By Karen Dill

Author’s note: This article is dedicated to our dear friend and neighbor, Louise Bedford, who passed away March 26 of this year. She loved Percy unconditionally and he preferred her house to ours.

On a cool mountain morning, mist will hang around our yard, playing tag with the trees and painting a mystical picture for the early riser. It is one such magical morning in late winter, and I look out the window to our back yard and see, of all things, well, a peacock.

The sight is difficult to comprehend, as peacocks are usually not seen in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I think that this must be a hallucination or a result of too much wine from the night before. Yet, there he is, neither turkey nor wood fowl. It is indeed a male peacock, minus his feathers.

I will learn later through reading the remarkable works of the Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, that the peacock in our backyard has molted and his feathers were shed in the fall. Around March, he will sprout magnificent feathers and in May, he will begin the search for a worthy peahen.

I assume that like all magical apparitions, the peacock is a one-time sighting. He has simply lost his compass, I think, and will move on to his real home on a peacock farm. Yet, he reappears that evening and again the following morning and his initial shyness gives way to boldness.

Neighbors gather and discuss “the peacock sighting.” I haven’t lost my mind. He is real. So real, in fact, that a couple who live in our neighborhood name him Sir Perceival, Percy for short. He is so named because of his regal manner, his arrogant strut and his fearless nature. Percy behaves as if he belongs here and we, the mere mortals, are somehow his subjects in a royal kingdom.

Unlike the rather demure finches and robins common to our mountains, Percy has not shred of modesty. My mother, a most humble mountain lady, believed that Pride goeth before the fall (or is it before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall?) so I was reared with a healthy dose of modesty and found Percy’s arrogant pride to be a little disconcerting. He was proud as Lucifer, as my mother might say, and I was a wee bit uncomfortable with his arrogant confidence.

The perils of pride were introduced at an early age in my household. Some of first books that my mother read aloud to me were about a young girl named Elsie Dinsmore. Soon after Elsie’s birth, her mother died but the plucky Elsie grew sweet, cheerful and modest in spite of abundant hardships. When her wicked step-mother scolded her (and she was scolded a lot), Elsie modestly “cast her eyes upon the ground” undoubtedly paving her way to a better life in the here-after.

I was taught to strive for modesty and shun prideful behavior. Humility was a virtue and showing off would surely bring pain. My mother had learned this lesson the hard way. After her own mother died, my mother went to live with an aunt and uncle who had little understanding of young girls’ needs and desires. A natural athlete, my mother longed to play basketball and defying her aunt and uncle, made the high school team in the little hamlet of Walnut.

And she was a star basking in the cheers and applause from the crowds in the gym until disaster struck. One afternoon in practice, she jumped for a pass, fell the wrong way, and broke her arm. There was no more basketball but there was also no confession, no revelation. Fearing punishment from her aunt and uncle, my mother said nothing and the broken arm was never set.

For the rest of her life, that arm caused mother considerable pain, especially when it rained. And pride, she was convinced, created the dismal collapse of her basketball days.

The epitome of pride, Percy is almost magical and works his power on us all. When he chases our cat and runs after the lawnmowers, no passerby can resist a smile.

At times, however, Percy tests our patience when he lit in on our little dog, Sam, in a race for a piece of cornbread. Sam won and even proud Percy now concedes Sam’s space. The truce works, I suspect, because Sam gives Percy a wide berth whether there is cornbread around or not.

Come May evenings, Percy appears on our patio like clockwork and we take to eating alfresco to enjoy his company. Somehow he senses when dinner guests are coming and clocks in early to check out the menu and be introduced.

He expects bites from everybody’s plate and when the conversation doesn’t suit the regal bird, his indignant squawks shatter the night air. One evening our friend Thomas Crowe failed to pass along a nibble of chicken and Percy promptly bit him on the arm when he was ignored. Apparently Thomas did not understand that Percy not only expects to be the center of attention but wants to sample all food served from the patio table.

I’m not saying that I’m so taken with Percy that I’ve started cooking for him, but he does love cornbread. And I confess I now bake a “Peacock Gourmet Cornbread” laced with peanuts and sunflower seeds, a dish Percy adores and isn’t about to share. He has even taken a liking for wild mint and one afternoon he happily snapped a mint spring straight out of my glass of lemonade.

A natural for wild mint is the exotic-sounding Middle Eastern dish tabbouleh. While living in Turkey for two years, I learned to love this dish and found that it is easily replicated here in the mountains. Except for the bulgur, olive oil, and lemon juice, tabbouleh ingredients can be gathered from the herb and vegetable gardens — tomatoes, onions, parsley and, of course, mint. Fine as a main dish, tabbouleh also goes well with almost any meat — especially chicken.

Without consulting Percy’s palette or preferences, I snipped a good handful of tarragon for a lemon and yogurt marinade. I’ll marinade the chicken for about an hour before Tom puts the pieces on the grill. Once the grilling is well underway, the leftover marinade is perfect for basting the chicken.

What better summer salad than the layers of sliced garden tomatoes or grape tomatoes and mozzarella cheese balls topped with just-picked basil leaves. I’ll dress the salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, adding a mixture of chopped parsley, ground sea salt and black pepper for a splash of color.

My sturdy rosemary bush and provides the perfect enhancement to a loaf of yeast bread. And when the rosemary aroma wafts out of the kitchen, Percy may appear at the screen demanding to know when we eat! At dinner time, we will scatter bits of this bread on the patio for him and he’ll gobble up every crumb.

Dessert will be an elegant crème brulee with a hint of lavender. The lavender leaves that grow in the herb garden not only emit a wonderful fragrance in the warm sunshine but add a lovely flavor to many dishes when the leaves are crushed. Although the top of this custard dish can be easily browned in the oven for the sugary crust, I will finally have a chance to use my new cooking blowtorch to brown the top of the brulee.

The dishes of this dinner will come together in symphony as all good dinners tend to do. The bright colors and aromas of the herbs used in the meal will fill the senses and as we sit around the patio, Percy will join us and proudly demand his share of the dinner.

Sharing with Percy has been easy for us. Not only has Percy taught us to take notice of the mint in the garden and is the inspiration for this particular dinner, he has also provided other lessons. Each day that Percy strutted around our yard, I would mentally note what might be learned from this strange and exotic bird.

I have learned that modesty may be over-rated — probably is. Watching Percy, I see clearly that it is OK to show off now and again — even to strut. The trick is to strut with delicate grace (think Percy) and with a dose of pride. And casting your eyes to the ground too often may cause you to miss some beautiful sights that are right in front of you.

Percy has taught us that love is not shy. When he flies to his roost and calls for that elusive mate, his cries echo through the valley. It is fine to bellow out your love for your mate and if your mate does not respond, at least no one will doubt that you have the capacity to live and love loudly.

As Percy eagerly samples our food, I am reminded of the importance of curiosity in life. The world is after all, a curious place. By smelling, tasting, and touching the gifts of nature, we learn appreciation for differences. A mountain community can adopt a foreign bird and a mountain girl can learn to serve a Middle Eastern dish for dinner. It seems to begin with curiosity.

Above all, Percy has connected us to so many people. Like the mint that overtakes my herb garden each spring, Percy is best shared with others. Neighbors stop by daily to chat about him. Parents bring their children by as an educational field trip. A delightful young woman brings him leftover walnut wheat bread (his favorite) from Annie’s, the local bakery. Concerned neighbors worry if he is safe and warm on cool nights and offer to take him in, though I’m not sure how one would go about “taking in a peacock.” Percy has taught us that it takes surprisingly little effort to bring people together. All it takes is a big beautiful bird with enormous personality and the ability to believe in just a little bit of magic —and a modest amount of pride.

Recipes, 5/27/09

Grilled Lemon Tarragon Chicken

An intense lemon and garlic-flavored grilled chicken, the addition of the dill-like herb, tarragon, adds a wonderful dimension to the overall taste equation.

Marinade:

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons

olive or vegetable oil

2 tablespoons dried tarragon leaves

1 tablespoon fresh garlic, finely minced or crushed

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Lemon wedges for garnish

6 chicken breast halves (I prefer the bone-less fillets)

In a large zipper-style plastic bag combine all ingredients for the marinade, mixing well. Add the chicken breasts and seal; place bag in a dish as a precaution against leaks. Allow chicken to marinate for several hours in the refrigerator or overnight, turning bag over occasionally.

Drain marinade into a small, nonreactive saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat for several minutes or until reduced by half.

Meanwhile, grill (or broil) chicken over medium-high heat about 8 to 10 minutes on each side or until tested done when juices run clear.

Place the grilled chicken breasts on a serving platter and drizzle with a spoonful or two of the reduced marinade, garnish with lemon wedges, if desired. Pass remaining marinade to spoon atop individual servings.

 

Tabbouleh

2 bunches of fresh parsley (1 1/2 cup chopped, with stems discarded)

2 tablespoons of fresh mint, chopped

I medium onion, finely chopped

6 medium tomatoes, diced

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup bulgur, medium grade

6 tablespoons lemon juice

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Romaine lettuce or grape leaves to line serving bowl (optional)

Soak bulgur in water for 1 1/2 to 2 hours in cold water until soft.

Squeeze out excess water from bulgur using hands or paper towel.

Combine all ingredients, except for salt, pepper, lemon juice, and olive oil.

Line serving bowl with grape leaves or romaine lettuce, and add salad.

Sprinkle olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper on top.

Serve immediately or chill in refrigerator for 2 hours before serving.

 

Rosemary Bread Recipe

1 tablespoon white sugar

1 cup warm water

1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter, softened

2 tablespoons rosemary (if fresh, chop the little prickly leaves)

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

3 cups bread flour

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 egg beaten (optional)

Dissolve the sugar in warm water in a medium bowl, and mix in the yeast. When yeast is bubbly, mix in salt, butter, 1 tablespoon rosemary, and Italian seasoning. Mix in 2 cups flour. Gradually add remaining flour to form a workable dough, and knead 10 to 12 minutes.

Coat the inside of a large bowl with olive oil. Place dough in bowl, cover, and allow to rise 1 hour in a warm location.

Punch down dough, and divide in half. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly grease paper. Shape dough into 2 round loaves, and place on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with remaining rosemary. Cover, and allow to rise 1 hour, or until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).

Brush loaves with egg. Bake 15 to 20 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown.

**Note: this bread is especially good dipped in olive oil and rosemary leaves.

 

Lavender-scented Crème Brulee

I N G R E D I E N T S

2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons dried lavender flowers

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup plus 8 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

I N S T R U C T I O N S

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Combine the cream and the lavender leaves in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture stand for 10 minutes.

Whisk egg yolks, 1/2 cup sugar and the vanilla in a medium sized bowl until well blended. Slowly add the cream mixture and whisk constantly until it is blended. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve then divide the mixture between 4 6-oz ramekins. Place the ramekins in a baking pan and add enough hot water come half way up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake until the custards are just set, approximately 40 minutes. Do not overcook or the custard will be “tough”.

Two hours before serving:

Preheat broiler. Sprinkle 2 teaspoon sugar atop each custard. Place dishes on small baking sheet. Broil until sugar just starts to caramelize, rotating sheet for even browning, about 2 minutes. Chill until caramelized sugar hardens, about 2 hours.

Note: I used a kitchen blow torch to caramelize the sugar. It is not a necessary gadget but it is fun!

By Karen Dill

It is in April that the wild things emerge. Bears crawl from their dens; baby wolves are born while their parents howl at the moon; and mysteriously tender green shoots climb bravely from the ground. To an unsuspecting eye, the tiny foliage may resemble weeds but to my mountain-bred father, they were supper. And nothing seemed to taste better than a mess of those wild greens cooked up over a wood stove on a chilly April evening. It was a connection with the earth, the soil, and their dark secrets.

My father loved nothing more than to head into the woods on a clear April morning and return with all matter of strange wild plants. For it was in the dark hollows and beside streams that flowed from the mountain ridges, he found a secret cache of edible plants that had no doubt sustained his family through the years of his poverty stricken childhood. He always went alone and remained as secretive about the location of his wild plant beds as a fisherman is about his favorite fishing hole.

On these treks, my father carried an old burlap sack (called it his poke) thrown over his shoulder and returned with his surreptitious collection of ramps, creasy greens, fiddlehead ferns, poke salat, dock, and other greens lacking any name. When the sack was open, out came a treasure trove. A few strange mushrooms emerged looking for world like spaceship aliens. I kept a wide berth from them, but my father ate them with relish and never suffered even a hint of indigestion.

The first prize from the poke to be cooked was the ramps. Those innocent little onions, so delicious to eat raw, turned mean the next day when your breath resembles a dragon’s after a binge of cigarettes and cheap beer. “Never,” my mother said over and over again, “eat those nasty things ‘til they’ve been cooked!”

And were they cooked! Ramps were baked in meatloaf, scrambled in eggs with bacon, fried with potatoes (my favorite), and boiled up with cabbage. These were the only methods of preparation that I was allowed to sample until one Sunday afternoon in April I bravely bit into one in an effort to impress father.

A stranger came by our house that afternoon to purchase some ramps (and a jar from the back of my father’s panel truck). My father warned him to go easy on both purchases as they could cause a man some problems the next day. The stranger questioned this advice.

“Well,” my father explained, “only ‘real mountaineers’ can eat ramps raw and you’d sure better cook yours.”

That’s was all I needed to hear, young as I was (age, 8) I knew the supreme compliment from my father was to be a real mountain person — one who could eat ramps raw. So I snatched up a ramp, then four more, and chewed and swallowed them like an old timer. My father and the stranger were duly impressed.

My mother, however, was not impressed. Despite brushing my teeth five times with baking soda and chewing of horehound candy (kept in the back of the cupboard for sore throats), the smell of the devious little ramps reigned. In my 8-year-old world of magical thinking, I imagined that no one would notice. In the real world of mountain life and experience, my mother knew better and told me to stay home from school. My father just grunted in disdain at that idea and wanting to be the tough little mountain girl, I headed down the dirt road for the school bus.

Second grade was easy for me. I could read, write and “do my numbers” and I fit in fairly well with my fellow mountain classmates but I was not prepared for what would happen over the course of that Monday. I was immediately ratted out by one of the Inman kids in my class. “She stinks,” it was announced to the class and Mrs. Hunter promptly took one whiff and sent me to the corner of the room to complete whatever schoolwork second grader’s needed to complete. I didn’t mind working alone during class, but I hated being sent to the “ramp table” at lunch time.

The ramp table at Bethel Elementary School was legendary. It was an ordinary long lunch table, but it was there that children who had eaten ramps sat during lunch to keep the non-ramp eaters from losing their lunch.

As my classmates giggled from across the lunchroom, I surveyed my new ramp-in-common friends. Among them was Billy Crowe, was a shy quiet Cherokee boy. I had seen their small frame house by the river and wondered how his whole family could fit in that tiny shack.

So on that warm April day at the ramp table, Billy and I were pariahs, outcasts, as were the other inmates at the ramp table. We might be segregated from our other classmates but we were still hungry. Between eager forkfuls of chicken pot pie, we began to smile at each other, taking some comfort in being together — if smelly.

At afternoon recess, Billy and I drew designs in the dirt with small grubby fingers. I ask Billy how many of them lived in that house by the river. He asked me what I had done to get angry red belt stripes down my legs. We talked in 8-year-old fashion about daddies who went crazy every once in a while. We probably found out more about each other in ramp-breath whispers on a dirt playground than any teacher or social worker had or would ever learn about us.

Years later and after my memories of ramps, wild greens from a poke and a small Cherokee boy had long since faded into that place where childhood memories go, I had returned from living abroad and had begun a new teaching job in the Cherokee school system. And it was on my first day of school in the fall of 1987, that I ran into another school employee, Eddie Crowe.

Eddie, it turned out, was Billy’s older brother, and he remembered me from the Bethel ramp table. It is a small world, after all, and we quickly caught up on our lives since elementary school. Most of the Crowe family had moved back to Cherokee but in the 1970s, Billy had been killed in a car accident while riding his bicycle less than a mile from Bethel Elementary School.

Eddie became a renewed friend at my new school and over the years, we talked of Bethel, Billy, ramps, and all things wild and wonderful. He brought me a mess of ramps almost every spring until he married one of our mutual teacher friends and took another job. I loved cooking the ramps along with other native greens each April and I thought of Billy, his wild fear, and the April ramp table with each bite.

This April, the ramps for a wild green dinner will be provided by Mickie and Peewee Crowe, cousins of Eddie and Billy. Sochan, called green-headed coneflower by non-Indians, is a popular dish here in Cherokee in the spring and will be delivered by my friends, Fern and Soup Saunooke. These wild greens are hard to come by these days unless, like my father, you know their secret hiding places or, in my case now, you know the right people. I try to score these precious greens each spring and this year will try them out in some new dishes.

I will use the sochan mixed with some goat cheese, fresh dill, parsley, green onions and leeks for the main dish — a delicious strudel. The strudel uses phyllo leaves which I can easily find at any grocery store in the mountains now. I have found an interesting Madeira-mushroom sauce recipe from a vegetarian magazine that I think will make a good partner with the strudel. The recipe calls for shiitake mushrooms, but in case I have trouble finding these, I will use wild local mushrooms (bought at Earth Fare grocery store as I don’t trust those alien shapes from local totes anymore). The sauce will be pooled on each plate. The individual slices of wild green strudel will be placed in the center of each pool and sauce will be drizzled artfully over the top.

The ramps will be used in a couple of dishes for the wild green dinner. First, I’ll grill some over charcoal to use in a grilled ramp soup. This is a simple dish using chicken broth and heavy cream. The others will be used in a traditional ramp ‘n’ tater dish and some buttermilk biscuits. I will resist the urge to sample the little devils raw.

Branch lettuce, also called wild lettuce, can be found in early April along creek banks. We ate it raw when my father brought it home in his poke — washed well, tossed with some green onions and wilted with bacon grease. I’d rather skip the bacon grease this year for health reasons but will dress the torn lettuce leaves with fresh spring herb vinaigrette. If I can locate some young fiddleheads (they’ll need to be blanched first and then grilled) or dandelion greens, I’ll throw them in the mix.

Wild spring greens beg to be served with cornbread but I’ve found a recipe for ramp biscuits in a recent issue of Bon Appetite that I’ve been dying to try. Southern cooks have no problem with two breads at the table so cornbread and biscuits it is!

For dessert, I will prepare a basic carrot cake. Carrots are a trustworthy spring crop and there should be plenty of the babies for a fresh cake. My friend and co-worker, a speech pathologist and bee keeper, Devlin, has promised some of his local honey to be used as a substitute for sugar in the cake so it will be in keeping with the natural goodness of this wild and wonderful meal.

The meal will be cooked at my house in Webster and taken to Cherokee, warmed up in the school oven, and served to the friends who have contributed the gifts of wild ramps and greens. If the evening is nice, we’ll haul the food to a picnic table on the island across from the school in the Oconafultee River.

As we sit by the river, eating our ramps and wild greens, I’ll remember the wild and wonderful dishes in the spring times of my childhood. I’ll remember a small shack by another river in Bethel where a shy Cherokee boy lived and died. I’ll remember the ramp table and the connection that I felt with my Cherokee friends. I’ll remember that sometimes in our lives, we travel full circle.

By Karen Dill

The climatic temperaments in the month of March have been likened to gentle lambs or irascible lions. In the mountains, this description seems especially applicable. On March 1, the wind can whistle through the ridges like the roar of a grouchy lion or it can whisper as soft as a lamb’s kiss. The days that follow tend to be unpredictable and often down right crazy. We’ve had days in March when the schizophrenic weather ran the gamut: bright sunshine, rain, snow, sleet, horrendous winds and blue skies — and this was all in one day. March weather is crazy but fun and never boring.

My relatives are much like March weather. They seem to fall into climatic categories despite originating in the same gene pool. My aunts tend to be lambs; gentle and sweet while my uncles resembled lions with their roars and larger than life personalities. And strangely enough, the sweet lambs fall hard for their crazy and often dangerous lions and despite their tumultuous love, stand by their men.

One particular uncle, my father’s brother, a scowling man called Uncle Fat, reigned terror in my childhood. He did not marry until late in life so had no wife to buffer his behavior for many years. His actual name was Frank but that had evolved into Fat for no reason that I could ever discern. I dared not ask and he wasn’t telling. He was not overweight but he was as mean as a miser, a striped snake, and worse than a junkyard dog. Not only was he a bully, but Uncle Fat had a host of mean little dogs that shared his ancient single-wide mobile home with him and they were yappy and downright hostile to anyone who crossed the threshold. My mother was terrified of dogs and Uncle Fat loved to sic them on her when we visited. He sat on a broken down couch surrounded by spit cans while his legion of little dogs circled the tiny rooms of the trailer like demonic minions. My poor mother, a sweet and gentle lamb, cowered in a corner and the dogs, sensing that she was frightened, happily snapped at her feet. One actually bit her once and with broken skin and spirit, she burst into tears the minute we walked down those rickety trailer steps.

I was not afraid of dogs (or much of anything back then), but Uncle Fat managed to find my Achilles heel. Because I loved sauerkraut and swooned when my kind lamb-like Aunt Wilma (his sister), who lived next door, would give me a bowl full each time I visited, Uncle Fat decided to call me Cabbage-Head. I especially loved the pickled core and I alone was given that prize. And although everyone in the family loved cabbage as it was a year-round staple vegetable in the mountains and could be “boiled up” in a New York minute, Uncle Fat decided that I alone deserved that unflattering moniker.

Uncle Fat liked nothing more than to eat a plate of boiled cabbage, belch loudly, pass wind and complain bitterly to whoever would listen that the “old stink head” consumed “had sure ‘nough give me some powerful gas.” All of the uncles would vocalize an “amen” or nod their agreement depending on who was talking that week. They tended to have periods of silence and dark moods that were as ominous as a blustery cold night in March and could go for weeks without muttering a word.

I would swear silently that I’d as soon be an old maid than marry up with the likes of my uncles. Despite my love for my father, he too could be contrary as his brothers and was stubborn as a mule. His older brother, my Uncle Toot, had long bouts of silence and spent more nights sleeping in his truck than not. All the uncles were certainly colorful characters, and I did learn with maturity to tolerate their strange and often outrageous behaviors. At age 6, however, I was a bit sensitive and “prideful” as my mother reminded me — so “Cabbage-Head” stung.

I would examine my own head in the mirror, looking for signs of cabbage leaves and smell the air around me, sure that the name had permeated my body in some disgusting manner and because the name came from Uncle Fat, I tried with all my might to dislike the vegetable. I could certainly live without the greasy over-cooked mass that usually graced the pots of my relatives, but I craved the tart sauerkraut much like my uncles on my mother’s side craved moonshine. So I continued to eat it and at a family reunion in a moment of rash 6-year-old bravery (or stupidity) or maybe I was just drunk with the salt from the sour cabbage core, when Uncle Fat bullied me with the Cabbage-Head title, I snapped back with “and you’re a mean old fat-head.”

My remark, despite its truth, was met with cold stony silence from the uncles and soft gasps from the aunts. I had definitely crossed a line. While my father’s family was rough as a corncob and lacked many social graces, being disrespectful to one’s elders was frowned upon. What pleasure I derived from the snappy comeback quickly dissipated when I realized that a “whupping” was in my future. Later that day, I endured the pelts from the razor-sharp hickory stick with stoicism, blinking back tears with each stinging blow yet savoring a quiet pride in my soul that I had stood up for myself (however disrespectful and inappropriate my stance might be within my mountain community).

For a while cabbage was not my friend. Even though Uncle Fat gleefully continued calling me Cabbage-Head, I bit my tongue and held my peace. This was a lesson I would continue to learn the rest of my childhood and I’m still working on it. Take the bitter with the better, my mother would say, and Cabbage-Head became easier to bear when Uncle Fat had a stroke and the best he could mutter was “abby-ead.”

As the years passed, I learned to choose my battles, to avoid calling my children silly names and to enjoy cabbage prepared in new delectable ways. Despite my early association with this ordinary vegetable, I found it in a sweet and sour concoction on a plate of Jagerschnitzel in Germany, in a spicy slaw on fish tacos in Mexico, and the star of a gingered cabbage soup in New York City. Over the years I have sautéed diced cabbage with onions, diced sweet potatoes and green and red peppers for a simple and nutritious dinner. I have invented various coleslaw recipes using both green and red cabbage. I use it in soups and stews and once threw some diced cabbage in a meatloaf. And when March rolls around, cabbage is always teamed up with corned beef and potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day.

This year in honor of my Scotch Irish heritage, I prepared the traditional St. Patrick’s Day food in a nontraditional manner. My mother would prepare the meal the same each year — boiled cabbage, boiled then baked corned beef and boiled potatoes with butter — and while ritual is comforting, over the years, I would encourage her to divert from the same presentation. She would reluctantly agree to open the jar of hot mustard to smear on the corned beef or slice the loaf of dark rye that I brought from the big city of Asheville but her heart was never really into changing the time-honored tradition of plain meat, potatoes and cabbage. My father’s favorite part of the meal was drinking the pot liquor from the cabbage with crumbled cornbread, and that ritual was certainly not to be messed with in the name of culinary progress.

For this year’s meal, I have invited friends who are willing participants in my food experiments and are game for new dishes as long as we can wash them down with good local ale. I have decided on combining the meat and cabbage into cabbage rolls topped with a spicy Creole sauce. The potatoes are mashed with leeks and fresh horseradish, and I will bake a loaf of Irish soda bread for the first time. Dessert will be a pistachio pound cake that I made for my first set of in-laws in the ‘70’s in an attempt to impress them with a green dessert on St. Patrick’s Day. They frowned at a green cake (was it moldy?) but it was so moist and flavorful their disdain turned to reluctant approval for the dessert (not their new daughter in-law).

The cabbage rolls begin with a quick blanching of cabbage leaves. This has to be quick as you want the leaves to be pliable yet not too soft. As they are cooling and draining on a clean dish towel, the corned beef mixture can be formed into small oval balls in preparation for the stuffing. I have mixed ground spicy corned beef, some finely ground bread crumbs, sautéed onions, garlic and celery, a bit of catsup, a dash of hot sauce, salt, pepper and chopped fresh parsley together with a beaten egg to bind the mixture. I wrap the cabbage leaves around the beef mixture in burrito style, place in a glass baking dish and cover with a spicy Creole sauce. While the stuffed cabbage rolls are baking, I prepare the vegetables.

Potatoes are boiled and hand mashed with creamed horseradish, buttermilk, butter and freshly ground parsley and chives. I chop the remainder cabbage that I’ve used for the rolls with green and red chopped bell peppers along diced yellow onion and sauté the mixture in a little olive oil and vinegar. I season the cabbage side dish with salt, pepper, sugar and some red pepper flakes. It smells like the cabbage prepared in my mother’s kitchen but is a bit healthier I think and with the smells from the stuffed cabbage and horseradish potatoes, the smell is actually heavenly.

I’ve baked the Irish soda bread earlier in the day and despite its rather flat and bland appearance, I think that it will go well with the spicy meat dish The glorious green cake with a spontaneously inspired green icing was baked the day before and awaits its presentation on a green shamrock doily. It is St. Patrick’s Day, after all, and served with Irish coffee, the cake will be downright beautiful. Bolstered by the Guiness Ale served with the meal, limericks may be invented and blarney will reign as we praise cabbage, green cakes and all things Irish.

The meal is delicious — a crazy combination of sweet and tart, sturdy and delicate. The cabbage is a hit and I’m again reminded that cabbage is not a one-trick pony. It can be prepared in a number of delicious ways and grace any meal, despite its lowly and pedestrian roots. Like my uncles and aunts, that ordinary vegetable can be complex and interesting. Over time I’ve come to appreciate the subtleties in foods and in relatives. Some things in life can be taken at face value but family, despite their warts, offer many lessons and gifts from the heart. They offer variety and spice on mundane days in March, pepper us with humor, teach us humility and grace. I now realize that when Uncle Fat barked out his “Hey, Cabbage-Head” greeting to me each week, he was recognizing my uniqueness and testing my fortitude. Now, in my memory (a little foggy with age), I think I see a twinkle in his eye as he spits tobacco in his tin can and orders his mean little dogs to snap at me. Or maybe not—for memories like March weather and mountain relatives can be tricky.

Recipes, 3/25/09

Cabbage Rolls Stuffed with Corned Beef with Spicy Creole Sauce

• 1 large head green cabbage

• 1 small onion, chopped

• 2 celery ribs, sliced

• 2 cloves (or more, if you like) of garlic, finely chopped

• 1 tablespoon olive oil

• 2 cups of diced or ground corned beef—I bake a spicy corned beef brisket a day or two before or if you want a short cut you can use 1 (15-oz.) can corned beef hash

• ? cup catsup with a dash or two of tabasco (or your favorite) hot sauce

• 1/4 cup dry breadcrumbs

• 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

• 1 beaten egg

• Yield: 6 servings

Separate 12 large outer leaves from the cabbage head. Set aside the remaining cabbage head. Remove the center vein from each leaf so it becomes more pliable. Soften the cabbage leaves in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from water with a slotted spoon; set aside until cool enough to handle.

Chop 1 cup of cabbage from the remaining cabbage head. Save any leftover cabbage to use in a stir-fry dish to serve with the meal. Cook and stir the chopped cabbage, onion, garlic and celery in oil over medium heat in a medium nonstick skillet until onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the diced corned beef , breaking it up with a spoon. Mix gently. Heat over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup catsup and breadcrumbs. Mix well. Cool slightly. When the mixture is cooled, add a beaten egg to help bind the ingredients.

Spoon about 1/4 cup of the corned beef mixture onto each cabbage leaf. Roll, tucking in the ends. Arrange cabbage rolls, seam side down, in a shallow baking dish. Pour Creole sauce over the cabbage rolls. Bake at 350 degrees, covered, for about 25 minutes, until heated through. To serve, spoon Creole sauce over cabbage rolls. Sprinkle with parsley.

Tip: Stuff the cabbage leaves the night before, then simply bake them for an easy St. Patrick’s Day dinner. The Creole sauce can be made well ahead of time and frozen. Just thaw and spoon over the cabbage rolls.

 

Spicy Creole Sauce

• 2 tablespoons olive oil

• 1 medium onion, chopped

• 2 stalks celery, chopped

• 1 green bell pepper, chopped

• 2-3 large garlic cloves, minced

• 1 (14 1/2 ounce) can diced tomatoes

• 2 cups vegetable stock

• 2 bay leaves

• 1/8-1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

• 1/8-1/4 teaspoon white pepper

• 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme hot sauce, to taste

• 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

• 3 green onions, thinly sliced

• salt, to taste

• black pepper, to taste

• 2 tablespoons cornstarch

In a medium size saucepan, over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the chopped onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic cooking until slightly wilted. Add the tomatoes and cook for an additional 1 to 2 minutes.

Add about 1 1/2 cups stock, taking care not to add too much. You can always add more if needed. Add the seasonings, bay leaves, hot sauce and worchestershire sauce; stir and reduce heat to simmer.

Mix the cornstarch with equal amounts of water and stir 1 tablespoon of mixture into sauce. Allow to cook for a few minutes, stir and add additional water/cornstarch mixture if the sauce looks thin or add additional stock if sauce is too thick. Simmer about 20 minutes adding additional stock as necessary. The last 10 minutes of cooking time, stir in the parsley and green onions. Remove bay leaves, taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Use the sauce to make your favorite recipe for shrimp creole, etc. This sauce can be frozen in a sturdy container and thawed in refrigerator before reheating and using.

 

Mashed Potatoes with leeks and horseradish

• Potatoes, peeled and quartered

• 3 leeks, sliced

• 2 tablespoons butter, divided

• ground black pepper to taste

• 1/2 cup sour cream or buttermilk

• 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

• 2 teaspoons minced parsley

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add potatoes and leeks and cook until tender but still firm, about 15 minutes. Drain, and mash with 1 tablespoon butter and black pepper. Stir in sour cream, horseradish and parsley. Whip potatoes and place in medium serving bowl.

Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter and pour over potatoes. Garnish with parsley springs. Serve immediately.

 

Irish Soda Bread

• 3 cups all-purpose flour

• 1 tablespoon baking powder

• 1/3 cup white sugar

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 1 teaspoon baking soda

• 1 egg, lightly beaten

• 2 cups buttermilk

• 1/4 cup butter, melted

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Grease a 9x5 inch loaf pan.

Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and baking soda. Blend egg and buttermilk together, and add all at once to the flour mixture. Mix just until moistened. Stir in butter. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake for 65 to 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the bread comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Wrap in foil for several hours, or overnight, for best flavor.

 

Pistachio Cake with Lovely Green Icing

• 2 (3.4 ounce) packages instant pistachio pudding mix

• 1 (18.25 ounce) package white cake mix

• 5 eggs

• 1/2 cup vegetable oil

• 1 1/2 cups water

• 1 1/2 cups milk

• 2 (1.5 ounce) envelopes instant dessert topping

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 10 inch Bundt pan.

In a large bowl, mix together cake mix, 1 package pudding, water, eggs, and oil. Pour into a greased and floured Bundt pan.

Bake at 350 degrees F (175) degrees C for 45 minutes, or until done. Allow to cool.

To Make Frosting: In a mixing bowl, combine 1 package instant pudding, milk, and instant whipped topping mix. Beat until thick, and spread on the cooled cake.

By Karen Dill • Guest Writer

The weather in February can be as fickle as new love. In the mountains of North Carolina, the wind can howl through the ridges like a scorned lover or the day can be as soft and gentle as a lover’s kiss. I’ve seen snow fall nonstop for a week in February and I’ve seen daffodils and crocus pop up through the snow with fresh optimistic faces turned toward the dazzling sun. Weather prediction in February is a crap shoot. More predictable is the mountain terrain, the color of the February sky and the chill in your bones that only a bowl of hot soup can remedy.

The Februarys of my youth are bleak in my memory. The days were short; the evenings chilly; the days raw and all without the benefit of television or telephone to break the monotony. The longest month of the year, I thought, despite the shortest number of days. Yet it was in this dreary month that I experienced what seemed to be first love, or at least a serious crush.

The boy that I met at a forbidden Halloween dance (I had told my fundamental Baptist parents that it was a fall church social) liked me. He hailed from the big town of Canton and I lived in the backwoods of Bethel. He held my hand and my heart leapt. He called me at my cousin Vicky Lynn’s house for her family had a phone and I would stammer hopelessly. He sent love letters via a friend as we went to different schools and I read and reread them as I hid them under the mattress of my bed. Despite the fact that this was the first boy to take a liking to me, I was sure this would be the love of my life, my future husband. I was smitten.

Our romance lasted through Christmas and New Year’s Day. I was a sneaky and rather clever participant. I attended Bible study and went to the youth outings at both my church and my cousin’s church and it was during the attendance at my cousin’s more liberal Baptist church that I would meet up with my — dare I say it — boyfriend. My parents thought I might be headed for sainthood with all of the church activities that I was attending, but I was secretly making out with The Boy of My Dreams in the back of the church van and holding hands on the back pew of the church. As I quietly worried that this could be my ticket to Hell, I was helpless to stop the allure of first love.

When Valentine’s Day rolled around, it never occurred to me that my young suitor would present a gift, as my family rarely acknowledged the day. Being a town boy, he evidently did not know the ways of hard-core mountain men like my father who thought little of their young 14-year-old daughters having a suitor and less of young men who had the nerve to show up in the yard with a store-bought box of Valentine candy. The poor boy never made it to the door. My father met him on the porch, shotgun in hand, and told him to hit the road. He did, and to this day I don’t know became became of the box of candy.

I was crushed, embarrassed beyond words. Mad as an old wet hen, I burst into tears and stomped through our small frame house with an indignation that shock the rafters. I resolved to stay angry forever and vowed that I would never forgive my father. My mother gathered me in her arms, patted my back and suggested that we make a big pot of vegetable soup. It was a raw day outside and the bleak weather matched my mood, but I reckoned as how the chopping of raw vegetables might provide a substitute for further provoking my father.

As I chopped onions, carrots and potatoes, I sobbed hot tears of anger and humiliation. I would never have a boyfriend. I could never face my cousin or my friends. As I cried, my tears mixed with the chopped vegetables and I feared that the soup would be too salty or too bitter to the taste. My mother chatted on, ignoring my tears and angry chopping. She talked about her own adolescence and teenage humiliations, lost loves, and disappointing unions of the heart. At one point, she looked up soberly and replied, “No boy worth his salt runs away. I reckon as how they have to face up to your father or they won’t be worth a plug nickel.”

As it came to pass, my mother was right. Despite the boy’s future efforts to woo me, his cowardice in the presence of my father was unfortunately etched in my mind in a most unflattering way. Also etched in my mind was the beautiful memory of the warmth and flavor of that Valentine’s Day vegetable soup It was nectar for the bruised soul; balm for the open wound; and it warmed through the cracks of my broken heart.

From that time on, soup would be the magic elixir for hurt, disappointment and just plain sadness. Better than Prozac and Zoloft, the healing power of soup was immediate. The warm steam from the tomato and beef broth, the chunks of beef, and the hunks of vegetables dried my tears and eventually melted my frozen heart and I forgave my father. Much later in my life, another young man would bravely walk up those steps, stand up to my father and ultimately earn his respect. That young man would become my husband and would years later help me bury my father on a cold February day.

The power of soup was a lesson that I had learned early on and one that I passed on to my children. When tears of frustration and sobs of hurt from teenage angst filled the kitchen, I would pull out the pots and hand over the knives to my children. Zach became a pro at chopping vegetables (later buying me a beautiful set of good knives) and Anna learned how to blend basil with tomatoes for a delectable tomato basil soup. We would talk and as tears fell into the broths, life would begin to look better and the soups were once again seasoned from the heart. The savory broths were never too salty or bitter.

There were very few problems that a good bowl of soup and a wedge of cornbread or sour dough bread could not solve. When my husband, Tom, returned home from the hospital last year after a mild heart attack, he healed with steaming bowls of chicken noodle soup that my Cherokee friends had brought to us. During a blizzard a few years back, I was able to heat soup over an open fire in our old fireplace and we were able to survive the lack of electricity for four days.

As the February winds howl, I pull out the pots and remember the past. I smile at the memory of a young girl sobbing tears of sadness for a first love. The young girl, now a woman of indeterminable age, knows that soup is a far more powerful gift than a cheap heart-shaped box of Valentine candy. I still cook soup most Valentine’s Day accompanied by a loaf of bread or cake of cornbread. Because I’m still somewhat of a romantic at heart, I also open a bottle of wine and slice a wedge of good cheese with a salad of mixed greens. I also make a dessert that is often sweet and tart — much like the kind of love I’ve experienced over the years.

My meal this year will be lentil soup with ham, sour cream cornbread, a smoked cheddar cheese and for dessert, a blackberry upside down cake with vanilla ice cream. Lentil soup is strong sturdy fare and it symbolizes the kind of love that I share with Tom. I have decided to serve a favorite salad that I created from a combination of my favorite ingredients. In years past, I have experimented with various soups throughout the seasons. I have tried a seafood stew, borscht, split pea soup, potato soup, and many varieties of vegetable soup but it is a thick savory soup that I will serve this Valentine’s Day. And though hopefully no tears will flavor the broth, I will throw in an extra pinch of salt for the memories.

The preparation of the soup is relatively simple. Lentils do not need soaking, only a rinse or two before boiling in water mixed with chicken stock. I add a ham bone from the freezer that I’ve saved from the Christmas baked ham. As the lentils cook slowly and the smell of smoked ham permeates the air, I sauté onions, celery, carrots, and some garlic (actually a lot as we are garlic lovers) in olive oil. I will add the mix of sautéed vegetables to the soup along with a couple of bay leaves, a pinch of oregano and basil, some crushed tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. As the soup simmers for an hour or so, I bake the cornbread and prepare the salad. During the last few minutes of cooking, I will add some fresh spinach to the soup and cook until it wilts.

The salad consists of a bed of mixed greens topped with a sauté of sliced Asian pears and English walnuts in butter, brown sugar and a few sprinkles of ginger. The mixture is served warm over the greens and topped with a raspberry vinaigrette (slightly heated in the microwave), a few dried cranberries and crumbled Stilton cheese. The tart vinaigrette and the sharp cheese blend wonderfully with the sweet fruit mixture. This particular evolved through several salad experiments and has become one of my family’s favorite.

As I prepare the finishing touches on this particular Valentine dinner, I am reminded that recipes (like love) require time to evolve. Each new rendering provides another opportunity to improve or add an extra element. For the soup, I decide to top it with some shaved Parmesan cheese. I mix butter and cream cheese to spread over the cornbread instead of the usual margarine. The dessert takes a turn when I find some beautiful raspberries and blueberries as well as the blackberries for the blackberry upside down cake. It seems that the cake will have spontaneous additions and will take on a new dimension with the vanilla ice cream.

Cooking (like love) requires some planning but its beauty is in the intuitiveness and spontaneousness of its actions. It is an act of abandon; a dance of joy. Creativity trumps rules and with a dash of this and a dash of that, a dish (and a relationship) takes on life and spirit. It is reflective of the soul of the chef or the lover. Every sweet, tart, and fiery taste comes together in a beautiful dance. Even tears add flavor and essence.

Recipes, 2/11/09

Lentil Soup

• 1 onion, chopped

• 1/4 cup olive oil

• 2 carrots, diced

• 2 stalks celery, chopped

• 2 cloves garlic, minced

• 1 teaspoon dried oregano

• 1 bay leaf

• 1 teaspoon dried basil

• 1 (14.5 ounce) can crushed tomatoes

• 2 cups dry lentils

• 8 cups water

• 1/2 cup spinach, rinsed & thinly sliced

• 2 tablespoons vinegar

• salt to taste

• ground black pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

In a large soup pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, carrots, and celery; cook and stir until onion is tender. Stir in garlic, bay leaf, oregano, and basil; cook for 2 minutes.

Stir in lentils, and add water and tomatoes. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for at least 1 hour. When ready to serve stir in spinach, and cook until it wilts. Stir in vinegar, and season to taste with salt and pepper, and more vinegar if desired. Top with shaved Parmesan cheese.

 

Sour Cream Cornbread

• 1/2 cup flour

• 1 1/2 cups cornmeal

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 1 teaspoon brown sugar

• 1 tablespoon baking powder

• 3 large eggs, room temperature

• 3/4 cup low-fat sour cream, room temperature

• 1/2 cup skim milk

• 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 400°F Coat a 9” x 9” pan with nonstick spray.

Sift the flour, cornmeal, salt, brown sugar and baking powder together in a mixing bowl.

Stir in the eggs, sour cream, milk and butter with a wooden spoon until the dry ingredients are just moistened. Do not overmix.

Pour into the pan and bake until golden brown around the edges, about 15 minutes. The cornbread is done when a small knife inserted in the center comes out dry. Best when served warm from the oven.

 

Blackberry (and raspberry and blueberry) Upside Down Cake

• 2 1/2 cups fresh blackberries (12 ounces)

• 1/2 cup plus

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

• 1 cup all-purpose flour

• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

• 1/4 teaspoon salt

• 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened

• 1 large egg

• 1 teaspoon vanilla

• 1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk

• Accompaniment: vanilla ice cream

• Special equipment:

parchment paper

preparation

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Line bottom of a buttered 8- by 2-inch round cake pan with 2 rounds of parchment paper, then butter parchment. Dust pan with some flour, knocking out excess.

Arrange blackberries in 1 layer in cake pan. Sprinkle berries with 11/2 tablespoons sugar and shake pan to help distribute sugar.

Whisk together 1 cup flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Beat together butter and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg and vanilla and mix at low speed until just incorporated. Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk in 3 batches, mixing at low speed until just incorporated.

Spoon batter evenly over berries, smoothing top, and bake in middle of oven until top is golden and a tester comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.

Run a thin knife around edge of pan, then invert a large plate over pan and, using pot holders to hold plate and pan together tightly, flip cake onto plate. Peel off parchment and serve cake with ice cream.

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