It was such a tease. I mean really, 85 degrees in early April? But we jumped in with both feet, wanting to take full advantage of the amazing day; which meant doing the one thing I enjoy as much as cooking. In fact I am content to do it for hours on end, stopping only for beverage or bathroom breaks. What could get me so worked up? Tilling. That’s right, tilling. I find it soothing, contemplative, transporting. I feel fulling engaged with the earth and endless memories find their way into my consciousness.
Whenever I till, the chugging of the engine and the turning of the blades are cathartic. The land becomes a canvas. Any past transgressions from the previous year, are swept away. It is spring, the season of renewed hope. The land opens and we begin. Weeds are no longer weeds, but green manure adding nitrogen to the soil. The scent is part rot, part nurture, part birth. There is nothing quite like it. Both the land and I simply breathe.
When I was a child our family vacationed at a resort called Journey’s End. It was a group of cabins along the Connecticut River outside Brattleboro, Vermont. Each of the cabins was named after a particular bird. There was the Chickadee, the Robin, the Sparrow and the Junko, all clustered along the river. I remember them to be quaint and close together like birds at a feeder. Our family stayed in one that was farther up the mountain, called the Raven. I loved the mystery of its name and the way it was positioned at the top of a gully that was carpeted with bracken fern under a canopy of birch trees. There was always an under current of tension in our family, but this tension would dissolve when we arrived at Journey’s End.
Perhaps it was the mountains, or the trees, or the screened in porch that ran the length of the cabin. Maybe it was the mismatched china, the squeaky iron beds, the huge stone fireplace, the claw-foot bath tub, the absence of a schedule or agenda. We seemed to collectively exhale as a family. We played games and hiked. I went searching for antiques with my parents. We ate clam chowder, bread pudding and apple pie with a slice of fresh cheddar on top. But my strongest memory came one afternoon when everyone was gone except my father and me. My brothers were with friends and my mother had gone into town for supplies. It was dark and gray, with thunder rumbling in the distance. My father was practicing his harmonica, while I was laying on one of the twin lounging beds out on the porch. It had a faded canvas cover with large pink roses on it. It sagged under my weight and smelled slightly musty. I felt safe; life felt simple. Large rain drops started to fall on the metal roof, their cadence mixing with the sound of my father’s harmonica, the musty bed, and the wet earth. My heart broke open and tears ran down my temples. I understood our family’s pain and sadness were not permanent. Whenever I smell moist earth, and the rot of humus, I feel strangely hopeful. It is visceral and a salve. I somehow knew my family would find its way and that I would too.
I have tilled 2.5 acres of our land. Val has planted over 100 rows of spring veggies. We are sunburned and hungry. Val wants something earthy, so I suggest Cheddar Polenta with Mushroom Ragu. Val pours wine and we begin……..
Each experience leaves an imprint, its transformation into something useful is a choice.
Cheddar Polenta with Mushroom Ragout
- 1 Tbsp salt
- 1 1/4 cups instant polenta
- 1 cup half-and-half
- 1 Tbsp freshly ground pepper
- 2 cups shredded sharp white Cheddar cheese (6 oz)
- Bring 5 cups of water to boil in a heavy medium saucepan. Add the salt. Gradually whisk in the polenta over moderate heat. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until thickened and smooth, about 5 minutes.
- Stir the half-and-half and pepper into the polenta. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Spoon the polenta onto a warmed platter or individual plates and serve with the Mushroom Ragout.
- 1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms (1/2 oz)
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 3/4 lb cremini mushrooms, stems removed, caps thickly sliced
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 Tbsp finely chopped shallots
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
- In a small bowl, soak the porcinis in 1 1/2 cups of hot water until softened, about 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, melt 1 Tbsp of the butter in a large heavy skillet. Add one-third of the fresh mushrooms, season with salt and pepper and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a large plate. Repeat the process twice with 2 more Tbsp of butter and the remaining mushrooms, then return all the cooked mushrooms to the pan.
- Drain the porcinis, reserving the soaking liquid. Rinse and coarsely chop the porcinis and add them to the pan with shallots and garlic. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring for 3 minutes. Add the porcini liquid, stopping when you reach the grit at the bottom. Boil over high heat until reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining 1 Tbsp of butter. Serve at once.