Feeds:
Posts
Comments
IMG_5525

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.

IMG_5526

ending the sentence

IMG_3693

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

 

IMG_3197

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

IMG_5520

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.

IMG_5519

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

 

IMG_3584

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.

IMG_4564

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.

IMG_4696

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.

IMG_5463

I read that in some communities you don’t dare leave your car unlocked in high summer or you risk finding your backseat packed to the ceiling with your neighbors’ surplus zucchini. Hit-and-run altruism. Or desperation, take your pick.

Despite the myriad uses people have come up with to use this prolific squash*, a favorite of mine today was a Sunday morning staple when I grew up, simply called zucchini, onions, and eggs.

It’s hardly a recipe, really; like most memorable dishes, it was invented with what happens to be around. Right now in New Jersey it’s this.

Slice zucchini into rounds and saute over medium-high heat in a pat of butter or a good drizzle of olive oil. Turn them when you can start to smell them; that’s a sign they’re speckled with brown underneath.

Chop up some onion and throw it in with the zucchini, stirring often until it’s lightly browned. Hit the mixture with a little salt.

Whisk together some eggs and pour them over the veggies. Add freshly ground pepper and some Italian seasoning, or any variation of fresh or dried basil, thyme, oregano, and rosemary.

If you want to get fancy and have good wrist skills, by all means flip that dude over and call it an omelet. Or just stir gently until set through. I like it lightly browned as well.

There, you’re done. Wait! I just thought of this—a shaving of Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano would be incredible.** That’s new.

I upped my game with the dish this year by using local ingredients and it was so good: zucchini and ‘candy’ red onion from Silverton Farms in Toms River. I also sliced in some of their sweet uncured garlic.

IMG_5438

The eggs were from Wyman Farms, from in county. Then I dressed it up even more by making fries with some of the first of Silverton’s itty bitty fresh-dug potatoes, oven roasted with olive oil and tossed with salt. This is breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

I don’t have a garden. But if you do, let me know and I’ll leave my car unlocked for you.

IMG_5484

* I also read people use them as baseball bats—good for precisely one hit, I’m guessing. I need to stop reading so much.

**Caveat: if you’re at all tempted to use anything that started in a green can, please disregard entirely the above suggestion.

trifling

IMG_5442

The one I ate after dinner.

I had to dash out for more eggs mid-recipe, my ladyfingers ended up looking like amoebas with a gland problem, but I’m happy to report this totally off-the-cuff recipe was still a rousing success. It started with me trying to think of other breakfasty/snacky/desserty ways to use my honeysuckle syrup. Many readers gave me some killer ideas—mix it in with white sangria, add it to barbecue sauce for ribs, drizzle it into fruit salad. (I still plan to make marzipan cake or pound cake and soak that sucker in it.)

Then I remembered Umbrian reader Letizia’s beautiful recipe for ladyfingers, the one she offered for part of my cooking project, and everything came together in my head on the drive home from the farm today: ladyfingers soaked in syrup and layered with tart yogurt.

At first I was thinking of including strawberries (not that I’m ruling it or any other fruits out down the road and now that I think about it, slightly unripe apricots would ROCK). Then I thought of how good the simplest European treats are, like crepes filled with just a thin layer of jam and dusted with powdered sugar, and decided to ease off. The ladyfinger batter calls for lemon, and that was going to be a good, kind friend to the honeysuckle. The tangy yogurt would be checks and balances to the sweetness.

Ladyfingers, those dense, spongy cookies made structurally sound with lots of egg, are used most famously in tiramisu. Here in the States people throw that name around so often with stacked dishes that you can hardly order a club sandwich these days without some whack chef calling it a turkey tiramisu. We Americans are an obsessive lot. Let’s call this dish a trifle. A little tiny one that you could make enormous if you wanted to, for a summer shower or other party.

Parenthetical comments are Letizia’s; mine are in brackets. Click the honeysuckle syrup link above for my recipe.

*
Ladyfingers

75 gr (2/3 cup) granulated sugar
3 eggs, separated
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
75 gr (2/3 cup) 00 or pastry flour [I used all-purpose]
1 scant tablespoon plain yogurt or milk [I used goat's milk--awesome]
2 tablespoon powdered sugar plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, mixed in a small bowl

Preheat oven at 150°C (300° F). Line a large baking sheet with buttered parchment paper. If you don’t butter the parchment paper you will have to eat it as it’s hardly possible to remove it from the cookies after baking. [Somehow I missed her note, twice, about greasing the parchment. Please heed her warning.]

Whisk or beat egg whites until firm. Cream the sugar and egg yolks, add lemon zest, vanilla extract, flour and milk or yogurt and keep whisking to obtain a very thick batter. Fold in egg whites using a metal spoon. Make sure to incorporate them lightly, with circular upward movements so to obtain an airy mixture that will not deflate while cooking.

At this point, using a pastry bag, you should pipe the batter into 10 cm (4 inch) long strips on the baking sheet. (I hate pastry bags, so I use a soup spoon making sure to keep the strips at least 3 cm (1 inch) apart. One spoon of batter is enough for one ladyfinger.) [My hat is off to Letizia. I was sad crap at this. Using a pastry bag next time.]

Now sprinkle half of the sugar mixture onto the strips. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden around the sides. Makes about 2 dozen.

Letizia Mattiacci
Umbria, Italy

incampagna.com

*

This is so simple, so delicious, it’s almost lyrical. Funny how a flower can do so much for a dish.

Grazie, Letizia!

IMG_5433

Whites beaten to stiff peaks can sparkle like snow. Kinda cool.

IMG_5435

Whites folded most of the way into batter.

IMG_5439

Amoebas baked to a golden brown and sprinkled with sugar.

IMG_5443

The one I’m having for breakfast. Layered with the yogurt and sitting in a happy pool of syrup.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 187 other followers