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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.

 

wild find

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My area, like so many others, used to be farmland. Farmlands are often edged in brambles, and brambles often mean wild berries—strawberries, blackberries, currants. 100 years ago, during the warmer months, people would take baskets out to the brambly edges, fill them with whatever happened to be growing there, and pick until their fingers were stained and the baskets were full. Then it was back to the farmhouse, where Mom and assorted sisters would turn the berries into pies, cobblers, grunts, slumps, and Brown Betties for breakfast. The rest, the bulk of them, became jellies and jams to put up for the winter.

This is something I easily forget when I’m rushing hither and yon on a Monday morning, parking the car at a store* that’s flush against some of the last bits of wild and unclaimed acres in New Jersey. But today, when the sun slanted through the trees and hit gleaming bits of red, I stopped to investigate.

Yep, there they were: a raspberry’s unmistakable hairy, thorny canes. I threw my bag and sunglasses into the car, lest they fall into the poison ivy that was absolutely everywhere, and reached and gently pulled. The berries were much smaller, shinier, and firmer than cultivated raspberries, and were ruby red instead of rosy violet-red. And tart! Holy cow. Only a handful was available, but I can imagine a sweetened pie of these would be a thing of uncommon beauty.

No one else saw them, or maybe they saw them but didn’t trust that they were raspberries, and steered clear.

Nibbling on them as I write this. I’ve never eaten wild raspberries before. Crazy. And enjoying them slowly, the best way to enjoy something rare.

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*I’m not telling you what store. They’re mine. Okay, mine and the deer’s.

 

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Carrots with the dirt still clinging. I hacked off the tops and fed them to Esmerelda Goat at Silverton Farms. She quite enjoyed them.

Dear Organizers,

Okay, yesterday clinched it.

Compliments first—and soak ‘em in, because once I’m done all bets are off.

You know I’m a big fan. I’ve sung arias to farmers and their markets time and again. (Even more than that.)

Here’s what you get right:

1) You created the market in the first place, reviving a homespun way to buy food.

2) People get to meet, kibbutz, share recipes, and have a groovy old time.

3) We get the opportunity to buy food straight from the dirt. And sometimes it still has dirt, or feathers, or errant sticks in with it. This is a plus, I’m telling you. I like finding inchworms. It’s nearing high summer in New Jersey. I’m wildly digging the butterstick squash, the beans, the little potatoes, the sweet bells, and the countless other treasures borne of our happy little Zone 7’s earth and rain and sky.

Okay, put away the Kleenex and turn off the Luther Vandross*. All set? So glad. We’re going to hear a lot more on that last note:

What the…? Mangoes? On a New Jersey farmers’ market table? Jesus H. Sebastian God. I saw a dozen of these yesterday, and it wasn’t the first time. Lemons and limes. Bananas. Blueberries from Canada, when they’re in season right here, right now. When NJ produces 52 million pounds every season.**

Even more insulting, peaches and plums bought at bloody Pathmark, transferred to an aw-shucks-ain’t-that-homey-hope-they-don’t-notice-they’re-from-Bolivia pint box, presented to us with the store stickers still attached, and with the price marked up. To make matters worse (as if you could), most often all of the produce, local or not, is tagged with a ‘Jersey Fresh’ label. That’s stones. Oh, also? That loses you at least one customer, and I can’t imagine I’m alone.

Forget that this mishagoss doesn’t support NJ. Forget that often enough you’re continuing to hoodwink the consumer into thinking produce is in season when it’s not. Even forget the number it’s doing on the environment, bringing in food from thousands of miles away when you can get it right down the road.

Factor in nothing but the incomparable, insane flavor and nutrition that come from collards that were in still in the ground at 7 this morning and still have 4 this-morning’s dew on them. I’ll pay more for them. They’re worth more.

I’m at a farmers market, people. I don’t want some bollocksy greens that were picked a week ago Thursday and have been on vehicles with six different plates from three different countries. If I wanted greens that have more stamps on their passport than Beyonce, I’d go to Pathmark.

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Red plum from a NJ farmer’s tree.

Educate me. Please. I know quite a few farmers. I would never suggest the work a farmer does is easy. I know the powerful resilience it takes to fight the fight every season—against the weather, the bills, the aging machines (especially if he or she is one of them), the land developers whispering sweet nothings through screen doors. Making ends meet and staying optimistic takes a mighty, consistent effort, and they have my respect and gratitude always.

You might be thinking:

1) Some farmers sell non-local produce because they had a bad season.

2) Some only grow two things and want to sell their wares just like everyone else, want to make the trip to the market worth their while.

My rebuttal:

1) This has been a lovely, good-sun and good-rain growing season so far.

2) I see this practice most often among farmers who already have a dozen-plus different homegrown offerings. They set out all of their beautiful produce right next to watermelons from Georgia, picked unripe so they could travel the distance intact, when NJ’s own luscious melons will be in season in only two or so more weeks.

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Purple cabbage in noon-time sunshine.

It’s time—long overdue, to be perfectly honest—to take a page from Greenmarket in NYC. Many years ago when the Market was in its infancy some growers began showing up with bananas. The higher-ups ix-nayed that. Food was to be local, harvested within a certain number of miles, or it wasn’t allowed on the tables.

What’s keeping NJ—or any state or country’s market—from doing the same?

Pull it together,

MCP

*Actually, that you’re welcome to deep-six entirely.

**No, that’s not a typo.

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