My first WWOOF Experience

If you’ve ever thought that spending time in nature sounded nice, have you checked out WWOOF?

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and is exactly what the name says. It is an international network of organic farmers, who serve as hosts for eager travelers. It’s a chance to explore a different region/country/continent, practice some language, learn a skill, and develop amazing relationships you’d never expect.

I spent the last two weeks of my spring Eurotrip WWOOFing (yes, it’s a verb) in Basse-Normandy, France.

 

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A map of my route, for reference!

How did I choose a tiny town in Basse-Normandie? Simple. On the WWOOF website (you pay 20 Euro be a member for a year and then you have access to the catalogue of host farms in the country you choose) there is a list of filters including type of activity (IE permaculture, orchard, dairy, eco projects) and length of stay (one week, two weeks, 1 month). I had two weeks to farm; I was interested in orchards and eco projects. So I found La Fermette du Bellefontaine.

 

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A rainy day on La Fermette

La fermette means “little farm,” and that’s exactly what it was: a small scale organic farm owned and operated by a few friends. Each had his and her own plot of land and primary source of income: one is a vegetable gardener, one a seamstress, and my host, the master baker.

 

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For most French people, bread is life. It’s fresh, it’s inexpensive and it’s eaten three times a day. And why wouldn’t you eat it when the grain was grown and harvested three miles away?

As for eco projects, these included a composting toilet (of which I sadly did not take a picture, but I’ll leave that to you to research), an organic sewage system that uses water-loving plants to clean used water, and newspaper insulation. All created by my host out of his desire to “be as autonomous as possible.”

It’s amazing what you can learn when you least expect it, when you enter into a new situation with zero expectations. I left a lot more informed about steps I can take as an individual to reduce my impact and respect our planet. And I had the best cheese of my life.

 

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View of the town from a hilltop! Not pictured: the medieval fortress I climbed to take this photo.

 

 

 

 

Picture Highlights So Far, Again!!

 A trip to the Communist Museum (Prague, Czech Republic)

Hungarian Sweeties 🙂 (Budapest, Hungary)

The Parliament Building overlooking the Danube (Budapest, Hungary)

Full Moon #3 of my time abroad. It rose over Budapest as I waited outside St. Mathius Church to hear Requiem (I did, and it was beautiful. Budapest, Hungary)

Carthusians conquer the Golan (Israel)
Ein Gedi mountains (Israel)

A feast of pork goulash!!!! (Czech Republic)

15th Century Castle, the significance of which slipped my mind because it’s so darn BEAUTIFUL. (Czech Republic)

Prague!!!! I’m in Love. (Czech Republic)

Traditional Hungarian flat bread, cooked in a warm oven (Hungary)
Tour boat on the Danube (Czech Republic)

View from St. Charles’ Bridge (Czech Republic.)

As I sipped red wine, my future husband serenaded me with a beautiful rendition of Zhivago. I’m in love. (Budapest, Hungary)

PRAGUE! Can you smell it? (Czech Republic)

Budapest (Hungary)

Long, LONG overdue pictures 🙂 Europe and such!!!!

The Fig Tree and The Shuk

Two, almost three weeks now in Be’er Sheva and I feel much older. Soon I will have to do adult things like buy laungry detergent and toothpaste…permanent actions that mean I really am here and I really am staying. When I was planning for this trip, I planned for a lot of extraneous circumstances like two day hikes and outdoor camping trips. That’s all well and good, but I neflected the fact that my life would continue during these months!! The sun rises and sets here just like it does in Memphis and Yardley; the seasons change, the people yell, the cats scratch, politicians argue, beer gets brewed and drunk. You go to pubs, you study, and every Friday night you pray and thank God for all his infinite blessings. The weeks seem so long here, but time somehow moves more quickly. If i were lucky–not that I believe in luck, but if I were in a movie–I’d say I’m living someone else’s life. I look around and think about how I got here and I can’t but smile. And then I know that I really am here. I’m home! These are my pictures on the wall; these are my books; there are my clothes in the closet; there is my homework to be done; there is my tea to be drunk.
I went a few days ago to the Shuk, the daily outdoor market in the “Old City” by the central bust staion. Stalls and stalls overflowing with tomatoes and cucumbers, bursting at the seams with fresh fruit! So many varieites I had never seen before (cactus fruit, guava, passion fruit……). I stuck to what I knew: plums and fresh figs. FRESH FIGS! They’re everywhere here, even in the desert (truth: okay, it was planted a few centuries ago, but we hiked up sand dunes to the Mediteranean and picked fresh figs off the tree :)) I accidentally bought about four pounds of figs at the Shuk because I didn’t have the courage to ask for half a pound (I mean kilo. What?!) But that seems like a serendipitous problem. If I had more kitchenware I would make a fig and cheese tart with the excess, but alas, I’m back to basics in my apartment with gas stovetop and “travel” pot.
I also bought a mountain of pita bread (pronounced pee-tah, not pee-dah…glad I have Israeli friends to call me on my Americanism…), some cheese (I have no idea what kind because I still can’t read the signs…) and some fish–both fresh and smoked salmon. SMOKED SALMON!!!!
So happy.
The Shuk also features huge sacks of grain (think Biblical times), nuts, dried fruits and spices. Next time I go I’m bringing someone with me to help translate 🙂
I’m so happy here. Happy in a very strange and liberating way. But I know I have so much responsibility ahead of me. My first weekend here, I was asked to think about and medidate on what I want out of my time here, and I wasn’t sure. I’m still not completely sure, but whatever it is, it is slowly coming into focus…
I’ve also been terrible about saying my prayers here. But I still find comfort in words:

“Since we have the same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak…for all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound in the glory of God.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward world is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.”

This country is overflowing with paradoxes. Paradoxes, or milk and honey…

The Great Cookie Project; an IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT!

(You can skip to the bottom if you are just curious what the IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT is 🙂
)

Something is amiss in the kitchen. Dishes, piled high in the sink, from two days ago–the dishwasher whirs and grumbles from its abuse– dried drips of chocolate, and, is that powdered sugar on the refrigerator door?


Powdered sugar on the refrigerator door. 


Yep. And on the freezer door, too. I’m pretty sure the next time I sneeze, I will expel powdered sugar. 


Let me explain. Every December, my Aunt Annie sends us all (that’s six plus families, all in various parts of the country) massive tins of cookies. Chocolate, butterscotch, raspberry, more chocolate, some peanut butter, and of course, more chocolate. They often arrive in a state of crumb like consistency, of which my sister and I justify our eating them–we’re not really eating ten cookies, just a lot of random cookie crumbs!!
But this year Annie, to my giddiness, I admit, enlisted me to help her out a bit. 

Well, three pounds of butter later, I’m not sure this was the best idea.


Don’t get me wrong; I love cookies, especially around Christmas time. But living at home has forced me for the past several months to get it through my head that I am not the only one in the house, and yes, four other people use the kitchen too!!! 


Oh, maaaan! Why can’t I just bake in PEACE? Well, because this isn’t my house. One can dream, though, and believe me I do. In my head I see a daintily decorated spacious kitchen with enough counter space to sleep on. I picture an art deco pale green on the walls, five wide gas burners, a white tea kettle nestled snugly in the background, and a large window inviting me outside into this:


But I digress.


In the midst of so much internal chaos, anxiously awaiting my final college letter, and writing pro and con lists (seriously), I spent the last seven days in a sugary haze, reteaching myself how to breathe.  But what to do when baking becomes the source of anxieties??? Oh, Lord, help me.


By the way, I think I have made a decision. The cookies are boxed up, my regretful impulsively bought boots are ready to be returned, and my pro and con lists, mathematical figures, packing lists, and to do lists are being scribbled down, scratched off, and continuously attended to. This is good. This is very, very good.


Happy Baking. 

-MEL
**At the risk of shamefully self-indulging, I have entered a short fiction contest sponsored by Seventeen magazine; the winner gets a cash prize that I am salivating over for my incredibly expensive yet ironically vital college education. So, please, PLEASE, head over to Figment.com and click the Heart button underneath my story. You don’t have to like it. Just pretend. God bless you!


Cake Therapy

Someday, when I open my own bakery in New York City and wear fur and am a very important person, I will call said bakery Cake Therapy.  I think the title is self-explanatory. I have also decided that I need more cake in my life. I mean, I need more cake baking in my life.

I also need more chocolate. Chocolate is good. Chocolate cake is even better.
My intention was to make red velvet cake, but I once heard that artificial dyes contribute to ADHD, and frankly, I can’t afford to take any chances.
So then I thought, Devil’s Food Cake, but I had my heart set on cream cheese frosting, and the thought of combining the two made me a bit sick to my stomach.
So, since I have very little experience making layer cakes, I thought I’d start simply: chocolate.
Somewhere during my project I remembered something: I think chocolate cake is weird. It’s not a brownie, so it’s not fudgey, and it’s not chocolate candy, so it’s not…chocolate! So maybe this chocolate cake didn’t turn out like a brownie, but the texture was nice and fluffy (thanks to separating the eggs and folding in the beaten whites at the last minute), didn’t crumble, and most importantly, held its frosting poi-fectly. I think the frosting is the best part, anyway. And that’s why I made two kinds:

Coffee Cream Frosting- This tastes like coffee ice cream in the best way possible. 
4 ounces softened cream cheese
2 ounces softened butter
One teaspoon vanilla extract
Two cups powdered sugar, divided
One third cup extra strong coffee, cooled

Beat together the butter and cream cheese. Add the vanilla and the powdered sugar, one half cup at a time. At one cup, add the coffee, beat, and add the rest of the sugar. Let sit in the refrigerator while your cakes cool. Frosts one eight inch cake.

 Peanut Butter Frosting- Super sweet, but nice for nutty people. 
2 ounces softened butter
1/8 cup crunchy peanut butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 teaspoons milk
One and a half cups powdered sugar

Cream together the butter and peanut butter; add the vanilla. Alternately add the powdered sugar, one half cup at a time, with the milk, and beat until smooth. Refrigerate for at least thirty minutes, then frost your eight inch cake.

The thing that is so great to me about baking, and all cooking for that matter, is that it is so easy to make someone smile and teach myself something new in the process. With that it mind, I am going to try to make more cakes, for which there are infinite possibilities and always reasons. At least something in my life makes sense.

Turkey Pot Pie

I am way beyond ready for the Holidays. Unfortunately, I don’t really consider Halloween a “Holiday,” possibly because I have no real childhood memories of Halloween.  Sure, there were lots of occasions of dressing up (but I never needed an excuse for that), lots of apple bobbings and pumpkin carvings and collecting leaves, but nothing really rings a bell in terms of parading from house to house, trying to hit up strangers for free food. Oh well, I still say my childhood could kick your childhood’s butt.

Anyway, I love the idea of Halloween only because it means that we are one step closer to Thanksgiving, which rings hundreds of bells, but that is another post for another day. What I wanted to share today, you could easily make with your Turkey Day leftovers, as I did last week—it turned into World Series food. Hey, it works.

Incredibly Easy and Delicious Turkey Pot Pie
Makes enough for six to eight people with a nice green salad on the side


Like I said, I really made this from whatever vegetable and meat leftovers I had in the fridge; feel free to substitute virtually anything–starchy vegetables and gamey meats work especially well, here.

Two recipes savory pie crust (in dough form, not a shell)
One cup turkey meat, combination light and dark, cooked and diced
One half cup green beans, diced
One cup cooked carrots, chopped*
One cup cooked winter squash (I used asian, but butternut or acorn would do well), diced*
One third cup red onion, finely diced
Two large cloves garlic, minced
One tablespoon arrowroot powder, or cornstarch
Two tablespoons butter
One cup leftover gravy and/or chicken stock
One third cup sherry
Salt and pepper

*Since these were leftover veggies, they already had their own seasoning pallets, which added to the flavor of the final dish. If you use raw veggies, season with salt, pepper, and some nutmeg/cinnamon and thyme. Also increase the stove cooking time to let them soften before baking in the oven.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Using your largest cast iron or other oven-proof skillet, melt one tablespoon of the butter over medium heat, then add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is translucent and the garlic is fragrant. Move to the side of the pan and melt the remaining butter, adding the arrowroot or cornstarch and whisking to make a paste–make sure this does not burn!
While still whisking, add the gravy and/or chicken stock and continue whisking until all bits are incorporated and thickened. Add the sherry and bring up to a bubble.
Add the turkey and vegetables, stirring to coat, and add a bit more chicken stock and sherry if the mixture seems dry. Season with salt and pepper (and add any of the above seasonings if you’d like) to taste, then remove from heat.
Roll out the pie doughs until they are in the shape of a disc large enough to cover the circumference of your skillet. Place the dough on top, securing around the edges. Poke a few holes in the center of the dough to allow the steam to escape, then place in the oven and bake for thirty minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and your home smells like a warm, lazy Sunday.

Du Pain

There is nothing, I repeat, nothing, that smells better than freshly baked bread.

Nothing.

There is also nothing that tastes worse than the limp, plasticky loaves of double packaged grocery store bread that have been sitting on a shelf for at least thirty days.

I wonder, if one ate enough grocery shelf bread, could one live forever, like those loaves do?

Okay, maybe I’m being a bit unfair. I recognize the fact that most people lead far more important lives than I do and have far less time to lie in bed reading War and Peace bake fresh bread every day.

But, thanks to modern conveniences, I am here to tell you that having fresh home made bread need not be luxury, and it can be readily available.
Unless you live in the Mid-south area and would like me to bake your bread for you, which I would be more than happy to do!! Really. Ask me!

Here’s the secret…ready?

TRIPLE YOUR RECIPE.

There, I said it. Because creating sandwich bread dough (artisan loaves are a bit different, though still incredibly easy to prepare…more on that later) takes about thirty seconds, you can EASILY make three or four or more batches of dough AT ONCE, let them rise in separate bowls, bake in the oven, and then freeze the leftovers—or donate them to your lovely extended family, neighbors, strangers, et cetera.

Anadama Bread
Adapted from How To Cook Everything; Makes three small or one large sandwich loaf


Two cups bread flour
One cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup molasses
One cup goat’s milk, goat’s milk kefir, or buttermilk + 1/4 cup whole milk
Two tablespoons active yeast
One tablespoon salt
1/2 cup chopped dried apples
Two tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil

In your food processor, combine the flours, cornmeal, yeast, and salt. Turn the machine on. While running, slowly add the molasses, oil, and yogurt or kefir. Process until the mixture turns into a ball. Add the remaining milk and let the dough process two or three more times until the milk is evenly distributed. Remove the lid and transfer to a large bowl that you’ve oiled with canola oil. Cover and let rise for two hours.

At this point, you can repeat the aforementioned steps up to three more times, creating four balls of dough. Let them each rise in a separate oiled bowl.

After two hours, punch down the dough(s) and fold in the dried apple pieces. Shape into a ball and let rest on a cutting board, covered, for fifteen minutes.

After fifteen minutes, use the heel of your hand to press the dough into a rectangle. Transfer each dough to a separate loaf pan. Cover and let rise for one hour.

If using one or two batches, heat your oven to 350 degrees. If using three or four, heat your oven to 375 degrees.  Bake for forty five minutes. The dough should be crusty but hollow-sounding when tested.

Your house will smell amazing. Invite guest over and serve them steaming hot slices of bread with butter, marmalade, goat cheese, and coffee and tea. If you have extra loaves, freeze them, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and foil and in a plastic bag, for up to six months. Store your fresh loaves in parchment paper, not plastic. They will mold that way!


Three Uses for Summer Pea Pesto

I always end up eating my words when I say, sweating underneath the hot October sun, “I just want it to get cold already!” As I type this, I sit hulled underneath a wool blanket in slippers and a sweatshirt. Mmmm, humble pie.



Even with today’s drizzly cold, yesterday was sunny as August and so what better way to reminisce than with some distinctively summer eats?
The freezer is your best friend for these endeavors. Last night I highlighted some frozen white fish in creamy lemon pasta, on top of which, I placed a huge dollop of this:


Summer Pea Pesto
Makes a few cups
One pound frozen peas, defrosted
One clove garlic, peeled
Half of one lemon
Salt, pepper, and dried basil
Extra Virgin olive oil


Place the peas in a food processor. Using a microplane, grate the garlic over the peas.  Add the salt, pepper, and dried basil, and squeeze the lemon, cut side up, into the mixture. 
Secure the lid and process, gently streaming a slow flow of olive oil through the feed tube, until the texture is smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings.


The best part about this dish is how fresh it is, and how easy it is to prepare a little bite of summer regardless of outdoor conditions. Mix it in to any light pasta dish, serve with crackers or crudités, or make this the next morning:


Open Face Egg Sandwich
Serves One
One thick slice freshly baked bread (don’t use pre-sliced sandwich bread for this…or anything, really. Especially this, though, because it won’t hold the toppings. If you don’t bake, buy a loaf from the closest thing you can find to a bakery.)
Two tablespoons Summer Pea Pesto
One slice white cheddar cheese
One teaspoon butter
One egg
Salt and pepper


Place the butter in a small skillet and melt over medium high heat. Once melted, break open the egg into the pan, add salt and pepper, and let it cook for two minutes.


Toast the bread. Spread with the pea pesto and top with a large slice of cheese. 


Flip the white of the egg over the yolk, then transfer to your masterpiece. Add more salt and pepper if desired. Serve with a large mug of café au lait.



I don’t know why this sort of weather makes me want to be in France, but it surely does. More café au lait seems like the proper solution to these problems. 

OctoberFeast!

Second attempt at a happily candid photo. Let me show you the first attempt, below.

After a mid-week scare that involved the (socially questionable) blue clad Geniuses at Apple confiscating my beloved laptop, I am happy to report that all is well and fully functional, which means I can blog again, with pictures of course!

Last week rang in one of the best months of the year: October. Pumpkins, gourds, hayrides, autumn leaves, cider doughnuts, pumpkin pie…

Pumpkin pie, pumpkin pie
She made a special pumpkin pie.
Pumpkin pie, pumpkin pieeeeee…
You’ve neeever tasted such a pumpkin pie!


(Now picture lots of kids dressed in prairie outfits, my mother holding a wooden bowl and spoon, and my father playing his guitar, and you’ve got my childhood.)

That’s my father, the guitar player……..

Sadly, I grew up, and after many years of attempting to dress my dogs up in prairie hats, I concluded that some traditions are best left in the past.

On the bright side, there is always room for new traditions (look Ma, I’m growing!) and with my life being what it is now, with new friends and new experiences, it seemed only fitting that we create a new way to ring in the season. Enter OctoberFeast! 

The idea started with a trip to the farmers market and the serendipitous discovering of sweet potatoes that were the size of my head. I kid you not. From there came a recipe idea for a fall-themed chili, which I had been brooding over since the weather turned chilly (ha-ha-ha, get it?). And since I have the best people in my life, they hopped right on board, contributing this jalepeno cheddar cornbread and an apple crisp for which I’d trade my soul to get the recipe (hear that, Elly?)

My crowning moment, personally, was this recipe. It started with me throwing a bunch of random things in a pot (as most of my recipes start), but unlike the majority of experiments, this one actually turned out delicious!
Serve it piping hot with a piece of cornbread in the middle to soak it up like a sponge, or with crumbled crackers for a hearty fall lunch!
Apple crisp is optional. Wine is not.
Autumn Turkey Chili 
Serves a whole lotta folk!

Fall in a pot.

One pound ground turkey, preferably organic

Two stalks celery, chopped
Two small or one mammoth carrot, chopped
One large white onion, chopped
Two medium or one mammoth (the size of your head) sweet potato, chopped into bite size pieces
Three cans white beans in bean liquid
Two cups chicken stock
Three bay leaves
One cinnamon stick
Cumin seeds
Caraway seeds
Several good shakes of sweet smoked paprika
A few good shakes of round cumin
A few handfuls of dried parsley
Salt and pepper

Place your largest stockpot over medium-high heat; add the turkey, break it up with a wooden utensil, then let it sit until it begins to caramelize. Add salt, pepper, and the cumin and caraway seeds (a few sprinkles of each).
When it looks like this, add the onion, celery, and carrot, and cook for a few minutes until the carrots are slightly tender but still crispy.  Add the sweet potato, season with salt, pepper, paprika, and ground cumin, and cook for five minutes more.  
Add two cans of beans, with liquid.  Add four cans worth of water plus two of chicken stock, then bring the whole thing to a boil and reduce to simmer.  Puree the third can of beans, with liquid, in a blender until smooth. Add to the simmering pot, along with the bay leaves and cinnamon, bring to a boil and boil, uncovered, for five minutes.  

Reduce to simmer, cover, and let cook for twenty to thirty minutes, or until the liquid has thickened and the sweet potatoes are soft.  Sprinkle in the dried parsley. Taste, adjust seasonings, and serve.

Happy Fall.