingly made by the hands of people who I love. It’s corny, but love really is the most important ingredient in food. People who love what they make and love feeding people will always be my favorite cooks.

I want to be one of those cooks. I like cooking and I’m pretty decent at it. But I’m not very creative or adventurous. So I’m setting myself a goal: learn how to cook new things more often. I’ll be starting out simply and with lots of assistance from cookbooks, but the goal is to eventually be much more fearless in the kitchen. I’ll also be delving into the history of the dishes that I’m cooking and their significance in my life.

So, watch for my kitchen experiments in the future which will be labeled “What’s Cooking.”