Spider, Chickens, Nutmeg: A Love Story
Since the last post three weeks ago, things around here have tumbled into chaos. But it has nothing to do with the torrential rainfall and everything to do with the beginning of the school year for the girls and the fall semester for me.
It’s the familiar juggling act for any family: after a day of work, how do you fit in the kids’ activities, the adults’ activities, homework, back-to-school nights, bathtime, lunch-making … let alone deal with the thick and hairy lawn, stinky chicken coop, mountains of laundry, cluttered kitchen, and tumbleweeds of dog hair.
And writing about food? The four hours it takes to create one of these posts slipped past like weasels.
I just couldn’t find a balance. My head shrieked with obligations and my body rebelled at spending hours underneath fluorescent lighting. Planning a week of meals felt like a Herculean task, let alone finding time to head for the Amish market, the farmer’s market, the dairy, and the grocery store (especially when the Amish and the dairy are closed on Sunday).
The wine and spirits shop was a much more attractive alternative.
I started to think that I might have to give up the blog, maybe give up writing entirely until next summer. I couldn’t remember how I did it last year. Then I looked at the date and timestamps for last spring’s posts. Most of them fell between midnight and 2am.
I was so tired already. I went to bed and cried.
Then, I had today.
Dave and I head out to the chickens at 6am, in the dark. He carries a lantern and the watering contraption; I carry the feed. As we go, we veer in a wide arc away from the normal path to the barn. For the last month, a gigantic orbweaver spider has made its web just a few feet in front of the barn door, between the clothesline and the holly tree. At first it was an annoyance; there’s nothing like a face full of sticky web before you’ve had your coffee. And this was a big web – at least 2 feet in diameter and 2 feet tall. But the spider has been so consistent that we’ve come to look for her in the evenings as she begins the web, and again in the mornings when the dew hangs like a million prisms on silky strands. If the web is gone, as it sometimes is thanks to bats, we check to see she’s in her favorite place, the shelter of a holly leaf.
In the dark, it’s impossible to see the web, but Dave lifts the lantern and there she is, suspended in the air and darting up, down, across. Her capacity for work seems endless. I wish for nocturnal energy.
The birds are still asleep when we reach the coop. They’re warm and heavy in our hands as we transfer them one by one into the chicken tractor, and they protest with occasional beeps. The dark immobilizes chickens; they stand almost as in a stupor. But it’s a great improvement over the daylight frenzy of wings, beaks, and clawed feet.
“Somehow I don’t think this is how real farmers do it,” Dave says, and he reaches deep into the coop for the last chicken. He holds her for a moment in the lantern light and smoothes her feathers, examines her floppy red comb. Then he places her gently inside and pushes the tractor to a clean patch of grass on the perimeter of the yard. I add the food and water, say farewell, and head for the house. Dave, just ahead of me, stops and waits. We link hands and pause at the web.
It is good to start the morning this way, with a spider, chickens, and my mate.
In the few minutes before E and Q get off the bus, I rummage tools and ingredients for an impromptu quiche: cutting board, knife, onion, garlic. Half a container of mushrooms. Head of broccoli. Two red potatoes. Butter. A dozen brown and white eggs.
I look out the window in the chickens’ direction. Their first egg arrived during the hurricane, and now they’re laying anywhere from three to five a day.
When the girls arrive, Q has circles under her eyes and E begs to watch a movie. The week’s been no kinder to them than to me. They curl up under a blanket and lose themselves in Sleeping Beauty.
I shake my head. Princesses and happily ever after. Bah.
Back in the kitchen, I turn on the radio and chop vegetables, melt butter, crush garlic through the press. Through the windows, the garden sits partially empty where we tore out the tomatoes, but the herbs still hang on, valiant in the wind. I love the blue-green of the grass as it bows to the gale, and the silver underbellies of the writhing pin oak’s leaves.
I drop onions into the butter, then potatoes, then mushrooms, then garlic and broccoli. Somewhere in between, the staticky crackle of my brain (send this email, plan that class, grade this stack of papers, sign the kids’permission forms, plan E’s birthday party) gives way to the scent of sautéed vegetables. The gentle voices of NPR anchors. The whoosh of the oven as it ignites.
A sprinkle of dry mustard and a shake of nutmeg go into the pot on the stove. Spice fills the kitchen and I nearly stumble with pleasure. It is almost too much – the blustering gorgeous familiarity of the backyard, my girls safe and warm on the couch, the miracle of backyard eggs, and the rich autumn pungency of nutmeg.
For a moment, happily ever after isn’t a fairy tale. It’s right here.
Once the quiche is in the oven, I sit down on the couch with the girls. E and Q scoot over for a snuggle, and I breathe in the familiar warmth of their hair. Aurora and Prince Phillip dance in a great hall, and the music builds to a crescendo. E and Q sigh with happiness, and Q exclaims, “Isn’t it romantic!”
“Boo hiss,” I grump. “Romance is over-rated.” I don’t tell them about hand-holding and chicken/spider appreciation in the predawn. They wouldn’t believe me anyway.
The girls, undaunted, know the routine. “Mommm-eeee!” they squeal. In a flash they’re on top of me, and the tickle war has begun. We laugh and laugh and laugh all the way through the credits.
In these weeks of insanity, we’ve had a lot of easy, no-thought-involved, low-cost meals, like spaghetti with meatballs, scrambled eggs and toast, tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ve gone back to many recipes from blog posts past, too. I never thought that the blog would save my own skin! But a few new recipes have gotten me through. First is the by-the-seat-of-my-pants quiche described above; the other is a peach and mango curry.
Potato, Broccoli, and Mushroom Quiche (aka Emergency Quiche). If you’ve been cooking for a while, you probably know that a quiche can be the most forgiving and satisfying clean-out-the-pantry kind of meal. This one turned out to be pretty amazing – mostly, I think, from the use of butter and three types of cheese. It’s also the first time one of my experimental meatless quiches has had enough flavor – the nutmeg really is the supergirl ingredient. Finally, the general ratio here of half-and-half to egg works, too; the texture of the quiche isn’t too watery or too dry. So go ahead – peer into your veggie and cheese drawers, grab a few eggs, and see what kind of lovely combination you come up with. While you’re at it, raise a glass to your own ingenuity.
3 Tbsp butter
½ cup onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 red potatoes, unpeeled and diced
6 large mushrooms, quartered and sliced
1 cup broccoli florets plus stems; stems and florets separated (just peel the stems with a vegetable peeler and then thinly slice – delicious!)
½ tsp dry mustard
¼ tsp nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
4 large eggs
¼ cup half-and-half
1- 1 ½ cups grated cheese, with ¼ cup reserved (I used gouda, cheddar, and Parmesan in no particular ratio, though I saved the Parmesan for the top of the quiche)
1 deep-dish pie crust, store bought or homemade
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
2. If pie crust is frozen, set it out to thaw. With a fork, poke holes in the crust, gently, all over bottom and sides.
3. Melt butter in heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or skillet over medium heat.
4. Add onion. Saute 2 minutes; then add potato. Cook until potatoes are just tender to the bite – about 4-5 minutes. Add salt, pepper, and garlic. Cook 30 seconds. Then add mushrooms, broccoli stems, dry mustard, and nutmeg; cook 2 minutes, or until mushrooms begin to release their liquid. Add broccoli and cook 2 minutes more or until broccoli is bright green. Remove from heat.
5. Whisk together eggs, half-and-half, and a little salt and pepper. Set aside.
6. Sprinkle a thin layer of cheese into the bottom of the pie crust. Top with a layer of the vegetable mixture. Add another layer of cheese, then veggies. Continue until you have a veggie layer that is about 1/8 inch from the top of the crust and you have ¼ cup of cheese remaining.
7. Whisk the egg mixture again until light and airy. Pour over veggie/cheese layers until the egg just meets the top of the crust.
8. Sprinkle top with remaining ¼ cup cheese.
9. Bake 35 minutes or until top of quiche is firm and gently browned.
Peach and Mango Curry. If your farmer’s market is still lucky enough to carry peaches and tomatoes, this adaptation from Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook is for you. It’s ultra-cheap, comes together quickly, and makes enough for two nights of dinner (or dinner and a few days of lunch). But I loved the texture the most – it was so soft and comforting. For some people, the softness might be too soft, but as summer winds down and autumn blows in, I’m happy to taste and feel the gentleness of summer one last time. We served it over jasmine rice, which was a rich contrast to the savory tang of curry. By the way – this isn’t a terribly spicy curry, so if you’re inclined, a shot or two of PickaPeppa sauce would do nicely.
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 Tbsp minced fresh ginger (don’t use dried ginger – it won’t do the dish justice)
2 Tbsp curry powder
3 peaches, peeled, pitted, and chopped
1 mango, peeled, pitted, and chopped
4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped (it’s worth taking the time to peel them … I didn’t and ended up picking out the sharp, dried peels from my bowl. Ick.)
½ cup coconut milk
Chopped fresh cilantro (don’t skip out on this – it really makes the meal)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat the oil over medium heat for 1 minute. I used a large Dutch oven, but a deep skillet will work, too. Add onion and ginger; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and translucent.
2. Add the curry powder and cook, stirring, about 30 seconds or until fragrant. Take care not to burn the curry.
3. Stir in peaches, mango, tomatoes, and coconut milk. Bring mixture to a gentle bubble. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit softens and the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes (a little less if your fruit is overripe to begin with).
4. Taste and adjust seasoning, garnish with cilantro, and serve over rice.