Soup’s on!

When the weather starts turning colder in the northern Midwest, I start digging out my biggest pots for making soup.

Having a batch of fresh soup simmering on the stove makes the house smell amazing, and the steamy kitchen warms everyone right up. Bake a batch of fresh rolls at the same time, and we’ve got a house that smells like home and a meal ready that satisfies everyone’s need for comfort and deliciousness.

As a grad student, I made soup annually for the grad student committee’s “Bring your own bowl” soup party, usually in October or November, as we all needed just a bit of comfort with finals approaching and cold weather making life a little more challenging. A number of my fellows were vegetarian, so I came up with two soups that remain staples in my pantry: Chicken noodle, for the meat eaters, and cheesy potato, for the non-meat eaters.

Chicken noodle I made the old-fashioned way, which takes a good portion of the day, but yields yummy results. I use a 16-quart stockpot to begin with, and locally sourced, scratch made egg noodles rather than a commercial brand. I can shorten the cooking time for this recipe by using chicken stock as a base, skipping to the after-cooling step, and using boneless chicken breasts as the meat source.

But I do like the way the house smells when the soup simmers all day.

Old-School Chicken Soup

In a 16 quart stockpot, add:

1 whole chicken, giblets removed

3 bay leaves

1 tsp peppercorns

1 Tbsp salt

3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced

4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced

3 stalks celery, cleaned and diced

1 medium green pepper, washed and diced small (including seeds)

1 Tbsp dried sage

1 Tbsp dried thyme

1 Tbsp dried parsley

1 Tbsp dried dill

(Note: You can put all the herbs in a tea strainer or cheesecloth bag, closed tightly, and it will work well for a “clean” soup; just remove at the cooling step. I don’t usually bother, though. Also, these vegetables will stay in the soup until the very end. I’ve seen some recipes that remove and discard the veggies and add fresh after the cooling step, but I think that’s a waste, and I like the texture.)

Fill the pot with cold water. (Using cold ensures that you will extract as much flavor as possible from your ingredients.) Set on the stove and bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cover. Forget for at least three hours. (It’s fine to check on it periodically, but don’t go overboard.)

At the three-hour mark, check your soup. Taste the broth with a clean spoon. If it seems weak, remove the lid and simmer for another hour to reduce. (Frankly, the longer it simmers, the more intensely flavored your soup will be.) When it “tastes right” to you, turn off the heat. Remove the chicken to a strainer to cool. Remove the bay leaves, and if you can find, them, the peppercorns. Cool the broth and remove as much of the fat as you can. (If you have time, you can chill it all the way down, and remove the fat in a sheet from the top of the broth. If not, you can siphon the fat off while warm, but it’s messy and not fool proof.)

While the broth is cooling down, start to disassemble the chicken. Remove meat from the skin and bones, and dice up for the pot. When your meat is diced up, and your broth has cooled, with fat removed, add the meat back to the pot, bring back up to a boil, and taste. Adjust your seasonings. This may mean adding more salt and pepper, or even a bullion cube or two, to reach the flavor profile you want. I’ve also added the zest and juice of a lemon at this stage to add a little zip.

When the broth is simmering and tastes just right, add sixteen ounces of fresh wide egg noodles. Cook until done, and serve.

Egg noodles: In recent years, I’ve taken to buying locally sourced fresh or dried egg noodles. I live in a rural area, and it’s fairly easy to find some locally made and for sale in our supermarket or at the farmer’s market. But when I was growing up, we made our own.

For one pot of soup, you need the noodles from this recipe: two cups of all purpose flour, two eggs, and 1 tsp salt. Mix the flour and salt together, make a well in the center, and beat in the eggs. Knead the stiff dough, letting rest periodically to relax the gluten, until smooth. Let rest again, then roll out thin, and cut into strips. Let dry while your soup is simmering.

Cheesy potato soup

This is a smaller batch.

In a large pot, (I like to use my Dutch oven) sauté 1 medium onion, diced; two medium carrots, peeled and diced; 1 stalk celery, diced small; 1 clove of garlic, minced; and two bay leaves in a little olive or canola oil, until most of the vegetables are translucent. (Obviously not the carrots.) Add four medium potatoes, peeled and diced into half-inch cubes. Stir through, then add four quarts of chicken or vegetable stock (or water and bullion cubes).

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for twenty minutes, until the potatoes are cooked through. Taste and adjust seasonings. It may need salt; potatoes absorb it. A little pepper this stage is good, too.

To a plastic zip bag, add four Tbsp. All-purpose flour and four Tbsp softened butter; seal and knead until blended. Snip the end of the bag off with scissors and pipe the roux right into the soup, stirring constantly. When the soup looks creamy, add two cups of shredded co-jack cheese, slowly, stirring constantly. Finish with a tablespoon or two of fresh chopped dill and serve.

(If you want it to be flat-out vegan, use vegetable stock and omit the cheese.)

Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store worth the stop

One of my favorite places to stop on 169 between Mankato and the Twin Cities features an enormous selection of candy, gourmet soda, and fun. Run by Jim’s Apple Farm, Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store offers more than candy; it offers an experience.

My husband and I have been stopping at Jim’s Apple Farm, known locally as the big yellow barn, for at least a decade, and it’s changed a lot. Originally, it offered fresh apples and other produce in season, fresh baked apple pies and strudel, fudge, and a selection of locally sourced food products. The owners also offered what appeared to be a good variety of vintage and other candy.

Today, the elderly strudel maker has passed away, but the family still offers fresh baked pies, strudels, and apple cookies using the old recipes. They still offer the apples and pumpkins in season, and the locally sourced goods. But they’ve expanded significantly, and what was once a fun and modest selection of vintage candy is now a barn full of candy and snacks from around the world.

Additionally, with the expansion, the owners have incorporated life-sized friends from the Marvel, DC Comic, and Pixar universes in the main candy room, and the round observatory recently added includes suspended models of the U.S. Enterprise, Millenium Falcon, X-Wings and Tie-Fighters, and the Borg cube. At center stage in the observatory is a model of the TARDIS.

Highway 169 has been under construction all summer, so Wednesday was the first time all summer that we visited. We brought our little girls with us (offer a candy store visit to a preschooler and see how fast they buckle up in the car), and I honestly had more fun watching them than I did picking out candy.

First, the new atmosphere expands a point of view so that it always pays to look up. The little girls spotted a life-sized Wonder Woman statue first, and their squeals of “Wonder Woman!” followed by “Superman!” made me giggle. We spotted Iron Man, Thor, Cat Girl, Batman, The Joker, The Hulk, Harley Quinn, Flash, Captain America, the Silver Surfer, and the Iron Man Hulk Smasher all in that first room, looking as if they were ready to do battle over our heads.

As we passed through to the other side of the room, we found Sully and Mike from Monsters, Inc., a minion in a gas mask, and entire animatronic band made up of candy and raisin characters, all life-sized. We watched the band’s show twice–they perform every five minutes–and the girls and I danced along to Motown favorites. My husband was busy taking pictures.

We passed by a Zoltar Speaks machine on our way into the big round observatory room, to find the Borg Cube and the Enterprise suspended on opposite sides of the room, with the Star Wars space ships during it out in the middle, high above our heads in the round dome. The TARDIS took center stage in the room, and we had to pop in and out of it. Unfortunately, it was not bigger on the inside.

But in the observatory room we found a wide and varied selection of candies and snacks from around the world. While the British selection was still back in the main barn, near its red British telephone box, the observatory selection featured candy from Japan, Spain, Korea, and other places in its original packaging.

The girls were allowed to pick out candy for themselves, and that took some time. I picked out a Lion Bar from Britain, something I’ve missed after my stay there many years ago. A picked out a lollipop pop-up toy featuring her favorite character from the movie Frozen and a selection of suckers, while C picked out a box of Smarties. We also got a Chocolate Frog, apple cookies, gourmet soda, and handmade, locally sourced egg noodles (destined for from-scratch chicken and noodle soup).

The bathrooms had an upgrade a few years ago, and now, instead of two, single stalls, we found port-a-potty doors that opened up into spacious restrooms with several stalls and room for a nursing mother to take care of her baby.

We had a fantastic time, and it was well worth the trip.

One note: Jim’s Apple Farm and the Minnesota Largest Candy Store do not accept credit or debit cards, so be sure to bring your checkbook and/or plenty of cash. There are at least three ATMS on-site if you forget, but I’ll warn you: we rarely leave without spending at least $40.

The big yellow barn is located on the west side of Hwy 169 between Belle Plaine and Jordan, Minn. It’s hard to miss, open March through November, and closes for the season this year Nov. 25. I’ll be going back up to get my Thanksgiving pies.

Saying goodbye to a well-loved kitty

My 17-year-old cat, Jerry, passed away in the night.

When we adopted Jerry, he was an eight-month-old kitten considered nearly unadoptable because of his utter shyness. He’d been rescued from the woods with his litter, ill with pneumonia, and his first experiences with humans were the veterinarians who cared for him. It left him shy of human contact, though ultimately well-behaved at the vet and with the people he decided were his.

I was his.

We adopted him because he needed a home, and we needed a companion cat to our then nine-month-old cat, Bear, who was too social to be left on his own during the day when we were at work and school. Jerry’s foster parent brought him to us, because the stress of a public adoption day would be too much for the poor, shy kitten to handle. When it came time to decide if Jerry was staying or leaving, he scratched the poor woman and darted under our couch.

We decided that was a good enough declaration of interest in living with us and with Bear, and we kept him.

It took two weeks before he’d let someone pet him, a couple of months before I was able to cautiously pick him up. Both times were at his instigation. The first time, he jumped into my lap unexpectedly, and jumped right back out. The second time he jumped into my lap, where I was sitting in a recliner, I ran a hand down his back and he purred, and purred, and drooled with happiness.

My lap in my chair became his safe zone. One day, while I was walking down the hall in my small apartment, he planted himself at my feet and howled. I reached down slowly to pick him up, and he snuggled in and purred.

Jerry loved few, but he loved them well.

Over the years, he remained a healthy and loving cat at home, who was shy of outsiders. When we adopted teens, he rarely allowed them to see him, preferring to spend the bulk of his time in my room. When we later welcomed our little ones, he almost disappeared into my room completely.

Within the last few weeks, though, Jerry started to come out of hiding more and more, demanding attention. He demanded cuddles, and got them. He moved slowly, but allowed the little girls to play with him, pet him, and incorporate him into their games. He went outside for the first time in years, playing a slow game of tag with them, and then rolling in the grass.

I was torn between amazement at his sociability, and dread because I was afraid of what it might mean. I intended to take him to the vet this week for a look.

This morning, I didn’t see him in his usual place. And when I went to look for him, I found him curled up, and gone. I did take him to the vet today, but he didn’t come home with me.

He gave us lots of love, and we gave it right back. We’ll miss him.

One more note: Jerry and his brother, Bear, were both jet-black cats, gorgeous animals who had a hard time getting adopted in part because of their coloring. Please, if you’re considering adopting a cat, consider the black ones. They’ve also got a lot of love to give.

Both of our older cats, now gone, were adopted through Cause for Paws, Inc., in the Twin Cities. Our younger cat was adopted through the Human Society in Wichita, Kansas. Both organizations do the valiant work of keeping the feral cat population down and helping those cats in need to find good homes.

Hug your loved ones today.

October snow

We in Minnesota woke up Sunday to snow.

I’ll admit to having a complicated relationship with the stuff. Last winter, in the immediate aftermath of our first major snowstorm in January, I broke my leg treading through the drifts. It didn’t heal until the last storm of the winter in late April.

I spent most of the summer wearing Birkenstock sandals, for the back support that comes from the solid cork sole. At a recent conference, friends who live in the American South teased me about wearing sandals in 50-degree weather.

I told them I’d wear the sandals until snow fell.

Well, snow fell.

It also melted right away, so I’m still wearing my sandals this week.

October is early for snow in Minnesota, and it’s rare for us to see flakes even as late as Halloween. It reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story of the October Blizzard that kicked off the hard winter of her childhood, 1880-1881, captured in her book, The Long Winter.

The story, set in De Smet, S.D., recounts a winter packed with blizzard after blizzard. Trains couldn’t get through to the new frontier town, and by spring, many of the town’s occupants were starving, grinding seed wheat from their stores to make bread.

Dr. Barb Mayes Boustead, a meteorologist, developed a weather index for her dissertation that focused on that winter. She found, through its application, that Wilder’s depiction of the weather that winter was accurate. The index itself has interesting implications and applications for historians interested in how weather is talked about and how it actually was in history.

Boustead’s blog, Wilder Weather, devotes itself to weather and to Wilder, both, and it’s worth a read.

At the 2012 LauraPalooza, my mother and I spent a portion of our time showing attendees how to make and bake the Long Winter bread, made from ground wheat berries and sourdough starter. It’s actually pretty tasty, but I can’t imagine living off it for weeks.

I’m not particularly thrilled with the implications of October snow for this winter. But at least I found my boots. Just in case.

It’s all about the pumpkins.

My family and I enjoyed a quick trip to a pumpkin patch on Saturday. It’s our fall family tradition to find a good place to get pumpkins that we’ll later carve for our Halloween fun.

This year, we tried out Pumpkin Junction at Blue Skye Farm in Good Thunder, Minn. It’s open for visitors most weekends in October, and it’s one of the few sites we’ve found locally that have not just the pumpkins, but children’s activities and fun things to do, too.

GPS helped us find the farm, off old Hwy 66, and we were one of the first families to arrive. We were greeted by a host who explained the “system” to us. We got a form that listed everything they had for sale, and as we picked out what we wanted, we marked the sheet, paying for everything at the end. She also emphasized that children under 18 got to pick out a free pumpkin, so my girls were pretty excited.

Our first stop was the pumpkin patch. I picked up the clippers, but promptly handed them to husband Matt to wield because I am a notorious clutz. (See the story about the broken leg last winter, if you need further evidence.) We had lovely sunshine, but the wind whipped coldly across the patch as we trudged out in our boots to look at the ripe pumpkins on the vine.

G.G. was along with us, too, and she helped A find a good pumpkin first. By the time we filled our farm-provided green cart, we’d loaded five of our favorite, round, ripe, orange pumpkins. Our next stop was the activity tent, where games and a food booth were set up, as well as tables containing other fall vegetables–varied squash and gourds as well as dried corn.

Our girls picked out sweet treats at the food both (cookies and cupcakes from a local bakery) before we heard the call that the hay rides were starting. We picked up our treats and headed over to the wagon filled with hay bales, drawn behind a tractor. (We like horse-drawn rides best, and cheerfully call ourselves “horse groupies” during the holiday season for our tendency to find where all the horse-drawn rides are, but the tractor worked well, too.)

The tractor made a large loop around the farm, allowing us to see the squash, gourds and pumpkins still in the fields. The girls excitedly squealed each time they saw a new kind of gourd in the field, and C particularly liked the white pumpkins on the ground.

When the long ride was over, we headed to the corrals to see the horses and the calf that were out for petting. Our girls love animals, and visiting the animals, wherever we are, always makes them happy.

The farm also included a hay maze that topped out about five feet in height, which was perfect for small children and their taller parents, but by the time we considered it, we were too cold to stay outside. That whippy wind got the best of us.

Blue Skye Farm is open one more weekend this year.

Meanwhile, what do we do with the pumpkins?

We’ll carve them this week, and I’ll make roasted pumpkin seeds for snacking on.

Lessons learned about politics, media, and women

I spent the end of last week in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the annual convention of the American Journalism Historians Association. I’m a long-time member and past president, and it’s my favorite event each year.

This year, I presented a paper about press coverage of gender and gender violence, specifically during the years the Internet was emerging, 1990-2000. I started that research at the behest of a friend working on a book about social media and gender violence, and the recent usage of social media both for harassment and for political organization made examining the historical context even more important.

I didn’t know, when I started the work, just now relevant it would become in the week I presented it.

Social media, as with any media platform, is a tool. In and of itself, social media platforms are neutral. But the people using them? Those people can use them for whatever they want. In the 1990s, people were both concerned by the level of harassment possible online, and optimistic about the tool’s potential uses for change.

And in the last two weeks, we’ve seen examples of the best and the worst of those frames.

The best: Using social media to connect women, organize, and be voices for change. Alyssa Milano, Elizabeth Warren, and many other women stood up and tried to bring attention to ideological struggle represented by the GOP’s determination to appoint a man with a documented history of harassment toward women to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The worst: Using social media to bully, harass, and intimidate women who were trying to be voices for change. Memes attempting to diminish the work of these women abounded on numerous sites. Women’s struggles were portrayed as meaningless; our body autonomy was undercut; our very real problems with men who think our bodies are their playgrounds were mocked.

I at one point considered writing a post about the multiple times over the years where I faced sexual assault and harassment, but ultimately, I could not bring myself to relive any of it for public consumption. I will only say I didn’t report because I knew nothing would be done. I admire Dr. Ford for her willingness to come forward and face the ridicule, disbelief, and scorn I could not.

I will also say that any woman who attempts a career in a largely male-dominated field can expect a degree of harassment and assault as a norm. We learn to live with it or we get out. And frankly, we shouldn’t have to live with it.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, one in four women between the ages of 18 and 24 suffer some form of sexual assault, and one in 20 men suffer the same. Why any of us who have suffered would mock the rest escapes me. But that is exactly what I saw on social media.

Conservative friends and family who jumped on that train and shared such mocking? You can unfriend me. I certainly blocked you.

My research about how media platforms are used by people to build and tear down community is ongoing. I won a research grant at AJHA to help continue my work, and I look forward to it.

And on the political front, I’m massively disappointed in the Republican Party. I’ve been an independent voter for years, but the last two weeks have been enough for me. I’m officially declaring myself a Democrat. I’ll be wearing blue on November 6.

Chocolate Chip Cookies: Comfort food for a hard week

Times are challenging, the news is triggering, and I’m not quite sure what I want to say about all of it. I learned long ago not to speak out rashly in anger, but to think carefully about what I want to say, especially about important and potentially combative topics.

That said. I’m still angry. So I’m still percolating.

While I’m percolating, I decided to share one of my comfort food recipes. I’ve made so many batches of Chocolate Chip Cookies that I no longer need to refer to the recipe. I am the family cookie baker, but my skills with this recipe were honed in my time as a nutritionist and cook’s assistant for the campus day care at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Four out of five days in the week, I prepared and served healthy, balanced snacks for the under-five set.

But on Fridays, I broke out the treats.

Chocolate Chip Cookies are a classic favorite. My original recipe was ripped right from the Nestle Chocolate Chip bag, but I’ve tweaked it a lot to produce a cookie that’s uniformly cooked, chewy instead of crunchy, and loaded with chocolate chips. Pay special attention to the method.

The recipe:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Beat together until fluffy:

3/4 cup of white sugar

3/4 cup of brown sugar

1/2 cup of real butter

1/2 cup of butter-flavored shortening

Gently stir in:

2 eggs

1 teaspoon of vanilla

Blend in:

1 cup of all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

Fold in:

1 1/4 cups additional white flour

Fold in:

2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips (Variation: mix up your chips–my husband particularly likes a mix of butterscotch and chocolate chips)

Using a one-ounce scoop (or a rounded teaspoon), drop cookies onto ungreased sheet pans. I bake two sheets at a time, swapping the trays’ placement in the oven half-way through baking. I usually start with 4:30 on the timer, then swap for another 4:30.

Your oven might be tricky, so watch for lightly browned bottoms and golden, dry tops of the cookies. If the tops are brown, you’ve baked them too long for the chewy stage. They’ll still be tasty, but they’ll be crunchy. Yield is about four dozen.

I made a double batch this week.