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The garden, although still early in the season, is full of eating opportunities.  Sunday was another busy day for me, between all the household chores that needed to done as well as a little bit of work at the bakery, so it was nice to come home and prepare dinner with Jill… and we looked to the garden for inspiration.

Asparagus poking up through the soil

Since it’s asparagus season and I had a big bag full of the slender green vegetables from Walker’s Farm, I knew that asparagus would certainly be on the menu.  I wasn’t sure of which direction to take it though, and was torn between either making asparagus risotto or making a breakfast dinner with asparagus and eggs.  I asked Jill what she preferred, and I was pleased that she went in the breakfast dinner direction.

I had some nice local eggs that one of our guests at the bakery had brought us, as well as some challah bread from the bakery.  The challah, since it is enriched with local egg yolks and vegetable oil and is a beatuful shade of saffron, makes, hands down, the best French toast in the world.  That would be a great way to use the extra loaf that I had brought home.  The brown and green eggs that were a gift would make a wonderful scramble.  But what to put in the eggs?

I ventured outside to the modest little plot of land that I call my vegetable garden to see what Mother Nature had in mind for the brown eggs.  Most of the time, she is the best judge of what to eat, and she does a superb time dictating my dietary habits throughout the seasons.  I grabbed a basket and headed outside.

In the garden, I discovered plenty to eat, even though there was still a little chill in the late April air.  The Swiss chard called me over first, its majestic green and yellow leaves standing straight up from the ground, the sunlight glistening through the tender green leaves and exposing the circulatory system that ran throughout the them.  With scissors in hand, I snipped a few handfuls of the plant.

Behind the chard stood onions left over from last year.  The dark green tops faded into a white/purple blend towards the ground, which hid slender fragrant red onions, still very small and shaped more like a scallion that the globes that they’ll become later in the year.

Rhubarb

I gently tugged on several stalks, and the Earth easily released them to me, dirt still stubbornly clinging to the roots.

Of course, I knew that asparagus would be going into the eggs and I do have a few plants that give up some stalks for me every year.

I cut the spears, about a half dozen, that were ready to harvest and placed them in my basket with the onions and chard.  Several parsley plants were at the base of the asparagus row, so I cut a small handful of the tight bunches of herbs.  Fresh parsley is one of my favorite herbs to grow and it tastes infinitely better the dried stuff one can buy at the store.  Fresh parsley adds loads of flavors and gives the dishes it is put into a ‘fresh’ and ‘green’ characteristic, one that I knew would be perfect for my eggs.

Towards the back of the garden, I saw the rhubarb plant that I planted a few years ago.  It is always one of the first plants to grow in the spring, and its enormous leaves beckoned me over.  I did have a quart of fresh strawberries that I got from my organic berry farmer outside of Bridgeton (she gets a jump on the season every year by growing a few rows under tunnels), and I thought that a quick rhubarb/strawberry compote would be the perfect spring topping for the French toast I would soon be making.  My mouth watered at the mere idea!

Back inside, all the veggies and herbs were rinsed and cleaned under cold water.  Jill got to work preparing the French toast, cracking those beautiful eggs into a bowl and adding organic milk and raw sugar until the right custard proportion was achieved.  The challah was sliced, soaked and pan-fried in one of our trusty cast-iron pans.

I started frying some bacon in the cast iron, and soon the kitchen filled with the salty smell of crispy bacon.  On the back of the stove, the halved strawberries went into a pot with the chopped rhubarb, a dab of butter and a spoonful of molasses.  I brought that mixture to a boil, and within a few minutes it became a luscious, complex but oh-so-simple topping for the French toast.

With a little bacon fat in the bottom of another cast-iron pan, I sautéed the onion, and while that cooked through, I chopped up the chard, parsley, and asparagus spears.  They went into the pan and cooked for another minute or two.  Jill had cracked a few eggs into a bowl, added a splash of milk and some salt and pepper, and I poured that over the veggies with a sizzle.  After some loving stirring, the eggs were soft and gorgeous, with yellows and whites, broken up by various sizes and shapes of green permeating the pan.  The eggs went into a bowl, and some goat cheese that I had bought last week joined them on the table.  What a wonderful combination that turned out to be… the tart creamy cheese, combined with the veggies and eggs proved to be a winning combination.

The table was set, juice was poured, and we ate.  I ate my fair share of French toast, the sweet/tart compote making it that much more delectable.  The salty bacon and creamy, fresh eggs filled my belly, as well as my soul.  There’s nothing like the taste of spring in southern New Jersey.  It’s the taste of here and now, the taste of fresh local foods to come… the taste of finally being through the winter that I’ll never forget.

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Sometimes my mother-in-law gets the urge to cook special dinners for the family, and those are happy times for me.  Although she is a great cook, she doesn’t cook for the four of us very often and so when the urge strikes her it is a wonderful occasion.  Apparently, she was talking with a friend of hers recently who was raving over the stuffed pork chops from Joes Butcher Shop on Landis Avenue, so Jill, grandmom and I were invited over to dinner last Tuesday night.

Naturally we were running a few minutes late but the three of us arrived at my mother-in-laws house just as dinner was being finished.  The house smelled wonderful, full of competing, delicious aromas.  The roasting pork chops hit my nose first, then the subtle smell of browning potatoes.  The grassy scent of fresh asparagus followed immediately afterwards, while the sweet smell of cooked apples wafted through the air on the coattails of the savory aromas.

Grandmom slowly settled into her seat at the four-person dinner table set just off of the kitchen in a little nook with windows surrounding it, while my mother-in-law scurried around the kitchen, pulling pans from the oven, peeking under lids, and putting the finishing touches on her mini-masterpiece.  I asked what I could do to help, and it was decided that I would open the wine.

From the fridge, I pulled a bottle of Terra Fossil Pinot Grigio that had been placed in there earlier to chill a bit.  I pulled the cork and brought the cool bottle over to the fridge.  With a few glugs wine was soon in each glass (although just a splash for grandmom).  The food then started to come over to the table from the kitchen; first a bowl of little red skin potatoes, flecked with black peppercorns, shiny salt crystals and fresh rosemary from the garden.  When no one was looking, I grabbed a potato and popped it into my mouth.  It was perfectly cooked, crispy and flavorful on the outside, creamy and buttery on the inside.  The rosemary added a lovely quality to the potato, while the caramelized edges provided a nice rich background.  Turns outgrandmom saw me, but she didn’t tell anyone!

The pork chops found their way onto the table and they looked ridiculously good.  There were two on the plate, plenty for the four of us, because not only were they huge, they were stuffed to the max.  The chops were a golden brown color and glistened in the light of the kitchen.

Asparagus spears appeared on a plate, skinny and a beautiful shade of green, topped with super-fine shavings of Parmesan cheese and black pepper.  Next to the asparagus was a bowl of stewed golden apples, not quite applesauce because chunks of fruit were still clearly visible, but cooked enough to make them soft and luscious.

We all sat down at the table, including my mother-in-law who was finally finished with her preparations.  The glasses were raised and a toast was called, a toast to family and the sharing of meals, and of time spent together in the kitchen and the table.  Crystal was clinked and wine was sipped.

Of course, the pork chops were torn into first.  I tackled the two Flintstonian sized pieces of meat with a sharp knife and large silver spoon to steady them with.  I cut along the bone to get as much of the meat off that I could, and the knife cut cleanly through the flesh.  After de-boning, each chop was cut into half (although as per grandmoms instructions, I cut her half a little smaller and mine a little larger!).  Inside each chop was a delicious looking stuffing that tasted even better than it looked!  The meat was tender and perfectly cooked (good job mom!), and the stuffing was soft and flavorful.  I’m not sure exactly what it consisted of, but it was bread based and it totally knocked my socks off.

The asparagus, freshly picked from Walker’s farm, was cooked al dente and had an explosively fresh flavor.  This is one of the first vegetables of spring, and it always tastes wonderfully of sunshine and chlorophyll to me.  Of course, the potatoes were awesome, and the apples provided a nice foil to the salty taste sensations present at the rest of the meal and added a different texture to the meal as a whole.

The pinot grigio, a white wine also called pinot gris, ended up being a perfect wine for this dinner.  The tart, crisp wine cut through the richness of the stuffed pork, and mellowed the buttery potatoes somewhat.  It proved to be perfectly drinkable with the meal, and drink it we did.

After the plates were cleared and the wine was drunk, we relaxed for a few minutes and talked a bit.  Coffee was offered, but not taken, and Jill brought out dessert.  It was a simple selection of sweest brought from the bakery, four cupcakes, one of each that we offer at the moment, each cut into quarters and laid out on a plate.  Each of us got one quarter of each cupcake, and it was debated as to which was the best.  My wife and mother-in-law loved the carrot with cream cheese icing, while I enjoyed the red velvet with the same icing.  Grandmom seemed partial to the devils food cake with chocolate ganache icing, but the vanilla with buttercream was enjoyed as well.

It as a lovely evening spent with my closest family; a meal and drink shared along with conversation and the comfort of being together.  Cheers.

Taco Day

I had the most luscious avocado today.  It was perfectly ripe and was the most vibrant shades of green.  I had picked it up at one of my favorite little stores on the Avenue, La Plaza.  La Plaza is a cute family-run Mexican grocery located at 520 E. Landis Avenue that is loaded with Mexican food finds.  I go there at least once a week to get an avocado or two because they almost always are beautifully ripe and delicious.  But there is more that just avocados at La Plaza, there are the fixings for some serious Mexican cooking.

In addition to the staples of any urban market, there is a decent selection of foods used to prepare comida Mexicana.  Past the front counter that has Latino CD’s, calling cards, sodas, and other knick-knacks, three rows split out of the main area.  To the right, there is a plethora of dried chilies… some in big opaque white plastic bins, some in clear plastic jars, some in bags.  Most are marked with the Spanish name of the chile, which makes since because I don’t think there is an equivalent word in English for ‘chipotle’ or ‘poblano;’ these are just the names of the chilies.  Most I didn’t recognize, but it was easy enough to take a peek and, more importantly, a big whiff.  The gentleman that owns the store has advised me in the past of how to use some of the chilies and has also been happy to inform me of the relative spiciness of each chile.

The chipotle, a smoke-dried jalapeño pepper, is my favorite and they are made in an interesting manner.  At the end of the peppers growing cycle, the ultra-ripe red jalapeños are selected to be made into chipotle.  They are placed onto metal racks and moved into a drying chamber where hot wood smoke is drafted over them.  Over the course of a couple days, the jalapeños are impregnated with the smoke and all of the moisture is removed, thus turning the jalapeño into chipotle.

At La Plaza, the aroma of the smoked peppers filled the air as I placed a handful of them into a plastic bag.  Along the same wall as the chilies, there was a tortilla press (my mother got one about a year ago from La Plaza and was instructed on how to use it… my family enjoys fresh tortillas to this day!).  At the end of the short aisle, there is an unassuming display case that holds fresh peppers, tomatillos (for making salsa verde), limes, and cabbages.  Next to that case is a small table that usually has someone cleaning cactus leaves for Cinco de Mayo, the restaurant next door which they also own.  In front of the case are stacks and stacks of fresh corn tortillas from a tortilla shop in Bridgeton, made from both regular corn and blue corn (which taste the same but look dramatically different.)  While I was there, I picked up a package of tortilla.

Also in the back, there is a fridge with sliding doors that houses the avocados as well as queso fresco (a fresh crumbly cheese), cilantro, plum tomatoes, chorizo sausage, and more goodies.  I grabbed an avocado and walked back to the front of the store, through the middle isle, and past the canned chipotle in adobo sauce, various beans, masa harina, and cornhusks.  After paying and bidding ‘adios’ I headed back to the bakery to make some tacos.

Now my tacos are more Mexican than American, since I use the soft corn tortillas and not the crunchy shells, but I do put my own spin on them.  The first task was to get the beans and rice cooking.  I chopped up an onion and a few cloves of garlic and threw them into a pan with hot oil.  One of the chipotles went in as well, which would provide a nice background of spice and smokiness.  It really does make a lovely addition to the rice and beans.  After the onion and garlic softened, I dropped and spoonful of tomato paste into the bottom of the pan and stirred it in along with a bit of cumin, paprika, and salt and pepper.  After a minute or so, a cup of brown rice, two cups of water and a can of black beans went into the pot.  While that simmered, I prepared the tortillas.  They needed to be cooked before eating, and the best way (I learned this from the Mexican line cooks in San Francisco) is to cook them right on the fire of the stovetop.  I turned the burners onto medium, and peeled back the first few tortillas, which are about six inches in diameter.  I placed them directly on the flames, and in a few seconds they began to puff and brown.  I quickly flipped them and toasted the other side.  They only took maybe 30 seconds each, and after toasting, they went into a bowl that I covered with a cloth.  They continued to steam and soften as I prepared the remaining sides.

Everyone can doctor their tacos up however they choose, which is the fun part about them.  On the family table, I laid out a spread of shredded pepper jack cheese, dressed shredded cabbage, organic yogurt (which is more nutritious then sour cream), hot sauce, and lettuce leaves.  The tortillas were unmasked and the rich aroma of toasted corn tortillas floated into the air.  The beans and rice were then uncovered, and savory, smoky, and spicy scents wafted into the air.

We’re lucky to have such a selection of Mexican foods so close at hand.  I always head to La Plaza when I need some Mexican groceries, and I certainly head there to pick up my avocados.  And even though their English isn’t great, the folks that own it always have a smile on their faces and always make me feel welcome, and that’s all the communication I need.

CCTEC Part 2

The busy kitchen

As time ticked away, all the culinary competitors started getting a little more focused.  I was impressed with how intense, yet relaxed everyone was.  Aside from a few oil splatters and grabbing of hot pans, no one injured themselves.  No fingers were cut, no one tripped over another, and tempers were not as heated as the kitchen itself.  In fact, I saw impressive displays of teamwork.  Nick politely (but firmly) asked Austin if he could borrow the salt off of his station (of course! was the reply).  Barbara noticed Ali was getting a little stressed and advised her to take a few deep breaths.  Breathe in, breath out.  Smile.  Relax for a second, regroup and you’ll get through it.

It was awesome advice.

Alex and Barbara had taken up residence on the other side of the kitchen, since the burners were full and the kitchen was crowded.  I wandered over to that side to see what was up, and both were calmly going back and forth debating on how to finish their respective dishes.  It was interesting to speak with the students as they worked, to talk with them as they figured out how to season this or that, and most importantly, how to deal with setbacks.

I noticed that Nick was working on his sauce.  Something seemed to be wrong, as he seemed to be adjusting his sauce with a dab of chicken stock, perhaps a pinch of salt.

Stephen and Nick chat

He wasn’t entirely happy with how it had come out, so he was tweaking it to make it just right.  Time was getting short, but he was determined to get it right.

Austin also seemed to be having some problems with his sauce.  Although it tasted great and looked silky smooth, it suddenly broke.  The fat separated out and the solids in the sauce clumped up and fell to the bottom.  Time was running out and everyone was working in overdrive.  The kitchen was abuzz with the clanking of pans as they crowded up on limited space.  The pressure was on.

Although Austin attempted to save his sauce, it was too late.  I advised him to toss it, not ideal in a competition, but I told him that it’s important to know when to cut your losses and move on.  He grabbed an empty shallow pan and threw a thick pat of butter in.  It sizzled at the edges and was quickly consumed in a flurry of bubbles.  A few spoonfuls of flour were stirred in, and a quick roux was made.  Several ladles of hot chicken stock were then poured in, and the sauce was brought up to a boil where it quickly thickened into a sauce-like consistency.  A splash of lemon juice, and a seasoning of salt and pepper completed this ultra-fast sauce.

At about this time, everyone was plating up.  Nick was done first, with an attractive looking plate of chicken with vinaigrette sauce (it came out great!) and golden brown potatoes.

Barbara cleaning her workstation

Barbara had also finished her dish.  The herbed rice stuffed chicken breasts were accompanied by green beans that were interspersed with vibrant red strips of bell pepper and crispy bacon.  Lenin finished up his tasty dish of ham and cheese stuffed chicken breasts served over perfectly cooked rice.  Alex’s wonderfully cooked chicken was served on top of ‘al dente’ asparagus and was attractively served with a nod to the fact that one eats first with their eyes.  And although Austin was a little late because of his sauce issue, we were impressed with the juicy stuffed chicken and crispy roasted potato wedges.

It was done.  The intense, but friendly competition was over and everyone seemed to have breathed a collective sigh of relief.  The bakers were also done, and they managed an impressive spread of shortbread cookies, muffins, and a decorated cake.  Everyone performed wonderfully, and I was impressed with the professionalism and attitude of every single person that competed.

Now it was time for us judges to tally up our scores.  We retreated to a back room and started crunching the numbers.  After observing and tasting all the dishes, we assigned numbers to each component of the competition and then added them up.  The results were surprisingly close and we handed them to Chef Jeff.

Alex finishing up his plate

Back out in the kitchen, a crowd had assembled to see the results.  The students looked on nervously, and were given an added level of tension by Chef Jeff who dragged out sharing the results out of patronly pleasure.  It was announced that the top three contestants would win some awesome knives from Just Knives 101 in Williamstown, who very generously donated the prizes. (I’m going to admit a pang of jealously here, because the knives were pretty sweet!)

Third place went to Austin, whose tender chicken and tenacity in finishing even when faced with a major problem right before time expired impressed us.  Second place went to Barbara, whose balanced, delicious dish and positive attitude scored her points with the judges.  Finally, Chef Jeff announced the winner… Alex, who won first place for his clean workstation, tasty preparations, composure under stress, and tight presentation.

It was a great test for the students, and I hope they learned a lot.  I know I did.  I was impressed with everyone at the CCTEC center.  I look forward to the next time I can go, perhaps to judge another competition and to help the next generation of culinary artists achieve greatness.

The crew

Culinary Competition

(Note: This is part one of a two part blog post)

When I was in high school, I attended a magnet program (also called vo-tec) in the culinary arts field.  It was a wonderful opportunity for me, as it gave me my first taste of a career in the culinary arts.  I learned basic kitchen skills there, and one of the best parts of that program was taking part in culinary competitions.  In my junior year, my team won a regional competition, then state, and from there we went to the national competition in Boston.  It was great fun and a wonderful learning experience, but I remember being terrified at the guest chef judges who would come during practice runs to critique us.

Well, last week, Jill and I had the opportunity to terrify the next generation of culinary arts students… we helped judge a cooking competition at the Cumberland County Technical Education Center (CCTEC) in Rosenhayn.

We met the instructor, Chef Jeff, about a year ago when he came into the bakery, but we hadn’t been out to visit him at the school yet.  The opportunity arose when CCTEC hosted an open house for all of its programs, and so (after a snow delay of a week), Jill and I headed out to visit the campus, meet Chef Jeff, and help his students with their practice run.

The busy kitchen!

We got there a little late, and walked into the craziness of a busy kitchen.  Chef Jeff gave us a quick tour and introductions, while Gina (Chef Jeff’s assistant) got us our scorecards and gave us the run down on who was cooking and how the competition was structured.

Jill and I jumped right in.  Barbara was at the first station.  She was an older woman, older than I expected since I assumed that the program was for high school students, but there she was confidently working on her dish.  Her station was clean and organized, and she seemed to be relaxed and having fun.

Alex, who was using a small copper tube to cut baby red potatoes into unusual shapes, occupied the next station.  I asked what he was doing, and he told me that he was cutting them to look like mushrooms (which I then saw more clearly), since he was not satisfied cutting them into mere wedges.  I inquired about what he would do with the scraps were it not a competition, and he correctly answered that they would likely become mashed potatoes or something of the like.  I was pleased to hear that they wouldn’t be ending up in the garbage.

Next up was Austin, who was cutting chicken breasts open so that he could stuff them with prosciutto and provolone.

Austin seasons his potatoes

He seemed cool and collected, and was having fun.  His station was a little messy, but it didn’t seem to faze him as he stuffed and tied his chicken breasts with the confidence of a skilled cook.

Lenin was next up on the line, and he was making a similar dish of rolled and stuffed chicken breasts.  His though, were to be stuffed with the American standard of ham and cheese, which he was chopping and placing to the side of his cutting board.  This guy was really getting into a groove, having a good time and looking surprisingly relaxed.

Last up was Nick, who seemed to be the most focused of the bunch.  He was moving swiftly and deliberately through the kitchen, grabbing various ingredients and tasting different components of his dish.  He seemed a little more nervous, but considering all the action that was going on, I didn’t blame him… I remember what it was like to be in his shoes!

And action there was.  Picture this.  Not only were there five cooks preparing a meal that had at least four components each in one kitchen, there were also two bakers competing right next to them, icing cakes and rolling cookie dough.  In front of the line of tables they were working on, there was another team of bakers decorating a wedding cake (which, by the way, was beautiful!).

Chef Jeffery Knerr demonstrates ice carving

On the other side of the kitchen, behind the competition area, there were two students working on ice carvings, complete with chainsaws, electric sanders, chisels, flying ice and lots of noise.  And remember that it was also open house, which meant that several thousand people were scoping the place out, filing through, taking pictures, and staring at the culinary competitors.  To their credit, all the students where doing a commendable job staying cool.

After familiarizing myself with the competitors and the kitchen, I got to work scoring.  I starting poking my nose around, asking questions, offering assistance where needed and suggestions where warranted… little did I know that the next two hours would hold triumphs and tribulations, excellent displays of teamwork, and some really tasty food.

Join me for my next column to see who cooked what and for the results of the culinary competition!

Farm Fresh Chicken

The feet were interesting.  The more closely I looked at the chicken’s feet, the more I could totally see them being related to dinosaurs, as is the current scientific thought.  They were smooth, scaly and very reptilian looking… much like our friends’ pet snake.  It was fascinating!

Why, you may ask, was I holding a chicken foot?  Well I came into the possession of a chicken recently, and not any supermarket chicken.  This was a chicken that was clucking around the yard that very morning, a chicken that had lived its little chicken life roosting and laying.  This chicken was a throwback to the days in the not-so-distant past when people raised their own animals in the farms that surrounded Vineland.

Sure there’s a nostalgic feeling that I get about eating farm food.  Maybe it’s because I appreciate the flavors of real food, foods that existed before the days of factory farms, red #40, and high fructose corn syrup.  I have heard from a lot of older folks about the way food used to be, not only the culture of eating, but the flavor.  It was different they said, the meat was more rich, but all I could find was the tender and flavorless chicken of today.  I longed to taste real meat; the taste of a chicken that developed flavor is its muscles from using them.  It’s the same idea with beef, as many cooks know.  Tenderloin is tender because it’s a muscle that isn’t used much.  You can cook it fast and hot, right on the grill or in a pan.  But the shank, which is part of the leg and is used extensively, must be cooked low and slow in order for it to become the amazing dish known as osso bucco.

A few weeks ago, my article on eggs was published and shortly thereafter came an offer for an older hen for me to cook.  It was on.  Because a friend of ours, Janice, and I had been talking about this very subject recently, she invited Jill and I, as well as Brittany and Kate, to her apartment for a dinner of roasted chicken.

As the day of our dinner plans approached though, I began to have thoughts that roasting the chicken would not be the ideal cooking method for the chicken that we would be getting.  Since, as I mentioned previously, the chicken was older and had a life lived moving and working the muscles, this hen would need to be slow cooked in a liquid. Stew, soup or something of that nature was in order here.

Two days before our dinner, I heard on The Splended Table (a lovely radio show devoted to good food that comes on at 4pm Saturdays on 89.3), about a gentleman in a similar situation.  He had an older, tougher bird that he didn’t know what to do with.  Coq au Vin was the reply that came from the hostesses mouth, ‘chicken in wine,’ a classic French dish that has been eaten for centuries.  Of course, I thought!

Janice Aseltine chillin'

For Christmas, Jill’s mother got her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the classic Julia Child tome that helped bring French cooking into the homes of many Americans.  Sure enough, there was a recipe for coq au vin in the poultry section.  I looked it over, and it was nothing too crazy… an older chicken, red wine, tomato paste, garlic, etc.

The day arrived and I went to get the chicken.  I was informed that she was about eight months old as of that day, and had been alive and well only that morning.  This was as fresh as it gets.  I was glad to hear that my intuition was right, and the path that had led me to coq au vin was the right one.  I was told that she wouldn’t be suitable for roasting.  Chicken of this nature was different, not as tender as I was used to, but full of flavor in cooked the right way.

At Janice’s the chicken came out of the bag, and that was when the aforementioned feet came in.  I don’t think I’d ever really seen chicken feet before, which seemed weird because I’d eaten chicken my whole life.  Was I that disconnected to my food that this was the first chicken foot I’d held?

Fortunately, the feet were not attached, and the animal was cleaned out.  Janice got to work breaking it down into the various parts that we would be eating.  She said that she hadn’t broken down a chicken in a while, but it was bringing back memories of her childhood when her family used to raise chicken and her father would do all the intense and precise cuts.

As the recipe required, Kate cut a few strips of bacon into chunks and I rendered the fat out of them in my big stainless steel pot that I don’t use as often as I’d like.  Once the fat was out of the bacon and that unmistakable smell filled the kitchen, I removed the crunchy meaty bits, added a tablespoon of butter (it’s Julia’s recipe, and she does not skimp on the fat!), and added the chicken pieces.  They browned beautifully and I was surprised at the dark color of the meat, another sign of a well-exercised fowl.

I added the bacon pieces back into the pot, covered, and let steam for about ten minutes.  Then into the pot was a splash on whisky (recipe called for cognac…) to deglaze followed by leftover red wine and chicken stock to cover the meat.  Seasoned with a spoonful of tomato paste, thyme, pepper, a bay leaf along with some carrots and celery (not a French addition, but I took a little liberty there).  It came up to a simmer (where it would stay, covered) and it smelled good, although very winey.

After about an hour of simmering, we were hungry!

The coq au vin

The alcohol had cooked off and the winey smell had mellowed into a rich, unctuous aroma.  The chicken pieces had taken on a red wine stained hue, and the sauce had thickened slightly.  I dipped a spoon in to taste, and… it was hot, but oh wow did it taste good.

The potatoes were mashed, the mushrooms and onions were done sautéing, the French bread was sliced, the wine was poured, and the salad was tossed.  I gently took the chicken out of the pot and placed it into a platter.  The braising liquid was strained and thickened with a little roux, and it was then spooned over the chicken.  It smelled so good; we were salivating at the thought of eating. We thanked the chicken for giving its life to us, and we dug in.  Dinner was ready…

Kate Fellows portioning out dessert

Brittany Jackson with coconut custard pies ready to go

Last Saturday was National Pie Day, and even though it seems as though there is a special day or month devoted to all sorts of random things, I’ve taken a special liking to this particular one.  Perhaps it’s because I love pie, or perhaps it’s because I’m always looking for a good excuse to make and eat pie.  It’s a good thing my wife and I own a bakery, because it certainly makes it easy to make a lot of different pies without actually having to eat them all!

We figured we’d make several different pies that we don’t normally prepare.  Since it’s winter, we were going to focus on making mostly cream and custard pies.  After a little scrounging around in the freezer though, we did find several bags of frozen local fruits and what better of an occasion than to use them now, when the wind blows cold and the landscape is grey and bleak.  We found cherries, blueberries and some organic raspberries from Happy Valley Berry Farm.  Yum, summer berry pie would definitely be made.

After some discussion we settled on a menu.  In addition to two of our standards, apple and key lime, we thought we’d try out a chocolate peanut butter pie and a chocolate malted pie, a banana cream pie and a coconut custard pie.  Those and the summer berry pies would keep us busy enough.

Then the earthquake in Haiti happened and all the feelings of despair and hopelessness and, especially helplessness, clouded our joy for pie day.  Since we felt we should do something to help, even something little, National Pie Day became an opportunity to help.

There are so many charities to use, so many options for donating, where do you start to look?  Since we’re passionate about all things food, and since we have a visceral connection to the act of eating, we typically choose to focus our volunteering efforts towards food related charities.  I did a little research online and found that the World Food Program has one of the lowest administrative costs among aid agencies (around 7%) and is ‘highly rated’ by charitynavigator.org with four starts out of four.  Perfect.

We did a little advertising, only to guests of the bakery through our newsletter and facebook fanpage… just a few words to let them know that 100% of the proceeds of the pie sales would go toward Haiti relief.  The response was immediate and powerful.  Orders starting rolling in via e-mail and facebook.  Folks started calling us, and before we knew it, within twelve hours our fundraising goal had been met and within 24, it had almost doubled.  One of our employees, Kate, decided to donate her wages for the day and everyone at the bakery decided that the tip jar collections would go towards the fund.  Everyone was opening their hearts and wallets and it was wonderful.

So we got to work making pies.  There was a whirlwind of activity in the kitchen, chocolate and vanilla crust had to be made, bananas needed to be sautéed in butter and brown sugar.

Kate Fellows and the author making pies for a good cause

Pastry cream had to be cooked, and peanut butter mousse was to be prepared.  Key lime filling and chocolate malted filling was baked, apples were sliced, and cream was whipped.  It was a mad dash of pie making and it was great to feel like we were actually doing something meaningful.  As Booker T. Washington once said, ‘If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else’

Krystal Ruiz-Mesa picks up her pie!

Krystal Ruiz-Mesa picks up her chocolate peanut butter pie!

All told, we sold almost 100 pies and gathered many donations as well.  It’s a testament to the people of Vineland, how generous and heartfelt they were to support our efforts.  It may not have been very much money that we raised in the grand scheme of things, and it seems like nothing in the scope of the disaster that has befallen our fellow brothers and sisters down in the Caribbean.  But every little bit helps, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to send a shout out to our Sweet Lifers… thank you!