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The little bits of chopped peanut on top didn’t hurt.

Notes from an afternoon in Princeton, last Wednesday. God, but I ate well, but I’ll come back to that.

Background: I went to a small boarding school nearby with students from all over the world. You couldn’t help but become friends with kids from Orlando, FL, the Caribbean, the Ivory Coast, Bangkok, Taiwan, because that’s largely whom you bumped into in the halls and while brushing your teeth at night. A few years of living with a variety of faces and accents felt very normal, which I didn’t realize until I went to a college where everyone looked like me and was mostly from NJ or PA. It was a good college, but it felt bland as pasta straight out of the pot.

Foreground: Princeton was crowded, cold and grey though it was. A handful of us were ordinary Caucasian Americans. The rest? It was like the U.N. was on its lunch break and pouring down Nassau Street. Here, as at my high school, this was the rule.

I heard Cockney English spoken behind me outside the bookstore, Russian beside me at the crosswalk. A group of three—two young students of Middle Eastern and Latino descent and an African-American cop—were chatting idly and chuckling outside a falafel shop, their breaths puffing in the cold.

the bent spoon, my favorite ice cream shop in NJ, was closed for vacation. Which pained me, as it was Chocolate Day and I had planned to make it count, but on my way there I had spotted a sign outside Jammin’ Crepes advertising a Mousse Parfait special. It wasn’t chocolate, but it was probably worth trying my tears for. The place is fantastic.

I sat down and ate the above—that’s peanut butter mousse layered with homemade jam and whipped cream, with toasted sugared crepe chips on the side—very slowly. This was while listening to a couple speaking Parisien French right beside me (p.s., they ate every bite of their crepes, and they’d know from crepes) and another couple speaking the Queen’s English behind me.

Diversity reminds me of some of the best years of my life, simply put. I feel calmer when the people around me don’t look and sound just like me. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I actually feel like I fit in better. It was an immensely peaceful experience.

And I noticed on my way back to my car that those two kids and the cop were still kibitzing in the cold about nothing in particular.

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Natsukashii (Japanese): A sense of loss inherent in transience; bittersweetness, nostalgia tinged with longing

Sycamore trees have fallen out of favor for landscaping for decades, it seems. I’ve heard them called messy; they do shed their bark more liberally than other trees, it’s true. You can always tell a town, at least here in New Jersey, that was settled 100 years back or more: The streets are lined with sycamores. People weren’t fazed by excess bark back then, I’m guessing. In the area where I grew up and still live, the sycamores tower several stories high and come together in the middle of the street. If it started raining while we were on our bikes, we kids would dash to the narrower streets, where the thick canopy of branches would keep us pretty dry until the rain let up. On dry days we used to love snapping the bark’s roughness into pieces as we sat on the curb and talked. And in mid-August, the leaves started changing from green to pale ochre. Katydids chirping away at night is the first sign that fall is nearby. The second sign is the change in the color of the sycamore leaves. Fall is not yet on the doorstep, but it’s tiptoeing closer.

Years ago I read a story about a hero named Milarepa who fought and defeated monster after monster, each one bigger and scarier than the last. Then he came across the worst and spookiest monster of all. But all of his usual kill moves didn’t work, and he grew more and more desperate. Finally he did the only thing he could think of: He climbed into the monster’s mouth. As he was swallowed, the monster dissolved. And along with getting to live, Milarepa achieved enlightenment.

This time of year we dig in our heels and hang onto summer, and that’s natural. But there comes a point at which we have to climb into the monster’s mouth. And it’s not all bad, change. Loss isn’t all bad, either. There’s something to be said for allowing ourselves to be swallowed, to go with it, to change our colors along with the sycamores. And I’ve found that the closer I am to nature, the easier the shift is.

Tonight I made a peach-bourbon upside-down cake with the last of the peaches. It’s still hot and needs unmolding, or I’d post a picture. I’ll enjoy every bite—never you worry about that. But then later this week I’m picking elderberries and crab apples so I can make jam. I’m going from green to ochre as I do every year, letting the monster dissolve. I’ll let you know if enlightenment bonks me over the head. In the meantime, I’m kind of digging it.

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My mom’s potato salad with mayo, salt, black pepper, sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, toasted pignoles, and fresh minced garlic.

Last week I dropped my old PC and new laptop off to the kids* at the Microsoft store to do a data transfer. I wasn’t worried about system withdrawal. So I’d be without a proper keyboard for a few days—so what. So substantial agita ensued, that’s what.

That’s the bad news. The good news, which came as a total shockeroo, was that suddenly I was wild with energy and ideas. I needed to be creating something, producing SOMEthing, all the time. So I hit the kitchen. When I was 90% finished with one recipe, I’d start thinking about what I was going to make next. I’m not saying it wasn’t manic, but I sure ate well.

I note, with some dismay, that I didn’t take pictures of too much of what I made. I don’t remember what happened all that clearly, but best guess, I was too busy eating it all. My reputation precedes me.

Here then, a list. Made all of this within 2.5 days.

-Watermelon-lime smoothie

-Carrot cake with a blop of yogurt cheese on top that I stirred some cinnamon sugar into

-Panzanella with local, organic vegetables: basil, onion, cucumbers, and tiny heirloom tomatoes

-Bourbon-spiked jalapeno ketchup (which has already graced many a turkey burger, and I have lots more)

-White-peach vanilla jam

-Fried zucchini blossoms (going back for more because I have a delirious crush on them, not least of which because I didn’t torch them this year, and am obsessing even as I type)

-Potato salad

I have my units back now. But I have more peach jam to make, as well as a quart of beach plums to pit and jam up as well.

The beat goes on.

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Carrot cake. I bought the carrots from the teenager at Silverton Farms who had just pulled them out of the ground and washed them–she handed them right to me.

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Local organic heirloom tomatoes, Red Bank Farmers’ Market.

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That red stuff between the onions and the cheddar? That’s my ketchup!

*The unvarnished truth.

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My area, like so many others, used to be farmland. Farmlands are often edged in brambles, and brambles often mean wild berries—strawberries, blackberries, currants. 100 years ago, during the warmer months, people would take baskets out to the brambly edges, fill them with whatever happened to be growing there, and pick until their fingers were stained and the baskets were full. Then it was back to the farmhouse, where Mom and assorted sisters would turn the berries into pies, cobblers, grunts, slumps, and Brown Betties for breakfast. The rest, the bulk of them, became jellies and jams to put up for the winter.

This is something I easily forget when I’m rushing hither and yon on a Monday morning, parking the car at a store* that’s flush against some of the last bits of wild and unclaimed acres in New Jersey. But today, when the sun slanted through the trees and hit gleaming bits of red, I stopped to investigate.

Yep, there they were: a raspberry’s unmistakable hairy, thorny canes. I threw my bag and sunglasses into the car, lest they fall into the poison ivy that was absolutely everywhere, and reached and gently pulled. The berries were much smaller, shinier, and firmer than cultivated raspberries, and were ruby red instead of rosy violet-red. And tart! Holy cow. Only a handful was available, but I can imagine a sweetened pie of these would be a thing of uncommon beauty.

No one else saw them, or maybe they saw them but didn’t trust that they were raspberries, and steered clear.

Nibbling on them as I write this. I’ve never eaten wild raspberries before. Crazy. And enjoying them slowly, the best way to enjoy something rare.

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*I’m not telling you what store. They’re mine. Okay, mine and the deer’s.

 

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The one I ate after dinner.

I had to dash out for more eggs mid-recipe, my ladyfingers ended up looking like amoebas with a gland problem, but I’m happy to report this totally off-the-cuff recipe was still a rousing success. It started with me trying to think of other breakfasty/snacky/desserty ways to use my honeysuckle syrup. Many readers gave me some killer ideas—mix it in with white sangria, add it to barbecue sauce for ribs, drizzle it into fruit salad. (I still plan to make marzipan cake or pound cake and soak that sucker in it.)

Then I remembered Umbrian reader Letizia’s beautiful recipe for ladyfingers, the one she offered for part of my cooking project, and everything came together in my head on the drive home from the farm today: ladyfingers soaked in syrup and layered with tart yogurt.

At first I was thinking of including strawberries (not that I’m ruling it or any other fruits out down the road and now that I think about it, slightly unripe apricots would ROCK). Then I thought of how good the simplest European treats are, like crepes filled with just a thin layer of jam and dusted with powdered sugar, and decided to ease off. The ladyfinger batter calls for lemon, and that was going to be a good, kind friend to the honeysuckle. The tangy yogurt would be checks and balances to the sweetness.

Ladyfingers, those dense, spongy cookies made structurally sound with lots of egg, are used most famously in tiramisu. Here in the States people throw that name around so often with stacked dishes that you can hardly order a club sandwich these days without some whack chef calling it a turkey tiramisu. We Americans are an obsessive lot. Let’s call this dish a trifle. A little tiny one that you could make enormous if you wanted to, for a summer shower or other party.

Parenthetical comments are Letizia’s; mine are in brackets. Click the honeysuckle syrup link above for my recipe.

*
Ladyfingers

75 gr (2/3 cup) granulated sugar
3 eggs, separated
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
75 gr (2/3 cup) 00 or pastry flour [I used all-purpose]
1 scant tablespoon plain yogurt or milk [I used goat’s milk–awesome]
2 tablespoon powdered sugar plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, mixed in a small bowl

Preheat oven at 150°C (300° F). Line a large baking sheet with buttered parchment paper. If you don’t butter the parchment paper you will have to eat it as it’s hardly possible to remove it from the cookies after baking. [Somehow I missed her note, twice, about greasing the parchment. Please heed her warning.]

Whisk or beat egg whites until firm. Cream the sugar and egg yolks, add lemon zest, vanilla extract, flour and milk or yogurt and keep whisking to obtain a very thick batter. Fold in egg whites using a metal spoon. Make sure to incorporate them lightly, with circular upward movements so to obtain an airy mixture that will not deflate while cooking.

At this point, using a pastry bag, you should pipe the batter into 10 cm (4 inch) long strips on the baking sheet. (I hate pastry bags, so I use a soup spoon making sure to keep the strips at least 3 cm (1 inch) apart. One spoon of batter is enough for one ladyfinger.) [My hat is off to Letizia. I was sad crap at this. Using a pastry bag next time.]

Now sprinkle half of the sugar mixture onto the strips. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden around the sides. Makes about 2 dozen.

Letizia Mattiacci
Umbria, Italy

incampagna.com

*

This is so simple, so delicious, it’s almost lyrical. Funny how a flower can do so much for a dish.

Grazie, Letizia!

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Whites beaten to stiff peaks can sparkle like snow. Kinda cool.

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Whites folded most of the way into batter.

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Amoebas baked to a golden brown and sprinkled with sugar.

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The one I’m having for breakfast. Layered with the yogurt and sitting in a happy pool of syrup.

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There’s no rhyme or reason behind some compulsions. Take the tart above. I bought some rhubarb and wanted to make something other than the hackneyed strawberry-rhubarb pie, so one night I chopped up the stuff into a saucepan and stewed it down with a little brown sugar until it softened. Made Martha Stewart’s vanilla pudding and set it to cool in the fridge. Then made pie dough, pushed bits of it into brioche pans to make cute little tarts, and blind baked them.

When they cooled, I loaded them up with the pudding and rhubarb. Start to finish was about an hour. Righteous breakfast for the next few days. But the weirdest thing was that I didn’t really have a plan; I just knew the type of flavors and textures I wanted to taste that day. So I sort of walked around the kitchen until I got them.

(An aside: a friend’s son saw the above picture posted on Facebook, said his wife loves rhubarb without strawberries, and would I make a full-sized pie for them for that weekend? Well, yeah. Pucker up, buttercup. They dug it.)

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It happened again earlier this week, this freaky burst of inspiration, and this time with strawberries. For eve’s apple newbie types: I’m a born harvester. Why I don’t know;  I didn’t grow up on or near a farm, so it’s one for the ages. I’ve talked about my craziness for picking stuff, like here and here and also here. Hang tight for more; it’s inevitable, lucky you.

So here’s me going strawberrying twice this week since it’s a short season, and in New Jersey you never know when rain will wipe them all out in a crimson tide o’er the land.

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Loves me a mutant strawberry.

I decided to make a free form, small rustic tart and fill it with sweetened ricotta and berries. Another first. Cooked the fruit down* with brown sugar again, since it’s a little weird versus regular white sugar, and I was in a weird mood again, and it worked with the rhubarb, so etc.

Brushed an egg wash on the dough and sprinkled it with white sugar (brown would have melted or burned) and blind baked that little dude. When it cooled I topped it with my ricotta + a bit of sugar (this is the traditional filling for cannoli, by the way. It is not pudding, nor icing. Gah to the preceding.) I made the ricotta by putting two quarts of milk into a heavy-bottomed pan with 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice. I brought it to 200 degrees F on low heat. Takes about an hour. It’ll curdle. It’s supposed to. Then I put a lid on it and sat it in a cold oven overnight.

The next day (or 6 hours later, whichever comes first), I put some cheesecloth in another pot with some ends hanging over, and I rubber banded it to the pot.** Then I poured the cheesy goo into it and stuck it into the fridge. Do this, and a few hours later most of the whey will have drained out, and you will have ricotta.***

The happiest part of this: you spent WAY bloody less than buying it at a store, it’s almost no effort, you know precisely what’s in it, and you can use any percentage of milk fat. I am a 1% fan, so that’s what I use. But you can use anything, even skim.

Here’s Mr. Purty. I cut it into three long slabs, and it killed. Making another one tonight.

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I always freeze some strawberries for use later, sliced and very lightly sugared. Many think the inside of a strawberry is white, and that’s because most supermarkets buy them before they ever had the chance to ripen. They’re flavorless, just to tempt us further. Ripe strawberries, right off the field, are red—clear through the middle.

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Like this.

It’s a delirious luxury to buy strawberries you picked yourself, when you can choose the perfect degree of ripeness and flavor; and having them be small, sweet, and organic are major plusses. Christian Louboutin shoes aren’t my bag. A girl needs some luxuries.

Just now hit by the wacky idea lightning again, halfway through prepping more strawberries for jam. It would be wild to make a spread by mixing the jam into melted bittersweet chocolate and milk. Right?

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*I have a reader in Athens who doesn’t say ‘stewed’ or ‘cooked down;’ she says ‘melted’. I love that. Hi Katerina! 🙂

** Can you tell I was classically trained? No? You’re perceptive.

*** If you have a pig handy, they love whey poured into their slop. Just a tip. Charlotte’s Web says so, and we can believe anything it says.

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So I have this reader who might be the most enthusiastic guy ever, owing at least partially to the fact that his company makes really good hot sauce for a living. I’m sure this factors in. It would for me.

Johnnie Walker’s company is Two Mile Creek (twomilecreekspecialtyfoods.com), out of Colorado. They crank out some of the more creative jellies and jams that I’ve tasted, and moreover don’t have anything weird in them. When I wrote about a gluten-free sourdough recently and thought to smush TMC’s habanero jelly and fresh goat cheese between it, I posted a pretty pic. I ate this sandwich last winter on a day when my heat was flaking out, and it warmed me from the toes up.

The below recipe was gifted to me by Johnnie for my cooking project this year. It features the habanero jelly (properly called ‘Habanero Hot Pepper Jelly made with whiskey-infused apricots’, like you needed any extra incentive to try it), and makes a very simple and satisfying weeknight dinner.

What I did differently:

-Used plain yogurt instead of whipping cream (Have to watch my cholesterol. Boo and bummer, but it was great just the same).

-Used some of the tomato sauce I made from last summer’s crop.

-Left out the wine and served it straight up with no pasta/rice/polenta, but I am sure it would be lovely to add any or all.

-Added twice the amount of hot jelly 😉 Wildly yummy.

TMC Chicken POMOrado with Habanero

4  boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3 Tbsp olive oil

1-2 Tbsp TMC habanero jelly

1  onion, finely chopped

3  cloves of garlic, minced

1  tsp dried oregano

1  14.5 oz. can of diced tomatoes

1/3 c heavy whipping cream

¼ c chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp Italian seasoning

2  big dashes of your favorite white wine like Pinot Grigio (optional)

4  servings of your favorite pasta or rice or polenta

Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel and season with the salt and pepper. Heat one tbsp of the oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium high heat. Cook the chicken until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.

Heat the remaining oil in the pan and when it shimmers, add in the onion. Cook until the onion is soft and clear. Add the jelly and the garlic and oregano. Cook until the aromatics are in the air and in your nose, about 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes and the cream. Add three dashes of salt and bring to a boil. Return the chicken to the skillet and add any juices that have accumulated. Simmer this covered until chicken is firm to the touch and cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Transfer chicken to a plate and cover with foil. Simmer the sauce, uncovered, until it thickens, about 5 minutes. Add the basil or the Italian seasoning and the white wine. Simmer for 2-3 more minutes. Season with more salt if needed. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve over the carb of your choice.

Yield: 4 servings

Thanks, Johnnie!

 

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