A Gray Gardening Day in May plus the Parris House’s Honey Lemon (or Lime) Mint Tea Recipe

Today I put in most of the plantings for the Parris House vegetable and herb garden.  As some of you who follow me on social media may recall, around the time I was planning to start my seedlings, our local water utility burst an underground water main directly in front of our home, sending thousands of gallons of water in to the basement.  Unfortunately, this is the area where I usually have seedlings set up with grow lights.  The basement was a complete wreck and the cleanup and recovery have taken a couple of months, so…this year…no seedlings.

Fortunately, Smedberg’s Crystal Spring Farm in Oxford, Maine always has a huge variety of vegetable and herb seedlings, so this year, that was my solution.  I am usually picky with my seeds, selecting a lot of heirloom varieties, but this year growing my own plants was off the table and, having used Smedberg’s plants at times in the past, I know I will not be disappointed with my harvest.

I got the following in to the garden this morning, even though the weather on this Memorial Day is gray, cold, and frankly miserable:  tomatoes (three varieties), bell peppers, banana peppers, swiss chard, kale, eggplant, slicing cucumbers, pickling cucumbers, lavender, basil, thyme, rosemary, and oregano.  I have a good sized spearmint plant potted and over near the kitchen door, because let’s face it, that’s an invasive and if I put that in my raised beds it will party on until it’s filled them up.  Also, our rhubarb has come up once again and it’s really time (maybe past time) to cut some of that and make something delicious with it.  There’s still work to do, even though it’s getting so late in the season.  I still plan to add some dye/flowering plants to the herb bed and also to the container area near the house.  My husband put up the electric fence for me again this year and our stalwart plastic owl is standing guard as he has for many years (successfully) now.   In looking over my plant selections I’m pretty sure my Italian DNA is showing.

Here are a few pics of the fledgling vegetable garden.  I assure you that in a month or so, this is going to be lush and just starting to put off some food, that is IF it’s ever warm and sunny for more than a day or two at a time this spring.  I’m starting to wonder.

I really couldn’t resist taking some of the spearmint, even though the plant is relatively young and small.  I love mint in my iced tea and I make my iced tea a particular way.   The recipe is right here for you, if you’d like to give it a try.  Let me put forth the following caveats.  I do not like my iced tea very sweet (sorrynotsorry to those of you in the South; I know this is considered an abomination down there).  In fact, the only reason this recipe has honey in it is because a) I like the flavor of honey and b) I have bees and am about to extract my first load of honey (it will be called Tovookan’s honey and will be for sale – watch for it) in the next few weeks.  It wouldn’t be ok for me to not use it in my tea, after all.  Since I don’t have my own yet, the honey shown in the pic is from Beekman 1802, and it’s delicious.  What I do not like is for sweetness to obliterate the flavor of a really good tea.  Second caveat is that I like my tea like I like my coffee – so strong you could stand a spoon in it.  Please adjust for your own taste.   Third caveat (hello, Canadian friends!) – I am using King Cole tea which my son James dutifully picks up every time he goes to visit his girlfriend in Nova Scotia.  This is a very popular Canadian tea that has ruined me for most other everyday teas, but if you can not procure this, just use your favorite.  Each King Cole tea bag is made to brew 2 cups, so you just have to double how many you use in your recipe.

1 half gallon Ball canning jar or a half gallon container of your choice  (but let’s face it, the canning jars are really cute)

3 King Cole Orange Pekoe tea bags OR 6 tea bags of your favorite tea

2-3 tablespoons honey or to taste (go ahead Southern friends, pour that jar upside down and count to 100)

1 lemon, cut in to quarters (lime is also tasty)

1 sprig of fresh mint, cut in to slices and put in to a tea ball

About 4 trays of ice (the Parris House icemaker broke about ten years ago, the repair guy said $600 to fix it – we use trays)

Fill your kettle with hot water and start it on the stove (or plug it in).  Meanwhile, put the honey in the bottom of the jar, and cut up your lemon and mint.  I don’t worry about the lemon seeds, but if they’ll bother you, remove them.  I put my mint pieces in to a tea ball so that I don’t have to fish them out of the tea later.  This may compromise the diffusion a little bit and you can certainly just put them in whole.  However, do NOT put them in the jar yet.

Once your water is boiling, fill the Ball jar to about a third with it and then stir the honey from the bottom until dissolved.  Add your tea bags, fill to about half with the hot water, and steep with the lid on for as long as you like.  As I said, I like my tea super strong, so I let it get plenty dark, about 10 or 15 minutes (ok, sometimes longer – yes, I know it can get bitter – yes, I kinda like that).  When steeped to your liking, remove the tea bags and add the ice.  Notice that I have not yet added the lemon and mint.  This is because I do not like the lemon to take on that “cooked” flavor that can happen when you’ve put the lemons in while the water is still too hot.  I also think it alters the freshness of the mint.  So I wait until most of the ice has melted and cooled and diluted the tea.

Once the water is not hot enough to alter the freshness of the lemon and mint (about room temperature), add those to the jar.  Let these flavor the tea for at least an hour or two.  I recommend getting them both out of the jar the same day, though, because I think the lemon starts to take on an odd flavor if left in the jar too long.   I store the tea in the fridge so that the flavors stay fresh and so that when I use it it’s very cold.

Unfortunately, today is not an iced tea day.  Today is a hot tea, hot coffee, or possibly even hot chocolate day here in Maine, replete with wood stove burning to knock the chill off.  But…I have to think iced tea days are coming, so try making it this way and let me know what you think.

Happy Memorial Day and happy hooking.

P.S.  I have not failed to observe Memorial Day; in fact, I am always deeply reverent of its origins and meaning.  If you follow me on Facebook you will have already seen a Memorial Day post I wrote for the Paris Hill Historical Society today.  Take a look by clicking HERE.  Thank you!

Depression Era Poor Man’s Cake, Courtesy My Grandmother (and a Coupon Code For You)

My grandmother, Mary Barnard, with my niece, Rose, my son, Robert, and my husband, Bill, circa 1991, at her Little Sebago Lake cottage in Gray, Maine.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother lately.  I often think of her in challenging times for so many reasons.  At the moment I am realizing that I can no longer realistically run Parris House Wool Works as alone as I have been, because I am running myself ragged (no, threadbare) keeping up with all of the wonderful opportunities I’ve been given.  I have one fantastic helper, a virtual assistant, already started, and two other people waiting for me to get my act and timing together in a smart enough way to hand them some work.  So really, not catastrophic, but the overwhelm is a bit much right now.  Additionally, and more actually truly sad, the canine love of my life, Corgi Tru, was diagnosed with cancer last week and is not expected to live the summer.  She is twelve and she’s had a fantastic life, but I wasn’t ready to face letting her go so soon.

I think about my grandmother in stressful times because I loved her so much and she was such an enormous influence on who I am today.  The very best times of my childhood were spent at her summer cottage on Little Sebago Lake in Gray, Maine.  I was a stressed out child, mostly due to circumstances at home but also because, well, I seem to have been born Type A (I’m working on it). The summer cottage time in Maine with my grandmother was the antidote to that stress.  There were no crazy expectations at the cottage.  I was always good enough.  In fact, I was great, or so my grandmother told me.  We played cards, swam in the lake, climbed hills to find wild blueberries, hiked to an abandoned cellar hole and cemetery, and ate.  We ate ice cream every night at 8 o’clock on the dot.  My grandmother didn’t scoop it out like most people do.  Nope.  She took the paper wrapping off the half gallon – a true half gallon back in the ’70s – and then cut the ice cream in to perfectly even bricks.  I will never know whether she did this just to have nice equal servings or because she had been a Depression era mom and this was the most efficient way to divvy up a box of ice cream.

As I said, my grandmother had been a Depression era mother to three children, my Uncle Courtland, my Aunt Dorothy, and my mother, Elizabeth, all born between 1920 and 1928.  She knew what difficulty really meant.  She lost both of her parents before she was forty herself, and she survived the indescribable worry that must have come with having a son and son-in-law serving in combat during World War II.   As a child I never gave any of these things a thought.  I just knew that this was the sunny grandmother who made my life a dream in the summers and had introduced me to Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll, Grape Nut ice cream, daily diary keeping, Canasta, and, perhaps most pivotally, Maine.

I would often awake in the summer time to the delicious aromas of whatever my grandmother was already baking in the kitchen.  Sometimes it was homemade fried donuts, or cookies, or the recipe I’m going to share with you now, Poor Man’s Cake.  Poor Man’s Cake was a Great Depression recipe and I’d bet there are variations of it, if not this same recipe, in your family too.  It may even be older because my copy of the recipe from my grandmother says, “Poor Man’s Cake, World War,” which may indicate World War I.  Her brother, my great uncle Winfield Martin, had fought in France during the Great War and nearly died.  Thankfully, he recovered in a hospital in France, came home and lived a long and good life.  You will notice that this recipe has no milk, no butter, no eggs.  But don’t be put off.  Either this cake is the most delicious and addictive old recipe ever, or…it just is to me because so many memories are attached to it.

Here it is for you to try.

1 pound raisins in 2 cups water, boiled 15 minutes

Add to the raisins…

3/4 cup shortening and mix together

2 cups sugar

1 cup cold water

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tbsp baking soda

1 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp allspice

1 tsp salt

4 cups flour

1 cup chopped nuts

1/2 jar candied fruit (I don’t know what 1/2 jar measures out to, but feel free to wing it)

Mix all ingredients together.  Bake at 275 degrees for one hour in 3 greased and floured loaf pans.

I know that sounds like a very low oven temperature, but that’s what my grandmother did.  What you end up with is a very soft, very dark raisin/fruitcake, very unlike those doorstop fruitcakes often found in the supermarket during the holidays.  Sometimes she left out the candied fruit and it was more of a raisin spice cake/bread.

This week (May 22nd to May 29th) I’ll offer coupon code POORMANSCAKE in the Etsy and Shopify shops for 10% off your order of $25 or more, and let me know if you try the recipe!

Happy hooking – Beth

 

Marshmallow Fluff and Never Fail Fudge (Durkee-Mower Company) – A New England and Parris House Tradition

I’m pretty sure many of you will recognize this plastic tub, especially if you live in New England.

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Disclaimer here:  I realize that this is not a health food.  I’m one of those earthy crunchy organic gardening, home canning, whole foods, clean eating, hiker/runner types.  Even with THIS on the tub, I realize that this is not a health food:

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However…like Grandma’s Christmas cookies, birthday cake on birthdays, and my husband’s home made French vanilla ice cream, there is a time and a place for everything.  At the Parris House, there’s a time and a place for this classic New England recipe:

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At the Parris House, the times for this are Christmas and Valentine’s Day.  Now, I don’t make this recipe.  I do all the cutesy decorating, bake some kind of dessert, and buy conversation hearts and gifts.   This year dessert was cherry pie.  I got the idea for punching heart shaped holes in the crust from 1840 Farm, but, of course, my version looks more like a “nailed it” meme than a faithful replication of the beautiful job Jennifer Burcke did with her pie.

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No, it is my husband Bill who always makes the Never Fail Fudge.  And before we go any further, I’d like to say that the trademark Marshmallow Fluff and the recipe Never Fail Fudge are the intellectual property of the Durkee-Mower company in Lynn, Massachusetts.  I have full permission to blog this recipe.  Do you know why?  Because I actually spoke to the super nice owner of this company on the phone this morning, and had the privilege of thanking him personally for this confection, which, I might mention, while not a health food is also not chock full of bizarre chemicals that no earthly mortal can recognize.  The sole ingredients are corn syrup, sugar, dried egg white, and vanillin.  Period.  Straightforward and no nonsense, the New England way.  And while the Fluffernutter sandwich is not really for me, it too is something most kids in this part of the country have packed in their lunchboxes more than a few times, a simple straightforward treat that they could make themselves.

It turns out, actually, that this straightforward New England confection has been manufactured since 1920 and the company is still in the same family.  The history is actually very interesting and can be found here, on the company website.  You can also “like” Marshmallow Fluff on Facebook, which is kind of fun.  There are also many recipes on the website, so surf around.

Never Fail Fudge is a rich, deeply chocolate, soft fudge that is truly never fail.  We have not ever had a batch go wrong.  If you do have a batch go wrong, the company website has an FAQ for that, but really…just follow the directions on the bucket.  Here we go.

Bill super greases a 9×13 ceramic cake pan with lots of butter.  The directions on the tub suggest 2 – 9x9s, which would be fine also, of course.  He gets all his ingredients together prior to starting the recipe so that he is free to stir the fudge and pay attention to the temperature of the mixture.

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The ingredients are:  5 cups sugar, 2 small 5 oz. cans of evaporated milk, 1/4 pound butter or margarine (we always use real butter), 1 – 16 oz. tub Marshmallow Fluff, and 1 teaspoon salt.  These are the initial ingredients.  Toward the end you add 1.5 teaspoons vanilla, 1 cup walnut meats (if desired – Bill doesn’t like nuts so we never get this part), and 2 large 12 oz. bags of semi sweet chocolate chips.  This recipe in full is on the Marshmallow Fluff tub and the website.

Bill combines the first 5 ingredients in a large stock pot.  The recipe suggests a 5 quart saucepan.  All of these ingredients are stirred until well blended over low heat.

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Once combined you will bring the ingredients to a boil, and we recommend stirring continually so it does not stick to the bottom of the pan and/or burn.  Boil the mixture slowly, continuing stirring, until it reaches the soft ball candy stage.  The recipe says this will be about 5 minutes, and interestingly, we use a candy thermometer but, in my conversation this morning, the company owner said he does not.  My husband is an accountant, and also our primary cold process soap blender in Maine, so you can imagine that he likes the precision of the thermometer.  If I made this fudge I might just use the more subjective approach.  Either way, remember, it’s never fail fudge.

You will notice, as this is combined, stirred and boiled, it gets a little darker over time.  It’s almost as though it’s caramelizing a little bit, but I don’t know for sure.

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Once you have achieved soft ball status with this mixture, it’s time to remove it from the heat and add the vanilla, the nuts, and the chocolate chips.  Stir until everything is blended and melted together.

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Now it’s just a matter of pouring it in to your waiting buttered pan or pans.

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It will be very hot at this point, so be careful.  Allow to cool completely and then you can cut it in to chunks of your preferred size.  It yields about 5 pounds of fudge, so this is a great recipe – and very economical – for gift giving as well.  We give a lot of it away, and it always seems to be welcomed with enthusiasm.

As you can see in this next photo, Bill cuts the chunks pretty large.  He made that ceramic bowl they’re sitting in too, but that’s another blog post.

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I know from posting about Never Fail Fudge on our Facebook page that many of you are familiar with it, make it, adapt the recipe for different flavors, etc.  Hopefully some of our readers are new to it and will try this amazingly simple and delicious fudge recipe.  Many thanks to the Durkee-Mower company for permission to share, and for answering my phone call so promptly in snow bound Lynn, Massachusetts.

Happy hooking, happy candy making, and happy eating! – Beth

An Approximate Recipe for New England Clam Chowder, or Maybe Just Parris House Clam Chowder?

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As most of you know, we had a blizzard here last Tuesday.  Jen was visiting from Tennessee (and took all the pics for this blog post) and we decided that clam chowder was the best defense against the elements.  By the way, this is what a Southerner looks like braving a blizzard…not bad, actually…

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I will be the first to admit that I was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in New Jersey, and went to college in Delaware, so maybe I should be making Manhattan Clam Chowder.  We all know that would be wrong, though.  I also fully expect some New England native to look at what follows and find at least half a dozen things I’m doing “wrong.”  I’m fine with that.  I’m also fine with the fact that everyone loves my clam chowder, including natives.  😉

People ask me a LOT for my clam chowder recipe.  And I never have one.  I’m not being coy or secretive.  I literally don’t have one.  I don’t measure, I don’t think the chowder is ever quite the same twice, and like all soups, it’s always even better the second day. I’m going to attempt to show you how I make my chowder, but please accept the fact that it’s ok to make soup without a precision recipe – in fact, sometimes it’s better to – and have fun making your own approximate chowder recipes.

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First thing I do is put a little olive oil in to the bottom of a very heavy stock pot.  This one belonged to my husband’s grandmother.  You can also use butter (yay, butter!), or any oil of your choice, but I like the flavor of either olive oil or butter.  I then cut up some bacon (or salt pork), and start cooking it in the oil in the pan.  This adds a little bacon or salt pork fat to the soup as well for flavoring.

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Next I chop up a good sized onion and put that in with the saute-ing bacon.  You can also add carrots and celery, but I did not have those in the house on this occasion.  I even put kale in to the finished soup, but a dear Maine native friend of mine (who loves kale in other contexts) says that is positively taboo.

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Next I dice about half a dozen potatoes and add them to the pot.  I then add chicken or vegetable stock in enough quantity to cover the potatoes, depending on what I have in the house.  This is a great reason to make stocks out of your vegetable bits or poultry carcasses or ham bones or what have you and then freeze them so that you can use them on the fly in soups.  I did not have any left in the freezer, so I had to use store bought.   Let everything simmer in the stock until the potatoes are just fork tender.

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When the potatoes are fork tender, it’s time to add enough milk or half & half or cream (this is entirely up to you and your cholesterol levels) to make the soup creamy, but not so much that it makes the soup too thin in terms of vegetable to broth ratio.  If you go with milk, which is inherently less creamy, you can use a little corn starch to thicken the chowder. Add a bottle of clam juice, and the clams.  I used both fresh frozen chopped clams and a can of whole clams.  Do not boil the soup vigorously or cook it too long after this step because you do not want your nice tender clams to toughen.

You can season this soup in any way that makes you happy, although I would avoid really strong flavors that will overpower the delicate taste of the clams.  I just use sea salt (when needed) and freshly ground black pepper (not too much).  And, as I mentioned, I like garnishing with cooked kale, although this is anathema in some circles and perhaps a safer bet is garnishing with oyster crackers (especially if you have a native Mainer at the table).

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So, this is what it looked like by the time we sat down to eat.  (Please excuse the chipped bowl.  These were my grandmother’s dishes from her camp on Little Sebago Lake – see our blog post about Maine lake culture – and I can’t part with them even when they chip.)  We served the chowder with mussels marinara (perhaps another blog post?), Teriyaki steak strips left over from the night before, a green salad, and my son’s home brewed cinnamon vanilla porter (definitely will be another blog post on that).

This is old fashioned home cooking.  I am not a chef.  I have no formal training.  One of the things I love about making soups is that it is analogous to rug hooking in some ways.  Hooking is forgiving in ways that knitting, cross stitch, quilting, and other precision crafts are not.  There is so much freedom in hooking, so much room for experimentation and expression.  So it is with soups.  So just see what you’ve got sitting about in your fridge and have fun with soup making.

Happy cooking and happy hooking!  – Beth