Maple Syrup Season in New Hampshire

Fieldstone Farm, East Rindge

It’s maple syrup season here in New England, and for the past few weeks, sugarhouses have been busy, boiling down maple sap to create maple syrup. You really don’t see sap buckets on the trees like the ones shown in the photograph on the left anymore. About the only place you can find those are in antique shops. That’s because the process of collecting sap has been streamlined over the years.

Look carefully into the woods and the evidence is unmistakable: plastic tubing snaking from tree to tree, terminating in large, sealed plastic containers that can hold many gallons of sap. It takes about forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, and streamlining the collection process allows farmers to tap a larger number of trees.

I really love maple syrup, probably because I grew up in a house where pancakes and waffles were served with margarine and fake, maple “flavored” syrup. Until I moved to New England, I truly don’t think I knew what I was missing. For me, no matter how good a pancake is, without real butter and authentic maple syrup it’s just not worth the effort.

Elisa and I are lucky enough to live within a mile of Fieldstone Farm, a small, family owned and operated farm in East Rindge, New Hampshire. Every year in the spring we head down the road to buy our maple syrup there. We usually wait until later in the season so we can buy Grade B maple syrup, which is darker and has a stronger maple flavor than what is usually found at the supermarket. Basically, there are four grades of syrup here, Grade A Light Amber; Grade A Medium Amber; Grade A Dark Amber, and Grade B. The grading is based entirely on the opacity of the syrup, and the same grade of syrup purchased from two different producers can and will have subtle differences in flavor. The lighter syrups are produced at the beginning of the season and the darker grades arrive later.

Fieldstone Farm's Sugarhouse

Visiting Fieldstone Farm during their open house weekend in March is great! They raise cattle and sell their own beef, and they also have a Buffalo wandering around, which is a somewhat uncommon sight in New Hampshire. They provide hot dogs and juice, and it’s quite nice to squeeze into their sugarhouse and sample their  syrup while they boil down the maple sap for the next batch.

When we’ve purchased our maple syrup and gotten back to the house, we make up a batch of fresh pancakes right away. It’s a distinct pleasure to have homemade pancakes with maple syrup when the syrup was bottled the same day, less than a mile down the road.

I’ve posted my pancake recipe previously, which I like for two reasons. First, you can make a mix of the dry ingredients and keep it in your cupboard, which gives you the convenience of using a store-bought mix, with the wholesome ingredients of home made. The second reason is because it’s really, really good. Give it a try!

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Homemade Griddle Cake (Pancake) Mix

The attraction of this recipe is that it allows you to make a dry pancake mix that is entirely homemade and consists only of a few simple ingredients. Then when you want to make pancakes for breakfast, it is as simple as adding three ingredients to the dry mix and head on over to the stovetop. Nothing could be easier. I have been making this recipe since the middle 1980s, when we picked up a very unconventional recipe book by Yvonne Young Tar, The Up With Wholesome, Down With Store Bought Book of Recipes and Household Formulas.

Unfortunately, the book has been out of print for many years, but Amazon and other online booksellers usually have used copies available.

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Ingredients

Basic Mix:

  • 5 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 Tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Salt

Additional Ingredients:

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 Tablespoons margarine, melted

Making the Dry Griddle Cake Mix

  1. Mix together the basic mix ingredients and store in an airtight container for later use.

Making the Griddle Cakes

  1. To 1 1/2 cups of the dry mix (above), add the egg and milk and mix together.
  2. Then gradually mix in the margarine until the batter is smooth.
  3. To bake, spoon a ladle of batter onto a hot, lightly greased griddle. Turn when the top of the griddle cake develops tiny bubbles. Cook the other side and serve immediately with butter and fresh Maple Syrup.





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A Better Refrigerator Magnet

Repurposed Refrigerator Magnet

Repurposed Refrigerator Magnet

First, I must confess. Refrigerator magnets are overused, and the flat expanses of the sides and doors of refrigerators suffer the consequences, becoming nothing more than bulletin boards of hopeless, cluttered kitsch. Nevertheless, most of these inexpensive little doo-dads fall (no pun intended) well short of their purpose. The magnets themselves simply aren’t strong enough to hold up anything heavier than a sparrow’s fart.

I’m one of those people who often keep several of my recipes stuck to the side of my fridge, partly for meal planning and partly as a reminder to myself regarding what to put on my shopping list. And most magnets will only hold 2-3 pieces of paper before they fail. I took inspiration from those brave pioneers that repurposed a lowly wood rasp and turning it into the world’s best cheese grate, and started to search for something that could be converted into the world’s best refrigerator magnet.

So I’ve repurposed the C.H. Hanson Magnetic Stud Finder as the ultimate refrigerator magnet. What makes this choice the best? Simple. It uses a pair of extremely powerful rare earth magnets, which give it enough strength to single-handedly holds up all 86 pages of the September 2000 issue of Fine Cooking (and yes, the Galettes on the cover taste awesome).

And bonus, if my electronic stud finder ever fails, I’ve got this little monster as a backup.

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You call that a knife?

Wusthof Classic Hollow-Ground Santuko

Wusthof Classic Hollow-Ground Santuko

One at a time over the years, as I could afford them, I have slowly put together a quality collection of kitchen knives. I couldn’t do without my bread slider or my paring knife, but in my collection, this one, the Wusthof Classic Hollow-Ground Santuko, is without a doubt the most versatile.

It has a number of features that make it my go-to knife. It’s edge, which is less curved than a traditional chef’s knife, simplifies chopping. Also, the hollow-ground blade helps whatever is being sliced (particularly things like tomatoes and cucumbers) to slide off the blade more easily than would otherwise be the case.  For me, the lack of a bolster that runs the entire width of the blade is definitely a plus, as the heel of the blade comes down flush on the cutting surface.

If I could only have one knife in the kitchen, this would be it. It might not be the knife of choice for paring an apple, but generally speaking, its versatility is unmatched. It truly is one of these ‘jack-of-all-trades’ kind of items.

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Sunday Morning Bread Baking

Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread

Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread

This morning, as I occasionally do on Sunday mornings, I baked up this nice loaf of crusty, rustic European bread. This particular loaf is destined for Elisa’s Ribollita recipe, but I’m also baking a second one, just to have around for the next few days.

One of life’s pleasures, which I first experienced when I was in the army and stationed in Italy, is a nice slice of a good, rustic, European loaf of bread. I still remember fondly a particular bread known as Pane di Lucca that I had in a trattoria called In Pelleria, which is located inside the ancient walled hill town of Lucca, in Tuscany.

But that was back in 1979, and there is simply no such loaf available commercially in New England. So beginning with The Italian Baker, Carol Field’s landmark book on Italian baking, I’ve been on a leisurely, two-decade long quest to bake a comparable loaf in my home oven. I’ve learned a lot about baking bread along the way, and I’ve experimented with a variety of flours, commercial cake yeasts, starters, and techniques, but the common point of failure for me has always been the issue of density. My breads have always been just slightly too dense. Properly baked, a good rustic European loaf will have  a crisp, crackly crust, and inside, the crumb will be wonderfully large-holed, tender, and naturally flavorful.

The Perfect Loaf of Bread

It was in the crumb that all of my experiments fell short. Many recipes include methods for increasing humidity in the oven, which is the secret for keeping the crust from forming long enough that the oven rise will produce the large-holed crumb texture I was looking for. Some have you put a pan of water directly on the heating element or on a rack below the rack containing the bread being baked. Others, inspired by an earlier episode of Julia Child’s PBS series, The French Chef, have you spray warm water into the oven periodically for the first 10-15 minutes of the bread baking process. While these methods produce some positive results, none of them are able to produce the final product I was looking for.

That had to wait until 2006, when I came across an article by Mark Bittman in the New York Times that extolled the virtues of  Jim Lahey’s recipe for home baked bread. Lahey, the founder and owner of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery, had been searching for the same thing I was searching for, a method for creating a truly amazing loaf of bread without the steam injection found in a professional baker’s oven. Lahey’s magic formula consisted of three important parts:

  • an overly-hydrated (i.e., very wet) dough utilizing a tiny amount of yeast;
  • an unusually long first rise (he recommends eighteen hours); and
  • baking the loaf inside a covered, pre-heated dutch oven.

The very wet dough, combined with the covered dutch oven, creates its own steam bath, thereby delaying the hardening of the bread’s crust and allowing the crumb to have the large, uneven holes he was looking for. The eighteen-hour rise results in a hearty, complex flavor palette. Jim’s recipe created exactly the loaf of bread I’d been searching for, and I’ve been baking it ever since.

Since the New York Times published Lahey’s recipe, I’ve seen him demo the bread on Martha Stewart’s television show, and later I purchased his book, My Bread, which begins with his basic bread recipe and expands the concept into making other kinds of bread utilizing the low-yeast, high-water dough and steam chamber method he created with his original recipe. Between the original New York Times Article, published in 2006, and the publication of his book, the basic recipe changed slightly, using significantly less water (1 1/3 cups vs. 1 5/8 cups)  in the dough and baking in a warmer oven (475° vs. 450°). I’ve tried both versions as well as several of my own modifications; the original recipe from the New York Times article is, for me, is the better of the two recipes. My only modification, which I believe makes a big difference, is that instead of just removing the lid of the dutch oven for the last 15-20 minutes of baking, I remove the half-baked loaf from the dutch oven and put it directly on the oven rack, close the door, and turn the oven off for this final period of baking. Doing this keeps the bottom crust from becoming hard and unpalatable.

Whether you have been on a quest for great homemade bread the way I have, or even if you’ve never baked a loaf of bread in your life, consider giving this recipe a try. I guarantee that you’ll produce a loaf superior to anything that is available commercially.

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Dinner at New World Bistro Bar, Albany, NY

New World Bistro Bar, Albany

New World Bistro Bar, Albany

My wife and I drove to Albany a few weeks ago to see the Doc Watson concert at The Egg. Elisa had researched the restaurant scene in Albany, and after she showed me the menu, we decided that the New World Bistro Bar would be a great place to have an early dinner before the concert. We called ahead from the road and made reservations for two, and we arrived right on time.

The New World Bistro Bar is a cozy location in the corner of a building on Delaware Avenue. There is ample parking in a lot behind the building. You can tell that the owner, Ric Orlando, has put his heart and soul into the place, and in all honesty it is a rare jewel in a neighborhood that’s seen better days. The interior is an eclectic mix of booths and tables, and it’s evident that the interior was put together by someone with a talented eye for design.

When we arrived we had to wait for a few minutes while dueling hostesses huddled up to decide where we were to be seated. Eventually a table was set for us, and despite the fact that there were many set tables available they sat us at a tiny two-top pushed up against the inside glass of the entry vestibule, without a doubt the worst table in the restaurant. But hey, someone had to get that table, so why not a couple of folks who drove three hours to get there and bothered to make reservations, to boot?

One of the things that had interested us about the restaurant was that the menu specialized in small plates, or Tapas as they are known in Spain. After reviewing the specials with us, the waiter gave us some time to decide on our order. From the menu, we learned that Chef Orlando had just won an episode of Food Network‘s Chopped, so we were looking forward to sampling a few items.

In the end, we decided to share four tapas: white anchovies with almonds and olive oil; Saigon street style fried calamari; crab cakes; and from the specials menu, a Tomato and eggplant tower. Elisa ordered the house red wine, René Barbier‘s  Mediterranean Red, and I had a diet coke. Elisa thought her wine was quite adequate for an inexpensive house wine,  and we passed the time chatting about the upcoming concert and bemoaning our table assignment.

When three of the four dishes arrived at the table, we realized that the bread that had been promised by our waiter had never materialized. We informed the waiter … he was very apologetic and he brought us a serving of bread immediately. Once we had sampled the bread, it became abundantly clear that the meal would have been much improved without it. We both declared the bread as being completely stale; the four diners at the table next to us separately made the same observation. Later, as I passed by the kitchen to use the restroom, I noticed that they seemed to be baking their own bread in house, which I still find hard to believe, given the final product that had arrived at our table.

So our table was filled to the brim with the bread and three of the four small plates, which, it turns out, were needlessly plated on very large plates indeed. The anchovies had yet to make an appearance.

Bottom line, the crab cakes were quite good, the calamari was good but not great, the anchovies, when they finally made their entrance, were a bit of a disappointment,  and the Tomato tower … well, that tomato (or the two slices of it that we saw) was absolutely wonderful. But not at $9.

With standard tip, the meal ran about $65. The service was spotty, the food quality uneven, the bread horrible, and the seating left a lot to be desired. It’s possible that Sunday is not a good day to dine at Mr. Orlando’s establishment, but that was the day we chose. We both felt the restaurant succeeded conceptually but failed in execution. Greater effort should be expended on training the hostesses to be … well, hostesses. Something needs to be done about the bread they serve, and two slices of tomato surrounded by two slices of eggplant isn’t a tower, it’s a strip mall, and it shouldn’t sell for $9.

Ric Orlando’s New World Bistro Bar
300 Delaware Avenue
Albany, NY
518.694.0520

(parking lot behind building)

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Concert Review: Doc Watson

Doc Watson at The Egg, Albany

Doc Watson at The Egg, Albany

At eighty-seven years of age, legendary guitarist Doc Watson still maintains a touring schedule. Usually when a musician of his stature continues to perform this late into his career, he begins to be described as a “musical treasure.” Often, those are code words for “lost his chops.” I tell you what, Doc has certainly not lost his chops, although to be fair, his playing does not have the same sureness or consistency as it once had.

Elisa and I saw Doc play in Albany, New York at The Egg on Sunday, August 1. It was the fourth time I’ve seen Doc perform. Unfortunately, Albany, a little over three hours by car to the west, is as close to New England as Doc’s tour  would get. Our drive took us through Wilmington, Vermont, where we’d seen a Doc Watson show over twenty years ago at Wilmington’s Memorial Hall.

We had an early dinner in Albany at the New World Bistro Bar (review here), and then we headed downtown to Empire Plaza, where The Egg is located. The main amphitheater at The Egg is called the Kitty Carlisle Hart Theatre. Despite being inside a structure that typifies the kind of architectural brutalism popular in the 1970s, the Hart Theatre has wonderful acoustics and is quite beautiful inside. Seating capacity is 982.

Doc appeared with musician/storyteller David Holt and bassist T. Michael Coleman backing him up. During the second half of the show, his grandson, Richard Watson, sat in for a number of tunes. The show opened with the bluegrass standard Way Downtown, with Holt playing banjo. Then Holt introduced the next tune, Shady Grove, a song that Doc said was one of his wife’s favorites back when they were “courting.”

David Holt was tasked with doing many of the song introductions, and it was a mixed blessing. I appreciated hearing the back story on some of the songs that Holt provided, but he also ended up being a bit of a barrier between Watson and his audience. The best of it was when Doc would interrupt Holt and take over, providing some tidbit such as how he first heard a particular song. After Shady Grove, the trio worked through a very nice rendition of the fiddle tune Whiskey Before Breakfast, followed by Little Sadie and then one of the highlights of the evening, Deep River Blues, a song I never get tired of hearing. After that they played Bye Bye Blues, which is a tune I don’t think I’ve heard before, and then the Carter Family classic, Solid Gone.

Doc laid his guitar across his lap at this point and pulled out a harmonica, which was the first instrument he learned to play as a boy. He played a very nice version of Fisher’s Hornpipe, accompanied by Holt on the bones, and then Raincrow Bill, which passed as the comedy segment for the evening, with Holt doing knee-slapping, hand clapping, and cheek popping as accompaniment.

At this point, Holt switched over to playing slide on a steel guitar for a trio of tunes, Sittin’ on top of the World, a Holt-penned tune called Slow Food, and finally, The Train that Carried My Girl From Town.

Doc Watson

Doc Watson

After intermission Doc came out to play a short solo set. He talked about knowing fellow North Carolinian Elizabeth Cotton and then started off with her signature tune Freight Train, and at each instrumental break he played with a different and distinct style of fingerpicking. After that he played a couple of tunes that I don’t think are a part of his standard repertoire, For the Good Times, by Kris Kristofferson, and A Big Bouquet of Roses, by Eddie Arnold. Both of these songs are about love (or the lack of it) that falls a little short, and Doc pointed that out in his intros. His playing was a bit labored on these tunes–I don’t think he was as familiar with them as he was with the rest of the evening’s material. He finished off his solo set with a pair of songs associated with Merle Travis:  an instrumental I really like and cannot recall the name of, and then the gospel spiritual, I Am a Pilgrim.

Coleman and Richard Watson,  Doc’s grandson, joined Doc on stage at this point, and I particularly enjoyed the songs during this part of the concert, as Doc’s playing was fast and sure, and he had good command of the material. He started off with the traditional song Frankie and Johnny, followed by Workin’ Man BluesIn the Pines, and the Jimmie Rodgers tune, T for Texas.

David Holt brought his steel string back onto the stage and the four of them finished off the concert with Walk On, John Henry, Down Yonder, and the Mississippi John Hurt song, I Got the Blues and I Can’t Be Satisfied, with the lyrics altered somewhat–Doc’s version doesn’t have the singer of the song murdering anyone.

My wife and I really enjoyed this show.  Doc’s playing (and his voice) are still amazingly strong for someone of his age. He seems to enjoy performing, and while his set was based off of a core set of tunes that he often plays when he’s accompanied by David Holt, he also pulled out some less frequently heard tunes as well. It was a real joy to experience him in concert.


Doc Watson.
7:30 pm, August 1, 2010
The Egg, Albany, New York



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Spicy Basmati Rice with Black Mustard Seeds

Spicy Basmati Rice with Black Mustard Seed

Spicy Basmati Rice with Black Mustard Seed

When it comes to rice, I’m a big fan of Indian cuisine, due in no small part to my preference for basmati rice over most other varieties. I also tend to like rice that’s been goosed up a bit with other ingredients and that has been made with a broth rather than just water.

The inspiration for this particular dish comes from two sources, the Spicy Basmati Rice recipe from the excellent cookbook, Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, and also from the Chicken Tikka Masala episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay.

The happy accident came about when I had no ginger for the first recipe, and I had recently seen the Chicken Tikka Masala episode of Throwdown.  The result is a dish that’s not nearly so plain as the Bobby Flay recipe, but is still a dish that highlights the black mustard seed, which adds a very nice flavor note.

As I note in the ingredient list (below), the red pepper in the dish is optional; I decided to throw it into the mix because it makes the dish really pop visually, and since I was happy with the results, I’ll keep making it that way.

 

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Ingredients

  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled, halved, and sliced into paper-thin half rings
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced into very thin strips (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons black mustard seed
  • 2 teaspoons fresh minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3/4 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 cups chicken or vegetable stock, heated

Instructions

  1. Place rice in a bowl. Add water to cover. Rub the rice grains with your hands until the water turns milky.
  2. Drain the water. Add more water and repeat the process four or five times until the rise is well washed. (the water should not be milky).
  3. Cover the rice with fresh water and leave to soak for half an hour. Then drain and leave rice in a strainer to dry.
  4. While  the rice is soaking,  preheat the over\n to 325 degrees fahrenheit.
  5. Heat oil over medium-high heat in heavy, ovenproof saute pan. Add the mustard seeds and toast for 1-2 minutes.
  6. Now add the onion (and optionally the red peppers) and fry them for 2 to 3 minutes or until they begin to turn brown at the edges.
  7. Push the onion and pepper to the edge of the pan, and in the middle of the pan, toast the garlic, salt, cinnamon, cumin, garam masala and cayenne pepper just until fragrant, perhaps a minute or less.
  8. Add the rice, turn the heat to medium low, and stir and fry the rice for 7 to 8 minutes or until the rice is translucent and well coated with the oil.
  9. Add the stock and make sure the rice is evenly distributed. Continue cooking over medium-low heat for another 5 to 6 minutes, until the top of the rice begins to look dry (there should still be a bit of liquid in the bottom of the pan).
  10. Cover with a well-fitting lid (or aluminum foil under a looser-fitting lid) and place in over for  25 minutes.
  11. Remove from oven and leave covered for 10 minutes. Serve immediately.




 

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