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Good Eats, Good Cooks

August 4, 2013

Credit: Margaret Bolyes
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Whenever we eat at the other one’s house, my sister Patty (we call her Pad) and I invariably exclaim that the meal was better than anything we could have eaten anywhere in the world that day. We aren’t just being polite.

We both love to cook, and we often joke about writing a family cookbook. We aim for dishes that are nutritious, cheap, uncomplicated, easy, and fast. We also like to have fun and stay creative in the kitchen. And, of course, we love to eat. But our methods are probably not ready for the wider world.


Talk about creativity

Years ago, Pad won a weekend for two with all the amenities at a fancy spa for a recipe she thought up on the spot and had never made.

She heard about the contest on the radio driving home from work. An idea popped into her mind, so she pulled over, thought a few moments, scrawled a recipe on the back of a postcard she had in her glove compartment, and mailed it at the next post office she came to.

After Pad’s recipe won, our mom made the dish for years every time we had a family gathering. It was rich (the contest was sponsored by a dairy-products company, and she’d loaded the recipe with their best stuff) but delicious.

I consider myself the more extreme foodie. Unlike Pad, who enjoys scouting for new cooking ideas, I don’t like to eat out. I organize meals around my vegetables, and I’ve never eaten a restaurant meal that did their vegetables proud (or served anywhere near enough of them).

We grow most of my own vegetables and a lot of fruit. We can, freeze, and dry much of what we grow and stash winter squash, garlic, onions, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and beets in two separate cellar compartments. A giant pressure canner allows us to can low-acid foods such as black beans and vegetable soups safely. We grow winter salad greens in a solar greenhouse attached to the house and cook on the kitchen woodstove often during the winter.


Sisters' cookbook?

Pad’s and my imagined cookbook probably wouldn’t make it in the commercial world. We’d no doubt have to self-publish, because it wouldn’t be the kind of cookbook editors usually demand, with precisely measured ingredients and exact cooking times and temperatures.

Our cooking more resembles that of our great-great grandmothers on the farm, whose recipes called for a lump of this, a pinch of that, and a few handfuls of whatever’s available from the garden or the cupboard. We rarely make a dish the same way twice, write down what we’ve done, or measure ingredients, except in a general way.

How would a test kitchen handle a soup that starts with a slow-simmered broth made (that day anyway) from a bag of saved onion skins, celery leaves, potato peels, wilted lettuce leaves, and a cabbage core or two, a handful of whatever fresh or dried herbs are available, and maybe a few Thanksgiving turkey bones?

On the other hand, Pad’s made-up-on-the-spot casserole did win that contest. So, here's a sample of something that appears on my lunch or dinner table often:

Anytime salad
Rapidly assemble whatever veggies are on hand that go well together such as:

  • Any combination of raw or cooked greens, including garden weeds such as purslane, wild violets, or lamb’s quarters
  • Tomatoes, peppers
  • Steamed young potatoes
  • Lightly-steamed or leftover vegetables such as broccoli, summer squash, corn-off-the-cob, green beans
  • Any combination of minced fresh or dried herbs
  • Don’t forget: Fresh fruit of any kind goes well with most all fresh salad greens

Fig-infused balsamic dressing
Dress with this elegant dressing, which carries the sweet, complex taste of marinated figs:

  • Pour a bottle of balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan.
  • Chop a few unsulfured Turkish figs; add to vinegar. 
  • Heat to a simmer (don’t boil).
  • When the infusion has cooled, decant into a wide-mouthed jar. The vinegar improves with time; don’t strain out the figs.
  • Use as is or mix half and half with good olive oil. (Great on all vegetables, hot or cold.)
  • Add minced garlic, a little maple syrup, horseradish, honey mustard, or culinary herbs to vary flavor. (Not all at once!)

Make a meal by spreading the hot or cold vegetables on a large plate. Then plunk a wedge of cheese, a chopped hard-boiled egg, a little leftover chicken/fish/meat, a mound of chickpeas (black beans, quinoa, lentils, etc.) in the center and drizzle with dressing.

Great served with fresh whole-wheat flatbread. Easy to make, but that’s for another post.

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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