Sunday, June 26, 2005

I Have Been to the Mountain Top

I spent the past week on vacation with my daughters at my parents' summer residence, in the mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania, a mere mile north of the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. It is a setting of unsurpassed pastoral beauty, and I am not immune to the charms of such a setting. On one walk, A. and I saw a red-winged blackbird, a goldfinch, and a woodpecker, all within a space of five minutes. My parents' place is almost on top of the mountain, and the view from the porch swing on the front porch is something that you would think you couldn't buy, though they did, in fact, acquire it, along with the house, for under $30,000 less than ten years ago. They subsequently put a lot more money into it to bring it to a place where my mother considers it habitable, but the final result is very pleasant, indeed.

Situated, as it is, in a suburb of Middle-of-Nowhere, there is not a lot to do when one tires of absorbing the view or taking long walks (and, it must be acknowledged, that when one starts at the top of the mountain, the only way to go is down, and the only way to get home is back up, steeply) that does not involve a drive of at least forty-five minutes, each way.

Nor is it, sadly, a place for good food. This last fact is somewhat surprising in that there are so many fruit trees and kitchen gardens and farms in the area, but when one looks at the produce in the markets one finds little to inspire either the imagination or the appetite, and when one looks at the local restaurants, one finds mainly a surfeit of buffets. The food there is also rather unfortunate, though it certainly is plentiful. (There are exceptions; I would be remiss not to note that one can find very good maple syrup and apple butter in the area, but these are accents rather than staples.)

This sort of food suits my parents just fine, thank you, and it suits me reasonably well for a thirty-six hours or so, but the overarching feeling during the week was that I was eating from a plan designed specifically for me by Dean Ornish's evil identical twin, Skippy. Yes, brothers and sisters, I have partaken of the fatty meats and the equally fatty potatoes.

My parents are not in especially good health these days, a fact that I attribute less to their diet (which has, after all, gotten them well into their seventies) than to my father's prostate cancer and heart problems and my mother's inner ear problems, all compounded by their insistence to reach Pennsylvania by a certain date, and their decision to meet that goal by driving from Florida to Pennsylvania in a single day that began at 3 am and ended after 9 pm. All this within two weeks of my father having a second pacemaker operation.

It is, of course, distressing to see my parents go into what seems likely to be a long, slow (or perhaps not so slow), and final decline, but never let it be said that I am unable to find the silver lining. There were at least two occasions during the week when their having overtaxed themselves led directly to my making dinner, and I took the opportunity to make food that, if not exactly brimming with health, was at least significantly less bad for us.

Having visited a local ski resort for a buffet on Sunday and having eaten large steaks (at least that part of the meal was well done [or in the case of my steak, medium rare] since I was put in charge of the grill; sadly, no one thought to put me in charge of the side dishes) on Monday, when Tuesday dinner came around, I decided to make lentil soup. This decision turned out to be a wise one, as I was then able to have leftover soup (I made lots; you may want to go for a smaller batch) for breakfast for the rest of the week

Lentil soup is hard to mess up, and this week's version seemed about par for the course to me, but the kids and my parents all loved it, which I had not really expected. I suppose my strategy of not offering them any alternatives turned out to be unnecessary. Everyone already knows how to make lentil soup, and if you don't, there's generally a perfectly serviceable recipe on the lentil bag, but I'm going to tell you how I made mine, anyway. Note that the ingredients were somewhat dictated by what I could find, but I was entirely happy with the result all the same.

Lentil Soup

2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 Tablespoons ground cumin
3 cups brown lentils (you can use a trendier color if you like; I like brown)
3 quarts water
2 envelopes chicken bouillon (or two cubes, if that's what you've got)
1 pound baby carrots, chopped (to whatever thickness you like, but not left whole; you could also use regular carrots and just slice them)
1 package Healthy Choice Kielbasa (really, I wanted to use a hamhock, but the hamhocks at the store looked like the sort of meat that you wouldn't trust a secret with)
1 cup coarse bulgar (yeah, I can get coarse bulgar at the corner market, but just try to get decent broccoli)

Heat the olive oil on medium in a large soup pot. Add the onions, cover and sweat until softened.
Stir in the garlic, then the celery seed and cumin, heat until you can smell the cumin everywhere, or about three minutes; don't brown the garlic.
Add the lentils and give a good stir, then add the water. You may very well need more water later. If the mixture gets too thick, add some. Otherwise, you might scorch the bottom of the soup.
Stir in the bouillon, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to the simmer and cook for an hour.
Stir in the carrots, kielbasa, and bulgar. Add more water if necessary.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

You will be happier if you add some hot sauce to the soup, but you can do that at the table. I add a couple of dashes, which does not make it spicy, but does improve the flavor. If the kids catch me adding anything spicy to the soup while I'm making it, they won't try it on general principle.

I made cheese biscuits to accompany the soup, thereby eliminating most of the health benefits. I was unable to measure because there were no suitable measuring implements for the flour, but I know the approximate proportions.

Cheese Biscuits

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon baking powder (it is, no doubt, incorrect to capitalize "Tablespoon" while consigning the poor teaspoon to a life of lower-case obscurity, but I find that I am unable to help myself; I make this mistake because the abbreviation for tablespoon is "T" while that for teaspoon is "t"; I do not, however, expect the careful reader to forgive this practice merely because he or she knows its origin)
4 Tablespoons shortening
4 oz. sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
Milk (1/2 to 2/3 cup, but it varies)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Combine the flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl. Cut in the shortening. Mix in the grated cheddar with a fork. Add milk, mixing with a fork, until you have dough that can be worked. Knead it lightly, and roll it out on a floured board, in a shape as close to a square as you can manage. Cut it into rectangles about 1 inch wide by three inches long. Place on a cookie sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until done.

I used a similar biscuit recipe for the dessert for Friday night's dinner. My father's uncle had stopped by earlier in the day and left two quarts of fresh strawberries (which my parents had subsequently capped and sliced) and a pound of fresh asparagus from the farm. I tossed about two cups of sliced strawberries with a quarter cup of sugar and a tablespoon of blackberry brandy (it was what they had around) and left the mixture to macerate in a bowl.

The strawberries were destined for strawberry shortcake, a dish that some people can probably mess up, but which I never have. The main difference between any two strawberry shortcake recipes comes in the shortcake since all strawberry shortcakes consist of some sort of cakey thing layered with strawberries and topped with whipped cream. I think that the best shortcake is a sweet biscuit recipe.


2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon baking powder
pinch of salt
pinch of nutmeg
6 Tablespoons shortening
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk + additional milk as needed

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the first five ingredients in a bowl. Cut in the shortening. Mix the vanilla extract with the half cup of milk and mix the liquids into the dry ingredients. Add more milk until the dough is soft and somewhat sticky but still (barely) workable. Turn the dough out onto a floured board and roll out to a thickness of about half an inch, adding more flour as necessary. Cut into rounds. The traditional cutter to use here is a baking powder can that has had both ends removed, but if you want to use a plain old cookie cutter, I won't tell. Put the rounds onto an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for fifteen to twenty minutes until done. You don't want these to be too brown. Let the biscuits cool. When you've finished dinner, split one biscuit per person in half. Put the bottom half of the biscuit in a bowl, spoon over some strawberries and juice, top with the top half of the biscuit, spoon over some more strawberries and juice, and top with whipped cream.

My parents both insisted that it was the best strawberry shortcake that they had ever tasted, and it would have been impolite to argue with them. I tend to think that the best strawberry shortcake that you've ever eaten is whichever one you're eating at the moment (provided that you've used at least reasonably good strawberries), but certainly the one I made Friday was superb. If you decide to make it, however, you should understand in advance that the amount of strawberries I had was just the right amount for five servings, but I ended up with enough sweet biscuits for about three times as many servings, so either triple the strawberry mixture and serve more people (or more servings per person), or find some other use for the sweet biscuits. They are not unlike cookies, however, so you can always eat them plain. They would be better, however, split in half and filled with some warm peach jam or orange marmalade. If you have kids around, you can also spread some peanut butter on one half and some jam or jelly on the other half and make a terrific pb&j. This would also be good with the addition of some sliced banana or any of the other pb&j accompaniments that one hears about through the rumor mill, but I must officially disclaim any knowledge of such a concoction as I am far too much of an adult to have indulged in anything so juvenile with my extra biscuits. In a similar vein, I am unable to tell you that the biscuits make excellent substitutes for graham crackers if one is toasting marshmallows over the gas stove and layering said marshmallows with chocolate in the pursuit of smores.


Post a Comment

<< Home