Monday, December 3, 2007


In the weeks preceding Christmas I get to fudge-making. Over the years, the many failures only drove me more determinedly to conquer the process. Though not the correct consistency, the failures were usually still edible: generally undercooked and eligible for fudge sauce. Occasionally the fudge was over-cooked and came out more like hard candy. Then there were the intermittent successes, when the fudge miraculously congealed into the perfect smooth and almost solid texture that we desire. When it comes out too crumbly, I save the crumbs to put into cookies in place of the chocolate chips.
After repeated attempts, note-taking and re-reading notes, here is what I have learned to be able to more consistently make the fudge come out right.
The recipe is slightly modified from Fannie Farmer for chocolate nut fudge:
Ingredients: 3 squares of chocolate, 2 cups sugar, 2 T corn syrup, 3/4 cup whole milk; 2 T butter, 1 tsp vanilla and 1 cup chopped walnuts.
Melt the 3 squares of chocolate in a 3-quart sauce pan. Add the corn syrup, sugar and milk. Stir til it all dissolves; bring to a medium boil and stop stirring. I've read those directions in the past, but it took me a while to recognize the significance. Bring to a medium boil and stop stirring - really! As a neophyte I had found it hard to resist the impulse to stir. I was afraid it would stick to the bottom. Why, it was getting stuck to the pan all around the upper edges! Well, there's a better way to deal with that than to stir it all back in. Instead keep a little bowl of warm water near the stove, and use a pastry brush dipped in the warm water to brush down the sides periodically. Stirring actually results in the re-formation of sugar crystals, and will not result in the proper fudge texture. Relax and let the swirling of the boiling mix it all up.
Fudge requires attention and obedience to the laws of fudge physics. It is not one of those cooking escapades that one can modulate according to one's desires. Once begun, timing is all, and the fudge tells you when it's time. The boiling phase requires patience and close attention; it needs to boil at a good pace, but not boil over. It generally takes about a half hour of boiling before it reaches that magical "soft-ball stage", but it might only be 15 minutes or closer to an hour. Different atmospheric conditions and humidity have their effects - it's actually best to make fudge on a dry, cool day. I get the impression that the addition of fattier elements such as chocolate or cream decrease the boiling time. I haven't had much luck with a candy thermometer - the one I used was probably off by 10º - so I'd given up on that. But if you have a good one, they say that 234º is the temperature of the soft ball stage.
I go by other signs. When the volume boils down to about one-quarter of the original volume, and drips from a spoon start to fatten, then the time is getting closer but there's no need to panic. You can even slow it down a bit at this point if needed, by turning down the stove a bit. The soft ball stage is defined as "a small amount of syrup dropped into chilled water forms a ball, but is soft enough to flatten when picked up with fingers". As the ideal stage nears, the last drops from the spoon briefly form small balls on the descent. In a blink of an eye, a tail forms and they look like little sperms before hitting the bottom. If you reach in and pick one up off the bottom of the glass, it does not disintegrate in your fingers anymore, but can be formed into a little ball and flattened too.
Now is the time to pounce! Remove from heat and throw in two tablespoons butter, cut into little pieces. It is the role of the butter to help cool down the fudge slowly. Once again, against all intuition, do not stir at this stage! Put the pot of fudge on a rack so it can cool down from all sides, and leave it alone. (Sometimes I hasten the process by immersing the pot in a larger container of cold water, but this can be risky, as the cooling can suddenly become rapid particularly on the edges.) If you haven't already done so, now is the last chance to butter up the 8-inch square pan, and chop the nuts. Keep an eye on the fudge, for once again you are waiting for the right moment to pounce again. This cooling stage generally takes about a half hour. We are waiting for it to cool to lukewarm, so that is pretty easy to spot. Once the sides of the pan are no longer hot, you can test it by poking a finger in the middle of the fudge. If it's still hot, then it needs to cool longer. Once it's just barely warm, approaching body temperature, then it's time to really whip into action!
Now all that pent-up urge to stir can fully express itself. Add the teaspoon of vanilla and mix it in gently, and then start to really get into it. Oh what activity for 10-15 minutes – muscles and breath! Do this on a solid counter at a good height to maintain good posture. Have a sturdy wooden spoon, as the fudge is now thickening rapidly as you stir, and you want to get the heavy spots on the bottom of the pan to mix in. Beat, beat, breathe, beat! Continue to beat til it just starts to lose its gloss. The gloss doesn't have to disappear entirely, but it must start to diminish. Add the chopped nuts. Now it is really impossible to mix – oh, hands don't fail me now! – you can drop the wooden spoon and roll up the sleeves. Hands always do the best job when things get really stiff. It's all in one glob now. Press it into the pan - no need to press it to the edges. Let cool on the rack and if you have the patience, watch how the gloss continues to dissipate until it's perfectly fudge. You know what to do now, with the knife.
My other favorite is penuche, which my aunt Sissybell made to perfection when I was a child. Unfortunately I never got her recipe or really watched her do it. But this recipe I found on the internet from the Christopher Kratzer Bed & Breakfast in Clearfield, Pennsylvania. It was passed down from the proprietor's grandmother who had learned it from her days in Atlanta.
Ingredients: 2 cups brown sugar, 1 cup milk or water, 1/4 tsp salt; 2 T butter, 1 tsp vanilla and 1 cup chopped pecans. Follow the same procedure.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

pictures of May

potted plants on patioSteve rescued the crabapple from the chain link fence adjoining our backyard. He thought it was a pear tree, but we're almost as happy that it turned out to be a crabapple.

crabapple blooms
The geraniums and rosemary were overwintered in the basement, but now get to come outside on the patio. Cilantro was started from seed in February.

tulips by fence
This is from a few years ago. Only two of these tulips came back this year.

The south-facing patio is a micro hotspot, occasionally allowing sunbathing in the spring.

I planted this crabapple tree (Malus 'Royalty') in 1987. Before that there was one of the old peach trees which had been planted by Caesar Capucci, but it was dying and had to go. Violets growing wild under the tree have been encouraged over the years by pulling out competitors.

Petals fall.

Early peas waiting to climb the trellis. Lettuce grows nearby.

Garlic, in the background, was started in the previous fall.

A redbud tree and lilac bush from two adjoining yards make us appreciate our neighbors in close city lots.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Dandelion harvest

Earlier in April I searched carefully for a bunch of young dandelions. Last week, as May loomed, they were everywhere and huge - the dagger leaves spraying out from the center of each plant like spokes on a wheel. On Saturday there was more time and I pounced, quickly filling up the wire basket.. It was a cool and misty morning. Today most of those I found have started blossoming, and now everybody notices them. The best quality has passed. Nevertheless I make one more harvest.

basket of fresh dandelion greens

It's best to pick them in the morning when they are freshest - isn't that the best time to pick anything? But there is often not time then to clean them all, and certainly I'm not ready to cookup the whole batch. Excess dirt is shaken off each plant before being thrown into the wire basket. Then usually, I throw them all into a bowl or bucket of water. On the misty morning the air and bit of soil which still stuck to the roots were still damp, so I just left the basket sit on the back stoop. A light rain arrived mid-morning, providing a first rinsing. So they stayed fresh all day until I got time to deal with them.

When it comes time to chop off the roots, I throw the leaves into clean water for a second rinsing, and the bowl of muddy water gets thrown directly outside under the crabapple tree so as not to clog the drain. A third rinsing in clear water removes the last of the dirt and the transformation from the ragged-looking plant begins. As the long jagged green leaves separate in the cleaing, milky white stems are revealed with a shimmering purple center line. The bigger plants are tougher than the young ones we ate a couple weeks ago, and there is less succulent white stem, so they require a little more moisture and more time in cooking. And don't expect to eat a big bowl of dandelion greens. They're more of a spring tonic. Earthy dense flavored, a little goes a long way: they complement well other foods such as the pot roast made last night with barbecue sauce and then sweet potatoes. I package the extra abundance into glass jars or recycled plastic containers of a cup or less in size. They crowd easily into the freezer and are a welcome addition to many dishes in future months.

washed dandelion greens

The old wisdom has it that when daffodils bloom that is the time to plant onions, as well as other early plants as potatoes and asparagus. Today I actually did get the sweet onions ito the ground while the daffodils are still blooming. The onions, which I had started in late February, looked puny but healthy. At first I went for those with dry soil to transplant, but found the little soil balls would fall apart, so then I watered lightly all the dry ones and went for the moister ones. That worked well as the soil held together for the transition into the new hole, newly sprinkled with compost. Several seeds had been sown into each unit, so some units had more than one plant. I did not divide them up at this time, figuring I could thin them out for green onions down the road.

Besides garlic mustard and dandelions, right now I'm also able to pick wild arugula and bits of corn salad, which both have returned from previous years. I've still re-sown regular arugula, which has a slightly milder taste than the wild, but I'm addicted to both. No longer need to re-sow the wild: Arugula selvatica, as it has established itself now!

This morning there was a residual chill from the cold night. I had to get outdoors into the sun and warmed up by finding a sunny spot in the garden in need of weeding. On hands and knees, the warmed soil felt good. It hasn't rained for days.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Winter walk to Stewart Park

view of Cayuga Lake from Stewart Park in winterAs I plod through my fifties, my exercise regime alternates between days of running and days of lower impact: sometimes nothing more than a quick round of push-ups, sit-ups and stretches, but whenever possible: walking, biking, or if I'm really lucky cross-country skiing. Living, as I do, in the west end of Ithaca, and being rather averse to getting into the car prior to using my body, my trips tend to go two different directions depending on time available and chosen method of travel. I can run over to Cass Park and do a three-mile loop on the nice paved trail. When I have time for a long walk, I often head to Stewart Park which is more like a five-mile trip.

These routes just happen to coincide with the Cayuga Waterfront Trail. Phase 1, already completed, is the Cass Park loop. Phase 2, which links the Cass Park loop to the Farmer's Market was originally supposed to be constructed during 2006, according to the official website, although little obvious progress has been made. Agreements with landowners still have to be ironed before construction can proceed. Phase 3 will eventually link the Farmer's Market to Stewart Park and the Tompkins County Visitors Bureau.

Long walks are a favorite part of my exercise regime – it's less strenuous on the body and the mind. There is time for leisurely contemplation and more opportunity to observe surroundings than during the rush of running. There's not always enough hours in the day for a long walk, especially in winter, during the weekdays. Light is limited; and I do have to show up at my job fairly regularly. Most weekends in winter I manage to fit in one walk to Stewart Park. Although not a finished trail as of yet, it still can be walked.

I start on the very west end of West Court Street. The big parking lot there is filled with potholes on the south end; mud and snow to the north where it's less developed. The anchor restaurant is gone from that location: most recently Buffalo Street Barbecue had a rather short stint, preceded by a longer successful run by Bistro Q. The owners of Bistro Q also managed Just a Taste restaurant in downtown Ithaca; plus they had a catering business and just couldn't handle all that success. Prior to that, Old Port Harbor restaurant was there forever (at least as long ago as I can recall). In the milder times of year, the MV Manhattan still docks there to collect passengers for their dinner boat cruises as well as other cruises, and they apparently use the building to prepare the food.

Although the parking lot is rarely full this time of year, there are cars back there from various businesses in the neighborhood, such as Enterprise auto rental which is on the corner of Buffalo and Fulton. Heading north with the ruts from vehicles in mud and snow, there is what appears to be a lot of nascent activity – much equipment and trucks, but I'm never there in the weekdays to see much work going on. The Spirit of Ithaca is docked there on the shore – another old cruise boat that had been previously docked over by Kelly's restaurant and has not been lake-worthy for many years. One day I was surprised to hear music coming from this old vessel – a jam session seemed in progress. The walking can be difficult along here some times of the year, as the access narrows to a rocky, potentially muddy path along the railroad tracks. The most difficult was following the Valentine's Day snowstorm when the snow was almost two feet deep. A thicket which runs along the shoreline is often busy with birds and rabbits skittering about finding shelter and food.

Next up are the Ithaca College and Cornell boathouses. It's easier walking now to veer away from the railroad tracks into their parking lots, and here the view of the inlet opens up. The Boatyard Grill is just across the inlet on the tip of Inlet Island and Cass Park is beyond. North of the boathouses is a shallow bay where in summers past we have pulled the paddles in on our canoe to float around lazily in the sun and observe a great blue heron still and waiting. Currently we have to continue down the road past Andree's Petroleum towards the Wastewater Treatment Plant, and turn left into the Farmer's Market. But presumably when Phase 2 is complete, the path will turn to the west along the north side of the bay around the DOT property and arrive at Farmer's Market along the shore. They'll have to do some major filling in to accomplish that, as a wide water-filled ditch, with a dense stand of reeds, currently separates the walker from going that route.

Once we do get to the Farmer's Market, we can see where the trail will arrive. An attractive trailhead has already been constructed at the Market. They had a ribbon-cutting for the trailhead in December 2006, but for now it's a trailhead to nowhere.

I continue north along the shoreline around the Farmer's Market building to where Cascadilla Creek runs into the Inlet. The path hugs the shore between the creek and a fence surrounding the wastewater plant. It's wild again along the margin there with the overhanging trees and wildlife. Docked boats can be seen at the marina across the creek and then there's the Haunt. I used to go there when I was young and they had great music down on Green Street. I hear they still have great music and a lot of events and even food. Sometimes I see and smell the smoke coming from their barbecue as I go by.

A footbridge over the Creek brings us very close to the railroad tracks again and then we're on Willow Avenue. There's the building where my daughter used to go to Montessori pre-school. Occasionally I brought her on this very trail, but more often we travelled the paved city streets back then so that I could roll her in the stroller. Turn left and head north on Willow Avenue past various businesses and the Tompkins County Transportation Center where the buses all go at the end of the day, towards the golf course and Cayuga Lake. The Newman Municipal Golf Course has been a popular spot since 1935. I don't totally appreciate golf, as those manicured lawns require an awful lot of inputs of chemicals, so was glad to hear that the city has recently applied for a grant to develop more ecological ways of maintaining the course, such as using effluent from the wastewater plant for the irrigation system. The mature trees are glorious. From the magnificent Scotch Pine and Colorado spruces when you first approach Pier Road to the ancient sycamores and maples scattered throughout, they take my breath away on a sunny day in winter outlined against the sky – the bright white bark of the sycamores festooned with hanging balls. Heading east around the perimeter of the course, glimpses can be seen of the lake to the north.

The path will follow the existing road around the east side of the golf course. Further down the road is a gathering spot for shopping carts which have been found all over the city. A huge mound of wood chips that have been left over from various clean-up operations sends up a damp woodsy odor.. Anyone can back in there with their vehicle and haul out as much wood chips as they can get.

You can also sometimes detect a slight burning odor as you approach the Fire Department's Training Center. Once or twice I've watched the firefighters dealing with a training in full gear, hoisting ladders, ramming into locked doors, voices yelling, and smoke pouring into the sky out of the wrecked cement block structure. Knowing that there was no real danger, I could enjoy the thrilling spectacle of their skill and serious intention.

The trees open up to the east and Fall Creek comes into view. In the milder weather there are often plenty of people spending the afternoon calmly fishing, sometimes equipped with lawn chairs and coolers and children running about. Over the pedestrian bridge we reach the heavily wooded Fuertes Bird Sanctuary. In the wintry time of year, I'm careful to hold onto the railing on the slope entering and leaving the bridge as it can be quite slippery on the wooden surface – I have fallen on my bottom there before!

There's a main path that circles all through the wood. I can walk it in about 15 minutes. You feel like you're in a remote refuge in this old growth woods except for the incessant sound of cars on nearby Route 13. It can be quite muddy during the wet parts of the year. Someone had pitched a tent last year well off the trail where it could barely be seen when vegetation is thick.

Over another footbridge and we're in Stewart Park – depending on the weather, full of picnickers, young people gathering around their cars with stereos blasting, old people feeding the ducks, geese, and gulls, children chasing them and playing in the playground. On the coldest days, maybe just a few birders and people who don't get out of their cars but just come for the view. I head for the Cascadilla Boathouse, and walk between it and the shore and get on the path that goes around the swan pond. Alas there are swans there no more, although there used to be in years past. Then walking along the shore, there is most always a breeze, and an ever-changing panorama of sky and moody watercolors pulsing on the surface of deep waters. In the wintertime, the shallow water freezes for quite a ways, and braver folk than I venture out on the frozen surface to get a closer look at the birds. Once I saw in the distance near Lake Shore Road a large kite trying to catch the wind, and eventually it did reach up to the sky, and the person attached at the other end appeared to be affixed to a skate board. He slid over the ice drawn by the wind from the sail - a winter windsurfer!

At the other side of the park, over the railroad tracks, there is the Ithaca Youth Bureau and the Tompkins County Visitors' Bureau. A small intimate garden behind the Youth Bureau invites quiet contemplation protected by tall cedars and a tiny footbridge bridge over a streamlet.

You could then head out of the park and get on Lake Street and get to visit the roaring waters of Ithaca Falls on the way back into town, or circle back into the Fuertes Woods and back where you came. The possibilities for walking around Ithaca are endless.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The nose is running; the snow is falling. A little snow shovelling at a time keeps the lungs exercised and the limbs moving. Lots of stretches all day long keep the lower back from failing.

Plants. Seeds ordered last month have arrived, and it's not too late to order more. Time to start cilantro for the first crop of the season. In the past I've used one rectangular peat pot, which was then transplanted into a deeper pot after a month or so. This year I'm trying several small peat pots, and I will place several in one big pot next month. Fill the peat pots with dirt and scatter the seeds. They can be sown fairly thickly. Cover with soil. In a month or two, when the roots start appearing on the bottom of the peat pots, I'll put them all into a deep pot so the roots can keep growing downward. They make nice long roots. This will provide the earliest snippets of cilantro to sprinkle on dishes with mexican or thai flavors. The cilantro roots should not be neglected, as they have yet another dimension of flavor, and can be minced finely to make a wonderful marinade. Grind black peppercorns with garlic and chopped cilantro roots. Mix with fish sauce to a paste. Those plants that are not used when young will produce fine white flowers and set seed for next time.

Indoor plants have been stalwart through the winter, but they need attention. A couple look terrible, and I just can't take it anymore, and add them to the compost. Other big-leaved varieties, like philodendron, and begonias, really benefit from a dusting on a bright day. Those sunny days hovering around thirty are a treat after the harshness of the teens and zero fahrenheit. Bathing in the light from the window, I take a soft cloth and carefully wipe each leaf, and that gives me a chance to see the ones that are so damaged that they are better removed. Soon the plants can breath better again, and I am renewed.

Cooking. One thing good about winter is that there's a natural freezer outdoors on the porch, so it's easy to make big amounts of things, like soups and stews, in stages, and then eventually have a number of containers of various things in the real freezer for future meals over the next weeks or months. The flavor gets a chance to deepen over the slow cooking. There's no pressure, no rush – a little at a time. Those big cast-iron dutch ovens keep the food protected out there in the cold and snow.

One staple in my kitchen is black beans from which I make refried beans, chile, and sometimes black bean soup! Sure I could open a can or two and make a small quantity, but it's more fun to start from scratch, and it's cheaper. An awful lot of food can be made from a one-pound bag of dry beans. The beans need slow and long cooking so they can gradually absorb water and not shrivel. So first they are soaked overnight in a big pot filled with water. That soaking water is dumped out the next day, usually for the crabapple tree just outside the back door. Fresh water is then added to cover at least a few inches above the beans – heat to a boil at first, and then lower to a simmer. In The Good Food Book, Jane Brody recommends repeated cycles of boiling with fresh water and dumping out the water, so as to get rid of the flatulent-causing polysaccharides. I can't quite bring myself to dump out so much of that flavorful water and soluble vitamins and minerals beyond that first soaking. Instead I try to have a supply of epazote handy. This Mexican herb is reputed to reduce the flatulent effect of the beans and it enhances them with a unique flavor as well. Cook for several hours at a low simmer until the beans are soft.

The beans can be left outside well-covered for another night, or more cooking can proceed.

Refried beans are of primary importance in my household as we are regular burrito eaters. Sautee onions, garlic, peppers, salt and pepper; add chili powder, cumin, and coriander. Stir til fragrant, then add the beans with some liquid, so it can continue to cook down and let the flavors meld. Mash and stir; mash and cook some more, gently at a very low heat of course. The potato masher works great on the beans. Cover or not cover depending on how much liquid there is to cook off, and how well the beans are cooked. Stir often so they don't stick. Heavy cookware like cast iron really helps here. Often these go out overnight and come back in for more cooking the next day, as it takes a long time to cook down to the right consistency. They're not called RE-fried beans for nothing. If some black bean soup is desired, can have another pot going with a similar complement of vegetables and spices (an addition of celery would be nice if available), and obviously a much higher ratio of liquid to beans. The onions and peppers are in bigger chunks for the chile or the soup than for the refried beans.

If making a chile with meat, the ground meat should be browned in a separate pan, then drained of grease. It works great to spread it on a brown paper bag to de-grease. (Later the bag is torn up and thrown into the compost. When covered with other food wastes, woodash, leaves and whatnot, meat products are not likely to attract pests.) In the dutch oven, sautee onions, peppers, garlic, and maybe carrots. Add chile powder, along with extra cumin and coriander, salt and pepper til the fragrances arise. Throw in canned tomatoes, and then the beans with a good amount cooking liquid – could also add extra stock if available -- and cook on low for a long time, letting the smells sneak around the house.

I made another catfish stew (in time for Mardi Gras!). Sauteed onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and peppers. Braised big chunks of catfish separately on a hot cast iron skillet peppered with paprika, before adding them to the vegetables. It was time to add herbs or spices. I'm learning that I need to tone down the spices so as to give some of it to my mother. We can add the hot sauces to our portions later. I was thinking cumin would be real nice touch in the stew, but then remembered that probably my mother would prefer oregano/basil Italian version of the catfish stew. Hmm, I took another sniff of the stew. The current vegetable and fish aromas mingled with those that had permeated the castiron of the dutch oven. I threw in a little cumin and then some oregano! Why not? Cooked them a bit, and then the canned tomatoes, and the last bit of a bottle of red wine.