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Posts Tagged ‘asparagus’

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I was heading to the blackberry field at my favorite farm recently when I heard the old iron gate above swinging in the wind. It opened with an awkward squeak, then graduated to rich middle notes, then closed to a low baritone, jabbing its voice through the clear day and green landscape.

A 360-degree view of the August farm showed spring asparagus gone to seed and a few weeks off from another appearance, ripe blackberries, raspberries, corn, squash, and more crops beyond. I stood in the middle of LIFE, in exhilaration and exultation.

But the thing is, a farm isn’t a still frame of lush beauty. It’s hundreds of still frames that make up a continuous feature. A farmer knows that, but it just occurred to me that day when the gate whined back and forth, open and shut. A farm is the whole life cycle. It is both lovers’ bed and deathbed, nursery and graveyard.

In spring, the farm is fragile and palest green, a greenhouse full of teeny shoots a few weeks off from being planted because the soil is still too cold.

In late spring and early summer, it’s stretching its legs, testing boundaries, getting cheeky and rosy.

Now, in high summer, the farm is saturated with sun and rain and sugar and bite and intense color. Mid-life is when everything shines and bursts. Corn kernels pop when a fingernail is pressed into them. A ripe melon, at a single, infinitesimally small piercing, splits ahead of the blade wide open with a CRACK on the kitchen counter. Little potatoes dug from dusty soil are washed and roasted, and at first bite their skins, loose from the flesh, snap.

But as the crops lose the light bit by bit every day, that snap gives way to profound sweetness, softness, mellowness. Apples lose their sharp astringent bite, and are finally ready to pick. Tomatoes—boy, if the frost holds off and we can get tomatoes into September or even October, their flesh becomes deeper and richer than any July specimen. Green bell peppers turn lipstick red, and tender. Pumpkins become sweet and earthy. The farm is going to seed. It’s like everything is settling in to resignation, the innate knowing that the honeymoon is over, long over. But the farm is okay with it. We can actually taste that it’s okay with it.

Late Summer into Fall the farmer tosses spent squash and overripe tomatoes right into the fields to nourish them. Nothing is wasted; everything feeds everything else. Even the winter snow helps to fortify the soil. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day, in the 19th century, farmers called fresh snow “poor man’s fertilizer,” and sent the kids out with the plow to turn it under the soil. They didn’t know why it did the job so well, but they knew it did. Now we know it’s full of nitrogen, the most essential ingredient for healthy plant development.

So in August, in the wind, that old gate was the farm’s mouthpiece, singing, reminding me of how it all works. The baby’s squeak to the young adult’s call to the elder’s hum, it’s all a song. It gets sung every year. We’re moving into the baritone hum. Enjoy time’s pendulum and the old iron gate swinging closed, and the flavors that come with them. I think they’re the best of the year.

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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.

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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.

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This is a Buddha burger, from the very popular and much missed ‘grease trucks’ at Rutgers University. It’s a cheeseburger with pork roll, french fries, mayonnaise, and a bunch of other things I’m better off not remembering. I wouldn’t have done this until recently. Then I did, and life was so much prettier.

In one of my very favorite scenes in the new incarnation of the Doctor Who series, little Amelia Pond finds the ravenous Doctor in her backyard and tries to offer him something that will satisfy his hunger. Matt Smith’s charmingly loopy Doctor says he loves apples; she gives him one, he takes a huge bite and then spits it out, calling it disgusting. Same goes for beans, yogurt, bacon…(this goes on). Then he tries fish fingers dipped in custard and they have a winner. Obviously, I mean, who wouldn’t go for that?

Amelia doesn’t understand why he is changing his mind so much. But the well-versed* Doctor Who viewer does: the Doctor regenerates from time to time, and when he does, he is a spinning roulette wheel; every characteristic—physical, emotional, everything—is in flux. When he’s in this state, his food preferences are like that of others in flux—a pregnant woman, or a child, for example. ‘New mouth, new rules,’ he says.

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Asparagus, which I never liked until maybe 10 years ago. Roasted or bust!

I wasn’t ridiculously finicky as a kid—I know kids who will eat nothing but processed cheese slices and frozen waffles—but I decided to abhor certain things and stuck to it. My dad once handed me a morsel of something fried, said, ‘It’s a french fry,’  and watched. That was the tell: if it had in fact been a french fry, he wouldn’t be watching for my reaction. He knew I liked french fries. I handed it back to him. Turns out it was calamari.

No. No way. Not when I was eight.

Another time I asked if whatever he was making had mushrooms in it. He said it did but, ‘You can’t even taste them!’ My reply: ‘Then why did you put them in?’ This is a tough question to answer if you want to hang on to your original statement.

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Pizza with ricotta, caramelized onions and figs. The second two were no-go’s as a kid.

Environment also plays a factor. We all know kids who wouldn’t even sit at the same table as pasta fra diavolo at home, but if somewhere else, will gobble it blissfully.

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Pasta made with the black ink of a squid and fresh garlic. A horror, both, until maybe five years ago.

But more interesting to me than environment is how time and experience alter our food preferences. We’ll pick the raisins out of everything we see at 11, but at 31 we’ll double them in our cookie recipe.

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Sandwich with tuna and anchovy. First fish, fine. Second, forget it—until I was in my twenties. Now I think almost anything can benefit from anchovy except maybe strawberry shortcake.

For all of the foods I didn’t like as a kid, there are a few I liked then that I’m not crazy over now. Milk chocolate is one. Unless it’s great quality—smooth, not gritty tasting like Hershey’s—I stick to dark. And I hated dark as a kid.

In my wild, misspent youth I also ate chem lab projects like Pixie Stix and those freaky little candies attached to long strips of paper. Do you remember those? The paper stayed attached to the backs after you ripped them off the roll. Fiber and artificial flavors—quelle deal!

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Horseradish, another no-man’s land until maybe my 30s. Fresh grated and kept in vinegar, it’s surprisingly sweet and works in dozens of ways.

My food tastes changed toward the spicy after I had an ulcer. Wrote about it. That esophogeal burden prohibited me from eating citrus, chocolate, and more, but especially from eating anything with so much as a fleck of caliente. When the ulcer was gone, I hit the hot pepper full force—much more than I did before the ulcer.

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The sausage sandwich, that favorite of my Italian family, and its spiciness made it out of the question for me until I was well into adulthood.

New mouth, new rules.

How have your food tastes changed? What did you used to scorn but now love, and the other way around?

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Mushrooms plain grossed me out as a kid. I didn’t eat them until I was in my mid-twenties, when my friend ordered them on a pizza and I was too hungry to pull them off. Now I can’t get enough of any variety.

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When I was a kid, tomatoes always tasted like sodden gym socks to me. I suspect many still do. Then I tried heirlooms. Home run.

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The only nut I’d eat as a kid was peanut butter. Not peanuts, mind you—but peanut butter. Now I love them all. This is a cupcake with my homemade gianduja (Nutella) in the batter and on top.

*Euphemism. Obsessed is closer to accurate.

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Flowers, especially spring ones, are always appreciated for their color. That’s understandable after a long, bleak winter. But I thought it would be a fascinating challenge to get out of the comfy chair this spring, to work in black and white, and to show flowers in an original, maybe even somewhat jarring way.

Much like a plate of perfect fresh asparagus with nothing at all added, without the distraction of color, we can see the flowers below as pure form. Delicate, voluptuous, ruffled, fragile, spiky—stripped down to just themselves, they have a story to tell that’s just as intriguing as their color.

Cherry blossoms.

Daffodils.

Not sure what these are, growing on an evergreen hedge.

Magnolias.

Daffodils.

Apple blossoms.

Tulip.

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kids bounce up and down in their chairs waiting for christmas or chanukah. parents do the same thing around labor day for an entirely different reason. me, I’m a produce junkie, specifically a local produce junkie, and even more specifically, a local, organic, you-never-saw-or-tasted-produce-like-this junkie. so when the violets start popping up in may, and my favorite farm is due to open again, I get a little dizzy.

I wasn’t always this way. I was normal once. went to the supermarket to buy my broccoli and berries and potatoes until about 2007. then I took an innocent trip to a small organic farm in toms river and became a goner. now supermarket produce just doesn’t cut it. and as far as customer service goes, with very few exceptions, the chilly cashiers don’t care about anything but me getting in and out in short order. ‘thank you’ died out with disco, I think.

back to good vibes. it’s at silverton farms, where I shop pretty much every week from may to november. it takes half an hour to get there from where I live. south on the NJ parkway, a few miles up 70, a few more up new hampshire, then a few more blocks to the farm itself.

but maris, you’re saying helpfully, that’s a schlep. even if it is great, is it worth it for a few bunches of red leaf lettuce?

well, I haven’t been blogging for very long, but I like to think I’ve already established that I’m nuts. having said that, this farm delivers uncommonly delicious fruit, vegetables, eggs, honey, and herbs, and it’s well-priced to boot. so yeah, mental acuity aside, it’s really and truly worth it.

this post marks the first of a handful I’ll be writing during the 2011 growing season, chronicling the changes on the farm and the produce it bears. I’ll also be shamelessly teasing you with photos. let’s start.

the setting: a time machine of sorts, a quiet, peaceful de lorean permanently set to sane. the farm is off a fairly busy road, but you’ll only hear the wind and the occasional disgruntled chicken when you’re there. it’s a place where your blood pressure becomes barely detectable until you see the fresh eggs on the shelf…and they’re warm.

the lead: owner and farmer tom nivision, young, self-professed technophobe, organics-phile, and lively talker. when I was there last saturday, he was busy putting up deer fencing, but still couldn’t wait to show me what was going on in the greenhouse. inside, beautiful specimens of leek, broccoli rabe, and other edibles were in mid-seed production. once dry, the seeds can be extracted and planted or saved.  fervently anti-GMO (genetically-modified organisms), tom’s passionate about producing as authentic, as healthy, and as tasty a humble green plant can be.

the supporting cast: angel, tom’s niece, a veteran who knows the ins and outs of everything that grows in that soil; christine, who loves digging for potatoes; elena, who works part time for tom and is home-schooled the rest of the time. capable, friendly, warm, helpful young women. the chilly cashiers fade to black.

I love this place. I love seeing fragile, spring-green shoots tentatively pushing out one leaf, reaching higher and becoming more profuse as the season stretches on, and finally being handed a bouquet of warm, rain-soaked, late-season lushness. and I really love the old-fashioned idea that’s coming back into fashion: that of neighbors supporting neighbors. better late than never.

nice. but what about flavor?

for years I bought tiny, expensive, senile produce from california. last saturday night I ate eggs and asparagus which never saw the inside of the refrigerator.

the yolks were firm and a deep orange, and they tasted richer, eggier, than your average egg. (that last may be a useless descriptor, but maybe some of you will know what I mean.) the asparagus was butter-tender and assertively flavored. much like the good-quality chocolate I mentioned in a recent post, this tasted wholly of itself, and not of latent chemicals or even a lot of water, which fattens it up but dilutes the flavor. (up until very recently, I thought I didn’t like asparagus because the only way I’d ever eaten it was steamed. that waterlogs it, which may be why steamed asparagus always seems to be served with a heavy sauce.)

now, roasting it—that’s the way to get the most out of a stalk. just trim the bottoms of your asparagus about an inch or so, rinse them, and spread evenly on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. put them in a 375 degree oven until you can smell them. poke one with the tip of a sharp knife. if it sinks in easily, they’re done. bring them out, drizzle with some good olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt, gobble.

next on the hit parade will be strawberries. bouncing in my chair already.

Broccoli rabe pod and seeds.

Asparagus and blackberry field.

New within old.

Leek flower.

Egg trifecta; the one at top is an Aracauna, sometimes called 'Easter egg'.

Asparagus ready for the oven.

Silverton Farms

1520 Silverton Road

Toms River, NJ 08755-2142

(732) 244-2621

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