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Archive for June, 2014

Father's Day 001

I decided to make a mincemeat pie for my dad for Father’s Day. He mentioned a little while back that he would like to have a mincemeat pie, something he hadn’t had in years. I said I’d never had one, ever, as far as I knew, and I forgot all about it.

Then, a week or two ago, I ordered a copy of The Farm, chef Ian Knauer’s cookbook and celebration of his family’s centuries-old farm in Pennsylvania. I forget exactly why I decided I wanted it, except that I had seen his cooking show on PBS once and enjoyed it.

The family farm he writes about (and gardens on) is a beautiful place. There’s a gigantic hydrangea with white blossoms that look good enough to eat, and a small pond and a meandering driveway and a family cemetery where the founding Knauer, Johann Christopher, is buried. He died in 1769, so obviously the white, two-story stucco farmhouse is not the original family home. Ian and his family in general seem to use the place as a getaway. It’s not clear who owns it, but Ian and his sisters have planted a large garden there, and he goes down for weekends and cooks for family and friends.

I was reading through the book and marking the recipes I wanted to try, when I came across a recipe for mincemeat pie. And that’s when I remembered my dad’s wish for one.

You would think that I would be beyond the homemade Father’s Day gift, but evidently I am not.

I am also aware that this is not the season for mincemeat pie. So what? Now that homes are air-conditioned, cooking things for hours on the stove is not that bad.

The pie appeared to be quite a project. Ian’s version had a mile-long list of ingredients and it made enough filling for four pies. He only had a recipe for making one bottom crust, though, so once you filled it you were encouraged to freeze the additional three quarts of filling until time to make another pie.

I decided to cut the recipe in half. I made my grocery list, and added the ingredients that I didn’t already have: suet, pineapple juice, apple cider, raisins and currants, ground beef, molasses, and apple cider vinegar. There. Friday night, and my list was in order.

I woke up on Saturday morning in a mild panic. Ian’s farm was in Pennsylvania, not North Carolina. I didn’t know where to find currants in the store—would they be in produce, or with the dried fruits? Did I have to use beef suet? What if this pie was not at all like the one my dad remembers? Shouldn’t it have a top crust?

I went to the Internet and looked up more recipes for mincemeat pie. Martha Stewart had one, but it was meanly hidden behind some sort of subscription requirement and you could only read bits of the recipe around the “Become a member now!” box, which floated as I tried to peek beneath it. But I saw everything I needed to see. One of the first instructions in the recipe was to “take down two jars of mincemeat filling from the shelf.” Really, Martha?

Alton Brown, I believe—after a while it’s difficult to say where I read what—offered the advice that butter could substitute for suet. Thank you.

Then I pulled down my grandma’s old cookbooks, thinking one of them might contain the recipe that she used for her pie. Her cookbooks are always fun to read through. She used to cut recipes out of the newspaper and tape them inside in open spaces and on the end pages and sometimes on pages with other recipes, like Martha’s floating subscription box. I bet she did that to cover up recipes she hated. I would.

I came across many wonderful things in those old cookbooks, including a recipe called “Do You Like Oyster Stew?” that didn’t have oysters in the list of ingredients, and then sprang them on the cook midway through the instructions, very casually: “Add 2 or 3 pints of oysters.” None of these old cookbooks, most of them church or community collections, seemed to have dependable, thorough instructions. But the recipe titles were priceless. “Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick” was my favorite in The Lizzie Sills Friends Circle cookbook. (In case you’re wondering, the “slick” refers to dumplings. Aren’t you a tiny bit relieved? I was.)

But in all the charming antique cookbooks that I consulted, there was no recipe for mincemeat pie. Perhaps it was already too old-fashioned to make the cut for Lizzie Sills, which included this paragraph on the copyright page (capitalized as in the original):

THIS BOOK includes the finest plastic ring binders available, BUT, like most plastics, the BINDERS CAN BE DAMAGED BY EXCESSIVE HEAT, so AVOID exposing them to the direct rays of the SUN, or excessive heat such as IN A CAR on a hot day, or on the top of the kitchen STOVE. If not exposed to heat, the binders will last indefinitely.

I don’t know why they didn’t put indefinitely in all caps, but maybe by the end of that passage there wasn’t enough oxygen left.

Since I didn’t find a recipe called “The Mincemeat Pie Your Father Fondly Remembers,” I went to the store with my list and bought what I needed to make half a recipe of Ian Knauer’s version. As I collected my ingredients and sent up a desperate prayer that I would find a good substitute for currants, the song “You Can Do Magic” came on over the Food Lion sound system. Excellent. I can do magic. I can make mincemeat pie. I can make it without currants.

And that’s what I did. It was hard to get started, because I was nervous, but I browned the beef in a little bit of butter, then removed it with a slotted spoon to a large, heavy pot. I put a pound and a half of raisins in the pot with enough dried cherries and cranberries to take up the space that currants would have occupied. I peeled and chopped apples, grated orange and lemon zest, decanted varying amounts of fruit juice, cider, cider vinegar, honey, and molasses; I added a half stick of butter. I sprinkled in salt and spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger. With the heat turned up to bring it all to a boil, I took a large wooden spoon and began turning the mixture over.

That’s when the magic happened. Oh, the smell. It was like apple pie and Christmas. It was rich and spicy and dark and wonderful with the citrus zest sending up bright sparks. It simmered for about an hour, getting progressively thicker. I tasted it, and began to think that maybe I had eaten some of my grandmother’s mincemeat pie. An angel sang, softly, and not for very long.

I do hope that my pie comes close to Grandma’s. Because the whole point of making a mincemeat pie in June was to recreate a feeling and maybe provide at least a quick flashback to a yellow kitchen in a white house on a small farm in eastern North Carolina. Unlike Ian’s family, we can’t still visit that farm, and I’m seven miles removed from my parents’ farm, which also overlooks a pond. But Redbud farmlet is chugging along. Our chickens are now 12 weeks old and healthy, the goats are staying inside the corral and haven’t lost their collars, and the kale and squash are growing. When I step under the shelter where the tractor lives, the soft dirt underfoot and the shade and the smell of the old tractor make me feel like I’m back in my grandfather’s barn. In a way, the original Winslow family farm is still thriving—it’s just scattered around the state a little more than it once was.

I delivered the pie this morning right after going to church with my parents, where my dad won a gift certificate for being the father with the oldest child present. I bet I was also the oldest child who had made her father an ugly homemade gift. Best part: I can give him another one in December, because the frozen mincemeat keeps for six months. Boom.

Want a little homemade ice cream with your mincemeat pie on Father’s Day? Read this!

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Three goats 005

If we didn’t live venturously, plucking the wild goat by the beard, and trembling over precipices, we should never be depressed, I’ve no doubt; but already should be faded, fatalistic and aged. – Virginia Woolf

I take this quote to mean that living dangerously and teasing wild goats keeps you young. I have to take issue with that opinion, and would add that clearly V. Woolf has never known an actual goat. Because to pluck a wild goat by the beard would, it seems to me, be one of the more fatalistic moves one could make. I mean, there is living dangerously, and then there is plucking goats’ beards.

My parents’ next-door neighbor has been keeping small goats to eat underbrush at his place. The most recent candidate was a bit wild; he had a genius for escape and enjoyed roaming free between his home and my parents’ farm. The first time Ernesto and I saw him, he was grazing in a small field between the two properties. As we drove slowly past, I made a comment along the lines of, “There’s Bobby’s new goat, isn’t he cute?” The goat raised his head, and we both were both stunned. He was a little fellow, shaggy and white, but he had enormous horns and a black, stringy beard about a yard long. Ernesto said he was such a cartoon-character of a goat that he should be called Capricorn.

Several weeks later we had Easter lunch at the farm. My sister, Holli, and her crew had not yet arrived, but it was 2:00 and folks were getting restless and one nephew had to drive back to Chapel Hill to work, so we sat down at the dining-room table to get started. We sat in front of long windows that look out over the front of the house—the pond, the driveway, the field between the farm and the neighbors.

“Look, there’s a goat,” Robin said. It was Capricorn, heading up the driveway at a determined trot as if he were going home. We all watched and laughed as he trotted along, wondering what had riled him up.

About that time, Holli’s van pulled into the main driveway and began ambling toward the house. As we watched them bump slowly up the drive, the goat cut in front of their van, and veered right.

The van stopped. Then, instead of continuing to the farm, it turned left into the neighbor’s driveway.

“What are they doing?” I asked the table.

“Maybe they want to tell Bobby that his goat’s loose.” We all laughed again—the goat was never anything but loose.

A couple of minutes passed, and then the van came out of Bobby’s driveway and turned back onto the main road toward the house. It followed the winding drive, and just about the time it was in the home stretch, here came Capricorn, galloping toward the house as if racing the van.

He won, too—but of course the goat had taken the short cut across the front yard. He pulled up and stood stiff and trembling, glaring with yellow-eyed hatred at the van as four people and two dogs disembarked.

“Wow, he’s really giving them the stink-eye,” Robin said. He was. He looked as if he might attack the van, the dogs, the people, indiscriminately, but he only stood there, upper lip curled, until they had all disappeared through the garage and were safely inside the house.

We laughed so hard at that goat—but only because we were inside the house. He really didn’t look like a goat to be trifled with.

A week ago, Ernesto went to the livestock auction in Liberty and purchased three nanny goats of our own. He and my dad drove them from the trailer into the corral, where they stood around looking hyper. When approached, they melted through the corral fence like it wasn’t even there.

Catching a goat is no joke, and for some time the three of us tried to herd them gently back through the slats of the fence and into the enclosure. Things were not looking good, especially at the point when they went around to the front of the house and discovered how tasty the rhododendrons were.

Eventually we did get back them into the corral, and then we backed way off so they wouldn’t feel threatened and bolt back out. My dad offered to go back home and get a reel of barbed wire to string between the slats of the fence, and he left.

Ernesto and I stood around in the back yard, looking at the goats from a distance. There is an older white goat with brown spots that looks a bit like Mamie Eisenhower, a young cute goat who looks something like the older goat and may in fact be kin, and a brown goat that from a distance could be mistaken for a small deer. We’ve named them Iris, Lily, and Rose, respectively. They don’t look dangerous, but they aren’t exactly cozy to be with, either.

While my dad was fetching the wire and the goats were corralled, if not exactly secured, we received company. Two neighborhood dogs, Australian shepherds, arrived to help with the herding. They streaked across the back of the property and into the corral, causing the goats to run to Ernesto for protection. Behind the two dogs came three small boys, who somehow collected the dogs, took them back to their own pen, and returned to the corral in about fifteen seconds. The boys gathered at the fence to watch the goats. They were constantly in motion, climbing the fence to sit on top, going between the slats and then back out again, standing on the bottom rail to get a better view.

“You got some new goats,” the 8-year-old told me.

“We did.”

“Can we pet them?” the 6-year-old asked.

“Not today. They’re feeling sort of nervous. Let’s give them time to settle down.”

The boys accepted this and observed the goats quietly for several minutes before scampering back homeward. “We’ll come back tomorrow!” they promised.

Ernesto went into the house to fortify himself with food. I believe he had forgotten to eat lunch in the excitement of buying goats. Meanwhile, I put some cracked corn into a bucket and went into the corral with it. The goats came toward me, and I managed to lure them into a stable and latch the door shut. When my dad came back, he and Ernesto were able to reinforce the fence without fear that the goats would flee again.

Now the goats are feeling a little more at home, I think, and they each have a nice new collar and Ernesto even took Iris, the tamest of the three, for a walk on a leash. Neither of them seemed to enjoy the outing, though. Still, the collars are useful for holding onto the goats when they need medicine to cure their diarrhea (Iris).

I can tell you one thing: We won’t be plucking their beards or messing with them in any such impertinent way. You look at a goat’s eyes—they are amber and glassy as ice, with a disconcerting black slash of a pupil. They do not look at you. They look right through you, and from their expressions what they see is not pretty.

Anyway, I’d like to see Virginia Woolf pluck a goat’s beard. I don’t believe she could do it.

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