Archive for December, 2006

Christmas Count: wren, weeds and celandine

Christmas day: Breakfast consumed, presents opened, the tree not twinkling ( we’ve given it a bye this year) and Baby, it’s warm outside – time for a cookie-redemptive walk.

Never mind the cliches about perpetual November, our bit of the mid-Hudson Valley is eerily like March. At the suet feeder, the usual crew of woodpeckers ( downy, hairy and red-bellied, one of the worlds more misleadingly named birds, photographed here by Edward Russell)
has a visitor, a Carolina wren.

The wren is not mind-bendingly out of place – our 1980 Peterson field guide says “fluctuating in north; cut back by severe winters” – but personally myself I get a chill when I see Carolina in New York on Christmas day.

The forsythia at the top of the hill has been blooming for the last month, so the flowers are no longer a surprise, and neither is the clump of blewits that came up 2 weeks ago in the oak leaves by the roadway. They’re multiply frost-walloped but still hanging on, only slightly the worse for wear.

The weeds never were surprising; cold-resistance is one way biennials like wild phlox, garlic mustard and verbascum get such a jump on everything else. But we’ve seldom seen so much greater celandine , Chelidonium majus, even though, being a poppy , it’s perfectly happy to wax fat for next year in low light and cold-but-not-frozen soil.

The deeply scalloped greens were lovely, and a reminder of how close some weeds are to relatives on the approved list. This one looks a lot like our native woodland poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, a rarer plant with larger flowers and less aggressive habits.

It’s easy to tell them apart when they’re blooming – C. majus has small, pale yellow flowers; S. diphyllum has good sized, deep gold ones – or when you see seed pods (C. majus = long skinny sticking up; S. diphyllum = sort of football-shaped, drooping ) but at this time of year the best way to know what you’re seeing is to simply assume the worst, especially if the plant is by the roadside or in some other highly disturbed ground.

Greater Celadine is a present from the New England colonists, who brought it as a medicinal herb, primarily for digestive complaints and to cure skin diseases. A brief google suggests the medical theory is hair-of-doggish; the bright orange sap of C. majus is very irritating to the skin and extracts of the plant have been implicated in liver disorders. It’s also supposed to help with sneezing, which I can testify it causes bouts of if you break the stem while pulling it up.

Greater celandine. The sap is as orange as the roots

Fruitcake Revisited

I’ve spent years evangelizing, insisting that the fruitcake-resistant have never eaten the real thing, and given that “real thing” means “good candied fruit,” an item that pretty much must be home made if not purchased from purveyors like Fauchon ($60.00 per pound, not including shipping), I’m reasonably sure that’s true.

But perhaps you are saying, “no, no, for years home bakers and first-class commercial makers like good ol’ Alice Perron up there in Vermont at Bienfait have simply omitted the candied part. They just mix classic, no-fakery batter with lots and lots of succulent dried fruit and generous quantities of fresh nuts and …
Well, okay. It’s good. But it still lacks a certain chewy, aromatic, sweet but not too sweet component, a component that’s easy to make by defining “candied fruit” as “candied citrus peel”: lemon, orange, and grapefruit , each delicious in a slightly different way.
There’s a detailed step by step recipe here and about 8 zillion more floating around on the web ( see below for cautionary notes), but the bottom line is that candying peel is no more difficult than cooking pasta – and no more expensive, either, since the peels come free with the fruit.
After reading this introduction, you may be expecting a fruitcake recipe. But then who’d eat it besides you? Better to make the always popular

Universal Suit Yourself Fruit and Nut Bars

Everything that’s good about fruitcake but not so damned much of it, all on a buttery, crumbly crust that cuts the opulent sweetness.

1 ¾ cup all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/3 cup sugar
pinch salt
½ cup butter, plus more for the pan
1 lightly beaten egg

2 ½ cups fruit, cut in @ 1/3 inch dice. Any combination of : raisins; currants; prunes; dates; dried apricots, pineapple, figs, or cherries; candied ginger and candied citrus peel.
½ cup rum or brandy
2 eggs
1/3 cup each white and dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg
2 ½ cups lightly toasted whole nutmeats. Any combination of: almonds, walnuts, pecans , hazelnuts, pistachios, pine nuts and macadamias. Cashews and peanuts overwhelm all else, so either eschew them or rename the bars.

1. Mix the topping fruits and alcohol in a small bowl, cover tightly and set aside in a warm place until all the liquid is absorbed, overnight, more or less.
2. Heat the oven to 350 (325 for a glass pan) and thickly butter a 9x13x2 inch baking pan.
3. Put crust dry ingredients in a shallow bowl and mix thoroughly with a wire whisk. Cut or pinch in the butter until you have coarse meal, then make a well in the center and add the egg.
4. Pinch in the egg – or stir with a fork – just until the mixture is clumpy and holds together when pressed (resist the impulse to keep squeezing). Dump it into the pan, gently spread it around, then press it into an even layer on the bottom. Bake until pale gold, 12 to 15 minutes.
5. While the crust is baking, beat the topping eggs until frothy, then beat in everything else except the fruit and nuts. Stir them in last.
6. When the crust is ready, recombine the topping and spread it evenly, being careful not to cheat the corners. Return to the oven and bake until set and browned on top, about 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool completely before cutting in small – @ 1.5 inch – squares.

Yield: about 30 squares, depending on your cutting and on the true measurements of your pan ( “9×13” is precise on the page, but it means quite different things to different pan-manufacturers).

Judging a candied peel recipe:

* It’s probably wise to choose organic citrus; just don’t assume – as I did for years – that certified organic citrus is innocent of wax.

* The thick white pith is essential. Recipes that tell you to remove it are actually recipes for candied zest.

* Bitterness varies, which should be noted/allowed for.

* not all recipes stress the necessity of having the peel completely tender before adding sugar, but if it isn’t tender before you add sugar it will be tough for all time.

A Window on Cleaning Same

Taking apart the windows and giving them a thorough washing is classically a part of “Spring Cleaning” – a classification that makes sense if you’re the sort who takes down the storms each spring and puts them up in fall.

But if you are not that sort, an easy negative for some of us, window cleaning tends to slide until
a) every crumb of light is precious, and
b) every crumb of light that comes in, comes in at just the ideal low angle for showing off the difference between translucent and transparent.

Nothing will ever make it fun, but on the basis of our recent tour of the kitchen fenestration , here are a few things that make it easier:

* Cloudy days : the cleaning agent doesn’t dry out as quickly and it’s easier to see which side the streaks are on.

* Distilled water: doesn’t matter if you’re using bottled window cleaner (or – deduct many, many green points – one of the alas very efficient petrochemical sprays), but if you belong to the old fashioned vinegar or ammonia in water school, using hard water will make the job harder because hard water leaves spots.

* lint is the enemy, which is why old manytimeswashed diapers or t-shirts make ideal rags. Just be sure to give them a double rinse and dry without addititives; laundry soaps and fluffing agents leave residues that streak windows. Only downside is that you need a lot – can’t get things clean using dirty rags. That’s why

*crumpled newspaper really is the easiest and least expensive wiping medium. Rumors about ink notwithstanding, it’s the cheap low-fiber (lint-free) paper that makes it so effective. Yes, the ink comes off. Big deal. It comes off of you, too. Wear thin rubber or latex gloves if you have manicure issues.

* You think you have gotten the corners. You have not gotten the corners.