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Archive for the ‘Fruit’ Category

We’re roving through rural New York this long weekend.  After driving through the Green Mountains of Vermont, over countless hills and through countless valleys, we came into the Catskills with its countless rivers, having passed through the little towns where my mother’s mother and mother’s father were born and raised—Kingston, Callicoon Center—and where they married and started their own family—Liberty.

Our first stop was Kenoza Lake, where we visited our friends Deborah and Jed in their pewter-blue-painted farmhouse, fixed up with many windows, a writing room for him in the attic, a studio for her in the old barn or chicken house or mudroom adjacent the kitchen.  We arrived for a late lunch in the sun: plates of lox and ricotta, sourdough bread, babaganoush, hard-boiled eggs, farmhouse cheeses from around the corner, white wine for some, Coronas for others.  For dessert, we went into the hilly acres of bushes heavy with blueberries and huckleberries.  Because of all of the rain this summer, and the general cloud cover, we picked berry by berry, rather than cluster by cluster.  There were still plenty of berries for Jack.

blueberry picking
Deborah and I went into Jeffersonville to check out the small farmers’ market, where she bought striped Romanesco zucchini and a big head of romaine.

many currants, few zucchini

many currants, few zucchini

Deborah is a wonderful vegetarian cook.  For dinner, after their favorite aperitif—Campari with pulpy orange juice—she served Swiss chard pie (I’ll post a recipe soon…) in a buttery crust, quinoa with pinenuts and golden raisins, and roasted cauliflower with ginger and herbs—out of which she coaxed extraordinary carmelized flavors.

Our next stop will be Margaretville and Roxbury, for Aaron and Kelly’s wedding.  We hope these thunderheads roll on by.

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wagon

Strawberries were the totems of childhood today, at Cedar Circle Farm’s 7th annual strawberry festival.  Of the milling, stooping, picking, licking population, about two-thirds were fewer than four feet tall.  Many wore the totem on their shirts, hats, or cheeks. The folks at Cedar Circle make this day as much a celebration of childhood as of strawberries and local food in general.  There were three horse-drawn wagons, a mural-drawing section of the barn wall, a coloring station, face-painting teenage girls, a sandbox, strawberry smoothies and shortcake, coffee for the parents, puppetry, kite-making, tractors to sit on, and live music.  And, of course, picking.

tractors

wagon ride

We hit the face-painting table first; the boys both got trucks.

my son, the sceptic

my son, the sceptic

cheek truck

Then we walked around the food stations.  There were local sausages from Hogwash Farm on the grill, organic pizzas cooking in a wood-oven on wheels, and strawberry shortcake with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream from Strafford Organic Creamery.  In honor of this berry, which has been cultivated since medieval times, everything was very forward-looking.  The food was served on compostable dishes with compostable utensils; there was a complex trash station.  Near the coloring table there was a photo-and-text display (a low-tech, stop-time PowerPoint presentation hung with clothespins) about “The Real Costs of Cheap Food”, which included descriptions of chemicals that flow and leach from non-organic farms into ground water, lakes, and rivers, and a definition of food miles (how far a food travels from farm to table, with the fossil fuels required a big consideration), and some charming spelling errors.  There was also a photo-narrative of strawberry growing, from bed preparation during the winter to picking in June.  This display included lots of pictures with hay around the edges, in the middle, and present as a general tone (hay keeps down the weeds) as well as shots of very tan, lightly clad interns happily working the dirt.

real cost

Cedar Circle grows eight varieties of strawberries, and an array of vegetables—all certified organic.

and flowers

and flowers

My mom and I, with the occasional help of Jack and his cousin Jeremiah who preferred sitting on tractors, and my sister, Bridget, who helped them up and down the tractor steps, picked four pounds of berries.  We chose two varieties: Wendy, known by its petite size and light sweetness, and Mesabi, which is bigger, and almost raspberry-like in flavor. The plants were so high that lifting the leaves to look for spots of red was like opening the curtains—in a doll’s house.  The pleasure of discovery became addictive.  It’s hard to stop, even when the basket’s full!

Strawberries fresh off the stem, warmed by the sun, melted into juice in an instant in our mouths.  There were many worshippers.

worshippers

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Whew—I can finally relax.  I’m sitting on the deck in Vermont. The sun is shining, the Bloody Brook is rushing, Jack is loading a dump truck in the sand box, and a hummingbird is buzzing by.  This is nice.  Yesterday, Tuesday, was spent in buses, planes, cars, and waiting areas.  Monday, the moving van came, the house was emptied and then scrubbed from baseboards to ceiling vents.  I’ve never cleaned so hard!

But the real event I’ve been itching to address was Sunday night: the great picnic party at Matt and Christina’s which included a power outage, ice cream churned by hand, newborn rabbits, homebrew, a tree climb, and two antique MGs, to name just a few of the highlights.
tree

J & P

This was a real homegrown meal.   To begin with, there were simmered shell-on peanuts, along with a plateful of carrots and radishes from Red Root Farm for dipping in hummus.  We were standing around the table talking, eating these small bits, and sampling Matt’s dark, hoppy ale, when he brought in a bowl full of sliced, spice-rubbed local pork that he’d just grilled over a heap of smoking hickory coals.
Matt

And that wasn’t the only hunk of pork or the only grill.  There were two other steel buckets serving for grills, on which Matt was cooking long skewers of zucchini and summer squash slathered with olive oil and herbs, and rabbit—the most local of the items in this dinner, since it came from the back yard, where its kin still lolled in their cages, and where one of them had just given birth to her first litter.  He mentioned something about venison sausage too, but I don’t think I saw that….
Emma

rabbitThis was a great dinner not just for the company and its easy, rolling-along tempo, but also for the simplicity and bounty of the food that Matt and Christina spread on the table.  While he manned the grills, she was in the kitchen (where there was no electricity, Auburn having just been whipped up in an hysterical thunderstorm) stuffing poblano peppers with chipotle-spiced ground beef and its alternative for the poco picante palates, cheesy black beans.  She also mixed a quick peanut sauce so that one rabbit option was satay.  Others brought cornbread, salad, and the always idiosyncratic no-knead bread.  I brought wine from Spain.  It can’t all be local!
food

The kids started churning the lemon-almond ice cream as the sun went down.

round and round

round and round

getting sweaty

getting sweaty

Daddy's taking over

Daddy's taking over

Eventually, after some serious help from the grown-ups, we could spoon big, soft dollops on top of Emma’s blueberry tart.  It went too fast for me to take a representative picture…
i c

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I was in such a hurry to post those pictures earlier, that I forgot to mention the culmination of the evening in a stunning performance:  2 1/2-year-old Mimi’s recitation of this poem by William Carlos Williams.

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

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Last night we had a last, leisurely, late-afternoon-into-late-evening dinner with Jim, Sharyn, and the adorable Mimi.  Jack and Mimi played continuously and tirelessly for five solid hours, pausing only for dinner—spicy local pork sausages with spicy mustard, shalloty crispy green beans, and grilled eggplant dressed with saffron-yogurt sauce—and dessert: lemon custard tart topped bountifully with berries.
Sharyn's tart
Sharyn is the picture of effortless elegance.  The wine was served in little Moroccan tea glasses that complemented the votives arranged asymmetrically here and there.  The tapenade was lemony, the pita toasts just bite sized, the dishes bistro-white.  And then there was the tart: aristocratic and earthy at once on its crystal cake-stand.  The crust edges were perfectly tapered and golden, the vanilla-lemon custard softly peaked, the berries tart-sweet and juicy.  The farmers’ market blackberries were as big as small plums, and satisfyingly, sun-ripened sweet.  My adjectival powers are stretched to the limit!

Let’s end with some happy faces.
J & M

J & M 2

J & M 3

interpretive dance?

interpretive dance?

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My big old aluminum flea market colander is bursting with berries in the fridge, and I’ve already had strawberries with lunch yesterday, for dessert last night, breakfast this morning, and lunch today.  What will we do with all of these berries?

Any other time, it wouldn’t be a challenge, but our rental house is in a strange state. We’re leaving for New England in a week, and for Rome in about two months, so we’ve been packing.  Some of the boxes already in storage contain all of my baking dishes and appliances.  But I had to do something with these berries!  I hadn’t packed a few things, including a bit of flour and sugar, and an odd-sized round Pyrex, so the task became obvious: galette!
galette

Strawberry Galette

The sweet pastry recipe I like best is Nancy Silverton’s, from her wonderful Pastry from La Brea Bakery.  Since I’ve already packed the cookbooks, I dredged it out of my memory, and cut it in half.  Roughly, it goes like this:

Combine in a food processor or in a bowl with a pastry cutter:
1 ¼ cup flour
2 tbs. sugar
¼ tsp. salt
7 tbs. butter
Mix together in a small bowl:
1 large egg yolk
½ tsp. vanilla
2-3 tsp. milk
Then mix the wets into the dries until just combined, working the dough lightly with the pastry cutter.  Turn it out onto the counter and fold it and push it to flatten the butter bits, then shape it into a disc, roll it out to the right size, and chill it.

While it chills, let the berries steep in sugar for awhile.  Jack and I cut berries (he used a little cheese knife) and tossed them in a bowl with ¼ cup of sugar and ¼ cup of flour, a few gratings of nutmeg, and a splash of almond extract.

Normally, a galette would be made on a sheet, but we had only this casserole, and it worked out well since the berries were so juicy.  Now I have to go get some cream!

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ready to pick

ready to pick

A month or so ago, I made a big deal about buying only organic strawberries.  Today, though, my friend Sharyn and I took Mimi and Jack strawberry picking at a little farm in Lafayette (pronounced, defiantly, La-FIE-et), where the only sign is a big slab of particle board with “U-Pick” and a big strawberry painted on it.  In other words, there are no visible declarations of their farming practices, but you can tell right away that this is not a “Green Chem-Lawn” type of operation.  It smelled like grass and mud and strawberries. One of the owners told Sharyn, “we try not to put too much stuff on them”—meaning chemicals. Compared to the berry farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where we went last year because it was on the way home from Jack’s school, and which appeared to be a perfect paradise of spotless leaves and giant berries, but where you could smell the chemicals, this farm today was a paradise of “imperfection.”  They use black plastic to control weeds, and insects to control insects.  Bugs and slugs and buzzing things were busy throughout the rows.  When a tiny local farm produces sweet juicy berries with the help of ladybugs, I don’t quibble about minimal chemical counts.
berries
Jack would wander far down the rows, and then run back triumphantly when he found a ripe berry.  He also found some “ticklers”—tall grasses with tufts on top—and put them to use:
tickling
Then Jack and Mimi found a little Jeep and decided to drive “to California… or maybe just a short trip to Kroger’s.”

see ya!

see ya!

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grapes
No, they’re not local.  But I was recently seduced by the glistening display of fresh, perfectly ripe, organic, (and highly expensive) grapes in the Kroger near our neighborhood.  I got two heavy bunches—one in each color—because organic grapes are a rare find, and because children love popping the bouncy-ball-sized fruit in their mouths, and holding them, chipmunk like, for an anticipatory second before bursting the juicy bubbles.

And even though these grapes rode in from California on the wave of petroleum necessary for such a trip, I bought them because I think that tradeoffs between local and organic are sometimes called for.  For us eaters in human civilization, food will always be linked to an appetite which might best be described by Freud’s phrase for infantile sexuality: “polymorphously perverse.”  (Or you could describe our relation to food with Michael Pollan’s more down-to-earth phrase: “the omnivore’s dilemma.”)  Because of the contradictory character of this appetite, we buy foods with different objects in mind (nutrition, variety, flavor, politics, environmentalism, nostalgia, ideology, aroma, convenience, craving), and different reasons will have a different sway at different times.  We can be conscientious consumers and still look the other way on occasion.  (For example, when Jack’s class took a “field” trip across the street to Checkers for milkshakes, I just looked the other way and cringed.  Better that than single him out among his friends and deprive him of a special thrill.  Though I admit I felt a perverse thrill when he told me “we walked to Checkers and had milkshakes but then my tummy hurt.”) So, my reasoning about the grapes went like this: We don’t have much organic fruit around here right now.  It’s almost high peach season, but I have my reasons for not eating local peaches.  We do have a lot of other local food options, and have eaten some wonderful mainly local meals lately: grass fed beef with local organic green beans; local shrimp with local basil and summer squash; braised local lamb with carrots and brussels sprouts.

But what’s wrong with conventionally raised grapes from California?  Forty-nine pesticides, seventeen of which the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) describes as “Bad Actors,” and the residues of all of which settle in our bodies.  The bunches of grapes banked invitingly in the supermarket often are not even domestic, however.  Except during California’s grape season, they are probably from Chile, where it’s still legal to spray them with the ozone-depleting, farm-worker-poisoning, developmental and neurological toxin, methyl bromide.  Here’s what the PAN says about this stuff:

* Methyl bromide is a toxic pesticide that is injected into soil before planting strawberries, grapes, almonds and other crops. It is also used to kill pests in stored commodities, in agricultural shipments and in buildings.
* Because of its ability to cause poisonings, neurological damage and reproductive harm, EPA classifies methyl bromide as a Toxicity Category I compound, the most deadly category of substances.
* Methyl bromide is also a powerful ozone depleter and was banned in industrialized countries (including the U.S.) in 2005 under the international Montreal Protocol treaty. (www.panna.org)

Another source, http://www.scorecard.org, “the pollution information site” says that methyl bromide is a “recognized” developmental toxicant and is a “suspected” cardiovascular and blood toxicant, gastrointestinal and liver toxicant, kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant, reproductive toxicant, respiratory toxicant, and skin or sense organ toxicant.  That covers all the bases, I think.

Only because it was depleting the ozone layer, though, was it seen as a serious enough threat to phase out its use over twelve years.  However, the Bush administration left us another pleasant legacy: so-called “critical-use exemptions”:

Whereas the Montreal Protocol has severely restricted the use of bromomethane internationally, the United States has successfully lobbied for critical-use exemptions of the chemical. In 2004, [the final year before the complete phase-out], over 7 million pounds of bromomethane were applied to California fields, according to pesticide use statistics compiled by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. The most recent set of ‘critical use’ exemptions in the US include use of Bromomethane for tomato, strawberry, and ornamental shrub growers, and fumigation of ham/pork products. (Wikipedia)

Luckily for us, large-scale California growers began growing table grapes organically in 1989, and their production has only grown since them.  I can watch Jack do his chipmunk cheeks in good conscience.

chipmunk cheeks

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Sometimes eating locally does not benefit the health of our bodies or of the planet.  Take one of the southeast’s most famous crops, for example: peaches.  The official state fruit of Georgia, and state tree of Alabama, peaches are strongly associated with Dixie and with the triumphant guitar riffs of a great band formed in 1969 in Macon, Georgia.  The sweet juice of a Georgia peach dripping down the chin becomes a vivid childhood memory of summer, even for a Vermonter.  However, with all due respect to the Allman Brothers, my advice is: don’t eat a peach.  Along with those happy images in their aura, peaches are also strongly associated with chemicals such as organophosphorous, a neurotoxin, and dichloropropene, a reproductive and developmental toxin—to name just two of the forty-nine chemicals typically sprayed on peaches to ward off everything from nematodes and fungi to large mammals.  Needless to say, peaches regularly top the “Dirty Dozen” list of foods most contaminated with pesticide residues.

Legions of living things are attracted to the sweet, juicy, bright orange peachiness of the peach, as we humans are, but it is possible to grow them without heavy applications of synthetic nastiness.  Unfortunately for me here in Auburn, however, typing “organic peaches Alabama” or “Georgia” into Google yields no sources.  Should I make an exception, in order to support local agriculture?  Well, not this time.  Because the news gets worse.

Are these peaches glowing?

The Pesticide Action Network, which promotes pesticide reduction and elimination, as well as consumer awareness, and is based in California, came up with a list of what they call “Bad Actor Pesticides.”  Here’s how they define the baddest of the bad guys:

* Known or probable carcinogens, as designated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), U.S. EPA, U.S. National Toxicology Program, and the state of California’s Proposition 65 list.
* Reproductive or developmental toxicants, as designated by the state of California’s Proposition 65 list.
* Neurotoxic cholinesterase inhibitors, as designated by California Department of Pesticide Regulation, the Materials Safety Data Sheet for the particular chemical, or PAN staff evaluation of chemical structure (for organophosphorus compounds).
* Known groundwater contaminants, as designated by the state of California (for actively registered pesticides) or from historic groundwater monitoring records (for banned pesticides).
* Pesticides with high acute toxicity, as designated by the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. EPA, or the U.S. National Toxicology Program.

Seventeen out of the forty-nine pesticides typically used on peaches are PAN Bad Actors.  (This information is from pesticideinfo.org.)

What’s a mommy with a fruit-loving four-year-old to do?  When shopping for food, I think in terms of trade-offs among the qualifications important to me: if we’re having a dinner made with local shrimp, organic green beans and basil, I won’t feel too bad about giving Jack those organic California grapes for dessert.  (For the tradeoffs involved in grape-buying, read my next post.)

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Over the next few months, I’ll be lucky enough to follow strawberry season north, as we go from Alabama, through New York and Massachusetts, to Vermont, where we’ll look forward to going to the strawberry festival at Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford.  Here in Auburn, we had our first local organic strawberries yesterday, from Miles Berry Farm, in Baxley, Georgia.  Jack found a Siamese twin:

img_0810

Kids love strawberries, and for that reason, it’s particularly important to buy the organic ones.  Strawberries are at the top of the list of “the dirty dozen”—the fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated with pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide residues.  Here’s what Cindy Burke writes, in her meticulously researched book To Buy or Not to Buy Organic:

Some organic growers joke that conventionally grown strawberries are so full of chemicals, you could grind them up and use them as pesticide.  But pesticides are no laughing matter.  Sixty-five different pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides are registered for use on strawberries.
Strawberries are the most chemically intensive crop in California. Most commercial strawberry growers use methyl bromide, a toxic, ozone-depleting chemical, to eradicate all fungus, nematodes, microorganisms, and weeds, effectively killing every living thing in the soil where strawberry plants are grown.  For the remaining growth cycle, the berry plants are drip-fed chemical fertilizers.  Because methyl bromide can cause poisoning, neurological damage, and reproductive harm, the EPA classifies it as a Toxicity Category I compound, which is a classification reserved for the most deadly substances it regulates.
Nonorganic strawberries are highly likely to contain pesticide residue after harvest.  When the Pesticide Data Program releases its annual list of produce samples with residues that exceed tolerance levels, strawberries appear more often than any other fruit or vegetable. (84-5)

Wow!

Perhaps the best way to enjoy (organic!) strawberries is just to bite into them and slurp up the juice.  During rhubarb season, clearly, it’s pie time.  When I visited Spain in high school, the three sisters in my host family ate strawberries and cream for dessert every day.

But strawberries can be delicious additions to savory fare as well.  A classic salad consists of arugula tossed with goat cheese, strawberries, and a tangy vinaigrette.  A surprising appetizer can be made with a variation on this theme.  Here’s a little recipe:

Toast thin slices of baguette and drizzle a few drops of olive oil on them.
Spread goat cheese on the slices.
Top with thin slices of strawberry and a few leaves of rosemary.

When I make this later today, aside from the bread and olive oil, everything will be local. I’ll use my Georgia berries, goat cheese from Fromagerie Belle Chèvre in Elkmont, Alabama (217 miles away), and the rosemary Jack and I planted out back.

img_0815

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