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Posts Tagged ‘blueberry’

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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

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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.

Cropped beach rose

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.

 

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Finley imagining the possibilities.

I know, the most famous great equalizers are death and taxes, but let’s not be gruesome. It’s still summer, after all. No, I’m talking ice cream.

Ice cream may be the one thing everyone can agree on. Amazing, really, how all demographics love it—babies, old-timers, thirty-somethings. Even those with strict dietary restrictions still eat it, whether they really ought to or not. One 4th of July I witnessed a group of heart transplant patients downing bowls of the highest-fat, homemade stuff, their mates watching, lips pursed, tut-tutting at them. But the spouses didn’t stop them. Maybe it was because they understood that, like it or not, ice cream is something everyone actually needs once in a while. Let’s face it—no eats ice cream because they’re hungry.

So why do we eat it? Why do we crave it, body and soul? I think a combination of factors are in play: it’s cooling (lovely in the summertime); it’s sweet (a rare find in nature); it’s full of fat (again, rare in nature) which makes it feel luxurious and indulgent (and who doesn’t like to feel special?).

Also—and maybe most importantly—since we’ve all eaten it for as long as we can remember, it evokes childhood memories. And they’re usually happy ones. My own include trips to Carvel with my family after dinner most summer nights. To this day, I think of ice cream as a nighttime thing.*

When I was a kid, I went through ice-cream phases in which I got the same thing every time for weeks on end. First it was brown bonnet cones, soft vanilla ice cream quickly enshrouded in chocolate goo, which solidified to a candy shell on contact. Then it was soft vanilla in a cup topped with Bing cherries. During my overweight/painfully self-conscious teen years, it was Carvel’s Thinny-Thin. As unsatisfying as it sounds, but better than nothing. At the Beach Plum, where they made their ice cream on site, I got Straw Cheese (strawberry cheesecake) or blueberry, which had fresh blueberries mixed with vanilla ice cream. Incredible.

Last week my friend Lauren and the cuties above and below joined me for ice cream at Days in Ocean Grove. For years now this has been my favorite place to get ice cream, for the yummy stuff itself and for the entire experience.

Shane and Finley, with post-ice cream happy faces and sticky hands.

Days is also the town favorite, especially after evening shows at the Great Auditorium just across the lawn. The ice cream is high in fat, which you know as well as I do translates to big flavor and wonderful mouth feel. The patrons know it too, as evidenced by the long line of people you see below waiting to get in.**

The atmosphere at Days is calming, nostalgic and cozy, much like the whole town, which feels as though Rodgers and Hammerstein were on the original planning board. Days was established in the late 1800s. It features bentwood chairs and gleaming dark wood tables. The seating area is outdoors, roofed in most areas, and its tall windows are always open to allow the ocean breezes as well as the ice cream to cool you. A antique fountain bubbles in the middle, among the plants. Forgoing harsh neon lights and signs, to this day, Days is happily, entirely illuminated by light bulbs. At night it glows like a giant birthday cake and smells as sweet.

Once the sun goes down, locals and vacationers begin to amble over to stand in line—sun soaked, clad in loose faded t shirts, bikini tops, flip flops, hair freshly rinsed of salt water and slicked down, laughing, and very, very relaxed. Neighbors share adventures of the day with neighbors; newcomers chat with returning patrons about whose kids are starting kindergarten and about the virtues of Coppertone Babies lotion.

Parents of the tiniest children hold them up to the glass counter to see the choices. Teenagers love chocolate chip mint cones and sundaes with piles of whipped cream. Older folks get dishes of their favorites from childhood. The proprietor tells me that on nights of the immensely popular Doo-Wop shows, whose audiences are Baby Boomers, he always puts out classics like rum raisin and pistachio and butter pecan.

If all of this sounds like a page out of 1926, or out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, it’s not. We’re all lucky that it’s not. And even better: we know we’re lucky.

A vintage sign and scoop.

I shot the below scene last Saturday night at around 10:30. Click on it to enlarge and see how many ages are represented.

There’s something comforting about eating a timeless treat at a venue that’s older than all of us.

For the past few years I’ve been partial to ice cream with a lot of stuff in it. Texture, lumps and bumps. My current favorite, two years running, is the below—peanut butter moose tracks. Peanut butter ice cream with peanut butter ripples and chunks woven throughout, and studded here and there tiny peanut butter cups. In other words, my pipe dream.

A new contender, chocolate midnight cookie, is vying for its place, though. No matter. Choosing a favorite ice cream is one of the happier dilemmas in life, I’d say.

*Which is not to say that if someone offered it to me during the day that I’d fight them off with a stick.

**The line you see in the photo was only half of it, by the way. If you go, go on the early side.

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When the world got to be too much for Holly Golightly, she went to Tiffany’s. Ishmael went to sea. Me, I go to Trader Joe’s just because I know the guy behind the register will take the shopping basket right out of my hand and pack everything up himself. And he’ll grin the whole time, and say the corn chips I am buying are his current addiction.

Sure it’s summer, but that doesn’t automatically mean comfort sits in our laps every day, all day. Sometimes, like today, which must be the 17th sticky, grey day in a row, we need to seek out (or barring that, to remember) the stuff that makes us grin like a Trader Joe’s cashier. Here are some of my favorites.

1) Listening to a farmer describe how she relaxes after a long, hot day at the market: she goes inside her barn, turns on the fan, and cracks open a cold beer.

2) Choosing the tightest, smoothest, rosiest heirloom tomatoes for my favorite summer sandwich: sliced on bread smeared with mayonnaise, sprinkled with salt, and summarily devoured.

3) Watching shaggy-haired groms—that’s pre-teen surfers—skateboarding to the beach with a slice of pizza poised in one hand and a bottle of Coke in the other.

4) Seeing local theatre productions that are big enough to attract extraordinary talent but small enough that afterward you can meet and shake the hands of the actors.

5) Having a teatime treat of cherries (or peaches, or blueberries) with a drizzle of real cream.

6) Visiting a local farm and having your zucchini weighed on an ancient scale.

7) Watching dogs on the beach, wet from seawater, tear up and down the beach as they follow their surfing owners.

8) Going to the boardwalk and being handed a sopping, sloppy hot sausage sandwich with absolutely no pretense.

9) Being at the beach to witness the sunset bathing everything for miles in palest pink.

10) Strolling the midway at the Italian-American festival in Oakhurst, NJ every August for the food, rides and more of my cousins on one acre than anyplace else on earth.

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This is the most trying time of year. No doubt. As far as sunlight goes, we’re on the other side of winter; if we can make it through January, we’ll be out of the woods. But the landscape here on the U.S. east coast is still dreary, and the air is still bleak, only to get bleaker before daffodil season. As the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen, as the saying goes. Now what?

Well…as long as we still have a couple of months until springtime (a groundhog’s yet-unknown prediction notwithstanding), I vote we pass the time by having fun. And by that I mean having treats—experiencing something every day that guarantees us a smile. Making a point to doing this at least until daffodils do it for us.

Treats can be food, but there are dozens of others I can think of. They’re personal, to be sure; an hour of Grand Theft Auto on the upstairs TV, with the door shut behind you, may spell bliss for you. For someone else, it’s a Sunday nap, cat curled up next to you, sunlight streaming across your legs, the sound of the radiator popping and hissing.

A treat is anything that makes your heart swell, anything that makes you want to splash around in it like Labrador in a kiddie pool. A color. A sound. A smell. What makes you feel 100% in the moment?

Photography does it for me. Four out of five senses gratified in one fell swoop. I get a bang out of putting on my snow boots now and trekking around, looking for beautiful low light or color or patterns in a wet sycamore or snow.

The beach, just a couple of blocks away, is desolate and gorgeous in winter. This shot was taken last February, in the late afternoon light.

This time of year offers more challenges for photographers (and athletes, and all outdoor types), but I have also found opportunities not to shoot the same old thing, not to be cliche, when the light and landscape are so spare. The same stuff you walked past last August doesn’t look the same now. It’s kind of cool.

In Scandinavia, people crave winter. They wait for summer to pass so they can jump into the winter sports they’ve either invented or perfected: skiing, ice skating, ski driving, or ski-joring—that’s fastening your big pooch to a harness, tying a belt around your waist, putting skis on, and letting him cruise you around the neighborhood. Apparently there are groups springing up here in the States, devoted to this most awesome idea. And after a day out in the elements, the Norse have a sauna—their lifeblood.

Doctor Who is a nighttime treat for me, a new one (okay, yes, I’m a late arrival, mock me). I borrowed DVDs of the modern series and am enjoying Chris Eccleston’s impish grin, the cheeseball special effects, and hearing Billie Piper say things like, “Nine-een-ay-ee-seven” (1987).

Back to food, because 1) I can’t veer too far from that topic for long and 2) cooking treats, and eating them, get me through these winter days pretty well.

I know many of us are trying to ease back from holiday overindulgence now, but that’s not I’m talking about when I say ‘treat’. I mean eat healthy most of the time, and allow yourself something yummy from time to time. Being good to yourself is good.

Tonight I’m writing this while checking on my vanilla fudge, which is cooling on the counter. It’s a gift to bring to a party tomorrow, and the smell in the place right now is rich and sweet, warming up this winter night.

Then there’s teatime. A centuries-old institution based on having a civilized treat in late afternoon—why did we ever diss this notion? I love my version: eating really high-end bittersweet chocolate buttons in the teeny cloud-covered bowl I got at a Ben & Jerry’s in D.C., and drinking milk through a straw stuck in the carton. Anglophile I may be; civilized, not so much.

My neighbor, in his late eighties, makes himself blueberry pancakes in his small, not-even-slightly-updated kitchen every Sunday morning without fail. Endearing creature of habit that he is, I suspect he has done so since the mid-fifties when he moved into town. He knows treats are there for the taking, and he makes a point to incorporate them into his life every day.

Life is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Even in the winter.

It’s getting late, and the vanilla fudge is finally done. Here it is in the fridge, where it will wait in the cold and dark until morning. Just like us.

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October’s the Nigella Lawson of the year, an earth mother clad in warm colors, exuberant with life and heart, and eager to feed everybody. In temperate climates, farm stands overflow with the last of Summer’s tomatoes propped next to Fall’s butternuts. Apples, pears and figs hang heavy from trees, and the lustrous bloom on grapes foreshadows the frost soon to come.

With such abundance, it’s the best time of year to appreciate terroir—that ancient notion of place, and the confluence of elements from sky and soil that makes whatever that place produces unique.

In Italy in particular, each region takes enormous pride in the food that grew from its own soil, nourished by the peculiarities of the climate and the conditions of the land there. The pride of ownership comes from knowing that that patch of soil has its own character and what grows there can’t really be reproduced anywhere else.

What’s more, bringing together the produce of a region creates a unique harmony of flavor. Pasta made from local wheat, a sauce made from tomatoes from the garden, wine from the vineyard down the road, and ground beef from your sister-in-law’s farm—together they sing in their own distinctive way.

Calimyrna fig, a couple of days shy from ripeness.

Think about what your region produces. Is it known for specific types of fruits and vegetables? Unusual varieties, stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere? Or does it just grow the basics really, really well?

I live in New Jersey, which comes with its requisite jokes. But no one quibbles with our produce. Say what you will about us—we produce a damn good tomato. And peach, and apple, and blueberry, for that matter.

‘Liberty’ apple tree.

New Jersey’s beef, lamb, pork, poultry and cheese have a purity of flavor unmatched by those not eaten at the source. Beef stock made from local, pasture-fed cows won’t smell tinny or salty like canned stock. It will smell fresh and clean—like the grass that created it.

All of the produce in the photos here were taken at Silverton Farms in Toms River, NJ, an organic farm about which I could rhapsodize for hours. They do it right, from their philosophy (sustainability), to their work ethic (hard) to their exceptional produce (authentic flavors). They live terroir.

‘Pink Banana’ winter squash.

Now’s the time to get it all in—flavor, pleasure, pride.

Find out what’s growing around you right now and seek it out. Wherever you are, there’s something growing nearby; and whatever it is, since it’s in season, it doesn’t need much to make it taste the best it can. It might need nothing at all.

Take a bite. What you’re eating won’t taste like THIS anywhere else on the planet.  Do you taste it, the sweet conspiracy of sun and rain and wind on your little bit of the earth?

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