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Posts Tagged ‘strawberry’

I’ve been eating strawberries close to three meals a day for the past week. This time of year we must, and must not apologize, because winter is long, my friends. Often enough it’s berries in a bowl with plain yogurt, but I also made two recipes to take me through breakfast with aplomb.

The top is a Martha recipe, originally written to accompany late-season summer fruits (which it does very well), but it sure doesn’t hurt with June’s best, either. This is a nubbly, buttery, tender pound cake that calls for semolina flour, ground almonds, and my favorite spice, cardamom. I didn’t slice the berries because I’m a heathen, but you could. Someday I’ll try the cake toasted with butter, but for now, it’s been soaking up berries and some of that plain yogurt, making it lovely and pink and damp.

Then there’s my never-miss, never fail traditional strawberry shortcake. The recipe is from my 1968 Time-Life cookbook, American Cooking. It’s the author’s grandmother’s, and she used to make it with woodland strawberries that grew in the brambles on her farm in upstate New York. I try not to think about how deliriously good it would be with wild strawberries and just take what I have, which is fine enough indeed. (Though I can’t lie: when I someday get my hands on woodland strawberries, their fate is sealed with this recipe.)

Take a hot, fresh, homemade buttermilk biscuit. Split it with two forks, butter the fluffy insides, close it back up, set it in a bowl, and top with sugared strawberries and cold fresh cream. Sweet fancy Moses, but that’s a good breakfast.

Okay, the below isn’t a strawberry recipe or any recipe for that matter, but I thought you’d dig it. In fact, disclaimer: all but the very top pastry (a chocolate-covered cream puff) are pretend. I made this tray last week for a production of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone,’ carried by the goofbally Gangster Bakers. They say stuff like ‘You biscotti be kidding me,’ ‘You’re really in truffle!’ and ‘One cannoli hope.’ I could go on, but I don’t want to lose readers. There are fortune cookies, too, containing theatre platitudes I made up like ‘Cold free pizza is still pizza.’

Made of craft foam, white Model Magic, homemade play dough, glue, gel paste, paper, and paint. I guess technically that’s a recipe. Got a bang out of making this, and there’s muffin you can do about it. 🙂

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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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A fatty!

Very, very few things give me as much pleasure as picking the first strawberries of the season. And after a number of years of picking after it had rained the night before (which was gross) and going at noon in the heat (only to plotz), I’ve worked out a practical system.

1) Per my first lesson above, choose a day after a sunny day to go. Mud is a bit of a bummer.

2) Wear jeans, an old t shirt, boots, a hat, and sunblock. Tuck your pant legs into your socks to ward off ticks. Bring a water bottle and more sunblock for the ride home.

3) Go to the farm first thing in the morning when it opens. If there’s still mist floating by, you’re on time. This guarantees the coolest weather of the day as well scarcity of crowds. Besides the farm staff, you’ll probably be the only one there.

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In repose. And about to be macerated in sugar. Don’t breathe a word.

4) While we’re on the topic, introduce yourself and remember to be respectful of everyone who works there. Barring Red Cross relief workers in Uganda, few people work as hard, amid as much uncertainty, while maintaining optimism, as a farmer. And besides that, they feed us.

5) Take a flat out to the fields instead of a basket if you can. Laying the berries in one layer means they won’t get crushed.

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Sliced and lightly sugared for the freezer.

6) Sit your sweet self right down onto the straw path between the rows of strawberries, which is dry because it didn’t rain last night, and pick and scootch along as needed. Sounds nutty, I know, but the benefit of sitting is twofold: it saves your back and quads from pain tomorrow, and you’ll see berries you would have otherwise missed standing and bending.

I’ve written before about taking the time to look beneath, and how much you can reap in doing so. It’s true whether you’re looking for berries or a loyal friend or pretty much anything of value. You need to look, to be deliberate. You need to have your eyes open and reach where others won’t.

You won’t always find something. But you usually will—that I can promise. You’ll get to the counter to pay for your berries and people will flip out. ‘How did you find so many? I was just out there and I only got a pint!’ Just smile enigmatically and whisper, ‘Look beneath.’

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Buttermilk biscuits pipin’ hot.

7) Choose berries that are evenly red, with as few white ‘shoulders’—that’s the top of the berry, by the stem—as possible. Get the darkest red berries you can find for deepest flavor, and eat those up first, since they’re the ripest. Get shiny red ones for firmness and bright flavor; they’ll be the ones that stand up in your showboat recipes like decorative tarts.

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They got creamed.

8) Eat a warm fat one right off the plant. There are many glories gone to us, never to return. This remains. Enjoy it.

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The best thing you can do with a heap of strawberries. Classic Americana: the strawberry shortcake.

 

 

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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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Feather down of a sea gull in early evening light.

I get razzed a lot for being a detail-oriented person, always by friends; and often enough, amusingly enough, by the friends who hire me to be detail-oriented (editing, prop design, you get the picture). I can’t help myself; it’s just that there’s so much to experience in the tiny, unobtrusive stuff.

Good example: I love the seasons, all of them, because each offers both big and infinitesimally small imprints, changes, shifts, gifts, little breaths of the universe that say I was here. It’s all fascinating to me. I want to see it, get into the same space with it. That’s me in the corner, that’s me kneeling in the dirt with my nose up against an inchworm on a strawberry saying coooool.

So.

This is a semi-comprehensive chronicle of my favorite details, late spring into summer. There’s a lot of food, but you expected that.

What’s on your warm-weather list?

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Peanut Butter Moose Tracks cone, Days, Ocean Grove, NJ.

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Sycamore leaf, early evening.

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Fresh Bing cherries in heavy cream.

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Quail eggshell.

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Surfer’s wet and supremely happy mongrel.

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Fresh peach custard pie made with local peaches.

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Bread-and-butter pickles made from a 100+ year-old recipe from a farm wife.

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Turkey burger with homemade hot green-chili harissa.

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Little two-year-old feet in Jellies.

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Bocce ball in intense early evening light.

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A Shirley Temple after a hot day.

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Empty beer mug, lonely and forlorn.

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Fuzzy apricots in more early-evening light. I have a thing with this light, obviously.

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Signs I’m home 🙂 This is what’s on local shelves.

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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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With the Zig Zag (L), at a Red Bank, NJ dance studio.

Some of the weirdest food choices I’ve ever made were made while working a show. Any theatre person can attest to this: there’s something about the combination of a gnawing stomach and having worked your caboose off that steers a person, oddly, toward malnutrition. Counter-intuitive as it is, what’s chosen for a really-late-night dinner is often enough in the orange food group (the fried banana pepper rings with ranch dressing, the fried calamari with Thai chilies) and it’s about as useful for your body as drywall spackle.

Then again, starvation plus long hours occasionally steers a person toward something he or she would never so much as sniff otherwise. Sometimes that’s a good thing. I detested mushrooms up until one day in 1995, when I hadn’t had breakfast. It was 1 in the afternoon, my magic partner and I had been working for hours, and he ordered a Domino’s pizza with mushrooms. I took a bite and pronounced them Not That Bad. The frozen, synthetic crust was a different story, being Domino’s; but again, hunger won out. And now I love mushrooms—any kind at all. If Domino’s ever offers porcini as a topping, I’ll forgive them their crust.*

I worked with this magic troupe for a few years after college, moonlighting as a magician’s assistant. We’d get the gig and start planning immediately. Everything needed to be taken into consideration: the venue, the audience, the amount of set-up time and performance time, backstage space, and on and on. Many of the illusions we used were bought or rented, but a couple, like the Asrah and Sword Basket, were built by a theatre tech who was also a great carpenter. Those needed us for paint, bells and whistles. And for most of the gigs it was just the illusionist (Doug) and me, but occasionally we brought in a stage manager who would help us load in illusions, run sound and lights, help strike (break down the illusions and the set) and load everything out. Many’s the New Year’s Eve I’ve loaded out at midnight wearing sweats and sneakers over fishnets and sequined Lycra, still in stage makeup and fake eyelashes, and with my hair teased out to one of the more affluent Cleveland suburbs.

While magic was some of the best fun I ever had, it was also some of the dumbest food I ever ate. After days and nights spent like the above, we got hungry. REALLY bloody hungry. (And tired. I have memories of going to a restaurant, wordlessly plunking ourselves down into a booth, ordering our dinners, then sitting in silence for the rest of the meal. This is the standard definition of zonked.)

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During a strike.

One of my better memories of dumb food is of going to Ruby Tuesday’s with Doug and ordering a Tallcake. This was taken off the menu a while ago, sadly. Do you remember it? It was an oversize goblet filled with cut-up cake, ice cream, and a few toppings. Doug and I are chocolate people and loved the chocolate cake one that came with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and a crazy pile of whipped cream. It contained absolutely nothing even remotely healthy; I’m sure of it. Everything in that goblet came from a box or a squeeze bottle or a spray can, full of enough chemicals to melt an average-sized four-door Suburu. But (and this is coming from me, Miss Authentic Ingredients) that’s all right. Crap now and again is okay. It is.

We would easily destroy a Tallcake between the two of us after a show or a long day of sewing, painting, or building. Our most shameful hour—or finest, depending on your perspective—was the time we ate an entire Tallcake, then looked wide-eyed at each other across the table, and ordered and ate ANOTHER one.

The strawberry ones were pretty good, too.

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*That’s what it would take. Get on it, boys.

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