Summer’s Wane

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Summer has us firmly in its grip, but still one can’t help but to notice it is on the wane. We are a good ways past the summer solstice and you can see the difference in the evening sky. The days are hot but the morning has a bit of autumnal chill to it. My summer has mostly been about being with my almost seven-year-old son–we don’t do camp, so he’s my full time job. It also happens to be the start of busy season for jam-making and preserving, so my lazy days are punctuated by bits of frenzy, in the small windows where I can do my work.

We have done our fair share of swimming, in the mountains, rivers and streams, a bit in the ocean. Some major milestones were reached: actual swimming! head under the water! riding a bike! It’s all very exciting but it doesn’t leave much for my own projects or creativity. My weekly writing has fallen steeply. This is all fine, because as everyone says, this sweet time will be over in a quick blink of the eye. There will be plenty of time for more canning or learning or career advancement (ha!). I’m not saying I’m always so aware of this wisdom. Sometimes I can be quite the child myself! Writing it down seems to help. One day I’ll long for these days spent reading children’s books over and over, playing Legos, and pretending to be a shark in the water.

In the meantime, as my creativity wanes along with the summer, I am finding inspiration from other places. Here’s some of them:

I had a great time with Eve, who writes the very delicious and detailed blog Garden of Eating, when I had her over for lunch. Check out this post she wrote about a tip I gave her – thanks, Eve! I’m always impressed by her photography, and I always want to eat what she’s eating!

Shae, from Hitchhiking to Heaven, is writing beautiful missives from her travels in Alaska at Fairfax to Fairbanks. I am lost in this in the very best way. I know I’m not the only one!

This had me at the first line of the recipe: “10 cups of gin-soaked black currants.” It’s a recipe for Black Currant Chutney from Marie at 66 Square Feet (Plus), after using the berries for black currant gin. My kind of recipe!

This beautiful photo-heavy post on wild mushrooms from Laura at Glutton For Life had me wishing for rain, as most of our fungi has dried up and disappeared, to return when the time is right. (Did you know Beatrix Potter was a mycologist? I didn’t. Thanks to Brain Pickings this book is now on my to-read list.)

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Just have to note these three best desserts I made this summer:

All-in-One Chocolate Cake from Nigella Lawson. So darn easy and straightforward. See it above. And this tip about putting parchment paper under your cakes in strips so when you are done frosting the plate will be clean was priceless for me, as I am not the best cake maker.

Almond Flour Berry Cobbler from King Arthur. Wow. So good! I made this with peaches and blueberries.

Cherry Bars from The Recipe. Tip o’the hat to Mrs. Wheelbarrow for clueing me in to this one.

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It’s also high pickling season–it’s been cucumberville over here. I’ve been relying a lot on a great book I got in the fall, Fermented Vegetables. The thing I love best about it is how each vegetable is listed in alphabetical order and gives thoughts and recipes on each one, if they are recommended!

I’ve been making lots of that smashed/smacked cucumber salad with the tinier cucumbers in my garden. It’s addictive. I’ve been taking a little from these three recipes and making my own. I hope I get around to writing it down! Here, here and here. If you have a preferred recipe for this, let me know!

Okay, over and out. I’m going deeper still into summer. I hope to see you when I pull myself out!

Hansen’s Cherry Sauce

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Do you remember when you were little how the sun would still be out when your parents put you to bed in the summer? I recall lying on my small skinny bed with the springy coils next to the open window, waiting to fall asleep. It would get dark, and I would still be up, looking out the window at the night sky. I remember hearing the sounds from our town a few blocks away: muscle cars revving their engines outside a bar, people laughing and yelling, bottles breaking. It’s a very vibrant memory in my mind, one that comes back to me all the time. Those sounds of the world outside of my little life were so exciting, and I didn’t even know why. I didn’t realize then that I was listening to some punks outside of a seedy Long Island bar, circa late ’70s. To me it was more exotic than anything I could think of.

For some strange reason, linked to this memory of late-night bar rabble sounds is Kermit the Frog singing It’s Not Easy Being Green. I think I had a dream with Kermit in it, and then woke to the bar sounds. I feel like there’s something in this about the wistfulness of that song paired with the wondering about other people’s lives, through the lens of a child’s eye. The longing for something more exciting has always rumbled in my interior. I often–still— get the feeling that I should be somewhere else, somewhere more exciting. The reality is that I really like where I am, and truth be told, where I am is often filled with discoveries that I might not realize living the gypsy’s life that I sometimes long for. I’ve been living in this area now off and on for 25 years (more on than off) and I am still amazed by the things I find. Of course, some of those things are in my backyard, my literal back yard, the property I actually planted! And they still surprise me!

Like these three little Hansen’s cherry bushes that I planted years ago, and moved a few times, and never got a cherry from. Finally, giving up on them, I moved them into a cluster by the stream and gave up. This year they put out such a huge load of cherries, I couldn’t even believe it. It has been a banner year for all cherries. Which is nice because I can’t remember when I was overloaded with cherries. Ends up that although they are gorgeously translucent red, looking just like choice little rubies, their pits are pretty big in comparison to their flesh. They are super tart with a good cherry flavor, closer to sour cherries than sweet. The best thing to do in these cases, is to cook them off and pass them through a food mill. Then add to that pulpy mixture sugar to your liking and boil hard until it reduces to a thick sauce. I canned this and hope to add it to some apple sauce come fall. I think it will also find its way into smoothies, and maybe even a sauces for roasted pork.

Hansen’s Cherry Sauce

yields 2 pints

3 pounds of cherries

1 tablespoon of lemon juice

Sugar to taste, about 1.5 to 2 cups of sugar

Put cherries in a pot with scant water (about 1/4 cup). Boil to soften the fruit enough to mill. Pass through food mill to remove pits. You will have about four cups of puree. Add the rest of the ingredients, start with the smaller amount of sugar and taste. Boil about ten or fifteen minutes, until thickened and slightly glossy. Process in a water bath for ten minutes.

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Jostaberry Jam

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A couple of years ago, my mother had four jostaberry plants sent to me for my birthday. If you know me, you’ll know that a fruit plant is always a wise gift to give me! What is a jostaberry, you ask? Well, if you want to get very specific here’s a link to its Wikipedia page, but for the most part it is a hybrid of black currant and two different gooseberries. It’s a hardy, disease resistant plant that yields large, dark purple berries. It’s got the tartness of the gooseberry and some of the complexity of a black currant.

This is the first year that I’ve had a significant harvest, considering last year’s was all of four berries. This year I’ve taken a few pounds already, and there are more hanging on the bush. I believe I am taking them well before they are ready–about a third are dark purple which is the ripe stage, a third are maroon with tinges of green, and a third are green because they just came off. Why haven’t you seen more jostaberries around? Well, I’ve found out first hand: they are hard to pick even though they do not have thorns like gooseberries do. I’m surprised it is said that birds will get them quickly, because the berries don’t seem to want to come off the stem. You really have to pull, hence all the green ones I’ve gotten. I’m going to let the rest of them get really dark and see what happens. As you may know, some unripe fruit is good for a jam. The levels of pectin are higher in unripe fruit, and therefore your “set” (or how firm a jam is) will be easier to reach.

I’m excited to experiment with this fruit, as it seems that they will do well in both sweet and savory applications (I’m thinking pickled jostaberries), but my predilections always run to jam first. My first batch was a real treat: deep garnet in hue, sweet and tart with a chewiness I appreciate. You can detect the black currant undertones, which I can only describe as a mix between deep forest and red berry. There are a few seeds in the berry which I don’t mind, but some may wish to pass it through a sieve. Today I might try a batch with a traditional gooseberry flavoring: the elderflower, which is blooming profusely all around my yard. For now these are the basics of this jam, if you see it at a market I hope you try it!

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Jostaberry Jam

Yields two 8 ounce jars, plus a bit for the fridge

1 pound of jostaberries (about a quart), topped and tailed

1/2 pound of sugar (1 cup)

1/4 cup water

First, you must top and tail the fruit. I have heard you can leave them in, but the stems and dried flowers are rough and scratchy, so I prefer them off. What exactly does top and tail mean? On one end is the stem, and on the other end is the spent flower–take them both off. You can snip them with sharp scissors, but using your fingers seems just as quick. It’s sort of a pain, but find the zen spot of it.

Put the topped and tailed berries in a pot with 1/4 cup of water. Boil gently for ten minutes to soften the berries. Add the sugar, and return to a boil. The mixture will quickly turn magenta, deepen and start to form large glossy bubbles. It will take about ten minutes to reach the gel stage. If you boil it too long, you may end up with a very firm jam, which might be fine with you depending on your preferences. I use the spoon technique, and watch for two drips. It’s very unscientific, but I’ve found it’s the best indicator of a when jam is done, even more so than the cold plates method, which I find very fussy.

There is no need to add lemon, as the berries are very tart. You may process these in a boiling water bath for ten minutes to keep them on the shelf.

Summer Arrives

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In just a few days it really will be summer, but I can feel it in the air already. School is winding down, and that seems to take me back to childhood, when those days were the early indicators of summer’s joyous arrival. We are still running on a schedule, but the looseness beckons. The long days are no longer bewildering–we are happy to stay outside until the orange and pink clouds cross the sky, and the blue deepens and darkens. And when I look out my open bedroom window at night to smell the warm air, there are fireflies everywhere: low to the grass, high up in the trees, dancing across the yard, in the garden, in the inky forest across the street. Summer is here.

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The strawberries are here, too. They’ve been here a while really, but now is the time to get their full effect. Is there anything so fragrant as freshly picked strawberries? As I drove home with two flats in the back–about 35 pounds–the smell continuously wafted up to me. There’s something so pure and straightforward about the strawberry. I love pickled strawberries, and roasting strawberries is swell, but is there anything so nice as just-made strawberry preserves? I like to keep the strawberries whole, but mash them a little as they cook. They foam up like crazy in the pot, but it never seems to stick around. Every book will tell you to skim the foam like mad, but I don’t, and it just disappears. The preserves smell so rich, buttery, but I don’t put butter in my preserves either, which some folks like to do to keep the foaming down. I just watch it, so it doesn’t overflow because no one needs strawberry syrup all over their stove. Believe me, I know.

This strawberry season I put a lot of strawberries in my salads. The little ones from the garden were perfect for that, as they are more tart than sweet. I have been keeping a glass bowl filled with the bigger ones in the fridge, hulled and halved, macerating in sugar. A bowl of that is the perfect dessert. And if you are feeling extra fancy, make some coconut whipped cream to put on top of it. The syrup– if it’s not slurped up by a small child–is especially good in a tall glass of cold lemonade. It’s so nice to sit on the porch, prepping strawberries while drinking a chilled glass of rosé (that has a nose of wild strawberries itself), knowing that summer is on your doorstep.

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Black Locust Blossom Liqueur

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The flowers this spring have been really mesmerizing, in particular the black locust blossom. It’s a tall tree in the pea family with deeply ridged bark. I am usually happy to just smell the air in appreciation, notice their delicate white blossoms as they litter the ground, and choose not to eat them. But this year they were such a wall of scent that I was lured, and decided to collect some. There were a few spots where the branches hung so low it was easy to get my fill quite quickly. Once home I decided a delicate liqueur was the way to go. In the past, I have tried and failed to make a truly exquisite elderflower liqueur, a la St. Germain. This liqueur is my new stand in. Floral and delicate, the lightly honeyed scent of the blossoms has stayed intact. A winner.

Black Locust Blossom Liqueur

Pack as many blossoms as you can in a wide mouth pint jar. Top it with vodka. Let it sit for about a week–the smell of the blossoms should be strong, and the color will be a deep yellow. Strain them, letting the liquid take it’s time. When most of it is out, you should lightly press on the flowers to get all the liquid out.  Add simple syrup (1:1 ratio of sugar to water) to taste.

I am new to the medicinal properties of this tree but according to this page it seems its benefits are many. I imagine you could leave out the simple syrup, and leave it like a tincture.

Cheers!

Duck Confit

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There are a lot of recipes out there for duck confit. It’s a reasonably easy thing to make, for such a rich and luxe product. The one catch is having enough duck fat on hand to make it, and the easy fix? Use rendered pork lard. Another catch is the low and slow cooking time. Not that having the oven on for hours deters me from a recipe, but using the slow cooker for anything is enjoyable for me. I get to forget about it entirely, and work on other things. In preparation for a small party with friends visiting from out of town, I took out a whole duck from the freezer. Usually recipes for duck confit focus on the legs. How could I possibly make duck confit with just two legs? I thought: why not confit the whole thing? And thus, I began.

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1. Break down the duck. You will have two legs, two breasts, two wings, a carcass and some organs. Keep the fat on the breasts.

2. Take the carcass and the wings and roast them in a 350 degree oven for about an hour. Eat the crispy (albeit a bit tough) wings with some sriracha-honey. Then take all the parts (including the bones of the wings) and put them in a pot with cold water. Make a stock. Bonus points: make a phô stock. Use that some other dreary day for a nice ramen or noodle soup.

3. You are left with two breasts, the legs and maybe some organs and any bits of fat you may have trimmed. Put these into a ziplock bag with salt and seasonings. The general rule is 1/3 of an ounce per pound of meat. I used a tablespoon and a half of kosher salt, some bay leaf, black peppercorns, and garlic. Leave in the fridge overnight.

4. The next day turn on your cooker, and melt the the oil in it. The fat has to cover the meat so you need a good amount. That’s where a pint of rendered pork fat in the fridge comes in handy. The rest will come from the duck fat rendering. The setting I used was low.

5. Put all the parts gently into your slow cooker (mind is oval shaped, and worked well here, allowing for a single layer). I prefer not to rinse or pat dry as the salt and herbs are so good in the fat. Now let the cooker do it’s business. Check on it every hour to make sure the meat is submerged in oil, and that it’s not bubbling. Keep the lid cracked. About 3 to 4 hours.

6. When it’s done–check the legs, the skin has rendered and the meat pulls away with the slightest motion–turn off the heater, remove the liner from the element if you can, and let it cool. I like to refrigerate it over night to rest.

To serve, remove the meat and heat it up in a cast iron pan so it becomes crackly and a little sticky. The breast meat was great–why wouldn’t you confit it? It was served with an asparagus and ramp timbale, and some pickled ramps. The next day heat up the fat and pour it through a sieve. Keep it in the fridge to make many other dishes delicious (crispy fried potatoes, anyone?). Any fat or organ meat is the bonus to this dish. The fat may be fried up in a pan and will make you the most stunning bar snack you have ever had. See the image below. The organs are primed to be chopped up and added to a risotto or stew.

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The Morel of the Story

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It’s a glorious May day. It’s cool and breezy. I woke clutching my blankets around my shoulders, as a cold breeze blew in the open window above my bed. With a sick child at home for the past few days, I felt a walk was in order to clear out my brain. And, let’s be honest, to look for morels. I knew it wasn’t likely I would find any today, but who cares? The walk is always welcome. The bonus is the mushrooms.

Today’s walk will probably be the last morel walk of the season. I did find some this year–ten to be exact–and I’m thankful for that! Apparently, it wasn’t the best year for them in these parts, due to the very bizarre spring weather we’ve had. It’s been hot and dry, not what morels enjoy, and frankly, not what I enjoy either. I’ve had my sprinkler on, and all of my shorts are in my dresser. It’s been feeling more like July, these days, and while I like July, it does have it’s place. In July.

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I am not a serious mushroom forager, but I’ve always been fascinated by them. There are tons of mushrooms on my property, and I’ve been slowly recording them. Just yesterday I found a few russula mariae in my wood chip pile. And I’ve recently done my very first spore print. I’m hooked.

But morels are different, so mysterious, so delicious. That’s why it’s called morel hunting. They seem rather like wood sprites or gnomes to me, almost mischievous. They like certain environments: dying elm tress, old apple orchards, limestone and shale. But sometimes they are found in places where you wouldn’t expect them at all. Seeing as how I’m less than a beginner, I will direct you to this post by Bill Bakaitis, who is a well known “mushroom guru” in these parts. (Leslie Land’s website is still a treasure to me. I am thankful it’s still there to mine for information despite her passing a few years ago.) Another good read is this article he wrote on eating morels you find in orchards, important because of the possibility of poisons leached into the soil of apple orchards, and thus the mushrooms that might grow beneath them.

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My walk today seemed the perfect location: a dying orchard on a southern facing slope near railroad tracks. Limestone outcroppings every so often. The only thing I didn’t see was a dying elm, but I’m sure there was one somewhere there. (How do you identify a dead elm? I am still figuring out live elm. There are so few around here, and I rarely see them.) As I walked through fields of tall grass and skirted the outrageous amounts of poison ivy, I thought how foraging morels was not for the faint of heart. I walked an outline around the edges of the area, not willing to enter the true thicket of prickers and poison ivy. I really hate poison ivy. Not to mention ticks. As I dipped into canopies of leafed out elderly trees, I kept on finding places that felt a little magical, lined with ground ivy and violets. I knew the morels were out there, and it was perfectly fine that they kept on hiding.

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What’s nicest about morel hunting–well, after the finding of them, that is–is that you really have to slow down and look. And when you are slowing down to look you do see a good many things. Most of which are not morels, but that’s beside the point. You see the shiny leaves of the pin oak, and the soft undersides of the silver maple, and the white wrinkly bark of the poplars. You see the soft long grass waving in the wind, the red and shiny new leaves of the poison ivy that sends out runners everywhere. The details seem to pop out everywhere, and there you are, really looking. It’s great meditation. Indeed, if I found the morels (because I know they are out there) I might not have enjoyed such a nice calm breathing practice.

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Out of the ten morels I found, I ate only five. It felt greedy to take all ten of them. I sliced them up and sautéed them in duck fat. Once I had them on toast and the other time with scrambled eggs. Both were perfect. They are so delicious, that I think doing much else with them would be overkill. But I am willing to keep on trying. If only they would comply.

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Staying Hungry

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