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.
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
1 tablespoon of flour
5 tablespoons of butter, sliced
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
To make the crust, mix flour and salt. Then mix the oil and milk. Pour oil and milk into flour and stir until combined into a dough. Can add more milk if dry.
Separate into two balls.
Roll out one ball between 2 sheets of wax paper, and line a pie pan with crust. Roll out the other ball and set aside.
Add to the crust-lined pie pan the peaches. Whisk together 1/4 cup sugar, the cinnamon, and flour, then evenly sprinkle over the peaches. Top the peaches with the slices of butter.
Take the other rolled-out crust, and lay it on top of the pie, crimping and sealing the edges. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup sugar on top of the 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.
Yield: 8 servings