Country Style

“I call this 'fruit pie for idiots'” says Christopher Kimball, patting and rolling out a ball of pie-crust dough. In his rumpled twill shirt, he looks like a very different man than he does when hosting his popular PBS series, America's Test Kitchen-much more gentleman farmer than the MIT scientist-type guy he portrays on TV. Instead of his signature bow tie and round glasses, he's wearing jeans. In place of his spotless studio kitchen is a wide wooden and marble counter and rustic antique stove, and instead of a cast of prep staff whisking and baking around him, his family is sipping coffee and shuffling through the morning mail.

Kimball, his wife, Adrienne, and their four children seem unquestionably at home in their rambling and rustic Vermont farmhouse, a four-hour drive from Boston. Here they spend months each summer tending the gardens, feeding the chickens and pigs, and chilling out.

“People here couldn't care less about who you are back in the city,” says Kimball, poking at a blueberry tart. “What matters most is what kind of neighbor you are-if you help out on their farm when they need it, and if you're willing to be yourself with them. That's important to us as a family, and it's also very relaxing.”

Relaxing isn't quite the word that springs to mind while watching Chris and Adrienne Kimball move like clockwork around the kitchen, setting up for a dinner party with relatives and neighbors. The two turn from preparing one dish to another between chores and cutting flowers. Once the tarts are set, there's corn to be shucked and made into a fresh, bright-flavored soup. If Kimball is known for anything back in the city, it's for figuring out what works best in making food. Even in a setting as personal as his family farmhouse, entertaining properly is priority number one. “I'm still the ultimate test,” he says, savoring a freshly baked muffin.

So much of modern-day entertaining is done vicariously. We spend our free time watching cooking shows on which the hosts chop, prep, and arrange everything, while we lift nary a finger. Then we go to the nearest Whole Foods Market and buy pâtés, breads, and other prepared items. And while the convenience of it all may be a godsend for people with busy lives, the truth is that more and more of us today don't know what it's like to take hard-earned pride in the food we serve.

The remarkable thing is that Kimball actually does live the made-from-scratch lifestyle we all see him peddling on TV. Never is that more clear than during the long weeks he spends in Vermont every year, with no one watching-and no one to impress-but good friends and family.

If Kimball isn't stuffing and roasting 20 chickens to find the precisely correct proportion of bread to bird, he's testing crusts until he finds the ideal texture to make the perfect apple pie. Kimball has been testing recipes and writing cookbooks most of his life; 24 years ago, he founded the Brookline-based Cook's Illustrated. Since then he's been sharing it all on his TV show and with fellow tastemaker Martha Stewart as a guest on her CBS show. It could be argued-especially in light of Stewart's distracting legal problems-that Kimball is the new Martha Stewart of classic American food.

“A little mud on the boots never hurt anyone,” Kimball muses, watching his son, Charlie, tromp across the front yard. From the sprawling porch of the house, Kimball points out his five horses-Concho, Chief, Shadow, Dakota, and Indy-in the electric-green pasture overlooking a dappled valley. Butterflies the actual hue of butter dip and flutter around Adrienne's head as she sets a tray of iced tea glasses onto a table. Neighbors will be by soon for dinner, but there's still plenty of time to get everything together.

“Meals are so easygoing here,” Adrienne says. “In the summer we tend to cook very simply to make the most of the food we get right on the farm-our own frozen beef and pork.” In addition to a strawberry field, the family has its own apple orchard and gets honey from beehives a short walk from the front door.

Company is usually local farmers who come over for dinner. “We spend as much time as we can with people who are really from Vermont,” Kimball says. “We want the kids to experience values that are different than in the city.”

It's clear the Kimballs have worked hard to make this place as much a personal sanctuary as a gathering place for family and community. “Here, you feel connected,” says Kimball. “Especially for me, since I grew up nearby.” He may be a city boy now-working at the America's Test Kitchen office and studio in Brookline Village and living in a Boston townhouse-but Kimball's roots are pure country. He spent childhood summers on a different Vermont farm-which would later become the inspiration for a cookbook he titled The Yellow Farmhouse-surrounded by neighbors who were constantly helping each other bale hay or build additions to each other's houses. “We can come up here and live a lot more simply than we do the rest of the year,” he says.

Back in the kitchen, the corn's been picked and shucked. Kimball tests the fragrant barbecued pork his ace recipe has yielded. Sun rays stream across the front porch, where neighbors are clustered around platters of bruschetta. The sounds of laughter and ice cubes clinking in glasses of iced tea find their way through the screen door.

Appearances to the contrary, “there's nothing perfect about the parties we have around here,” insists Kimball. “You just find little enclaves of interesting people and join them in whatever they're doing.”

But Kimball's high-profile career has been based on a dedication to getting his hands dirty and testing things until they're perfect. It's clear that, for him, an enjoyable day off doesn't mean doing nothing. “Relaxing for me would be working outside all day,” he says. In that sense, the farmhouse seems the ideal foil to Kimball's city life: a place where the only pressures are the ones he chooses.

A moment later, the sun starts to set over the distant mountain, and the Kimball family flies into motion. The outdoor patio table is set with hurricane lamps, candles, and vases of bright wildflowers. Neighbors raise their glasses in thanks, and everyone digs in. Even the dinner Kimball says is “anything but perfect” couldn't be more so. Like the recipes he works so hard to perfect, everything has come together exactly right.

Roasted gingered beets with orange
Serves four to six
This recipe is particularly good when served with barbecued pork.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced gingerroot
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 teaspoons sugar
6-8 large beets, roasted and quartered
Salt and freshly ground black
pepper to taste

Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the minced gingerroot and sauté for 20 seconds. Add the remaining ingredients except the beets and cook for 30 seconds. Add beets and cook for five minutes, tossing beets frequently. Add salt and liberal amounts of freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Slow-cook pork barbecue
Serves eight to ten
It's best to have a covered grill with a built-in thermometer so you don't have to lift the cover to check the temperature. Be sure to keep the heat low-it should never get much above 225 degrees-and use indirect heat. Weber makes half-moon-shaped charcoal bins for indirect cooking.

1 4- to 5-pound boneless pork butt
1 cup barbecue rub
1â쳌„2 cup Vinegar Moppin' Sauce

1. Rub meat with barbecue rub and set aside at room temperature while preparing fire. Start two small piles of charcoal on either side of a covered grill, 15 briquettes each. Place a drip pan half-filled with water in the middle and an oven thermometer on top of the cooking surface. After 20 minutes, place six additional briquettes on each pile of coals, add soaked wood chips on top of the briquettes, and place meat over the drip pan. Cover and cook meat for three hours. Maintain an even 225-degree temperature by checking every hour.

2. When meat is done, wrap tightly in aluminum foil, place in a 225-degree oven, and cook for an additional two hours or until pork is fall-apart tender.

Barbecue rub for beef and pork

2 tablespoons coarse salt
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
2 teaspoons allspice
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons black pepper
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons paprika

Mix ingredients and rub over meat before cooking.

Vinegar Moppin' Sauce

1 1â쳌„2 cups cider vinegar
2 teaspoons hot red-pepper flakes
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon peanut oil
Salt and freshly ground
pepper to taste

Mix ingredients in a small saucepan and heat. Serve hot as an accompaniment to grilled foods. If you serve barbecued foods chopped, this sauce can be mixed in.

Burnt-sugar ice cream
Makes about one quart
The tricky part of this ice cream is making the caramel sauce. Once the sugar syrup starts to take on color, it will darken quickly, so swirl the syrup in the pan, removing the pan from the heat for a few seconds at a time. (“One quart lasts our family about 10 minutes,” Kimball says.)

1 4-inch piece of vanilla bean or
11â쳌„2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
1 cup sugar
1 whole egg plus 2 yolks
2 cups heavy cream

1. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, scraping both sides with a paring knife. Reserve both the pod and the scrapings. Combine milk, 1â쳌„4 cup of the sugar, the heavy cream, and the reserved vanilla pod and scrapings in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. (If using vanilla extract, do not add it now.) Bring mixture to 175 degrees, stirring occasionally.

2. Meanwhile, beat the whole egg and egg yolks with the remaining 1â쳌„4 cup sugar with an electric mixer or whisk until pale yellow and thick, about two minutes with a mixer or four minutes by hand.

3. Remove 1â쳌„2 cup of the hot milk mixture and add slowly to the beaten egg yolks while whisking vigorously. Whisk this mixture back into the saucepan. Over low heat, cook mixture until it reaches 180 degrees on an instant read thermometer, stirring constantly (about five minutes). Custard should be the thickness of heavy cream, but should not boil or bubble.

4. Combine the remaining 1â쳌„2 cup sugar with 1â쳌„4 cup water in a small saucepan. Cook covered, without stirring, over medium-high heat until it becomes dark and mahogany-colored. Pour into the custard mixture and stir to combine.

5. Pour custard through a fine-mesh strainer into a nonreactive bowl. Remove vanilla pod (if using) from strainer and add to mixture. If using vanilla extract, add it to the custard now. Place bowl into a large bowl filled halfway with ice water to cool. When mixture reaches room temperature, cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate. It's best to refrigerate mixture overnight or for at least six hours.

6. Once ice cream is chilled, stir and place in ice-cream freezer. Follow manufacturer's directions. When done, place ice cream in the freezer to freeze solid. (The ice cream will still be soft after churning in the machine.)

Flavored iced tea
Makes one quart
1 quart spring or filtered water
5 tea bags of your choice
(black tea such as Darjeeling
or Assam preferred)
1â쳌„4 cup granulated sugar

Place the water in a nonreactive saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and wait 30 seconds. Place the tea bags in the water and steep (covered) for three to five minutes depending on the tea and your personal preference. Remove tea bags and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Transfer to a pitcher and cool to room temperature before serving. Serve in tall ice-filled glasses with a lemon slice or mint sprig.

Corn soup with coconut
milk and ginger
Serves four as a first course
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups milked corn from about
8 ears of corn
1â쳌„2 cup diced onion
2 teaspoons minced ginger
1â쳌„2 cup coconut milk or cream
(NOT cream of coconut)
1 cup chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground
black pepper
1â쳌„4 cup snipped or minced chives

Heat a 12-inch skillet or large saucepan over high heat for two minutes. Add butter. When melted, add onion and sauté over medium-low heat for four minutes, stirring frequently. Do not brown onions. Add remaining ingredients and simmer gently for two minutes. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve, garnished with chives, as soon as mixture starts to simmer.

Skillet cornbread
Makes one nine-inch round and serves six
Unlike many sweet, cakelike northern cornbreads, this recipe has more texture and is really more of a southern cornbread.

1 teaspoon bacon drippings
or vegetable oil
11â쳌„2 cups cornmeal
1â쳌„2 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1â쳌„2 teaspoon baking soda
1â쳌„2 cup boiling water
11â쳌„2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons melted butter or
bacon drippings

1. Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Oil a nine-inch-cast-iron skillet (if you don't have a cast-iron skillet this size, use a greased nine-inch pie plate, not preheated, and bake 30-35 minutes) with the bacon drippings or vegetable oil using a paper towel and rubbing the entire interior surface of the pan. Set the skillet in the oven.

2. Place 1â쳌„2 cup of cornmeal into a medium bowl. Mix the remaining cup of cornmeal with the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a small bowl.

3. Pour boiling water all at once into the 1â쳌„2 cup cornmeal and stir to make a stiff mush. Very gradually, stir in the buttermilk until smooth, then stir in the egg. When the oven and skillet are hot, gently stir the dry ingredients into the batter. Do not overmix. Add the butter or bacon drippings and stir to combine. Remove skillet from the oven, add the batter, and place back in the oven. Bake until golden brown and firm to the touch, about 25 minutes. Remove skillet and immediately turn cornbread onto a wire rack. Cool for five minutes and serve at once.

Freeform summer fruit pie
Serves six to eight
Note that the amount of sugar needed will depend on the fruit. Use three tablespoons with very ripe, sweet fruit and a full 1â쳌„4 cup if the fruit is tart or less than perfectly ripe.

1 Recipe Foolproof Food-
Processor Pie Pastry

For the fruit filling
2 cups ripe summer fruit
(berries, peaches, plums)
3-4 tablespoons sugar

1. Prepare the pie pastry according to recipe directions (next page) and chill for 30 minutes in refrigerator.

2. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare the fruit. Berries just need to be washed and dried with paper towels. Stone fruits such as peaches or plums can be skinned or not, pitted, and then sliced thinly.

3. Roll out the dough into a large round on a sheet of parchment paper. (The dough should be about the thickness of a quarter and 12 inches or so in diameter.) Or roll it out on any lightly floured work surface and then transfer to a baking sheet. Toss the fruit with the sugar and place in the middle of the dough, leaving a two and a half inch border all around. Drape the border up over the fruit in overlapping folds. Note that some of the fruit in the center will remain uncovered.

4. Bake in preheated oven for about 45 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling and the crust is very brown. Let cool for at least an hour before serving. Slice into six pieces for hungry adults.

Foolproof Food-Processor Pie Pastry
A combination of butter and lard provides a great deal of flavor and a flaky pastry. Be sure to use unsalted butter. This recipe is for an eight- or nine-inch pie with a single crust.

5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
11â쳌„4 cups all-purpose flour
1â쳌„2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons cold all-vegetable
shortening (e.g. Crisco)
4-6 tablespoons ice water

1. Cut butter into 3â쳌„4-inch pieces and place in freezer for 15 minutes. Mix flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor fitted with steel blade. Place the Crisco, in one-tablespoon lumps, into the food processor along with the frozen butter pieces. Pulse 8 to 12 times (one-second pulses) or until the dough appears slightly yellow, pebbly in texture, and the butter is reduced to very small pieces, (the size of tiny peas or smaller). Check dough after five pulses and every pulse thereafter. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle three tablespoons of water over the mixture. Press down on dough with the broad side of the spatula until dough sticks together, adding as much additional water as you need if dough will not come together. Work slowly, mixing the dough to evenly distribute the water. The dough should be very wet and sticky at this point. Dust lightly with flour, shape dough into a ball with your hands, then flatten into a four-inch wide disc. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling.