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Posts Tagged ‘vegetable’

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Last year I picked corn—like in a corn field—for the first time. It was one of the most exquisitely peaceful experiences I’ve ever had. The field was several yards off a quiet road; no one else was around; the stalks towered and rustled over little me; and I’ve never seen Children of the Corn. All factored into a delicious, unscary sense of being enveloped, especially that last one.

Usually when harvesting I take in the beauty inherent in lush LIFE growing all around—the intense colors and weight of fruits and vegetables, full of water and sunshine, right at the peak of their lives. This year, quite unexpectedly, I noticed the beauty in the other side of the season, in the hints of autumn brushing dustily by, even in the heat of the sun.

In Japanese culture, it’s believed there is beauty not just in fullest life, but also in impermanence and decay. In the U.S., this concept confuses us and tends to make us a little jumpy. What do we do when a flower in a vase begins to wilt? We throw it away; we don’t want to see it once the wheel turns. I’m no different. But I want to learn to appreciate it at every phase.

Oddly enough, I found corn just as beautiful in its dropped and drying starkness as I did green and growing. And I edited in black and white for everything I shot, whether alive or dead, to keep from being distracted by color.

I do love a paradox, love disturbing juxtapositions. Maybe I can grow to love a wilting flower, too.

So. Here is summer—waxing and waning.

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Today on Facebook I posted about the times last summer when my buddy would write to me, having just opened his box from his CSA*, and ask what in the name of all that is holy were these short green fuzzy things. He’d include a photo. (They were okra.)

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These are lumpy yellowish-greenish appley pear things. (Quince.)

Another time he told me about a whitish greenish vegetable with ferny things growing out of the top of it. I told him to slice off a tiny bit, then asked if it tasted like licorice. He did, and it did, and he was so excited to report back. (Fennel.)

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Smells a little like mint. (Because it is—wild mint.)

I find this kind of conversation very enjoyable, so today I extended my identifying services to everyone I know on Facebook. More and more people are buying into CSAs and their spectacularly fresh, local vegetables, but don’t always know what they’re looking at, let alone how to prepare it.

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Sort of squishy streaky purplish things. (Figs.)

In the case of the okra, I suggested he fry them, or make a stew and let them goop themselves out. You cannot thwart the okra when it comes to goop. As I must write, and take pictures of broken things I find on the side of the road, so they must goop. Might as well let it thicken your stew.

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Um, they’re long and covered with dirt. (Fresh horseradish.)

For the fennel, I suggested he shave it thinly with a mandoline and use it in salads. If I recall, he found success with both vegetables, though decided not to try the okra on his two young boys. Ate it up himself. I’m still not entirely sold on it myself. Maybe another year.

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Fat zucchini? (Close enough. Summer squash covers it. I used to know the name, but can’t find it!)

As I posted to my friends, I love the prospect of playing Julie McCoy and introducing someone to a new vegetable. I love helping people to give in to curiosity, and a new way to think, and a new way to cook.

But mostly I love feeling as though I’m giving people accessibility to what the earth gives. I’m such a nerd, I know, but I find it incredibly exciting to come across a new fruit or vegetable, especially if it’s local. And I know at least one other person who feels the same. Maybe it’s because we’ve become so jaded, with information powering at us from all sides, all day and night, and feel as though there’s nothing new to see.

I know digital information can and does make our world bigger, but to me…it’s almost always more rewarding to make it bigger not by looking at a screen, but down at the fertile ground.

*CSA: Community-Supported Agriculture—a great idea. People buy shares in a local farm, and get the spoils of that farm, all season long, as ripe and delicious as can be.

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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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When I was a kid, the jobs that required unusual patience were given to me, for better or worse. My sister Amanda will remember that I took over the Easter bread dough every year at the very end of the process, when it needed cup after cup of flour kneaded into it until the dough was smooth and elastic. It’s tempting to add it in a heap and get on with your life, but then you end up with a mucky, sticky, dusty mess. It has to be done slowly.

Then there was melon-balling for our Fourth of July barbecue. I’d work the flesh out of half of a watermelon the size of an ottoman and add it to honeydew and blueberries to make fruit salad. Then the whole shebang would go back into the watermelon half. This took a while, and there was no way to cut a corner.

Along with not rushing the processes we can control, I wait for seasonal produce. I know I’m an exception. But I maintain that waiting all winter means a kaboom of true green flavor when you bite into that first stalk of roasted asparagus, greenness that gets right in the face of all of the cold and mud and ice and grit you’ve endured for months. It tells you, without question, it’s OVER.

Waiting means strawberries that are so ripe that they stain my fingers red when I pick them, and taste like sunbeams. It means the immense joy of a warm, slightly soft, utterly ripe heirloom tomato; a freshly picked apple that cracks audibly when you bite into it; and the mellow richness of a Lumina pumpkin, chosen from a wagon 32 steps away from the vine where it snoozed in the sun all summer. (Mario Batali got almost misty when he described the flavor of fresh fall produce: “You can taste that the ground has changed.” I can’t do better.) Our ancestors had no choice but to wait for what grew, and reaped the benefits of waiting. They knew from flavor.

There’s an art to holding out for something until it’s ready. Bite into a peach that’s gorgeous and hard as a rock and you’ll get a mouth full of nothing. A blackberry that’s glossy and firm guarantees you an almost painful tartness. A ripe berry will fall off into your palm with the gentlest tug. Forcing it means it’s not ready and not worth the lack of flavor.

Sometimes fruits and vegetables look (to our persnickety, Madison-Avenued eyes) their worst when they’re the most delicious and ripest. Passion fruits are ready when they’re half shriveled. One of my readers, a retired Southern farm wife, swears by the exceptional flavor of summer squash that’s covered in blemishes and warts. And fresh figs—they’re hardly worth eating if they’re not cracked and oozing.

You won’t find produce in stores looking like this, because consumers have grown detached from what food looks like when it’s ripe, and won’t buy it. Seek it out at farms, farmers’ markets, and orchards if you can’t score some off your neighbors who have a fig tree.

There’s an art to waiting for edibles and for non-edibles, for the things we can control (a little or a lot) and the things we can’t. And while I have been credited with having great patience…full disclosure, it ain’t always easy. Sometimes the art fails me. Sometimes it’s bloody hard.

This helps: I think back to a couple of weeks ago when I took a walk along the lake and found two or three patches of wild mint. It’s growing in profusion, because mint can hardly grow any other way. No one planted it. The universe deemed the time and place right, so up it came, and healthy as the day is long, too. If I tasted it in March, it wouldn’t have the bite and sweetness it grew into under the sun and rain all of these months. Mint, like all growing things, is ready when it’s ready. It’s a reminder that I can work for the things I can control, but everything else will come in time, the way it’s supposed to. That’s a comfort. And I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

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Overblown saplings–a miniature Terabithia.

When I was a kid, people took care of their yards, made them look nice, but not to obsession. No one was shooting for the front lawn of Versailles. What was the point? People had better things to do, and besides, they had four kids and eleven nieces and nephews and consequently were going to host barbecues and egg hunts. You mowed your lawn, maybe you planted a few flowers or a vegetable garden, but that was it.

In our yards we’d tear around under the sprinkler a lot. We played Hide and Seek behind the azalea and rhododendron hedges and climbed the Japanese maples*. We played Red Light Green Light, Midnight, and Mother May I. In the fall we once mapped out leaves in a grid on the grass to make pretend rooms, and played house. At my aunt and uncle’s place we’d amble out to the ground cover at the southern end of the yard where our cousins said little men lived, and they told us stories about them. It’s one of my earliest memories.

Ubi sunt, a motif in medieval literature, comes to mind.** The Latin translates to ‘where are?’ As in, ‘Where are the people we used to hang with, where are the places we used to love to visit, where did the old times go? Why does everything have to change? What gives?’ This brand of nostalgia is just as applicable in the poems of our daily lives as it was in Beowulf. Some days I feel the old chain mail rattling on me a lot.

It’s true that much is different today; and back to yards, when it comes to them, I can’t imagine that those differences are good for anybody. I mentioned in a recent post that the current owners of my cousins’ house ripped out almost everything—the sour cherry tree, the loosely growing hedges, the tree house, even pulled the patio right off the back of the house—and covered the holes with Astro-Turf green sod. It’s as soulless as the eyes of a Rodeo Drive mannequin.

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Woodland strawberry leaves, early winter.

I know a couple whose yard is a self-imposed leaf-free zone. I mean all year. I mean in a town with enormous, century-old trees. The kind with leaves on them. To put it plainly, keeping the yard free of leaves is a combo platter of futility and insanity. One time the wife spotted six insurgent leaves in the front flower bed and asked her husband to get rid of them before company came that day ‘because they didn’t look good.’ I swear to you I’m not making this up.

Forsythia hedges, meant to grow with extravagant wide shaggy yellow arms every spring, are now often shaved into somewhat unnerving spheres. At the school bus stop across the street from the house where I grew up, another massive hedge, covered in spring with sweetly perfumed white blossoms, has been chopped down to a waist-high nub.

Why does it seem everything these days has to be senselessly tidied? Prettified? I’ve talked about this a lot—with food and otherwise. It seems to be pervasive everywhere, this notion of showboat over substance. Creeps me out, quite frankly.

Well, I’m not poopy by nature. Bash on, regardless! as the English say. So. Below, my personal recommendations.

Mind you, now, I am not suggesting you stifle your creativity. If your yard is your proverbial canvas, have at it. But…I am gently but firmly asking that you don’t create yourself into a box—a predictable, restrictive, limiting box. Creativity is supposed to make the world bigger, not smaller. Hint: If you routinely call out things to the kids like, ‘Don’t touch the hydrangeas,’ ‘Stay away from the garden arches,’ ‘No Aquasocks near the day lilies–you’ll elevate the pH in the soil,’ you’re in a box. Take a note from my boy Jim Morrison and break on through.

How To Keep A Yard

1. Let it be a little rough here and there. Let the hedges get a little overgrown. They’re hiding places. They’re necessary.

2. Let the paint on your deck steps be imperfect. Rough spots are the scrapbook pages of stories told there, after-school cuddles, lunchbox parking spaces, jumping games.

3. Teach the kids how to apply bug spray, show them what poison oak and ivy and sumac looks like, and then leave them alone.

4. Value the romance in the edges of a yard, where the cultivated meets the wild. They are the places where the wondrous and the scary and the huge and the tiny and the improbable can dance. I don’t believe there is anything in the universe—even the universe—bigger than a kid’s imagination. Spending time in the shadowy crevices, in those places where human order bumps up against natural disorder—that’s where imagination can spin, that’s food for the soul. The best kind.

5. Let kids have a little patch of earth that’s all theirs. They get to choose what’s on it. A pizza garden with basil, oregano and any vegetable they deign worthy of eating, or just a dusty tableau to imagine onto, with or without props. And when it rains it’s mud. Tell me what’s better than that. Want to create? Want them to create? Start with mud.

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Happily, ubi sunt holds off from time to time. It’s a relief. I visited the nubbed-down hedge at the bus stop today. There are flower buds on it. Only about 16, but I’ll take it.

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And the ground cover at my cousins’ house remains. When I walk past I think about what my cousins said, about the little men who lived in it. Who knows? Maybe they did. Or still do.

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*Oops. Just outed us after 35 years 🙂 Sorry, Mom.

**I love how a literary motif I learned in 1989 will never be lost to me, but I couldn’t tell you the license plate number of the car I’ve driven for 11 years.

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Those who know me well know I’m a bit of an Anglophile, as evidenced right there in the preceding Englishism. I don’t know why. English literature, English movies, the BBC—I love it all. Yes, the food, too. What exactly do people have against shepherd’s pie, clotted cream so thick you can stand a spoon in it, and fish and chips with malt vinegar? Do these people have no taste? This I consider their problem. Moreover, across the pond a renaissance has been going on for a few years now, one characterized by embracing the local and homegrown, and doing several yummy things with both. So there to the unwashed masses who do the pooh-pooh.*

I’ve never been to England**, which I hope to remedy sooner rather than later, but in the meantime I was excited to try Jenny Davies’s (of Jenny Eatwell’s Rhubarb & Ginger blog; URL below) recipe for a curry as part of my cooking project. Curries are a favorite English takeaway meal. Here in the States—in central New Jersey, anyway—curry isn’t a common thing for takeout (our own expression). I can count my experiences with curry on one hand, delicious though they were, even the one at Whole Foods’s food court. The nearest Indian restaurant is about a half hour away. This is a great sadness in my heart. The below helps to remedy that.

A few notes about the below to accompany Jenny’s always-charming language:

I edited lightly, and parenthetical additions following dashes are mine. It looks like a lot, but Jenny simply broke down each step for us. I listened like a good girl and spread out the process as she suggested, though—a wise idea. Loved seeing the basmati rice get longer instead of fatter like ordinary rice! Should have used a red chile, but Trader Joe’s didn’t have one, so I used a nebbishy jalapeno. Had to add red pepper flakes to the final product to make it spicy enough for me. I didn’t know what a donkey carrot was; Googled it, even asked a friend who works with Brits to make inquiries, both to no avail. And not having a donkey lying around, I couldn’t ask one to clarify. So I just used two big carrots. Didn’t use a tomato because this time of year in the northern hemisphere, they taste like a squishy wet nothing.

The result was a warm, flavorful, comforting dish that makes you feel as though you are taking very, very good care of yourself for once…and you are.

CURRY BAKED CHICKEN, VEGETABLE CURRY WITH RICE AND PEAS   (Serves 3 with leftover vegetable curry)

Ingredients:

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts

3 tbsp plain (Greek) yoghurt

1 tbsp mango chutney

1.5 tbsp curry paste.

3 tbsp sunflower oil—(I used olive)

2 onions, sliced finely

2 fat garlic cloves, chopped finely

1 hot red chilli (seeds are optional)

1 donkey carrot, peeled and diced

3 tbsp curry paste

2 tbsp tomato puree

2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced

6-10 mushrooms, washed and quartered

6 baby red peppers (or one red pepper, cut into pieces), top & tailed

250ml coconut cream—(about 1 c)

1 tsp chicken stock powder or a low salt chicken stock cube

Enough water to just cover the contents—(I used chicken stock instead of the powder/cube and water)

3 heaped tbsp red lentils

3-4 cauliflower florets, broken into small pieces

3-4 broccoli florets, broken into small pieces

1 large ripe tomato, quartered (or smaller) into wedges

A large handful of fresh coriander, chopped.—(In the U.S, we call this cilantro)

1 cup of uncooked basmati rice

Sea salt

Half a cup of peas—(defrosted, or freshly shelled).

Method:

1.  In the morning, mix together the yoghurt, chutney and curry paste in a large bowl.

2.  Trim the chicken breasts of fat and gristle, then score lightly across the top to allow the above marinade to more easily penetrate the meat.

3.  Add the chicken to the marinade and mix gently to ensure every little bit of chicken is covered in marinade. Cover with cling film and refrigerate until 30 minutes prior to cooking.—(I placed this in a Pyrex dish and covered with foil instead, then later put it in the oven as is.)

4.  To make the vegetable curry (which I recommend should also be done in the morning), heat the oil in a large, deep saucepan. Add the oil.—(Medium-low heat works.)

5.  Add the onion – and a small pinch of salt – and cook for around 10-15 minutes until golden brown, but not burned. Add the garlic and stir quickly, then add the chilli and stir.

6.  Next, add the carrot pieces, which will help to cool the pan and so avoid burning the garlic.

7.  Next add the curry paste and tomato puree and stir well to combine with the rest of the ingredients.  Cooked until the oil is released – just a few minutes.

8.  Add the potato/mushroom/red peppers and stir well to ensure they are coated with the curry mixture.

9.  Add the coconut cream, stock powder and water and stir gently to combine. Do not add any salt at this stage, but if you’re yearning to – add a little black pepper instead!—(Jenny, I like you.)

10. Stir in the red lentils and let everything simmer gently together for around 20-30 minutes until almost cooked.

11.  Finally – for this stage – add the cauliflower, turn off the heat, cover and leave to cool.—(I put mine in the fridge.)

12.  Several hours later and when you’re ready to prepare the dinner proper, begin by turning on the heat under the vegetable curry and pre-heating the oven to 200degC/400degF/Gas 6. Line a shallow baking tray with silver foil (optional – but it helps with the washing up!) and place the chicken onto the foil. Spoon any additional marinade over the top of each chicken breast. Place into the oven for 25-35 minutes or until the juices run clear if pricked with a knife.

13.  Three-quarters fill a good-sized saucepan with water, add a pinch of sea salt and place it on a high heat, to boil.—(2 c water worked for me.)

14.  Put the dry rice into a sieve and run it under a hot tap until the water runs clear. Once the water in the pan boils, add the rice and cook – simmering – for 7-9 minutes. 2 minutes before the rice is due to be ready, add the defrosted peas.

15.  As the rice is cooking, the vegetable curry should have come up to temperature. Remove the lid and allow the sauce to reduce a little as you add the broccoli, tomato and three quarters of the fresh coriander. Stir from time to time, to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.

16.  Once the rice is ready, drain and return to the warm pan. You can add a little of the chopped coriander for some extra flavour, if you like.

17.  Once the chicken is done, serve with the vegetable curry and green pea rice – with an added flourish of a sprinkle of chopped coriander for garnish.

Cheers, Jenny!

jennyeatwellsrhubarbginger.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/curry-baked-chicken-with-vegetable.html

*I’ve argued this point before, the one about eating what the locals eat.* It fails not.

**I have been to Scotland, which soaked into me like butter on a hot scone; and flying home passed over Ireland which, even from the sky, is an ethereal green. Someday I will get there. Wales, too, and not just to see Cardiff, though that’s an obvious draw.

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I once read a succinct account of what jam-making comes down to: ‘Take a bunch of fruit and sugar and boil the hell of it.’  Which is about as accurate as it gets. Although I haven’t yet gotten up the stones to make jam and then to can it because I’m chicken of getting whatever it is you can get if you do it wrong, I have figured out a way around this.

1) Make the jam, put it in a big Tupperware container, and put it in the freezer with a piece of parchment right on top of the fruit so it doesn’t get freezer-burny.

2) Make the jam, put it in a big Tupperware container, put it in the fridge, and eat it unabashedly every day for a week until it’s gone.*

I’ve done jam both ways, but for the following recipe, I typically do the latter.

Rhubarb, once called pieplant, is actually a vegetable, but it pairs so well with fruit that we give it a pass and treat it as such. It’s usually baked with strawberries—an admirable combination, if somewhat trite. Making marmalade out of rhubarb and citrus is a fresh way to enjoy it. And yet…this is a recipe from the turn of the last century. Everything old is new again, the early bird gets the worm, haste makes waste, etc.

I think you’ll dig it.

2 lbs. roughly chopped rhubarb (without the green leafy tops, which would give you a stomachache)

Juice of 1 orange

Juice of 1 lemon

2 cups granulated sugar**

2 oranges peeled, seeded and sectioned

Zest of 1 orange

1 lemon peeled, seeded and sectioned

Zest of 1 lemon

Put your rhubarb and juices into a deep pot.*** Bring to a boil, cover, and go check your email for about 15 minutes or until the rhubarb softens. Stir in your sugar, bring the heat back up, and boil, stirring for 5 minutes. Take the pot off the heat, stir in your citrus, and give it an occasional stir until it cools. That’s it.

This marmalade would work well on toast, or stirred into steel-cut Irish oatmeal, or drizzled warm over vanilla ice cream, or layered with yogurt. It would be killer layered between lemon cake or pound cake. It would glimmer with the collective light of the Milky Way galaxy in a Pavlova, that Australian favorite made of meringue and whipped cream. Or you could be boring like me and eat it right out of the Tupperware with whatever spoon’s clean.

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*Oh, also? Stock up on Imodium first.

**For a marmalade that’s more like, well, marmalade—that is to say, stiffer—add more sugar. The sweetness you get from 2 cups of sugar works for me, so my goo ends up with more of an applesaucy consistency.

***My pot above is enamelware and was bought at a horse farm near me, out of a barn that smelled of wood stove smoke. The splatters are from a chicken I roasted once and which insisted on leaving a bit of a grim legacy.

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