Archive for May, 2009

Sparrow Grass

Friday, May 15th, 2009


When I’m asked one of those silly hypothetical food questions—“What one food would you want to eat on a desert island?” or “What would you choose to eat for your last meal on death row?’’—I never have trouble making a decision. I’m an asparagus girl to the end.

Of course, asparagus is a cool-climate vegetable so it’s unlikely to grow on a desert island. And a prison chef would probably cook it until it was soggy. Nevertheless, I could eat even poorly cooked asparagus every day and be reasonably happy.

This time of year my favorite green vegetable is everywhere in the Pioneer Valley. As David Nussbaum recalled in Saveur magazine a few years ago, the Connecticut River Valley was the world’s asparagus capital between the 1930s and the 1970s.

Hadley Grass, as it was called, was shipped throughout the northeast and occasionally even overseas, where it was purportedly enjoyed by the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace.

When a blight hit the crop in the mid-1970s, Nussbaum wrote, asparagus in the area was hard hit. It took a while to find a blight-resistant strain, and many farmers moved on. Today it is mainly we locals who enjoy what remains of this formerly dominant crop.

Many western Massachusetts asparagus fans still use the term Hadley Grass, adapted from a popular nickname for the vegetable in the 1700s and 1800s, “sparrow grass.” Lexicographer John Walker wrote in 1791, “Sparrow-grass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry.”

I was seven when I first tasted freshly picked asparagus. My family was visiting one of my father’s graduate-school professors in Wisconsin. Like many Midwesterners the professor and his wife had a huge garden.

When I took my first bite of fresh-from-the-garden asparagus I was amazed at the flavor and texture. It tasted more like butter than any vegetable should. I kept eating—and eating—and eating.

I haven’t consumed that much asparagus at one sitting since then, but I still remember that visit with pleasure. And I celebrate asparagus season every year. One of my yearly ambitions (one spring I’ll fulfill it!) is to taste a unique asparagus treat served about an hour away from me.

A fabulous dairy in Hadley, Massachusetts, Flayvors of Cook Farm, makes asparagus ice cream at this time of year. I haven’t tried it myself, but every other flavor I’ve tried there has been freshly made and imaginatively conceived.

Every summer when we take my nephew Michael on his annual pilgrimage to the Eric Carle Museum we end up indulging ourselves at Cook Farm on the way home.

Just to get you going on your own asparagus journey I’ll be posting a few sparrow grass recipes, starting with this easy roasted grass formula. Don’t feel that you have to use any of them, however. Nothing beats this vegetable simply steamed or boiled, topped with a little butter and/or lemon juice.

Roasted Asparagus


1 pound asparagus, washed and trimmed
a generous splash of extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 handful feta cheese (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives (optional)


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In an ovenproof dish, toss together the asparagus, oil, salt, and pepper. Lay the oiled asparagus in the dish in a single layer.

Bake the asparagus for 6 to 10 minutes (depending on its thickness; I had fairly thick asparagus so I used the full 10 minutes), turning once.

If you want to use the feta, lay it on top of the asparagus after turning. It won’t melt, but it will become warm and soft.

Remove the roasted asparagus from the oven, and garnish it with chives if desired. Serves 3 to 4.

Mother Jan is happy that Sparrow Grass season is here!

Mother Jan is happy that Sparrow Grass season is here!

A Regal Birthday

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
Lorelei Lee is a princess on her birthday (and every other day as well).

Lorelei Lee is a queen on her birthday (and on every other day as well).

Happy Birthday, Lorelei Lee! Today my personality-filled cat turns 18. I think we’ll wait a few days to register her to vote, but it’s a milestone worth marking.

I remember reading many years ago (I THINK in a book by feminist historian Gerda Lerner, but I’m afraid I can no longer find the reference) that the domestication of dogs is seen by some scholars as a milestone in the development of the human psyche since it springs from altruism.

At some point humans moved from relying on dogs for protection and hunting to bringing them into the home as pets. The dogs had no function other than to give and receive love–so the people who cared for them were operating from a need for sociability and empathy rather than survival.

The domestication of cats, although not mentioned in the work I vaguely recall, must have taken even more altruism. Dogs bolster our egos. When Truffle gazes at me with her big hazel eyes I know that I am her beloved protector.

In contrast, when Lorelei Lee gazes at me with her big blue eyes I know that I am supposed to get her whatever she wants–preferably pretty darn quickly. With one feline glance I am reduced from beloved caregiver to abject slave.

The domestication of cats is therefore a little more complicated than the domestication of dogs. True, cats do sometimes fulfill a household function; before her retirement (which stemmed from impaired vision) Lorelei was a fierce killer of mice and large insects.

Mainly, however, cats teach us to live with uncertainty and with creatures who are significantly different from us. I accept Lorelei Lee’s demands and quirks and even what we euphemistically term her “love bites” because she is part of my family even if I’ll never completely understand her.

Despite their martial spirit, I would argue that the domestication of cats may therefore have been a bigger milestone in the development of the human race than that of dogs. True, dogs promote world peace by example, showing us how to be patient and loving.

Cats, however, promote world peace by behavior therapy, forcing us to become patient and loving. So today I celebrate Lorelei and her challenging yet endearing sisters and brothers throughout the world. May we continue to learn their life lessons with grace and humor.

I’ve been trying to think of an appropriate recipe to post for LL’s special day. Like everyone in our family she’s partial to cheese so I’ve decided on blue cheese dressing. Who can resist that signature combination of fat, salt, and creaminess?

We humans eat this concoction as a veggie dip or on a salad. Lorelei will have a small amount tonight on a morsel of asparagus. (It’s good on broccoli, too, but asparagus is coming into the garden, and anyway it’s Miss Lorelei’s favorite vegetable!)

Snappy Blue Cheese Dressing/Dip/Whatever


3/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
1 clove garlic, finely minced
3/4 cup sour cream or yogurt
a few drops of Worcestershire sauce
salt to taste (you don’t need a lot since the cheese is salty!)
freshly squeezed lemon juice as needed (about 1/2 large lemon for the dip or for Lorelei’s asparagus; more for the dressing)


Combine the cheese and garlic; then stir in the sour cream or yogurt, Worcestershire sauce, and salt. Finish with the lemon juice. Chill the dressing for at least 1 hour before you use it. 

When I served this with salad I gave guests lemon wedges so they could add extra lemon when they dabbed the dressing on the greenery. You may also mix in the lemon juice yourself and toss this creamier dressing directly into the salad bowl.

Makes a little more than 1 cup of dressing (the ingredients lose volume when you combine them).

Here's the dressing before the extra lemon juice is added......

Here's the dressing before the extra lemon juice was added......

My Grandmother’s Johnnycake

Saturday, May 9th, 2009
My grandmother as a young woman (right) with her sister Alma (I love that hands-on-hips attitude)

My grandmother as a young woman (right) with her sister Alma (I love that hands-on-hips attitude!)

My mother tells me she has been thinking of her own mother a lot lately. So as Mother’s Day approaches I’m paying tribute to both of them by publishing a recipe from my grandmother’s files.

My mother’s mother, Clara Engel Hallett, was the proverbial good plain cook. Brought up on a farm, she helped her adopted mother with chores and cooking. She polished her culinary skills the summer before her marriage in 1912 by attending Fannie Farmer’s School of Cookery in Boston. One of my great regrets is that I learned about this too late to ask my grandmother what the legendary Fannie Farmer was like!

I do know that a couple of her cooking techniques echo Miss  Farmer’s trademarks. My grandmother was scrupulously exact in her cooking and recipe transcriptions, as befitted someone who sat at the feet of “the mother of level measurements.”

And even when she was all alone she took care to make sure that every meal she prepared was attractive and well balanced, as Miss Farmer decreed it should be. I wish I had inherited this instinct; when I’m alone I eat anything from a salad to a bowl of cereal, and balance pretty much goes out the window. 

Fannie Farmer’s influence lives on in our family through our near veneration of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Some of my friends identify The Joy of Cooking as their cooking primer; others, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.

For my mother and me the cooking bible has always been Fannie Farmer. We own hundreds of cookbooks but somehow almost always turn to that one volume when we’re looking for a simple, tasty way to prepare something basic.

Clara and Bruce Hallett with Baby Janice
Clara and Bruce Hallett with Baby Janice

The recipe below doesn’t come from Fannie Farmer–unless it’s one Miss Farmer herself taught my grandmother to make that long-ago summer. (There’s no attribution on the recipe card.) It’s a basic cornbread. My grandmother grew up in Vermont and used the old New England name Johnnycake, a.k.a. Jonnycake or Journey Cake, for her bread.

When I make it I think of this thrifty, versatile Yankee woman–and of her daughter, my mother Jan. And of course of Miss Farmer, a culinary mother to millions! Happy Mother’s Day to all……..


Clara Hallett’s Johnnycake


1 cup flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) sweet butter
1 cup buttermilk or thick sour milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 to 4 tablespoons sugar (depending on how sweet you like your cornbread)


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease an 8-by8-inch baking pan or a 9-inch iron skillet. Sift the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt together three times. Set them aside.

Melt the butter. While it is melting, whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and baking soda. Mix them into the melted butter, along with the sugar. Stir this mixture lightly into the flour mixture.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake the johnnycake until it is firm and browned a little on the edges, about 20 minutes. Serves 6.

My grandmother later in life (she was almost 90; I, 21)
My grandmother later in life (she was almost 90; I, 21)

A Taste of the Hearth

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009
Susan Luczu and Her Gingerbread

Susan Luczu and Her Gingerbread


We sometimes take our kitchens for granted. They are much more than just rooms in which food is prepared. They serve as the centers of the home, places of warmth figuratively as well as literally.


My kitchen is like my life—colorful, messy, and full of projects in various stages of preparation!


Historic New England has dubbed 2009 the Year of the Kitchen and has put out a wonderful book America’s Kitchens (of which I’ll write more soon!). I hope to follow its lead, not just by going to some of the events it has scheduled to celebrate this special year, but also by writing about the kitchens of neighbors and readers.


My first personal Year of the Kitchen event took place recently in East Brunswick, New Jersey, where I observed food historian Susan Luczu give a talk called “A Taste of the Hearth” at the East Brunswick Museum. Susan lives in an early-18th-century house near the museum. She collects historic kitchen equipment, which she uses to cook authentic, tasty foods in her house’s huge original fireplace. Susan brought several of her treasures and several of her foods to share with museum visitors.

The East Brunswick Museum

The East Brunswick Museum

The East Brunswick Museum is a tiny jewel located in a 19th century church in the historic village of Old Bridge. It is celebrating its own Year of the Kitchen with an ongoing exhibition called “What’s Cooking” that features kitchen tools and accessories. Some are part of the museum’s permanent collection while others are on loan from supporters like Susan.


Susan began with a bit of background about her interest in culinary history. She then showed off a number of the 18th-century kitchen tools and utensils she has collected over the years, which ranged from heavy pots to a portable toaster. “People back in that period were pretty sophisticated in their cooking,” she said of our colonial forebears.


Susan is almost as inventive as the 18th-century cooks she studies. She described how she had recreated some of her props. One of these was a sugar cone; she explained that people in the 1700s bought and stored sugar in cones and showed us how to extract a little sugar at a time using her antique sugar nipper (it looked a bit like pliers). Another homemade tool was a corn pot-scrubber for cleaning cast-iron pots, which she made from a whisk broom.

Pinching Off Some Sugar

Nipping Off Some Sugar

Naturally, Susan concluded her talk with a lavish tasting. She was nice enough to share her recipes with her audience so I can pass one of them on to you.


Susan’s next presentation at the Museum in East Brunswick New Jersey will be a Victorian Tea Day on Sunday, May 17. The Museum asks participants to reserve seats in advance; here is the web page with contact information. (Attendees are encouraged to dress in garden-party finery.) I highly recommend this event: Susan is knowledgeable, smart, funny, and down to earth.


New Englanders looking for a Year of the Kitchen event may want to attend the Spring Herb Sale this weekend at the Lyman Estate Greenhouses in Waltham, Massachusetts, or take the tour “A Tale of Two Kitchens” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on Saturday, May 9. Information about both of these events is available on Historic New England’s Events Calendar.

To learn more about Susan, visit her web site.


I’ll be looking for more kitchen events to write about soon. Meanwhile, here is one of Susan Luczu’s recipes. She baked this gingerbread in a lovely Turk’s Head mold.


Part of the East Brunswick Museum's Kitchen Collection

Part of the East Brunswick Museum's Kitchen Collection


Taste of the Hearth Gingerbread Cake


1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg, well beaten
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup powdered sugar for garnish


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan or a small (4-cup) cake mold.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, soda, and spices. Set aside.

Cream the butter until it is fluffy. Add the brown sugar and beat well. Add the egg and molasses, and beat for 1 minute more.

Gently add the flour mixture, alternating with the water. Stir (or mix on low speed) until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake it until the top springs back when lightly pressed with a finger—or until a cake tester comes out clean (35 to 45 minutes).

Cool the cake for 5 minutes in the pan; then turn it out onto a plate and let it cool completely. Sprinkle the top with powdered sugar.

Serve the cake warm or cold with vanilla sauce, lemon curd, or butter. Serves 8.

By the way, we have a winner for the Lamson Good Now Green Tool!  Chris Miller of Lebanon, New Jersey, will receive a potato masher. Thanks to Lamson & Goodnow and to all who participated in the drawing. I’ll announce another prize at the end of this month………

Tortilla Soup

Monday, May 4th, 2009


Tomorrow  is el Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May. This day commemorates the victory of Mexican forces over the French army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.  It’s also a day on which we in the United States celebrate the heritage of our Mexican residents and neighbors.  

For many Mexicans this year the Cinco de Mayo holiday will be dimmed by worry about the flu epidemic. Chicken soup can’t cure colds and flu, of course, but any mother will tell you that the soup’s warmth comforts those who are sick. So let’s celebrate the ability of the Mexican people to rise above challenges—epidemiological or military—with a little chicken-based tortilla soup.


This soup comes in many different versions so feel free to change it to your taste. Some people like to put the tortilla pieces in the soup to cook for a while (to make a sort of chicken-noodle soup). If you have a fresh hot pepper, feel free to substitute it for the red pepper flakes in the recipe; I was sticking to ingredients I could purchase at my local general store so I didn’t have one on hand.


Tortilla Soup




canola oil as needed for frying

1 onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1 15-ounce can stewed tomatoes

1 4-ounce can green chiles

4 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

1 tablespoon chili powder

salt to taste

red pepper flakes to taste (these provide spice)

3 to 3-1/2 cups corn kernels (at this time of year I use frozen)

4 corn tortillas

2 to 3 cups shredded cooked chicken

chopped cilantro to taste

grated cheese to taste (Monterey Jack or cheddar; the first melts better and the second has more flavor)

2 limes, cut into wedges




In a small frying pan, sauté the onion and garlic in a little oil until they brown. Pop them into the blender with the canned tomatoes and the green chiles. Blend well.


Add the tomato mixture to the chicken stock. Stir in the chili powder, salt, red pepper flakes, and corn. Bring the soup to a boil; then reduce the heat, almost cover the soup, and let it simmer until the flavors have blended (at least 1/2 hour).


While the soup is cooking, cut the tortillas into small strips. Let them sit on paper towels for at least 15 minutes to dry out; then fry them in oil until they are crispy. Set them aside to drain on the paper towels.


When the soup is almost ready, stir in the chicken and cilantro. Cook for a few minutes more, until the chicken is heated through.


Ladle the soup into bowls, and have your guests add tortilla strips, cheese, and lime juice from the wedges to taste. Serves 4 to 6.