Archive for April, 2009

Now Is the Month of Maying

Thursday, April 30th, 2009
A May Basket

A May Basket

May is getting ready to show off its lawns strewn with daffodils and its doorways decked with lilac blossoms. Of course, we can’t be 100 percent sure we’re through with snow in western Massachusetts; a couple of years ago we saw the white stuff on Memorial Day weekend. Nevertheless, there’s a general consensus among the robins, gardeners, and ladybugs that spring has arrived at last.

 

The first holiday we celebrate is of course May Day, May 1. When I was in graduate school (where I had Marxist leanings) May Day was a serious time devoted to discussions of flaws in the capitalist system. Back home in Hawley it’s a more cheerful day on which older residents recall the delightful tradition of delivering May baskets to neighbors.

 

Hawleyites over 60 have told me that they used to hang May baskets on friends’ doorways not only on May Day but throughout the month of May. They sought out early flowers and baked special treats to deliver in their small, hand-decorated baskets. Each evening the May basket deliveries were a source of play, creativity, and fellowship.

To them, the May basket tradition evokes a time when schools were located in neighborhoods around town and when Hawley seemed to enjoy more community spirit in town as a result. They know they can’t go back to that educational system (as the current headlines attest, schools are becoming more rather than less consolidated). Nevertheless, they recall the tradition with fondness.

 

I like to deliver May baskets myself, at least on a minor scale. I’m hopeless at decorating the baskets, but I can pick flowers and make treats like a pro. My recipe for this special day is for tiny lime cookies that burst with spring flavor. It comes from King Arthur Flour. (So do some of its signature ingredients.)

 

Even if readers don’t have enough days left to order the ingredients for this May Day, I hope they’ll take a little time to gather a bouquet or make something tasty for a special neighbor. This tradition can still build community in the 21st century.

My neighbor Alice samples a cookie.

My neighbor Alice samples a cookie.

Little Lime Cookies

 

If you’d like to order the lime powder and oil required for this recipe, give KAF a call at 1-800- 827-6836. You can probably do without the lime powder (although your cookies will have less lime kick!), but the oil is strong and useful.

 

Ingredients:

 

for the cookies:

 

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) sweet butter at room temperature

1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons lime powder (available from King Arthur Flour)

1/2 teaspoon lime oil (available from King Arthur Flour)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup flour

 

for the topping:

 

3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons lime powder

 

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, waxed paper, or a silicone mat.

 

First, make the cookies. In a bowl, combine the butter, confectioner’s sugar, lime powder, lime oil, and salt. They need not be beaten heavily; just mix them together with a spoon. Stir in the flour.

 

Form the cookies into 20 small balls using a cookie scoop or the palms of your hands. Shaping the rounds is a little tricky as the dough can be crumbly, but perseverance pays off!

 

Place the balls on the prepared cookie sheet and pop them into the oven. Bake the cookies for 17 to 18 minutes, until they are set and lightly brown around the edges. While they are in the oven mix together the sugar and lime powder for the topping.

 

After a minute or two remove the cookies from the sheets. King Arthur Flour provides two different methods for the topping. The method I used was to roll the cookies in the topping while still warm, then roll them again after they had cooled.  You may also roll them only once about 10 minutes after they come out of the oven.

 

Serve when cool. Makes 20 cookies (more if you’re good at shaping them into really tiny balls!)

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This little May Basket was made by the late Judith Russell.

This little May Basket was made by the late Judith Russell.

 

Spring Break: Key Lime White Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

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You may have gathered that I LOVE key limes. I particularly adore these cookies, which are better than any commercial variety. I had to get the key-lime extract from a mail-order company, Silver Cloud Estates (1-410-484-4526), since the closest retail store was in Troy, New York. Fortunately, a small bottle of the stuff will last for quite a while! And the cookies are definitely worth the effort.

Ingredients:

1 cup (2 sticks) sweet butter at room temperature
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 eggs at room temperature
1 tablespoon key-lime extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2-1/4 cups flour
2 cups (12 ounces) white chocolate chunks (purchased or cut off a bar of white chocolate; use chips instead of chunks if you must)
 

Instructions:

Beat the butter and sugars together until they are smooth and creamy. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, followed by the extract, baking soda, and salt. Stir in the flour. Gently mix in the chocolate chunks.

Chill the dough, well covered and sealed, for at least 12 hours and preferably for 24 or 36. I got this trick from an article published last July in The New York Times in which experts weighed in on the perfect chocolate-chip cookie. The article argued that the best CCCs chill for an extended period of time so that the eggs can sink into the flour. The chilling really does improve texture and (somehow!) flavor.

About 15 minutes before you are ready to bake your cookies, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Drop the cookies in teaspoon-sized rounds onto parchment- or silicone-covered baking sheets. Bake them for 10 to 12 minutes, until they are a golden brown. Let them cool briefly on the sheets; then remove them to a rack to cool.

Makes about 60 cookies. 

Hawley's Answer to Dorothy Lamour (I admit it! I Photoshopped my waist just a little)

Hawley's Answer to Dorothy Lamour (I admit it! I Photoshopped my waist just a little!)

Spring Break: Sunset in a Pie Pan

Sunday, April 26th, 2009
Dagny Johnson with her friend Vince Travaglini (labeled Christmas 1950)

Dagny Johnson with her friend Vince Travaglini (labeled Christmas 1950, courtesy of Eric Johnson)

Key lime pie is refreshingly delicious and may just be the easiest pie in the world to make. I love it not just because of its flavor and ease, however, but because it reminds me of a magical figure in my life.

Anna Dagny Johnson and my mother were college friends. Originally from the Midwest, Dody (as we called her) contracted polio on their junior year abroad in France. Eventually the Chicago winters proved too icy for a woman on crutches, and she and her family commissioned a Japanese architect to design a perfect little one-story house on Key Largo in Florida. Hidden away from the road, encircled by native foliage, the house looked out on the Gulf of Mexico.

Although she worked for several years as a labor lawyer (a career that brought her a lifelong hatred of J. Edgar Hoover), for most of her life Dagny lived off family money and followed her heart.

She adored Paris–its rhythm, its people, its look. For decades she spent Florida’s hot summers in the City of Light, shipping her specially fitted red Ford convertible across the Atlantic Ocean so that she could be mobile in France. I remember her driving me along the boulevards when I was seven. She put the car’s top down and made me repeat the mantra “Paris is the most beautiful city in the world” until it was imprinted in my psyche.

Dagny was always a lover of film. At Mount Holyoke in the 1930s she and future Connecticut governor Ella Grasso showed documentaries about the Spanish Civil War on campus. In the 1960s she hit upon the idea of programming a festival of films shot in or about Paris. “Paris en Films” (Paris on Film) ran for several summer seasons. My brother David, Dody’s nephew Eric, and I each worked for the festival for at least one summer.

I’ll never forget my first time there. Dody had rented an ornate apartment from a Spanish nobleman. She, Eric, and I shared the apartment at night. During the day a huge cast of characters joined us. These included Madame Garcia, a Spaniard who cooked tuna omelets(!) whenever Dody wanted to entertain someone important; Agnes, who wrote letters and answered the phone; Antoine, the aristocrat who was the figurehead president of Paris en Films (Dody did most of the work); and Monsieur Lamoureux, Dody’s hairdresser, who always arrived by walking directly into her bedroom via French doors.

We also encountered figures from the film world. Alberto Cavalcanti was one of the few film directors who enjoyed strong careers in three different countries. He took part in the experimental French film movement in the 1920s, made pictures for Britain’s Ealing Studios during World War II, and returned to his native Brazil after the war to make lavish color films. By the time we met him in Paris Alberto was very old and much too fond of a drink, but he still had wonderful stories to tell and an occasional twinkle in his eye. He adored Dody. He left her his papers, which Eric donated to the British Film Institute after her death.

The festival’s films were shown outdoors that summer in the garden of the Hôtel de Sully, a historic home in Paris. Eric showed typical American organizational talent and helped transport and project the films. I was never quite sure what my role was—a little ticket taking, a little translation (since my French was pretty good at the time), a little shopping.

The festival, like Dagny herself, was always in lukewarm water financially; there were certain restaurants and hotels to which we could never return because it—or she—owed them money. Nevertheless, we somehow managed to show interesting films every night, from the experimental work of Chris Marker and Stan Brakhage to early footage by the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison’s operatives, from “The Red Balloon” to a silent Hollywood film starring Adolph Menjou. Dody was named a chevalier de la Légion d’honneur by the French government. She was one of few Americans to receive this honor.

Eric and I were too busy running around Paris to notice what a great time we were having. Whenever we meet or write today, we exchange Humphrey Bogart’s signature line, “We’ll always have Paris.” We laugh as we say it, but it’s also true. Somehow without my realizing it our time there became one of the highlights of my youth.
 
Left to right: Agnes, Dagny, Tinky, and Eric in Paris
Left to right: Agnes, Dagny, Tinky, and Eric in Paris

After Paris, Dagny’s other great love was the preservation of the Florida Keys. She used all her strength of character (and much of her remaining strength of body) to combat rampant development and preserve the native flora and fauna of her beloved home. She is appropriately the first figure profiled in Susan Nugent’s book Women Conserving the Florida Keys.

None of what I’ve written so far conveys the exhilarating (and sometimes maddening) experience of being with Dagny. She had passion for–and a strong opinion about–everyone and everything she encountered. Her pronouncements were never simple statements; each sentence was filled with capital letters and ended with an exclamation mark. Each vista she looked at, each mouthful she ate, was THE MOST WONDERFUL EVER!!!—something to be savored and shared with friends.

One of her great joys was the view she saw daily from her little house on Key Largo. Each afternoon she turned her sights and those of her guests to the coming sunset. She argued it was best enjoyed sipping a cocktail or nibbling on a refreshing piece of key-lime pie. We were told to linger over the sunsets; no one could stop watching until the first star came out.

Like Dody herself those sunsets over the bay were colorful and dramatic. Like her they imposed their rhythm on those who came near them: they forced us to slow down and adapt to their pace. And they were always worth the trouble it took to drop whatever we were doing and yield to their appeal.

Dagny Johnson died in 2003.  She has a couple of memorials. A hammock park on Key Largo is dedicated to the memory of her efforts to save the fragile Floridian ecosystem. Appropriately, it is located at the site of one of her greatest victories in that struggle. The large arch that marks its entry was supposed to be the gateway to Port Bougainville, an oversized development she helped to avert.

Dody also has a cinematic legacy, the 1939 film Love Affair. After she contracted polio in France she and her wonderful, funny mother sailed back to the United States. On the boat they met director Leo McCarey and his wife. McCarey was so inspired by the charming, gallant crippled girl he had met on board that he created a plot that (very loosely) combined shipboard romance and loss of mobility.

The film was remade as An Affair to Remember in 1957. The films’ plots (which are identical) are creaky, but they are among the most romantic movies ever made. I think of Dody whenever I watch either version (or even the weird 1994 re-remake).

I also think of her when I make or eat any of her culinary passions—a fresh orange or avocado, a dish of crème brulé, a croque monsieur, or a cool slice of key lime pie. As the pie slides down my throat I sit once again by the Gulf of Mexico. I hear Dody rattle on about Paris and religion and the Florida Keys. And the lush yet delicate Key Largo sunset washes over me.

key-lime-pieweb

Key Largo Key Lime Pie

As in the key-lime chicken recipe below, do not substitute Persian lime juice for key lime juice here. And don’t worry that your key lime pie isn’t green (or add food coloring to make it so). Key limes are yellow, and your pie will be naturally tinted a very pale shade of that color.

According to the web site of Nellie & Joe’s, the company that makes the key-lime juice and recipe I use, classic key-lime pies are not baked (a plus in the Florida heat!). The lime juice is alleged to cook the egg yolks. Here in the north, however, I usually bake my pie. Some folks like to use the leftover egg whites to make a meringue topping for their pie and eschew the whipped cream. I much prefer whipped cream for texture and flavor.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup key-lime juice
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks (use the whites in another recipe; you won’t need them here)
1 8-inch pie shell with a graham-cracker crust (preferably homemade)
whipped cream as needed

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl whisk together the juice, condensed milk, and egg yolks until they are smooth. Pour this mixture into your pie shell, and place the pie in the oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes.

The pie won’t necessarily set, but you don’t need it to!

After removing the pie from the oven let it cool to room temperature; then cover it and place it in the freezer until a few minutes before you are ready to eat. Remove the pie from the freezer, adorn it with whipped cream (either all the way across the top or just around the edges, depending on how much additional fat you want to absorb!), and serve. If you have leftover pie, store it, covered, in the refrigerator. Serves 6 to 8.
 
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Spring Break: Key Lime Chicken (Plus!)

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

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The main course for my family’s tropical evening was actually something for which I’m not including a recipe because there really isn’t one. We ordered stone crab from the Islamorada Fish Company on the Florida Keys. This is a very expensive treat because the stone crab has to be shipped overnight (I haven’t yet had the heart to look at my credit-card bill) and does nothing to reduce one’s carbon footprint.

 

It does make life festive, however. The Fish Company catches one claw from many different crabs (returning the crabs themselves to the ocean to grow more claws!) and cooks them. When the claws arrive, the home cook’s responsibility is to refrigerate them until eating time, bang on the claws with the provided mallet to loosen the shells, and melt a lot of butter for dipping. 

Michael and David bang on crab claws on the newspaper-covered floor.
Michael and David bang on crab claws on the newspaper-covered floor.

Despite my love of stone crab I wanted to have a recipe for publication so the next evening I prepared a Cuban-inspired key-lime chicken. It’s not quite as devastatingly wonderful as the stone crab, but it’s a lot less expensive.

 

The key-lime juice gives the chicken a summery kick. And it’s hard to find an easier recipe. I adapted it from the web site of Island Grove, a company that makes a variety of key-lime products.

 

Of course, you may not have key lime juice in your pantry. I have found Nellie & Joe’s in a number of grocery stores. You have to buy a 2-cup bottle, but it’s useful for lots of things in addition to this chicken, including the key-lime pie recipe I’ll post shortly. A few drops make a lovely addition to a gin and tonic as well.

 

Don’t try to substitute regular lime juice. Key limes have a subtler, warmer flavor.

 

Ingredients:

 

extra-virgin olive oil as needed
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
salt and pepper to taste
1 onion, cut into rings
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup key-lime juice

 

Instructions:

 

In a large skillet with a cover heat the olive oil. Use it to brown the chicken breasts on both sides, salting and peppering as you cook them. Set aside. Sauté the onion and garlic until they begin to brown; then put them aside with the chicken.

 

Pour the key-lime juice and 1/4 cup water into the pan, and use them to scrape up (gently!) any goopy bits that are sticking to the bottom of the pan. Return the chicken and vegetables to the pan, cover it, and reduce the heat to a simmer.  Simmer the mixture for 20 minutes; then uncover and simmer until the liquid has almost evaporated—about 10 minutes more. Serve over rice.

 

Serves 4.

 

stoneboyweb3

Green Kitchen Tools for Earth Day

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009
Lamson & Goodnow's New Green Tools (Image Courtesy of Lamson & Goodnow; garish colors added by me)

Lamson & Goodnow's New Green Tools (Image Courtesy of Lamson & Goodnow; garish colors added by me)

 

I buy all my knives at Lamson & Goodnow—in part because the company is my neighbor in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, but mostly because it makes excellent knives. L&G has a handy lifetime sharpening policy to boot.

 

In recent years the company has branched out into lovely wooden products and a line of silicone kitchen items (I have my eye on its silicone egg poachers for a Mother’s Day recipe!). It also makes high-quality kitchen tools—spatulas, turners, grilling implements, and my favorite potato masher in the world.

 

In honor of Earth Day I thought I’d mention L&G’s most recent tools, a line called “Good Now” that is made as much as possible from recycled materials. The company makes turners of various sizes and a mini masher. I hear that other tools are in the works.

 

The tools’ handles are made entirely from post-consumer recycled paper(!). The blades are 90 percent post-consumer hi-carbon stainless steel. They look and work just like traditional hard-plastic-handled tools; they’re durable, and they are safe in the dishwasher and at high temperatures.

 

The electricity that makes them is generated locally at Lamson’s dam over the Deerfield River. And of course any waste (scrap metal and grinding shavings) is recycled.


Lamson & Goodnow has been a fixture in my area since 1834. It’s nice to see it continuing to stretch its creative wings in the 21st century.

 

 

By the way, L&G has been kind enough to offer to send a Good Now tool to one of the people who subscribe to this blog via e-mail between now and May 3! (This includes current subscribers!) The winner will be randomly chosen on Sunday, May 3. My immediate relatives are not eligible to win–although I certainly hope they will continue their subscriptions anyway. (In fact, I plan to force them to do so.)

 

To subscribe, just click on the link below. Thank you, Lamson & Goodnow! And good luck to all readers……

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