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Posts Tagged ‘orchard’

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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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Dusty dirt at a nearby orchard and half-eaten buffet selection.

Last week I learned there are kids in the world who have never touched soil. I actually stopped typing to reread the sentence when I saw it. It was within notes for an article I was writing on a school garden in Chicago.

Of course it makes sense; city kids know from sidewalks, not soil. But I had never thought about it. The teachers at the school reported that they loved seeing the wonder and amazement in their little students’ faces when the kids first put their hands into fresh, fragrant soil.

I was struck by this. For all of us in our very small town in the ’70s and ’80s, dirt was our silent partner. Digging in it with my sister to uncover the first tulip shoots in the spring. Landing in it when I fell off my bike. I don’t even remember us brushing it off. And Lord knows we didn’t wash off honeysuckle flowers before slurping up the nectar inside. We lived by the old expression, ‘You eat a peck of dirt before you die.’ There weren’t really any boundaries between we kids and dirt; it was a part of us.

People who love to cook have a personal relationship with dirt, too. In the western part of New Jersey the earth is clay soil, which retains almost as much water as my ankles do every month, and needs additional work and ingredients to make it arable.* On the opposite side of the state, close to the ocean, we can’t dig more than a foot down without hitting a mysterious granular substance that looks like this:

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Three guesses.

Which is fine; lots of great stuff grows in it, and allows water to drain away, easily. And which also leads me to wonder, in the Doctor Who-tainted kind of way that I do, how much what’s below us influences us. Does the kind of soil we walk on have any bearing on who we turn out to be?

Coastal types are generally known to be a relaxed lot—maybe because food there has always grown fairly easily in the receptive soil. They also sometimes earn a rep for flakiness.**

Inland, where it takes more work to grow food because the soil is sticky and challenging, the rep is about stubbornness. And also generosity.***

Yes, there are exceptions to the above. I’m generalizing. But still: I can’t help but think an enormous part of what we’re made of is due to the nature of what’s under our feet.

Maybe if life is simpler due to soil that’s receptive to raising crops, it helps to foster relaxed, if sometimes complacent, people. And if life is tougher due to soil that requires more effort to raise crops, maybe it fosters stubborn but giving people, those who go by an implicit ‘we’re all in the sticky together, and we have to work together’ policy.

Then there’s the sidewalk crew, the kids who have limited or no access to soil. What are the losses and gains, how much does a concrete barrier factor into what they’re made of? Into what they become?

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Potato trying to look like a rock. Didn’t work. It was delicious.

Back down to earth.

I would bet the teachers at the inner-city school above would argue that soil affords kids the chance to learn that the world is bigger than they thought. And deeper. And messier.

I’d agree and add that we should get to know soil for the most basic of reasons: because it is always there, whether we can see it or whether it’s beneath the sidewalk, and therefore unifies us. Because it’s where all life starts, and grows, and ultimately ends. Soft, sticky, or hidden, it belongs to everyone. Kids should get the chance to wear it, like we did growing up. We should know where our food comes from. We should know where we come from.

What I wouldn’t give to have been there the day those kids stuck their hands into it, and got good and messy. I need to find an inner-city school and bring the kids some dirt.

*It’s also Fern’s last name from Charlotte’s Web and she, appropriately, was a farm girl. That E.B. White was a sly dude.

**Where are my keys?!

Kidding. But I couldn’t tell you my license plate number at gunpoint.

***All of the mid-westerners I have ever met have been unfailingly warm, giving, and unguarded. If I met a jerk who said he was from Ohio, I’d keep eating and request his birth certificate.

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I believe in truth in materials—I’ve argued for it over and over again here on eve’s apple and in my work collecting props in the theatre industry. Truth yes, authenticity yes, perfection no. Very, very no. My theatre friends often accuse me—with affection—of being hyper-detailed, but that’s not the same thing as perfection. I’ll argue against perfection until my voice, or fingers in this case, give out. Then I’ll Throat-Coat my vocal chords and Ben-Gay my hands until I can argue against it again. Stay tuned.

The reason is this: It’s impossible to hit perfection. Also this: perfection is bloody boring. It doesn’t taste like anything.

For years I’ve noticed that the orchard fruit I pick tastes the sweetest if it’s scarred. That sounds like a cliche, except it’s true. A peach or apple that’s been poked by its branches, pressed up against its brothers so tightly that it’s lopsided, partially striped by its own leaves, hanging from a cracked and windfallen tree—these are your best choices, I’m telling you. No way would an average retailer try to sell them to the average American consumer, because they’re not perfect, and the average American consumer demands perfect. But now you have it on my good word what and where real is: at local farms, farmers markets, orchards, abandoned fields.

And you know where Little Miss English Major is going with this, and we’re already waist-deep in a metaphor. So let’s dunk.

My own scars are what make me—well, let’s call it unique.* For sure there are some I would mail back to the universe third-class if I could, and settle for being somewhat less unique. I could live with that. But other scars are cool by me. For everyone who has been scarred—and by that I mean everyone—we’ve earned flavor.

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Here then, the formula for peaches, apples, and humans to live a scarred and flavorful life:

1) Take a living creature.

2) Expose it to sun, gentle breezes, and blue skies.

3) Expose it to sleet, snow, hail, lightning, and damaging winds.

4) Let other creatures gnaw on it, with teeth or with harsh words.

5) Deprive it, from time to time, of rain, so it has to send roots more deeply into the earth to find water.

6) Deprive it, from time to time, of sun, so it has to make the most of the nourishment it has stored.

7) On sunny days, let it soak it in with especial gratitude.

8) On rainy days, let every drop feel like a baptism.

9) On days in which other creatures nestle in it or beneath it, let it be charmed.

10) When it’s finally ripe, let it look around at—or look inside at—its scars, and know it tastes good.

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*Today I went to see the Lego movie with a friend just because I wanted to see it. Then I went to a party store to see if they had ‘screaming balloons’, because I need to find a fart noise for the Moliere farce I am working on. The afternoon was spent sewing burlap into bags that will hold costumes. My lunch was a half a raspberry Chocolove candy bar, and my dinner was a salad full of tofu, and I loved both. And this was an average day. You can’t buy this kind of uniqueness.

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November sky. With all due respect to Guns N’ Roses, it ain’t always raining.

Fall in New Jersey means bright leaves, a chill in the air, and the heat going on for the first time in months. In particular houses, say, just over the border into Deal, it means the snarfing of certain foods. Here, an assortment, with a couple of extra pictures just for pretty pretty.

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Homemade marzipan ghosties and minions.

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Bosc pear in repose.

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Polenta with my homemade organic tomato sauce full of rosemary, capers, onions and hot Italian sausage. I ate this instead of birthday cake last month.

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Someone’s—not sure if human or beast—orchard snack.

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Homemade walnut butter plus fresh figs caramelized in honey, squooshed between a whole wheat wrap from Trader Joe’s. Kind of a luxurious breakfast…

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.. perhaps topped only by this breakfast, a deep-dish, black-bottom pumpkin pie. I polished this puppy off in the space of three days.

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….or this one, a rum raisin apple pie. My sister found the recipe someplace. Killer.

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And a remnant of last fall, the candle I lit when my power was out during Superstorm Sandy. I was freezing and spooked, but somehow still saw the beauty in this. I’m grateful.

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If the apple were to post a listing on match.com, it’d get dozens of hits because it has it all—looks, personality and versatility.

This pictorial features the glorious apple in the height of its season. All shown are organic, and what’s more, none ever saw the inside of a supermarket.

The small apples are crabapples, which I picked from a tree in my town. I know of five crabapple trees within walking distance, some planted and some wild. They are all alongside the lake, and thus the EPA dictates that they cannot be sprayed. As is always the case, while I was picking, someone stopped to ask what they were, what they tasted like (very tart), and what I was going to do with them (make jam. And another day, schnapps).

The large apples were purchased from Tom Nivison at Silverton Farms. The splotchy red ones are Empires and the green ones are Mutsus. I think the deep red ones are Romes. The apple trees in the photos are Tom’s own: ‘Liberty’ and ‘Freedom’. ‘They look like hell, but they taste great,’ he said, as he polished one on his shirt and took a bite. He’s right. I took a ‘Freedom’ home in my pocket (that’s the sliced apple on the cutting board) and it was my ideal combination of floral sweetness with a little bite of tartness.

Jump at trying a new apple whenever you come across one; go for something different than the usual suspects (Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Granny Smith). Every now and again at a farmers market or a specialty store you’ll spot a bin of dinky little Lady apples (great for caramel apples for the little ‘uns) or better yet, an heirloom variety you’ve never heard of before. Crunch into it and let a wave of adjectives (or colors, or whatever) swirl through your mind.

There was a time not too long ago when most land-owning folks had an orchard, or at the very least, a few apple trees (each tree was grown for a different dish, no less). Think about the possibility that the apple you’re eating might have been grown by your great-great grandmother. It’s not only delicious…it could even be a five-sensory link to the past.

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This is the time of year when peach season is just ending and apple season is just starting. Kind of a bonanza if you’re a cook. You get to ask yourself: Do I want to pretend summer isn’t ending soon and make a peach cobbler, or do I want to stick it to the relentless heat waves of Summer 2012 and make a crumb-topped apple pie? Either way, you get to be stubborn and either way you end up with something yummy, so I’ll salute you for either choice. Or heck—do both.

Trudging through the orchard, something I’ve done for a lot of years now, I’ve noticed most people go for pretty. Strictly. And pretty can taste just fine, it’s true.

But lean in—I’ve got a secret for you. Two, actually. We’ll start with peaches: The somewhat bruised, or split, or overripe, or not-uniformly-rosy-but-instead-yellow-streaked will taste sweeter than the pretties.

That streak is the mark of the leaf that lay across the peach, where the sun couldn’t touch the skin.

When it comes to apples, you want to look for rough brown splotches on the skin, called russeting. It looks a little strange to us, who are used to supermarket apples that are so perfect they practically start singing Good Ship Lollipop when you get close, but russeting is harmless. It’s an indicator of an apple that hasn’t been rejected because of arbitrary rules about perfection, and it’s an indicator of sweetness.

I’m not a botanist, Lord knows. I told you once how well I did in bio, right? But there’s something undeniably good that happens to a fruit when it’s been scarred—by the wind, by the farmer’s shoulder, by the branches that surround it. It’s almost as if, for what it loses in pretty, it gains in character.

And of course there’s a metaphor in here about people, too, one I like to remember as I’m collecting my flawed fruit, getting dusty and grimy, and after an hour, pretty much looking like the dog’s lunch, and that is, collect pals who have some scars. They’re a whole lot more interesting than people who have had the perfect childhood, the perfect education, got the perfect job—people whose whole lives have been smooth sailing ever since they first opened their little mouths and said wah.

And just as important: Respect your own scars. Own ’em, because they’re probably why those cool pals keep you around, too.

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It’s overcast today, at the tail end of a few alternately windy, thundery/lightningy, rainy days, and the greyness covers every inch of my little place here. But inside my fridge is a plateful of fruit that’s the opposite of grey: pink-and-yellow orbs made entirely of sugar, rainwater and sun, held together by dappled translucent skin. Edible summer.

Every August I put on my old boots, head to an orchard twenty minutes away, and collect as many peaches as I can carry. The day I went last week was sunny and still, and the heat made the air feel drowsy. Even the bees buzzing by seemed half-asleep.

A few varieties were ready for picking. I chose Raritan Rose, a succulent white peach, so ripe they were beginning to drop from their branches. It’s also freestone, meaning the pit comes loose from the flesh easily. (Clingstone, on the other hand, does what its name implies.)

Back at home, I brought out a recipe that must be at least eighty years old, and I hope it never gets lost to humankind. It belonged to my ex’s grandmother, who was raised on a Pennsylvania farm in the 1920s and ’30s. A dessert simply called peach cake, it’s actually more of a custard pie with fruit added.

So many of our oldest and most treasured recipes must come from farms. In the days before anyone had ever heard of triglycerides, when exercise equipment was a plow and a team of horses, thrift and flavor were all that mattered. Extra eggs, cream, butter—they were all there for the taking, and take those farm folks did.

I think you’re going to dig this.

Nana’s peach cake calls for melted butter. That’s hard to work into the dough, which is like pie dough, so I use bits of cold butter and work it in with my fingers to disperse it. I see Nana also eventually embraced prepared foods, as so many housewives and mothers in the 1950s did; a farmer’s daughter’s work never ends, and she would have welcomed the chance to cut a corner or two when she could have. The recipe calls for canned peach halves. Of course you can use those, but this time of year, it’s kind of bats to do that. Use fresh local peaches instead. And if you can get them, use fresh local eggs, or cream, or butter, and you’ll get as close to farm fresh as Nana did. Lucky girl.

1/3 c cold unsalted butter

2 c all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 c granulated sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 c heavy cream

2 egg yolks

3 peaches, sliced (if organic, leave the skins on)

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Work butter into sifted mixture of flour, baking powder, salt and 2 tbsp sugar until mixture looks like coarse meal. (A lot of recipes, old and new, say this. It’s kind of archaic. It means you want to see lumpy itty-bitty bits of butter throughout.) Pat dough into the bottom of an 8×8 inch pan and press up the sides about 1 “. Arrange the peaches on top and sprinkle with remaining sugar mixed with cinnamon. Bake 15 minutes. Pour over all beaten egg yolks and cream (I love that phrase 🙂 Nana spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, and that’s evidence of that German dialect’s nutty syntax.)  Bake 30 minutes longer. Serve room temperature or cold.

 

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