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A hand-hewn garden supper + friends + grilled veggie bundles

The last blast of summer veggies = crusty rustic grilled fare at our equally crusty rustic mountain cabin in the last couple of weekends.  Oh summer, don’t go away! I’m not ready to close the windows!

Bits and pieces of meats stashed in the freezer made for some dramatic fireside feasting when thrown onto our hand-crafted stone grill. (Our guests often feel inspired to roll up their sleeves to split and haul things during their stay … thanks Christopher for the grill!)

By the way, we’ll be making these local ingredient bacon-wrapped filet beans in our campfire class this Wednesday, along with a veg version.

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Super thin almond cookies and fun at the John Campbell Folk School

If you need someone to make an almond cookie-henge dessert for your next fancy fundraising event for 85 people, then I’m your guy.

On its best day, my food is rustic and one wonders how the heck I wound up doing dessert for the John C. Campbell Folk School fundraising dinner last weekend. I’ll spare you the gory details except to say that our native muscadine grapes make a vibrant and delicious sorbet.  And, evidently, if you have a really good cookie to poke into the midst of it, then you can get away with just about anything. (Especially when dessert follows at least 45 courses of really lovely food and plenty of wine.)  Anyway, I had so many requests for the cookie recipe, I thought I’d go ahead and include it here. Especially since it’s not my recipe. It from David Lebovitz’s popular blog, with my grubby fingerprints all over it.

The recipe is obscenely simple. You’ll need butter, sugar, almonds, salt, soda and flour. And cinnamon if you like. And a bread pan.

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Summer tomato soup with corn cob broth served in a fresh tomato bowl

The days grow shorter and my tomatoes grow bigger. And bigger.  Because I’m growing a monster roma type tomato, whose seeds were given to me by my friend, Alice, and I swear, they are big enough to be soup bowls. Hey! Let’s make tomato soup and serve it in a tomato bowl!!!

If you look at this not-recipe, you’ll think it’s fussy, but you can get lots of other stuff done while you’re cooking. For example, it’s summer … make this while you peel and put by fresh tomatoes from your garden or local market. And corn … since I can’t control the raccoons in my garden any more than I do anything else, I buy lots of fresh organic corn from the local tailgate market. Whenever I cut the corn from the cob, to make a chow-chow or freeze, I save the cobs and freeze them in a bag so I can throw into the soup pot come winter. Americans have been corn-cob brothing for 200 years, more or less. Same goes for English peas, by the way, boil your pea-pods for extra flavor. Vegetarians take note! (See the 19th century recipe below for “Succotash.”)

Ok, let’s make soup. First slice an onion very thinly and sprinkle lightly with salt. Set aside and let the onion release its juices for a minute. Meanwhile, throw a bunch of garden tomatoes of any variety into boiling water for about a minute and slip off their skins. Remove and compost the core, squish the tomatoes good with your hands, and don’t get rid of the seeds.

The gunky stuff around the seeds is loaded with tomatoey-flavor. Include the seeds in your soup. Now, caramelize the onions in a heavy saucepan in a drizzle of olive oil and a little piece of butter. For a long time, like 45 minutes, on low heat. Stop whining. Stir constantly at the end so the sweet darlings don’t burn.

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A lived-in life … Black raspberry, rhubarb, red raspberry pie

Our messy cabin kitchen. Photo by Wes Erbsen

Anybody can make a perfect pie. But I like repairing ones that are not. A holdover from my earlier life as a family therapist, I suppose. Give me a pie whose baker’s humanity hangs out any day. I’ll take the messy kitchen, the day’s reading materials abandoned on the couch, the wet socks drying on the floor before the fire.

Give me the lived-in life.

Speaking of which, a couple days ago, I was interviewed for a magazine story (more on that later), and so I thought I’d make a pie to be photographed (instead of me!). It’s a winter article, so I figured I’d make a pie from frozen fruits I had collected from my yard/garden this summer.  Black and red raspberries and rhubarb.

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Appalachian Low Country Frogmore Stew

Down on coastal South Carolina they have a party-dish called Frogmore stew. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have any frogs in it. Rather, it’s a big pot of steaming potatoes, corn on the cobb, smoked sausage chunks and shrimp topped with crab boil seasoning that’s dumped onto a paper-covered picnic table for your gobbling pleasure. Here in the mountains of Western NC, I’m serving up my Appalachian version of this one-pot wonder. It all starts with the bean.

The counties surrounding Asheville are an heirloom string-bean mecca. For real. Just look at Bill Best’s bean catalog/bean bible if you don’t believe me. He’s been collecting our beans and their stories for years and he’s grown out 150 or more of them which he passes on in limited quanties. The variety I grow is one that I picked up at a seed swap about 10 years ago. The little package of 20 seeds came from Madison county, about 30 minutes North and they were simply called, “little old white potato patch beans”. I am not sure about the potato part because they’re a pole bean and generally they were grown up stalks of corn (hence the name cornfield bean), but they are fantastic. They’re short, tender, prolific and a delight to pluck off the vine. They’re a cut-short bean, meaning the big seeds are squished into the pod which makes them squared off looking. And they have strings. And as my grandmother Maudie said, “a bean’s not worth eating if it doesn’t have stings!” I concur. She grew half-runners and they’re easy to find if you don’t happen to live in string-bean mecca. If you do live in Western NC, look for a variety called “greasy cut shorts” available in July and August at farm stands and markets. Ok now for the fun part. Stringin’ …

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There’s a La Ratte potato in my dryer

Does this happen to you? You check to see if all the clothes are out of the dryer and you find a potato in there. Normally, I would hang my clothes outside, but it’s been rainy and damp and they just don’t dry all the way so I had to pop them into the dryer to finish up. That’s where the potato comes in. It’s a La Ratte fingerling potato, the kind I grow and the kind I just recently harvested from my garden. (By the way, this is an extremely prolific, fantastic eating and roasting French heirloom potato that grows happily in Western NC.) Maybe it was in the cuff of my farmer overalls, or my pocket?  Why would I put a little potato in my pocket? I will tell you one thing, though. A dryer does not cook a potato. But the washer certainly gets it nice and sparkly clean.

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Zuppa Valpellinese, (Black bread soup) Adventures in Aosta, Italy

I’m back from visiting my eldest, Alpine Annie in magic storybook land … Aosta, Italy. This is where she lives with her husband, Gianluca. We were on a quest to visit ancient community ovens in her region and in the Rhone-alps section of France and do we have tales to tell! First up is a post from Annie’s blog. I love her take on this adventure. Thanks, Annie!

A few days ago I took my mom and her friend Randy up to the village of Ozein.  It’s a paradise…there is no other word for it!  Well, a paradise for people who love ancient picturesque villages immersed in a sea of wildflowers, with breathtaking views of the tallest mountains of Europe.  It’s pretty spectacular.  As my momma says, better than a poke in the face.

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Toasted almond garlic scape pesto


Glorious garlic scapes are everywhere and in about 22 seconds they will be gone until next June.  I invite you to snap them, buy them, hoard them. They’re the seed stalk of hardneck varieties of garlic. Most of the garlic you find in the grocery stores are softneck varieties, they don’t scape. Honestly, I grow garlic more for the scapes than the garlic itself, they are just so darn fantastic.

As they’re growing, the garlic plant will produce this little stalk and when it’s curled like a pig’s tail, you snap it off. They’re all over the place now in the local tailgate markets in bundles for $1.50-2.00 for about ten. Oh what a deal! They are the unsung heros of summer. And if they’re grassy garlic flavor is not enough, they’ll keep in your fridge clear through August. So buy about ten bunches now and figure out what to do with them later. (Store them in an open plastic bag in your hydrator.)

You can cut them up and add them to everything you make this summer and you can also make garlic scape pesto that you can store all the way through til next garlic scape season. That’s what I’m going to show you how to do now. I’ll give you the general idea in the recipe below and then you can run with it.

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Rhubarb butter, you are my new best friend!

I used to have a donkey named Rhubarb Butter. Just kidding. I had a donkey named Donk. And a pig named Gip (that would be pig spelled backwards). I was young and too busy to think of good animal names. I take that back, I had cats named Fescue and Newton. Anyway, back to rhubarb butter. Bake or simmer down your rhubarb until it’s concentrated and your life will be transformed. Use it in gelato, ice cream, add to your pies to boost flavor, or just use it as a pie pop filling. Make yogurt parfaits, baste your chicken with it …

Just like in the last post, you’ll cut up as much rhubarb as you have and sprinkle it with about 1/4 cup sugar per pound of vegetable (rhubarb is a vegetable). Or less. Or more. Let that sit overnight in the fridge, and when you get to it, place it all in a pot. The pot is important because rhubarb is acidic and you cannot cook it in aluminum or unfinished cast iron. The radiant heat produced by an enameled cast iron pot is ideal because you’ll cook it on your lowest flame for about 3 or 4 hours. Stir it occasionally at first, and often after it thickens or it will burn and you will cry. You can also try roasting it in a slow oven on a cookie sheet. I  haven’t tried it but it might work.

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Rhubarb Sour Cherry Pie, I love you so!

Rhubarbe tarte, je vous adore! If my French language skills were as good as my pies, I’d be in fine shape. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and I think my French teacher would agree. I don’t know, maybe I should spend more time with a textbook than Elle a Table magazine, but that’s my method and I’m sticking with it. Besides that, when you place a piece of rhubarb pie on top of a Elle a Table magazine picture of rhubarb compotee, that pie gets sucked in to the magazine. I first figured that out when I put my unglamorous lunch on top of a picture of  a French luncheon salad.

We’ll be making perky seasonal salads like this one in retro drinking glasses in my Garden-to-Picnic Table classes this summer, but right now, I want to talk rhubarb. My green-tinged tangy rhubarb is going biserk out in the garden and the pretty northern red rhubarb is plentiful in the stores now. Let’s make a pie!

First you’ll need about a pound and a half of rhubarb. The green leaves are poisonous. Cut them off. If your rhubarb is the green-stalked variety,  substitute a little of your rhubarb with a few squished strawberries, raspberries, or fresh cherries so you don’t get that celery-pie thing.

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