Yellow Valleys, Amber Waves and Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn

I hope you’ll bear with me to the end of this post – it’s kind of long.  In fact, it’s probably two posts in one; but, they’re two posts that really do have something in common, so I ask for your patience as I tie together the loose ends.  It’s all about making and sharing memories with family.  And corn.  Lots and lots of corn.

Back at the beginning of July, our family set off on a National Lampoon-style, semi-cross-country road trip.  For years, my mom has been talking about looking at some acreage in Wyoming, and this summer we decided to do something about it.  We rented a fancy space-age mini-van and loaded it up for a seven-day, nine-state, 3200-mile round trip tour.  With two small children in tow, that is no small feat.

And it really was a road trip in the truest sense – we spent at least seven hours (and sometimes as many as 11) every day driving, and spent no more than one night in any one place.  I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but I have to admit that it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken.

Armed with a myriad of DVDs for the kids, and satellite radio for the adults we set off down the road.  We were subjected to multiple viewings of Cars 2 and Dora the Explorer’s Hic-Boom-Ohhh episode.  When it was “mom’s turn” we listened to the Sirius Bluegrass station as a respite.  To keep the kids occupied while the DVD player was “resting”, we had them look for Dora’s yellow valley and quiet forest.  With miles and miles of corn fields to look at, that yellow valley wasn’t too hard to find.

On the first night on our way out to Wyoming, we stopped in St. Louis.  We ate at a local wood-fired pizza joint called Twin Oak, where we enjoyed some tasty pies and local brews.

Stingray touch pool at the St. Louis Zoo

The next morning we took the boys to the St. Louis Zoo for a couple of hours before hitting the road. We tried to do at least one fun, kid-friendly thing every day.  It cut down on the monotony of the car ride, and it let the boys get some energy out of their systems before being cooped up for hours on end.  It was a pretty good strategy.

Lincon, NE Train Depot

Our second night was spent in Lincoln, NE, where we ate at Lazlo’s in the Haymarket District.  The food was good, the beer, brewed right next door, was excellent and the service was impeccable.  The boys enjoyed getting to run around the old train depot after dinner, and we even found a little local ice cream shop for dessert.

Steam-powered carousel at the Pioneer Village

The next morning, on our way to Cheyenne, WY, we stopped at a place called Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village in Minden, NE.  It’s a little off the beaten path (like you feel like you’re driving through about a million miles of GMO corn and cattle feed lots to get there), but it was completely worth the detour.  From cars to trains to airplanes to tractors to boats, there was something of interest for everyone.  I think the adults liked this one as much as the kids (if not more).

In Cheyenne, we watched some gunslingers shoot it out and ate a place called The Albany Restaurant and Bar which was recommended by a woman at the Cheyenne Train Depot.

The next morning it was on to Laramie, WY to look at some land (and lots and lots of wild horses and Pronghorn).  In Laramie we had lunch at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery where I had a perfectly cooked Filet Mignon and a spicy Mexican Chili Ale.

After Laramie, it was time to head back east.  We took a slightly different route home, driving through Colorado and Kansas (surrounded by purple mountains and amber waves of wheat, not to mention gigantic wind farms) on the return trip.  It was July 4th, and we stopped in Burlington, CO for lunch.  There, we had a chance to take a ride on the Historic Kit Carson Co. Carousel.  Yes, that’s actually a picture of me up there.

We spent the night of the 4th in Topeka, KS, where the highlight of our stay was getting to watch fireworks from our 4th-floor hotel room with the lights off.

The 5th was spent driving the rest of the way through Kansas, all of Missouri, and portions of Kentucky and Tennessee.  We stopped off at a Civil War Battlefield in Lexington, MO, and wound up spending the night in Clarkesville, TN (which just happens to be conveniently located close to another Civil War battle sight, much to my husband’s delight).

In Clarkesville we ate at a little hole-in-the-wall place called Brunies Bar and Grill.  When we first walked in we were a little reluctant (the atmosphere is definitely of the college dive bar variety), but the live music and the fact that we were hungry and it was late sold us.  They specialized in German food, so we opted for the bratwurst and schnitzel sandwiches (at the server’s suggestion) and the German potato salad.  We were pleasantly surprised by the food, and the music was really good – a win all around.

On the morning of the day we headed home, we took a little detour to visit Fort Donelson, significant because it was the site of the first Union victory in the South.  My husband is a big American Civil War history buff, so these last two days were sort of devoted to him.  The kids really enjoyed getting to see the big cannons, and my mom and I just liked being outside with the family (despite the 100+ degree temperatures).

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As vacations go, it will go down in my book as one of the most interesting I’ve taken.  Not only was it fun to spend time with my family experiencing things and places that were new for all of us; it was also fascinating to see our country’s industrial agriculture system at work.  I’ve never seen so much corn and soy growing in my life.  We even joked a couple of times about stopping off and pulling a couple of ears of corn to have with dinner when we got to our evening destination.

Of course, when you see things like this along the way, you realize that most of that corn is probably not destined for our dinner table – at least not in the traditional sense.  Most likely, the corn we saw growing is more of a commodity crop, slated to be turned into livestock feed, fuel, or sweetener and filler for the processed food industry.  We might have been sorely disappointed had we actually stopped and picked a couple of ears for dinner.  For more information on corn as a commodity crop, I suggest watching King Corn – it’s a relatively unbiased and eye opening look at “Americas most-productive, most-subsidized grain.”

After seeing all that corn in the heartland, I had a hankering for some good ol’ creamed corn when I got home.  Our sad little row of corn in our backyard garden had about given up the ghost after a week of record temperatures and little rain, but I managed to salvage a few poorly developed ears to add to the mix.  The rest came from our local Saturday-morning Farmers Market.

The recipe is my paternal Grandmother’s, and it came to me by way of my dad’s sisters.  My mom and I had been talking a while back about how much we loved Grandma Helen’s creamed corn, and wondering how we could replicate it.  The thing that made it special was the combination of  lots of black pepper and the fact that it wasn’t at all sweet.  I decided to email my Aunt to see if she had the recipe.  Here’s her response:

Of all the people to ask – the one who can’t boil water.  I can see her making it now.  My memory of her at the stove stirring.  She did it on top of the stove in that big cast iron skillet, think she started out with a small amount of water and then made a thickening with milk and flour.  I remember pepper, almost a stick of butter and when she got it to the consistency she wanted, put it in the oven and baked it until done.  Seems like it had to bake for quite a while because all the liquid had to cook down.  Remember her stirring it while in the oven, trying to keep it from sticking too much.  My job was to clean that nasty skillet. I will send your message to N {my other aunt}.  Since she and M {my cousin} love to do corn for their holiday meals, she might remember more.  I really don’t think it was written down anywhere – just something she learned.

My other Aunt’s response followed soon after:

Ok..am trying to send this from wee phone at home…I do have a recipe written that says mama’ s cream corn! It calls for 8 to 10 ears. Two tablespoons flour…less if young…stir in 1 cup milk, 1 cup water, 1 stick butter and salt, pepper to taste….cook about one hour at 325…..with your directions Niki will do it! That lil girl is a Real chef. I didn’t write the steps but just having ingredients helps…Off to babysit…love u.

First, it cracks me up that they still think of me as a “lil girl”.  Second, I love the fact that we can collaborate and share family recipes via the internet.  Passing these things on and keeping them alive is so important to me.  None of us live close to each other, so the idea that we can just hop on the computer and pass this knowledge on to one another is amazing. It certainly doesn’t replace standing next to each other at the stove, but it ranks a close second.

And now I get to share it with all of you.

Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn

prep time: 5 minutes

cook time: 1 hour

yield: 8 servings

  • 8-10 ears corn (preferably a less-sweet heirloom variety)
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 2 Tablespoons flour (less if the corn is young)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup water
  • salt and pepper to taste (lots of black pepper)
  1. Preheat oven to 325F
  2. Begin by cutting the corn off the cob and scraping the cob to get all the milky liquid and starch
  3. In a large skillet (preferably cast iron, but I used a stainless steel one because it was the only one I had that was big enough), melt the butter and whisk in the flour.  Cook flour for a couple of minutes, just to make sure it doesn’t taste of raw flour.
  4. Add the corn and stir to coat with the butter/flour mixture.
  5. Add the milk and water.
  6. Add the salt and pepper (I added about a teaspoon of salt, and 30-40 turns of my pepper grinder)
  7. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil and begins to thicken.
  8. Place in your preheated oven and let cook for about an hour, stirring periodically to make sure it’s not sticking.
  9. Enjoy!
 

Dealing with the Unexpected (or, How to Know When Your Jelly is Set)

Over the years, I have come to realize that nothing ever goes exactly as planned.  You can imagine to your heart’s content the perfect scenario, and yet something nearly always creeps in and causes havoc.For instance, while we were in Hawaii a few weeks ago, I had expectations about the relaxing vacation we would have – spending time on the beach, lounging by the pool, perhaps taking in a luau or a boat ride up the calm Wailua river.  Of course, I knew that traveling with small children would come with its challenges, so I did my best to prepare for the odd situation that might crop up.

Like the two mosquito bites that my youngest got on his face the Friday after we arrived – one on his forehead above his left eye and one just in the corner of his right eye.  I knew right away that this was bad news – he is extremely sensitive to mosquito bite, and I predicted that by the next morning both of his eyes would likely be swollen shut.And lo and behold, they were.  So we spent most of Saturday afternoon in the ER in Lihue.  They gave him some prescription steroids and sent him on his merry way.  By Monday he was back to normal. Needless to say, not the way I expected to spend my only Saturday in paradise.Or maybe the drive we took up to the top of Waimea Canyon to enjoy the views. After driving all the way to the end of the road and looking out over the wild Napali coast, we turned around and began our descent. Our oldest was playing Angry Birds on the iPod and the youngest was doodling on his Doodle-Pro.  As we navigated the winding, turny, twisty road, P said quietly from the back seat, “Mommy, my tummy hurts,” and about that time he vomited all over the back of our brand new (for real – we were the first people to drive it.  I think it had like 20 miles on it when we got in it the first time) rental car.  And then his brother proceeded to do the same.

So, we pulled over on a very narrow shoulder, stripped them down to their underwear and diaper, stripped the covers off the carseats and then got everyone situated again so we could catch up with my husband’s brother and his wife and kids (they had been just ahead of us when all of this started).  P was so mortified, he didn’t want his cousins to see him like that, so I ran into an expensive gift shop at the bottom of the canyon road and purchased an overpriced t-shirt and a pair of shorts for him to wear.  Again – couldn’t have planned that scenario if I’d tried.Or perhaps that luau we’d been looking forward to.  The kids loved seeing the unveiling of the whole-roasted pig, and running around the beautiful grounds with the peacocks and other assorted exotic birds.  When it came to the show itself, the older kids were mesmerized, but my youngest got a little freaked out.  So, my poor husband had to spend the entire hour of the show outside, consoling a crying baby and missing the performances altogether.  Best laid plans.

None of it spoiled the trip, but it does just go to show you that even in paradise reality has a way of sneaking in and reminding you just how human you really are.No place does this prove more often true than in my kitchen.  No sooner do I grow confident, or dare I say “cocky”, than I am cut right back down to size by something. And such it was with this plum jelly – a dead simple recipe that, had I been patient and methodical on the front end, should have yielded a perfectly set and perfectly delicious end product.

Notice I said “should”.Everything started out fine – I made plum juice by cutting the plums in half and boiling them in water for 20 minutes (1 lb. of plums to 1/2 cup of water).  I then poured the plums and water into a damp pillowcase and hung it over a pot in the utility sink in my laundry room and let it drain for about 6 hours.  This yielded somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 cups of juice.

The first time around, I combined the juice and the sugar (3/4 cup of sugar per cup of juice is the accepted ratio) in a stock pot and brought it to a boil.  I inserted a candy thermometer and waited for it to reach 220 degrees.  And I waited, and waited, and waited.  And the thermometer seemed to be stuck at 215 degrees.  So I used a second candy thermometer.  This one read 219 degrees, so I figured the first one must be wrong.  when the second one reached 220, I removed the pot from the heat and proceeded to can the jelly as directed – filling hot sterilized jars and leaving 1/4 inch of headspace.  I then processed them in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.  And then I went to bed.

The next morning, I was looking forward to having some fresh plum jelly on my fresh baked biscuits, so I eagerly opened the jar closest to me and was confronted with what appeared to be more of a plum syrup than a jelly.  Frustrating.  I had stood over that pot for almost an hour, watching it boil, checking the temperature, taking care to keep the sugar from scorching.  And I was sure – sure – that I had gotten it right.

But I was wrong.

So, I took a deep breath, unsealed all of the jars, dumped the contents into a stock pot, washed the jars in hot soapy water, found new lids in my storage cabinet and re-sterilized everything.  I put the stock pot back on the heat with both candy thermometers and a fancy digital probe thermometer and I brought it to a boil. At one point, one candy thermometer read 225, the second read 222, and the probe thermometer was still reading 217.  The only problem with this was that I could move the probe around the pan, and in one spot it would read 217, in another it would read 215, and in a third it would read 219.  Additionally, this went on for at least an hour.  Why can’t things just work the way they’re supposed to?  How is a girl to know when her jelly is set?My mother says that her grandmother used to say you’d know it was done when it sounded like grits cooking.  There’s also the tried and true method of seeing if it sheets when dropped from a spoon.  So, when it started to boil furiously and sounded kind of like rice krispies in milk (snap, crackle, pop), I stuck a stainless steel spoon in the mix and then lifted it out.  The above photo demonstrates “sheeting.”  And the probe thermometer read 220 (at least in one spot in the pan). I proceeded to can it again, filling the hot sterilized jars to within 1/4 inch of the top and capping them.  I processed them (again) in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.  And now I can safely say that I have successfully made plum jelly (perfectly set and perfectly delicious).  And that I will never again trust my candy thermometer.

Plum Jelly
11 cups plum juice
8.5 cups sugar

  1. Combine plum juice and sugar in a heavy-bottomed stock pot and stir to thoroughly combine.
  2. Bring to a boil and allow to cook until it reaches 220F on a (reliable, well calibrated) candy thermometer, or until it sheets when dropped from a spoon.
  3. Prepare your jars by sterilizing them in simmering water.
  4. Ladle jelly into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space.
  5. Clean the rims with a damp cloth and cap with lids and rings.
  6. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
  7. Allow to cool on the counter.
  8. Enjoy!

Capturing the Sun in a Jar

Our little family just returned from eight sun-filled, relaxing days on the garden island of Kauai.  Our transition back to reality has been slow and somewhat painful.  I could chalk it up to jet lag and be done with it, but I don’t think that would do it justice.The truth is, there are a handful of places in this world that, the minute I set foot within their borders, I feel like I’ve slipped on a favorite pair of comfy pajamas.  Kauai is one of them.  Nearly eight years ago, my husband and I chose this quiet little island as our honeymoon destination, and ever since we’ve dreamed of going back.

A couple of years ago, my parents-in-law purchased a time share on Kauai, and they invited all of us (our family, my husband’s two brothers and their wives and children) to join them there for a week this summer.  While it was a completely different experience from the one we had when we were newlyweds, it was just as remarkable in its own way.
We aren’t really big “doers” when we go on vacation.  There are a lot of really cool outdoor adventures to be had on Kauai, and one day I imagine we’ll participate in some of them.  We’ve just never felt a lot of pressure to do a million things while we’re there – probably because we know in our hearts that we’ll be back again one day.

On this last trip, we took in some sites, and marveled at the gorgeous scenery.  We visited a number of little towns, and enjoyed some delicious food from some well-known local joints along the way.  The pizza in Kilauea topped with garden fresh veggies was the perfect quick lunch on the way home from the lighthouse;  the shrimp in Waimea was tender, spicy, crispy and delicious; the Puka dogs in Poipu were just as weird and wonderful as I imagined they’d be after seeing them featured on No Reservations last year; and the burger at Bubba’s, made with Kauai grass fed beef, was juicy and flavorful.  The people are friendly, the food is good, and the scenery is magical.  Is it any wonder that I feel right at home there? The minute I set foot on the island eight years ago, I knew I belonged there.  And this most recent trip has just re-confirmed my suspicions.

So, returning to real life has been a little bit of a challenge.  In addition to adjusting to the time change, it almost feels like we left a little piece of ourselves on the garden isle.  I guess we’ll just have to head back one day soon to retrieve it.

In the meantime, I’m keeping myself busy in the garden, trying to keep up with the growing number of sun-ripened tomatoes that seem to be spilling forth from their tangled vines.  I returned home to find the table on the deck weighted down with a ridiculous number of giant pink brandywines, little black princes and tiny jellybean grape tomatoes.  Ever since I’ve been doing my best to eat them or process them before they turn to moldy mush.

We’ve eaten our weight in this delicious pasta salad – a pound of tri-colored rotini tossed with an equal measure of quartered grape tomatoes and/or diced brandywine tomatoes, four ounces of chevre, and a few sprigs of fresh thyme.

I’ve made salsa using these lovely little golden grape tomatoes, some of the black princes, and minced jalapenos.  I canned seven pints of a mixture of brandywines, romas and black princes the other day (and there are more on their way this week).

But my favorite application has to be these little nuggets of pure tomatoey goodness – dehydrated multi-colored jellybean grape tomatoes.

I found myself the other day with a giant mound of these little yellow, red and green wonders (they’re prolific suckers – I had six full trays of them in my dehydrator, all from a couple of days of picking).  I halved them and tossed them with about 1/2 a teaspoon of pickling salt.  Then I laid them out on the trays of my dehydrator (although you could sun-dry them, too) and let them dry at 125F for about 12 hours (the instructions said to leave them for 5-9 hours, but mine were still awfully wet at the 9-hour mark, so I let them go a few hours longer – now they’re nice and raisin-like).

I’ve eaten a few of them straight from the jar, and their flavor is reminiscent of what I imagine a ray of sunshine would taste like if you could gather it in a cup and drink it – infused with warmth and comfort, umami at its very core.  I can’t wait to use them in this pesto recipe from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

So, while we don’t have the sun and sand at our back door anymore, we can at least capture a little bit of sunshine and keep it close.  When it comes time for the leaves to fall from the trees, and the gray winter days seem neverending, we can open that little jar of flavor and infuse our meals with a little summer warmth.  And close our eyes and dream of Kauai.