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Posts tagged: cooking

Travel: Preserving Heirloom Apples at Arbor Day Farm

 

   When I was a child, you couldn’t have paid me to eat an apple. The bright red picture-perfect fruit was always disappointing. The waxy skin was tough and bitter and the inside was bland. I didn’t like the way the fruit felt in my mouth as I chewed. The Red Delicious apples that were in the grocery store, on my lunch tray at school or in the fruit bowl in the kitchen at home were the Kardashians of fruit: Pretty to look at but not much more than that. 

 

   It wasn’t until years later when I discovered other varieties, the Macintosh, the Gala and Fuji, the Braeburn and Honeycrisp, that I became an apple fan. The exact opposite of the apples I’d hated as a child, they were crisp and sweet and heavy with juice and I kept them in the fruit bowl and packed them in my own children’s lunches. I baked them, and made apple sauce. I sliced them, browned them in butter and sprinkled the caramelized slices with cinnamon before serving them on cool autumn nights. Once in a while I made a pie.

 

   I began to hear more about heirloom apples, varieties that were old and in danger of disappearing completely, and the growers who were working hard to save them.  It was hard to imagine that there had once been so many kinds of apple and some had disappeared completely while we were engineering fruit solely for appearance and durability.

 

   But visiting the Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska, I took the  Discovery Ride around the farm, a 45-minute narrated wagon ride behind a tractor. We learned the unique story of the farm, the history of Arbor Day and the work of the Arbor Day Foundation, before stopping in front of the Preservation Orchard. 

 

   “Now, this,” our guide Carol told us, “is a special place.” 

 

   As she showed us the rows of heirloom apple trees, some still heavy with beautiful fruit, she talked about the farm’s dedication to preserving the old, and in some cases endangered, varieties. Some of the trees were marked and I read the names: Wheeler’s Golden Russet, Old Nonpariel, and Raine de Reinette.

 

   There were others: the Wolf River apple, an apple so big one was enough for a pie. The Arkansas Black, with its distinctive purple color, and Esopus Spitzenburg, the orange-colored apple that was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite.

 

   We were invited to choose an apple from any tree and I wanted to choose wisely, so I took my time, walking slowly between the rows of trees. I finally decided on an Opalescent. I liked the tree for it’s toughness, its branches had been damaged but the tree had borne well in spite of the injury, and, to be honest, I was intrigued by the oddly-elegant name. I reached up, let the apple rest lightly in my palm, and twisted it gently. The ripe fruit fell into my hand and I admired it for a moment before I took a bite. 

 

The apple was dense and crisp and the flavor was surprisingly delicate, with just a hint of violets and strawberries. It probably wasn’t the rarest in the Preservation Orchard but it was a good choice for me.

 

Maybe that’s what is most important about places like the Arbor Day Farm Preservation Orchard. These trees and their fruit are part of our history. Our story. They are worth saving and sharing. You shouldn’t have to be all grown up before you taste something so good. 

 

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Truffle Hunting in Croatia


    Our small group, an assortment of travelers from the US, Canada and Germany,  gathered as Ivan Karlic, our guide, leashed up Blackie, the sweet, specially trained dog who would sniff out truffles buried at the base of oak trees growing in a small grove on a hillside near the village of Buzet. Most of us were visiting the Istrian peninsula of Croatia for the first time and none of us had ever been on a truffle hunt.


    Blackie knew what to do. Nose to the ground, she set out snuffling at the thick layer of leaves on the forest floor. Tail wagging, she moved quickly from one spot to another while Ivan whispered soft words of encouragement. We followed them both, stepping over roots and stones.


    Pigs were once the traditional truffle hunting animals, but as Ivan pointed out, it’s much easier to stop a dog from destroying or eating the truffle than a determined pig. So, these days, most truffle hunters have made the switch.


    Truffles are true buried treasure. Black truffles, the ones we were watching Blackie search for, average 30 to 50 Euros. When they’re in season, white truffles can go for many times that amount. That’s no small thing when you consider most are the size of a walnut or a small apple.


    As we walked behind Blackie, Ivan chatted with us about his family’s business harvesting the truffles from the small wood.  But suddenly he called out to the dog and rushed over to pull her away from where she was pawing at the ground. Using the tool he carried, a flat blade attached to a stick, he sliced into the dirt until the truffle was exposed. Gently, he scraped the dark soil away with his finger until he could gingerly pry the truffle free of the root to which it had been attached. He held up the prize and we cheered. Blackie got a treat for a job well done.


    While we were still admiring the find, Blackie went back to work. Once again we followed her zigzag path, talking quietly as we watched her stop, sniff, sniff again and then move on. When she started pawing at the ground, Ivan ran over to her and again, pulled a hard black truffle from the ground. Blackie moved deeper into the small forest and a few minutes later she hit paydirt again. While Ivan worked to free that truffle the dog started scratching at the base of another tree nearby. He called out for someone to help so I took his place and slipped my fingers into the hole he’d created with his spade. The dirt was cool and moist as I worked it away from the truffle. Like an archaeologist, I worked slowly, gently, scraping away the soil that concealed the truffle until Ivan came back and helped me pull it away from the root. I handed my phone to the woman beside me and asked her to take a photo. In the image, I am a blur. The only thing in focus are my hands, muddy, with dirt-caked fingernails cradling the truffle. It was exactly right.


    We carried the four truffles we’d gathered back to the farmhouse and Ivan’s mother, Radmila, met us at the covered patio. She exclaimed when she saw what we’d found. Apparently, it was a very good truffle hunt. Blackie, after being petted again by everyone in the group, was taken back to the kennel with the family’s other truffle-hunting dogs.


    Radmila broke eggs into a bowl, added thin slices of one of the truffles we’d found and made an omelet of our work.


    She sliced a baguette and topped the slices with butter and another sliver of truffle on top. With savory sausages and bottles of house-made wine, we had a meal so fragrant and delicious I will remember it forever.


    I’d expected the tourist treatment: a field “salted” with truffles that had been planted so we could have the (artificial) pleasure of watching a dog sniff them out. But my experience was just the opposite. I kept the photo and I’m going to frame it for my kitchen. The next time I make an omelet, I’ll think of that day; the feel of the dirt on my fingers and the unmistakable earthy fragrance of delicious buried treasure.
    



Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: Home Cooking

   The routine is always the same.

   I walk into our kitchen, a place that is deeply familiar and filled with all the pleasant associations of my family, and I pull out everything I will need. Methodically, listening to the radio or letting my mind wander, I chop onion, celery and carrots into the mirepoix that will form the base of a pot of homemade soup. Sauteing the vegetables, I separate two, three, sometimes four garlic cloves and chop them, tossing the aromatic pieces into the olive oil and butter with the other ingredients. Then I fill the big pot with stock, chicken or vegetable, add seasoning and put it on the stove to simmer. Sometimes I add leftover chicken but usually it is meat-free. In an hour or so our meal is done. I slice the bread, set the table and call out that dinner is ready. We pick up our spoons, take the first sip, and I know I am home.

   Food, as we all learn quickly enough, as newborn babies crying out in hunger and frustration, does more than just feed us. Food comforts. Food connects and unites us. It brings us closer and broadens our tastes. Food carries us forward and, as we get older and years escape us,  reminds us of the past.

   In some elemental way, soup captures all of that for me. It is simple, inexpensive and quickly prepared but it carries so much more than just flavor.

   For years now, after returning home from a trip, especially when no one could get away to come along with me, I’ve made soup when I got back and I’ve come to realized it is more than an act of putting food on the table. Sometimes, when I grabbed a cheap fare and took an impulsive journey, giving in to the temptation to travel, the meal is part apology. Other times, when my work took me away and I was busy and frustrated, it is part recompense, a way to make up for my short absence.

   But always, whether anyone sitting around the table knows or even cares, the act of making and sharing a pot of homemade soup, of gathering over the savory fragrance of simple ingredients, is an act of love. It is a way to say leaving this place and these people always hurts a little. And that coming home to chop and and stir and season a meal to feed them, somehow feeds me more.


For more about travel and homecoming, read Traveling Mothers

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington, whose essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Goodbye, Apple Charlotte

     From the first time I stepped into her kitchen, Char Zyskowski became a special friend. I was a freelancer, relatively new to the area. I’d gotten a tip about a chef who held cooking classes in her home on the South Hill. I called, we talked, and then arranged a time to meet.
    The thing I remember most about that day is the fragrance that met me at the front door. Savory. Spicy. Warm.
    Char welcomed me and invited me into the kitchen. She told me to sit down at the table and asked if I would like a bowl of the soup she’d just made. I declined, saying it was against the rules. She stopped, turned around and looked at me.
    “How can you write about what I do if you won’t eat what I make?”
    How indeed?
     I shrugged off the rules, picked up my spoon and I was lost. It was the most delicious meal I’d ever tasted.
    Over bowls of soup and a basket of crusty homemade bread, we talked. She told me about the decision, at 49, to create a new life. About how difficult it had been to be separated from her husband and children.
    I’ve never forgotten how her face glowed when she talked about her delight in having her husband there with her from time to time.
    When he came to Portland, she told me,  everything was a little better. “The lights came on,” she said with a smile.
    She was a little nervous about the story. Worried that her neighbors would complain. She’d just started teaching the classes and didn’t want traffic to be a problem. By the time our meal and the interview were finished, I was head over heels. I signed up for her cooking class. And then another. And another.
    Char knew I had no real desire to be a fantastic cook. I just simply loved being in her home, surrounded by books and pottery and flowers, listening to her laughter and watching her do what she loved to do. I sipped a glass of wine and watched the others fall under her spell. I brought my adult children with me so they could learn the basics and feed themselves as they moved out of my home.
    I trolled those cooking classes for interesting stories and met wonderful people. When I joined the staff of the paper, a controversial hire, I joined other reporters for more of her classes.
    When we sat down at the end of the class, to eat what we had prepared, we were bathed in candlelight and flushed with satisfaction. I was, at those dinners, less of the outsider. She knew that, too. In the end, I learned how to make a good pot of soup and she crosses my mind each time I chop and simmer. I learned to make peace.
    Char encouraged me, challenged me and, at times, comforted me. She asked me to help her write a cookbook.
    I was at her table, with the newspaper staff who was preparing a meal for the family of my young editor who had passed away suddenly, when Char told us that she was having surgery the next day. It was one of the most poignant moments of my life. The news wasn’t good.
    Over the next few years, as she continued to battle the thing that threatened her life, whenever I spoke to her, she showed the same strong spirit.
    “When it comes back,” she told me. “I’ll fight it.” And she did. The last time I saw her she was smiling, enjoying a day in the park with her husband.
  Several weeks ago, I was at the thrift store thumbing through books. I picked up one on setting a beautiful table. Just inside the front cover was Char’s name, signed in her own hand. Holding it I accepted that Char’s kitchen was closed forever.
    I bought the book and brought it home and put it next to the notebooks from her classes; the spattered and dog-eared recipes she’d shared.
    I was out of town when she passed away. Moving from one pocket of weak service to another as I drove through Yellowstone Park, I got emails telling me that she was gone. Staring out the window at the mountains in the distance, I said goodbye to a dear friend.
    Over the years, Char Zyskowski tutored me. She encouraged me and inspired me. She fed me in every way.   

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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