Archive for May, 2009

Rhubarb Country

Friday, May 29th, 2009
Perhaps leaves like this will win a contest in Aledo, Illinois.
Perhaps leaves like this will win a contest in Aledo, Illinois.

Rhubarb is in full swing in my corner of Western Massachusetts right now, pushing up outrageously large leaves to protect its red and green stalks. I love living in Rhubarb Country.

Areas like mine with a relatively cool climate are ideal for rhubarb, which must have temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in order to grow. It is cultivated extensively in the northern United States, in Canada, and in Europe and England. Rhubarb plants are hardy and don’t need a lot of care. (This is a major reason for my own love of rhubarb.)

Obviously, we’re not the only people enjoying rhubarb right now. A quick internet search lately yielded word of rhubarb festivals in a variety of places. I wish I could go to every single one of them. Instead, I’m mentioning just a few here—just in case readers feel like a spot of travel.

In Yorkshire, England, in what is known as the “Rhubarb Triangle,” rhubarb became a popular winter crop beginning in the 1880s. It was cultivated outdoors and moved in the fall into indoor rhubarb sheds, where it was forced and harvested by candlelight in February. 

The rhubarb sheds are disappearing from the Yorkshire landscape just as my Pioneer Valley is losing its historic tobacco barns. Nevertheless, the dwindling tradition of the candlelight rhubarb harvest is still treasured by the remaining growers and rhubarb lovers in the area.

They organize an annual rhubarb celebration in February. This year’s festivities included a rhubarb lassi drink from a local Indian chef. (I’d love to have that recipe!) The festival also included tastings of rhubarb cheese made by a local cheesemaker (and monger), Cryer & Stott.

Lanesboro, Minnesota, calls itself the Rhubarb Capital of that state. Its annual Rhubarb Festival is scheduled this year for June 10. It features rhubarb games known as the Rhubarb Olympics, including rhubarb golf, in which participants use a stalk of rhubarb to propel balls into the air. Naturally, it also sponsors a cooking contest, as well as a Rhubarb Rant Speakers Corner for people who love to spout off about this controversial plant. 

Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse, Pennsylvania, has just concluded its annual Rhubarb Fest, which included a dance called the Rhubarb Stroll and an automotive Rhubarb Derby.

Aledo, Illinois, will hold its Rhubarb Festival on June 5 and 6. This event features sales by local businesses, a whole lot of rhubarb pie, and a contest to see who can grow the largest rhubarb leaf.

Conrad, Montana, will celebrate its Rhubarb Festival on June 13 and 14. This shindig will be combined with something called “Whoop-Up Days,” which include a car show and a rodeo. 

Finally, L&S Gardens, a nursery in La Pine, Oregon, will sponsor a Rhubarb Festival this weekend on May 30. L&S’s Linda Stephenson sprinkles vendors all over her nursery. Visitors can also find live music and of course rhubarb—much of it prepared in various forms by the local Dutch Oven Cooking Club, of which Linda is president.

She and her husband Sonny became interested in cooking in outdoor cast-iron Dutch ovens after reading about Sonny’s great-grandmother’s cooking methods in an old family diary. 

The nursery also sells fresh rhubarb and rhubarb plants that day as well as a small cookbook Linda has written, appropriately titled Rhubarb Country. She lures customers with samples of her favorite rhubarb salsa, which can be served on chips or on crackers spread with cream cheese.

Linda was nice enough to share her recipe with me so I’m passing it along to you, along with a few other formulas that show off this versatile spring plant. Perhaps it will inspire another festival or two next rhubarb season—even in my own area!


L&S Rhubarb Salsa

I know readers are probably thinking that both Linda Stephenson and I are taking our passion for rhubarb a stalk too far with the concept of rhubarb salsa. I must write in our defense that this salsa is AMAZING, my favorite combination of sweet and spicy so far this year. I served some to my friend and neighbor Will Cosby, who is emphatically not a rhubarb fan. He devoured it.  

So please reserve judgment and try it. (You may halve the recipe if you feel timid.)

One caveat: the salsa is a little wet. Next time I make it I’ll probably try omitting the water (I’ll mix the rhubarb, orange peel, and sugar in the saucepan and let them sit overnight; the rhubarb and sugar will combine to form juice). This will cut down on the water but not get rid of it altogether. One can always drain the salsa before serving it, however. Or serve it with lots of cocktail napkins! 

By the way, Linda’s original recipe called for adding the ginger with the raw ingredients at the end. I decided I’d like it to blend a little more with the rhubarb so I popped it in halfway through the cooking process.


1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons finely shredded orange peel

6 cups rhubarb, chopped 1/2 inch thick

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1/2 cup diced green bell pepper (yellow would do well, too)

1/4 cup finely chopped sweet onion (I used Vidalia)

1/3 cup fine chopped red onion

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons lemon juice


In a non-reactive saucepan combine the sugar, water, and orange peel. Bring the mixture to a boil over fairly high heat. 

Add the chopped rhubarb, and reduce the heat to medium. Simmer gently until the rhubarb is tender (about 10 minutes). After the first 5 minutes of simmering, stir in the ginger.

Remove the rhubarb mixture from the heat and allow it to cool to room temperature. When it is cool add the remaining ingredients. Mix well. You may serve this salsa chilled or at room temperature. As I noted above, it is tasty with tortilla chips or on crackers with cream cheese; it would also blend well with chicken, pork, or fish.

Makes 4 cups of salsa, more or less (depending on the juiciness of your rhubarb).


Will Cosby smiles over rhubarb.

Will Cosby smiles over rhubarb.

Mr. Peabody and Friends

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009


Last week I attended the Peabody Awards in New York. No, I wasn’t being honored for my work in broadcasting since I don’t currently do any work in broadcasting. (I hope one of these days to offer podcasts and videos on this blog, but at the moment I’m still mastering the mechanics of putting printed words and still photographs up on the thing!)  

Each year I am invited to the Peabodys by a man with a big brain and a big heart, my graduate-school professor Horace Newcomb. I studied with him at the University of Texas. Now he directs the Peabodys at the University of Georgia.


During my doctoral studies Horace taught me a lot about Magnum P.I., I Love Lucy, and Dallas—and a lot about Walt Whitman and Theodore Dreiser as well. Like me, he came to media studies with a humanities background. That background helped him appreciate the narrative qualities in television and radio.


Horace was also a wonderful source of calm advice whenever I felt as though I was NEVER going to pass my comps or finish my dissertation or survive my doctoral defense. I think he must have been a therapist in a past life.


Horace Newcomb, a.k.a. Mr. Peabody

Horace Newcomb, a.k.a. Mr. Peabody

As director of the Peabody Awards Horace shepherds a diverse and distinguished group of academicians and media professionals as they evaluate the hundreds of entries that come in each year. The awards don’t have set categories so what the board is looking for is excellence. It’s a hard quality to quantify, but through days of thought and discussion they always manage to come up with programs that exhibit it. 

The resulting slate of radio, television, cable, and internet fare is always diverse. This year’s winners included national news programs like Washington Week, local news features like a Las Vegas station’s controversial series about the rerouting of rural water to Sin City, fictional programs like Breaking Bad, and a number of American and international radio and television documentaries.


Some awards went to traditional entities seeking new venues. The Peabodys recognized the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts that are thrilling opera lovers across the country, including those in my local metropolis of Shelburne Falls, and The New York Times web site. (Host Brian Williams mentioned that he had heard a rumor that the Times was thinking of launching a print edition as well.)


Others went to organizations for bodies of work; these included Turner Classic Movies, our TV cinematheque, and You Tube, our online video omnibus.


The clips from the honored programs and the speeches by the recipients were inspiring. We hear so much about the death of news in American radio and TV that it’s wonderful to hear people talk about the support their parent companies have given to strong investigative reporting.


For me as a writer it’s also wonderful to be in a room full of people who take their work seriously and spend the time it takes to get telling stories right—whether those stories are cartoons about an Asian Avatar, conversations about the financial crisis on This American Life, or the disparate election coverage of Saturday Night Live and CNN.


I go home every year with a renewed hope that I, too, will tell useful stories with heart and humor.  I also go home with happy memories of Horace and his wife Sara—and with flowers from my table at the Waldorf Astoria, which my mother always appreciates.


For a full list of this year’s Peabody Award winners visit the Peabody web site.


Meanwhile here is a (vaguely) Peabody-related recipe. One of the honorees this year was the HBO miniseries John Adams, which I adored (although I had always pictured Abigail Adams as much less bleak than her portrayal by the talented Laura Linney would suggest).


I called the Adams House in Quincy, Massachusetts (technically Adams National Historic Park) and asked the curator there, Kelly Cobble, whether Abigail had any favorite recipes.

Abigail Adams (portrait by Gilbert Stuart, Courtesy of Adams National Historic Park)

Abigail Adams (portrait by Gilbert Stuart, Courtesy of Adams National Historic Park)


Kelly told me that Abigail Adams was known to be fond of Indian Pudding. She emailed me a quotation from Henry Bradshaw Fearon, an Englishman sent to the United States in 1817 by a group of families who wanted him to look for a place on this continent in which it might be suitable for them to settle.


On Sunday, September 17, of that year Fearon wrote:

In the afternoon of this day, young Mr. Adams came from Quincy to conduct me to his grandfather’s… The ex-President is a handsome old gentleman of eighty-four; his lady a seventy-six; -she has the reputation of superior talents, and great literary achievements.

…first course, a pudding made of Indian Corn, Molasses and butter;  Second, veal, bacon, neck of mutton, potatoes, cabbage, carrots and Indian beans: maderia vine of which each drank two glasses.  We sat down to dinner at one o’clock, at two, nearly all went a second time to church.  For tea, we had pound-cake, sweet bread and butter, and bread made of Indian corn and rye…

In honor of Abigail Adams and the Peabody Awards, then, here is a recipe for Indian Pudding.




Indian Pudding


True to its name, this dish was a gift to New England settlers from Native Americans, a variation on their cornmeal mush. It was probably the most popular pudding in 18th-century America.


As Henry Bradshaw Fearon indicated, in our nation’s early decades pudding came at the beginning of the meal.  You may eat this one for dessert if you like, however! It looks pretty pathetic when it first comes out of the oven (like a not very appetizing mud pie). It looks a lot better with a spot of whipped cream and is satisfying to eat—warm and filling as pudding should be.


Like most puddings, it is adaptable; feel free to omit (or add to) the apples and to experiment with spices!



5 cups milk

1/3 cup molasses

1/3 cup white sugar

1/3 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons sweet butter

2 medium apples



Heat 4 cups of the milk in a saucepan and add the molasses, sugars, cornmeal, cinnamon, salt, and butter. Cook until the mixture thickens (between 10 and 20 minutes), stirring frequently.


Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Peel and core the apples; then slice them thinly onto the bottom of a 2- to 3-quart baking dish. Pour the cornmeal mixture into the dish on top of the apples. Pour the remaining milk on top, but do not stir it in.


Bake for 3 hours without stirring. Serve warm with cream, whipped cream, ice cream, or hard sauce. Serves 8.



Tammy’s Tangy Kielbasa

Sunday, May 24th, 2009
Tammy Hicks postmarks an envelope.

Tammy Hicks postmarks an envelope.

I fully intended to post a poppy-seed cake for Memorial Day in honor of my favorite Memorial Day poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place…….


Somehow, I never got around to making the thing. Next year, I promise I will!

Luckily, I found an easy and tasty substitute on Friday while at the Post Office in Charlemont, Massachusetts.  Postmaster Tammy Hicks and I started comparing notes on our weekend cooking tasks. Tammy said she was going to throw some sweet-and-sour kielbasa into her crock pot slow cooker a couple of hours before she needed to serve it at a Memorial Day picnic.


When I asked for her recipe it sounded so good (and so much NOT like work) that I ran to the store and bought the ingredients.


There are only three of them (ingredients, that is).  No kidding.


You may certainly dress this dish up by buying really good kielbasa (we have a terrific local smokehouse, Pekarski’s in South Deerfield). And you may use homemade jelly and homemade barbecue sauce.

I just bought what was available at Avery’s General Store and went home and cooked. It was yummy.


Tammy usually makes a LOT of this, tossing between two and five pounds of kielbasa into her slow cooker. For one to two pounds she uses the amounts of jelly and barbecue sauce I indicate here.  For more she doubles them.


She suggested cooking the dish in the slow cooker for two hours on high or for four hours on low.


I am only serving four people at my Memorial Day picnic–and my slow cooker is in another state–so I as you can see from my recipe I cooked one pound of meat on low heat on the stove top.



The Very Easy Recipe




1 pound kielbasa, cut into bite-sized pieces (turkey kielbasa will do—ANY kielbasa will do)

1/2 of a 12-ounce jar of grape jelly

1/2 of an 18-ounce jar of good quality barbecue sauce




Stir the ingredients together in a 2-quart saucepan. Cover, and cook for 2 hours over low heat. Stir once or twice if you’re worried.


Serve on Memorial Day with cornbread, devilled eggs, and coleslaw.

Serves 2 teenage boys or 4 normal people.


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Taffy’s Asparagus Penne

Friday, May 22nd, 2009
My Sad Asparagus Patch

My Sad Asparagus Patch


Here is one more asparagus treat, perfect for the weird miscellaneous stalks that come up in my alleged garden every year. (I know that they would be healthier if I actually weeded the bed, but weeding has never been my specialty.) Since I cut the stalks into small pieces they don’t have to match in any way.

My family served this to my mother Jan (a.k.a. Taffy because she likes to swim in salt water) for Mother’s Day one year. It has become a May staple for us. 

Cousin Jane (left) and Sister Leigh present the Penne to Taffy.

Cousin Jane (left) and Sister Leigh present the Penne to Taffy.



1 pound penne

2 pounds fresh asparagus, washed, trimmed, and cut into bite-size pieces

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (plus a bit more if you like)

10 large cloves of garlic cut lengthwise into thin pieces

freshly ground pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon salt (optional—if you put lots of salt in the penne and asparagus water you won’t need it)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) sweet butter

1/2 pound Prosciutto, thinly sliced and then shredded (optional)
freshly grated Italian cheese (such as Parmesan or Pecorino Romano) to taste—at least 1 cup, and maybe more

1 handful fresh parsley, finely chopped




First, cook the penne according to the package instructions. When it is cooked al dente drain it, rinse it in cold water to cool it off, and drain it again.


While the pasta is cooking, place the asparagus in boiling water, and boil for 2 minutes. Carefully drain the asparagus, rinse it with very cold water, and drain it again.


When the pasta is ready and drained, pour the oil into a LARGE skillet, and let it heat over medium heat for about a minute, until it begins to shimmer. The oil will be very hot. Carefully add the pieces of garlic to the oil and cook, stirring vigorously, until the garlic begins to brown. (This won’t take long.)


Add the asparagus, salt (if needed), and pepper to the garlic. Cook for another 2 minutes, shaking or stirring gently. Add the pasta and the butter and cook until the vegetables and pasta are hot and well mixed, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn off the heat, and toss in the Prosciutto.


Carefully transfer the mixture to a serving bowl, and toss in lots of Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle the chopped parsley on top.  Serve it to your mother and other guests immediately. Serves 8.



Eggs Beatrice

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009


Here’s another recipe for my beloved Sparrow Grass–or perhaps I should say Spearage, which according to Kathleen Wall at Plimoth Plantation was a common 17th-century term for asparagus.

I’m not a big Eggs Benedict Girl—the consistency of the ham never seems to me to go with the rest of the ingredients—but alter the recipe a little and incorporate asparagus and I’m hooked. (You may of course add ham as well!)

I’m always a little cautious about poaching eggs, but I found a helpful new product at the Lamson & Goodnow retail store in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, that banishes my fears. It’s called an eggshell™ and comes in packages of two that look like little cracked eggs.

To use one of these silicone products, lightly grease the inside, pop your egg into it, and float the eggshell in boiling water. Cover the pot, and cook for 5 minutes. Your poached egg pops easily out of the silicone and onto your English muffin.


for the Hollandaise sauce (makes about 1 cup of sauce):

1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter
3 egg yolks
the juice of 1/2 small lemon
2 tablespoons hot water
a pinch of cayenne pepper
a pinch of salt

for assembly (per person):

1/2 English muffin
butter as needed for the muffins
1 slice Prosciutto (optional)
3 spears cooked asparagus (either whole or cut up)
1 poached egg
a generous dollop of Hollandaise sauce
salt and pepper to taste


First, make the Hollandaise sauce. Melt the butter in a saucepan. In the top of a double boiler over warm (but not boiling!) water, whisk the egg yolks until they are smooth. Whisk in the lemon juice. Slowly whisk in the butter in a thin stream.

Slowly stir in the hot water, cayenne, and salt, and cook for 1 minute more, whisking constantly. Set the sauce aside while you poach the eggs and cook the toast.

For each person, butter half of a toasted English muffin, and lay the Prosciutto on top if you want to use it. Depending on your preference, put the asparagus on next or the egg (my mother and I liked it both ways!).

Cover with a little Hollandaise sauce, and season to taste. Serve immediately. One recipe of Hollandaise makes enough sauce for 4 to 6 eggs.

The Eggshells

The Eggshells