Sunday, May 23, 2010

The robin and split pea soup

Hospice's not what I thought it would be.  I thought it would be that they would send a nurse to sit with my mother and then she would summon us when "the time" was upon us, and then we kids would assemble and hold my mother's hand and tell her it was "okay" for her to die, and then she would.   That's not actually how it works - actually, how it works is that a nurse comes every other day and a social worker comes out every once in a while,  and there are what are called "comfort measures" made,  but really, you have to be there for it to administer the "comfort measures" (i.e. Ativan, morphine and a whole cornucopia of drugs).   My sister is there the most, because she lives the closest and my brother just started a job that requires lots of hours.  I live 50 miles away.  We have a caregiver we've hired to take care of my dad (who actually needs more care than my mom) and she spends a lot of time being there with both of them and we are blessed because we have Geri there, but Geri is off in the afternoons, so I am going to start being there in the afternoon.  I am blessed again because I can work wherever there's a phone and a computer.

Today I was there for my afternoon shift, trying to get my computer to work so I could work tomorrow, and I was making some split pea soup.  My sister left a meaty hambone in the fridge for me, thinking that my mom might like some.  It's her favorite soup.   So, I brought some peas and some carrots, onions and garlic to try to make some soup.   But she was too sick to eat any...she couldn't even drink water to take her pills.  As I was giving her the liquid morphine, or as they call it, the "comfort measures", I noticed a robin calling to me out the front window.   The robin was there, right on the front lawn I used to lay down on and look up into the branches of the maple tree on the easement and wonder what I would be doing in the year 2000 when I would be 36 years old.    Now, at 46 years old, the robin was in the same spot.   It was trying to get my attention, walking back and forth and crying out as I looked out across the street to the house where my childhood best friend used to live.  The robin kept coming closer and calling to was strange.   Geri came and said "Look, that robin is still there!"  She said it was there all morning; even when my sweet nephew was cutting the grass, it wouldn't get out of the way.   

When my mother in law was dying of cancer, she pondered if there was a hereafter....she was a very religious woman, and I aske her if there was, would she show me a sign?  She said she would.   I'd like to say I received some more clear cut evidence, but one thing I noticed was the birds.  Right after she died, a pheasant showed up at our house for a couple weeks, and it seemed like it was looking out after us.   It would be staring out over the hill when my husband came home from work; it would be staring down the kids when they got off the school bus.  My husband thought it was his dad, who had passed away  years earlier.  He really felt it was him checking up on us.  My father in law loved wood carving birds.  And now today, there was the robin.   I really feel it was my mother in law, checking up on me, just like she said she would.

Here's my recipe for split pea soup.  It's a great dish for winter felt odd to make it when it was 80 degrees out, but it was always my mother's favorite. 

Split Pea Soup

4 carrots, diced
1 c. chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 lb. dried split peas, rinsed and sorted
1 meaty ham bone or a couple smoked ham hocks

Saute vegetables and garlic until onion is soft.   Add peas, pork and enough water to cover.  Simmer for about 30 minutes, or until peas are soft.   Remove bones and pick off meat and add back to the soup.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Can Jam May: Asparagus and Rhubarb

For this month's Can Jam (a monthly canning challenge) we were asked to can either asparagus or rhubarb. Since Michigan is the #3 producer of asparagus in the U.S. I figured I should make some pickled asparagus. The Can Jam requires boiling water bath canning, and asparagus has a pH of 6.7, so the ONLY WAY you can boiling water bath can it safetly it is to pickle it. I'm not a big scare monger when it comes to home canning - indeed, your chances of dying from food poisoning because of canning are much lower than dying from plain old salmonella that you can get dining out at a restaurant or at a friend's house, but asparagus is the one thing that people canned improperly and caused botulism. Read about it here! So anyway, pickling is your best friend for asparagus....if you want to put some by, roast it with some salt and olive oil and freeze it. It tastes much better that way - less mushy. You will love it come January 2011, when you are sick and tired of eating root vegetables.

But then, what about rhubarb? Michigan has a long storied past with rhubarb, too. For this month's challenge, there was no choice for me but to can both pickled asparagus and rhubarb. I followed the pickling recommendation of Linda Ziedrich in her eponymous Joy of Pickling (a book needed for every pickle lover's library) with a tweak or two. I like my rhubarb straight up, as in stewed rhubarb, nothing in it but sugar and rhubarb, because it is so versatile that way...want a pie? a crisp? Want something to throw in with your pork loin on a busy morning, strewn with some juniper berries and kosher salt so you have instant dinner when you walk in the door? Do you need mood altering in February? A taste of spring? Stir some in your morning vanilla yogurt with some granola. Stewed rhubarb is your friend. It's the little black dress of food preserving - put by as much as you can now. Pretty soon, you will get busy with the strawberry jam and the peaches and the salsas and the dill pickles....but for now, put up some stewed rhubarb, you will be so glad you did. I pickled asparagus and stewed this rhubarb during a canning demonstration at the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market. Here are the recipes I used. Canning outside in an open air market is like a combo of canning and camping, two of my favorite hobbies! Stay tuned for more posts from my AAFM canning exploits this summer.
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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Some thoughts on my mother and rhubarb

It's Mother's Day, and my mom is dying of breast cancer.   Actually, to put it the way of her new oncologist, she has "breast cancer that's not curable".    I am not sure if her old oncologist ever gave her the news of her prognosis: it's hard to tell because she has tumors in her brain and it makes her forget things.   But for a whole host of reasons, including a phlebotomist that reminds me of Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and a doctor that means well but he's over 70 and keeps mistaking my mother for other patients, we decided to get a "second opinion" from the oncologist who the hospice people recommended. He gave her the news that her cancer isn't curable and she decided to ditch the chemo that she's been on FOR YEARS as prescribed by her old oncologist.   She feels powerful now, and took great delight in firing her old doctor.   But the fact of the matter is that the tumors are everywhere, and her back is hurting her (probably more tumors) and her lungs need to be drained 3x a week because there is a tumor growing in there, too.  And of course, there is the brain tumors and all the radiation she had which makes her memory all wonky.  But one thing she remembers is that she loves rhubarb, so I picked some up at the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market yesterday to make her something for Mother's Day.

Every Sunday, my mother's oldest sister and I drive to Warren to visit my mom and to have lunch with her.  Some Sundays, she has a list of household chores she would like us to do.  My parents home is a lot like the show "Hoarders", because my mom grew up poor in West Viginia and my dad in Hamtramck during the Depression.  They like to keep things around, just in case.    So, it's a little bit comical when my mother wants me to dust the ceiling fan in the kitchen when there are many rooms in their house where there are only pathways to walk through their stuff.   But as my aunt says, "She just lays there all week,  thinking of things for us to clean" clean we do, even if it doesn't make much sense.   My aunt, whose house is so clean you could perform surgery on the kitchen floor, also grew up in WVa but somehow missed out on the hoarding thing, usually brings her Swifter broom with her for these visits, just in case something needs sweeping.    I can tell my mom is doing worse...we hire a nurse to come in to take care of my dad, and last night, she ended up having to help my mom who got up at 3:30 am to "get a cup of coffee" and fell down.   When we got there, she didn't have any chores for us, which is odd.   My guess is she can't remember what it was she wants us to do.

We make a big deal, as we always do, about where we're going to get lunch.  Usually, it's Wendy's for a chicken sandwich.   They are only 99 cents, which appeals to my mom, even though it's been a long time since she has had her wallet and checkbook.  My sister pays all her bills now because she can't write a check.   Occaisionally, she sleeps with her purse because she worries the night nurse might steal her money, but since the wallet/checkbook isn't in it, the point is moot.   So, for lunch my aunt or I am buying.  The chicken sandwich is a "good deal", so my mom likes it.   Today, we talked her into carryout from one of her favorites, Country Oven, which caters to the senior citizen crowd.   They were very busy, with everyone taking Grandma there for Mother's Day.  It was kind of sad that she doesn't have the energy to go there.  I remember right after she got diagnosed, we went there and she remembered to put on her wig because the chemo made her lose her hair.  She forgot to pencil in her brows, though, so she made me wait while she drew some on in the car.   In the twilight, she didn't realize she grabbed an eyeliner pencil and we both laughted until we cried when we got in the restaurant and noticed she had pencilled on some bright blue eyebrows.   That was years ago now....

She asked me to pull ahead her appointment with the new oncologist, so I will.  My aunt gave her a rub off lottery ticket, and she rubbed off all the parts except where you were supposed to rub off.  It was confusing to her.  So I rubbed it off - we didn't win this week.  For years, my mom got mad at my dad for buying lottery tickets, but now she loves them, even if the tumors screw up figuring out if she won.  But one thing that is still the same for her is her love of rhubarb.   Today, she and her sister were reminiscing about how their mother made them rhubarb pie all the time when they were kids.   I made rhubarb pie for my mother for Easter, but she said it was too sour.   Now that she's off the chemo, the rhubarb crisp tasted just right to her.   Here's how I did it:

Rhubarb Crisp

5 c. sliced rhubarb, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1 c. sugar
3 T. flour
For the topping:
1/2 cup regular rolled oats
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup chopped walnuts


Place rhubarb in an ungreased 2-quart square baking dish. Stir in the granulated sugar and flour. For topping, in a mixing bowl combine oats; brown sugar; flour; ginger. With a pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in nuts. Sprinkle topping over filling.  Bake in a 375 degree F oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until fruit is tender and topping is golden. If desired, serve warm with ice cream or light cream.

I can remember my mother making rhubarb pie for me as a kid - it still is my favorite kind of pie.  Don't spoil it by adding in Michigan, the rhubarb comes in at least a month before the strawberries do, anyway.  My mom's rhubarb patch in the back yard is long gone, but she has a wonderful green thumb so I picked her a bouquet from the remains of the lilacs, the snowball bush flowers, azaleas and some plant she can't remember but it has purple flowers.   She was tired and saved most of her crisp for after dinner, which is a sure sign she isn't feeling well today.   I'm not sure she realized today is Mother's Day, but I am hoping she has a restful day and night.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?

It is thunderstorming and we are having a tornado watch this evening.   I am slated to do a canning demo at the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market tomorrow, and the plan is that I will preserve stewed rhubarb and pickled asparagus.   I wanted to get the recipes posted here so people can check them out, and looking at the forecast tomorrow it's going to reach a high of 50 F and there's a chance of more rain.  Do I think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?  Probably not....I am supposed to be under a tent or under roof of the market, and it will be warm around the canning kettle for sure! Did you know that Michigan ranks third in the U.S. for both rhubarb and asparagus production?  Check out this great blog post about rhubarb cultivation in Michigan.  I adore rhubarb pie, and canned rhubarb is great in pie or in a crisp, or even as a topping for vanilla yogurt. 

Canning rhubarb has got to be the easiest thing in the world to preserve.  All you need is rhubarb and sugar.
Trim off leaves. Wash stalks and cut into 1/2-inch to 1-inch pieces. In a large saucepan add 1/2 cup sugar for each 1.5 lbs of fruit.  Let stand until juice appears. Heat gently to boiling. Fill jars without delay, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Adjust lids and process for 15 minutes.  For  details, check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation's rhubarb page

Now, for the pickled asparagus...asparagus is one of vegetables referenced in botulism cases....that is, improperly canned asparagus.   To can it as a vegetable, one needs to pressure can it.  However, I wouldn't recommend preserving it that way - instead, roast it and freeze it.  It's much better that way- it's mushy when canned.   I love it as a pickle - that's a safe way to preserve asparagus, and it is delicious on an antipasto tray or in a Bloody Mary.  Here's my interpretation of a recipe I found in a wonderful book The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich.

Pickled Asparagus

Makes 5 12 ounce jelly jars

5 garlic cloves, sliced

15 whole allspice berries
30 black peppercorns
20 whole coriander seeds
5 small pieces nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
3 lbs asparagus

for the brine
2 1/2 c. distilled vinegar
2 1/2 c. water
2 1/2 t. pickling salt
2 T. sugar

Divide spices among the 5 clean hot jarsjars and pack asparagus in the jars, tips up.  In a saucepan, bring the brine to a boil, stirring to dissolve salt and sugar.  Pour the hot liquid over the asparagus, leaving 1/2 inch headspace.  Place a lid on top and tighten band.  Pasteurize the jars for 30 minutes in water that's heated to 180-185 F.  Or, boil water bath process for 10 minutes Let the asparagus steep for 3 weeks before tasting.

If you don't know how to safely process food by canning, please visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation website, or check out the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, tout suite! These are the best sources for info on canning safely.