Monday, September 10, 2007

Trip to Texas part 2: A farm-fresh meal

As I exited the highway and drove towards Chambersville, I marveled at how long I’d been making this journey—every twist and turn on the country road as familiar to me as the shape of the letters in my own name.

It was sunset, and while driving to my grandparents’ farm I decided to take a detour along a gravel road lined with old trees. These bois d’arc trees (pronounced boe-dark—this tree is the bearer of horse apples, that inedible knobby green fruit) are made of super-strong wood and were planted as a sort of natural fence before people put up barbed wire. Through the years, as these trees along the road have grown tall and wide, their leaves and branches have met above the road creating a green canopy. It’s breathtaking. Sadly, the owner of that estate has sold the land to a developer who plans to build a subdivision. That road’s days are numbered and so I try to take a drive down it any chance I can.

I arrived at my grandparents’ farm as always, trailing a big cloud of white dust as I raced along the rocky road in anticipation of arrival. It’s a good feeling to know that when you arrive somewhere people will be happy to see you. And while my visit was short, there were enough stories told and lived in the next couple of days to fill this blog for a month or two, or at least write a really long article for Progressive Farmer. So I won’t bore you with all the details, instead, as it’s Eat Local Month, I’ll share with you a meal I made almost exclusively from the fruits (and fish and vegetables) of their land.

Early the next morning, my grandmother and I went apple picking. There has been a record amount of rain this year (and actually for the first time in recent history, not one place in Texas is suffering a drought) and while the water was welcome, it left all their Golden Delicious apples covered in black spots—yes, it was mildew. The apples actually looked pretty cool—like speckled green eggs—but Grandma thought it wise not to eat the skins, so after filling a couple of huge tubs and a bucket, a peeling session was in order.

These apples were going to be canned, and since my grandmother had other things to tend to around the farm, I got the job of removing the skins. She peels apples with a long knife; I am not so brave and instead used a peeler.

After the apples were peeled and sliced, we moved over to the cottage and set up the canning station. She has canning tools that belonged to my great-grandmother, and I was amazed that they hadn’t rusted or deteriorated over the years. We boiled the water and sugar to make syrup, and poured this into the quart-sized Mason jars filled with layers of apple slices. Using the canning tongs, Grandma smoothly lifted the heavy jars and placed them in the big pot of boiling water, and then we waited a half hour for the seals to set. And that was it! I didn’t know canning could be so easy, though I reckon there’s less risk of botulism with apples than with, say, tomatoes.

After lunch, we took short naps and then I started planning the menu for dinner. Like most country people, my grandparents’ have a huge, well-stocked freezer and cabinet upon cabinet lined with canned and pickled goods: as they grew up on farms, they are well schooled in the art of preservation (though huge freezers are a relatively recent luxury in their lives—as children they didn’t have this appliance and so everything had to be canned, pickled, dried or smoked). My grandmother and I had gone through these reserves and she pulled from the freezer food that had come from that summer’s harvest: yellow squash, zucchini, white crappie fillets caught in the lake on their property (that’s the name of the fish, not my opinion about it), corn and peaches. We also had dill pickles, fresh tomatoes, garlic and onions. This would be an easy meal to make.

I had spied a bag of shelled pecans in the freezer, so I grabbed those and decided to make a pecan-crusted fish dish along with a mixed-greens and tomato salad, corn on the cob and squash casserole with peach pie for dessert. And while some of the ingredients I used, such as butter, sour cream (my grandparents don’t have cows), mustard and lettuce (it’s long past greens season in Texas), were from the grocery store, the core ingredients did come from their farm and that made me very happy.

As I set to work on the savory portion of the meal, I put my grandmother on dessert duty, as everyone knows she makes the best pies. Every time I watch her whip one up, I’m amazed at how easy she makes it appear (though I reckon years of practice do make perfect). She already had two pie crusts rolled out and ready, so she lined her pie pan with one, placed a quart of the peeled and sliced peaches in the crust, sprinkled on some sugar, flour and cinnamon (of course not using any measuring spoons and just eye-balling the amounts), threw on some pats of butter, placed the other crust on top, sliced vents and then sprinkled some sugar over the crust. Into the pre-heated 350 degree oven went the pie, ready to emerge after about an hour when the top was golden and you could hear the peach juices bubbling.

Meanwhile, I was finely chopping pecans for the fish; layering the yellow and green squash with diced onions, garlic and some other secret (and decidedly not-from-the-farm ingredients) in a large pan for the casserole; and boiling the corn on the cob.

To assemble my crusted filets, I cracked an egg in one bowl and placed in another the chopped pecans. I took each piece of fish and then dipped it in the egg and then dredged it in the pecans. I placed the filets in one layer in a couple of pans, and then covered the fish with a mixture of Dijon mustard and sour cream (about 1 tablespoon of mustard to 1/2 cup of sour cream, I reckon, though I did it all by taste and didn’t record my actions). I baked the fish at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes and they came out beautifully. In place of a tartar sauce, I served them with more of the mustard mixture I had made.

Everything was ready at the same time, for which I was very grateful, as my grandparents like to eat dinner at six o’clock on the dot each night. If one dish had been a laggard I would have had some grouchy grandparents to reckon with. I placed the cooked dishes on the table along with the salad dotted with fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes, and after grandpa said the blessing, we dug into the meal.

He’d been in the cottage all day writing and editing photos, so he didn’t know what I had been up to in the kitchen. “Tell Grandpa what makes this meal so special,” said Grandma. So I did. As I was going through the list of ingredients that came from their land, they both nodded and smiled.

My grandfather said how much he liked the pecan-crusted fish, and I told him how thrilled I was to have found the bag of nuts from their farm, otherwise I would have just sautéed the fish with garlic and butter.

A strange look passed over my grandmother’s face. “But we didn’t get any pecans this year,” said Grandma. “Our harvest was only a handful.”

“But I found this bag in the freezer,” I said, “Where did they come from?”

She replied they might have come from their farm but more than likely my uncle Richard had brought them up from Dallas. “Are they at least Texas pecans?” I asked. She assured me that they were, and that they were even grown nearby. So if they weren’t my grandparents’ pecans, at least they were still local.

We finished dinner with slices of warm peach pie topped with vanilla ice cream from Braum’s (they had homemade ice cream in the freezer, but it had been in there for a while and it was rock solid—we were too eager for pie to wait for it to soften). I was tempted to eat the whole pie by myself, but as my uncle, my aunt and my cousin were coming to dinner the next night, I restrained myself.

As we were too full to do anything too strenuous for the rest of the evening, we just lolled around and they told me stories about growing up in the country—a fitting end to a hard day’s work on the farm. I was a little disappointed that the pecans weren’t theirs, but that’s the nature of farm life—sometimes you just don’t get a good harvest. But no matter, it was a fine meal and I was pleased that I had the opportunity to cook dinner for my grandparents.

Grandma’s Peach Pie
Ingredients:
For the crust:
2 cups of flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup milk

For the filling
1 quart (4 cups) of peeled and sliced peaches, uncooked (if using frozen, let thaw a bit)
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
5 tablespoons of butter, sliced
1 tablespoon of flour

Method:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix flour and salt.
Mix oil and milk.
Pour oil and milk into flour and salt and stir until combined into a dough. Can add more milk if dry.
Separate into two balls.
Roll out on ball out between two sheets of wax paper, and line a pie pan with crust.
Roll out other ball and set aside.
Add to crust-lined pie pan the peaches.
Sprinkle on top 1/4 cup of sugar, cinnamon and flour.
Add slices of butter.
Take other rolled-out crust, and lay it on top of the pie, crimping and sealing the edges.
Sprinkle 1/4 cup of sugar on top of pie, and poke holes in top crust with a fork.
Bake in oven for about an hour, or until crust is golden and pie is bubbling.

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36 comments:

nikkipolani said...

I've been craving fish all week - I think your recipe just pushed me over the edge!

Julie said...

What a beautiful set of pictures. I think the ones of your grandmother's hands are especially wonderful.

I love small farms and I enjoy reading accounts like these. It saddens me to think how much of that life is vanishing much like your road of interlaced trees, swallowed up by developments and suburbia. I'm glad you were able to capture some of it here.

Amber said...

I can almost picture myself there at the table with you. There is something about real home cooking that is just unbeatable. I can remember going to my great-grandmother's house and watching her make a pound cake. Others in the family tried to make it but it never tasted the same as when she cooked it. I bet she did like your grandmother and didn't use exact measurements, she just made it with love!!!

Lydia said...

Sounds like a perfect day with your grandparents. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Christina said...

Thank you. Soothing, warm, and exactly what I needed to read.

JEP said...

Thank you for sharing your family with us! A gentle reminder of what life really is all about.

Ronnie said...

Familiarity, tradition and family give us comfort and true happiness. Glad you got a good dose of all three and thanks for sharing it.

The County Clerk said...

Beautiful. The food. The associations. The family elements (everywhere). Just beautiful.

Homesick.

Yes.

Thank you.

Weston said...

Oh, those pantries of which you speak. As a young boy I was given the honor of picking out which jars of the canned green beans would be served for Thanksgiving dinner. In honor of that memory, tomorrow I'll be in the kitchen making the peach pie from your recipe.

Melissa said...

Like Julie, the first thing that hit me was a pang of sadness for the vanishing way of life your grandparents lead. Not many of our generation even know how to grow and preserve food, and very few can look out their window and see farmland instead of subdivisions. You're very lucky for having the chance to experience it!

Cynthia said...

You make me want to go live with your grandparents :)

Texana said...

Once agian, I was swept back to my childhood reading your account of your visit to your grandparents' farm. At the time, I really didn't appreciate the significance of growing what you eat.

As I struggle to raise a couple tomato plants and jalapeno plant on my patio,I remember the abundance of fruits and vegetables my grandma and my mom put up for good eats the whole year long. Some of my fondest memories are of their hands working with food.

Thanks for sharing.

Garrett said...

Now that is a beautiful pie! While my grandparents never baked one, you brought back some fond memories!

Homesick Texan said...

Nikkipolani--It's a cinch to make, enjoy!

Julie--Thank you. Those are my favorite as well, though she complains that she's got "old lady" hands. But in my opinion, that's what makes them so beautiful. And yes, the over development of land can get depressing sometimes. Ah...progress!

Amber--Yes, I find that true with most beloved family dishes, they never taste quite the same as the one who made them--and yep, that extra ingredient is love!

Lydia--You're welcome--it was fun!

Christina--Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

JEP--Yes, I always feel more centered after a trip to the farm.

Ronnie--They do indeed. I just wish my family lived closer.

The County Clerk--Thank you. I hope you can get back real soon.

Weston--I know! I wish I could have pantries like that here in NYC. And what an excellent memory! Did you have a method for choosing the cans? Enjoy the pie!

Melissa--I was embarrassed about my farm roots as a child but now I feel very fortunate to have had the pleasure of learning their wisdom about food and the land.

Cynthia--I'm sure they'd be glad to have you!

Texana--Yes, I'm the same way, so I'm now making up for lost time--my family's knowledge is too valuable and precious!

Garrett--It's hard not to feel warm and fuzzy when thinking about pie!

Caroline said...

This photos and sentiments are so beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing!

Bill Fuller said...

Very nice piece. The rational mixture of local seasonal foods and purchased commodity goods is a credible example for a sustainable kitchen. JUst like in the old days and just like we are all trying to achieve now.

Thanks for the nice blog.

Frank said...

If mine were still alive, I'd swear we have the same grandparents! Great entry!
Frank

Tommy said...

Absolutely nothing compares to a grandparents pastry making skills.They grew up in a time when small things like a perfect crust mattered. Thanks for bringing back memories of my grandmothers baking.
I doubt if I could ever replicate her butter tarts, but it certainly gives you something to shoot for.

As for that fish your Grandpa caught, many try to make it sound more appetizing by pronouncing it CRAW PEE.Works for me.

radish said...

Wow, what a great story... I would be homesick too. it all sounds so wonderful and delicious - I am going to give your grandmother's pie crust a go. I think i'm going to make apple pie for Rosh Hashana so this sounds delightful. Thanks for sharing this with us - and as always, you take the most gorgeous photos.

StormySleep said...

off topic (but man I need that peach pie!) -- next you need to do banana pudding. please....

Vanessa said...

What a wonderful post. I remember canning tomatoes with my grandma when I was young. You've made me want to try again. She no longer lives on her "farm" but I'm sure I could improvise with veggies from the farmer's market.

Linda said...

woah what a process. beautiful photographs. i too adore this post. that pie looks amazing. i just can't get enough peaches!

i'm so relieved you've posted this. i had a peach pie recipe i swore by. kept it on a small paper hidden somewhere -- never could find the thing but generally came across it eventually. one day, it was gone for good. do you know i haven't made peach pie since? well this will put a stop to that. thanks again!

Homesick Texan said...

Caroline--You're very welcome and thank you so much for your lovely comment! It's hard not to find beauty in the simplicity of nature.

Bill--It is what we are trying to achieve now...I've become such the farmer's market fan in the past few months--I love seeing the faces behind my food. And you're very welcome, thank you for reading!

Frank--Heh! I receive a few e-mails from readers saying the same thing--I reckon there's a certain consistent way of living amongst the old, Texas farming generations.

Tommy--Yes! I should have included the pronounciation because that's how my grandparents say the name of the fish as well. It took me a long time to find out it was spelled without the "w." And while it's hard to replicate a grandma's tarts (or pies) at least we can do is make them our own.

Radish--It's my favorite crust, though whenever I make hers it never tastes quite right. I even have a video of her making it and have followed it precisely but it's that little something extra that makes it hers. And yes, it's the time for apples and honey--a lovely combination!

StormySleep--It's been on my mind for a while, and I'm just trying to perfect my homemade vanilla wafers. I promise I'll have something for you soon!

Vanessa--Isn't canning with a grandmother a blast? And you should definitely try it again--besides your fond memories, weren't you also inspired by Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? (I know I was!) Go to the farmers' market and buy pounds of tomatoes before they're gone!

Susan said...

Oh, I just love this heartwarming story about cooking and spending time with your grandparents. You know, I have never associated apple picking with Texas. Do they grow many varieties there? It's still too early to pick most varieties here in Southern California.

Sandi @the WhistleStop Cafe said...

That looks yummy!
But the most beautiful picture was that of you Grandma's hands. They look like loving hands that have peeled a lot of apples, given lots of hugs and even a few pats on the bottom.
Thank you for sharing!

eliza said...

one great trip Lisa! how wonderful it's to be with families, eating wonderful food together :D

n. said...

Just a quick note on canning safety and foods.... Tomatoes (sauce) is pretty safe to can actually. The acidity of the tomatoes is great for preservation :) Anything high in sugar (apples in syrup, pickles), acidity (tomato sauce, pickles) or salt (pickles) is usually pretty safe to can.

Dinner sounds great with your grandparents :) My BF's mother is german, and oh! Her pie crust is to DIE for. She gave me her (120 year old!) recipe, but I can't do it. Not yet.

Maybe in 50 years?

N.

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog recently and I have to say 2 things:
1. You are a wonderful writer.
2. You have combined my 3 favorite things in the world: photography, food, and family.

christine (myplateoryours) said...

What a priceless day, Lisa. And good, slow food to boot. Lucky you. Glad you captured it to share.

Homesick Texan said...

Susan--Oh yes, many varieties of apples are grown all over the state. It's interesting that there aren't apples in Southern California yet since it's about as warm there as it is in Texas. I'm sure they'll arrive soon, though! Nothing beats a fresh, crisp apple right off the tree!

Sandi--They are indeed loving hands!

Eliza--I know--I just wish my family lived closer!

N.--Good to know about the tomatoes--I've always been a bit scared to can them. And you shouldn't wait 50 years to try that 120-year-old recipe--I reckon it's wonderful!

Anon--Thank you for stopping by and your kind words!

Christine--Yes, it was a great day--I wish I had the luxury of doing things like that all the time.

aj kinik said...

love that shot of your grandmother canning--brings back memories of my grandmother's canning, her well-stocked pantry, her peaches, etc.--thanks

Heidi said...

This is just the recipe I've been looking for! It's simple and to the point, but delicious. My Mommom was recently put in a nursing home and she wants some peach pie. We've always made peach cobbler in or family, but now she wants pie! Let's get this lady some pie:) Thanks so much.

Vicki said...

Is the Sugar amount 1/2 cup?
Thanks! Looks yummy.

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Vicki--Yes! Thanks for noticing!

Anonymous said...

No problem, I can't wait until peaches are in season to try this. Your recipes have been a lifesaver for me. I'm a Texan transplanted to AUSTRALIA- not exactly known for it's Mexican food!

Anonymous said...

Great reading you are so lucky to have those cherished moments with your grandparents.I remember standing by my grandmother's old fashioned stove and watch her cook delicious meals without recipes and measurements. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Marla

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