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Saving money on cheese. December 1, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. This morning, I was reading an article from Cook’s Illustrated comparing different brands of artisanal Cheddars. They were trying to see if they could find something that compared to a real English Cheddar, with a bite and a flaky texture, rather than those rubbery blocks of plastic-wrapped Cheddar we’re used to picking up in the dairy aisle. A Cheddar, in other words, that you could eat with crackers, fruit, crudites, or even ploughman’s lunch.

The problem with many of these artisanal Cheddars is that they can cost up to $25 a pound (not including shipping) and are often only available regionally, and not in groceries even where they are regional. (The one exception seemed to be a Cabot super-sharp white Cheddar, which the Cook’s Illustrated staff thought was the best grocery-store Cheddar.) The cheeses have another problem as far as I’m concerned: Many are aged in lard-soaked cloth, a definite no if you’re vegetarian like me.

So what do you do if you’re not up for shelling out $25 for a block of Cheddar and still want a flaky eating Cheddar that tastes great out of hand? I say, buy Asiago instead. Nothing beats an aged Asiago cut straight from the wheel at the cheese stand, but a mellow Asiago from the grocery (I believe the Cook’s Illustrated folks voted for Bel Gioioso the last time they compared grocery-store Asiagos, but please don’t quote me on that) will beat any grocery Cheddar hands down. Its delicious sharp but nutty flavor and flaky (but never crumbly) texture makes it a perfect accompaniment for dried and fresh fruit and nuts. Yum!

My fallbacks here are Black Diamond Cheddar (on the pricey side) and Cracker Barrel Reserve (in the black wrapper), which has great Cheddar flavor but that inescapable rubbery texture. When I was a child, before Kraft bought the Cracker Barrel cheese brand, my grandfather loved to buy his favorite, that day’s equivalent to Cracker Barrel Reserve. It was called Coon Cheese and featured a raccoon on the package, and we would eat it with apples. Ah, the good life! There was an even sharper Cracker Barrel cheese called Rat Trap, which was sold on the store shelves along with all the other Cheddars. My grandfather loved that, too (and it was quite good), but when Kraft bought the brand Rat Trap vanished. I guess their marketing department didn’t approve!

I’ve found that it’s easy enough to save money on Swiss cheese as well. Our favorite Swiss is Jarlsberg, with its smooth texture and rich, nutty flavor. It’s so delicious sliced and served on flatbread crackers with grapes, hazelnuts or almonds, and dried fruit like apricots and cranberries. (I prefer Swiss on crackers, unlike Cheddar, which I enjoy eating out of hand. Maybe it’s because those flatbread crackers, like Rye Crisps, add a satisfying crunch to complement the creaminess of the cheese.) But nobody ever said Jarlsberg was cheap! A chunk of it can eat a chunk out of your grocery budget.

What to do now? Easy. This time, Kraft has come through. I don’t know if it’s because the creamy texture of Swiss neutralizes the plastic packaging, but I’ve found that a block of Cracker Barrel Baby Swiss makes a perfectly good eating Swiss, and you can often find it on sale. You’re not going to end end up eating Jarlsberg, but you will be eating a nice table Swiss to enjoy with crackers, fresh and dried fruit, and nuts. You’ll enhance the experience if you add a little salt—but just a little sprinkle—over the cheese. And you will be saving lots of money while still enjoying Swiss cheese rather than something that tastes like stretchy plastic.

If you have other tips for saving money on cheese—but please, no tips about freezing cheese—please let us know!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Dreamboats. November 24, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Whether you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner at home or going to join family and friends, having a beautiful, delicious, holiday-appropriate appetizer on hand is a must. This one is the best ever, with its holiday colors and flavors. It requires just four ingredients (plus black pepper), you don’t cook it, it keeps well, and it’s the perfect finger food for hungry guests: just give them napkins and watch the whole plate disappear.

I’m talking about endive boats, and this is all you do the make them: Buy two large, plump heads of Belgian endive (no wilting or browning leaves). Cut the end off each head and separate the leaves. Place a ring of leaves, tip ends pointed outward, on a serving plate, with a second ring behind them. Add a rosette of leaves in the center.

Fill each “boat” (leaf) with crumbled gorgonzola or blue cheese, no more than four dried cranberries (for just a hit of flavor, you don’t want these to be sweet), and crumbled pecans. Lightly grind fresh-cracked black pepper over your boats. You’re done!

If you’re taking these someplace, cover the plate tightly with cling wrap so the boats don’t topple over. And, if you wonder about this particular flavor combination, make an extra boat and try it yourself. Once you have, just don’t eat the whole plate! This has become our go-to appetizer from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. It’s refreshing, fun to eat, and flavorful, but it never overwhelms the food to come—or the busy cook.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Healthier mashed potatoes. November 12, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Who doesn’t love mashed potatoes? Here at Hawk’s Haven, we make ours with Yukon Gold potatoes, then mash them with lots of butter and add half-and-half, salt (we like Real Salt or Trocomare, herbed salt) and fresh-cracked black pepper. If our friend Ben insists, I’ll toss in a little cream cheese, too. Talk about indulgence in a pan! It’s the ultimate comfort food, and it goes with practically everything but pasta, Thai and Chinese food, and the like.

But, though delicious, I wouldn’t exactly call this butter- and cream-filled dish a health food. What to do? Fortunately, our neighbors across the pond have figured out two ways to combine the creamy goodness of mashed potatoes with our beloved superfoods, kale, cabbage, even Brussels sprouts, to come up with sides that are nutritious as well as delicious and comforting. In Ireland, this dish is called colcannon; in the UK, it bears the delightful name of bubble and squeak (for the sounds it makes while cooking).

Bubble and sqeak originated as a way to use up leftovers. Basically, you minced up whatever was on hand—cooked cabbage, a few carrots, even scraps of meat—folded them into mashed potatoes, formed patties, and fried them until they were crispy outside and creamy inside. Because these originated during WWII rationing, they were typically served for Sunday night supper, but once rationing ended, they became stalwarts of the standard British breakfast, alongside meats, sliced tomatoes, and eggs.

Colcannon, by contrast, more closely resembles mashed potatoes (though the mashed potatoes may be green!). The basic premise is to make mashed potatoes as you usually would, then prepare an equal amount of shredded green cabbage, kale, or Brussels sprouts. (I don’t see why you couldn’t mix them. I also don’t see why you couldn’t start with a package of pre-shredded green cabbage for coleslaw and/or pre-shredded Brussels sprouts). Saute several large halved and sliced leeks (tough outside green leaves and ends chopped away) or diced sweet onion in plenty of butter until the onion clarifies adding ample salt, black pepper, and (if desired) a pinch of mace. Then add the greens and cover the pot until the greens are wilted and shiny, stirring several times as they cook and adding a little vegetable broth or water to prevent sticking if needed. Once the greens are cooked through, add the mashed potatoes, stir to combine, bring back up to heat, and serve as a side.

Now for the best part. Apparently the Irish serve a big dollop on each plate, but they don’t stop there. They spoon out a depression in the midst of each serving and fill it with a big piece of butter. It still may not be the healthiest dish in the world, but it sounds wonderful to me on a cold winter’s night!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Matthew, Mark, George and Ringo. November 10, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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A friend who teaches philosophy at a local community college recently told our friend Ben that he’d asked his class who the current Pope was. Not one hand went up, even though Pope Francis is the most popular Pope of the era, or at least the one with the most media coverage. But let’s give the kids a break: Not everyone is Catholic, after all. Could you name the pastors of the megachurches if you weren’t Evangelical, or name the head of the Anglican Communion if you weren’t Episcopal?

But then, he asked them—a class who identified as Christians—who had written the four Gospels. Again, no hands went up. This is pretty bad, even shocking, to a generation who grew up reciting “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed I lie upon” every night. It’s one thing to ask a class to name the members of the Beatles, or the Monkees, or even Led Zeppelin, a generation or two out. Why would they know or care? But the Gospel writers?! Sheesh.

Get out there and vote. November 4, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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We know these “midterm elections” aren’t exactly thrilling. A friend who volunteers at a polling station every election year tells us the place is almost deserted unless it’s a presidential election. But what happens today will determine who controls the Senate for the next four years, whether your governor is a Republican or Democrat (as is the case here in scenic PA), whether three states legalize medical marijuana. And that’s just the beginning.

So no, a president isn’t being elected tonight. But a lot of very important things are going on, things that could change your life for better or worse. Whatever your party affiliation—Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent—the polls are open ’til 7. Please stop on the way home and cast your vote. Some of these races are so close that your vote will really make a difference.

Harvest time. October 28, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silnce Dogood here. It’s a mild October day, and normally I’d be sitting out on our back deck listening to the corn talk. (The farmers in front and in back of our little cottage here in the middle of nowhere, PA, grow corn, and once it gets tall and dries out, it “talks” with every slightest breeze.) Today, however, I’m hiding in the house.

That’s because the farmers are harvesting the corn behind the house. There’s a terrible noise, and every few minutes a rhino-like, John-Deere-green creature passes in front of our deck doors, bellowing and presumably cutting down corn. This of course isn’t corn on the cob, it’s dried corn and cornstalks to make silage and sustain their milk cows through the winter.

I wonder what our poor chickens make of all this. This will be their first winter, and they love the dried corn in their scratch grains, but I doubt that they’re loving the racket that machine is making. People always tell you that country living is quiet and peaceful, but apparently they forget about the machines.

It’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking about a move. Not to mention all the toxic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and so on. There are plenty of upsides—we have lots of great deck-sitting days—but downsides too. Days we see toxic bubbles from farm chemicals in our stream and wonder if our well water is drinkable. Days we can’t breathe outside because of chemical application. How wonderful to live surrounded by organic farms!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Time for homemade cream of tomato soup. October 22, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. The leaves are falling, temperatures are dropping, and harvest season is coming to an end. This means it’s time for warming comfort food, like cream of tomato soup. I don’t know if a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of cream of tomato soup with a pat of butter melting on top was your idea of childhood cold-weather lunch heaven, but it certainly was mine. Yum!!!

Unfortunately, a check of the grocery aisles will reveal a selection of cream of tomato soups packed with high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch or flour, and all sorts of other ingredients that I don’t want in a simple soup. But, thank heavens, it really is easy to make this one from scratch in just minutes and get the benefit of all that healthy antioxidant lycopene without stuffing yourself with things that are bad for you. Here’s all you have to do:

Silence’s Homemade Cream of Tomato Soup

1 6-ounce can tomato paste
3 cups whole milk
1 cup half-and-half
1/2 stick butter
salt (we like RealSalt), Herbamare or Trocomare, white pepper, and/or hot sauce to taste (we’d choose Tabasco Chipotle or Pickapeppa for this, if we wanted to use hot sauce)

That’s really all you need. Heat the milk and half-and-half in a heavy pot, never allowing it to boil. Once it’s hot, add the tomato paste, mashing with the back of a large spoon until it dissolves into the milk/half-and-half mixture. Add the salt and whatever else you want, stirring to blend. Chop the butter into pieces, reserving two for the tops of the bowls, and add the rest to the soup, again, stirring and watching carefully to make sure it never boils (which would destroy he texture). When the soup is quite hot, pour it into two bowls, top each with a pat of butter, and enjoy, with or without the accompanying grilled cheese!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Frozen vegetables are frozen vegetables. October 21, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. If you walk down the freezer aisle in your preferred grocery and look at the vegetable options, there are almost as many choices as n the toothpaste aisle. No longer do you only have plain frozen vegetables and that horrid mix of peas, corn and diced carrots. There are lots of vegetable mixes, lots of frozen veggies in buttery sauces (those Green Giant people are no fools), and lots of boil-in-bag and steam-in-bag options.

But what if you just want a particular veggie, without sauce, and can’t find it frozen as is, but can find it frozen in a boil-in-bag or steam-in-bag version? Can you just open the bag and treat the contents as if it came from a regular frozen package?

I think we’ve all heard by now that nutritionists agree that frozen veggies are really good for you, better than fresh veggies picked out of season and shipped green, like, say, winter tomates. Frozen veggies are picked at the very peak of ripeness and flash-frozen to retain their nutrients. (Admittedly, I’ve never seen a bag of frozen tomatoes, but jarred tomatoes are wonderful for you, since they concentrate the protective, antioxidant-rich lycopenes in ripe tomatoes.)

I have no microwave, nor do I want to boil anything in a plastic bag and then eat it—aaaggghhh!—but one of the staples I love keeping on hand for cooking is frozen white shoepeg corn. The season for fresh white corn is so short, and I love sauteeing it to add to a meal, adding it to corn pudding at the holidays, and tossing it into chili. But I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to find a bag of frozen white corn, much less white shoepeg corn, in this area. What I can find, however, are bags of frozen white shoepeg “boil-in-bag” and “steam-in-bag” corn. And in my experience, the’re every bit as good added to a dish or sauteed as plain old frozen shoepeg corn could ever be.

So if you like boiling your veggies in a bag or cooking them in a bag in the microwave, I have no doubt that both methods work fine. But if you’re a traditional cook who simply needs to stock up on frozen staples you can’t find, don’t fear the boil-in, steam-in veggies. They’ll work wonderfully for you as well. Just keep away from the ones in sauces.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Another reason men aren’t like women. October 14, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. A friend just e-mailed me, telling me that she had an upper respiratory infection and was making garlic-onion soup to try to get rid of it. I understand this completely. When I was recently ill, unable to keep anything down, all I could think about was miso soup and white rice. Healing, soothing: ahhh!!!

But when our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders was recently stricken with agonizing kidney stones, unable to eat, moaning and groaning for days while taking powerful narcotic painkillers nonstop, what was the first thing he wanted to eat once he’d passed the stones? He wanted a “California burger” with the works—mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion, provolone, pickles, potato chips, and a giant order of fries with plenty of ketchup. And a salad and breadsticks on the side, please, with butter for the breadsticks! Our friend Ben and I took him out to get one. He ate every bite, too.

The mysteries of the differences of the sexes will never end, but yowie kazowie. Easing back into health doesn’t seem to be on guys’ agendas. Richard isn’t the only one. God knows, OFB is ready to get up and go the minute he’s able. No miso soup or garlic-onion soup for these guys, bring on the burgers or wings or fried chicken or pizza or whatever. And don’t forget the sides! (Actually, pizza doesn’t sound so bad. Hmmm…)

‘Til next time,

Silence

Birthday cake. October 7, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As it happens, my birthday falls on the long Columbus Day weekend holiday. And so does my sister’s. We were both born on October 11, a year apart, and were both premature, so go figure that, while our brother, born several years and several months later, was a huge, late baby. I now love having been born on a holiday, but growing up, I don’t think I noticed that. Instead, what mattered was the cake.

My mother wasn’t much for dessert, so we almost never got any, except for holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. (Plus, of course, the inevitable Halloween basket.) But for our birthdays, we each got to choose our own cakes. And since my sister and I shared a birthday, we got to choose two cakes. This was a really big deal!

Sadly, at this point I can’t even recall what my brother’s favorite was. (I’ll have to ask him. But I already know the answer: “What are you talking about?”) My sister’s was chocolate cake with homemade chocolate fudge frosting. But mine was always angel food cake with whipped cream icing.

Even out of a box, this was not an easy cake to make. You needed one of those tall cake pans with a tube in the middle and a removable bottom. You needed lots of whipped eggwhites. You needed to get the cake out of the tube pan and let it cool while whipping the cream and adding sugar and vanilla, then chilling the whipped cream until just before icing and serving the cake. When I was a child, in October berries were unavailable, so there were no sliced strawberries or whole blackberries or raspberries or blueberries on the cake, not even any sliced bananas. There certainly was no whipped cream in a can. But I loved the delicious purity of that whipped-cream-topped angel food cake.

These days, if I’m invited to friends’ for my birthday, I’ll still celebrate with angel food cake. This time, the cake will be store-bought, and I’ll have plenty of lovely berries and sliced bananas to nest in layers of whipped cream (still homemade). Yum! It’s no longer my favorite dessert, but it’s still my favorite cake, and it holds so many memories. It’s light, so it doesn’t weigh you down—all those eggwhites, why it’s called “angel food”—a perfect finish for a meal.

Anyway, my point is that every child should get to choose their own birthday cake. It’s such a special thing. Maybe your children will choose a different cake every year, rather than going with the same one as we did. But in a world where everything’s constantly changing, having one ritual that never changes, empowering your children to do one thing exactly as they want it, is more important than I can say. They may not know to thank you now, but they’ll thank you later. And it’s just a cake.

Someone sent me a “happy birthday” e-mail this week, and encouraged me to celebrate with a big slice of cake. I can’t really remember the last time I had cake, or any dessert—usually, it’s food or dessert, and I choose food. But the e-mail reminded me of my childhood, and those birthday cakes, and my family, and the good times. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

‘Til next time,

Silence

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