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Susan Lutz

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Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer who is currently writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner.  She is a certified Master Food Preserver through the University of California Cooperative Extension, where she helps community members with canning and food preserving techniques. She has produced over 300 hours of documentary and nonfiction television programming for numerous cable networks including The Food Network, HGTV, A&E and History on topics that range from food chemistry to knitting to Haitian voodoo.    When she isn't blogging about Sunday dinner, she is often making photographs of heirloom foods or teaching the history of photography.  Raised in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley (where her father still cures his own hams), she currently lives near Washington, DC.

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Stir-Fry Awaits: 5 Location Tips For Suburban Foragers Image

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

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Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

Main photo: Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Bitters: Spice + Time = Cocktail And Cookie Frosting Magic Image

Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.

But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.

It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.

The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.

I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th  century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.

Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.

Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.

“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.

“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.

Making bitters at home

I immediately went to dashbitters.com and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.

Gentian Root,  the star ingredient,  actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.

The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.

The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.

According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.

Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.

But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about.  Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!

So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.

Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting

(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)

Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies

Ingredients

1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.

5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.

6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.

7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.

8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.

Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

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Say I Love You With Valentine Marshmallow Pops Image

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.

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.

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Cookie cutters are perfect for cutting out shapes to make marshmallow pops. Credit: Susan Lutz

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

 Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Micro-Garden Lists You Need For Kids’ Fun In The Kitchen Image

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.

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.

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Potatoes and watercress rooting in jars on the kitchen windowsill. Credit: Susan Lutz

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)
  • Tweezers
  • Magnifying glass
  • Microscope
  • 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)
  • Garlic
  • Lemongrass
  • 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

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The Greatest Gifts Of Turkey Come Days Later Image

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.

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.

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Cutting pie dough to form the crust of the pot pie. Credit: Susan Lutz

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.

Ingredients

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)

Directions

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

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Shopping For A Farmer At The Farmers Market Image

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.

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.

Get online

Contented hog at Smith Meadows Farm.

Contented hog at Smith Meadows Farm. Credit: Susan Lutz

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.

Ask questions

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.

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Sheep and cattle greet visitors to Smith Meadows Farm. Credit: Susan Lutz

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

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