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Posts Tagged ‘bell pepper’

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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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It was chilly in my apartment all last week, so I did what came naturally: turned on the oven and cooked.

The above and immediately below are coconut custard pie. I have never made one, so I blind-baked my basic crust, stirred up my basic custard, and did what my revered and liberally duct-taped Joy of Cooking suggested: tossed a 1/2 cup of shredded coconut into the bottom of the baked crust and then poured the custard on top of it. This was pretty good, but it needed to be more coconutty. So I threw in a splash of coconut extract and gave it a stir. And I ate it for breakfast all week because early-American settlers used to eat pie for breakfast, and while I can’t abide everything they did back then, I sure can this.

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Gratuitous second shot.

Next I found a recipe for Quick Jambalaya in an old February issue of Martha. I used San Marzano plum tomatoes, a red bell pepper (which I never buy out of season, but it does not do to argue with Martha), garlic, red onion, Old Bay, dark meat from half a dozen chicken legs, smoked andouille sausage, and jasmine rice. That last is an embarrassing anachronism, and per my last controversial post makes it Not Really Jambalaya, but either way it was pretty solid.

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Trader Joe’s had an awesome deal on blood oranges, so I snapped up a bag and made a sort of marmalade with them, but with less sugar. My cutting board looked like a vampire crudite platter.*

Then I made some vanilla-bean scones and ate it all up with a little plain yogurt. Also a worthy breakfast, early-American or not.**

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The below is my favorite pic. It was not a product of my kitchen.

While I was waiting for the woman at my local post office to ring up my purchase, I asked her what was in the pastry box on the counter next to her. I’ve always thought her sort of standoffish, but when I asked her she brightened and said she didn’t know, and was excited to take a peek. When she did, she squealed, and said I must take one with me.

Yet another reminder—and there will be more, and I will document them, count on it—that food can be miracle-izing. She didn’t know I’d had a chilly week, and was feeling kind of poopy. It hit the spot in a lot of ways. She even introduced herself. Thanks, Chantal.

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*That was totally gross. But true.

**Not. Whatevs.

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

Dear Organizers,

Okay, yesterday clinched it.

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

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

Here’s what you get right:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Red plum from a NJ farmer’s tree.

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

You might be thinking:

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

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

My rebuttal:

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

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

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Purple cabbage in noon-time sunshine.

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

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

Pull it together,

MCP

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

**No, that’s not a typo.

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Warm marshmallow frosting for Devil Dog cupcakes. Random. Not in the post. Whatever.

I’ve gotten the impression, after talking to people about food and and reading a lot about food (which is what I do in my spare time when I’m not eating), that many people avoid cooking for two reasons. It’s because they’re either lacking proper information, proper equipment, or both.

Here, then, a list. Above all, please keep in mind the helpful words of the late and much-lamented Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic. You’re not supposed to loathe cooking. My goal here is to make the kitchen more approachable. This stuff you can do.

1. Get over your fear of freezing. I was taught that freezing any food besides uncooked meat ruins it. Freezer burn was a yucky reality in days of yore, and everything else from the freezer had a weird taste. Pretty sure most of this was due to poor-quality storage containers. But today you can safely freeze almost anything as long as you make sure it’s a) completely cooled and b) use plastic freezer zip-close bags. Make sure the box says ‘freezer’ on it. Slice up your fresh babka or bagels, squeeze the air out of the bag, close it and chuck it in the freezer. In the morning, take a slice out of the bag and set it on a plate.* Then go blow-dry your hair and find your shoes. By the time you’ve done that, your breakfast will be ready to eat. It will taste the same as the day you baked or bought it.

2) Repurpose utensils. I use my kitchen scissors to snip scallions and pieces of bell pepper; I smush up apples into applesauce with a potato masher; I whisk with a fork. Don’t buy any utensil that has just one purpose (garlic press, ice cream cookie sandwich mold). You’ll use it once, then it will clog up your drawers. Go low tech and open up the format with how you use your utensils.

3) Buy three good-quality knives and give away the rest. This is huge. I’m convinced that a lot of people who think they’re no good at cooking or get frustrated just at the thought of it aren’t using decent equipment. Knives are first on that list. You need a paring knife (to cut small stuff that you can’t snip with your scissors), a chef’s knife (to chop big stuff, herbs, or chicken) and a serrated knife (for slicing bread, tomatoes, and chopping chocolate or nuts). Knives should be somewhat heavy and the handle should not be made out of crap plastic. Be sure that the metal of the knife extends right down through the handle for good balance. If your knife is flimsy, you’ll be fighting with it to chop, it’s going to break by Thursday, and what’s more, it’s dangerous.

4) Unless you’re serving a cake to company and are excessively precise, ignore recipes that tell you to both butter and flour the pan. Wow. Okay, that one’s done.

5) If you’re a novice cook and want to have people over, go with simple, straightforward recipes. Novices tend to make pheasant under glass and petit fours with spun sugar, usually with nose-dive results. They want to impress their friends. Their friends, on the other hand, want to eat. Ask around for recipes that are tried and true, pace yourself, and read the recipe all the way through before starting so you know what ingredients and utensils you need. Make brownies for dessert.

What did I leave out?

*If you’re lucky enough to have a radiator, put the plate on it. I have a cookie sheet on top of my kitchen radiator for just this purpose. Me efficient.

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