Tuesday, July 27, 2010

When in Branson, do as the Bransonites do.

Someone had described Branson Missouri as being 'the Christian Las Vegas.' With that in mind, I had very low expectations. I'm happy to report that it isn't that bad at all, though I have been avoiding the strip of constant traffic and congested junk shops full of crap.

I'm here for our Sly Family Reunion, a tradition started when I was about four and has continued every two years ever since. Our family is large and ever growing. We live all over the country.

Why Branson, you ask? It's (relatively) central to where everyone lives (Phoenix, many parts of Texas, Michigan, Virginia Beach, Wisconsin...I could go on...). My Dad and I flew here, but several of my cousins drove.

Of the traditions that we've held over the years, the 'white elephant gift exchange' has been the highlight every time. Every adult that wants to participate brings a 'gift' purchased for around $5. Gifts need to be brought wrapped and put in the middle of a big table. There were 24 contributions this year, and we each drew a number from a hat to determine what order we choose a gift. When it's your turn, you can either 1)choose a gift from the table and open it up for all to see or 2)opt for a gift someone else has already chosen and take it from them. The second option has the stipulation that gifts can only change hands twice- once a third person claims it, it's no longer available.

Some of my relatives use it as an excuse to empty out their closets. I contributed a coon-skin cap that I found in the "Hillbilly Nut Shop" down the road. I don't even remember who first got that cap, but it was a hot commodity. There were a lot of fart or burp themed gifts this year- someone ended up with a keychain that made the sounds of various sounds of burps. My Uncle got a coin bank in the shape of a butt, and when you put a quarter in it makes a fart sound. We're talking high humor here.

I had drawn the last number, and knowing that the last unwrapped gift was brought by my Dad, I opted to take a book of 'brain teaser puzzles' that my aunt got. She then chose to take some windchimes from her sister, and her sister took the burping keychain from her niece. My poor niece decided to choose the remaining gift, the one that my Dad had provided. The room was silent as she unwrapped it, and then burst into laughter: it was a (very large) pair of mens underwear, sewn closed at the bottom with handles on the top, labeled as a 'hillbilly briefcase.'

If you're interested in acquiring your own hillbilly briefcase, you can get one at the Hillbilly Nut Shop up the street. It's bound to impress!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mid-July in the garden

The mamouth russian sunflowers have gotten to be about 8ft tall, and have halos of buzzing honeybees circling around them- so much so that it seems as thought they hum.

On the left are charentais melons. The 17th century Saint-Amant wrote that "This melon is firm to the centre, with few seeds like grains of gold," and it's inspired poems and webpages dedicated to it's flavor. I've never had one, but am about to have a lot. I read that they sometimes cut them in half and fill the center with a sweet wine such as Barsac, Marsala, Port or Madeira as an hors d'oeuvre.

There are also some summer squash, and a few small eggplants that I'm not holding my breath for- they never really took off, but have recently started to flower, so there is a glimmer of hope.

In the back are the sunflowers. In front of them are the tomatoes and carrots. Then several pepper plants. The big purple plant in the middle is a red cabbage, which has amazing water-resistant leaves that puddle water (my dog loves to drink from them). A rogue sunflower stands to the right, surrounded by brussel sprouts, a few different types of kale, sugar snap peas, onions and lettuce.

My dog is a regular fixture in the garden, and actively fulfills her (self imposed) post of 'watch dog.'

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Summer Sweet Corn Soup

I was looking forward to posting photos taken in my garden yesterday, but I accidentally ran over my iphone charger/usb cord while vacuuming and it is no longer amongst the living. I hope to have it remedied soon, and photos will appear shortly thereafter.

It's been very enjoyable to walk home with a bag full of salad greens, tomatoes, carrots, onions and peas. Meals of late have been fantastic. I've never felt a closer connection to the food that I've been eating, and I find that it's comforting and rewarding at the same time.

Yesterday I made a sweet corn soup from a recipe so simple, I felt compelled to add a bit more to it. Instead of straight corn, onions, butter and water, I rehydrated some dried matsutake mushrooms that had been sent to me at work as a sample. I saved the water that I used to rehydrate the mushrooms with and used it as the base for the soup, which worked out well.

Sweet Corn Soup
(adapted from Alice Waters)

4T butter
1 diced onion
5-6 ears of sweet corn, shucked
1/4 cup dried mushrooms (more or less depending on desired strength)
1 cup boiling water
3 1/2 cups water
fresh herbs for garnish, like dill or oregano

-Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl and pour the cup of boiling water over top to cover them. Allow them to soften for 20-30 minutes.
-Meanwhile, cut the kernels from the corn cobs.
-Once soft, remove the mushrooms from the water, and reserve the water for the soup.
-Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat
-Add the diced onion and chopped mushrooms and cook until translucent, stirring enough to keep it from browning
-Season them with salt, then add the corn kernels.
-Cook the kernels with the mushrooms and onions for about 3 minutes, then add all of the water.
-Bring it to a boil, then immediately lower the heat to a simmer. Allow it to cook for about 5 minutes, or until the corn is done.
-Remove from the heat and puree in small batches in a blender, being careful not to splash hot soup on you when you blend it.
-You can pass it through a medium-mesh strainer to achieve a smooth consistency, or enjoy it a bit more rustic.

Serve it warm, and have salt and pepper nearby so you can season it to taste. Tear a few fresh herbs over top, or add a drop of creme fraiche to finish it off. It occurred to me only after eating that a crispy fried piece of prosciutto might be the perfect accompaniment....

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Banana Sorbet

Banana sorbet is one of the easiest, fail-safe desserts I know of. It has the double advantage of being a great use of bananas that have gotten too ripe to eat. Their ample starch content results in a fluffy, creamy texture.

This is a very basic recipe with only three ingredients. You could enhance it in many ways (a little orange zest, infuse a spice (star anise, cardamom) into the simple syrup, a small splash of dark rum).

*The simple syrup should be a mix of equal parts water and sugar (though often I use a little less sugar), heated until dissolved and cooled. You'll likely have some left over- I usually start with 3000g of water and 2500g of sugar.

You'll need this simple syrup, ripe bananas and the juice of 1/2 freshly squeezed lemon.

Peel the bananas and weigh them. The ratio of bananas to simple syrup is about 1:1.2 by weight. For example, if you have 4 bananas they will likely weigh about 400g. Add 480g of the simple syrup and the lemon, and puree it all together in the blender.

Don't delay: put it in your ice cream machine right away or it'll start to oxidize.