All posts by Julia Sforza

Staying hungry.

Apricot Cherry Aperol Jam

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Have I told you that there are no apricots this year? Back when the sweet cherries started ripening, I went picking and there were buckets of apricots also to buy. I made sure to get some. I actually cleaned out my wallet for them. But still, it was only a few pounds. The girls who worked there forgot to tell me that this was all they had this year. I neglected to ask how the crop was. Silly me, thinking the cherries were okay that everything was okay. Au contraire! I am so sad. I learned when it was too late that no one, it seems, has apricots. For the record, early plums are also a no show. Only the Italian prune plums, but no santa rosas or elephant hearts or yellow shiros. That’s pretty sad news. Not last year. Not this year. What can you do?

I must be truthful: I didn’t even take any pictures of them. I let them sit and get soft while I fawned over the cherries. I was that positive there would be more. I was really looking forward to making plain apricot jam. It’s one of my favorites. I did, however, make one batch of jam with the lot I happened upon. I mixed them with the sweet cherries I picked when I bought them. Apricot and cherry jam is quite nice—with sweet cherries or sour cherries. I’ve been making it for years. But this year I was looking to do something different, because I had all the apricots in the world, didn’t I? Well, I went to the liquor cabinet for inspiration and gave the Aperol a gimlet eye. Land ho! Aperol, an Italian aperitif made from bitter orange, rhubarb and other things, is similar to Campari, made by Campari, and did you know has a lower alcohol content? I do enjoy some in my seltzer at times. It’s perfect in this jam: a fruity bitterness with that crazy orange-pink color. Exactly the color apricot and cherries make when mixed together in a jam. So, if you happen upon some apricots, lucky soul, and also some cherries, go ahead and give this a whirl. And if you happen to see some apricots being sold in the Hudson Valley, let me know would you?

Apricot Sweet Cherry Aperol Jam

Yield: 8 – 9 half pint jars

2 pounds apricots

2 pounds pitted sweet cherries

2 pounds sugar

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

¼ cup Aperol http://www.aperol.com/int/en/

Chop the apricots coarsely. Pit the cherries. Add the sugar to them and let them macerate overnight, covered and refrigerated. The next day, add this mixture to a pot and add the lemon juice. Boil vigorously until the mixture has thickened and begins to get glossy, about twenty minutes. Apricots and cherries are both relatively low in pectin so this will be a soft set jam, more liquid as you can see in the picture above. When you feel like it’s at a thickness you are happy with—the drips from the spoon should be thick and viscous but don’t expect it sheet—add the aperol and stir it in gently. Cook for about another minute or two, then turn off the heat. Let it sit, then can according to your favorite book or site’s directions. Process this for ten minutes.

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Middle July

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Living takes constant vigilance. I am thinking of the pond on our property and the vegetation that grows relentlessly during this time of year. It fills me with dread, really, because I know that I need to attend to it. The poison ivy vines choke the trees, the black swallow-wort is sending it’s shoots right up in the air needing nothing to climb on, the brambles with their peace offering of fruit, the red twig dogwood growing it’s branches out and right back into the ground—the procreation exhausts me just looking at it. I see myself hacking and pulling up all of it, sweating and covered in bugs. One might say why not just let it all go wild? I’m sure, to some, I have let it go wild. On the other hand, an amount of pruning and oversight is, I think, important otherwise you will be swallowed whole. I don’t like to think of it as a battle necessarily, but in these parts it is very important to keep growth somewhat in check, mostly due to ticks.

I sometimes liken this kind of vigilance to myself. We humans need constant upkeep it seems, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes it feels hard to keep up. The weeds in my heart are overgrown and are in desperate need of pruning. Yesterday, I hiked up in the Shawangunks, a range of low-rolling mountains that I feel particularly close to. They are old and their edges are softened by time, and in them I find a particularly soothing quality when I walk through their stone outcroppings, amid blueberry and huckleberry bushes, and the acres of sweetfern with their evocative scent. I sat by a pool of water, a place I’ve been visiting for thirty years now, and scanned the scenery. I could recall spending time there at twenty years of age, the voices of my memories echoing in my mind, yet the land seemed impervious to my need to remember. It just was: surrounded by high clusters of wild rhododendrons, their faint pink blossoms filled with large bumble bees, the rushing water flowing over the rocks like it has done for so many years that it’s beyond my ken.

The water takes on a golden glow from the native rocks and the algae that blooms on them. I couldn’t resist the beckoning cold mountain pool and slid in, the water yielding to me effortlessly. It was both shocking and soothing. I got out dripping, my skin tingling flashes of electricity, both warm and cold. I almost hadn’t gone that morning for a simple hike in the mountains, but it’s so good for the soul. It’s upkeep, the time spent is a worthwhile fee to clear the heart of those vines that bind.

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All The Cherries

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We have been blessed with an abundance of cherries this year. I have so far picked 22 pounds of sweets, and that was being restrained. Then I caught the end of the red sours and got a demure 13 pounds. I am waiting for the black sour cherries to ripen and then my trifecta will be complete. I don’t know about you, but every time I walk into a cherry orchard brimming with bright red cherries lushly hanging from bowed branches I am in awe. How can this be so? That this abundance can exist? Not only beautiful but nourishing and delicious to boot. All for the picking, as they say. Forget all the technological advances we have made as humans, for me fruit is the true sign of an enlightened culture. And we need all the culture we can get these days.

What to do with all these cherries? Because of course you know how easy it is to pick cherries as opposed to pitting them! Lazy cook that I am, I tuck a good many of them away in the freezer just as they are, pits and all. Most of the stems are removed, and I do rinse them, but otherwise I zip them in a trusty plastic bag (one of my guilty pleasures in this plastic fantastic world—though I do reuse them) and lay them on the rest of the fruit squirreled away in that deep chest in the basement. One day in winter I will pull one of these four-pound bags out of the freezer and savor the memory of the hot summer sun blazing on my head while I picked from these generous trees.

With the fruit that escaped the cold grip of the freezer, I have made a few different things. Cherry pie came first. Then there was a sweet cherry jam with a touch of almond extract–very straightforward. We gorged on many sweets out of hand. On the other cherry hand, the sour cherries are beguiling, so different from their sweet counterparts! I ask you to stick your head in a large bowl or bucket of them and breathe deeply: do you smell the slight spicy note? I think it’s almost like cinnamon, very faint but there. I made a large batch of cherry pie filling which begat sour cherry hand pies and cherry pie cookie bars. The sour cherries make a pie filling bar none. It’s sort of the ur-cherry flavor; the flavor that all fake cherry flavorings are based on. It always takes me back to childhood, and biting into one of those awful but delicious processed cherry pies from the corner deli.

One of my favorite lazy preserving things I like to do is to preserve cherries in a quart jar with alcohol and a little sugar. This year, because I had a large jug of vodka in the house, that’s what I used, but I also like to use brandy. Use what you have! I would never think to use tequila—but a friend of mine swears by strawberry tequila. And gin seems too botanical, but there are some gins that are mellow and smooth without too many vying notes. As in all things, I think experimenting with the flavors you most enjoy is the best tactic to take. Whatever the case, my lazy preserve is this: fill a jar with sweet or sour cherries, leave the pits in because they add a bit of almond flavor, add a half cup of sugar, and top with vodka. Let it sit in a cool dark place for about a month, agitating the jar every so often to disperse the sugar. Make a cocktail with it when it’s ready, and don’t forget the best part: the drunken fruit! I do this with all kinds of whole fruit. Small apricots and Italian prune plums are also spectacular. The fruit stays whole and can be enjoyed as well as the sweetened, fruit-infused liquor.

Notes:

For more talk on preserving fruit with alcohol, check out this article from the NY Times by Melissa Clark that I am quoted in. From 2010! I stumbled upon it recently, and it’s still a thrill to see my name in the Times.

Post Summer Solstice

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Summer is officially here, at least according to our calendar. The mystery of spring has passed and now the long and slow somnambulant days have begun to lull us. The green has taken over so quickly and fully that I don’t stop to differentiate anymore—it’s all just green, and I have surrendered to it. Flowers are the standout everywhere—the orange of the daylilies trumpet along the roadsides, the fractal pink pom poms of the crown vetch that lines our driveway, down to the small yellow blossoms of the tomato plants. The kitchen, normally dark at 7 a.m., is now flooded with light. I stand and bask in it, my northern exposure kitchen unusually filled with sunshine. It will be like this for another week and then back to the dark, though I am thankful for its coolness when the true heat of summer arrives.

I can see that I will be busy with fruit this summer, unlike last year when we were deprived of all stone fruit. Last year was so sad! The cherries have started their flood and clear plastic cambros fill my fridge for when I am ready to pit them. I find that I am less pained by cherry pitting if I spread it throughout the day. Here is a cherry tip: you can freeze them pits and all. When you take them out, defrost them half way and then pit them. They come out quite easily then, although your fingers will be a tad cold. Each type of cherry has a different kind of pit, and some are easier to pit than others. I bought a pound of Pacific Northwest cherries recently, huge and dark and unbelievably sweet. I was able to cut them in half like a plum and pull the pit cleanly out. On the topic of cherry pitters: I’ve never found one that truly worked, and I’m sort of an old school person who hates gadgets in the kitchen. I pit with my fingers, and it seems to work well enough. But get back to me when the season is over, I might change my tune.

I can distinguish the changes I see in the yard—my area of focus has closed tightly on it. I see the mulberry tree is laden with big sweet fruit, and I allow the animals to get most of them. I’ve been noticing the deer making for the understory, a woodchuck’s summer home is in a hole underneath, newly cleared every year when the mulberries start to fall, and the birds swarm the top branches. It makes me happy to see that the tree I encouraged to grow by the pond long ago is now a food source for so many. Mulberries take up residence everywhere, and I’m often pulling them out, so it is nice to have allowed one to grow big. I have fond memories of a mulberry tree outside my back door while growing up, and I was often found tucked in its branches, feasting on berries and even eating the leaves upon learning they were safe to eat.

The red currants are also ripe, and I’ve harvested a small amount from my three bushes. The one gooseberry bush I have, a Hinnomaki red, has ripened strangely, starting off with something called premature fruit drop to tightly hanging on to huge gooseberries turning just a faded red, bending the tender branches with weight. Every day I see if one will come off easily—are you ready?—I ask the berry. And when it replies with a yielding snap of its stem, that is when I harvest them, one by one as the days go by. The jostaberries are also just starting to ripen. It looks like the harvest this year will be small, and I do believe it’s my fault by not pruning them this year. Each day I would pass them by and think: I must prune them, but I never did.

This is only the beginning, I think, as I stand with my elbows resting on the high windowsills of my bedroom looking down at the yard in the deep twilight. The sun lingers so long that I find I’m usually in bed before it. But I try to stay up until it’s dark, like a child, so that I can see the lightning bugs flicker in the shadows of the garden. Their dance is mesmerizing, and it transports you for a moment into timelessness, the way that mysterious beauty often does, your mind connecting with the beauty while shutting out all the other noise of life. That’s what art does, I think as I close the window a bit before going to bed. Art transfixes you so much so that the world can’t touch you for a fraction of time. I am thankful for those moments, as I pull up the covers that we still need because the mornings continue to have a chill.

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Savory Rhubarb Strawberry Sauce

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When I post a photo on Instagram of a dish I have made, I struggle to write a caption that’s quick and to the point, because I so want to explain everything about the dish. There is so much more to say about it than what it plainly is. Even the photo above has a story. It looks like a pile of chopped rhubarb. But there’s so much more to it! Like how I started growing these plants ten years ago after answering a post on GardenWeb from someone who needed to get rid of this amazingly huge and happy patch. I can squint and see the man and his cute house, walking the wilting plants in his arms to my car. And how after years of consistent growth, this year the rhubarb is a tangle of snaky stalks. I have been pulling them and finding uses for these slender slips, like a fresh relish or a cake’s garnish. I think I like them best in this new favorite recipe. It’s a savory sauce based on a gastrique, a kind of sweet and sour fruit sauce that goes great with rich meats.

Please note that there is a special ingredient in this recipe: rhubarb vinegar. Awhile back, when I was dealing in large quantities of rhubarb for my little jam company, I would have pounds of rhubarb ends that were not good for jam but good for making syrup or vinegar. Simply chop up these bits (no leaves, please!) and put them in a jar and cover with white vinegar. It doesn’t come out overpoweringly rhubarb-y, picks up a sweet shade of pink, and works wonders for a salad. I highly recommend making some! I still have at least a quart left. However, if you don’t have tons of rhubarb at your disposal, you can just as easily use white or apple cider vinegars.

Initially I was going to make this straight-up rhubarb but I threw a few strawberries in for color. I’m glad I did. There’s something about the combination of rhubarb and strawberries that’s not just about the timing of their harvest. They seem to round out each other’s tartness and bring about a buttery smoothness when combined. Sort of like when you meet someone who rounds you out in all the good ways: calming down your anxious tendencies and providing a foil for your kindness and sense of humor. It makes for a fine marriage.

Savory Rhubarb and Strawberry Sauce

Yield: 1 half-pint

¼ cup of rhubarb vinegar

¼ cup of water

¼ cup of sugar

1 cup of finely chopped rhubarb

1 handful of strawberries, small ones sliced in half

Salt and fresh cracked pepper

Put all the ingredients in a pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Keep at a good boil for about ten minutes until everything has broken down, and it’s a uniform sauce. Add some salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste–I’d say a pinch of salt just for balance but not to make it salty, and a few good grinds of pepper so that you will hit a spicy crunch every now and then. I don’t think it needs to be pureed as the small dice will ensure a fairly smooth sauce, but if you prefer a smoother sauce go ahead!

 

 

Field Notes: Middle June

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The other day an old friend wrote to me out of the blue to discuss days far gone that still seem to glitter so brightly in their opinion. I guess I felt that way for a long time, but in the last ten years the shiny glow has faded and the reality of it all came slowly into focus, like a glacial scratch and win that holds such promise until you see you clearly haven’t won. Not that I regret those days, I just don’t pine for them. My vision of them is more lucent, less hazed over by nostalgic notions. Middle age can really help clear those fuzzy feelings you used to have, and I kind of like the bluntness this kind of reality offers. After so many anxious years, I can finally see that I like where I am, and how I got here.

I was thinking all this on a long bike ride on the rail trail that I used to ride on in those halcyon days so long ago. We would tumble out of our rental in the woods after band practice and roll down the rail trail to the luminous turquoise water of the old dolomite quarry. We’d swim among the rusty old trucks still in the water, left decades ago as if the mine had filled with water and everyone rushed out in a hurry. I would never swim there now, and I don’t want to return to that time, even though I do conjure up these memories and admire them like a favorite stone found in a riverbed. I rode past the cold blasts from the old mines, and then back out by the farm fields lush with crickets and bees, toasted by the sun, the smell of the wild roses mixing with autumn olive blossoms like a fresh stick of Juicy Fruit gum.

We’ve been getting so much rain that when given the opportunity of a clarion day—blue-skied and cumulus-clouded—I was all too happy to take this ride through the green-bowered tunnel that is a rail trail. We are lucky to have so many of these old train tracks turned walking and biking paths snaking through New York. I’m fascinated with European holloways and their mysterious beauty, and I guess our rail trails are somewhat like them. Wherever I hike and find any kind of old roads, the outline of wheel ruts sunk in the ferns, the way trees are cleared out and you can see straight through for a long way, it reminds me of the past, though whose past it is, I don’t know. Sometimes you will find a bit of old track on the rail trails, jutting out from the dirt, another historic morsel to chew on. Why are these touches of human hands so enticing? It’s a thread of time, and who isn’t taken in by the romance of the past, whether our own or someone else’s?

Later that day, I sat in the garden as twilight came on, the wood thrush trilling in the distant trees, and looked down at my bounty. A quart basket of strawberries, a pint of snow peas (the first actual harvest of the season!), and a bowl of tender greens. I suddenly had a deep feeling of true success. All these years do amount to something, but maybe that something isn’t always what you planned on back when you were younger and getting caught up in other people’s versions of success. Who would have thought that when I was digging up a garden in that rental house in the woods when I was twenty that I was laying the groundwork for this future success, sitting in my garden at forty-seven? That was a tough patch to clear, and the deer ended up eating all our tomatoes, and though a bit of it still glitters, I have no interest in going back. There are other future rows to hoe. Maybe even for that older me.

Field Notes: Beginning of June

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The beginning of June is when the bumpy season of spring starts to hit her stride–the green of the leaves has matured a bit, not quite as bright and chartreusely translucent, and when the winds come the leaves in the trees sway lushly, thick and filled out fully. In the garden, actual real food is starting to grow–what comes to mind first is the ripe scarlet of the strawberries in the garden, and the two-toned green and red of the rhubarb. I have them growing right next to each other, right above the asparagus. Nestled between two rows of asparagus there is an abundant bed of lettuce, so tender when just dressed with a bit of olive oil, salt and lemon juice. Today I spotted the first snow peas of the season, which I can’t wait to gather basketfuls of to blanch and eat by the handful. The beans are poking their heavy little heads out of the soil, and the tomatoes already have flowers. This time of year is at it’s most hopeful. Abundance seems so definite, though a seasoned gardener knows not to get too excited. The promise that a tended garden holds is a guarded one.

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One of the most exciting things about June that happens outside of the garden (and therefore has no lingering anxiety tethered to it) has got to be the filling out of the ferns on the forest floor. When they get to their full height of about three feet, they are still young and light green, and slightly sticky when you run your hands through them, as I like to do when I walk. There are certain spots I make sure to visit so I can experience them fully. Each direction you turn yields a kaleidoscopic view of fractal green, waving in the breeze. There’s something about them that dazzles the eye. I don’t know much about ferns except that they are ancient plants that are rather complex, so I think that I’ll just admire them from a distance. There is only too much you can know about, you know? However, you can’t help but to think to yourself, look at this plant that’s been around for thousands of years, and yet the Wikipedia entry has to note: “Ferns are not of major economic importance…” Maybe that’s why they have stuck around so long!

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Profit seems to be a defining attribute that humans apply on their surroundings. Another exciting sign of early June in the forest is the ganoderma tsugae, or some call reishi, a shelf fungus that is like a shiny lacquered shell hugging the sides of hemlock trees. It starts out like shmoo-like blobs (for lack of a better description) that truly beg to be touched. They are slightly squishy and damp when you give in to the temptation. It seems that these medicinal mushrooms have been catching the eye of profiting gatherers. Is any kind of greed a good kind of greed, I wonder?

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