Into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary. ~ Longfellow
March has been the dreariest month I've had in a long time, both in a figurative sense and literal. Weather wise, it seems like the sun rarely obliges us by coming out. And March has been filled with sadness and anxiety. My husband and I have had to deal with his father's hospitalization and transition to hospice care. My grandmother died and I had to attend a funeral that was sad on so many different levels that it felt surreal. This month has been full of sad surprises & little frustrations that layered on top of one another have been enough to break all of our camels' backs.
As I've mentioned before, I'm an eternal optimist and living down in the trenches is not a good place for me. I explained to my husband the other day that it's one thing to feel sad and depressed. It's another to feel sad and depressed and at the same time be frustrated and irritated that you're sad and depressed. But as my husband said "Well – it wouldn't be you if you didn't give yourself a hard time about it". He knows me too well. When your life seems dark and dreary, it's easy to walk around looking at everything through those gray shaded glasses – it's easy to give into the temptation to think that since everything is dark and dreary now, it will continue to be dark and dreary. But at the same time, this month has been full of tiny moments in time when the sun breaks through the clouds.
I've been to a bridal shower where I got to hang out with some of the coolest, most uplifting women I've ever met. The other day, my tomato seedlings put out their first real leaves and I got to smell that tomato leaf smell that I've been waiting for all winter. The day we buried my grandmother, we had to mop up splatters of grease off the dashboard and explain to my brother that after driving in a van that reeked of Prince's Hot Chicken, he no longer could consider himself a vegetarian. He was a carnivore due to the contact high of the chickeney fumes permeating the air around him. I've had cat kisses, Marcus kisses, hugs from friends who know how to hug and read a blog post by a friend that made me cry but in such a good way. We harvested the first brussel sprouts that we've grown and no matter how hilariously tiny they were, my husband was able to say for the first time that he liked Brussels sprouts. Saturday, we ate a local bison hot dog while watching the Little River foam at our feet and caught our first whiff of that green Smokey Mountain smell that means it's spring. And this morning? Well, I'm officially a yoga goddess because I did my first headstand.
I've been saving a small jar of local sunshine for my last Dark Days meal. One of my favorite local farmers gave it to me as a gift last year and the thought that we can have local marmalade here in East Tennessee still delights me. Yes – local MARMALADE! The thought of local citrus just captivates me to the point that I almost squealed out loud when I saw the trees in Anita's yard this past September. And the thought that I might be able to grow my own local citrus in East Tennessee without a greenhouse? The thought thrills me.
What better way to use this than to combine it with one of my husband's favorite foods – duck. We roasted a duck from Laurel Creek Meat and glazed it with the marmalade. We also got an amazing amount of duck fat from it which is always welcome in our house.
We also steamed broccoli from our garden. I over-wintered it and even though the main shoots froze out, we've gotten a healthy harvest of side shoots from it.
This weekend I got a hold of what I've going to consider local flour(it's milled here in East Tennessee) and I wanted to do something special with it. I've never made my own pasta so I figured this was as good of a time as any to try it. I have no pasta roller so these noodles were hand rolled and cut.
These were so good that I kept eating them raw. I had no problems gilding the lily though so I sautéed them in some duck drippings. After being Mrs. Malaprop and telling my husband I was going to fry them in duck droppings.
No – the wine isn't local but everything else was except for the salt. And wine was needed so we could make a toast to those tiny moments of sunshine.
I tend to not cook much with ready made food items. It's not that I'm completely morally opposed to them. Yes – a lot of processed foods are made with far too much salt, fat and GMO ingredients for my taste. And many of them are very pricey and not very tasty to boot. But I'm a busy person and I do appreciate the convenience and time savings of a quality, well-made product.
There aren't many locally processed foods from our area so using them hasn't been an issue for the Dark Days challenge. That changed this week. One of my favorite local farms, Rushy Springs Farm, made some marinades and I picked some up this past fall. These products have been a wonderful way for our friend to use up the produce he doesn't sell at our local market. He and I have rhapsodized many hours away singing the praises of various hot peppers and the Aji Amarillo is one of our favorites.
Last night, Marcus and I took chicken thighs from Laurel Creek Meats and grilled them. When they were close to being done, we basted them with some Aji Amarillo sauce We served these thighs with summer squash from our local farmers market that I blanched and froze this past summer. I sauteed them with a fresh potato onion from our garden, a little bit of frozen, roasted ancho chili and frozen tomato from my garden and finished them with a tiny bit of frozen local cilantro I put away last summer. In fact, I used a tiny bit of beef suet to fry the squash so everything except the salt & cumin was local in this meal.
It was a wonderful, quick meal that tasted like summer. And the Aji Amarillo sauce is a wonderful locally made product that made our day a little easier and tastier.
I've been putting off this moment for as long as I can but this week I finally gave into temptation and used what I call my "Get Out of Jail Free Card" for my Dark Days post. We made breakfast for our official Dark Days meal.
Marcus and I are both exhausted. We're both still recovering from a cold that will not go away. We also have a to do list that haunts us in our sleep. This weekend has been sunny and we've spent both days out in it, soaking up as much sunshine as we can while we have it. We weeded half our beds, turned our compost and straightened up the backyard. We also burned the rotten wood from two garden beds we had to dismantle. Beyond local meat, my local ingredients are getting a bit scarce and I find myself carefully rationing them out so I can make it all the way through next month. Breakfast is a meal that is easy for us to make local and we can make it almost in our sleep.
My husband makes biscuits that would make a grown man cry. They are perfection – light, flaky, buttery. If there were a biscuit competition nearby, I'd bet money on my boy's biscuits – they're that good. My husbands biscuits are so light and fluffy that whenever he makes them, on the rare occasion we have leftovers, I have to routinely go into the kitchen and clear out all the angels who have mistaken his biscuits for fluffy clouds to sleep on.
We served these pillows of heaven with local eggs, country ham & peach jam. The country ham was from Benton's and it is some of the best country ham I've ever had. Too often, eating country ham is akin to eating a slice of a salt lick. There's very little taste to the meat and dinner must always be followed by IV fluids to rehydrate oneself. Benton's country ham is almost a completely different animal. The first thing I notice in comparison to other country ham is that Benton's has real smoke power. It will perfume your car and the best thing about this smoke is that it doesn't obscure the taste of the ham – it just makes it better.
The jam was a quick jam I made last summer when we had more yellow peaches then we could reasonably eat. I was experimenting with lower sugar jams and Pomona pectin. To add a little more interest, I also added some almond extract to the jam. On the first real Spring-like day we've had in a long time, this jam was the perfect thing to eat. A spoonful of it promised us that summer was coming, no matter how many more rainy and cold days we might have.
Everything in this meal, except the White Lily flour in the biscuits and the almond extract & pectin in the jam was local. Yes – it was a meal that took very little thought and effort but I wish more people would realize that local eating can be easy. It's not about killing yourself to eat the localest local meal that ever localed. It's about incorporating these ingredients and recipes into your life so it almost takes no thought.
We're under the weather in the McPhelps household so last night's meal was a quick and easy one. A few weeks ago, I was delighted to find homemade elk summer sausage at Laurel Creek Meats' Market in Maryville. I was even more delighted to find out that the elk is local. Elk actually used to be native to this area and in fact, was recently reintroduced to the Smokies and Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area a few years ago. Tracy Monday is also raising elk on his farm, along with bison and so Marcus and I bought a pound of ground elk and ground bison to try.
I'll be honest. I wasn't a huge fan of the ground bison. It was a bit too wild tasting for me which is discouraging because I'm really trying to enjoy local game meats more. However, it wasn't a visceral dislike – it just was a bit unfamiliar and I'm hoping that the more I eat it, the more I'll grow to like it. I did fall in love with the ground elk. It tasted like a wilder version of hamburger – like it came from a cow that scowled a lot, combed it's hair back in a pompadour and often cut out early from Calf 101. I'd love to experiment more with it.
For a side, we sauteed frozen, grated zucchini that I bought from our local farmer's market. At the risk of losing my gardening cred, I can't grow zucchini to save my life. Sure – I can grow all kinds of other tricky crops but zucchini always fails me. The one pest that plagues us is cucumber beetles – we have problems with other bugs but the beetles are our worst foe in the garden. I've gotten around the problem of cucumbers by planting County Fair – the only variety that is resistant to Bacterial Wilt that the beetles often carry. I've also grown Tromboncino squash in the past and they seem to be resistant but the past couple of years I've been too lazy to set up the sturdy trellis that they need to grow straight. And frankly, I can usually get zucchini from farmer friends for so cheap that it seems silly to worry too much about growing them, especially in our limited space.
I added a little bit of frozen, local onion and Tennessee Redneck to the zucchini and added a small bit of fresh ginger that our local co-op gets in from Alabama – not really local but about as local as I'm ever going to find ginger until we grow it ourselves. Some tamari sauce finished it off – the only non-local ingredient because we used a small bit of local beef tallow to saute the zucchini. It was a tasty and quick local meal – the best kind.
This week, I found myself making enough soup to feed an army. I’m normally not quite so enthusiastic with my cooking but between my husband and I, instructions got garbled enough that he soaked my entire bag of Borlotti beans, rather than just half the package. There was no way I was going to waste those precious beans so I got out the giant stock pot and got to it.
You may think my devotion to saving these beans is a bit peculiar – after all, dried beans are cheap and easy to find. First of all, these weren’t just any beans, these were Rancho Gordo beans. When I went to San Francisco this past September, one of my goals was to come back with some of these gorgeous beauties. Thanks to the Ferry Market Building and the lovely Anita from Married with Dinner, I scored two bags full – one filled with Borlotti beans, the other full of Christmas Limas. It would be a cold day in Hell before I wasted any of these jewels.
The other reason I was keen on using every single one of these beans is because the only local source of dried beans in the area(that I’ve found so far) would be beans that I would grow. I may find a way to do this in the future but most beans for drying are produced on fairly vigorous plants that take up a lot of space. My city lot can only hold so many plants, much to my dismay. I do have some bush cowpeas ordered this year so I may be able to produce my own beans yet, although each year I end up finding out that my seed order is too enthusiastic for my yard and my time. So even though these beans weren’t entirely local, the fact that I carried them on my person made them local enough for me to use in my challenge.
I started out sauteing some local sun-dried tomato sausage that we purchased from Laurel Creek Meat. When it was almost done, I added some potato onions from my yard. I cooked those for about eight minutes. Then I added a few minced cloves of our Tennessee Redneck garlic and deglazed the pan with a little bit of unlocal balsamic vinegar. All of this spicy goodness got thrown into my huge stock pot. I added tons of chicken stock (made from local chicken) and then added my precious beans.
One thing I was amazed at was how tasty the beans tasted after a quick soak. There wasn’t that over-whelming, almost metallic beany taste that so many dried beans seem to have. These were sweet in a way that I’ve never tasted in a dry bean before.
After cooking for about 30 minutes, I then added way too many cans of my dwindling supply of locally canned tomatoes. Half of those I pureed before adding to my soup. I tasted for salt and added rosemary, oregano and parsley from my yard. I cooked this until the beans were tender and my soup was done!
After waiting a day (I’m a firm believer that lots of soups & stews always taste better the second day), we served us up a hearty portion of our delicious soup and thanked the city of San Francisco for giving us “local” beans. After hardly making a dent in it, we packaged up portions of this soup for friends of ours that just became new parents and put the rest in bags for our freezer.