Culling Cookbooks

Cookbook culling can be challenging. You have to be in the right mood of course, and it helps if you have a lot of time. The one thing the pandemic has given me is plenty of time, so when the mood to cull struck, I dove right in.

It started with the church basement ladies cookbooks. I needed a bit more room on the bookshelf, and I wanted it right away. In these situations, one picks the low-hanging fruit. I have a lot of church basement ladies cookbooks. Some I got from my mom, a couple were gifts, some I got at garage sales and such, plus I think they multiply on their own. I easily found seven to part with (one of my mom’s I kept because she had written a lot of comments in it, and it makes me smile), and I had the space I needed. Mission accomplished.

Oh, but it felt so good. What about all those apple cookbooks? Do I really need four apple cookbooks when I have a favorite I use all the time? (I decided not—the one will do me fine.) At this point, I decided to be methodical, going left to right on semi-organized shelves.

Start with easy: My Moosewood cookbooks and similar ilk. As expected, I kept most of these, although I did get rid of one Moosewood book about fancy vegetable sides, and another (non-Moosewood) book that was beautiful but contained recipes that I was pretty sure I’d never make.

Then came grains, which are such basic building blocks, I kept four of my cookbooks. Beans, my favorite building block, fared even better—I kept all seven. Beans—there are so many things you can do with beans!

Two of three soup cookbooks got culled, because I realize I almost never get soup recipes from soup cookbooks. I get them from all my other cookbooks. But it seemed prudent to retain one soup book.

I surprised myself on the potato cookbooks—I was sure I would keep the fat one with a lot of recipes and eschew the much thinner book with perhaps a tenth of the recipes. Wrong. The short book had far fewer recipes, but it had several I wanted to make. The bigger book—not even one!

If it sounds to you like I went through each book page by page, indeed I did, with the intent of “indexing” them. This is something I do with most of my new (to me, though they are more often used than new) cookbooks—I go through and make note of all the recipes I want to make, and I put them on a big (or smaller, depending) sticky inside the back cover. This is a great short cut. It isn’t foolproof, because preferences change over time, but it’s also fun to do—nice bonus.

In the course of culling my cookbooks, I’ve found several unindexed books. They go in a separate section on the bookshelf. This is also part of the culling process, but the mood to index a book is different from that to cull, so it goes in a stack and the culling goes on. Later in the evening, I will index a book or two.

Here’s a book I’m looking forward to indexing: The Victory Garden Cookbook. I have several vegetable cookbooks (just getting to these) and can you imagine a better time of year to be looking at vegetable cookbooks?

There is so much fun in this project: I’m making space on my bookshelf, reducing clutter, passing along some really good cookbooks to others and maybe getting some store credit at one of our local used bookstores into the bargain. (Independent bookstores offer much better prices than Half Price Books, and cookbooks are often in demand. I always take my cookbooks to local indies.)

I’m also getting excited about cooking again. I generally don’t like cooking in the summer because I’m a heat wimp, and each summer, I fear I’ll never want to cook again. But already I am longing to cook. The other day my neighbor said her green beans are coming in, would we like some? It took me a few minutes, but I found the recipe for minestrone casserole (think thick minestrone soup) done in a slow cooker.

Green beans? Yes, please!

When a Cooking Fail Is Also a Success

Yesterday, I made red lentil and barley pilaf, a recipe I ran across in the newspaper. I love both lentils and barley, and I had all the ingredients excepting one in the house. The missing ingredient: za’atar.

Here is my story. See if you can spot the places where I messed up.

Lacking za’atar, I made my own blend (see the end for za’atar recipe and notes). This was fun. I like making my own blends (also Italian mix and garam masala)—it’s usually easy, and it puts me better in touch with the food.

Once I had all the ingredients ready, I started with the barley. I love barley (though I haven’t cooked it in years). It has a wonderful texture—a grain of substance. Checking my cookbooks (I often crosscheck recipes) I find that the 45-55 minutes recommended in my recipe is quite conservative for barley. My grains book says 45 minutes to 1¾ hours! Well, good thing I’m making the lentils after the barley. I like to focus on one thing at a time.

The barley is nearing done (after extending the cook time quite beyond 55 minutes) and I decide now is the time to get a leg up on the lentils. I pour the oil in the pan (sunflower oil, which surprised me), measure out the vegetable stock, do a few more things and then get ready to mince the onions and—the barley? Oh crap! I grab the barley off the stove, but of course the pot is hot and the barley continues to cook. Must get barley out. I get out my little colander. Way too small. I grope for the big one (the big metal one that belonged to my grandparents), put it in the sink and pour in the barley. I leave it there.*

*I leave it there because when I pulled out the large metal colander, my pottery batter bowl was inside. As I edged the colander out, the batter bowl fell to the floor and broke in two. This is a bowl I use for everything (except batter)—cooking, baking, and herb work. It was a gift from my sister-in-law; we had a no-new-gifts rule, and it was a bowl she had no use for, and a bowl I treasured from the day I got it. Sigh.

After a little tantrum and a few tears (and an email to a potter), I started the lentils. Possibly I shouldn’t have cooked, but I had grated the ginger and minced the garlic and onions, and everything was there and measured and waiting. And I had made the za’atar. Even the part of myself that said I shouldn’t cook when I was so upset acknowledged that leaving this uncooked was not really an option. Also, I was curious (and invested) in the recipe, and I love barley and lentils.

So, I heat the oil (and throw in a few minced onions to let me know when it’s good and hot). I add the onions, ginger, and garlic and stir, and I have to stir continuously because they stick to the pan after a nanosecond. I scape and stir for the required two minutes, then add the spices (I did an extra bit of scrape and stir here, cooking the spices) before adding the stock (which I added just a bit of, at first, to deglaze the pan like you do when braising—I wanted to get all those good stuck bits up off the bottom; they add good flavor). Then I added all the stock and the lentils, stirred, and brought to a boil. Boil, stir, turn down to a simmer. Timer on.

Oh, the barley. Put the barley back in its pot, awaiting the lentils.

Oh my. This kitchen smells divine. I can’t believe I’m making this wonderful scent waft. My spouse comes into the kitchen, twice, purely to comment (effusively) about how good it smells. I am in seventh heaven.

The timer goes off on the lentils—they’re looking mind of mushy and done, but I try one of course (more than one, actually, they’re small). Oh no—not done! Add 10 more minutes (and more stock, as it’s getting thick and sticking on the bottom).

Did I mention the kitchen smells divine? I’m practically passing out that I’ve created such a wonderful aroma. (Well, the credit must go to the herbs, of course, but I turned up the heat.)

So the timer goes off, the lentils look appropriately mushy, and I add them to the barley. All that’s left to do is heat it up (because the barley has quite cooled). And I stir it all together and the consistency seems to be really good after all (I was afraid it would be too dry). All it has to do is heat through. I taste it.

The lentils aren’t done. Well crap! I can hardly extract the lentils and cook them more at this point. I add stock to the barley-lentil mix and cook for 15 minutes. This makes the barley a little mushy, but still chewy (I believe barley is one of our most forgiving grains) but the lentils still not quite done (many are done, but the crunchy few stand out). It’s a bit of a torture: It tastes really good, but it’s overcooked and undercooked.

The success of course is the spice blend (also please note a hefty teaspoon of cumin went into the lentils along with a good pinch of red pepper flakes, in addition to the za’atar). More information about my za’atar journey below.

 

Finding Za’atar

I am pretty sure I can get za’atar at the co-op, but that’s not happening for several days. So I scoured the internet for za’atar substitutes (I’m a fan of making my own mixes) and the range was huge! My big miss for homemade za’atar was sumac. Looking for sumac substitutes, I came up with lemon pepper, and lemon peel. I also found two wildly divergent za’atar recipes with the same ingredients, and this is what I came up with, somewhere in the middle (makes a little more than half a cup):

  • 3 T thyme
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp marjoram
  • 2 T toasted sesame seeds*
  • 1 T lemon pepper (scant)
  • 1 T lemon zest**

*I found a container of toasted sesame seeds at the grocery store and was happy to take this shortcut!

**Don’t add this until just before using if it’s fresh, and then only scaled to the amount you need for the recipe.

Excepting the lemon zest (unless it’s dried), grind the spices in a mortar and pestle (or a spice grinder)—enough to break up some of the sesame seeds and keep plenty whole. Then add the lemon zest. The amount to add is a little iffy and up to you. I added about a teaspoon and it was good.

Confession: When I made it, I was sure it wouldn’t work. I thought it smelled like dill. But I said to myself, you made it, at least try it. So glad I did.

Happy cooking!

Cookies for Breakfast?

When I ran across a super simple recipe for oatmeal breakfast cookies, I had to try it out. Here’s how simple:

Ingredients

  • 3 large ripe bananas, mashed (see note below)
  • 1¾ cup quick oats
  • ¼ cup chocolate chips
  • ¼ cup applesauce

Steps

  • Add the quick oats to the bananas and mix well. Then fold in the chocolate chips, then the applesauce.
  • Tablespoon-size cookies can be rolled into a ball or flattened before baking.

Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes, until lightly browned on top.

Note: When bananas get a bit too ripe on my counter, I toss them in the fridge right in their skins. They freeze marvelously. When you want to make banana bread or breakfast cookies, bring out the bananas an hour or two ahead of time and put them in a large bowl to thaw. Easy peasy. They squirt right out of the peel.

I didn’t have 3 large bananas, so I used 3 small and 1 medium banana. And a quarter cup of chocolate chips didn’t seem like nearly enough, so I added a hefty half cup.

The cookies were absolutely delicious out of the oven. Lots of chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli 60% Cacao) and plenty moist. Yummy and very filling. Hearty, one might say.

This morning, however, the story was a mite different. They were almost soggy, and with my morning tea—way too many chocolate chips. And I think a pinch of salt might be needed.

I am not giving up on this. I’ve already added bananas to the shopping list. This is an idea with serious legs. Next time I will NOT use four bananas. And I think I might try blueberries instead of chocolate chips. And maybe some walnuts.

Suggestions for additional variations are more than welcome!

Pork Chops Delicious

My first new recipe of the year (see resolution to cook at least one new thing every month) is for baked (though I might call them braised) pork chops.

I found this recipe in my mom’s recipe box, clipped from an unknown newspaper. It intrigued me, and it was one of the few meat recipes in the box that didn’t require a can of condensed soup.

Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

  • 8 pork chops
  • 2 cups soy sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp molasses
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced

I didn’t want to make 8 pork chops as I only had 2. But quartering the rest of the recipe was tedious, so I just halved it. I do not regret this decision. (Also, I used an entire clove of garlic, and not a small one.)

Steps

Mix all the ingredients excepting the pork chops in a sauce pan, heat and simmer for two minutes. Let cool.

Pour the cooled mixture over the chops, turning the chops around in the marinade so they are thoroughly drenched. Make sure a lot of the onion and garlic pieces are on top of the meat. Marinade, covered, for at least 2 hours in the fridge, or you can also marinade overnight. (I just put the chops right in the pan I plan to bake them in—less to clean up. Mine had a lid. You can also use foil.)

Using a shallow baking pan, bake the chops (with the marinade, again with lots of the good bits on top) tightly covered, at 375 degrees for one hour.

After an hour, remove the cover and bake for another ½ hour or so, when the sauce is reduced and the chops are done.

This was excellent. It would have been even better had I adjusted the cooking time to reflect 2 pork chops rather than 8 (I believe half an hour could be shaved off), but it’s a very good starting point.

Thanks Mom!

Resolutions for 2020

I usually do three resolutions for the New Year, and I’m pretty good at keeping them. Most years, it seems they just come to me, but this year, I’ve struggled a little bit. Does that mean I shouldn’t do them? Well, no. Let it simmer a little bit.

And one day a week or two ago it occurred to me there are so many new things—foods—I want to make in the kitchen, and yet I keep making the same old same old. Why not a resolution to make at least one new thing a month? Ever since I happened upon the idea, it keeps growing on me. There are so many things I want to make! I bought a Somali-American cookbook a few months ago, and that in itself could provide the requisite 12 dishes. But I also have a book of Mediterranean recipes for the slow cooker, and that would also provide 12 candidates. And then I found two in my mom’s recipe box that I want to try: macaroni and cheese (which I’ve never made except from a box), and marinated pork chops.

There are also some very common things I want to make that I never have: scalloped potatoes, buttermilk biscuits, quiche. Also some less common things: falafel, samosas, sticky chicken.

As I got to thinking about this resolution, I thought 12 isn’t nearly enough, I should do at least 24, or maybe 1 a week—that isn’t really so much. Perhaps not. But it wouldn’t be fun; it would be something hanging over my head all the time. One a month I think I can do, even in the brutal months of July and August with temperatures and humidity in the 90s. I have a secret goal of 25, but I will be quite happy with one new dish every month.

The second resolution is financial, which is boring to everyone so I’ll glide over it, just to say cutting back on both groceries and eating out by 20%. We’ve gotten a bit frivolous on both counts.

The third resolution I struggled with the longest. I had ideas for this or that, but they were all so me-focused. I wanted something more community, something outwardly positive. And then today it occurred to me: Do a kind thing every day. I love this idea. I know that I’ll invariably fail, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ll try. And as I keep trying, I’ll get better at it and notice more opportunities to be kind.

They don’t have to be big things: waiting an extra second to hold the door for someone with a bag; complimenting someone on something (I think this only works if you mean it); clipping a coupon for a friend; giving up your seat on the bus; sending a birthday card; washing out a bowl that someone left behind.

Of course there are bigger acts, like shoveling your neighbor’s walk, helping someone stuck in the snow, paying the tab for the next table in a restaurant, or buying movie tickets for the people behind you in line. I hope to do some of those, too. But for the most part, I’m focused on the small, everyday acts of kindness. The more the better.

I’m quite excited by the 2020 resolutions. A nice mix. I like the creativity and learning involved in the cooking resolution; the discipline and numbers involved in the budgeting resolution; and the challenge, rewards, and potential long-term impact of the kindness resolution.

Any other resolution makers out there?

Fall Cooking Experiments

Fall has arrived, and already I am in cooking mode. I’ve been exceptionally interested in the humble bean lately—kidney, pinto, garbanzo, and refried, along with lentils, black-eyed peas, and all manner of beans and legumes I’ve yet to discover. I’ve also found myself drawn to warming spices—cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, curry, cloves, coriander, cayenne, chili powder.

Since beans are so hearty, I often forgo meat with my bean meals. I think this is a good thing both for my health and the planet. I’m getting more and more concerned about climate change, and cutting down on meat (especially beef) is definitely a positive step. I’ve found using beans to be a really good way to not miss meat.

My first experiment was minestrone casserole in the slow cooker. This is exactly like what it sounds. Minestrone soup, except it’s thick with pasta, chickpeas, green beans, onions, and carrots, and instead of a ladle, you dish it out with a spoon. It was delicious. The singular mess-up: The recipe said add the green beans (fresh from my neighbor’s garden!) and pasta at the same time. Big mistake. The pasta was done long before the green beans. It worked out okay in reheating, but the initial version had very crunchy beans and pasta as cooked as I dared let it go. I will absolutely make this again, adjusting for the green beans. (Recipe from: The Mediterranean Slow Cooker Cookbook)

My second experiment was Black-Eyed Peas & Rice One-Pot, and doesn’t that sound easy? Doesn’t it make you think when you’re done, you’ll have one pot to clean up, plus maybe a cutting board, a knife, and a couple of utensils? Well, no. At the end of cooking, I knew if I was the picture-taking kind of person, I’d take a picture of my sink full of dishes from my one-pot meal (and that did not include the one pot, which was on the stove). Uh huh. Let that sink in.

That said, it was delicious; a bit time consuming (for those of us not as dexterous with the knife as we might wish) but not difficult. The one-pot refers to the pot where you bring the black-eyed peas to a boil, turn off the heat, and leave them sit for up to three hours. At that point, in a separate pan, you sauté onions for five minutes, then add carrots and green peppers (I substituted celery because I hate green peppers, and they worked perfectly) for three more. Then add minced ginger, garlic, and spices (cumin, turmeric, cayenne, curry powder). Cook for a minute. Add the contents to the one-pot. Add water to the sauté pan to deglaze (one cup)—bring to a boil, and add to one-pot. Then add rice and crushed tomatoes (the recipe calls for diced, but I prefer crushed; both the recipe and I concur that fire-roasted are best).

The mess-up: the black-eyed peas took much longer to cook than they should have. I figured out pretty quickly that I should have put a lid on the black-eyed peas as they were soaking. The recipe didn’t say one way or the other, so I opted for no lid. Mistake. Next time, bring the beans to a boil and let them sit, covered, for up to three hours.

But the rice (basic brown long grain) was very forgiving, and the meal was delicious. Here’s something interesting: This is one of those recipes where you don’t add salt until the very end. All the rest of the spices are in there at the beginning. Salt and pepper are last. At the end, I added plenty of pepper, but no salt was needed. So rare, not to add salt to a dish. (Perhaps the acidity of the tomatoes added that sparky edge of salt?)

Two experiments, two successes with minor mess-ups. I think this is shaping up to be an excellent autumn.

In Praise of Winter Hibernation

On of my favorite things to do on a snowy day is sit in a chair by a window and watch the snow. Ideally, there’s a table with the chair, and I have a mug of hot tea and a book. So I will read, and at the end of every section I look out and watch the snow. Sometimes briefly, sometimes for minutes. It’s hypnotic and relaxing and magical all at once.

On a good snowy day (which to me means at least four inches of snow), I often don’t even leave the house except to put out food for the birds along with fresh water. When it gets way below zero (-15 and colder) I also put out peanuts in the shell. Generally, I don’t like to put out peanuts because almost always the squirrels find them first and bury them all; and there are squirrels in my roof, and I hate to reward these trespassers with one of their favorite foods. However, when it’s twenty below, even I take pity on the squirrels, although I was happy to see the blue jays got to the peanuts first both of the last two times I put them out.

The birds are a great part of my joy in winter hibernation. Just today I saw a house finch at the feeder—the first one I’ve seen this year, and so brightly colored I thought it might be a purple finch. But the female showed up and I was assured they were house finches. I have had tons of juncos this year! Far more than usual. And not nearly as many chickadees as in past years, so I was happy to hear several of them when I was outside earlier today.

Hibernation is also good for reading. One of the books I’ve been reading (a surprise theme find) is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson. Much like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (which I haven’t read), it is a book focused on decluttering. But it’s half the length and feels much more pragmatic (mind you I’m only one-third through). Magnusson suggests starting in the attic or the basement. She suggests starting with large things. She suggests starting with easy things.

So after 40 pages I’m looking around the house for big easy things. There’s that large cloth shopping basket I’ve never used. What about this air conditioner that doesn’t work? And I have entire categories of easy things to get to—linens and shoes, for sure. (Interestingly, not winter boots. I was shocked, looking through my death-cleaning eyes, to see I have four pair of winter boots. That’s nuts! What can go? I have two pair for serious winter snow, meaning over six inches. One pair is for shoveling and outdoor work. The other is for wearing in public. For the rest of winter, I primarily wear my little black snow boots for every day wear out of the house. But for quick runs into the yard—to the compost bin or the bird feeders, I like my old cheap step-in moon boots. I have one pair of tennis shoes and four pair of winter boots? Hmmm.)

And of course hibernation almost drives one to cook. I tried a dish I’d never heard of, called kedgeree, a mix of rice and lentils with cumin, cardamom, coriander, turmeric, and likely a few spices I’m forgetting. Next time I will use red lentils, as the brown lentils I used took much longer than the rice to cook (boo!). But the taste was sound, and it would serve as a good breakfast, a side dish, or on a tortilla.

I also made my first minestrone soup. I used the slow cooker and it tasted great. However, I have a piece of advice: Don’t use a pasta in a soup that you haven’t tried on its own. I used an “ancient grains” pasta. After the allotted time, it had fallen apart. Was it the pasta or the cooking method? I am not sure, but next time I think I will cook it stovetop. Sometimes I need a little more control than the slow cooker allows. Also made in hibernation: ham steak with corn pudding, and a big batch of applesauce.

We’ve finally been getting some serious winter here. I will tell you, I will take snow over a polar vortex any day. The up side of the vortex is that now a 10-degree day feels quite comfortable. We just yesterday shoveled out six inches of snow, and we might get six more inches overnight tonight. And then maybe another six inches Thursday. So there will be a whole lot of shoveling going on.

Happily, I love shoveling snow (along with raking leaves, one of my favorite household tasks). My absolute favorite is shoveling at night. It’s so quiet; snow muffles sound. Just me and a few neighbors, the sounds of shovels scraping snow. I cannot explain why I love this. It even smells good to me.

Mind you I love the light fluffy snow (which is what we’ve been getting) and not the heart attack snow, laden with moisture (that’s more in March/April). And of course by March/April, all of the glow has worn off the hibernation, but that’s okay because the days are longer and warm days are in reach.

For now, we’re in a winter cycle at least through the end of the month. You can hate it, or you can ride it, and I’ve decided to ride it. With a shovel, some books, birdseed, and a full pantry.

Small Miracles

Yesterday when I was walking the yard, I noted a huge number of tiny red bugs (only slightly larger than pinheads) hanging around in clumps on the ground around the cactus and milkweed. I’m pretty sure they’re tiny box elder bugs. I am not particularly fond of box elder bugs and thought of spraying them with vinegar, but decided to let it go. They don’t bite or sting, and so far the numbers have been manageable, so I decided to wait and see.

Today when I went to check, they were gone. But I noticed that only for a moment, because my attention was captured by a yellow flower. Flowers. My prickly pear cactus is blooming! There are four flowers. But I think there might be a lot more (maybe 20!) to come—holy guacamole, the cactus is really taking off! The transplants from last year have all taken hold, and the transplants from this year are holding their own.

These are the things we do in Minnesota for entertainment. (Okay, maybe just a few of us. A lot of Minnesotans don’t even know that Minnesota is home to three kinds of cactus.) It gets so melty droopy in the winter, I am certain it won’t come back, but then it does.

June seems to be full of little miracles like this. Before I had any expectations or had even done a trimming, the rosebush produced a brilliant flame, stopping me in my tracks on the way out the door.

The lemon balm is flourishing (excellent with catnip as a sleep aid) and I must pick soon so I will get a second crop. The lemongrass that I got from a neighbor is also taking hold nicely (another good sleep aid). In fact, all of the plants that I either potted or planted seem to be doing quite well.

Yesterday I got a package in the mail. Several weeks ago, I asked my California friend if she had any fresh sage on hand. I had used up my winter store, and my sage plants were barely starting to come back. She did indeed have sage, but had just sent off a package (which included eucalyptus, which is even better than sage since I can’t grow it here) but she said she would include it next time.

A bit of time goes by and my sage plants are growing and turning green. But then they aren’t. They have been decimated by tiny bugs. I am heartbroken (perhaps an overstatement; annoyed might be more accurate). And then I get a package from my friend, and it is filled with sage. An abundance of sage. An embarrassment of sage. Baskets of sage. She is wise, my friend. Good timing.

Merely another June miracle.

The butterfly weed is coming up in the front yard (it will attract both monarch and swallowtail butterflies when it flowers). But the swamp milkweed in that same plot shows no sign of return (it was pretty weak last year after two years of attacks by swamp milkweed beetles; yes, there is a beetle specifically targeted to the swamp milkweed—nature is amazing, no?). But on the other hand, I noticed today five common milkweed plants in the side yard that I swear weren’t there yesterday (of course they must have been). A pleasant surprise.

I’ve found two odd plants growing in the side yard—they are about to flower, and I’ve no idea what they are. Flowers? Weeds? Or, perhaps, medicinal herbs (which could be in either of the aforementioned categories)? I need to wait a few more days to find out.

The currants are just starting to turn red. The peonies are done—done in by a rainstorm that came through just as they were peaking. This is the risk with peonies. Happily, a mere day or two before the storm, I asked a friend if she wanted to take some home with her (I can’t have them in the house because they are poisonous to cats), and she was happy to take a few. I like to think that maybe they’re still blooming.

The Lexicon of Real American Food

Much as Speaking American taught me about regional differences in words for things throughout the U.S., The Lexicon of Real American Food, by Jane and Michael Stern, taught me a lot about regional differences in food—both specific twists on common foods, and things that seem to be pretty unique. Here are some of the things I learned:

An egg cream has three ingredients—chocolate syrup, whole milk, and seltzer. I have heard of egg creams (New York), but I always rather assumed they had egg in them.

The chow mein sandwich appears on menus of diners, drive-ins, and cafes in parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Made with crunchy noodles topped with sauced sprouts (no meat) on a plate with a bun.

Grape-Nuts Pudding, found in New England, consists basically of stirring Grape Nuts into a custard pudding. I’m not even going to venture to guess why New Englanders wish to punish themselves this way.

The Juicy Lucy is close to my backyard. A hamburger with molten cheese in the middle, it was invented in Minneapolis in 1954. Two bars take credit for it (and interestingly, they are not very far apart). I have eaten at both of them and find the Juicy Lucy at Matt’s Bar the hands-down winner.

A half-smoke can be found in Washington, D.C. Primarily street food sold in carts, it’s a fat hot dog with a coarse texture and heavy smoke flavor, served in a bun and usually topped with beef chili.

Also in the hot dog family, a ripper is a hot dog deep-fried long enough for its skin to rip. Rippers are a New Jersey thing.

Move inland to Ohio and find a different sausage specialty: the Polish Boy. Found in the barbecue restaurants of Cleveland, it consists of a large piece of crisp-cased kielbasa and comes on a bun with French fries and coleslaw, all topped with barbecue sauce.

Pico de gallo usually refers to a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro, peppers, and lime juice. In Tucson, however, it is a mix of watermelon, coconut, pineapple, mango, and jicama. This is spritzed with lime juice and sprinkled with a hot chili-powder mix. Wow.

Barbecue took up more than 10 pages. I learned about pulled pork, whole hog, Kentucky mutton, Texas beef, California barbecue, plus barbecue salad (Memphis, TN and Arkansas) and barbecue spaghetti (Memphis). Chili also gets several pages (including a recipe for Texas chili). But there are also separate entries for chili mac, Cincinnati chili, Green Bay chili, green chile cheeseburger, and Minorcan chowder.

Pizza also takes up a few pages: California pizza, Chicago pizza, Detroit (square) pizza, Ithaca NY’s hot truck that invented French bread pizzas, Maryland pizza, Memphis pizza (has a major barbecue element), New Haven pizza, New York pizza, Old Forge PA pizza, Southwest pizza, St. Louis pizza, and West Virginia pizza. I had no idea.

I also learned a few new things. For example, Jell-O is Utah’s official snack food. There were a lot of red items: red beans and rice, red beer, Red Bull, red-flannel hash (beets are involved), red-eye gravy, and red hots.

I also learned to read this at least somewhat skeptically. When I got to the entry on sloppy joes, I learned that in Minnesota it is gulash. Whoa. I grew up with goulash. Also called plain “hotdish,” Minnesota goulash is a casserole (i.e., hotdish) of hamburger and macaroni in a tomato sauce. It is not put on a bun, and it is very often served with Jello-O and a pickle. We also have sloppy joes (which I also called barbeque sandwiches while I was growing up). No goulash sandwich though.

Quibble aside, this is a very fun book. Check it out from the library. Even if you don’t read every entry, it’s fun to peruse, and there are lots of fun pictures.

Orchard Exuberance

The robin is singing in the backyard, exuberant. Nudging me. Having nothing to do with this post (already titled before the song), the song has finally put my hand to the keyboard, as I was stymied how to begin.

It started when we went to a neighborhood event, and among all the various opportunities, my spouse wanted to volunteer to help with the neighborhood orchard. Sign me up, I said.

I am not particularly fond of getting together with a lot of people I don’t know, especially if all we’re doing is sitting around and chatting. I opted out of an initial planning meeting, but when the opportunity for actual orchard maintenance came up, I was definitely interested. Our first activity: pruning.

We started at noon on Sunday (earlier, if you got the message that coffee and snacks were being provided by the church across the street). And this was one piece of the magic, or exuberance, of the day. When we arrived, there was fruit, breads, cookies, and coffee, spread out on a table in front of the church. Spouse introduced me to people he knew (from the meeting I avoided) and I was stunned.

I was totally comfortable.

It is pretty much completely unheard of for me to be comfortable in a group of strangers. I’m still processing it.

There were about 25 of us (way more than expected), mostly guys (which surprised me). I have never in my life felt comfortable drifting from small group to small group, but unbelievably, I did. I don’t know if it’s the common goal, or that all these people love trees, or if it’s the trees themselves. Perhaps all of the above.

When we moved across the street to the orchard, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves: neighbors across the street, people in the neighborhood, a bunch of people knowledgeable about fruit trees, a bunch that didn’t know so much, and a whole lot of enthusiasm.

One of the older men in the group suggested that if you really want to get to know trees, here’s your chance. Stop by the orchard at least every two weeks. Not a drive-by visit. A stop and park the car and spend some time with the trees visit. It is not so often you get the opportunity to shape a young orchard, or even to engage in its long-term growth. I plan to visit the orchard frequently. I have a great fondness for trees, and while I find most trees grounding, there’s something about fruit trees (even very young ones) that makes me a little giddy.

We spent a bit of time as a group around a tree, discussing pruning, examples, try it yourself, questions, etc. Again, I felt so comfortable. I asked several questions and was also able to just let go of social stress and think about what would work best for the tree.

Aha, there it is. It is the tree after all. I love trees and I have happened upon a community of tree lovers. It was a lovely contagious afternoon—trees, joy, purpose, camaraderie, and a good bit of fun.

The pruning of these little trees was a bit more challenging than I had expected (learned a lot). We will have a mission regarding blossoms in the later spring, watering through the summer, and mulching in the fall.

I like tending an orchard. This little orchard is an experiment in Minneapolis. If we can make it work, just imagine: neighborhood orchards everywhere. Why not?