Fall Splendors and Apple Chestnut Soup

here a goose, there a goose, flying overhead

here a goose, there a goose, flying overhead

As much as I look forward to preparing delicious fall meals and the glorious show of fall colors in our neighborhood, I eagerly await the arrival of the migrating Canada geese who take refuge in the cornfields behind our house for a short rest and feeding. ( No, the geese do not end up in the stockpot – we simply watch their comings and goings with awe. )

Each year our resident local population of Canada geese is joined by droves of migrating birds, hungry for a good meal of corn that they glean from the freshly harvested fields. This year the geese arrived in record numbers and one day the cacophony of their sounds drew us down to the fields edge for a front seat view. It seemed this year that their numbers had doubled – or tripled – and we spent an unplanned hour late one afternoon spellbound as we watched wave after wave of organized chevrons of geese arrive in the fields. The geese arrived in the hundreds – we estimated that several thousand geese spent the night in the neighborhood cornfield. ( In fact, we heard the honking of arriving and departing geese all thorugh the night and wee hours of the morning.)

We joked that the cornfields had become like an airport – chevrons in, chevrons out, one group of geese circling in one way and another the opposite way. Magnificently, the geese knew what to do all on their own without lights, runways or control towers to organize their activity.

As we peered far to the horizon we continually spotted more flocks headed our way; beginning as tiny dark specks and then turning into large honking groups of geese overhead. It all began to mimic an old WWII movie depicting wave upon wave of bomber planes coming into view over the horizen and headed for their intended target. Most of these geese have moved on now, but our residents remain to entertain us over the remainder of the fall and winter. If we are to be really lucky, we might have a return of a flock of snow geese that arrived for two days several years ago.

Apple Chestnut Soup with Merken

serves 4-6

This is one of my favorite fall soups. I have tweaked it several ways over the years with equally good results. For instance, you can add chopped, fresh fennel and use fresh pears instead of apples. Or add some of both for additional flavor. I often add grated, fresh gingerroot at the end – this year I used Merken, the delicious Chilean spiced pepper blend. You can easily turn this into a cream soup if you wish.

dried Italian chestnuts before cooking

dried Italian chestnuts before cooking

NB: ( If you are use dried chestnuts, cook them in simmering water for approximately 30 minutes or until they become somewhat tender. They will finish cooking once they are incorporated into the soup. )

2 stocks celery, chopped
2 large onions, chopped
2 medium-sized apples, peeled and chopped
3 teaspoonfuls fresh chopped thyme
32 ounces water or light vegetable stock
6-8 ounces squash, peeled and chopped ( 1 overflowing cup)
16 ounces cooked and peeled chestnuts ( 12 ounces chestnuts for soup; reserve the rest for garnish )
2 cups light cream ( optional )
¼ cup Sherry ( Amontillado or Oloroso ) or Madeira
salt & pepper to taste
¼ teaspoon Merken ( add more to taste if desired )

1. Saute the celery, onions, apples and fresh thyme in 3-4 tablespoons butter for 8 minutes or until they have softened.

2. Bring the stock to a simmer in a 4 quart saucepan. Add the cooked vegetables, squash and the chestnuts and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 35 minutes or until the squash is soft.

3. Puree the soup in batches in a food processor and strain to remove all particulate matter. Press down on the solids to extract all the flavor.

4. Return the soup to the pan and the cream if you wish. Heat the soup through and add the sherry, salt and pepper and Merkum. Adjust the seasonings, add more water or stock if you need it and simmer the soup for an additional 35 minutes. Serve immediately or cool and refrigerate for up to two days.

garnish with a swirl of Merken and some cooked chestnuts

garnish with a swirl of Merken and a few cooked chestnuts


Mel’s in Town

Setting up for the day's shoot

This is not a food post, but a little story about a ‘feeding frenzy’ of a different sort here in Northampton this week. Just for fun !

DAY 1. For the past few days our staid and very ‘politically correct’ collegiate New England town (  proudly one of the most unabashed bastions of liberalism and democracy in our country ) was able to turn the volume down on the woeful news about the sinking economy and even tune out fearful thoughts about the impending debate for a few hours, because, Hollywood had arrived.

Yes…. I mean Tinseltown-Hollywood, and megawatt superstar hunk Mel Gibson, along with a host of other actors, scores of crew, people movers, gesticulating young men and women wired with earbuds, walkee-talkees, and cell-phones, a multitude of large, shiny-bright equipment vans; big boom cameras, directors chairs, etc.

This film – Edge of Darkness -directed by Martin Campbell and scripted by author William Monahan is due to be released next year, and it had the whole town ( and lots of folks from out of town who came to have a look-see as well ) in a fun-loving twitter. Word has it that Robert DeNiro was also supposed to appear in the film, but he walked away from the project in the beginning.

Of course, I too had to go and have a look-see at what all the fuss was about. In fact, the filming in the center of downtown Northampton was less than a 1 minute walk from our store. But for me, the scene developing on the sidewalk was as interesting as the actual bits and pieces of filming that I did see.

It seemed that many of those standing around and watching the action had a ‘Mel’ story ( albeit second or third hand ) to report to anyone interested in listening. And there were those who professed to ‘know some inside dirt’ that they were proudly willing to share.

I overheard one person say that they heard that the locals hired as extras had to sign a form saying that if they encountered Mel during the course of the shooting, they were not to ‘utter even one word to him.’  Someone else said: ‘ My friend told me she was getting paid $88.oo for the work as an extra.’ To which about twelve people chirped – ‘You mean per hour ? ‘  ‘ No, for the day.’  Well, no one thought that was such a big deal, so that topic was dropped like a hot potato.

Every time the frenzy of those behind the scenes picked up and it appeared as if something was about to happen, a hush went out over the crowd and all cameras were raised. Most of the time it was only crew moving lighting panels and more equipment around. ‘Well, its about time, someone else said – they have been fooling around with the lighting out here for several hours already.’ Indeed, this seemed to be true. I observed the raising and lowering of 3 different lighting panels up over the balcony of the courthouse by an ingenious ( and not very costly ) rope system devised by the crew over the course of the 45 minutes that I was milling about.

re-adjusting the light panels

Re-adjusting the light panels

I was told that the crew was setting up for a scene whereby the Mel character would come out of the courthouse and try to get the attention of another character who had walked out ahead of him. This seemed a lot of work for what might account for a 10 or 15 second scene. As Andy Rooney might say: ‘It’s a wonder movies get made at all.’

But since Hollywood is about creating fantasy and twisting reality, there were many ironic moments I  savored over the course of these two days. For instance, Day 1 of the shooting was Tuesday, the same day that the 2nd Presidential debate was to take place at night. Northampton would normally have had a small but respectful group of protestors ( familar faces, regular people and maybe even some Joe-six-packs but definately no lipstick wearing pigs ) lined up along the fences around the Courthouse promoting their anti-war sentiments.

But to my surprise, there were no protesters at all, just lots of folks gathered across the street to catch a glimpse of Mel. In fact, the crew had the usual ‘protest side’ of the courtyard roped off to keep anyone from walking there. Where was our political conscious, I wondered ? Why are we not glued to CNN once again for the latest pole numbers ? We are not supposed to care about such ‘fluffy’ stuff here.

Well, I guess it’s good to be wrong some of the time. My thoughts were interrupted – ‘That’s not him – that’s his double’ one woman declared in a definative tone of voice when someone resembling Mel Gibson appeard with a small crowd of people who had just come spilling out the courthouse doors. A bit of hubub began at the top of the courthouse steps – those in the know said that they were going to begin filming the stairs scene. What did she know, I wondered, as I listened to another exhuberant onlooker waving a disposable camera around in the air a few steps from me in the other direction and announce to everyone around him that Mel himself had indeed arrived on the set.

is it or isn't it Mel ?

Is it or isn’t it Mel checking the script ?

Yes, indeed, he knew because he and his girlfriend had met him yesterday at the local bar where they were filming. You know, the same place where the buzz around town was that only Mel’s actor-double was used in the bar shoot. The man under the portico, who looked alot like Mel to me, was furiously smoking and flipping through what appeared to be a script. ‘Does Mel smoke, I asked ? ‘ to no one in particular. At least 4 people resonded – yes, he does: but so does his double.” OK, that is not a clue.

People were not sure who to believe, but more people clearly decided to side with the woman as the frenzied clicking of cameras suddely stopped. But, I reasoned to myself we were too far away to really tell, and truthfully, what does it matter if it is or if it isn’t if you can’t tell. So I continued taking photos of the Mel-ish figure across the way. People said: ‘ I’ve seen Mel – he’s short’ to which someone else said: ” No he isn’t, he’s regular height.’

Is he a rea officer or an actor

Is he a real officer or an actor ?

A woman from out of town asked me: ‘ Whats going on here and why are there so many police officers?’ I laughed, because there were indeed several groups of police milling around. I had read in the paper that there would be local police officers on duty to control traffic ( and to contain the ‘mobs’ should they become too worked up ) as well as actors dressed as local policemen who would appear in the movie pretending to be Northampton police.  Talk about altered reality !

Mel in character with another actor

Mel in character with another actor

DAY 2. Today the car sceen was being filmed. Again, the streets were somewhat packed with onlookers watching a Hollywood film truck ( rigged up with an ordinary looking grey sedan attached to the back end ) that kept cruising through the main intersection. Both the back of the truck and the hood of the car were festooned with lights and cameras, all pointed directly at the person sitting in the drivers seat, who everyone guessed was Mel Gibson. Except for those who claimed to know for sure that it was his double. But how could we know for sure ? The drivers side window was painted out, so the figure sitting in there could have been one of those plastic inflatable dolls for all we knew.

Is it Mel in the drivers seat ?

Is it Mel in the drivers seat ?

But on a more familiar note, the protestors were back by the courthouse, and in heavy droves, too. But, it turned out that even those protesters were movie extras and not our regular, real protestors. So, how come Hollywood was paying fake-protestors to do what our local protesters do so well for free, and with real conviction?  This group was more like cheerleaders than protestors – there was even a protesting coach revving them up when the car scene was coming once again through the intersection. And I can tell you, none of our regular protesters wear big fuzzy animal heads.

fake protesters

Fake protesters


By now, everyone had Mel fever. Groups of women ( of all ages ) from our local banks and the Hall of Records were congregating out in the streets giggling like schoolgirls when the Mel-car went buy – is it or isn’t it ? Where were the bank customers, I wondered ? Oh yes, I forgot…no one but Hollywood-types have any money left to shuffle around.

Some people waved when the car passed- we were all warned to be very quite and turn off cell phones. One young man flipped the car the bird…with real conviction. People driving thru town kept pulling over asking what was going on. One guy told someone that it was a trial of the Chicago Seven and they said: ‘Oh, thanks’ …and drove on.

But I too joined the official ranks of the groupies when I found myself calling the store to tell Bob that the car was coming around and would pass by our store again. And again, and again. The one good tip I got ?      I overheard someone saying that the staging for the car scene was down in the Talbots parking lot and that’s where Mel was.

What the heck, I had already squandered my time, so headed over there ( a slight diversion to my way back to the store ) and sure enough, I did indeed get to see Mel stepping out of the car in between takes. No crowds, no one asking anyone to move along, just me, a few folks waiting for the bus, a sad looking dog tied up in front of the post office, a woman pushing a baby carriage, a few members of the walkie-talkie team, a few traffic cops, and, the Mel Gibson actor-double standing off to the side under the awning of Talbots. So much for those in the know.

Mel's double

Mel’s double

It's Mel - honest !