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crepe agape

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Indulge me a bit, will you? I wait all year for the tiny crepe stand on the Asbury Park boardwalk to open, and I always eat my inaugural crepe on Memorial Day weekend. The four kids working behind the counter at this place have about as much space as Trader Joe’s allows between cash registers, yet they duck and move between the six hot plates with impressive efficiency. Which is good, because the crowd I was standing in was hungry, as the sun-soaked tend to be.

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This year my sister, who loves to say the crepes made here at this little tin shack are better than those she had in Paris, got the cannoli crepe. It comes with cannoli cream and little chocolate chips. Her friend got a S’mores crepe, with ground Graham crackers, baby marshmallows, and a squiggle of chocolate syrup.

I get what I always get: the Elvis Presley, containing Nutella, sliced bananas, and crumbled Reese’s peanut butter cups—everything but the barbiturates, as I told my friends. (Since you were wondering, there is a Priscilla, which has all of the Elvis ingredients plus vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. Elvis could have put away the latter and then ordered in country-style ribs for dessert, so I’d switch the names of the crepes, myself. But I can still eat in peace.)

Getting crepes over Memorial Day afternoon, standing in the late-day sunshine in the middle of a crowded boardwalk, cooing over them and feasting on their gooshy warmth with plastic forks—it’s a very simple, very communal, and intensely satisfying experience. I don’t eat like this normally. It’s almost dizzying, actually, the degree to which this luxury tops the scales of my brain and taste buds. And full disclosure, I saved half and it’s in my fridge. Really cold, it’s good, too. A treat worth the wait once more…at least until tomorrow morning.

I just discovered that the edges of a crab apple leaf are the exact same red as the fruit they’ll produce in the fall. Isn’t that the coolest? Foreshadowing!

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You all know I can’t get enough of the outdoors. This time of year there are so many new things to see, and many of them tiny things, so you kinda have to look.

If you do, and if you live in an area that doesn’t over-manicure open spaces (as I do, sing hosanna), you might find one or more of the little wildflowers that once carpeted all of the outdoors in May. They’re called spring ephemerals, and in the very small town where I grew up, they mainly grow on the quietest, shadiest street along the lake. Most of the trees there are original and thus are enormous, but enormous. That spot feels like a forest to which people happened to add some houses. Little woodland flowers pop up on roadsides, near the mossy banks, and right on people’s lawns. They don’t know that the town was settled almost a hundred years ago. I find this incredibly comforting, especially as time goes by. It’s something we can count on, something silent and resilient and beautiful that never fails.*

I’m having very little success finding out the names of most of the flowers there. Can anyone help me out?

These first I know: white violets. (Sometime I’m going to find seeds for the variety that has a sweet scent. My girl Laura Ingalls Wilder, who grew up in the western part of the U.S., talks so fondly of them in her books.)

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The below ephemerals are edged in palest purple, with white on the inside.

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These have the form and color of a grape hyacinth, with blossoms shaped like lilies-of-the-valley.

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These are pure white and grow in clumps. I had to sneak onto the Schwartz family’s lawn to take this shot. Shhh now.

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Another clump of the above was growing a little farther down the street, and I pulled over to shoot them as well. When I did, an elderly gentleman with a big smile walked over and asked what I was doing. Of course I was terribly taken aback at his question, as most normal people routinely 1) both see and 2) stop the car to crouch in the dirt so they can shoot seven white flowers growing on the side of the road. He shook my hand with his big hand and said his name was Fred. He asked the name of the flowers, and all I could say was they’re ephemerals. But along with living in a not-overly-manicured area, I also love having conversations with neighbors in the middle of the street about wildflowers, the neighbor’s precious patch of lilies-of-the-valley, and the dangers of overgrown ivy.

Heading inside. I’m getting hungry, for a change.

I bought the below this morning from a farmer who lives about five miles away. Weathered face, weathered hands, big crinkly grin. The asparagus posed for the picture just before going onto the cookie sheet and into the oven at 350 for half an hour. Just took them out, and the house smells all green.

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The below was a surprising triumph (except for the crust. You can see it’s way, way too heavy.). The topping came out exactly right even though I totally winged the amount of sugar I added to the rhubarb. Underneath was my vanilla custard. Good breakfast choice.

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Hello, whoops, back outside again. Six hungry little girls watching the crowds at the car show today in Ocean Grove. I love that they’re sitting shoulder to shoulder, like sisters, and I love that they all have on new flip flops. All different colors, no less—left to right, they’re purple, blue, yellow, orange, pink, and green.

Hoping your May is as colorful, as close, and as sweet as theirs.

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*You know the song Edelweiss, featured in The Sound of Music? Edelweiss were not just flowers to Captain von Trapp; they were a brave and constant symbol of everything he loved about his home. They were his home. The spring ephemerals are my edelweiss.

caveat emptor

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Soft-shell crab season begins in spring on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Nearly the whole bugger can be eaten.

So here’s me snooping around on a restaurant’s About page, and I see this: ‘With locally sourced fresh ingredients. Our menu changes seasonally: we always serve what is in season.’ Heart so warmed. Then I saw out-of-season ingredients on the menu, and called the chef to ask when he’d be updating it.

That’s when he said the menu was current. And consequently that’s when the Warm in my heart turned to Grrrr.

I was polite, don’t worry. But I was ticked. It’s not right to tell customers how important seasonal ingredients are at your restaurant and then put butternut pasta and corn/watermelon salad on your spring menu. Which is what I told him.

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Asparagus, mid-spring.

He squirmed. I heard it over the phone.* Then he told me he would like to use spring vegetables, but his hands were tied, you see: ‘There just aren’t that many,’ he sighed mournfully.

First of all, yes, there are. Second of all, huh? You can’t go throw a rock at a farmers market right now without hitting snow peas, asparagus, tiny radishes.** He thought I’d roll over and agree?

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Cherries, early summer.

It’s true there are no spring fruits here until around Memorial Day (strawberries are first). But you better believe there are lots upon lots of spring vegetables. I cheerfully took his assertion as a cue to rattle off every single one I could think of. Maybe eight vegetables in as many seconds. He squirmed some more and soaked the back of his chef’s coat.***

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Potatoes, summer. They keep well, but they’re born in the summer.

I have three problems with chefs who lie about offering local and seasonal produce on their menus.

You’re Lying

Look, the people you lie to are operating under fakery, and eventually it goes all London Bridge on you. It does. That’s the impractical end of lying.

But the insidious end is this: it implies contempt. At this restaurant and others of its ilk, with every bite of that butternut pasta in April comes a glaring lack of respect. It’s no way to eat. Then they want $24 for it.****

Some of Us Know Better, See ‘Ticked’ Above

Not everyone is a food writer who knows when produce comes into season, granted. Others are restauranteurs themselves. Or farmers, in this, the Garden State. Or ag students. Or home gardeners, or bio teachers, or hey wait COOKS.

Honestly? I don’t know this stuff because I’m a food writer. I know it because I cook. And I may be the first person who calls you on this lie, but I promise you with fairy dust and butterfly kisses that I won’t be the last.

It’s Your Job To Teach

People may disagree with me on this one, but I stand by it.

You, Sir Chef, chose to work with and present food to the public. With that choice comes the responsibility to go by it, and your customers, ethically. But there’s more.

Yes, there are lots of us who know corn isn’t in season in May. But there are far more who don’t; most people, sadly, have become detached from the earth and what and when it produces. You’re supposed to be enamored enough with what the earth produces that you chose it as your life’s work. Right? And thus…you are in the unique position of educating people and sharing that passion.

So educate us. Share it. Saute baby artichokes in fresh lemon juice and olive oil until they’re so tender they’ll halfway dissolve on our tongues. Slice up some Chioggia beets paper thin, and let your youngest customers giggle at the candy cane stripes and sweet taste.

This problem—it’s easily fixed. You just have to care.

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Melons, mid- to late summer.

Please note: I’m not saying every restaurant needs to serve local and seasonal produce. I mean it would be great, but I know it’s not the case. I go to places all the time that serve good meals with produce from all over the calendar. But they dont claim to be local and seasonal. My beef is with those who do, those who want to get on the trendy-phrase bandwagon and make some fat money off calling themselves local and seasonal…and it’s actually a total head fake.

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Figs, late summer into early fall. I picked these off the trees an hour before I shot this, then promptly ate them for lunch.

I called the above chef because I had hoped to feature his restaurant in an article. And who knows—his food, such as it is, might be good. But without integrity? Like at the very heart of the place, like at the very heart of the chef himself? No. If his heart’s not in it, he can’t expect mine to be.

Just checked their site again and was genuinely hoping to see a change, either with new copy that doesn’t tout how seasonal they are, or with an actual spring menu.

Psht.

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Persimmons, late fall.

*Yes, you can.

**Don’t throw rocks at farmers markets. It’s a bad idea. Same with caution to the wind.

***Didn’t have to be in the room. He did. And may I say, good.

****I swear to you this is what they’re charging. For a dish featuring squash picked seven months ago.

the catalyst

In every story worth telling there comes a point when the narrative plateaus, and in order to advance the story to a new place a Something needs to happen. Sometimes the Something shows up as a whisper, sometimes as a Steinway to the head. Either way, it’s guaranteed to move things along; and with any luck, bring the story to a right and happy conclusion.

Narrative #1.

Last summer Matt, an awesome pastry chef I’ve worked with, told me he picks wild raspberries in a park nearby. And he was kind of nonchalant about it, like it wasn’t a big deal. I said something along the lines of ‘cool,’ and didn’t exactly rush out there. I figured he cleaned out the couple of raspberry canes he found, and either way, how would I find them in a 787-acre park? I didn’t know how he found them. At their thorny wrath, maybe.

Yesterday while parking my car I noticed the wineberry canes (a cousin to raspberries) I found last summer, and was reminded of the conversation I’d had with Matt about raspberries. I drove out to the park, thinking if I found them, I found them.

You might say I found them. 787 acres though there may be, 785 of them were prickly with raspberry canes. I’m serious—pretty much everything that wasn’t trees or skunk cabbage was a raspberry cane. I’ve never seen anything like it. Along the road. Deep into the woods along a scrabbly trail*. Even organized over a trellis. That’s why Matt was so casual about it. All of Monmouth County could pick them and have enough to sprinkle on their Frosted Mini-Wheats for a week. But this is one of those times when I’m glad John Q. Public tends toward the clueless, because I have big plans for when the fruit shows up this summer.

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See you in July.

As a bonus, I also came across four very old apple trees in blossom. Can’t wait to see what kind they are. I’ll be back for those in October.

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With four baskets.

Next narrative, and again it starts in the summer—many summers ago, actually.

I grew up at the beach, and the lagoon at the northernmost end of our beach was my favorite spot. It was sort of like a sunken living room, encircled with enormous rocks and containing powder-fine grey sand. My sister and I and our friends would play and hang out and dig for sand crabs there. People harvested mussels there, too, piling them up in pickle buckets to take home. It was a soothing and generous sanctuary.

Last summer it was announced that the lagoon would be filled in with sand as part of a massive beach replenishment project. Its intent was to hold back the ocean a few hundred feet and reduce the stress of the people who owned oceanfront property.

I cried the way I would for a death, because it was, as well as a 40-million-dollar waste. It’s sand, people. It moves. Filling in the lagoon destroyed ecosystems and ruined surfing along this part of the shore, and for what? It’s all going to wash back out to sea anyway.

Which is why I stopped crying, but it doesn’t mean I’m ready to go see the what the bulldozers have wrought. They filled in the lagoon a week ago, and since then I’ve taken my walks in the opposite direction, to the lake. Our public works guys cut back a lot of the overgrowth along the banks and I was hoping they didn’t take out the wild mint. They did, but no worries—it did what mint does: grow. Here it is, all new and tender and dark green.

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And coming soon to a tabbouleh near you.

That cheered me up a lot, seeing it so healthy and happy. Nature always wins.

So there we have it, a wineberry whisper and a lagoon Steinway, two Somethings that advanced my story and brought me straight to raspberries and mint (and hey—apples, too!). I’m stoked.

And I’m posting a shot of the lagoon—not as it is now, but the way it was, and the way it will be again. I can wait. And I’m not worried.

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*I cannot resist a scrabbly trail. The kind four white-tailed deer know about and no one else. Once I almost got lost in a Polynesian jungle because of this weirdo idiosyncrasy of mine. And brother, if you think everything looked alike in the park I’m talking about above, go hiking in the heart of Mo’orea sometime. Everything—trees, plants, the trail itself—is the same otherworldly green. And the deeper you go into the jungle, the darker it gets.

the fog

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Neptune Avenue heading east, Deal, NJ.

I am lucky enough to live so close to the ocean that on some mornings sea mist tumbles down the streets. It rolls past houses and cars until the sun gets higher, sending iridescent streaks of light through it and, eventually, burns it all away.

Other days are just solid fog, no sun, and it lingers. These are the days when I tuck my point-and-shoot into my pocket and walk straight to the beach.

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Bench overlooking the jetty, Allenhurst, NJ.

Days like this, there is no horizon. No ‘you are here: X’ to pinpoint you on Earth’s map. With nearly every reliable view I count on gone, the landscape eerie, the seascape all but vanished, I might as well have been snatched up and plunked down onto another planet.

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Fisherman on the jetty, Allenhurst.

Or it’s as if I am in a 1950s B movie.

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Jetty and waves, but no horizon.

But I don’t find it terrifying; I find it the opposite of terrifying. To stand on the beach and be utterly disoriented, not to see anything beyond 20 feet in any direction, is fascinating. I grew up here and could walk this beach blindfold—and am. I’m wearing Harry’s loose and misty invisibility cloak, and it extends for miles up the windswept coast.

Wait wait wait…or is it less a cloak than another veil the universe sent me?

If so, it’s the wildest ever. Sold.

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Dune and fog.

To get my bearings, I look down and see what the waves and weather have produced.

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Skate (a type of ray) egg case.

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High tide patterns on the powdery dark lagoon sand.

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Taking the veil home with me. Here it is clinging to my black wool pea coat. It’s nice to be enveloped now and again.

Afterward it’s warm-up time. I know, it’s late in the season for hot chocolate.

No, it isn’t.

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homegrown

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A planned life is a dead one. –Lauren Bacall

The Greens

I left on a walk today with no plans on where to go. Like none. Headed a few blocks west and thought, well…I don’t have enough spinach left for my salad tonight. I’ll go pick dandelion greens. So I went to a spot that’s: 1) untended public lands (pesticides unlikely) 2) away from sidewalks (and their attendant leaky dogs).

And did well, as you can see above. Dandelion greens are tenderest and the least bitter when no longer than a finger—shorter, if you can get them. And I have little fingers.

The Visit Home

Then, since these lands are opposite the ballfield where I spent most of my childhood, I decided to poke around a little and see what was new in the old haunt. We kids owned that place, and it was our home. No hyperbole.

There’s a batting cage and a tennis court, plus sometimes people tee off just for fun, much to the irritation of the cops. And apparently the aim of today’s suburban athletes hasn’t improved from days of yore; there were as many balls in the woods as there were old sycamore branches. You could open a Sports Authority.

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Okay, a kiosk.

And I see kids still have offline fun. Kind of heartening.

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‘Kinda loud’ JUST DOESN’T CUT IT.

I wandered to the northeast corner of the ballfield where we used to play an outdoor version of house, on the rough grounds that straddle the gully. It was usually dry, but got muddy when it rained a lot. The spot is overgrown now, and backs up against new houses. But in the day…it was a freaking kingdom.

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New Jersey’s version of Terabithia.

The Poultry

Right up against this corner is a house that—wow—now has a chicken coop? In Interlaken? And here comes a blonde woman to feed them, and—*resist passing out from shock*—I know her?

‘Hi! What are you doing?’ she asks.

‘Foraging.’

‘Oh, okay.’

As if she’s just asked where I got my pants, and I’d said, ‘L.L. Bean.’ But she does raise chickens in the tidiest, sweetest little suburb in the Western hemisphere. So her chill reaction makes sense.

Leslie’s husband makes hot sauce for a living. She’s trained in herbal medicine, grows a lot of that sort of thing, and raises these Rhode Island Red chickens. She ran inside for a dozen fresh-laid eggs for me.

And that’s how I came to carry a fistful of rapidly wilting greens and a dozen eggs through a town that has no stores of any kind. Well…I have had weirder moments in that town.*

The Last Surprise

I was stunned to see white violets (Viola sororia) growing a month earlier than usual. Here, these are May belles. Then I was further knocked out to see a variety I’d never seen before…and I know every flower in this one-horse town. It’s a violet, but can’t figure out what kind. Does anyone know? White with Pollack-esque purple speckles.

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More Poultry

Near the flowers I saw a Canada goose chomping away on grass, and called his attention to the violets. I told him that some varieties taste like mint, but he ignored me. Nice.

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Oh, like plain grass is so good.

The Dinner

Tossed the dandelion greens in with my smidge of spinach. That’s avocado you see in there, too, since I’m still inexplicably obsessed, plus a little bit of cheese, plus red onion, plus olive oil and salt. Didn’t have an egg yet. Tomorrow.

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I ate a massive chocolate chip cookie before this.

*Once I sold blue-tinted 7-Up with my friends from the edge of their driveway. It was roughly the color of Ty-D-Bol. Some tennis players came over for a drink, saw the color, and one of them said to the other, ‘You first.’

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I made an awful lot of honeysuckle syrup last June. Drank up a bunch with vodka over ice, drizzled more in mini ladyfinger trifles, and am now baking up the rest.

One of the tenderest, loveliest pound cake recipes I know comes from Martha (http://www.marthastewart.com/315016/cardamom-pound-cake-with-roasted-late-su). I thought I’d guild the lily one step further and soak it in honeysuckle syrup. So I did.

Do everything she tells you to do, but hold the cardamom and cut way back on the sugar (your syrup wants to be the diva here). I put my batter in an 11″ springform as well, and put it on a rimmed cookie sheet. When it comes out of the oven, dock the top of the cake with a fork.

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Like this. Martha’s would have been more even.

Then pour a cup or two of the syrup over the whole cake. The hot cake will slurp it up, and the little holes will help to facilitate that. (Since the cake contains almond flour, I added a splash of Disaronno to the syrup as well. Almonds and honeysuckle are such a good combo platter.)

Every morning I take out a half cup or so of extra syrup and pour it over my slice of breakfast cake because I love it all soaky.

Right now tax accountants across the country are busy closing out America’s 2014 fiscal year. I’m doing the same…but with honeysuckle. The 2015 season starts this June. I’m standing by with my collecting bucket.

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