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Posts Tagged ‘Spring’

I love lemons and I love old recipes. Recently, after a long hiatus that involved too much hither and yonning all over the state, I got on Google maps and actually found my kitchen again. The above and below are testament to what can be done while exhausted and needing to be comforted.

My friend Rachel loves to bring me little treats when she visits, and last September she brought me a copy of Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book (1942). I don’t mind relaying that I can do without their recipe for Boiled Asparagus, and don’t understand the preoccupation of the day with suspending almost anything in gelatin. But most of the recipes are true blue, and many more look really incredible; to my modern mind, the authors show a wonderful audacity with ingredients and flavors, and I really, really envy how common oysters, black walnuts, and persimmons were back then. Whew.

But a few days ago I was in the mood for lemons, certainly because it’s spring and they’re in season, and also likely because I was run down and in need of a smack of citrus. This was a treat: Called Delicate Lemon Pudding, it combines lemon juice and zest, sugar, milk, egg yolks, egg whites beat to stiff peaks, butter, and a little bit of flour to hold it all together. It gets poured into a baking dish, set in a bain-marie, and baked. Then it goes into the fridge to chill up.

I made this during last week’s heat wave and told my friends I imagined people in the ’40s pulling it out of the icebox on a sultry day. Did it myself.¬†When you dip into it, the pudding has an appealing way of being dry and tender on top (that’s the browned meringue), frothy in the middle, and sweet and milky underneath, almost like a lemon milkshake. Next time I’ll use less sugar and more lemon juice and zest, but it was a really lovely win.

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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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Burying my face in lilacs dripping with raindrops, getting my nose all wet and not even caring, was and is a favorite Springly pastime. Lilacs in bloom also meant school was almost over for the year. When I smell them today, decades later, they still smell like almost-summer: delicious anticipation.

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Lilacs are so insistently fragrant that I used to pick a bunch and put them in a vase on the front porch so I could enjoy them without getting overpowered.

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I once propped My Fair Lady with a teenage actor who carried silk lilacs and did not know their name. It always spooks me a little when young people don’t know the names of common flowers, but getting a chance to tell them cheers me up.

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Florence Nightingale wasn’t just a famous nurse—she was also a really talented statistician. She figured out a wild—but accurate—phenology fact: After a very specific amount of days after the last frost, lilacs bloom. I can’t find the amount of days, and it’s bugging me. But it’s been proven.

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I love seeing lilacs when travelling. Been lucky a couple of times to see them twice in a year—at home and then, in chillier climes, again abroad. Canada has a spectacular lilac arboretum which was in bloom when we visited one late spring. Deep purple, lavender, white, and even the less common pink hedges were lush and lovely for acres. In Scotland winding village roads are dotted here and there with tall hedges. They look exactly right by century-old cottages.

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One of my favorite writers, Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes, tells of a great story of hope that she learned when digging up a leggy and spent lilac hedge. She said despite the fact that it was what she called ‘boots up,’ surrounding it were smaller hedges. They all led to the original plant; it was its parent. The children were all in full and healthy bloom.

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A neighbor long ago had a house decked out with lilacs—knickknacks, toiletries, even the upholstery on her couch. It’s fascinating how people can take to a flower. Was it all about the color or fragrance? Or did it remind her of someone or something, and she needed to surround herself with a tangible version of the memory?

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I used to frequent an ancient red clapboard building in a nearby farm town. There I bought jars of wonderful blackberry honey from a similarly ancient beekeeper. In the back, near the hives, were lilac bushes that towered over me. They had the biggest blossoms, the sweetest smell, and were the plummiest purple I’d ever seen. I asked the beekeeper about them and he said they had been cut from prize plants grown long ago and far away. The honey shop is gone, and likely the beekeeper as well. But every May I go back, remember the taste of his honey, and smell the lilacs.

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Last week I learned lilacs are edible and went a little lightheaded at the thought. First I made an olive oil-almond cake, and then I collected some lilacs. I found a lone lavender bush near an old gazebo at the lake; another old bush in a Methodist beach community near several century-old religious buildings; and visited the plummy purple bushes behind my honey store. Why do lilac bushes so often sit beside old buildings? It’s probably as simple as this: People long ago loved them as much as we do now. Tastes don’t really change.

I went home and made lilac syrup, stirring one cup of sugar into one cup of hot water until the sugar dissolved, then steeped the rinsed blossoms in it until the syrup cooled. The next day I poured some over a slice of my cake.

It’s overwhelming, isn’t it, that we can take in some kinds of beauty through sight and smell, while others we can truly…consume? Beauty doesn’t have to be separate from us, admired and then left behind. As long as we can make lilac syrup, we can actually, deliciously, be part lilac.

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I’m writing this five days after the winter solstice, windows open on a 63-degree F night, and waiting for proper winter to arrive. I can’t wait for the aqua-blue evening light, the perfectly still air, the sheets of glassy ice at the curb. And yet…the light brightens just a little more every day. That’s an ancient promise we can count on.

I’ve talked a lot here about communing with the earth. It’s probably my favorite topic. Cooking, foraging, digging around in the ground—all are like butter on a burn to me, and I suspect they always will be.

But the backstory, the one I haven’t yet told, is this: I don’t cook and forage and dig because they’re a pleasant way to spend a Thursday, or because they’re trendy (perish that last thought along with skinny jeans). I do it because the earth is home. She’s blood. She’s safe. Always has been. The earth, the outdoors, consistently gave me what I couldn’t get indoors. And harvesting and eating what comes from her today is natural, if you’ll forgive the pun. It’s one of the dozens of ways I can keep reaching out and grabbing her hand.

The earth and I go way back. One of my earliest memories is when I was a toddler, pulling a long weed from the side yard, and being genuinely surprised that there wasn’t a carrot at the other end of it. We kids spent an inordinate amount of time outside. I learned the best ways to traverse hedges between yards, and it didn’t fail. I waited for certain flowers to bloom every year, and they always did. Spring rain water felt differently in my fingers than fall rain water. (It feels thicker. Maybe it is.) I can still remember the scent of the little white flowers that grew on a hedge at the end of our block, as well as in my uncle’s backyard around the corner. I still have the scent of May in my nose. It smells green. Of course.

(And today, right now, my bedroom is green: On Christmas Eve I hung juniper and white pine branches on the wall above my bed, and willow branches are literally hanging from my ceiling. It was a trick, considering I’m 5’3″, the ceiling is 9.5′, and I only have a dinky stepladder. [Don’t ask. I made it work.] I’ve always wanted to feel as though I was falling asleep in a magic glade, and with the shadows and tiny white lights on my tree, also in my room…it is. And I can have the windows open, no less.)

My earth experiences growing up weren’t all great; I remember the hurricanes at the end of summer, the ice storms and mud and heat waves. Getting pricked by wild-rose thorns and getting poison ivy blisters. But I never felt afraid when I was outside. I always felt protected. Cradled. I knew where to go when I needed cradling, and I was never left wanting.

And that sense of safety remains to this day. There’s a powerful serenity in knowing when I have a crap day that the ocean will be there for me. Always. There’s a serenity in knowing that the underside of a magnolia leaf will be brown and fuzzy, and that the blackberries beneath the canes will be sweetest. The wild lilies-of-the-valley down by the lake will be palest pink, the wild crocuses will be lavender. When the sun comes back, I get to visit them again. I wrap this knowledge around me, and it is profound comfort.

The earth can be messy and unpredictable, that’s for sure. There’s always been mud, and storms, and heat waves. There always will be. I still get pricked by wild-rose thorns, and I get poison ivy blisters on my hands every year like clockwork.

But here’s the important thing, the biggest reason why I take it all in stride: the heat waves always pass. I can count on that like I can count on the crocuses. There will always be beauty at the end of the block. Old friends will poke their noses up from the ground, and new ones will, too. I will get surprises every day, of every year. I laugh when I see them half the time because I never saw them coming.

The earth never fails me. No matter what befalls, good or mud. She always gives the sun back.

Spring always comes.

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Fruit collected in my secondhand bread-rising bowl.

Today I foraged in a graveyard under a canopy of old, old trees in full autumn fire.

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Marker nearby. Lambs and little angels usually guard children’s graves.

I picked wild persimmons from two little trees that my friend Lauren spotted last year when picnicking with her children.

Harvesting anything has always been a Zen thing for me, and it’s something I like to do alone. I love people—I’m no loner—but I always decline company when I’m picking. It’s a communion with the earth, and I can’t look and listen as well when I’m distracted by chatter.*

In this particular location, I’m utterly surrounded by company, but they’re the quiet sort.

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Persimmon tree in the foreground and graves in the back. American flags are abundant when persimmons are ripe; Veteran’s Day was last week.

I often think of ecology and climate change on excursions like this, on days when I get dirt, bits of twigs, and leaves in my boots. I think of how detached most of us are from the earth. (How can we see the connection between ourselves and the earth when we buy most of our food in fluorescent-lit stores hundreds or thousands of miles from the dirt where it grew? Why would we fight for that dirt when we never see it? We might as well fight for the planet Neptune.)

Years ago I read a quote from a new florist who said the flowers were teaching her what to do. When it’s just me and the trees, it’s very much the same. You get to know a plant when you visit it spring after summer after fall.

When it comes to wild persimmons, I’ve learned they’re smaller than the variety you see this time of year in stores, just about the size of a cherry tomato. They’re not ready to pick until they’re soft and black-burnished and somewhat shriveled. Once the leaves are gone and there’s nothing left on the tree but fruit, they’re usually ripe. But—if I tug on a fruit that’s not quite ripe, if it’s still too smooth and firm, it will resist. Not yet, it tells me. No. Wait.

Any stage actor worth the pantaloons he’s in will tell you there is no power in his performance until there’s an audience, that every breath, gesture, word he puts out there needs a human to tell it to. Acting is not just talking; not even a monologue is just talking. It is always a dialogue between the actor and the audience. It’s another communion. Each needs the other. Each feeds the other.**

This is how it is when I harvest: it’s a dialogue between the plant and me, far more immediate and powerful than if I were to choose that same plant from a store. It teaches me without a word, feeds me, and reinforces the connection between this human and the earth.

Harvesting in a graveyard might be the truest communion with the earth there is; it’s the full life cycle in 360-vision. We pick the food from the earth, one day we will be put in the earth, more food grows and is picked, and the cycle continues.

This is my second and last year harvesting at this beautiful spot, though; the church chaplain gave me permission to pick, but gives me the stink-eye when I do. I will miss these trees, but picking that way mars the experience. She doesn’t know that I thank the trees (I’m a goof, but I really do), nor that I always say hello to the folks that surround them (which I’d do anyway, even if I hadn’t just reread Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I had). She doesn’t know that this is sacred to me. I conveyed my enthusiasm, but it didn’t help.

I’ll keep looking until I find more persimmon trees. And in the meantime, I’m making a pie.

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*I’ll give you one exception: my elderly neighbor brought me along on maybe his 70th year foraging for beach plums, and my first year. He was the pensive type, a hunter, and he went off to one thicket and I went off to another. He got it. The communion thing.

Oh…and this is probably why I never went in for religion. Nothing against it for others, but for me, communion with a great Something is too important to be cluttered up with rules, doctrine, pageantry, and a heap of other people reciting in unison. I need quiet.

**When you see a performance that moves you, please applaud, gasp, laugh, sigh, whatever. For 20 years I’ve stood backstage with anxious actors, and you have no idea how much that feeds them. They thrive on your reactions—honest.

 

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The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea. – Isak Dinesen

She left out coconut water, but nailed the other three, so I’ll let it slide.

On a 2008 trip to French Polynesia, everyone on our day trip to a nearby motu (uninhabited island) was treated to a lesson in the Tahitian way to crack open a coconut. That’s my ex above at left, giving it a solid try over stakes propped in the sand.*

I was born, raised, and to this day live very close to water. No exaggeration, it runs through my veins via skin and lungs. Where I sit right now, water is on three sides of me: lake in front and side, and the Atlantic Ocean at my back.

Tonight’s post is like running water—what I think of, and remember, when I think of water.

Dripping water is such a welcome sight in late winter; a sign spring isn’t far away. This was shot in March 2011.

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That summer, and a family at the ocean’s edge. Everyone hitched their pant legs and skirts up to their knees and splashed around and laughed. They were really charming.

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Peony petals, sunk to the bottom of a thick crystal vase. The crystal and water changed the shape and color and blurred the edges of the petals. When I go into water, any water—from ocean to pool to bathtub—my perceptions change. Light refracts memories, edges soften around thoughts. I remember looking down at my hands and feet through the glassy salt water where I spent every single summer, and remember how reality shifted and blurred, in a half-sleepy way, the way it feels after massage or yoga. When I finally came out of the water and the sun dried the salt water on my skin, it left a sparkling shadow. It always washed off in fresh water, but the psychic imprint remained.

Does spending so much time in and around water explain my penchant for daydreaming, for going deep? For tangents…?

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The more chances water has to touch something, the softer the edges of that something become. This is lagoon sand, encircled by boulders placed there nearly 100 years ago. When ocean water comes in, it tosses and tumbles the sand against the rocks. It is delicate as baby powder, and the loveliest stuff I have ever had under my feet.

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The below was taken from the bow of a little crabbing boat I was in last summer on the Navesink River, which feeds from the nearby ocean. When the clouds went across the sun, the wind picked up, and the choppy water became a luscious deep blue-green, like an enormous, expansive, malleable semi-precious stone.

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Water that surprises: I was riding my bike into Asbury Park last summer to meet my friend Lauren for lunch, and I bumped along the boardwalk as I rode. The old boards were dark and damp after strong rains, with just enough footfall in them to create puddles, and I caught the sun yawning and opening its eyes in the reflections.

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Another surprise last winter, when I was watching my step across the icy apron of my building’s driveway, I spotted this big trapped snowflake. Fantastic surprise.

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Last April I blogged about fog.** Couldn’t help it. This is my road looking east, about three blocks to the ocean—a dreamy 360-degree universe of tiny salt- and fresh water particles hanging mid-air, brushing my cheeks and hair and clinging to everything I wore. I could not stay away from the beach that day, craving the paradoxical comfort of being enveloped by icy water, of not being able to see beyond a few feet, let alone of the horizon. It was nourishment for a very weary soul.

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Autumn leaves floating by on my lake, in 2010, and the contrast of black water on a dark afternoon against shocking color. I look at it and smell the lake water, full of rain and salt (from the ocean, again), and the intoxicating fragrance of decaying leaves. The lake is another flavor of peace.

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When I was little and playing at the beach, sometimes I would get a cut. And when I’d run up to my mom and show her, she’d always say the same thing: ‘Go stick it in the water.’ That was the rule; other kids were told the same. No Band-Aids for the minor stuff. They’d fall off in the sand and water, anyway.

There’s not a lot the ocean can’t heal.

Here it is a few summers ago, early in the morning and early in the season, a mess of sparkles and chill as the sun rises.

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Tonight, at the end of August, it was warm and pink-lit. I just rode back a few hours ago, and am typing this with my sandy feet stretched out in front of me, nourished outside and in.

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*Since I dehydrate easily and have gotten myself sick during August heat waves, I’ve taken to drinking coconut water liberally. Luckily I love it. Gatorade was my first effort in getting back electrolytes, and was sweet enough to embarrass New Coke.

**Fog blogged? Flogged? No, that would hurt.

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