candyReaching into my mailbox recently, I pulled out a small, brown package with a return address of Salem, Massachusetts.  I admit, my  imagination immediately drifted off to eye of newt, mandrake and toadflax, as I innocently opened the bundle seeing smoke arise enveloping me in a mystical spell.  Alas, my package during this month of Samhain, was something a little sweeter.  My niece sent me Salem Gibralters, well known since the early 1800’s primarily on the East Coast, I’m guessing.  A favorite of sea captains because of its unique ability to stay fresh, the peppermint bar is a little like those pastel butter mints I remember.  Still made from the original ingredients used by a Mrs. Spencer who travelled from England and landed in North Salem with not a penny to her name after surviving a shipwreck.  The townsfolk took pity on her and donated supplies, one of which was a barrel of sugar (they had heard that Mrs. Spencer was a candy maker).  Sold out of a pail on the steps of the Church, the candy drew rave reviews and Mrs. Spencer soon purchased a wagon to sell her confection far and wide.  The packaging is part of the old-fashioned allure consisting of an envelope-shaped packet with the peppermint “bar” loosely wrapped in parchment paper inside.  Gibralters are touted as the first commercially made candy in America.  My package of sweets also included Black Jacks, a stick candy made from black-strap molasses that immediately transported my daughter to the Banks of Plum Creek.  Who says our kids’ imagination has been eaten away by cell phones and video games?  A little candy never hurt anyone.

You may be wondering where “the rabbit” has escaped to in this short story.  Unfortunately, he didn’t run fast enough from something and ended up as a leg and a foot in the dog’s mouth.   And the witch is apparently living in Washington state under my name!

Read more about Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie
122 Derby Street
Salem, MA

*The nineteen women (and men) who were thought to be witches and hanged in 1692 in Salem where exonerated by the Massachusetts State Legislature in 2001, but the specter of fear, extremism, and false accusations, still haunts us today.

Itcotton_600px‘s Indian Summer here in the Midwest although the official First Day of Autumn was last week. Pumpkins and Indian Corn popped up at the farmers market several weeks ago and I broke down and made my first batch of pumpkin-inspired baked goods this weekend (Pumpkin Cookies with Brown Butter Icing).  I have successfully denied myself the bags of Halloween candy in the supermarket so far but my resolve is waning.

Each year around this time, our school garden hosts a “night out” to invite families and kids into the garden, to picnic and watch a movie out-of-doors. And each year I’m asked to do a short presentation on something exciting in the garden. This year, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but fluffy, white, puff balls of cotton in the Land of Lincoln. Yes, cotton can be grown as an annual anywhere with approximately 120-180 days of warmth. Our cotton plants have grown to at least 7′ high and about as much wide! Not your typical variety grown in the southern states, but certainly the same end product. I remember seeing my first cotton field in Alabama, a sea of white, and thinking it was so beautiful. I’ll give you the cliff notes version of my garden lesson:

  • evidence of cotton cloth has been discovered as far back as 7,000 years ago
  • the U.S. produces over $25 billion of cotton annually and is a major world producer
  • 95% of all cotton becomes clothing or textiles
  • cotton seeds were first planted in the colonies in the late 1500’s and cotton was considered a specialty crop because it was so labor-intensive
  • in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which revolutionized the separation of seeds from lint (fluff) and created a huge demand for labor to pick ever more cotton
  • the demand for slave labor increased as the production of cotton exploded throughout the southern states
  • production of cotton rose from 156,000 bales to 4 million bales in just six short years following his invention
  • our garden variety has both yellow and pink blossoms which flower, die back, and leave a green boll that looks like a venus fly trap to me
  • the fibers inside the boll expand pushing out the seeds as the boll ripens until hard and brown and the lint literally pops out

It’s still a little early for the cotton harvest in the South but here in Central Illinois ours will need to be picked soon and will be carded, spun and used in fiber art by the kids at school. Nature creates such amazing things on its own that I don’t need to work too hard to find something “exciting” in the garden.

Wmrsbicecreamith great fanfare (and many requests for seconds), Mrs. B’s Birthday Bash ice cream was unveiled last month in honor of the bicentennial year of Bradley University Founder, Lydia Moss Bradley (1816-2016).  Because I live within a stone’s throw of campus, I believed I should “honorarily” celebrate, i.e. taste, the new flavor created by Spotted Cow, Peoria’s home-grown and home-made ice cream maker. Vanilla ice cream with a red velvet ribbon certainly matches the color-scheme of BU, but how does it taste? I don’t know if Mrs. B. liked ice cream, but to me her signature flavor was understated as I believe she was, not too artificial or sweet, but offering enough of that red-velvety flavor to enjoy a scoop or two.  Mrs. Bradley was one sharp ice crystal if you’ve read anything about her and way ahead of her time.  She made her first investment while still in her teens and proceeded to marry, have six children, lose a dear husband, assume control of a valuable estate, marry again and divorce, heartbreakingly lose all six children, and quietly accumulate through smart business deals, over a million dollars – all of this in the mid-1800’s.  That is one determined and very strong woman who lived her life the way she wanted not how society dictated.She shattered the glass ceiling that we still struggle with today.  In addition to starting the Bradley Polytechnic Institute, she was also instrumental in donating land and funds to launch some of the bigger philanthropies in Peoria.  I think she would appreciate her cool tribute and probably chuckle in private about “those crazy kids” making ice cream for me … I hope their studying too.

Happy 200th Birthday … may your spirit inspire us all!

Spotted Cow
718 W. Glen Ave.
Peoria, IL
Mon-Thurs: 10:30am – 9pm
F-Sat: Open until 10pm
Sun: Open until 9pm
*Mrs. B’s is available through the end of the year

What stuff?  And who is Dave?  And so begins my tale of a Tuesday night road trip to the booming metropolis of Lincoln, Illinois (population 14,000). Home to the beautiful Logan County Courthouse built in 1905, Lincoln was the first city named after Abraham Lincoln before he was elected President (they must have been feeling lucky).  And why was I venturing out on this sultry, humid evening?  Not because I wanted to purchase Black Velvet coffee at By the Bean or because I wanted to try the sauce at Guzzardos’s Italian Villa, but because I was meeting a guy to pick up the stuff.

We met on the square.  Ate lasagna and eggplant parm.  Walked out the back door. Ducked down when the 40’s Ford Deluxe drove by (just in case). And then made the hand-off as twilight descended.

The guy ⇒ my brother, aka “The Stinger”
The stuff ⇒ fresh from the hive honey

As a newly christened beekeeper, my brother collected his first, 20 lb batch of honey from two hives (population 40,000).  I was pick-up and delivery for the Peoria “syndicate” (there was a lot of excitement). This will be the only honey harvested since it’s the first year, the hives are still developing, and the bees need food for the Winter.  A quick taste when I got home (safe and sound) presented a rich, smooth, and slightly lemon-y flavor that will be perfect with goat cheese and maybe a date or two.

As for “The Stinger”, he drove back to D-town to double check nobody had messed with his remaining stuff … it won’t be pretty if they have.

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Guzzardos’s Italian Villa
509 Pulaski St.
Lincoln, IL
(217) 732-6370
*Been around for 50 years – located on the square through the Arcade. Enter by the back door off the patio (there really is no front door).  It will seem like you’re going into the kitchen, but just head up the stairs.  Known for their prime rib.  The Pizza, Lasagna, and Eggplant Parmesan were all great comfort food in large portions.  Loved the full salad bar with kidney bean salad.

lemon3It’s still hot, the mosquitoes are fierce, and the cicadas are loud, but Summer is winding down.  It’s always a bittersweet time, and even more so this go around, with the start of an eighth grade graduation year.  A recent back-to-school barbecue saw misty eyes and a few “remember when’s” from parents who suddenly realized they’d hit a milestone; a point of no return both exhilarating and crushing.  With the perfect combination of tart lemon, sweet strawberries and a delicate pink frosting, I thought Strawberry Lemonade Sugar Cookies would be the perfect antidote to soothe the parents and delight the kids.  A bit old-fashioned, these cookies seem to hearken back to a simpler, younger time when picture books and a wagon were king and queen and a stone pedestal near the garden was the perfect perch for a tea party.  Enjoy!

Strawberry Lemonade Sugar Cookies
*I made a few tweaks to the recipe adding additional lemon zest to the sugar reserved for pressing the dough and adding a bit of the lemon sugar to the strawberries before crushing for the frosting.

butterflyThanks JMM for the recipe and my grown up girl for the photos and the helping hand!

pie_HMI have a chalk board I made out of an old frame that says “New Beginnings” at the moment.  It’s a rotating message board reflecting whatever pops into my head when I feel it needs to be changed. I simply open my mind and voila. It’s become a barometer of my life at any given time. New. Stress. Beginning. Stress. That makes perfect sense to me.  Change seems to be all around me at the moment. I try to control things by giving it a time frame of today or after next week or ’til things settle down … but really things change all the time; every day, every hour. And my crazy need to be in control and corral all that change leads to stress (I’m pretty sure someone really smart and insightful came to that conclusion before me). The shadow of excitement and anticipation briefly appears but is quickly swamped by the dark clouds of anxiety and fear.  What does this all have to do with pie you may be thinking?  Well, David Mamet said it best in the title of this post … and I took his advice. If you haven’t been to Hoosier Mama Pie Company in Evanston (or Chicago) it’s a great place for perspective … and pie.  I met my long-time high school and college friend there recently, who is incidentally going through her own major life change, to re-connect and de-stress.  It wasn’t an intentional choice of venue but, like opening my mind for chalk board sayings, it just came to me.  What is more comforting and re-assuring and instills a feeling like the warm breath of your Mama than pie.  Apple raspberry and blueberry were our choices out of about 8-10 available that day and close to 40 options available to order online (sorry, only pick-up. no delivery). If you don’t feel sweet, try a savory option instead.  The Evanston location is paired with Dollop Coffee & Tea Co. so you can get a decent cup ‘o joe too.  Swapping stories and sharing concerns and memories with a friend over pie is living in the moment even if that moment is full of great uncertainty … and you’d rather be hiding in the closet.  Take a breath and eat a piece of pie. Ahhh.

collage_HM

Thanks to EJM for the photos!

IMG_0385Summer in the Midwest means corn – tall, green, hearty stalks that march on for miles along Illinois’ flat highways and byways. Visitors complain that it’s so FLAT, but to my mind, it’s breath-able and open and you always know what’s up ahead.  In Summer, it’s just more corn.  As the second largest corn-producer in the US, you’d think you could just hop out of your car on Route 116 and pick a dozen ears. Not recommended for two reasons:  1) our hard-working farmers will not be pleased; and, 2) that corn is not for eatin’ (at least for two-legged humans or until its been processed into things that no one has ever actually seen like high-fructose corn syrup).  Now, the sweet corn harvest, on the other hand, is just starting to come in stacked high at the Farmers Markets.  I eat mine raw, right from the cob, no cooking required.  The sweetness pops in your mouth with every bite and fairly bursts with sunshine. On a recent weekday travelling south to Champaign to pick up my daughter from volleyball camp my stomach is rumbling and “I got to get me some of that corn”!

Luckily, I can stop in again at Maize Mexican Grill to load up on hand-made corn tortillas and authentic Mexican fare that warms my palate.  The tiny spot right on Green Street (the main campustown drag) offers dine-in, carry-out, or outside dining on picnic tables.  Not fancy, and can get really busy with long lines out the door, the always hoppin’ place serves simple, hearty, homemade dishes with fresh ingredients and friendly service. Indoors is a small counter with colorful Mexican tiles where you can drink your Mexican coke from a bottle and feast on chips with two kinds of salsa and fresh limes.  On this visit I had a spicy, chorizo taco with loads of fresh cilantro, a grilled chicken quesadilla, and velvety guacamole piled so high we couldn’t even finish it!  They were also offering fresh watermelon water that day which the woman next me said was wonderful.

Collecting awards since opening in 2011, Maize says 90% of their menu is gluten free, how about that for hitting on a trend, and they offer some interesting ingredients to try on each new visit – chicharron (pork back) or pastor (marinated pork), zucchini blossoms, and huitlacoche (a corn ‘mushroom’ and let’s leave it at that).

Take a road trip this Summer before the students all come back and enjoy Mexican food in the middle of the Heartland celebrating the eternal kernal.

Maize Mexican Grill
60 East Green Street
Champaign, IL
11am – 9pm every day
Minimum $5 credit card purchase (and no AMX)