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Posts Tagged ‘corn’

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Salted-caramel vanilla and dark chocolate. It was a chocolate day.

I was back in Princeton last Sunday in order to eat ice cream. I say this without the faintest trace of shame. Apparently so were the 15 people ahead of me in line at the bent spoon. It was an eerie, balmy 64 degrees in late February. But the temperature matters not. Not when it comes to this place. More on that later.

For the past three years I’ve done prop design for the February show at my alma mater, which is near Princeton. And I arrange time to get ice cream as often as I can over the course of the contract, even though it’s around an hour to the school and another 20 beyond that to Nassau Street and the smarterati. I love the trip, I love the town, and I love that scream.

Ice cream is not much of a gamble; in my experience, at worst, it’s just okay. (Calling ‘just okay’ in this case ‘plain vanilla’ would be too gratuitous. Uh oh; I said it anyhow.) I have never had bad ice cream, with the exception of one place here at the Jersey Shore that touts its product as healthy, but quite resembles very cold malleable plastic. Melt down the clear plastic bins from Target that you use to store soccer cleats in your garage, pop them in the freezer overnight, and you’d have this. It’s test-tube ice cream. No milk, I don’t think. I doubt a cow was even consulted.

This ice cream place, the bent spoon, is the polar opposite. It goes beyond even good ice cream, the way some farms go beyond organic. It is a tiny, tiny place that somehow manages to offer a few dozen varieties of ice cream and sorbet every day (along with homemade hot chocolate, marshmallows, and baked goods), and they make a point to be seasonally and locally driven.

Princeton is blessed by location, and we patrons are the enormously lucky beneficiaries. The town is at the western end of the state, and borders farmland. It’s hard to overstate how proud the region is of its produce; nearly every food venue offers locally grown products and makes sure we know it.

The picture above is no example of local, I’ll admit. But the calendar has plenty to work with: strawberry and honeysuckle in spring, sweet corn in summer, apples and pumpkin in fall. The bent spoon owners want us to taste where we come from, and where we come from is the Garden State. Even in winter the place makes ice cream flavored with evergreen; it’s spicy and heady.

I’ve gotten two scoops on days that are 36 degrees, days where the bitter wind whips down the sidewalks of Palmer Square, but does devotion care for temperature? Does love follow rules?

We closed the show last weekend, and my trips to Princeton are benched for now. But I’ll be back with the honeysuckle.

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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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All through the ’70s and ’80s, on the first Saturday or Sunday (I forget which) of August, I did the same thing every year: Before my family would get in the car in the morning with all of our beach stuff, I’d walk down to the driveway’s apron and look north, a block and a half to the ball field, to see the flags posted. It was the official signal that volunteers were setting up our small town’s annual picnic. All kids love rituals—I defy you to show me one that doesn’t—but this kid is nutty about them. Another picnic!

(A note: Have you ever heard someone use the expression ‘small town,’ and then you find out it has 7500 people? Yeah, a recent census clocked in Interlaken, NJ at 820 residents. Small. Town.)

My best friend at the time lived a few streets away, and he called this event Interlaken Day. We just called it the picnic. It was neighbors, people who tiptoed over icy streets to my family’s annual Eggnog Party on New Year’s Day, who plowed out our driveway without asking when it snowed. We waved and called each other over from porches all summer. And it was extended family, many of whom who lived in town with us. The picnic was kind of like a reunion between people you never really said goodbye to in the first place.

During the day there were games and races, but not being especially sporty types, we kids never missed them. We’d walk over after the beach, around dinnertime. My parents would head under the trees, where all of the grownups would be parked in lawn chairs. Many of my relatives weren’t big beach people, so they made of day of it: three aunts (sisters), uncles, and lots of older cousins—the first- and second-removed type. They’d ask us how the beach was, and if we’d eaten yet. Italians, you understand.

One of my removed-type cousins was a plumber who had a glossy black toupee and a jolly demeanor—an admirable combination. He manned the beer stand and introduced the band, which was made up of local people. When he got old enough, my third cousin John ran the corn table and then the hot dog table; the latter were courtesy of lifelong residents, the Haydus, who lived a block away and had a hot dog company.

When we were little there were pony rides led by my babysitter, another resident. No Moonwalks or anything like that. They weren’t invented yet; and besides, people would have figured if you were at a ball field outfitted with ponies, a jungle gym, basketball and tennis courts, and a bunch of grass to run around on, anything extra was silly. Which it is.

One year we brought my dog to the picnic, a perpetually hungry Lhasa Apso, and while my parents were chatting with neighbors he ate a carton of sauerkraut that someone had spilled beer into. When we went home that night he drank a full bowl of water in one go.

I live right next to my hometown. Last Friday I saw signs posted around advertising that the the picnic was to take place the following day. We used to get notices in the mail on pale blue paper in the beginning of the summer. Maybe they still do that, too.

In the morning I went out to see if the flags were up. They were.

In the late afternoon I took to my bike and rode by. I saw people sitting under the trees, and food booths with little awnings, which was new. Still no Moonwalk, mercifully. Instead of a band they piped in music: it was Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

I remembered a year I rode my bike to the picnic. It must have been 1986 because that was when the Monkees went on their 25th anniversary tour, MTV had a marathon of their ’60s TV show to promote the tour, and I became a rabid fan. I remember coasting through the streets humming, ‘The Girl That I Knew Somewhere’ (which is a fantastic song, and because you’re just dying to know, it was featured in the episode that guest-starred Julie Newmar.) I remembered the late-afternoon sun through the trees, riding with no hands, and a hot dog in the forecast.

Most of my family is long passed. The rest have moved away. I didn’t have anyone to visit under the trees when I went by yesterday. But the picnic was pretty much the same.

I think the biggest surprise you get when you become an adult is not that you have to work and pay taxes and take on responsibilities. You knew that was coming.

It’s how suddenly things change. Sometimes the changes are subtle, and other times they clobber you upside the head and blindside you. You climb a mountain and say to yourself, Okay, good, I’ve worked hard, I’ve got my footing, I’m getting the hang of this mountain, I can do this, and then you find out it’s not really a mountain, it’s actually really a river, and now you have to learn to swim, and you didn’t bring enough sunblock.

But people still sit under the trees at a picnic in a tiny town at the Jersey Shore. As I write this I’m walking in my memory, crunching over the first fallen acorns, telling my relatives the beach today was good; and starving, as all 12-year-olds, and Lhasa Apsos, are.

And they still set the flags first thing in the morning. They’ve been doing that for half a century or more. It’s not my family and my neighbors now. But it’s cool enough.

La la la la life goes on.

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Papery garlic skin, like a lotus flower.

As a kid I remember being told, pretty often, that I needed to grow a thicker skin. And as evidenced by my photo file, this issue still hangs over me. Apparently I have a fascination, teetering on obsession, with fruit and vegetable skins, husks, eggshells, peels. The pictures here, seriously? They’re narrowed down from dozens more.

Let’s spread this out and discuss.

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I’ve noticed lately, and this is new, that people buying fresh corn at the store or farm stand want to strip the ears from the husks right then and there.

What I don’t think they know is once it’s off the stalk, an ear of corn goes through its own version of The Change: its ethereal sweetness begins to turn to bland starch.

What’s more, the silky corn husk has a job: to protect the kernels from the blazing heat of the summer sun and from insects…and to keep its sweetness inside and intact as long as possible. Stripping the ear too soon of its husk accelerates the change to starch. For corn at its tender, authentic best, you want to grab it freshly picked and resist husking until just before cooking.* Tip.

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Moving on to the lychee above. It’s also a hot-weather plant, a tropical fruit. It’s subject to erratic weather—harsh sunlight, drenching rains, and powerful winds, not to mention tropical bugs, which are pretty much legend when it comes to voracity.

Yet the lychee’s skin is beautiful—speckled, transparent, and surprisingly dense. When ripe, the fruit is juicy, almost syrupy, like a miniature rum punch without the risk of migraine.

That lovely complex skin protects the fruit, allowing it to stay wholly and happily itself until it’s ready to be enjoyed.

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Last example: the peach, yet another summer-grower. That’s its skin above. When a peach is picked hard enough to break the windshield on my Accord and shipped in from East Jesus Nowhere, it never gets truly ripe. Its skin needs to be sliced off with a sharp paring knife; the fruit knows it’s not ready, and it puts up a fight.

On the other hand, if a peach is picked at its peak, the skin will peel right off. You can even peel it with your fingers.**

People have proper tangible skins, of course. But we also like to talk about having a figurative skin, as I mention way above. It’s that intangible skin that we wrap ourselves in, as a protective barrier, until we’re ready to drop it.

It can take a lot to shed that skin. It safeguards our insecurities, our awkward histories, what have you. The fear of exposing vulnerabilities, for most humans, is just one skinny rung down from the fear of the guy with the hoodie and sickle. It takes trust, stones, patience, and a heap of good intuition.

Having a thick skin is a good idea. But it’s not something you can just ‘get’, like picking up soup bones at the butcher’s. It has to be real, earned, owned. We’ve all met—or been—people who have pretended to be thick-skinned. It shows. Feigning toughness, bravado—that’s a mask. Underneath we’re just as fragile as those delicate kernels and fruits above.

And (this is important) no matter how thick that skin is, even if it’s like the lychee’s, we need to make sure it’s yielding. A solid protective layer is a good thing; heck, I think it’s essential in this nutty world. But it’s not intended to keep us under lock and key.

A skin that works for us comes from the inside, despite what the Aveeno ads tell us. It should be constructed in such a way that it can be dropped when we want it dropped, because there will be times when we want to reveal our authentic selves. It should work for us.

With people who want to scald you, drench you, peck at you? Stay behind it, safe as the corn and lychee are from the elements and the bugs.

With trusted friends? Take it off with confidence, as easily as the ripe peach skin peels away from the fruit.

And here’s the cool thing, another version of the semi-colon, symbol of a pause before continuing: You can always reassess, regroup, and move again when you’re ready. So you took off your skin too soon, or for the wrong people, and it wasn’t the best idea. When you happen upon the right time with the right people, the ones who will relish the true, sweet, occasionally but somehow charmingly weird you, you can opt to take it off again. Until then, you can always put it back on and walk away cocky.

You get to choose.

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Ground cherry (Cape gooseberry) husks.

*In the U.S. you can do this now through September.

**To find out of a peach is ripe, press on it very gently with a fingertip. If it gives a bit, pick it. Again, now’s the time, but they’re almost gone. Quick. Hit the orchard. Play hooky.

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Last year I picked corn—like in a corn field—for the first time. It was one of the most exquisitely peaceful experiences I’ve ever had. The field was several yards off a quiet road; no one else was around; the stalks towered and rustled over little me; and I’ve never seen Children of the Corn. All factored into a delicious, unscary sense of being enveloped, especially that last one.

Usually when harvesting I take in the beauty inherent in lush LIFE growing all around—the intense colors and weight of fruits and vegetables, full of water and sunshine, right at the peak of their lives. This year, quite unexpectedly, I noticed the beauty in the other side of the season, in the hints of autumn brushing dustily by, even in the heat of the sun.

In Japanese culture, it’s believed there is beauty not just in fullest life, but also in impermanence and decay. In the U.S., this concept confuses us and tends to make us a little jumpy. What do we do when a flower in a vase begins to wilt? We throw it away; we don’t want to see it once the wheel turns. I’m no different. But I want to learn to appreciate it at every phase.

Oddly enough, I found corn just as beautiful in its dropped and drying starkness as I did green and growing. And I edited in black and white for everything I shot, whether alive or dead, to keep from being distracted by color.

I do love a paradox, love disturbing juxtapositions. Maybe I can grow to love a wilting flower, too.

So. Here is summer—waxing and waning.

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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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I’ve always been fascinated by things that make no sense on paper. Like meeting someone and feeling an immediate and inexplicable connection. Or one day feeling absolutely compelled to go to Mexico.* Or this: A week or so ago I picked corn—off a cornstalk, that is—for the first time. And I loved it, just as much as I loved digging for potatoes.** Which was especially great because I’d been wanting to make a recipe I’d accepted for my year-long cooking project, one from a friend who was raised in Ohio and now lives in Maryland.

I’ve never had corn fritters before, let alone made them, but I figured using local, organic corn I’d picked that afternoon could hardly foul up the recipe.

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Not as high as an elephant’s eye. But maybe a well-fed hippo’s.

I’d read that to test of an ear of corn for ripeness you’re supposed to peel back a little of the husk and pierce an end kernel with a fingernail. If corn juice squirts out, you’re apparently good. Here’s a simpler method: If the ear’s fat, it’s ready.

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Really beautiful, and I didn’t see any children. Bonus.

When I got home I set about the less-than-enjoyable task of stripping the kernels by standing ears upright in a bowl and scraping them down with a chef’s knife. This is a task that at the very least means searching for 92 errant wet kernels that have ricocheted out of the bowl, and at the very worst means assassinating your bowl by impalement. The first happens every single time, the second not yet. I need a better idea. Send ’em if you have ’em.

I’ve never cooked with lard, although I’m not afraid to. It has a murky reputation—people have the idea that it’s horrible for you—but it actually has less saturated fat than butter. Finding it isn’t as easy to come by in suburban New Jersey as you’d think. Kidding. But I’ve read that New Jersey was once comparable to Parma when it came to pig production, and specifically fine hams. Would that it were still the case.

Not today. And I found just one variety, but it was so processed that it didn’t need to be refrigerated, which grossed me out considerably. Finally I went with a pat of butter. And it was good, but I’m not giving up on finding decent lard. The flavor’s got to be outrageous.

This recipe does not call for salt. I put a pinch in the batter and liked it, but as we say in publishing, this is purely a style issue. Add it or don’t. On the whole, the recipe is wonderfully Midwestern, reflective of the many Midwesterners I am proud to call friends—straightforward, unfussy, honest and utterly free of pretension. These fritters are not meant to impress. They are simply meant to taste good, which, quite frankly, matters a whole bunch.

And if you get the opportunity to pick your corn off the stalk…please put on your boots and jump at the chance. There’s nothing like it.

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Corn Fritters

6 ears corn kernels, cut fine (I mashed a few with a potato masher and left a few whole because I like texture. Again, a style issue.)

1/2 c all-purpose flour

1/2 c milk

1 tsp baking powder

2 eggs

1 tbsp lard

Mix, drop by half-cupfuls into hot fat, and fry. Flip when browned. Serve hot. (Medium low heat will work to cook the inside; meanwhile the outside will brown up all pretty pretty.)

Jo Grundy

Sykesville, MD

Thanks, Jobo!

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*The first has happened to me. The second happened to my uncle, decades ago. He went down the church steps with his family one Sunday and casually said, ‘I think I’ll go to Mexico today.’ And he WENT. That was the kind of guy he was.

**Silverton Farms in Toms River, NJ allows customers to pick almost anything, which is insanely cool. I asked the young student who works there if any other customers dig for potatoes besides me, and shocker, she barely blinked: ‘No, just you.’

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