This year, the Taste Chase is branching out a bit by exploring what our readers are cooking up in their kitchens. The plan is that every month or so, we will highlight someone who is whipping up some tasty tidbit, doing something new and exciting culinary-wise, putting a new twist on something old, or just plain reminding us about the joys of cooking at home. From the cupboard to the garden, The Taste Chase wants to encourage you, through fellow readers and others, to fire up your cauldrons, throw in a little hocus pocus, and create a little kitchen magic of your own.
A few weeks ago, I was lazing around at a friend’s house and, as our families enjoyed pizza and games on Friday night, we began casually chatting about random topics in the food world. The discussion ranged from the underuse of spices, the questionable truths of many farm-to-table endeavors, to the tragedy that is pizza crust in the open market. She suddenly jumped up, excitedly saying, “You’ve got to try this. A friend of mine made this. It’s incredible.” Insert obligatory needle scratching on a vinyl record here.
If you are a faithful reader of The Taste Chase, you will know that those words read like a big “Danger” sign to me. Immediately, I hasten the troops to protect my sensitive taste buds at all cost, knowing that when such words are uttered, doom is sure to follow… sometimes accompanied by a gratuitous lie with remnants of the offending specimen left in a napkin somewhere. Two jars of what looked like jelly sat before me with a spoon accompanying them. The first one smelled heady with peaches and clover honey and maybe lavendar. I love peaches so, with spoon in hand, my well fortified taste buds and I entered the fray. It was truly delicious with hints of some kind of herb, as well as chunks of home grown peaches. I have tasted peach jam before, but this was quite unique for me. The second was a conglomerate of summer fruits with a distinct agent of heat — a pepper of some kind.
She proceeded to tell me that her friend, Emily Vickers, made these delectable spreads. Emily gave them to her after a luxurious dinner featuring a french cassoulet. She went on to tell me about Emily’s garden, and Emily’s barn, and how she makes all these wonderful things from all these wonderful ingredients. I wanted to meet this enchanting woman and find out the secret to her magic.
I knew I had seen Emily Vickers and her husband, Tom Mason, (though it was from a distance a few weeks prior to tasting her jams), so my friend kindly introduced us online and we set up a day and time to meet. Then, on a recent sunny May day (there have only been 4), I went to meet this couple that has carved out a magical haven in Hopewell. I heard the tales of a meal that took a few days to make and so bewitched my friend she salivated at the memory. That’s some serious magic folks.
I drove down what I thought was a long driveway but it had way too much character to be one. It was more as Emily described on the phone, a lane, flanked with rich verdant wild shrubbery on either side. A jovial smile, broad and welcoming met me, waving me toward a place to park. Emily, a petite woman with a glorious long mane of grey hair, opened her arms and greeted me. I told her I had tasted her jam and chutney at a friend’s home and how I was impressed that she made something so unique.
“I use a lot of things from my garden,” she said. She didn’t ask if I liked either the jam or the chutney. She already knew and I like that about her.
She showed me around her glorious property, Van Dyke Farm, and immediately I was submerged in this bucolic Shangri-la of homegrown vegetables, barn cats, fruit trees, and free roaming poultry. I managed to hold myself back from singing the whole score to “Oklahoma!”. A wonderful old barn stood before me, open on both sides, inviting the spring breeze to come and play. I asked her about her passion for cooking and eating.
Her charming smile barely breaking, she commented, “I love interacting with food…cutting into an onion, peeling raw vegetables. There are few foods I don’t like handling. There is something therapeutic about chopping food, getting to really know what it is you’re eating,” she continued in her barely noticeable southern cadence.
Before you dismiss her as some free-thinking 60’s remnant, she is anything but that… well, maybe a little that Emily is an Atlanta/Athens, Georgia native who spent 30+ years in NYC as a producer of still photography (think car ads in high-end magazines and trade pubs). She and her husband Tom spent most of their free time here in the Valley refurbishing and restoring their property since the late 70’s. Today, this haven boasts a wonderfully restored barn full of flavor and memories both old and new, filled with antiques, comfortable furnishings, signs from by gone days — just the kind of place you see yourself propping your feet up, breathing deeply and pouring yourself a cold whatever while watching the sunset.
“This is our party barn. We entertain our friends out here, enjoy the seasons and all that kind of thing,” said Emily.
We walk past the barn, past a beautifully restored cottage that serves as offices for Emily and Tom, and then walked toward the house. On the way, we passed a very interesting contraption that I had never seen before, a wooden structure, consisting of three foot logs piled on top of each other in a square shape and fenced in by more wood. On it, I saw three or four solitary mushrooms.
“That is Tom’s shiitake mushroom project. You should see it when it is absolutely covered,” she exclaimed excitedly. Her statement reminded me of why I was visiting her in the first place; I wanted to know what secrets made her food so beguiling to my friend and apparently to others
“I think the best thing I would tell anyone about cooking is to be adventurous. Don’t be afraid to try new things and don’t be afraid to make a few mistakes. Don’t make and eat the same things all the time.” That is a trap that many of us fall into.
She went on to talk about spices like cardamon and tarragon and the importance of the right cutlery. “A great set of kitchen knives is essential,” Emily stated quite authoritatively, while letting me know that she does not own a blender or food processor of any kind.
We discussed the dulling of the American taste bud into a flavorless haze of over processed, manufactured flavors created in a lab for convenience rather than nutrition, and textures found nowhere in nature. I was anxious to ask her about her french cassoulet, something I had only heard of before. I never thought I would meet anyone outside of her majesty, Ms. Child, who would ever attempt to make one. Emily’s eyes got big as she remembered the preparation of that dish.
“Three days to make,” she stated somewhat exhaustedly, “but it was worth it. Don’t think I’ll be making that again anytime soon.” She went on to tell me what a cassoulet was and its origins. You can Google “cassoulet” but to appreciate it, I suggest you check out Julia Child’s demonstration on YouTube. A Cassoulet is essentially a peasant bean dish from Southern France with goose, pork lamb and other meats. It varies from region to region and, as it has traveled across European lands, has been adapted and changed accordingly. Lots of aromatic herbs and spices are used to flavor the dish which is right up Emily and Tom’s alley.
Their garden and greenhouse, which she showed off to me later, is fodder for gardener’s envy but, like everything else on their property, she reminded me “We did all this ourselves.” Bursting with herbs of all kinds, basil, cilantro, parsley and leafy greens, carrots, potatoes, chinese cabbage and others, her greenhouse and the bounty of the garden kept this pilates instructor and her husband fed all winter. “We ate a LOT of vegetables” she tells me with a just a hint of exasperation in her voice. Obviously, no slacker in the garden or the kitchen.
“I love watching people enjoy what I have cooked. There is a satisfaction there. Tom is my best audience,” she tells me remembering the best compliment she got from him. After cooking a meal and Tom sitting down to eat it, he said to her, quite matter-of-factly, “There is nothing bad on this plate.” She laughs at the memory and how she didn’t understand how to take that comment initially but now appreciates the honesty and frankness of that compliment.
“One of the dishes I made that was wonderful was a chartreuse.” We are all familiar with the color and perhaps the cocktail but this was nothing I had heard of before. “One of the places I get good ideas and inspiration is the magazine section of the Sunday New York times,” Emily informed me. She handed me a clipping from that magazine and according to it, a chartreuse is a “preparation of vegetables (particularly braised cabbage) and meat or game, molded into a dome and formed of layers.” Above the definition was a picture of something that looked like a cake. “Mine looked better,” Emily posited, a sly smile spreading across her face. The picture of a chartreuse made of cabbage on the outside, spinach on the inside, and a thin layer of mushrooms in between the layers of spinach looked like a Renoir. I thought that photo would be hard to beat, with lights and angles and such. She assured me that hers was better.
As my time with Emily was winding down, we got up to walk to my car. Passing the kitchen, she ducked into the pantry and along with half a dozen farm fresh, free roaming chicken eggs, I left with a mason jar of homemade pear preserves from where else?) her own pear tree. I was looking forward to trying the preserves on my morning toast. We walked out the door of the country home she shares with Tom, past the pear tree, past the old corn crib, stopping to visit the laying hens and the temperamental but beautiful rooster strutting in the yard and crowing loudly. I collected my bag from the “party barn” and noticed a fistful of mostly blue and a few red ribbons hanging inconspicuously on a wall. I asked her what those were or what they were for.
“Oh, these are ribbons I won for my jams and jellies at the local fair,” she told me. No surprise there.
My take away was that the magic lies in loving to cooking but loving to eat more, being adventurous and not settling for what is easy all the time, good utensils, fresh ingredients, flavors, textures, smells, laughter, wine, friends. “Put ‘em together and what have you got…bibbidi, bobbidi…boo!” Kitchen magic.