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Around our house, Valentine’s Day is about family and love. And when it comes to dessert my family loves chocolate, peppermint and marshmallows, though not necessarily in that order. I wanted to make a treat that would satisfy everyone’s dessert fantasies. After much contemplation, I came up with the idea for Chocolate-Covered Peppermint Marshmallow Pops.
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I had another requirement for our Valentine’s Day treat — it had to be a no-bake recipe. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate to bake anything except bread, and I’ll come up with any excuse possible to make sweet treats that don’t involve actual baking.
While thumbing through the dessert section of my personal “favorite recipes” notebook, I stumbled across my recipe for seven-minute frosting. I suddenly realized this could be the starting point for Valentine treats. I love seven-minute frosting. In our family, we eat coconut cake with seven-minute frosting for Christmas, Easter and birthdays. It’s a special occasion cake, but I figured it would be even better if I could get rid of the cake entirely and focus on the frosting. If you’ve ever made seven-minute frosting, you know it’s just a step away from marshmallow. I decided to take that step.
The joy of homemade marshmallows
For most people, marshmallows are unnaturally rounded cubes found in plastic bags in supermarkets. Yet there are an infinite number of ways to make marshmallows. Most call for some combination of sugar, gelatin and corn syrup.
I began my experiment with my traditional recipe for seven-minute frosting, but replaced my usual vanilla with peppermint. I added unflavored gelatin to the mix to give the final product its marshmallow-y sponginess. Once I had made the marshmallow, then let it cool overnight, I used cookie cutters to cut the marshmallow into Valentine shapes. The final steps: Shove it onto a popsicle stick, dip it in chocolate and decorate with candy sprinkles.
This recipe does contain egg, which is important to tell people who might have egg allergies. However, unlike most marshmallow recipes, this one has no corn syrup. I also did a double-check on the food safety situation of the egg whites. According to foodsafety.gov, the egg whites used in seven-minute frosting are cooked with a sugar syrup long enough to kill any salmonella bacterium that might be present.
But because I was planning to share these treats with the all the kids in the neighborhood, I decided to play it safe and make this recipe with pasteurized powdered egg whites. They’re handy to have when you run out of eggs, and I happened to have them in my pantry already.
Get messy and feel the love
Fair warning: this can be a messy affair, as powdered sugar tends to fly, especially if your kids are getting into the act. I experimented with several versions of the recipe, varying the level of sweetness, marshmallow thickness and pepperminty-ness.
This final version appealed to children and adults alike, assuming, of course, that the eater had a love of chocolate and a serious sweet tooth. The dessert is as pretty as it is delicious, and the finished chocolate pops can be used as Valentine Party table decorations or given as gifts.
They would never last that long at our house. I presented my first batch of chocolate peppermint marshmallow pops to my two daughters, which caused their outdoor play to screech to a halt as they snatched the heart-shaped suckers out of my hand. They were such a hit that when my youngest daughter dropped her half-eaten pop in the dirt of our front yard, a river of tears began to flow. The flood stopped when I sighed and told my daughter she could pick it up and eat it anyway. She dusted off the biggest specks of dirt and happily shoved it back in her mouth.
Love can be messy. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Chocolate-Covered Peppermint Marshmallow Pops
Makes approximately 12 to 15 pops
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup cornstarch
½ cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons (three packets) unflavored gelatin
⅔ cups water to mix with gelatin, plus ½ cup water to mix with egg whites
Pasteurized powdered egg whites equal to two egg whites (I used Deb El’s Just Whites. If you use another brand, change the amount of water to whatever is required by the egg-white instructions plus five tablespoons of water.)
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups refined white sugar
¼ to ½ teaspoon peppermint extract
Pinch of salt
24 ounces (two bags) good quality semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
1 to 2 tablespoons canola oil
Assorted sprinkles, coconut, or finely chopped nuts for decoration
1. Butter a 9-by-13 inch sheet pan with at least a ½-inch edge and line with parchment paper.
2. Sift together ½ cup cornstarch and ½ cup powdered sugar. Use about half this mixture to completely cover sides and bottom of pan. Reserve the remainder.
3. Mix 3 tablespoons gelatin with ⅔ cup hot water in a small bowl. Stir until gelatin dissolves and set aside.
4. Heat about 1 inch of water in the bottom half of a double boiler. In top half of double boiler add egg white, cream of tartar, peppermint extract, sugar and ½ cup cold water (do this with top pan off the heat).
5. Place top pan into bottom pan of double boiler, which contains about 1 inch of hot water, still over heat. Use an electric hand mixer to combine ingredients, starting on low speed until combined, then increasing speed to high. Continue to beat ingredients over medium heat for seven minutes.
6. Remove double boiler from heat. Be sure that pan is on a stable, heat-proof surface, like a cool burner. Slowly add gelatin mixture to egg white mixture, beating with hand mixer starting on low speed, then increasing to high speed. Continue to beat for five minute. Do not worry if mixture gets watery and starts to deflate slightly.
7. Pour marshmallow mixture into 9-by-13-inch pan, dust with reserved powdered sugar-cornstarch mixture until marshmallow mixture is completely covered.
8. Let cool overnight.
9. The next day, cut into shapes using cookie cutters that are approximately 2 inches in diameter.
10. Brush off any excess powdered sugar-corn starch mixture.
11. Place marshmallow shapes on lollipop sticks and set aside.
12. Heat chocolate and canola oil in a double boiler over low heat and stir to combine until chocolate is completely melted.
13. Dip marshmallow pops in chocolate until the top and all sides are covered. Add sprinkles or other topping and let harden on parchment paper-lined sheet pan in refrigerator for approximately 10 minutes. (You can dip the whole pop at once, but it may leave a bit of extra chocolate pooling at the back side of the marshmallow unless you’re really careful to scrape off any excess before placing on tray to dry.)
14. When the chocolate has hardened on the front and sides of the marshmallow pop, coat the back side of the marshmallow with melted chocolate. (It is easiest to spoon about a teaspoon of melted chocolate onto back side of marshmallow pop and spread with the back of the spoon.) Place on parchment paper-lined sheet pan with back side up and return to refrigerator until marshmallow pops are completely cool.
15. Pack marshmallow pops in airtight container for up to one week. They also freeze well.
Top photo: Chocolate-covered peppermint marshmallow pops cool on parchment paper. Credit: Susan Lutz
My adventures in the world of micro-gardening started innocently enough when I picked up a stray forsythia branch from our neighbor’s yard waste bin while walking my daughters home from school on a cold winter afternoon. I shocked my girls, ages 7 and 4, when I told them that I could magically transform this dead branch into a flower bouquet within a week. My daughters thought I was crazy, which only encouraged me. It was time for some kitchen science.
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We set about our kitchen garden experiments with a sound hypothesis: Mom cannot turn a dead stick and vegetables from the fridge into a living garden. I placed the forsythia in a vase, then busied my daughters with the task of stabbing toothpicks into various vegetables and placing them in water-filled mason jars. Over the next few days we waited and watched. By the week’s end we not only had a beautiful vase of blooming forsythia, we also had a windowsill full of edible plants rooting in water and a science lab taking up most of the kitchen table.
Once I’d disproven the Mom-is-insane hypothesis, we moved forward with more gardening, more science and more curiosity. It felt important to show my daughters that the food they took for granted was grown somewhere and could grow again. Hence, the micro-garden experiment.
My eldest daughter believed that good science always requires goggles, so she started wearing eye protection for each experiment. Santa had been generous this year and we used our new digital microscope (which we hear cost the jolly old guy about $70) to examine our kitchen window garden from root to blossom.
We talked about how plants that bloom in the spring, such as forsythia and apple trees, develop flower buds at the end of their fall growing season and keep them throughout the winter, assuming they’re not killed off by freezing temperatures or a heavy coating of ice that snaps off the buds. I was able to “magically” grow forsythia flowers from what seemed to be a dead twig because the tiny buds had been there all along. We examined the few remaining buds under the microscope and discussed the fact that even the smallest parts of plants can do important jobs.
The scientific method of micro-gardening
Next we moved on to vegetables. I pulled an old potato out of a dark kitchen bin and we talked about potatoes growing from “eyes.” Looking at potatoes under the microscope was especially fun because the sprouting roots looked “pretty gross,” according to my eldest daughter.
While cutting a green onion with scissors, my youngest daughter asked, “Is this actually real science?” My eldest quickly replied, “Of course it is!” Still suspicious, the younger one warned us, “Well, try not to explode anything.” Her sister’s reply was to the point, “Why not? Scientists take chances to see what they can do.” I couldn’t argue the point, nor did I want to. My daughters were hooked and we spent the next hour happily chopping, pouring and examining various plant parts.
Here are a few tips that may come in handy for your own micro-garden experiments. As a parent, you may also need to add a sense of humor and a large supply of patience.
General notes about sprouting plants from kitchen scraps
- Use organic vegetables (chemicals used to prolong vegetable shelf life may prevent rooting)
- Be sure to wash vegetables, supplies and countertops to help eliminate the possibility of food-borne illness such as salmonella and E. coli.
- Change the water frequently (every day or two or as soon as it starts to get cloudy)
- Keep your sprouting plants in a sunny window, preferably in a location you see at least once a day as part of your usual routine.
- Only submerge the bottom part of the vegetable in water.
- You may want to start several specimens of each plant variety because rooting can be a tricky business. Discard vegetables that start to rot.
Useful science supplies and materials
- Vegetables of all sorts
- Mason jars, vases, glasses, cups and shallow bowls in assorted sizes (clear is best for maximum viewing)
- Notebook and pencil or crayons (for recording hypotheses and results)
- Funnels (nothing keeps kids engaged better than a little water play)
- Kitchen towels (for inevitable water spills)
- Magnifying glass
- Goggles (for the cool scientist look)
- Toothpicks (for anchoring root vegetables at top of water-filled container)
- Knives (to be wielded only by adults and trustworthy kids of a certain age)
- Scissors (mostly for the kids’ entertainment). Grownups want to use a sharp knife to achieve a clean cut for actual rooting purposes.
Good vegetable candidates for rooting in water
- Green onions and leeks (will re-grow from roots, even if you’ve eaten the green part off the top)
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes (make sure they have plenty of “eyes” in the portion you submerge in water)
- Lettuce and celery (will grow from the discarded root-end of the plant)
- Basil (will grow from leaf cuttings)
- Carrot tops (will grow greens from the top half-inch of the carrot, called the “shoulder,” as well as the remaining brown stem, even if you’ve eaten most of the orange root)
We’ve found ourselves coming back to our kitchen science station every few days over the past couple of weeks. We’ve even expanded the range of our experiments to include growing lettuce, thyme and chives from seed in recycled plastic containers, the kind that usually contain berries or sprouts.
Some of our experiments have been a success and some haven’t, but they’ve all been productive in their own way. We’ve learned a lot about the life cycle of edible plants. And we have a new family song, sung to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” that begins, “Goggles are the latest clothes, latest clothes.” But my real triumph was when my daughter wanted to temporarily suspend the experiments by sweetly asking, “Mom, can I please eat this carrot?”
Top photo: The culinary science lab takes over our kitchen table. Credit: Susan Lutz
As far as I’m concerned, the best part of holiday meals is the leftovers and the ultimate repurposing of a holiday bird is to make it the star ingredient in a homemade turkey pot pie.
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Thanksgiving and Christmas bring a frenzy of foods, all consumed in too large a quantity to be able to savor individually. Of course, there’s something wonderful about this particular form of gluttony. But in the days following a holiday meal I revel in the leftovers, when each dish can be enjoyed on its own, and on its own terms.
In the days after Thanksgiving, I eat cornbread-sausage stuffing for breakfast. I eat pecan-topped sweet potatoes for lunch. But the greatest form of leftover is turkey. While it’s on the holiday table fresh from the oven, turkey actually doesn’t do much for me. I find turkey covered in gravy somewhat dull. Cranberry sauce doesn’t help all that much. Yet I hatch plans to horde leftover turkey, often eating very little turkey during the meal, and noticing with careful detail how much is left on the bird’s carcass. Because after the holiday is over, I intend to transform my least favorite holiday dish into my all-time favorite post holiday meal: pot pies.
My love of pot pie goes back to my childhood. I loved watching my Grandma Willie roll the pie dough for the pot pies she made each winter. In my grandmother’s day, pot pies were what she called “work-a-day food” — a one-dish meal made for men working in the fields. This simple farm food, passed down from my grandmother to my mother and now to me, has become a staple in our house; one that comforts city folk just as well as it did my farmer ancestors.
The beauty of pot pies is that once you’ve assembled them, they make the best convenience food you’ll ever eat. This was the reason they were created for hungry farmers, and the reason they became an early staple of industrial frozen dinners. But those glutinous grey masses in a doughy shell, with only occasional glimpses of a pea or a perfect cube of turkey flesh, are a far cry from the creamy, rich, vegetable-packed delicacies that came from Grandma Willie’s kitchen. Pot pies can be made in any size, but in our house, we make single-serving pot pies in individual tart pans and store them in the freezer.
I didn’t make pot pies much during the 20 years I lived in Los Angeles. The warm climate doesn’t call out for hearty rib-sticking food. But now that I live in a place with cold winters and the first snowflakes have already fallen, the season for pot pies has arrived. On days when the weather is too wet and cold, when my daughters are spent and cranky, and I’m too exhausted to try to fling some sort of meal together, I can take these leftover remnants of holiday turkey out of the freezer and quickly serve a post-holiday meal, compliments of Grandma Willie.
Grandma Willie’s Pot Pies (with Turkey or Chicken)
Adapted by Linda Lutz, daughter of Willie Phillips and heir to the pot pie legacy.
This recipe makes two 9-inch pot pies or 9 individual pot pies using 4- or 5-inch pie or tart pans. Pot pies can be frozen unbaked. They are best defrosted overnight in the refrigerator before baking.
2½ cups chicken stock, divided (1 cup for cooking vegetables, 1½ cups for gravy)
½ cup chopped onion
½ chopped carrots
2 cups cubed potatoes
1 cup frozen peas
6 tablespoons butter or margarine
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk (Milk with 2% fat will work. Whole milk is even better.)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked turkey or chicken in small dice
Your favorite pie dough recipe (enough for two 9-inch crusts)
1. Place 1 cup of the chicken stock in a saucepan and heat until simmering.
2. Add the chopped onion and chopped carrots and cook for five minutes.
3. Add the cubed potatoes and continue cooking for 10 minutes.
4. Add the frozen peas and cook until all vegetables are tender.
5. While vegetables finish cooking, begin gravy by melting 6 tablespoons of butter or margarine in a medium skillet.
6. Add 6 tablespoons flour and cook over medium heat for one minute, stirring constantly.
7. Add the remaining 1½ cups of the chicken stock and 1 cup milk and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.
8. Add salt and pepper to taste.
9. Pour gravy in a large bowl and add the diced turkey or chicken. Stir to combine.
10. Drain vegetables and add to gravy and meat mixture. Stir gently.
11. Spoon mixture into pie tins and top with a round of pie dough cut ½ inch larger than the diameter of the top of the pie tin, pressing gently to remove any air pockets between the filling and the pie dough.
12. Press dough into the crevice between the outer edge of the filling and the side of the pie tin. The excess dough should stick straight up into the air. Once you’ve removed any air pockets between the filling and pie dough, fold the excess dough flat onto the flat lip of the pie plate to get a good seal.
13. Place pot pies on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.
14. Bake at 400 F for 20 to 25 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. If after 25 minutes the crust isn’t brown enough, turn up heat to 425 F and watch carefully until crust reached desired color.
15. Let cool for a few minutes before eating. In our house, we often dump them upside down on a plate to cool. It’s not the most elegant way to serve a pot pie, but it is the most efficient cooling method.
Top photo: The first bite of a homemade pot pie is always the most satisfying. Credit: Susan Lutz
My family and I recently moved across the country, and I have found myself desperately looking for new sources of locally grown food. The easiest place for a city dweller to find local food is at a farmers market. But a farmers market, at its best, should be more than simply a supermarket with outdoor booths. A good farmers market makes you a participant in an entire system, not just a consumer.
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Food comes from your farmer. So as a newcomer to the Mid-Atlantic, I was determined to find my farmer — at least one — who would hopefully lead me to others in the future.
I began on a Saturday morning in Alexandria, Va., at the Del Ray Farmers’ Market on a tiny corner lot at the end of a street full of shops and family-friendly restaurants in the historic port city outside D.C. I tried to remain focused amid the array of tents and booths, steering clear of the glitzy world of bakers, cheesemongers and kimchi purveyors. There was plenty of time for preserved foods later. My mission was clear. I needed raw ingredients, the building blocks of meals.
Then I stumbled upon the stall for Smith Meadows Farm, providing fresh beef, pork, lamb and chicken that were grass-fed and free range. I bought a pound of frozen ground beef, a pack of freshly made chicken empanadas and a book by Smith Meadows’ owner Forrest Pritchard. “Gaining Ground” reveals Pritchard’s struggle to save his family farm by raising grass-fed beef in a sustainable way.
That evening I made four amazing cheeseburgers with Smith Meadows ground beef, then began to read Pritchard’s book with fascination. When I was done I told my husband, “He’s the guy.” I’d found my first farmer.
I contacted Pritchard through his website and he graciously invited me to tour his 500-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley, just outside of Berryville, Va. He and his family raise hogs, chickens, turkeys, sheep and beef cattle. But it turns out that Pritchard is as passionate about forming connections with customers as he is about farming itself. He is committed to creating and supporting the sustainable economic system of small farms, local markets and concerned participants. Not only had I found my farmer, my farmer could tell me how to find other farmers.
How to find farmers
Our conversation was as free-ranging as the hogs Pritchard tended as we talked. But I’ve distilled his advice into several key tips for those who want to find their farmer.
Most farmers markets have an online vendor list, and from there you can check out the farmers’ websites. Those sites should be able to tell you whether they’re sustainable, organic, pesticide free and/or free range. Ask friends and neighbors where they get their food. Yelp and Angie’s List also will have reviews. The world is wired, even for farmers who usually deal with life’s more tangible elements.
Pose specific questions to the vendors at the farmers market. Ask your livestock farmer, “Is your beef grass finished?” This assures customers that the cattle have never been given any grain. Ask a produce farmer, “What’s at the peak of the season?” Buy the peak produce, and don’t worry too much about prettiness or durability. Some farmers will be responsive, some not, but you’ll be able to tell whether they care about their product. More important, you’ll find out if they care about the same things you do.
Shop for what interests you
There’s no point in eating great food you don’t like. Enough said.
Grow your own food
Plant a garden and ask the farmers at the market for advice. Your local farmer knows better than anyone which plants will grow best in your soil and climate zone. Raise chickens, a pig or even a single steer. There’s no better way to appreciate a farmer than to try to grow food yourself.
Be passionate and have fun
The quest to find your farmer should have a sense of adventure. The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Farmers at a market are usually passionate about what they do. They will respond to your own passion.
I’d come away with a list of questions and tips to help me create relationships with the people who help feed my family. In the coming months I plan to seek out more of my local farmers and see what I can learn about our local honey, goats, root vegetables and cider.
Pritchard and I talked about a lot more: grass fed versus grass finished, the difficulty of storing ovoid-shaped foods such as frozen chickens and the surprising economics of ground beef. But throughout my conversation I realized how lucky I was to have found my first farmer. He wants to spread the word about sustainable farming. He’s hard at work on his second book, which combines photographic portraits of sustainable farmers with the farmers’ favorite recipes. He’s committed to promoting small, local food systems that include the buyer and cook as part of that ecosystem.
Pritchard may have more to say about farming than most farmers. Your farmers might not be quite so talkative but they’re probably just as passionate about the food they grow. Meeting your farmers and buying food at a farmers market turns you into one more thread in the web of good food.
If you care about food, you care about where it comes from. So I urge you, find your farmer.
Top photo: Forrest Pritchard stops to say hello to one of his flock. Credit: Susan Lutz
Fall has arrived, and with the turning leaves comes an ample harvest and a desperate need to make sure I save, preserve and conserve every last bit of summery goodness before it all goes away.
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It’s hard to complain about having too much fresh produce, but when the end of the growing season comes there’s a lot of pressure to make the most of summer’s last stand, especially where corn and tomatoes are concerned.
Early in the summer, I wait longingly for the first corn to ripen. Tomato season is already in full force by this point, but it’s the sweet, crisp corn that signals the true beginning of summer to me. As soon as I discover a few ripe ears, I make tomato corn soup.
This soup is special in our house because it’s part of the first meal I ever made for my husband back when we were dating. At the time, he wasn’t a fan of soup, and he claims that this delicious soup changed his mind about soup and about me. If I was worth eating soup for, then he decided it was time to reconsider a few things in life.
It’s a great compliment to be able to change someone’s long-held beliefs about food (and many other things, but I digress), and I take great pleasure in making tomato corn soup for our family each summer.
My version of tomato corn soup is adapted from a recipe by Renee Shepherd and Fran Raboff in their classic cookbook “Recipes From a Kitchen Garden.” In the early summer, I make soup using their recipe, but as fall approaches I like this slightly richer version.
I like to keep the “fresh” soup supply coming in winter months, so I also make ample use of our freezer. The soup freezes very well, but I prefer to freeze the individual ingredients, then make the soup when I’m ready to eat. I first strip the corn kernels from the freshest cobs I can get, then blanch them. I chop the tomatoes, then place both ingredients in separate freezer bags marked “ready for corn soup,” each with the appropriate amount to make one recipe. (Two pounds of chopped tomatoes will fit nicely into a quart-sized freezer bag.)
End of the Season Tomato and Corn Soup
Adapted from a recipe in “Recipes from a Kitchen Garden” by Renee Shepherd and Fran Raboff
Serves 6 to 8
2 slices center-cut bacon
1 tablespoon bacon grease
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped in medium dice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cups water or chicken stock
2 pounds (approximately 4 to 5 medium) ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 cups fresh corn kernels (approximately 2 large ears)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill
⅓ cup chopped basil
1. In a large, heavy sauce pan, sauté 2 slices of center cut bacon until crispy. Remove bacon and bacon grease from pan, leaving approximately 1 tablespoon bacon grease.
2. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to pan. Once the oil has warmed, add chopped onion and sauté until onion has browned slightly.
3. Add tomato paste and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until it turns a rich, dark color.
4. Add water or chicken stock, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, until tomatoes are soft and starting to lose their shape.
5. Turn off heat and let mixture cool slightly. Purée mixture using an immersion blender or purée mixture in a blender and return to pan. Note: If using a blender, be sure to let mixture cool sufficiently and purée in batches.
6. Add corn and herbs and cook for an additional 5 minutes.
7. When ready to serve, ladle soup into bowls and sprinkle with a few bits of crumbled bacon. If you have leftover soup, toss the remaining bacon into the soup before cooling completely and storing in refrigerator or freezer.
Top photo: Tomato corn soup. Credit: Susan Lutz
I count myself among the millions of tomato fanatics who obsess over the lush red fruit during the summer months. In our Southern California back yard, we grew Mortgage Lifters, Brandywine and tiny Yellow Pear tomatoes, which rarely made it to the kitchen because my 4-year-old daughter simply devoured them on the vine.
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But there is one variety that I have failed to grow, to my great dismay. It’s an heirloom breed that my Uncle Richard received from a Mennonite farmer in Virginia more than 20 years ago. He gave some to my mother a year later. I don’t know what the breed is. My family simply calls them “Mennonite tomatoes,” but apparently that is the name for a large variety of tomatoes. Whatever variety they really are, they are delicious, and my family has been growing them and saving the seeds from year to year.
I tried to grow my mother’s Mennonite tomato seeds in California with dismal results. I once gave seeds to my friend Daniel, a master tomato grower, and even he had no luck with them. Eventually I gave up, deciding that Mennonite tomatoes simply weren’t suited for Southern California. The difference between the sultry, sticky Shenandoah summers, and the baking desert heat of Los Angeles was too much for the seeds.
Searching for rooster sauce
I was reminded of the difference in sharp detail this past month, as I found myself once again a native of Virginia. My husband’s job has taken him to Washington, D.C., and our family has exchanged the micro-climate of Mediterranean L.A. for the tidewater seasons of Potomac-adjacent Virginia.
It has not been a particularly easy switch, food-wise.
My first trip to the local grocery store was a revelation. After 20 years of experiencing the abundance of L.A.’s greens, I knew better than to wheel my shopping cart anywhere near the produce aisle. I’d already scouted out the location of the closest farmers market and saved my produce list for the Saturday morning market at the local train station. Even so, it still took longer than expected to stock my pantry. Although much of the shopping was easy — milk, salt, olive oil were all purchased without incident — there were a few items that eluded me.
I searched desperately for Herdez Salsa Ranchera and the spicy red Sriracha Chili Sauce, commonly called “rooster sauce” in our house and many other homes in Los Angeles. These two items are pantry staples in my house mostly because I’m the only one in my family who likes really spicy food. I know that when I’m in the doldrums or I’ve had one too many demands for boxed mac and cheese from my daughters, I can splatter red rooster sauce over almost anything and call it delicious, except perhaps boxed mac and cheese.
Because they were such standard items in our pantry, I hadn’t even bothered to write the sauces on my shopping list. So I was almost frantic when I couldn’t find them. After 15 minutes of searching, I eventually gratefully found a small puckered plastic jar of Sriracha. The canned salsa still eluded me. In its place, I found an entire aisle of pickles. Pickles. I have nothing against pickles, in fact I make my own homemade version, but a whole aisle? How much has my home state changed since I left those two decades ago? Fortunately I eventually found other local markets with a selection of the foods I love, including both my favorite canned salsa and beloved rooster sauce.
There is another item I have missed since leaving behind the sun-baked shores of L.A.: loquats. Loquat season is now over in Los Angeles, and we’ve already eaten our way through the most of the stash of loquat butter I made this past spring from our backyard loquat tree. I didn’t know we’d be moving away from L.A. and the loquat tree in our backyard when I had generously spread my morning toast with loquat butter throughout the summer. I have only a single jar left and am now fiercely hoarding it for the cold winter ahead.
The perfect tomato sandwich
Moving across the country has its share of joys and stresses. One of the joys is that I’m near my parents, and I’m in the foodshed I grew up in. I’ll get to regularly experience the delights of apple butter, homemade sweet pickles and my father’s basement-cured hams. But at times the stresses of this kind of move can seem to overwhelm the joys. And I was near despair as I attempted to make chicken quesadillas for dinner without salsa ranchera. Just at that point, my mother appeared at the door. In her hands was the cure for homesickness: a ripe Mennonite tomato fresh picked from her garden that same day.
We sat at the kitchen table and ate it together. My mother believes a tomato sandwich should consist of a roll, a slice of tomato, a dab of mayo, and a sprinkle of salt. I like mine without any extras, so I slapped the slice of Mennonite tomato, as wide as my hand, onto half a homemade roll straight from my mother’s oven. I bit into the tomato and roll, felt the tangy flesh melt into the springy bread and tasted — for the first time in years — the richness of the earth of the Shenandoah Valley.
And I knew, finally, I was home.
Top photo: Homegrown tomatoes make my new house feel like home. Credit: Susan Lutz