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the fix

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My mom’s potato salad with mayo, salt, black pepper, sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, toasted pignoles, and fresh minced garlic.

Last week I dropped my old PC and new laptop off to the kids* at the Microsoft store to do a data transfer. I wasn’t worried about system withdrawal. So I’d be without a proper keyboard for a few days—so what. So substantial agita ensued, that’s what.

That’s the bad news. The good news, which came as a total shockeroo, was that suddenly I was wild with energy and ideas. I needed to be creating something, producing SOMEthing, all the time. So I hit the kitchen. When I was 90% finished with one recipe, I’d start thinking about what I was going to make next. I’m not saying it wasn’t manic, but I sure ate well.

I note, with some dismay, that I didn’t take pictures of too much of what I made. I don’t remember what happened all that clearly, but best guess, I was too busy eating it all. My reputation precedes me.

Here then, a list. Made all of this within 2.5 days.

-Watermelon-lime smoothie

-Carrot cake with a blop of yogurt cheese on top that I stirred some cinnamon sugar into

-Panzanella with local, organic vegetables: basil, onion, cucumbers, and tiny heirloom tomatoes

-Bourbon-spiked jalapeno ketchup (which has already graced many a turkey burger, and I have lots more)

-White-peach vanilla jam

-Fried zucchini blossoms (going back for more because I have a delirious crush on them, not least of which because I didn’t torch them this year, and am obsessing even as I type)

-Potato salad

I have my units back now. But I have more peach jam to make, as well as a quart of beach plums to pit and jam up as well.

The beat goes on.

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Carrot cake. I bought the carrots from the teenager at Silverton Farms who had just pulled them out of the ground and washed them–she handed them right to me.

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Local organic heirloom tomatoes, Red Bank Farmers’ Market.

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That red stuff between the onions and the cheddar? That’s my ketchup!

*The unvarnished truth.

patched in

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A few days ago my favorite organic farm posted a shot on Facebook of one of their workers holding a ripe melon. The caption announced that customers could come and pick watermelons. Of course I had to go.

(I need to take a pause here and switch to normal brain—a place I visited one rainy Thursday in 1978, and it was dullsville, and I ducked out early—and acknowledge what many are thinking: that melons are available dust-, bug-, dirt-, relentless sunshine-, and hassle-free at the supermarket. Now I’m musing on what what would compel me to put on boots and pick my own. Now I’m lost. Oh wait—flavor. And fun :))

I followed Alaina, the worker in the photo, out to the watermelon patch, and she asked if I knew how to tell if a melon is ripe and ready to pick. This was a nope. She leaned over one and held up the stem, still attached to the vine. ‘See this little curlicue, just opposite the stem? When that’s totally brown, it’s ripe.’

So much for thumping it.*

She took off and I went hunting for totally brown curlicues. Found a couple of green ones, then came upon this.

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Score!

It was a very cute melon, the size of your own, and I brought it home.

By the way, the other sure sign that you have a ripe melon happens on top of the cutting board, and I didn’t even know this until I started buying melons from a farm, picked at their peak. Watermelons in particular are over 90% water. When you leave them to drink up rain all summer and then pick them when the curlicue is brown, they’re a taut as Goodyear tire. All they need is the smallest knife incision into the rind, one little 1/8th of an inch of pressure, and the melon will instantly crack open, sometimes right in half. Those who buy their melons at a supermarket, picked unripe, will never know the utter coolness of this.

My melon was seedless and powder pink inside. The flesh closest to the center is sweetest, the case for any melon, I’m pretty sure. I ate some for dessert last night. Today I’m pureeing it into juice and adding a couple of squeezes of lime.

September bliss.

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*Do people still do that? What are they expecting to hear—someone from the inside thumping back?

waiting

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When I was a kid, the jobs that required unusual patience were given to me, for better or worse. My sister Amanda will remember that I took over the Easter bread dough every year at the very end of the process, when it needed cup after cup of flour kneaded into it until the dough was smooth and elastic. It’s tempting to add it in a heap and get on with your life, but then you end up with a mucky, sticky, dusty mess. It has to be done slowly.

Then there was melon-balling for our Fourth of July barbecue. I’d work the flesh out of half of a watermelon the size of an ottoman and add it to honeydew and blueberries to make fruit salad. Then the whole shebang would go back into the watermelon half. This took a while, and there was no way to cut a corner.

Along with not rushing the processes we can control, I wait for seasonal produce. I know I’m an exception. But I maintain that waiting all winter means a kaboom of true green flavor when you bite into that first stalk of roasted asparagus, greenness that gets right in the face of all of the cold and mud and ice and grit you’ve endured for months. It tells you, without question, it’s OVER.

Waiting means strawberries that are so ripe that they stain my fingers red when I pick them, and taste like sunbeams. It means the immense joy of a warm, slightly soft, utterly ripe heirloom tomato; a freshly picked apple that cracks audibly when you bite into it; and the mellow richness of a Lumina pumpkin, chosen from a wagon 32 steps away from the vine where it snoozed in the sun all summer. (Mario Batali got almost misty when he described the flavor of fresh fall produce: “You can taste that the ground has changed.” I can’t do better.) Our ancestors had no choice but to wait for what grew, and reaped the benefits of waiting. They knew from flavor.

There’s an art to holding out for something until it’s ready. Bite into a peach that’s gorgeous and hard as a rock and you’ll get a mouth full of nothing. A blackberry that’s glossy and firm guarantees you an almost painful tartness. A ripe berry will fall off into your palm with the gentlest tug. Forcing it means it’s not ready and not worth the lack of flavor.

Sometimes fruits and vegetables look (to our persnickety, Madison-Avenued eyes) their worst when they’re the most delicious and ripest. Passion fruits are ready when they’re half shriveled. One of my readers, a retired Southern farm wife, swears by the exceptional flavor of summer squash that’s covered in blemishes and warts. And fresh figs—they’re hardly worth eating if they’re not cracked and oozing.

You won’t find produce in stores looking like this, because consumers have grown detached from what food looks like when it’s ripe, and won’t buy it. Seek it out at farms, farmers’ markets, and orchards if you can’t score some off your neighbors who have a fig tree.

There’s an art to waiting for edibles and for non-edibles, for the things we can control (a little or a lot) and the things we can’t. And while I have been credited with having great patience…full disclosure, it ain’t always easy. Sometimes the art fails me. Sometimes it’s bloody hard.

This helps: I think back to a couple of weeks ago when I took a walk along the lake and found two or three patches of wild mint. It’s growing in profusion, because mint can hardly grow any other way. No one planted it. The universe deemed the time and place right, so up it came, and healthy as the day is long, too. If I tasted it in March, it wouldn’t have the bite and sweetness it grew into under the sun and rain all of these months. Mint, like all growing things, is ready when it’s ready. It’s a reminder that I can work for the things I can control, but everything else will come in time, the way it’s supposed to. That’s a comfort. And I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

late summer love

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Cherry-vanilla pie–fresh Bing cherries with homemade vanilla custard. I pulled the cherries apart with my fingers like a heathen instead of slicing them. I swear they taste better this way.

Blogging is groovy because I get to use this forum as a photo album and journal all at once, and no one can make me shush. Here, then, is what I ate, picked, cooked, and ate during the past month or so. We’re getting into late summer and some of the best ingredients available all year, not that I’m against milking every summer ingredient for all it’s worth.

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Cardamom-almond pound cake with roasted local peaches tossed in local honey, and blackberries I picked.

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Pitch for a bakery near me: 10″ white peacock of my homemade marzipan. Leftovers were summarily devoured by my A Few Good Men cast, which was rehearsing that night, and seemed to appreciate the ample sugar.

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One of my weirder ideas, but made a great breakfast: roasted local peach tossed in local honey, stacked with fresh basil and my homemade ricotta on rustic bread from Whole Foods. It needed balsamic vinegar, but I kinda dug it.

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Heirloom tomatoes at the Red Bank farmers’ market, luscious and as big as throw pillows. God, I love this time of year.

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Local turkey figs. Best when split and oozing, I’m telling you.

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Fresh basil pesto with copious amounts of Pecorino Romano, salt, freshly ground black pepper, freshly minced garlic, olive oil, and toasted pignoles over linguine. Slurp slurp.

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Another whack idea for my homemade blackberry jam. I piped some over homemade vanilla custard and a thick layer of 65% cacao. Blackberry black-bottom pie, baby. Small slices imperative.

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Another shot bc I’m me. Currently this pie is in my fridge with half of the custard-jam top eaten off and half still on.

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Marzipan watermelon slices with itty bitty time-consuming-to-make seeds and the last remaining shreds of my sanity (vanished when it saw the camera).

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Wild beach plums on Sandy Hook, NJ. Every year I park my car in a puddled pothole and walk out to tiptoe around the poison ivy for these. This year I sold some to my pastry chef friend at The Flaky Tart, Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

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Beach plum bush at left. Deer at right. It’s not just the park rangers who have me under suspicion.

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Heirloom tomatoes purchased yesterday at the Asbury Park farmers’ market. They’re going into a tabbouleh sometime today…

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…along with wild mint that I found growing down by the lake.

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The tabbouleh in its vintage Pyrex glory, made with all local vegetables: tomatoes, cucumber, scallions, and mint, plus feta, olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Good stuff.

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Blackberry blossom.

Picked blackberries last week. The plants (canes, they’re called) are long and trailing, and are trained to grow in rows across strong cables. This forms a kind of cavern of blackberry canes.

Most visitors to the farm go for the front-and-center fruit, which makes sense. It’s pretty. It’s right there. It’s an easy get. But experience has taught me that the berries on the outside of the cavern tend to be too tart. You’ll occasionally find ripe berries shimmering in the sunshine. But the tenderest and sweetest ones are not usually outside. They’re inside.

Out of the glare of the sunlight, it’s surprisingly dark in there. I have to lift the cumbersome canes even to see inside. And this is an organic farm, so it’s not like it’s just berries living inside. Many’s the time I will be about to pick a berry only to see a fruit fly on it. (Somehow he manages to look thoroughly irked, even when I say, ‘I beg your pardon. Enjoy your berry.’) There are spiders and their webs. Dragonflies, which can pinch. I get tired and sweaty and sore, contorting into odd positions to reach. A cane will slip and knock my hat over my eyes, or smack me across the face. I’ll lose my footing as I reach in, and slip. Luckily I tend to be alone when I pick, which is good, so people don’t tend to see me emerge with purple stains all over me like a virulent tropical rash and with a fistful of leaves in my mouth.

I do it because the berries inside, in the dark, with the spiders, are better. They’ve had longer to ripen because no one sees them. Because no one’s looking. I do it because they’re bigger, often twice the size of the berries in the sunshine. I do it because they’re sweeter and mellower. Invariably. Yes, sometimes I get bit; yes, sometimes I fall; yes, sometimes the berries are so overripe that they fall apart in my hands. But enough don’t. I do it because it’s worth it.

The good stuff is underneath. Every time I pick blackberries or peaches or whatever I’m picking I think of this, but last week it hit me especially profoundly—one, because we lost Robin Williams to the ravages of depression, and two, because I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a lot of friends recently about stuff that’s bugging them, stuff that you can’t tell by looking at them because they’re so good at keeping it under wraps.

And curiously—or heck, maybe it’s not actually a stretch at all—I’m finding that among the most expressive, the most brilliant (on the outside) in my own circle there is often great sensitivity (inside). They knock me out with their talent and charm, all of them. That’s the topside world that they show, and it really does shimmer in the sunshine.

But I’m lucky that after a while they trust me enough that they want to show the bottom-side world inside—the sweetness, the whole 3D person. I’ll lift the canes and come into the dark with them. Get cobwebs in my hair. I don’t mind. It’s nourishing. I have fallen, to be sure, sometimes when I get into the messy stuff with friends. I have run out of energy. I’ve had friendships fall apart in my hands. But I never wanted a life that was too sanitary. I’m shooting for sweetness.

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ending the sentence

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Hot pastrami on rye, Ben’s Best, Queens.

It’s not like it ever stops, but lately it seems societal angst about food has been escalating, spinning off madly into illogic. It’s worrisome, and it’s not necessary.

Here’s the thing, and I’m speaking as someone who knows from illness (most of my 30s) that kept me from eating a lot of foods, and from being overweight (through high school and college). I learned a lot from being fat and from being sick. The answers are actually pretty simple, so let’s not make it any harder than it has to be.

1) Food is about balance. It’s not about eliminating entire food groups, or about denouncing natural ingredients, or about imposing senseless deprivation upon ourselves. Let’s keep sugar, fats, and carbs off the cosmic dartboard. That’s no way to live.

The body can manage short bouts of overdoing the fat and calories. While in Scotland for a week I watched my ex eat a classic UK breakfast: bangers, buttered toast, eggs, the works. This meal was for centuries the rich but wholesome foundation of a working farmer’s day, and that farmer needed every calorie. My ex is not a farmer. Yet he survived. For a week, the body can handle almost anything.

Historically, the human race has more or less structured their lives around eating moderate portions of wholesome foods plus the odd treat during the week, and blowing the lid off a bit on weekends (Sunday dinner) and holidays (eggnog). This system worked pretty well. It’s when we started to eat as if every day was a weekend, as if every day was a holiday, that we got ourselves into trouble.

Now a lot of people hand out stickers on Halloween instead of candy. This is a tragedy and a travesty, an adulterated—and I use that word deliberately—slam in the face of tradition. Part of the euphoria kids feel on Halloween is based on indulging in treats—treats that, during the year, they’re only allowed on occasion. Adults need to act like adults again. We need to re-establish moderation, to maintain balance in everyday eating. Lose the damn stickers. For one night a year, bring back the Milky Ways.

2) Food is pleasure. There is nothing quite like experience of eating the first slurpy peach of the season, or a warm fat heirloom tomato pulled off the vine. But neither is there anything quite like Aunt Rosemary’s lasagna fresh from the oven, or Mom’s sour cream coffee cake. These foods deserve honor, not our projected castigation and reproach. Too much of anything is no good, be it Pop-Tarts or fresh blueberries. Enjoy rich foods, every single mouthful. Eat them slowly. Appreciate them. Write about it and describe it passionately, if you’re as nutty as I am. Treat them like the treats they are. 

3) Food is connection. Food is not just for silencing hunger. Other hungers are fed as well: our need to express love and to feel loved, to protect and to feel safe, to share memories and to remember. I love cooking for people, and I love tasting other people’s gifts of food. Everybody gets so excited. It’s powerful. I love sharing what I’m eating and being offered bits of my friends’ food. Some people hate that, but not me. It’s a sign of intimacy. When you go out a lot to eat with actors, food gets passed around. I have one friend who never wants his pickle, so I take it. Recently I picked all of the peaches out of his fruit cocktail with my fingers. It’s not classy, but it’s home—even if you’re away from it.

Go easy on yourselves, everybody. Keep balance in your eating. Enjoy everything. We’re supposed to be happy on this planet.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a peanut butter moose tracks cone. And I’ll live.

 

cakewalk

 

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One of my college roommates is an army wife, the kind whose husband gets stationed in Iraq for over a year, leaving the onus of running the house, the three children and the three pets in it (and oh, yes, herself) pretty much on her shoulders. But this heroine still insisted on making her daughter a birthday cake, and used her favorite family recipe.

Her great-great grandmother’s recipe, to be exact. (I did the math.* This cake goes back to a time when anything but a tricorn hat was death on the red carpet). It’s easy to make. And the result is a tender, powerfully vanilla-y cake with a crumb that manages to be hearty and delicate at the same time.

There it is above with some of the mulberries from the tree outside my balcony. But this cake is versatile!

-It can be split, filled, and frosted with butter cream for a birthday.

-It can be topped with ice cream and hot fudge, or powdered sugar or creme fraiche.

-Or it can be sliced warm, unceremoniously plopped into the bottom of a bowl, and topped with yogurt or creme anglaise along with any manner of fruit. Here we are the top of August: choose something that’s ripe and ready now. Peaches. Plums. Blackberries. Raspberries. Blueberries. The cake will slurp up any sweet liquid and make it luscious.

1 1/2 c granulated sugar

1/2 c unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs (lightly beaten)

2 c all-purpose flour

1 c milk

1 tbsp. baking powder

2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

A pinch salt (my addition)

Set oven to 375. Grease two 8″ cake pans. (Use springforms if you have them, or shanghai them from a friend; they have removable bottoms and make it easier to take the cakes out.)

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs. In a smaller bowl, combine flour with baking powder. Add to butter mixture, alternating with milk. Add extract and mix until combined. Bake for 25 minutes until golden and a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.

Enjoy…and thanks, Beth :)

*I’m crap at it, but I did it.

 

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