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Posts Tagged ‘schnapps’

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When I learned a few years back that crab apples weren’t just decorative, I went a lil nuts. First I made them into schnapps (electric red and fantastic), then I made applesauce. One significant lesson: They’re a pain in the patoot to work with (they have tiny seeds like sesame seeds), and can be dry. I now turn on some good tunes to keep me company while chopping, and hit them with the schnapps for sweetener and to juice them up. That helps.

Recently I picked a bunch of my usual red crab apples by the lake and put them in the fridge to work with later. (Like their cousins, your regular cultivated apples, they keep very well.) One day soon after I was driving along a busy stretch of highway and spied trees with deep yellow fruit. I flipped out a little, not so much that I was a menace to the other drivers, but just enough that I pulled into the nearest lot. Thinking they were wild persimmons, I scampered back along the road, came upon the trees…and saw they were crab apples. Just yellow ones.

Bummed out a bit. I only know of two wild persimmon trees in the area, and I get the stink-eye when I forage there, so this would have been a solid find. But no. Turned around, headed halfway back to the car, then said, ‘Although. Yellow crab apples. That’s new.’ And so I turned around again.

(Hence, TIP: If any of you happened to see someone pacing back and forth along Route 36 in Oceanport, NJ last week, like the girl version of Hamlet in a black leather jacket, that was me.)

They were really healthy for fruit from wild trees. I picked a bunch. Here’s how they look in my bag….

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…and here’s how they look cooked down with their red brothers, on top of toast and a layer of mascarpone for teatime…

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…and, non sequitor, here’s the author. Today is my birthday, and I shot this in early July. This is what almost 47 looks like.

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Above is a little maple cream tart I made—just flour, butter, eggs, cream, and pure maple syrup. Give me, any day, a tart that calls for five pronounceable ingredients that can fit in my little hippie purse versus a list full of multi-syllabic words containing the letter z.

Authenticity is a very deliberate running theme in my life. People, conversations, theatre props, ingredients, what have you. I like things whittled down to simple and straightforward, for the most part. No fussy or strange stuff added. (Although sometimes I eat peanut M&Ms. But I think if you’re going to fall off the wagon with something, that’s a worthy selection.)

I’m happier doing a lot of tasks by hand, too. My kitchen is overwhelmingly ungadgeted. Never owned a microwave. I make my own vanilla extract of plain vodka and split vanilla beans. Schnapps I make of crab apples I pick down by the lake every October, steeped in sugar and vodka. Herbs are dried and stored in little recycled glass jars. I bake bread and coffee cakes and make puddings for my breakfast. I keep a Hefty bag full of bread crumbs in my freezer, full of all of the middles of rolls that I scoop out. Foraging—now that’s something I’ve talked about quite a lot, too. In a couple of weeks I’ll be picking the first of the season’s dandelion greens, loving it to my very core, and taking fewer trips to Foodtown.

Out of the kitchen, I make laundry detergent with washing powder, Borax, and Ivory soap that I grate with a cheese grater into a big Pyrex bowl and mix with a spoon. I cut up clean old t-shirts and socks that can’t be darned anymore, and use them as rags instead of buying sponges and paper towels. (In other news, I darn socks.) When my shower curtains wear out, I wash them and use them as tarps. Lord knows they’re waterproof. And the purse I mention above is made of patched-together, raw recycled silk in dozens of colors. When it gets a tear, I mend it with any color thread I like and it doesn’t show. I bought the purse for $32 from a little company that started out selling t-shirts out of a van at Grateful Dead concerts.

Why would anyone who calls herself sane live like this? Well…it’s not because I’m some Luddite (note the subtle use of WordPress), and it’s not to make some sort of glib retro statement. I do it because I need to, because the more I strip away the redundancies and the cocktail-party, small-talk pretensions of the world, the saner I feel.

I’ve always been wired up this way, having grown up in a climate that felt largely put on, one that obliged me to smile for the camera whether or not it felt honest. It got old, as well it should. And it made me dislike—distrust is a better word—pretension of any kind. Because baby, if you scratch away at that shell, you usually find cracks.

I’d like to keep the instances of cracks to a minimum now.

My life when alone, I am convinced, is best spent living in the above manner. My life spent with others is best spent with happy people—ones who are as relaxed around me as I am around them, talking from the heart, feeling with passion, laughing like heathens, and putting away a few of those maple tarts. My life gets to be my authentic invention, made by my own hands. I won’t settle for less.

 

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I found muscatel raisins after eight tries. Statistics show* most people give up on muscatels after two or three.

It’s not that I have a personal thing against Thompsons, the garden-variety dark raisins we all know. But an Irish reader gave me an old Christmastime recipe (‘Raisin Cake from the Blasket Islands’) that calls for a half-pound of muscatels, and I’ve never used them or even tasted them before. I wanted to honor the recipe, as well as the recipe writer, who gets a virtual kiss for translating archaic measurements like ‘a small knob of butter’ and ‘3 mugfuls of flour’ into modern measurements.

Muscatels are double or triple the size of Thompsons, and they tend to be described as ‘big and meaty.’ This was appealing. And I like trying new things, learning new things. This conviction is compelling enough that I called all over the county and into New York City looking for these raisins.

I found them in my own town—if you can believe it—walking a couple of blocks in sideways rain, in a tiny store frequented by our Middle Eastern residents. The place had big cans of coconut milk, pita bread (they call it ‘Syrian bread’), and delectable staples like kibbe and sanbusak. The clear plastic container, labeled Rasins, cost $3 for over a pound. And man alive, they’re big and meaty.

When I made the cake, I plumped up the raisins even more in a festive trifecta of warm water, my homemade vanilla extract, and my newly distilled crab apple schnapps. There they are above, luxuriating in their boozy Jacuzzi.

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Rare mid-recipe action shot, which I avoid because I am very messy in the kitchen. Note the tight view.

Then a steam roll of ideas clicked together like IKEA end table joints when they actually fit, and the first came to me when I was nosing around the store. I was surrounded by unusual and exotic ingredients, so I got to thinking about techniques, and dishes, and cultures, and thought how wildly cool it is that there are so many different ways to live. Isn’t it the best kind of insane that if I decided tomorrow that I wanted to cook with whole coriander seeds, I could? That all I have to do is sniff it, learn how other cultures use it, and do what they do (and, bonus round, eventually end up experimenting with it until I discover something new)? That all I have to do is be curious about it in order to learn about it, and in doing so, my life gets a little bigger? That I can choose this?

…Then a friend posted about personal integrity via arbitrary food preferences, and I thought about how much I love differences of opinion** because Miss Sociology Nerd always finds it fascinating, expansive. (As I write this, another friend asked if I wanted to go out for Filipino food next week. How exciting is that? I get to taste flavors I’ve never tasted before!)

…Then I got to thinking about the socio-political atrocities in the news lately, and how much I believe it’s based on narrow-minded thinking that inevitably leads to narrow-minded acting.

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Just took it out of the oven, and it smells like a very buttery soda bread. And then I put it back in because the center sunk pitifully. I cut into it and it was all goopy. Nice. My tester lies like a tourist on a beach towel.

And here’s what I came up with: The problem is that insidious narrow-minded thinking. And it’s deliberate. Why in the name of the earth, heavens, and all assorted cherubim would we choose to make our lives smaller rather than bigger?

It’s a broader topic than one blog can tackle, much less a food blog, and I’m sure there’s more than one culprit. But if we want to discuss one of them:

I can remember a time in my own life when I made a point to make my life smaller, too. It was when I was really sick, stress sick from old crap that had been piling up unresolved for too long, and really, really terrified. My health was so erratic from day to day that I wanted routine and predictability in every other aspect of life. After about seven years I was pretty much clear of it, and wanted adventure on both a micro and micro scale.***

If my story sounds familiar and you have a sneaking suspicion it’s at least part of what’s keeping you from a big life, please take this as an emphatic nudge. It’s new-leaf time. We need to shake off the crap that we end up wearing for years on end, like Miss Havisham in her old wedding dress, worn every single day since she was stood up at the altar decades earlier. Old crap can’t be wished away; would that it could. And a mantra like ‘serenity now’—yeah, that doesn’t work. Here’s what does.

1) Tell the truth. Now tell the rest.

2) Spread it all out on the table, every little bit.

3) Get a coach to help you sift through it. Discuss, discern, discard.

4) Mourn whatever needs mourning. Then take off the damn dress.

The cake is out of the oven for the second time and I’m having a slice at tea time. Can’t wait to taste the difference between these raisins and Thompsons, as well as the difference between a cooked cake and one that has a center like lava.

Wishing you a life as big and meaty as a muscatel raisin.

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*Exhaustively researched by someone other than me. It’s possible.

**As long as—and this is a big as long as—they’re delivered respectfully and don’t attack anyone.

***We’d gone to Disney World every year and suddenly I wanted to go to the French Polynesia. Macro.

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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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Blackberries, Silverton Farms, Toms River.

I can’t speak for you, but for me, supermarket shopping for produce in February is onerous at best. It’s been months since the sun made a respectable appearance, local offerings are few, and the produce from Chile is a little too coiffed, like that slicky QVC-type hawker that Bridget Jones’s mum had an affair with.* It’s like they’re trying to pretend they’re not tiny, expensive and lacking in nutrition, which was sadly lost two weeks ago over the Atlantic. The supermarket tries to keep the dismal at bay with bright lights and piped-in music, but it just makes the setting feel more hollow.** Admittedly, the rest of the year it’s not much better. Even now, at the height of the growing season, to me it feels hollow. It might as well be February.

Produce shopping at a farmers market is much more satisfying. You can buy lacinato kale that was in the ground that morning. And it’s only traveled a few miles to get to you. Best of all, you get to meet the people who grew, or baked, or somehow else concocted what they’re selling. They aren’t wearing name tags or uniforms; usually they’re in old jeans. The female growers rarely wear makeup or do up their hair. There’s a sense of integrity, of pride of ownership—a quiet brashness of what you see is what you get, refreshing in today’s endlessly tidied up and sanitized world.

But for the best produce shopping experience of all, I choose pick your own. If you haven’t tried it and think you don’t want to, listen: it’s more enjoyable than you think. As long as you’re wearing shoes that can get dusty or a little muddy and you’re wearing sunblock and a decent hat to keep the sun at bay, you’re good.  A bottle of water wouldn’t hurt, either. And if you go to a small farm, even better; there’s a chance you’ll have the whole blackberry field to yourself.

Pick your own is a five-sense epicurian feast. Remember, farmers aren’t in it for the money. What you’re about to take part in is something ancient, something all at once enormous and humbling, something farmers—despite the labor and precarious nature of a life lived like this—treasure. The connection with the living things offering you their fruit, the gratitude, the simplicity, the peace that taps you gently on the shoulder—all are a big part of what makes this work worth it for them. And it can do the same for you, just for an hour or so one morning.

See the variety in shape and color and texture of what’s growing; the sparkle of dewdrops in streaks across the grass and across your feet (when was the last time your shoes were dampened with dew?); the sky with sun and scribbles of clouds; the geometry of the buildings, fences, plow and tractor tracks; moving, changing color in the leaves and the chickens that dot the yard; tight little immature red berries and fat glossy purple ones (to find the ripest, fattest berries, occasionally you need to lift the canes carefully and peek beneath them).

Hear those chickens scolding each other; the wind rustling leaves in the maple trees a few yards off and several more yards up; the whirring of bees busy doing their thing (and won’t bother you if you don’t bother them); cicadas singing over and over again to a crescendo before dropping the note; cardinals calling to each other; the rustle of tall grass as you make your way down the path.

Smell the green of the blackberry leaves (yes, you can, especially on hot days); the sweet pungency of fruit that’s fermenting into schnapps after the rain dropped it to the ground Tuesday evening; the richness of the soil that crumbles like devil’s food cake; the freshness of the wind.

Feel the dew on leaves growing in the shade; the basket handle under your arm; the prickly canes (being careful of the thorns; much like bees, respect is warranted); the difference between berries that are ripe versus almost ripe (you want fruit that is firm but not too firm; it should be a bit yielding, dropping fairly easily into your fingers when tugged); your blood pressure slowing down to mellow yellow.

Taste the sweet blackberries, flesh and juice…as well as the gift of this morning.

* Okay, he was Portuguese, but the point still stands.

**Whole Foods is a notable exception.

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