A Year of Picnics


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Monthly Archives: July 2008

The Elusive Berry

Turns out we have wineberries. In abundance! I had never even heard of wineberries (turns out spellcheck hasn’t heard of wineberries either, as every time I type the word, I am offered “winterize” or “wineries” instead), let alone sampled one. Glenn didn’t know about the wineberry profusion either. Apparently, mistaking the bramble-y sprout for an invasive (turns out, it sort of is…more on that later), he had triumphantly cut it back each season, subsequently curtailing any berry profusion lying in wait.

This past Spring, though, we decided to have a Permaculture appraisal done of our property. We did this with the hope of assessing ways in which we might optimize our land (which includes 12 rural acres outside of Asheville, N.C.), while treading lightly on it. Our Permaculture specialist, Chuck, pointed out the fledging wineberries on the property tour, immediately identifying them. Since we’d not yet encountered said berries, we were somewhat suspect, but held out hope considering that Chuck is the expert and we’ve been trigger happy with the pruning shears.

Remember the “patience” phrase from last entry? The
ever-so-slightly-creepy-yet-totally-beneficial-as-an-adult (sorry mom, but it’s true) saying my mom had my brother and I recite often? The wineberries are a perfect example of that. Taking Chuck at his word, we curbed the urge to prune, and sure enough, last month, we got wineberries.

Rubus Phoenicolasius is a species of the genus Rubus, which also includes blackberries and raspberries. Native to Japan, China and Korea, wineberries are a classic example of one man’s flower being another man’s weed. Considered an invasive on account of its nature to form dense thickets over large areas, choking out and displacing native plants in the process, horticultural types find wineberries to be a pest. I personally find them to be delicious. Often mistaken for raspberries, wineberries are darker in color when fully ripe and pack a wallop of sour barely hinted at in raspberries.

Fortunately, on my property, the wineberries have concentrated themselves in a contained area, rubbing elbows comfortably with a patch of assorted ferns. Fortunately for my chickens, the thicket lies en route to the chicken coop and the past few weeks have found a handful of just-picked wineberries in their morning meal. This is cause for much squawking and rushing to be first at the berries. Uno, thusly named owing to her insistence at having first dibs at mealtime, raises her squawk pitch several decibel levels when the berries are presented. I’m pretty certain I received a “beak lashing” (I
cannot get enough lame chicken humor!) one morning last week when I showed up with only the feed, no berries to offer. Uno would have none of that, and, whipped owner that I am, I managed to scrounge around in another thicket, risking close encounters of the reptilian kind (snakes-totally deserving of boldface and italics-love berries and wait beneath the canes waiting for over-ripe berries to drop) to procure the coveted berries.

Wineberries are also apparently a hit at dinner parties. We brought a pint of them, along with a bottle of wine, to dinner at a friend’s house recently. The berries were placed on the cheese board and devoured in under 8 minutes, while the wine took up to a half hour to be opened. When people choose berry juice over hooch, you know you have a winner.

I’ll end this like an Aesop fable: The moral of the story is, be careful not to cut back what might grow into a nourishing and vibrant gift. Just remember to watch out for snakes at your feet.

It’s the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

I have a sweet tooth. I have never tried to hide this, nor have I ever felt any guilt or shame surrounding it, although I do recall sympathizing with Miranda on Sex and the City when she squirted Windex at a cake she had thrown in the trash, after creeping back to the bin for one more bite. I manage my tooth well. I succumb to it, but only with the best sweets available. If I am going to heed the siren call, I had better make it count. Quality is paramount, friends. That is how I am able to fend off advances from less desirable suitors, like candy bars or bagged candies in Willy Wonka shades, or things like “Peeps.” I’m willing to wait for the hand-made goodness, either coming from my kitchen or a trusted one with a proven track record.

After a recent stint baking for my mother’s short but sweet-lived bakery (R.I.P. Sweet Blessings!), I’ve been more consumed with baking fever than normal, which, honestly, makes next to no sense at this time of year. Cranking up the oven to 375 degrees in the middle of July is a form of self-inflicted torture only appreciated by the truly committed/dedicated. However, duty calls, as it did after coming across a recent New York Times article on the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Then, my favorite food blog, Orangette, covered the topic. Believing it important to pay attention to coincidences, I saw this as a sign. Who am I to get in the way of celestial forces? Not that I believe in celestial forces, but we’ll stay with that notion for point-proving’s sake. So, on came the “Bake” light, out came the cookie sheets, and soften the butter I did.

This recipe’s uniqueness owes to two distinguishing traits: 1) the dough must be allowed to rise for a minimum of 24 hours, 36 being preferable (which is what I did) and 2) it calls for adorning the tops of the cookies with Sea Salt sprinkles just prior to baking. In full disclosure, the recipe had me at “sea salt.” The marriage of salty and sweet renders me utterly defenseless, even more so when the players in question are of the chocolate and salty ilk.

When I was growing up, my mom had a riddle of sorts she would have my brother or I say if we were getting impatient. It went, in a call and response fashion:

“What is patience” (Mom)?
“Patience is a virtue” (Kids).
“What is a virtue” (Mom)?
“A virtue is good” (Kids)
“So what are you going to be” (Mom)?
“Good” (Kids)

Repeat this often enough, as I did, and you cement it to memory and take it permanently to heart. On account of this, I have the patience of Job. I can, most of the time, watch and wait patiently. Sometimes when Dexter is barking at one of the cats and Kali the cat is meowing because its 5:35 and she ALWAYS gets her dinner at 5:30 (!!!!-cat emphasis punctuation) and another cat suddenly barfs, I get a wee bit impatient and often resort to uncorking the rose.

This patience comes in handy when waiting for things like 36 hour chocolate chip cookies with SEA SALT!!! But boy, is the virtue profound! These are, without exception, the best chocolate cookies I have ever baked. The extra rising time allows the dough to hold its shape gloriously when baking, not squat and spread out all over the cookie sheet, as has many a time been my misfortune. The texture is perfect, crunchy upon first bite, then meltingly perfect as the little oven in your mouth liquifies the chocolate chips.

The crowing glory, though, has got to be the sea salt. Glenn suggests eating the cookie upside down so as to maximize the tongue-to-salt ratio, seamlessly fusing the salty and the sweet in one unctuous bite. A perk of the recipe is that it makes a good bit, about 4 dozen. You can either bake off half and freeze the remainder of the dough or engender good will from your family, friends, neighbors, grocery store clerk, waiter, etc. by baking the whole lot and giving them away liberally.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from Jacques Torres

Time: 45 minutes (for 1 6-cookie batch), plus at least 24 hours’ chilling

-2 cups minus 2 tablespoons
(8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
-1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour

***I actually just used organic all-purpose flour for both the cake and bread flours with great results; this would combine to a total of 3 2/3 cups minus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour***

-1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
-1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
-1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
-2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
-1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
-1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
-2 large eggs
-2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
-1 1/4 pounds bittersweet
chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (see note)

***In lieu of the chocolate disks, I used Ghiradelli 60% bittersweet chocolate chips, easily found at most grocery stores.***

-Sea salt

1. Sift flours (or just AP flour, if substituting), baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside. (The recipe neglected to mention it here, but I found removing the dough from the fridge at this point helped it to be more scoop-able in the next step)

4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie.

***I used a regular ice cream scoop here, forming the dough just to fit the inside of the scoop. Doing so might explain why the recipe produced almost 4 dozen cookies for me while the recipe indicates a yield of 1 1/2 dozen.***

Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

Yield: 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.

Note: Disks are sold at Jacques Torres Chocolate; Valrhona fèves, oval-shaped chocolate pieces, are at Whole Foods.

Dexter In His Two Modes

Dexter exists in either one of two states, at all times.
Wild and frenzied, such as when he conquers Mt. Dishwasherus, (obviously pre-wash here, folks)

or at a complete standstill, like when he found his patch of orange.

Now There’s a Bright Idea!

A few weeks ago, I was turning on a bedside lamp when the bulb blew. This sort of thing truly freaks me out. I have a bit of an electricity phobia. I think it was born in my adolescence, when, during a particularly nasty thunderstorm in Richlands, N.C., the lightbulb in the lamp I was reading Ramona Quimby next to suddenly exploded. Then, a middle school boyfriend’s father was struck by lightening. Twice. He was on his tractor. Farmer’s gotta do what a farmer’s gotta do, you know?
More recently, last summer, as a thunderstorm raged outside, I kept hearing a popping sound, only to discover blue sparks coming out of the outlet where our answering machine is plugged in. We set about the business of getting the house grounded immediately. I like my house, and my husband, and my animals, and having us all meet a crispy demise just isn’t what I have in mind for my future.
All that said, the bulb that blew was a
CFL, which I’d yet to deal with the disposal of. As they are a type of florescent bulb, CFL’s contain trace amounts of mercury and cannot therefore be disposed of with regular household garbage as mercury is considered a hazardous waste. A quick search on the internet turned up a number of online means of CFL disposal, all incurring some cost. Today, however, I came upon the best disposal means yet, and it is one which most Americans can easily participate in. Home Depot, as part of its Eco Options program, in addition to selling CFL’s, will now offer recycling of the bulbs in all 1,973 of its locations. The free service involves bringing in any expired, unbroken bulbs to the returns counter of any Home Depot store, which will then work with an environmental management company to safely package, ship and recycle the spent bulbs. As increasing numbers of retailers offer such purchase- to-disposal services, consumers can make more informed shopping choices when seeking out energy solutions for themselves and their families. While one light bulb purchase won’t save the world, more Making The Circle Round thinking just might.

Sisters are Doing It For Themselves

My younger sisters, Devan and Theo, are up visiting from Florida. I’ve been busy hosting, but thought I’d give a sample of what we’ve been up to. Having them around has made it officially feel like summer for me.
Eating outdoors, swimming in mountain creeks, having dinner at 10, enjoying fireflies at dusk, stopping at roadside farm stands and picking blueberries have allowed me to feel fully present in my body and in my environment.
Were there a fire hydrant out here, I’d be tempted to open it and revel in the torrent (although, what with the drought and all, the guilt would be crippling). You know “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” by Cat Stevens? That’s the anthem for this week.