Monday, September 24, 2007

The Japanese reviews are in!

BEST IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD was chosen by readers as one of the best romance novels in Simon & Schuster's First Chapter's Competition. We placed number 20 in a field of 296 entries, without bringing our own entourage. Although not chosen by the Gather Team to go forward into the finals, 165 people left positive comments.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Going to Montana in my mind...

What I wanted to do and what I did do this summer are worlds apart, and yet if I stop and think carefully, perhaps that is not a true sense of the meaning behind emerging events. I’d planned to go to Montana to complete research for my third book, much of which takes place there. I was going to dig deep, search for information and reach out for experiences not contained within files, photographs and musty papers. I’d wanted to be there---to place my feet on that piece of land, to feel that sky sweep above me. To touch the wind as it caressed my cheek, to taste the ice-cold water. I’d wanted to experience the scent of grass growing green from beneath the earth. I’d wanted to hear the songs of those birds. As is my habit, I wanted my knowing to be first-hand for one can’t experience the real Montana in a day or two, or on a week’s vacation, or simply by driving through. To really know something about living in that place during the chaotic sweep of the 1800’s, I would need a stretch of time from the end of one winter to the beginning of the next---affectionately known in these mountains as “summer”---a brief idyllic respite from harsher aspects of life within which is contained the entirety of all seasons.

Since I wasn't able to go peacefully into Montana for the summer, I had to find a way to bring those mountains here. After all, our mountains are not much different from their mountains, and our grass is not easily distinguishable from theirs. What exactly would I do differently if I were there instead of here?

Truly, not much would change. If I were to look at the teeming life around me under the same glass that I had intended to bring to Montana, would I not experience much that was the same? And of course, provided I am not run over by a truck in the very near future, there is still time left to verify this summer’s conclusions.

There is no time like the present. Today is a fine young day in these mountains. There are already a few snow banks forming on the east-facing ridges above me. And a ruby-throated finch is singing, heart full of joy, atop the blue spruce tree directly in front of my newly opened eyes. A river, foaming, frothy with white water, well-fed by tiny cascading brooklets racing madly down each crest, roars past my perch on the porch above it. And a sharp breeze moves directly up river coming all the way from the Bitterroots to kiss my cheek as I write.

The views from where I sit could not be more akin to ones I’ve clung to had I constructed these with my own hand. A rock, my rock, as big as or bigger than our house, sits serene in the sunshine clothed in springtime green, garlanded by tiny blue asters and the dark green leaves of violets that soften the stark and craggy stone. And a natural “park” as pretty as any designated by federal authority sits beneath my rock, lush and inviting, with music provided by a rock band of red-winged blackbirds nesting in the willows beyond. A natural stone chimney at the edge of my park invites us to grill our favorite treats over hot coals at its base, much as the aboriginal people did a century and a half ago when they enjoyed the bend of this river as their home. Summer here is good and we have duties. It is our turn now to be caretakers of this place. Mountains, river, the music of life, glorious green things clinging, tall grass growing, a scent of fresh feathery sage---I have only to let myself go, to close my eyes and breathe, to keep my eyes closed and listen. I have only to touch the strand of hair that blows against my cheek to be in a place called “montana”---land of mountains.

When my stories had their beginnings, there was no place called Montana---no strange-sounding name. All this was THAT with no lines on paper to demarcate territory or ownership. There was only THIS which stretched unlined, untouched, forever expanding in all directions within the great circle of awareness which lives in all things. There was only this...and it was good.

Photo credit: Natalie Neal Whitefield

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My family's traditional bread recipe...

In my family, the pivotal ingredient of daily fare has always been bread. My grandmother’s family were wheat ranchers. For them bread-baking was a way of life. This method has been handed down for generations.

First, grind wheat berries into flour. Then fire up the wood cook range in the summer kitchen. Only kidding!

My grandmother actually did have a screened outdoor summer kitchen complete with a sink and wood-fired cook range. My mother didn’t have a summer kitchen but she did have two cook ranges in her big farm kitchen, one wood-fired and the other electric. Almost no one cooks that way anymore.
I take that back. Amish women still do. We used to attend Amish auctions in Iowa where women and girls would serve refreshments prepared inside one of those big screened summer kitchens. Pies, cookies, cakes, lemonade and coffee were always available for purchase by those in attendance. If you ever get a chance to go to an Amish auction, don’t hesitate. It’s a real treat!
Even if you have no summer kitchen, you will have to turn off the air conditioning. And close any open windows. The ideal temperature for yeast to activate properly is between 70 to 82 degrees F. Bread dough likes a warm cozy place so it is essential to maintain evenness in room temperature throughout the bread making process.
The basic ingredients for this method are liquid, flour, and yeast---and time. Eggs, oil, extra fiber and salt are optional.
Make sure you will have sufficient time to devote to the process. The entire morning. Or an afternoon. You can be doing other things around home, but a certain amount of focused attention is needed to maintain an evenness in the procedures as these unfold.
If possible have all your ingredients at room temperature. You will also need a supply of clean kitchen towels, a large mixing bowl, and a heating pad. (If you don’t have a heating pad, that’s Ok. We’ll deal with the constant temperature issue later.) You will also need a wooden “bread board” or a clean smooth wooden surface such as a low table top upon which you will knead the dough. Or you could use a pastry cloth on top of any clean table top surface. Even the backside of a clean wooden kitchen cutting board will work if it is a big one. But don’t use the side that you’ve sliced and diced on. You wouldn’t want the dough to absorb the tastes of old garlic or fresh onions!
Ok. We’re ready. Let’s do it! Let’s bake bread.
I use about one cup of liquid for each loaf of bread. For our purposes, we’ll make enough dough for two standard loaves. You may use water, the water left over from cooking potatoes or carrots, or you may use milk. I use milk. If I had fresh organic milk, I would use that, but since I no longer have access to my family’s dairy farm, I buy milk at the grocery store like everyone else. You can use skim milk, 2%, or whole milk--- It’s up to you.
The liquid must be scalded--- whether we use milk, plain water, or vegetable cooking waters---This step is to make sure there are no natural yeasts or bacteria present in the liquid. Scald means to heat until tiny bubbles appear around the edges of the liquid inside the pan. Do not bring milk to the boiling point as it scorches easily and will boil over the sides of the pan. (Allow scalded liquid to cool to a lukewarm temperature.)
Put a couple of pats of butter into the hot milk, or a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. If low-fat bread is desired, this addition can be eliminated.
Add a couple of handfuls of wheat germ, or flax seed, or flax seed meal, oat flakes, sunflower seeds, or even cooked cereal left over from breakfast. Add some, all or none of these ingredients. It’s up to you. Whatever you add will give texture to the bread and help to cool the milk. You may also add a beaten egg or two at this point once the milk/cereal mixture has cooled to lukewarm. Cover your milk/cereal mixture with a clean cloth and set it aside in a warm place.
If you have sour dough starter:
I use a cup or two of my sour dough starter to create a sponge, placing the sour dough in a warmed mixing bowl and placing the bowl on top of an electric heating pad which has been placed beneath a towel. I place a clean white kitchen towel over the bowl and let my starter sponge begin to bubble. I might proof and add an additional tablespoon of dry baker's yeast to this mixture if my sour dough is not particularly active.

If you're starting from scratch:
Use two cups flour and enough water to get a sticky gooey dough going and then add 1 tablespoon dry yeast which has been proofed. I proof the yeast in a glass cup with about 1/4 cup warm water and a teaspoon of sugar. When this yeast mixture starts to foam up, I scoop this out into the flour mixture and mix it in with a wooden spoon.
Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and let the mixture get to bubbling. Turn your electric heating pad to medium, so that it maintains an even warm surface beneath a towel placed under your bowl. If you don’t have an electric heating pad, you may place your bowl in any warm place in your kitchen as long as it’s free from drafts.
The Sponge
The yeast mixture is called the sponge. When it gets to working you will notice lots of nice bubbles forming. Once the bubbles are lively, it is time to add the tepid milk mixture to the sponge. Once you’ve added your liquid/cereal mixture to the sponge, place a clean kitchen towel over the bowl, and let it do its thing. You will want the sponge to take on the appearance of bubbly pudding. WARNING: NEVER TASTE THE YEAST MIXTURE! Even if it looks good enough to eat, it is NOT cookie dough! Uncooked yeasts can cause severe intestinal distress and do great damage to the ecology of the gastrointestinal tract!

Salt is optional.
Bread made without salt will not draw moisture from the atmosphere after baking, so it will not easily mold in a bread box. On the other hand, bread with salt has a nice taste. It can be refrigerated to maintain freshness. Moldy bread is not a problem at our house because it is eaten before it gets a chance to go stale. I mix in 1 teaspoon salt for each loaf of bread.
High gluten flour is optional.
At this point I usually add some high gluten flour---approximately 1 tablespoon or so for each cup of flour already in the mix. High gluten flour makes the bread lighter in texture and helps buoy up any fiber content in the bread. If you have an allergy to gluten, please consult recommendations for substituting another kind of flour for wheat.
Now you have a bubbly, gooey mixture. Yeah. Hurrah! It's time to add flour!
Use any kind of flour---white, all purpose flour, whole wheat or rye---just enough to form a big blob of springy dough in the bottom of the bowl, one which is just stiff enough to be able to remove it from the bowl. And time to work the dough... 

By now your flour will be at room temperature. Time to bring out your bread board. My husband made me a nice one which I use exclusively for making bread, but even the back side of a kitchen cutting board will do, as long as it is absolutely clean. Flour your board. That is, place a about two cups of flour right in the middle of your work surface. White flour or whole wheat---it doesn’t matter---white or all purpose flour makes a lighter loaf, whole wheat a heftier one. Make a "well" ---an indentation in the middle of the flour. Spread a little flour to the edges of the board so dough will not stick to it. Place the sticky ball of dough into the well and begin working flour up and over and into the dough with clean hands, a little at a time, until the dough is pliable. The goal is simply to make a dough ball that holds its shape--- still sticky but not at all stiff.  

Time to pre-heat your oven to 375 degrees. And time to set the dough to rise.
Pour a little olive oil into the bottom of your original mixing bowl. Grip the ball of dough in your strongest hand and turn upside down, anointing the top of the ball in the oil and then turning it so that the anointed section is now topmost when you put the dough ball back into the bowl.
Cover the bowl with a clean cloth once again. Place the bowl back on top of the heating pad, (or in the same warm corner of your kitchen as before). I know some people advocate using the oven which has been warmed up at low temperature, and that's fine, if you're a real pro at temperature regulation. If the dough is mistakenly overheated, the yeast will be killed, leaving the new bread maker with a loaves that are as hard as bricks!
Allow the dough to double in bulk. The dough needs a warm steady temperature to make it rise---that's why my mother and grandmother used a wood stove in a hot kitchen, but I use a heating pad. (FYI…A heating pad also works great for making yogurt.) When the dough has doubled in bulk, "punch" it down with clean hands to get the carbon dioxide out of it. The dough ball will look like a deflated balloon and return to original size. Allow the dough to double in bulk one more time.
When double, turn it out on your floured board, and knead it. It is hoped that your board can be placed on a low table, so you will have sufficient leverage to work the dough. You will want to lean into it, using the heals of your palms to work the dough ball with the rocking motion of your body and your wrists. It takes awhile to get the feel of it, but you will soon get the knack. At this point you will be taking up only as much flour as is necessary to keep the texture of the dough "flesh-like" and bouncy.
Fold the dough towards the center, press down and push away, turning the dough a quarter round each time, repeating the process again and again until the dough no longer sticks to your hands or to the lightly floured board. Too much flour will make the loaf heavy and dry. So easy does it. Always handle the dough with a light but confident touch. The dough will soon feel smooth and elastic. It should feel alive---like the proverbial baby's bottom. If your bread is whole grain, it should feel like a strong man's arm.
Cut the dough ball in half. Fold each half as if you were folding a table napkin and fashion into two loaves. Grease two standard bread pans with shortening and put the loaves in the pans. Allow the loaves to rise just to the tops of the pans but no higher.

If you would like a round free-form loaf, do not use bread pans. Use baking sheets. If a glazed crust is desired, see options in the two types of bread shown below. Fashion the two loaves into large balls, sprinkle cornmeal on the baking sheets, and place the hand-shaped loaves on top of the sprinkled cornmeal. Allow the loaves to double in bulk. 
Then place the prepared loaves in the pre-heated oven. Toss 1/2 cup of water onto the bottom of the hot oven and close the oven door quickly to capture the steam. Bake for 50-55 minutes at 375 degrees or until the golden brown loaves respond with a "thump" when smacked with your thimble finger. 

Cool the loaves on a wire rack before storing. Loaves that are thoroughly cooled may be refrigerated in zip-locked plastic bags to maintain freshness.
The Overacker/Freeman Family Bread Recipe is easily adapted to other traditions. 
Here are two other types of bread to consider:
French Bread
  • Omit the sugar and oil.
  • Divide dough into 4 equal parts and hand shape into long, narrow loaves. Use French bread pans, or baking sheets lightly greased. Slash a cut through the top of each loaf from top to bottom and prepare a mixture of egg white beaten with water to glaze the tops of each loaf. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes and then at 350 degrees until the crust appears crisp, and brown.
Challa - Sabbath Bread:
  • Use white or all purpose flour.
  • Don’t add extra fiber---well, maybe a little wheat germ.
  • Use salt.
  • Use potato water for the liquid.
  • Use baker’s yeast instead of sour dough and proof it in 1/4 cup water with a teaspoon of sugar.
  • Add two or three beaten egg yolks and oil to the sponge.
  • Proceed as usual.
  • Cut dough in half. Put one half on the board and cut into 3 equal pieces. Roll these pieces into equally long segments and braid these together. Pinch the ends tightly and tuck under. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Sprinkle baking sheets with corn meal and place these braided loaves on top of the corn meal. Brush the tops of both loaves with the beaten yolk of one egg and top with sesame seeds or poppy seeds. Bake in hot oven (400 degrees) for 15 minutes and then turn oven down to 350 degrees and continue to bake for about 45 minutes or until the braided loaves are golden brown. Place on wire rack to cool.
Congratulations! You've baked enough bread for the week. It's time for lunch. Enjoy!
Why not put a couple of slices in the toaster and make a nice Apple Salad Sandwich?
  • Place diced apple, diced celery, and chopped sweet onions into a small bowl.
  • Add the drained contents of a can of high-quality tuna or a can of salmon. Mix in a tablespoon of homemade mayonnaise*, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, fresh ground pepper and sweet pickle relish to taste. (Or use diced cubes of cooked chicken instead of tuna. *No commercial mayonnaise ever tastes as good as mayonnaise you can make yourself. There are lots of recipes available on the web.)
  • Spread the apple salad mix on toasted homemade bread and serve these nutritious sandwiches with tall cold glasses of fresh milk! Buy local. Help support organic farmers and family farms whenever and where ever you can.

    The Ranch House Cookbook © 2007 by Natalie Neal-Whitefield

    Wednesday, July 4, 2007

    A message from the mountain

    Phonetically, the sign says, "Iiy-tsu mah-dey mo, Kii-ray de, Kii-yo-rah-ka nee...

    Keep this (mountain) beautiful and clean for all times."

    Fujisan gives good advice on how to keep a marriage beautiful.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2007

    Golden currants cascade in clusters...

    Golden currants cascade in clusters from twig and branch. All things proceed rapidly towards quick conclusion. The snows melt quickly. The rivers rise, rush and rage. Then subside to a proceed at a dignified pace. Fur-lined nests are empty within mere days after baby rabbits have been born. The occupants, now half-grown, are out on their own.

    Currant bushes, covered with delicate yellow flowers but a few weeks ago, are now gloriously bejeweled with golden fruit. Everything is in a hurry to burst forth, grow and mature before our brief summer ends.

    Rythmns are different here. The long slow winter, slipping and sliding into May, jumps into summer by the second week of June, then jumps out again by August's end as if the water is already much too cold.

    I am watching the golden clusters carefully. If I want my jar of jam, I must be quick. Cedar waxwings know precisely the hour when the berries are truly best. I have found it almost impossible to teach wild birds how to share.

    Photo credit: Natalie Neal Whitefield

    Oh, to be a fly on the wall...

    Well, you probably wouldn't want to be a fly at my house!

    You wouldn't get much of a chance to listen in or to observe what was going on. You see, we live in the country. And like most homes out here, our buildings are older, built solidly but beset with crooks, cracks and crannies into which and from which winged things come. And now it's summertime. The time for all buzzing creatures to hatch, reproduce and complete their life cycle.

    To live and quickly die!

    My guests and I am are here to help with the "dying" part. We are part of the endless systematic workings of nature. Our job is to cut short the life cycle of the fly.

    Here are your freshly-laundered sheets. Your towels. And here is your weapon. A super-sized fly-swatter.

    Have at it

    I have a rock...

    Yes, I have a rock. And my own mountain. And a wild river, too. Clean air. Clean water. A snug place to sleep at night. A bowl of soup and a piece of toast. Shade trees in summer. With such blessings how could one not be happy?

    I am troubled that so many in this world are denied such blessings.

    Have I done something special to deserve this grace? Or is my good fortune the random disbursement of bounties being cast in all directions by the hands of fate?

    My gratitude is unbounded, but my task perhaps is to enjoy these blessings without a heavy heart...

    Do you ever feel guilty for your blessings instead of counting them?

    Photo credit: Natalie Neal Whitefield

    Tuesday, June 26, 2007

    Life is different for me now

    It used to be all about me, me, me. And that's Ok because I didn't have any one else in my life at the time. I was all there was! Once children came, my sense of self expanded and family trumped all. I found I liked being a team player. It was much more fun than going it alone. And when Stephen came into our lives, we became the home team. With children of their own now, the other members of that team come back to play whenever they can. We've never lost that spirit. We still root for one another, and jump and shout when one of us hits a home run. There is no such thing as win or lose. For us it's always been about how to play the game.

    Monday, June 25, 2007

    The past is always perfect...

    I've been working steadily these past few days scanning yellowed clippings which have been lying dormant in the scrapbooks of a former life. I thought the experience might be a bit depressing, but no. It's been rather refreshing to become re-acquainted with the person I once was. She reminds me of someone I may still want to be. We had good times, she and I. And the clear conviction behind her eyes tells me there are good times that remain. Places to explore. Ideas that require her attention and mine. We're still pals. That girl I used to be...and me.

    Photo: From the personal archives of the author 

    Saturday, June 23, 2007

    I am told I must blog...

    I love to write but this is ridiculous. I have been given a kind of ultimatum of sorts by other writers who maintain that one must blog, the modern-day equivalent of the evolutionary theory, adapt or die! Time has no meaning to the techno novelist of today. It's a 24/7 world now and if I can't handle it, I should prepare for oblivion.

    Well, I don't think I'm cut out for the write now, write all the time world. I spend four to six hours a day as it is, fighting with my characters over the various, twisting, turning events which seem to have taken over my third book. Let me revise that statement slightly, which have taken over their book. I forgot. I exist merely to serve.

    And I am told I must promote. Constantly. Name recognition is paramount. Even before I have a name, I must be working on creating an identifiable entity on line. Always on the alert for every conceivable opportunity to root to toot toot my proverbial horn...

    Ok. How else for an unknown to become a household name? But do I really want to become a household name? I've done that a couple of times in the past and I can't say it was all that much fun! Perhaps I should try writing for the fun of it, if there is such a thing. I don't know. I haven't decided yet. I've got these people standing over my shoulder telling me to get back to work. After all, their story is more important than my musings and they don't like to be kept waiting...