Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sunshine Daydream Chicken

A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.  – Steve Martin 
I've been waiting for that bright sunshine to show up and shine in my back door someday. – Luther Allison 
You've got to get out and pray to the sky to appreciate the sunshine. – Ken Kesey 
Our mostly shady yard
I haven't been able to cook in the solar oven in, like, forever. I did manage to make another coffeecake one day, but ended up bringing some chicken drumsticks inside to finish on another day's attempt. Our property is heavily treed and at this time of year the trees still have leaves and the sun is lower in the sky. Doesn't make for good solar cooking. Also, although we've had a few sunny days, some warm days, and even a hot day here and there, we've mostly had clouds and rain. And more rain. And even more rain. Including thunderstorms today.

We performed last weekend at the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival. We left on Friday around 1:30 pm for Saugerties, which is normally a 3 1/2 hour drive. As we neared the Throgs Neck Bridge we were listening to the traffic reports. The upper level of the George Washington Bridge was flooded, head for the lower level. But, oh no, there was an accident blocking two lanes so the Cross Bronx Expressway had heavy delays. It took us 45 minutes or so to get off at the Bronx River Parkway exit. I think that was about a mile. But, guess what!? That was backed up also and all traffic was being diverted. We went 5 miles in 3 hours. Apparently, all Hudson River crossings were flooded. And the rain kept coming down. We eventually made it to our hotel a little before 9 pm, exhausted, frustrated, and very hungry.

But the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival is the Woodstock of garlic festivals and we look forward all year to performing there. They have 5 stages of music and zillions of garlic growers, food vendors (including garlic ice cream), arts & craft booths, and fresh & prepared food vendors (like fresh peppers or prepared salsas). They can get crowds of 50,000 people if it's nice—and, thankfully, it was an absolutely gorgeous weekend after so much rain, although the grounds were pretty darn muddy. We played three one-hour sets each day with an hour break in between when we dashed around like chickens without heads to buy buy buy and eat eat eat. We ate garlic pizza, garlic chicken, garlic sausage, garlic pickles, pulled pork sandwiches with garlic, and Annalee even got a sticker for taking a garlic shot. We bought 4 lbs. of Turkish Red garlic and will use the biggest cloves for seed garlic. (Rick grew 80 bulbs of garlic in the garden also, so I think we're set there.) We bought 25 lbs. of onions, 30 lbs. of tomatoes, 5 pounds of hot peppers (jalapenos and Ghost peppers), and Annalee bought tubs of homemade pesto, aged balsamic vinegar, new pickles, and horseradish cheddar cheese. Besides garlic and hot peppers, Erica bought hot sauce appropriately named "Apocalyptic." She actually gave Rick money and asked him to pick something her boyfriend might like. I think the vendor was shocked when Rick licked the sample and said he loved it. He was waiting for Rick to break out in a sweat and faint or something. Which is about how Chris reacted when he took his first taste. I'm sure he'll get used to it, though.

So we've been cooking away here at home the past few days. I think Rick has outdone me. He's made jars of hot pepper relish, dried apples, dried mushrooms, and is busily dehydrating the tomatoes in our Excalibur food dehydrator. His dried tomatoes in olive oil are to die for. (Next year we'd like to try sun drying the tomatoes, but I think I'd rather build a simple solar dehydrator than use the sun oven, so I can keep that free for meals.) After all the drying he's planning on making hot pepper jelly.

While he's busy stocking up, instead of using my solar oven, I've been using my new Pomaireware ceramic bean pot, which was a present from Rick back in June. I had only used it twice before, but now I'm using it all the time and really liking it. The whole idea of making one pot (or close to it) meals was foreign to me, but I had to rethink my approach to what constituted a complete meal when I began solar cooking. Otherwise the whole idea of it was pointless. Why cook the chicken outside if I was going to cook 10 other things in 10 different pots inside. Okay, a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my drift. So, now I'm making meals inside in the clay pot with very similar results to solar cooking and trying to still keep it simple. I think I know what will be on my Christmas list (more clay pots!).

I made a yummy chicken dish tonight that I've renamed Sunshine Daydream Chicken since I've been humming the Grateful Dead lyrics all day. I didn't take any photos because it's so dark and dismal. Cut 1 1/2 pounds of boneless chicken thighs into huge pieces (I cut each thigh in thirds). Melt 2 tablespoons butter in the bottom of the clay pot (or the black enamel pot for the solar oven) and lightly brown the chicken. Add one large onion sliced really thin, several cloves of garlic chopped, a handful of parsley, salt, pepper, 1/4 cup tomato sauce, 1/3 cup good red wine vinegar, and 1/2 cup of chicken broth. Cover the clay pot and pop into the oven at 275º for 4 hours. Or cover the black pot and pop into the solar oven for a few hours. I admit I used another pot to make rice and poured the chicken over the rice to serve. On the side I made a cucumber salad, fresh homemade semolina bread, and some of the fresh pesto Annalee had bought at the festival.

Okay, tomorrow's forecast is for partly cloudy skies with a stray shower or thunderstorm possible, and rain highly probably on both Saturday and Sunday. But, but, but . . . as of now, incredibly, the forecast says sunny all next week. Cross your fingers 'cause it'll sure be good to see some sunny and dry weather!!!

Sunshine daydream, walkin' in the tall trees, going where the wind goes, blooming like a red rose... – Grateful Dead, Sugar Magnolia

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Goodnight Irene Coffeecake

Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown
Irene, goodnight
Irene, goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I'll see you in my dreams
– attributed to Huddie Ledbetter

With Hurricane Irene bearing down on the east coast I took advantage of the beautiful sunshine last Friday to make what I planned on calling batten down the hatches coffeecake. It was very surreal to be outside moving everything into the garage, washing and hanging laundry, solar cooking, and stockpiling water for a hurricane while it was so absolutely gorgeous. Just a beautiful summer day. We kept checking, watching Irene's progress, though, trying to get everything done before we had to leave since it was supposed to already be raining by Saturday morning.

We had a show Friday evening in East Meadow, which is about 50 miles away heading west, and were leaving at 4pm to set up and sound check. I guess too many people were freaked out about the coming hurricane and were out buying batteries, bread, and milk because we had a grand total of 14 people in the audience. We were hoping that by evening everyone would be finished with their preparations and, because the weather was so beautiful, come out to hear some live music. We were wrong. Normally library audience size ranges from 75 to 300 depending on the library. But we had a great time with those 14 people. They were very attentive and seemed to really enjoy the music. And I think we played rather well. I had a lot of fun, in any case. At the end of the show, Rick asked the audience to sing along. As soon as the first words were sung everyone roared with laughter and clapped, then settled in to singing along to Goodnight Irene.

Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, an iconic American folk and blues musician and master of the 12 string guitar, was born around 1888 or 1889 on a plantation in Louisiana to sharecropper parents, and is often credited with writing Goodnight Irene. Lead Belly was the first to record it in 1932, but the actual origins of the song are unknown, although some point to a similar song from the 1880s as its basis. Lead Belly himself claimed he learned the song from his uncle and could remember singing it as early as 1908. By the 1930s, though, he had modified the rhythm and rewritten many of the verses, making the song essentially his own. In 1933, musicologists John and Alan Lomax were touring the south collecting folk songs for the Library of Congress and discovered that Southern prisons were a good place to collect the work songs, ballads and spirituals they were looking for. During a visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary (some accounts call it the Angola State Farm or Louisiana's Angola Penitentiary) they came across Lead Belly, who was serving time for assault with attempt to murder (he had already served time previously for murder). They recorded a number of his songs, including Goodnight Irene, for the Library of Congress. In 1934, Lead Belly was pardoned for good behavior and released from prison. He would continue to perform and record throughout the 1930s, often with the support and guidance of the Lomaxes. Toward the end of the 1940s, though, it was discovered that he had Lou Gehrig's Disease. He died in New York City on December 6, 1949. Goodnight Irene has since been recorded by such artists as the Weavers, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, the Kingston Trio, Little Richard, and Jimi Hendrix.

We drove home feeling energized from the show. We dropped Erica off at her apt. with warnings to be careful. As soon as Rick, Annalee and I got home we checked on the hurricane's status. The storm was closing in, but the actual path was still iffy, with so many variables. Ultimately, we were lucky. Even though we only live 1,000 feet from the beach our house only sustained one downed tree—which missed our car by about 5 feet! Other than that we had a lot of downed branches and leaves everywhere. And, of course, we lost power. I believe there were approximately 470,000 Long Islanders without power. Many still don't have it. Annalee was thrilled. She was ready to don a bonnet and get a horse and buggy. To her, it was a grand adventure. Rick got to act manly and run the generator. We had bought it immediately after Hurricane Gloria when we were without power for 5 days. It's been sitting in our basement untouched for 25 years. We weren't even sure it would start. But Rick had dragged it out of hiding last Thursday and, amazingly, it worked. He got a kick out of that and did an I'm-the-man dance with a few chest thumps thrown in for emphasis. He ran the generator for 45 minutes or so every few hours just to keep the fridge & freezer cold so we wouldn't lose the food.

Our adventure is over with now, but we do have a festival to get to on Sunday at the West Kortright Centre in East Meredith NY. I'm not sure how to get there, or whether we should leave after Annalee gets home from work Saturday evening, because the Catskills were hit pretty bad. The flooding throughout the area is incredible, with whole towns under water. I'm afraid a 4 1/2 hour drive will turn into twice that if we leave Sunday morning as planned.

But I'll figure that out later. Meanwhile, here's a tweak on my coffeecake recipe. I used up all the strawberries and blueberries I had left in the fridge (wish I'd had a few more, though), and threw a few chopped almonds on for good luck.

Goodnight Irene Coffeecake
All the fruit I had left before the hurricane
Grease a baking pan.

1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
1 tbl. softened butter
1 cup sour cream

Whatever fruit (strawberries, blueberries...), almonds. Whatever you want, really.

Crumb topping:
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tbl. flour
1 3/4 tbl. melted butter

Mix the first four dry ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the sugar, vanilla, egg, soft butter, and sour cream until mixed well. All recipes say beat until light and fluffy, but I'm really impatient. Often, I'll either make a well in the dry ingredients, or push the dry as far to the side as I can, and mix the wet ingredients right in the same bowl. Then I'll slowly push the dry ingredients into the well and mix them in a little at a time. Kind of how you make fresh pasta. I'm sure there's a zillion reasons not to do that, but it works for me.

Once the batter is mixed, spread it in the pan. Now, I've found from experience that when cooking in a solar oven the topping sinks and looks very uncoffeecake-like if you add it right from the start. So I went and put the coffeecake out in the solar oven for about a half hour while I came back inside and sliced the strawberries, rinsed the blueberries, chopped some almonds, and cleaned up a bit. (I didn't use many almonds—maybe 10—and I chopped them on the smaller side.) For the crumb topping take about 1/3 cup brown sugar and mix 2 tablespoons flour in, then add about 1 3/4 tablespoons melted butter and mix until it looks a bit crumbly. I cleaned the kitchen, washed the bowl, then went outside with all the toppings. The coffeecake was cooked just enough so that the toppings wouldn't sink. I took the cake out, shut the glass cover so as not to lose heat, and carefully (but quickly) placed the fruit all over the top, sprinkled the tiny chopped almonds all over, sprinkled on the crumb topping, and put the coffeecake back in the solar oven to finish cooking. The solar oven was at about 325º. I left it out there another hour or so.  (Or bake it in a 375º oven for half an hour all told.)

It was a great breakfast when you didn't want to be opening the fridge too often. And even when you do!