Thursday, September 29, 2011

Song of Drought & Fire

Onion Pie
This has been, without a doubt, the worst gardening year in the 10 years we’ve lived here! Spring was bad enough and it went downhill from there. The wildfires began back in April, followed by triple digits early in the summer and continuing through the end of August. More wildfires this month and everyone’s been on pins and needles every time a breeze picks up. We’ve had a light smattering of rain over the last few weeks, but it hasn’t even been enough to germinate garden seeds. Everyone’s ponds are dry and hay, if it can be had at all, is running about $120 for a round bale and  $12-$14 for a square bale of coastal. The really sad part is that if we get no rain in October, there will be no more precipitation until at least February. That’s just the way it works in Texas.

But still we plod on and we’re hopeful. The fall garden is planted even though I had to germinate it with a sprinkler. Grasshoppers decimated the flats of cabbage and broccoli I’d planned on setting out this month so those will have to come from the grocery this winter. I wasted no expensive or rare garden seeds on the fall garden. Everything is very basic and planted in large quantities – there’s 40-foot beds of spinach, turnips, carrots, green beans and summer squash. And that’s it! I will miss the beets this year, but with triple digits all during August, I saw no point in wasting the seed.

We do have chicken though! At least there’s that. The hundred that arrived at the beginning of August are now 8 weeks old and growing like little weeds. The feed bill is higher than I would like, but there’s simply nothing else for them to eat – no bugs, no grass, nothing. And the other day I looked up and realized that in addition to the hundred I ordered, we’ve got probably another 40 of our own needing to be thinned out. So at least 3-4 days a week, a chicken has been going into the skillet, the soup pot, the roaster or the freezer. For that I am thankful.
The Horrendous Hundred

I am also thankful that we have so much food put back. Even though much of our fresh produce is coming from the grocery right now, there are always our own treats to round out the meal: canned corn and tomatoes, picante sauce, pickled peppers, wild plum jam and pancake syrup, frozen blackberries, all kinds of frozen fish. The chickens have moulted and there are fresh eggs again. Not a lot yet, but at least they’re of good quality, unlike the few eggs we were getting during the heat of the summer. And I still have some turnips and carrots packed away in the bottom of the fridge from back in the spring. We are definitely not starving or malnourished! But little treats go a long ways right now.

Last weekend we re-fenced our broiler yard with chain link. The old fence made of chicken wire was rusted, sagging and falling down. Even though we let them free-range most of the day, it’s nice to have a place to confine them when needs be. Like when the garden is germinating or we need for them to leave us some tomatoes unmolested. Or I have errands to run and don’t want to have to worry about coyotes or stray dogs. So there are good things going on right now too.
New Fencing on Broiler Yard

With the weather turning a little cooler, I’ve been enjoying getting back in the kitchen every day and using the oven again. Breads, soups and stews have been on the menu a lot these last couple weeks. And then there are the pies, both savory and sweet…. I think pies are my favorite food group. J


A couple months ago, a friend gifted me with a very unassuming little cookbook: “The Country Kitchen Cook Book” by Edward Harris Heth. It was first published in 1956 and the introduction is by Euell Gibbons, famous “stalker” of wild foods. My friend knows my affliction and affection for older cookbooks and this one instantly made it into my Top Ten! The book is worth reading for the stories and anecdotes alone, but the recipes (which are loosely written) have also proven noteworthy. This morning I enjoyed “Boiled Coffee” for the first time. I thought it would be bitter, but it wasn’t. The caffeine content, on the other hand, is right up there with an illegal drug and I thought Curtis might have to Taser me when he got home!

Anyway, there’s a recipe in the book for “Onion Pie” which I’d never heard of. I’ve made it a couple times now and want to pass along the recipe. It’s one of the easiest pies I’ve ever made and we’ve been enjoying it both for breakfast and late night snacks. Even the butter crust is easy to make and I am NOT good with pie crusts! Mr. Heth assumed (back in 1956) that EVERYONE knew how to throw together a pie and maybe they did back then, but I’m going to give a few more instructions than the book gives. In the picture above, I added some ricotta cheese to the filling, but it didn’t improve the original recipe so I won’t be doing it again. The only thing I’ve added to the original recipe is some dill. This is a nice way to use up some of the onions that are starting to sprout. If you don’t have an 8” pie plate, use a 9” – the pie will be a little thinner or you can add another onion, a little more bacon and sour cream and another egg yolk to fill the pan. Don’t get hung up on the details – they really don’t matter much!

Onion Pie

Butter Crust:
1 cup flour
¼ cup cold butter
Pinch salt and sugar
2 tablespoons milk or cream
Egg wash (optional)

2 large onions, finely chopped
4 slices (ounces) bacon, chopped
2 teaspoons caraway seed
Salt and pepper to taste
½ - ¾ cup sour cream
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon dill

Preheat oven to 400. If you already know how to make pie crusts by hand, go ahead and do so; otherwise place the flour, butter, salt and sugar in the food processor and whirl until the butter is incorporated. Pour in the milk or cream and whirl until mixture comes together into a soft ball. Roll the crust out and press it into an 8” pie pan. (A fluted edge is pretty, but not necessary.) Prick the crust all over with a fork (be sure and get the sides!), brush on an egg wash, then bake the crust for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute the onions, bacon and caraway together until the onions are soft. For best results, sweat the onions by covering the pan for a few minutes, then remove the lid and evaporate the water. (This will keep them from sweating in the pie later.) Season with salt and pepper.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the sour cream, eggs and dill. Pour the onion/bacon mixture over and mix thoroughly. Pour all into the cooked pie crust and place in oven on center rack, reducing heat to 350. Bake for about 40 minutes.

Pie is best served warm with a dollop of sour cream on top.

Chicken and Dumplings with Spinach and Mushrooms

This makes quite a large pot and is very filling. For a larger family, add another quart of broth, some more seasoning, then double the dumpling recipe cooking each batch of dumplings separately.

1 whole chicken, boiled in 3-4 quarts of water, deboned and chopped
2 tablespoons chicken fat or butter
1 large onion, chopped
Fresh garlic, to taste
2 stalks celery, sliced
2-3 carrots, sliced
½ pound mushrooms, sliced
2 quarts chicken broth
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon granules or 2 teaspoons salt
Pepper to taste
1 recipe Buttermilk Biscuits
½ pound spinach or other greens, chopped or thinly sliced
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 cup cream
¼ cup flour

In a large stockpot, melt the fat or butter and add onion, garlic, celery, carrots and mushrooms. Saute until almost done. Add the broth, bouillon and pepper and bring to a boil. Add dumplings all at once, cover and simmer on low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to break up the dumplings. Stir in chicken, spinach and tarragon and bring to a gentle boil. Adjust seasoning. Whisk together cream and flour in a small bowl. Add to soup and heat through until thickened.

Buttermilk Biscuits

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ cup melted chicken fat, butter or oil
Buttermilk or thin yogurt, about ½ - ¾ cup

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. Using wire whisk, cut in fat or oil until mix is crumbly. Stirring with a fork, add buttermilk a little at a time until dough just comes together. Knead a few times, then roll dough out about ½” thick on a well-floured counter. Using a pizza cutter, cut the dough into 1” cubes (or smaller). A tablespoon of chicken bouillon granules may be substituted for the salt. These are also super easy to make in the food processor.
Chicken & Dumplings

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