Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

From the Archives: Strawberries

May 20, 2009 @ 6:50 pm | Filed under: ,

The giant strawberry display in Henry’s this morning reminded me of this post I wrote in February, 2006, back when we lived in Virginia instead of strawberry country. Strawberries here in San Diego are plentiful and cheap months before they hit the Virginia farmers’ markets, but I still get excited when I see them piled in the produce section under a big sale sign.

I wonder if the people who bought our house when we moved left the backyard berries in place?

Strawberries_1I have berries on the brain.

Have you seen them? They’re back in the supermarkets—even our little small-town grocery store—big, shiny, alluring strawberries pretending to be on sale at $5 for a two-pint container. Do you know how fast a family of six-going-on-seven can inhale two pints of strawberries? What family can afford to wolf down five dollars in one juicy, delirious, ten-minute frenzy?

And yet…yesterday I succumbed. When I placed the bowl of berries on the table after the broccoli had been dutifully dispensed with, oh how the children celebrated! What jubilant praises rang out, what an outpouring of gratitude for the beneficence of their marvelous mother! I’m telling you, the show of appreciation topped the songs sung by Bill Cosby’s children when he fed them chocolate cake for breakfast.

(Their praise might have been tempered somewhat had they known what I was planning for my own dessert, after they were all in bed. While they snoozed in ignorance above stairs, I claimed the privilege of the eight-months-pregnant woman and treated myself to a giant helping of strawberry shortcake. Veteran readers of this blog may recall my fondness for confections consisting of berries, cake, and whipped cream.)

All right, indulging in those berries was a temporary lapse of prudence, and I stubbornly do not regret it. But it mustn’t happen again. Not too often. Um, maybe once a week. No! No, I must be strong…I need only wait a couple of months and then we’ll have berries raining down upon us like a scene from Jamberry. Hundreds of berries, free for the picking. Tiny alpines, delectably tangy. Giant, garishly red Sweet Charlies. Two or three other varieties whose names I’ve forgotten but whose merits haunt me all winter. Soon now, very soon….

I have never understood why more people don’t plant strawberries as groundcover. Perhaps my neighbors, who have been staring at dead berry leaves on my side-yard slope for four months, have a counteropinion. Sure, strawberries aren’t evergreen and by late February they look as pitiful and straggly as everything else in my yard. But wait until June. First the thick, attractive mat of leaves, then the dainty white blossoms, then the fat berries in that irresistible shade of red: a dangerous, tempting, sexy hue that suggests perhaps strawberries were the first new plant to come along after Adam and Eve got booted out of the Garden. There is nothing demure about a strawberry.

Four years ago, inspired by Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots, I spent about eighteen dollars on ten small strawberry plants. I planted some of them in the strip of landscaping border by my backyard deck stairs, where you’re supposed to have nice neat bunches of liriope. The other berry plants got plunked in the middle of a large, weed-plagued mulch bed that slopes steeply down to the ditch by the streetcorner.

Eighteen dollars: less than four times the amount we paid for last night’s gone-in-a-flash berry feast. And now I get a steady stream of berries from June to September. Like the wantons they are, the plants have multiplied with abandon: we must have hundreds of individual strawberry plants now, each fertile and heavy with fruit in its season. I am a neglectful gardener (just ask my neighbors) and I do nothing to baby these plants. I ignore them. I don’t do chemicals and I can’t be bothered with fertilizer or compost. We have terrible soil: thick red Virginia clay that is not at all disposed to encourage root growth. The kids’ caterpillar farm (fennel and rue) springs up right from the middle of the strawberry bed. The strawberries don’t care. They thrive on adversity. They scoff at the miserable growing conditions; they sneer at the crabgrass; they launch themselves over the retaining wall and bloom in mid-air. They send exploratory runners into the lawn, and Scott mows right over them. For this callous treatment, they reward us with a riotous, bountiful harvest. You can’t beat us down, they proclaim. You only encourage us to flaunt our fertility. We will, we must, reproduce! We will fill the world! Let those fat, bland, expensive greenhouse-grown excuses for berries beware! We are sun-warmed and sweet. We will make you weep for joy.

There is no modesty in strawberries.

Legend has it that if you share a double strawberry with someone, the two of you will fall in love. I doubt this has ever been proven: who shares a strawberry? Go pick your own!

Strawberries were long believed to be the symbol of Venus, Goddess of Love. This does not surprise me. Later, during medieval times, strawberries came to be associated with righteousness and perfection. Perfection, I can see. But righteousness? I think not. They are too decadent, almost indecent: so beautiful, so delicious. And yet you’ll sometimes see them carved on very old church altars and pillars, the signature of the stonemason. He was probably looking forward to a bowlful of berries and cream after work.

Jacques Cartier, traveling along the St. Lawrence to Quebec in 1534, wrote in his diary about “vast patches of strawberries along the great river and in the woods.” One wonders that his journey did not end right there!

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry,” wrote William Butler in the year 1600, “but doubtless God never did.”

Amen to that.


Children’s books to feed your strawberry appetite (as if such a thing needed help):

The First Strawberries by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Anna Vojtech. Engaging retelling of a Cherokee tale about the origin of strawberries, which were the sun’s way of patching up a quarrel between the first man and the first woman. Oh, canny sun: he causes the berries to spring up at the woman’s feet as she runs away from her husband; naturally, they distract her long enough for him to catch up, by which time her mood has greatly improved.

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood. Oh, how I sympathize with the little mouse’s attempts to protect his one perfect berry from the ravenous bear!

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski. 1946 Newbery Medalist about the struggle of a poor Florida family’s struggle to protect their berry crop from crows, the neighbors’ pigs, and weather. Gritty and honest, this middle-grade novel has been a frequent re-read for my two oldest daughters.

(More to come, but Wonderboy just woke up from his nap.)

UPDATE:

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang. Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. A wordless picture book about the efforts of a comfortably frowsy-haired old woman to escape the thieving grasp of a mysterious creature who has his eye on her basket of berries. (Who can blame him?) I’m linking to Chinaberry for this one because that’s where I discovered this gem of a book years ago. And a hat tip to Sherry of Semicolon for reminding me of it. (And don’t miss the poem she posted in the comments.) I think I’ll send Jane upstairs to hunt for this book right now…I’m not sure Beanie remembers it, it’s been so long since we pulled it off the shelf.

Craving

October 17, 2008 @ 6:11 am | Filed under:

Apple cider donuts, gritty with granulated sugar, crisp outside, soft and warm on the inside.

It’s Uncommon Grace’s fault.

From here would be best (sniffle: October = Blue Ridge Mountains homesickness), but I bet we could find some in Julian.

Aha. I knew it.

Can you believe we’ve been in California for two years now?

(Almost. This date two years ago was the day the kids and I reached Phoenix, thirteen days after we left Virginia in a minivan stuffed to the gills—mostly with children—and picked up Scott at the Phoenix airport for the last short leg of the trip to our new home. The next day, October 18th, was the day we rolled into San Diego to begin our new life.)

Phoenix ahead. Carter Mountain apple cider donuts behind us.

Day in the Life

August 6, 2008 @ 7:21 pm | Filed under: , ,

I wrote this for my daily notes blog but halfway through decided I wanted to ask the Costco question here so am sticking it here instead. Forgive the chatty blah blah and lazy writing.

Really nice day, though at the outset I thought it was going to be too busy. Turned out to be productive (in the a.m.) and mellow (in the p.m.).

Piano classes first thing. Rose was deeply troubled by a back tooth about to come out, afraid it would fall out during class and there’s no bathroom right there and what would she do?? I told her she could skip class, stick with me.

We dropped the other two off and went to the gas station to vacuum out the car. Machine took coins only. Turned out Rose had a whole purse full of quarters—saved up for buying bouncy balls at the taco shop on piano days. Hee. She helped me clean out the trash and vacuum two thirds of the car. We didn’t do the last row b/c I didn’t feel like taking out the carseats (and Rilla), and without doing that, not much point in vac’ing.

The panic alarm went off when I started the car back up. COULD NOT get it to stop. Had to call Scott at work. Wonderboy was shrieking: awful sound in his hearing aids, I imagine. Poor guy. I was too flustered to get out of the car and turn off his aids. Scott knew the trick, so whew.

Back to piano to pick up Beanie. Told Jane she could hang out & talk to her friend whose sister is in Rose’s class. That gave us an hour and a half to kill. Needed to pick up something for dinner. On impulse, I went to Costco—finally—and got a membership. Which took a while, so we didn’t have much actual shopping time. I love how the big bulk packages of chicken are sectioned into six meal-sized portions. NOW I get why all my friends buy all their meat there. Cheaper, I knew, but I thought I’d have to divide up the big packages of meat for freezing and I loathe doing that. This perforated portions thing ROCKS.

Made children happy by buying case of fruit leather, which Katie Z had served with lunch yesterday & mentioned getting at Costco. Yum.

Loved the double-seater shopping cart, too, but Rilla begged to ride in the sling anyway. Ah well.

Mean to ask local friends this, but I’ll ask it here too: what do you buy at Costco? What are the best deals? I put off joining for ages because those big warehouse stores overwhelm the bejeebers out of me.

Back to piano to pick up Jane. Home, unpacked groceries, everyone snacked for lunch. All were ready for some veg time. Uncle Jay had sent a copy of Gail Carson Levine’s Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg in the mail: a library favorite, producing much shrill excitement from the girls. Rose called dibs on first read, so that’s how she spent the next couple of hours. Jane is re-reading Oz books (because Beanie has just discovered them) and I forgot to ask what else.

Later: computer games for the girls, Blues Clues for the littles, puttering around for me.

Afternoon tidy up, nice phone call with a Virginia friend, folded laundry, read a stack of Boynton books to the boy.

Around 4:30, hit a wall of exhaustion. Asked Jane to watch the little ones for 20 minutes so I could nap. Took the nap, woke so groggy, wondered if it had been a bad idea.

Started dinner. Slam dunk tonight. Sauteed two onions, boneless chicken thighs (yay Costco), took out a couple for the kids and added some Trader Joe Cuban Mojito sauce to the rest. Found the jar in the pantry when looking for something else. Oh. My. Goodness. So incredibly tasty. Had a big loaf of rosemary bread from Costco, also smashingly good, for sopping up the pan drippings. Kids ate their chicken plain, with sliced peaches, carrots, bread. Rose set the table, made it so lovely. When I finished eating (actually got to sit through the meal, mostly—Rilla had crashed on the sofa, which is a bad thing in terms of her bedtime but made dinner easier), Rose plopped Favorite Poems Old and New in front of me and insisted I read a few. Read some new ones and then was implored by all three girls to read “the funny poem”—their old favorite, “To My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months.” They shrieked at the lines that especially fit their brother: “Where did he learn that squint?” and “Thou imp of mirth and joy” most of all.

Started the dishes, enjoying the sound of Jane practicing “The Entertainer” on piano. How I love that piano: Jane’s Steinway, her wish from the Make-a-Wish Foundation when she was three years old. Very good choice, my dear. And hurrah to Mr. Rogers for inspiring a tiny little girl with awe at the sight of a “big mommy pah-no” those many years ago, when the only keyboard she knew was the little tabletop one in our apartment. No one could believe such a bitty girl really wanted a piano, but she clung to that wish for six months until everyone was convinced she meant it. What a gift she gave the whole family, choosing a piano over the VIP trip to Disney everyone expected a three-year-old to ask for. She wouldn’t even have remembered the Disney trip, but that piano blesses our family every single day, ten years later. Standing there at the sink, watching the little ones play outside the kitchen window, smiling to see how my neglected petunias have revived in the hanging basket now that we’re actually watering them, listening to Jane’s music ripple off the keys, I felt suffused with contentment.

And then finally Scott was home, and he ate standing at the stove as I knew he would, scraping the juices out of the pan with the good bread. And now he’s on kid (and dish) duty, and I’m here in the bedroom gearing up to write. And answer mail, oh my goodness. I made the stupidest flub: accidentally archived a hundred messages waiting to be answered—some from weeks ago. Have so far pored through 1600 archived emails looking for the ones I need to answer. Needles in haystacks. If I owe you a reply, please be patient. Or write me again, in case I didn’t find your needle in all that hay.

Bread and Butter

May 21, 2008 @ 6:54 pm | Filed under: , , , ,

We haven’t baked bread for a really long time (witness my neglected bread blog). Lately the reason is because it’s been too hot. Yesterday our heat wave broke and I had a breadish impulse, and I thought I’d better act on it because it’s bound to get hot again soon and who knows when I’ll feel like baking again. The girls mixed up a batch of dough (Wisteria’s recipe) and I read to them while they kneaded.

Later, after the rising and shaping and second rising, we put the bread in the oven and I had another impulse. Someone blogged recently about making butter—I can’t for the life of me remember who it was. Years ago, summers during college, I had a job as a tour guide at a prairie wildlife refuge where, in addition to 2,000 acres of open prairie full of pronghorn and owls and snakes and prairie dogs, there was a small sod village. Sometimes my job was to give tours to school groups, and in the sod house we always baked johnny cake on the iron stove and churned butter to go with it. We had a jar with a special hand-crank churn blade attached to the lid, and the kids would take turns cranking while I gave my talk and mixed up the johnny cake. When the butter was ready I’d turn it out into a wooden bowl and mash it with a wooden paddle, squeezing out the buttermilk. Even in hot Colorado July weather, the warm johnny cake and sweet, creamy butter was heart-stirringly delicious.

So you’d think with all that buttermaking experience under my belt, not to mention the whole Little House motif threaded through our lives, I’d have made butter with my kids a zillion times. Not so. I think I was spoiled by the fancy churning gadget; I always figured doing it the shake-it-in-a-jar way would take a really really long time and be one of those experiments with a spotty success rate.

But this blog entry I read (my apologies for forgetting where) described it as a simple and sure-fire process that took about 20 minutes. So when I put our bread in the oven to bake, I grabbed a clean spaghetti jar I’d save for rinsing paintbrushes and poured in some heavy cream. Filled it about half full. Called the girls. Commenced a-shaking.

We took turns and everyone was very giggly and excited. Of course we had to pull Little House in the Big Woods off the shelf and read the churning passage there:

At first the splashes of cream showed thick and smooth around the little hole. After a long time, they began to look grainy. Then Ma churned more slowly, and on the dash there began to appear tiny grains of yellow butter. When Ma took off the churn-cover, there was the butter in a golden lump, drowning in the buttermilk.

We couldn’t resist unscrewing the lid every little while to check our progress. At first the cream got very thick, just as Laura described. Our shaking had whipped it, and when we shook the jar we couldn’t hear or feel it sloshing around anymore. Then, about ten minutes later, it began to thin out again, and we felt the sloshing. We peeked inside and it really did look grainy. Another five or six minutes, and it looked lumpy. Right after that it happened to be my turn to shake the jar, and all of a sudden I felt a thunk inside from something solid smacking the lid. We had our butter.

The girls erupted in squeals. We opened the lid and there it was, not golden like Laura had described, but the faintest of pale yellows. I scooped it into a bowl, and Rose and Beanie took tastes of the buttermilk. They liked it. I mashed the soft butter to get out the rest of the liquid. Ma washed hers in cold water, but I didn’t bother doing that. I mixed in a little salt, and the timer beeped on our bread, and we couldn’t bear to wait for the bread to cool. Thick slices, slathered in butter; a blissful hush in the kitchen. Mmmm.

You are not to be impressed with my industrious domesticity on this day because 1) if such a state occurs in this house, it is a passing fluke; and 2) it turns out making butter is incredibly easy. Come to think of it, it was easier than, say, loading all the kids into the minivan and running to the grocery store to buy butter would have been. You know how those grocery-store runs can reduce me to a frazzled wreck.

I have since poked around a little online and it seems baby-food jars make excellent mini-churns. Just remember to only fill the jar half full, leaving plenty of sloshing room. And I wouldn’t give each kid his own jar because your arms do get really tired and it’s good to be able to pass off to the next shaker down the line. It sounds like it only takes ten or eleven minutes to go from cream to butter in a small jar like that. Ours took about 24 minutes, which I only know because the bread timer was set for 25. From (I’m guessing) 6 ounces of cream, we got about half a cup of butter, maybe 2/3 cup.

Oh, a last note about the bread—we did NOT use my fancy mixer with the dough hook because the children object to the way it usurps their favorite thing about breadmaking: kneading. In retrospect I realize that’s one reason we cooled off on breadmaking after our wildly enthusiastic beginning. My co-bakers drifted away because the machine killed the fun. So yesterday, I just set a mixing bowl and the six simple ingredients on the table, and the kids went to town. Yeast, water, flour, honey, salt, melted butter. They can mix this dough all by themselves. I gave each of them her own cutting board (nothing fancy; two of them were plastic, and one of those was quite small, but Beanie asked for it because she wanted to make a small loaf for herself) and divided the dough into three lumps. It’s better if they don’t have to take turns for the fun part. We stuck it all back together for the first rising. The kitchen table works better for kneading than the counters, because they can get above the dough and push down. This is stuff I figured out as we went yesterday, but it’s the kind of fiddly logistical stuff that can make or break an experience for us, and I share it under the assumption I’m not the only mom for whom that’s true.

Our Traditional Birthday Breakfast

December 9, 2007 @ 8:42 am | Filed under: , ,

…my dad’s family recipe. Biscuits with chocolate gravy. Mmm. There is nothing finer, let me tell you. Hot biscuits dripping with butter and covered with a thick, warm, rich chocolate sauce. Just cocoa, flour, milk, and sugar* brought to a boil over low heat. So good.

The picture does not do it justice.

Biscuits

Now back to my birthday boys.

(*Thanks, Dad, for permission to share the recipe. 1/4 cup cocoa, 1/4 cup flour, 1 cup sugar (hush), 1 1/2 cups milk. Mix dry ingredients first, right in your saucepan, then stir in the milk. Heat slowly, stirring constantly. You want to bring it just to a bubble but you don’t want to let it scorch. Take it off the heat, keep stirring. It will thicken upon standing. Spoon over hot buttery biscuits. The butter is vital—the magic of this dish is in the delectable combination of warm chocolate and melted butter. Trust me.)

(As I understand it, this was an inexpensive way to fill little bellies in times when cash was tight.)

(And yes, we are starting the day with my dad’s chocolate gravy and finishing with my mom’s famous cake. Two birthdays = double pigging out.)

Works for Me Wednesday: My Personal Salad Bar

March 21, 2007 @ 9:59 am | Filed under: ,

Wfmwheader
It’s been almost two years since I had the brainstorm that dramatically improved my eating habits…for a while. A long while, a year at least. But somewhere along the line, I let the habit slip, and then I forgot all about it.

Time to start over. Here’s the idea: I keep a plastic bin full of yummy salad fixings in my refrigerator.

Boom, one-stop shopping. It’s right there at eye level on the
fridge shelf, where I can’t avoid seeing it. Big bag of prewashed
spinach sitting on top. In the bin are all the little baggies and
plastic containers that I was finding it such a burden to collect from
various points in the pantry and refrigerator. Pine nuts, sunflower
seeds, almonds, mandarin oranges, dried cranberries, real bleu
cheese…mmm, just cutting-and-pasting this list from above makes me
hungry. (They don’t all make it into every salad, of course, just a
random selection. Otherwise there’d be no room for the veggies, which
are, of course, the whole point.)

Also in the bin: sliced mushrooms, diced bell peppers, chopped
carrots. OK, so it’s not a perfect system: I still have to prep the
veggies. But (another duh moment) I’m doing it once or twice a week, at
night after the kids are in bed. Then in the middle of my busy day, I
can scoop a handful of diced peppers out of a baggie and throw it on my
beeyootiful salad. I know, lots of people have thought of this before
me. I don’t claim to be innovative. Except possibly in the matter of
sticking it all in a bin together so all I have to do is pull the bin
out of the fridge and mix-and-match until I’ve got a bowlful.

You can read more about the idea in my original post, but the gist is pretty simple. During the year I was sticking with it, I really did eat a nice big salad pretty much every day because that darn bin was staring me in the face every time I opened the fridge, with the blue cheese crumbles and toasted almonds right on top. Yum.

Rachael Ray makes a quick and easy vinaigrette out of orange marmalade, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil.  Delish, as she says. Or try raspberry preserves in place of the marmalade: oh my goodness is that tasty. I know what I’m having for lunch.

Visit Rocks in My Dryer for more WFWM posts.

Whoopie!

March 7, 2007 @ 3:38 pm | Filed under:

These aren’t exactly the thing for Lent, and I’m thinking a whipped-cream filling would be more to my taste than seven-minute frosting, but the overall concept sounds heavenly: Whoopie pies.

Finally!

March 1, 2007 @ 1:27 pm | Filed under:

I have been wishing this confection into existence for, oh, some twenty-five years. I think I hear my Easter basket snickering with glee already.

P.S. If I start blogging about candy, will I get put on the free sample lists? Because I really think I could wax poetic about all manner of sweets…