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heirloom blueberries

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Quick little post today, recuperating as I am from running crew every night this past week, but wanted to tell you all about the blueberries I found on Saturday at the farmers market a few blocks away. They were on the edge of a folding table manned by two teenagers. I asked the kids if all of the produce they were selling was local, and they said everything was but the fruit. Then I saw this sign and asked again to double check. New Jersey grows a lot of blueberries, it’s high season, and something about that hand-scrawled sign made me wonder. Things that make you go hmmm.*

‘I think they’re from south Jersey,’ the girl said. Well, hot diggity—that’s where most of our blueberries are grown. And look at that cheapie price for a pint!

I took them home, washed and stemmed half of them, and ate them for lunch with low-fat Stonyfield vanilla yogurt stirred in. They’re tiny and spicy and remind me of the low-bush blueberries that hail from New England, but the oracle of Google tells me they’re high-bush, the kind New Jersey grows.

That’s it. They were great. :) Happy week!

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I’m a dork; I accidentally took a video of this sign instead of a photo. So I cheated and shot a picture of it right on my PC screen. Nice arrow, huh?

*Apologies to those too young to remember the 1991 hit by C+C Music Factory. You aren’t really missing anything.

sinking in to summer

Midsummer, and we’re all starting to ooze into the fabric of our beach chairs (but today temps hit 90 again, so full disclosure: I’m oozing into my sofa as I write this).

A hazy, dreamy list of the not-to-be-missed—summer delights,`a la me.

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Beach rose in early evening light.

1. Go to the beach between 4 and 6p. The shadows are long, the sand has a golden glow, and the crowds have cleared. It’s the most beautiful time of day.

2. Or go to the beach between 7 and 9a when the ocean is sparkling in the morning sun. It’s the other most beautiful time of day. Dive in. You’re swimming in a big splashy tub of glitter.

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3. Eat locally grown fruit, picked perfectly ripe. To get the full flavor, resist refrigerating it. Trust me on this one.

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Sticky ripe plum.

4. Don’t put fresh basil in the fridge, either. Treat it like the plant it is: Trim the ends and stick the bunch in a jar filled with water. Use as needed. If flowers start to emerge, pinch them off to keep the leaves from getting bitter.

5. Go barefoot. Feel the differences between the textures of this or that sand, or this or that grass. Don’t freak over rough patches forming on your feet; they’re giving you the power to explore the summer world further.*

6. Make a pie. Any sensible pie crust comes together in the Cuisinart in 10 minutes, I promise, zip zip zip, and it won’t have any weird stuff in it. Then you can add anything summer gives you—blueberries, blackberries, late-season cherries. Doll them up or leave them alone.

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Peach custard pie.

7. Find a funnel cake and dive into that, too. Any will do, but I like ’em puff-tastic.

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From the very nearby Asbury Park, NJ boardwalk. I’m not 300 lbs., and it’s miraculous.

8. Slurp up an heirloom tomato—and go local on this one as well, too, for best flavor and price. All other tomatoes will seem like the soggy tube socks they are. Slurp at room temperature. A ripe uncut tomato will live happily on your kitchen table for a few days, if you can restrain yourself longer than I can.

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9. Ride your bike. It’s just as you remember—like flying.

10. Go to a playground and swing on the swings. Go at night. Even better.

11. Find an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and order something retro. The one near me, in business since 1901, offers a really sweet, really kaleidoscopically colored soda called a cherry-lime rickey. Or go back just as far as the boomers, who order butter pecan, black raspberry, and cherry vanilla.

12. Collect wildflowers and let them brighten your counter or night stand. Tiger-lilies, false Queen Anne’s lace, and many others grow in profusion in meadows and along roadsides. If you pull the latter up fully, smell the roots; they smell like carrots (a cousin). Cool, right?

13. Buy a melon from a farm stand. Be sure it’s local for best ripeness. You can eat it in slices or chop it up and make a smoothie or an agua fresca out of it. Use a knife; a melon baller wastes too much fruit.

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I inserted a sharp knife one half-inch into this Sugar Baby and it cracked itself right open. That’s ripe, my dear friends. That’s how melon should be, and taste.

14. Sleep with the windows open. Falling asleep and waking up to a breeze is beauteous.

15. Find something yummy growing somewhere wild and have a little snack. Then tell me about it. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.

*Gabrielle Reece, pro beach volleyball player, has said she isn’t ashamed of her weight—she is grateful for it, because she needs every pound to play with the force she wants. I feel the same about callouses on my feet; I’m proud of every one because I need every one.

 

plenty

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What’s the difference between what truly satisfies and what doesn’t? We’ve heard about determining what’s enough; that’s been posed at least since the ’90s, when the Benetton and zircon-brooch* excess of the previous decade got to all of us. The threshold of enough is in the eye of the beholder, and for me, it’s pretty easy pickings.

It’s being in reasonably good health (check), which I don’t take for granted after many years of stress-related illnesses and a further-cheering car accident chaser. It’s people around me who want to be there (check). A non-leaky roof over my head and warm walls within a safe town (check). Having a few electronics and a car that behave (check). A well-stocked kitchen (checkity check check). Grains, olive oil, good quality chocolate**, milk, yogurt, some protein. An avocado ripening on the dining room table is a lovely thing. It’s having a freezer with butter and snoozing yeast, slices of my homemade coffee cake, tubs of chicken broth, Ziplocked fruits I’ve bought, foraged, or picked at the farm. That’s close to what constitutes enough, at least for me.

One step farther. What’s the difference between enough and plenty? What constitutes plenty? Because as I see it, if we’re operating from a place of plenty, it significantly changes our experience of the world. It feels a lot different than enough.

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I saw this book in Anthro as soon as I started thinking about this post. Riddle: How many Plenty books are plenty? Answer: JUST ONE. Ha! I slay me.

Lest you think I’m advocating the spend-happiness of our culture, no. When it comes to buying extras, I generally don’t. I’m not a stuff person. Small and manageable is my thing. (To further amplify: I don’t have a kazillion dollars, but if ever I did, I wouldn’t build an 11-bedroom monolith to myself with two sun rooms and a cat porch.*** Plenty might mean torso-high vases in a color West Elm calls ‘aubergine,’ but I’m skeptical.)

Plenty, like enough, is in the eye of the beholder. The Danes have a word that comes closest to what plenty means to me: hygge (pronounced HUE-gah). There’s no clear-cut translation into English, but here: it’s the well-being that comes from creating and living in a place of warmth, coziness, and safety, of enjoying the good things in life with the people who matter most. That’s a different planet from enough; that’s letting the peace that comes from plenty wash over you, and deliberately and consciously sinking into it. I think it’s worth seeking out, for ourselves and for the old ripple effect of it, you know?

The last time I felt a sustained sense of plenty—I narrowed it down—was in the late ’80s when I wore Benetton and zircon brooches and was sent to a small boarding school with my brother and sister. It was an unusual place, one in which I felt constant, enthusiastic, and unconditional support from the staff. And the food was decent to boot. I remember crossing the grounds at night on my way to the library, looking up at the winter sky, and feeling deep peace, of being right where I wanted to be and with the right people.

I’ve felt a sense of plenty in bits and pieces many times since then, and have made a point to suck the marrow out of each instance. It hit most notably a few years ago when I had a surge of creativity that brought me squarely into food writing as well as bigger leaps into marzipan-making and theatre. I’ve always been a project person, but I was unexpectedly gobsmacked with a whoosh of new and cool and way more fulfilling. The Mad Hatter told Alice that she’d lost her muchness, and so had I. I got it back. I had to slay a few Jabberwocks to get there, but all in a day’s work.

It hit again recently when I had a windfall of sorts and felt a calm ooze over me like warm blackberry honey. That evening I zipped off on my bike. And with no plan at all I felt my feet take me to places I’d never been before, found new foraging grounds, and came within a few yards of one seriously surprised white-tailed deer.

My years of working with children taught me that the more secure kids feel, the more adventurous they are. It does not fail. That night felt like a crazy and delicious head trip, but it wasn’t drugs. It was the plenty.

I’m still looking for that elusive sustained plenty, that sense not just of having enough but of being sated. I’ll know it when I see it.

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Macy’s, for example, spells it wrong.

Here’re a few ways I feel the plenty, when I find it in bits and pieces.

-A shamelessly exuberant, burst-open flower.

-A really good conversation.

-Harvesting anything, especially foraging, and really especially finding new plants.

-The beach—its smell, its textures, its ever-changing and unabashed wildness.

-Nailing a cue onstage. The tougher, the bloody well better.

-Kneading and punching down bread dough.

-Celebrating every season.

-Making something with my hands.

-Warming someone who’s been cold inside.

-The magic in a genuine connection.

-Watching a small-town parade.

-Dramatic weather—being utterly immersed in snowflakes, blowing leaves, or fog.

-Noticing something beautiful amid the ordinary.

-Writing this piece. It’s been banging around in my head for months.

-A full-fat ice cream cone.

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*I had a bunch of these and wore them with a shoulder-padded black jacket and looked FLY, dude.

**Hey, I made that the third item and not the first. Impressive!

***I have no idea what this is. I hope I just made it up. Please don’t google it. If you do, please don’t tell me it exists.

in for a pound

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Not a lemon cake. Read on for the gripping truth!

I am not an Elvis fan. I mean, I’m not a mouth-foaming, sobbing-on-the-steps-of-Graceland Elvis fan. Seems to me there’s no other kind, and moreover it would require a Swiffer and a lot of Kleenex. I’m not lazy, but that’s a lot of work. His music is good. But his food is even better.

Whenever you see a muffin, crepe, milkshake, or anything named the ‘Elvis’, it usually contains chocolate and/or peanut butter and/or bananas.* And if it can be deep-fried, it will be.** I love it all. But I have a favorite, and while it smugly holds its own in the fattening department, it features none of the above attributes.

Years ago, back when there was a Gourmet Magazine, the editors interviewed Elvis’s personal cook. This lovely lady heaped them with the best kind of blessing: she gave them the recipe for Elvis’s favorite pound cake. The editors mince no words: it was the best pound cake any of them had ever eaten.

The cake looks like nothing; you’re already glancing askance at the pictures wondering why I’m suddenly trying to bore you. Maybe this will help: It contains two sticks of butter, seven eggs (which explains its yellowy-ness), three cups of sugar, and a cup of heavy cream.*** It also calls for cake flour—much more powdery soft than regular AP flour—and has you sift it three times for the ultimate in lightness.

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Those crumbs are so gracefully arranged, aren’t they? Within seconds they were disgracefully devoured.

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, Independence Day here in the States, and I was torn between two recipes to make for the pre-fireworks picnic I was going to with friends and family. I have always wanted to make this cake, but whined internally that I wasn’t feeling awake enough to handle it. Halfway to the store for ingredients to make cookies, I told myself to stop being ridiculous and bought cream and a pound of butter to make it.

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The snickerdoodles will have hold their snickering.

It came out of the oven about half an hour before I was supposed to bike out to Asbury Park. I sliced it up still warm, and it was like slicing through warm wax—the tenderest, squishiest texture, comparable only to the King’s own belly. (One begat the other, after all.) I wrapped the pieces one over the other in parchment. Then I put it all in a Ziploc, closed it only halfway so steam could escape, and loaded it into my backpack.

The friends and family and I ate Cuban sandwiches and caramelized plantains and then we ate cake. The best reaction came from young Charlie, whose eyes widened as he ate. The King must have been watching from up north, and if that didn’t put the sparkle in his sequins, I miss my guess. I sent the leftovers home with Charlie and his family. Elvis would have wanted that.

And the recipe was not lost to the ages; it’s on Epicurious now, making me happily reconsider my agnosticism.

I have three pound cake recipes. Two are Martha’s, and they are sensational. But I concur with the Gourmet crew: this is the best I have ever tasted.

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Cooling by an open window and toying with the neighbors.

*You will never come across an Elvis spinach salad or hummus platter.

**OH, somewhere someone has figured out a way to deep-fry a milkshake, don’t you think otherwise.

***Crap, I meant to suggest you swallow a Bayer before reading that.

family style

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The ‘candy bar’. It was a lot like Halloween on a table. I don’t know how I could have been born into this family. It’s totally inexplicable.

‘Making another person feel safe is the most perfect gift you can give.’ So says Scott Adams, ‘Dilbert’ cartoonist, in a blog post from a few years back. I’ll raise my glass to that. And last weekend it was reinforced at my cousins’ place. They have five kids, so June often means a graduation party. It’s held in their expansive backyard, with family, their friends, and their friends’ little kids, but it always feels like a be-in. Here, then, are the top 10 reasons I’m grateful for the family who grooved there along with me.

1) We can laugh about the same dopey thing for an hour.

2) We can tell our story and know everyone gets it (relief supreme).

3) We’ll abandon a party table that’s on level ground for one that’s on a hill at a 45-degree angle, just because the conversation there is more raucous.

4) There’s great music, usually courtesy of my cousin and his boys, who kill when it comes to classic rock (although last weekend it was too drizzly; bummer). Years ago our local newspaper offered a weekly guide that helpfully offered, ‘Find out who’s playing in New Jersey this weekend besides your cousin’s band.’ My immediate family’s not musical, but my cousins are—dads and kids alike.

5) Conversations never feel forced. Everyone can let their hair down without judgment.

6) God, but we love to eat. The candy spread above speaks for itself, but please also factor in what else was offered: a graduation cake, a red velvet cake, a selection of locally made chocolates, and two kinds of cookies. And that was after Chipotle burritos, sushi, and more. I got in line right along with the kiddies for the chocolate and baggies to load up. I’m not proud.

7) My cousin makes awesome homemade sangria. A handful of us squeezed under the little drink tent* and cozied up to it.

8) Many of my younger cousins, the once-removed** set, are totally irreverent…which is totally refreshing.

9) We look out for each other and say so.

10) S’mores.

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Gathered ’round the fire and gobbling the classics.

*The drinks weren’t little; the tent was. **My first cousins’ kids.

flower power

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Sometime last April my friend Casey and I went to a shiny new hotspot in Red Bank. I wanted to look around and get a quote for a short article.

We ended up staying for two hours, mainly because we came on a Sunday night. (On Friday and Saturday nights they’re six patrons deep and belly up.) But since it was a slower night, the three young and immensely friendly bartenders had the luxury of chatting us all up. And the chattiest, Brent, had a command and passion for mixed drinks that was just shy of bewildering. He told me he loves new ingredients, I told him I forage from spring to fall, and promised him some honeysuckle syrup to try once it was in season. He was super stoked. Tonight I brought some by.

Walked up to the bar and the guy at my left asked if what I was carrying was the honeysuckle syrup. My heart plunked into my stomach. Apparently Brent had told the whole bar I was coming. I had just the little 2-cup Gladware of it, and he hadn’t even tasted it yet to be sure if he wanted to serve it. ‘We’ve been waiting for it,’ the guy grinned.

I worried in vain; Brent called the syrup awesome. And in the hour I was there he mixed it up five different ways, all off the cuff, just a splash in each. One invention had egg whites frothed on top; another had intensely fresh mint from his yard. The one he made me (above) featured the syrup with vodka, ginger, hibiscus, freshly squeezed lemon and grapefruit juices, and St.- Germain.

The nuttiest thing goes on at that bar on Sunday nights: everyone becomes old chums in about 37 seconds. The guy at my left, grateful to me for his imminent custom honeysuckle invention, offered me one of his fried goat cheese-raspberry puffs before I’d even flagged down Brent. Which was good of him, considering that drink was fantastic but went down like gunpowder. And I enjoyed a lively kibbutz with the couple at my right and gave them sips of my drink for a solid hour before I even learned their names (Tania and Daniel, hello again; and you have smashing taste in drinks as well as in local restaurants).

I think this is what European pubs must be like. You have guys behind the bar who know what’s what, love what’s what, and love talking about it. I’m not much of a drinker*, but I am a nerd; and let me tell you: their passion gets all over you.

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So far this season we’re at two spanking new honeysuckle recipes and counting. Feeling groovy.

*Writing while still somewhat buzzed after one drink, lightweight that I am. Let me know if this reads like a diary entry from a Delta Gamma pledge, will you?

nature and nurture

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It’s entirely possible* I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who, but as I picked honeysuckle this morning I wondered whether a plant growing in a particular place becomes imbued with the spirit and motivations of the people who spend time there.

It’s a sly sideways view of terroir, the ancient notion that says what’s produced in a certain area is the result of a confluence of factors that include sun, rain, soil, and more. The product, whatever it is, absorbs the qualities inherent in that particular environment. This gives it a singular flavor, one that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Many, many examples support this. There are San Marzano tomatoes, first developed in Italy. They’re prized among chefs, who attribute their intense richness to the volcanic soil in which they were grown. Connossieurs in India scoff at American-grown basmati rice (‘Texmati’), saying fragrant, long-grained basmati rice is not the same if grown outside India. Grass-fed New Zealand lamb has unsurpassed flavor and texture. I could go on.

If this is true, if tomatoes and rice and lamb can carry within them tangible components from their environments, how far-fetched is it to imagine they can carry intangible ones as well?

My favorite small farm is a half hour south of me. The food they grow is lovely. But I drive out there just as much for the serenity that wraps around me with the wind in those fields, for the peace that’s cultivated along with the English garden peas. I go because I know the integrity of the farmer and his family and staff. That integrity means their produce is more than an itemized scale of nutrients. It’s food plus a great deal of heart. And yeah, it tastes like it. At least to me.

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A hot water and sugar treatment. It’s like Elizabeth Arden for flowers.

Another example. Native nations in the U.S. often wore animal skins, bone, and feathers—not to be decorative, but because they believed in doing so they would take on characteristics of those animals. And who couldn’t use extraordinary strength (buffalo), regenerative powers (bear), and shrewdness (coyote)?

Let’s take it one step farther and throw people into the mix. I know I am the product of my many manufacturers. They include the food I ate, the sea-and-lake misty air I breathed, and the trees I played under as a kid. But they are also my parents, my teachers, my friends, the good and bad words, the wisdom and the idiocy. They all formed me as much as the pasta I ate. All were my terroir, and I’d wager so were yours.

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I’m mostly pasta, though.

Back to honeysuckle. It’s an invasive and grows almost everywhere there’s dirt and something to climb. But I still shopped around before I found my favorite place to pick the flowers. Didn’t want to pick too close to a parking lot, junkyard, high-traffic road, or residential yard. That’s about exhaust fume and pesticide pollution. But I’d equally dismiss flowers grown on perfect, organic public lands close to a contentious family, or near the home of someone who routinely chooses nastiness over kindness. It’s one of the benefits of living in a small town; information like this is easy to come by.

Tell me this isn’t the ideal spot: a fence maybe 12′ by 30′, and in between, a solid, opaque wall of flowers. If this honeysuckle hedge had eyes it would have within its view our little baseball field, train station, playground, and lake. Hundred-year-old trees shade it east and west, twice a day, and the rest of the time it’s blessed with full sun. All day long the flowers witness, and pick up the good vibes of, pick-up baseball games, kids on swings, canoers, dog-walkers, and families meeting tired commuters, the latter of whom always take a big breath when they step off the train.

It’s not all ice cream there, of course. Kids will get mad at other kids and yell, ‘No fair!’ Commuters have to go to work, as well as come home from it. There’s bad with the good. But that’s as it should be; and anyway, the good far outweighs. Even the honeysuckle flowers come in two different colors (orange and yellow), have two different flavors, and grow in pairs. A little of this and a little of that. Both are required for a well-rounded syrup.

It could all be in my head, this entire-environs theory of mine. But I don’t think so.

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On the below, which I dreamed up kind of out of nowhere: I liked the idea of pairing honeysuckle with almond, as they both share floral flavors. The chocolate garnish was inevitable.

1) I made the syrup.**.

2) Next came the custard. I used Martha’s vanilla pudding recipe. I left out the vanilla, and instead, once cool, I stirred in about 2/3 cup of syrup.

3) For the tart shells, I also used Martha’s pate brisee recipe, and substituted 1.5 cups of almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour called for. Baked it in cute little tart pans.

4) Then I piled up the custard into the shells, shaved some really good-quality bittersweet chocolate (Noi Sirius Pure Icelandic Chocolate, from Whole Foods) into the middles, toasted a few sliced almonds, and added those to the top, too. Made a heckuva good teatime treat today, along with the extra custard I ate out of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

(Did I say ice cream in a honeysuckle post? Honeysuckle…ice cream! Next on the hit parade. :))

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Honeysuckle Custard Tarts with Salted Almond Shells, Shaved Chocolate, and Toasted Almonds. Righteous ensemble.

*Let’s call it likely and move on.

**For more on the embarrassingly simple process, see last year’s post.

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