Monday, August 28, 2017

Mary Oliver Monday: "The Sunflowers"

Come with me
into the field of sunflowers.
Their faces are burnished disks,
their dry spines

creak like ship masts,
their green leaves,
so heavy and many,
fill all day with the sticky

sugars of the sun.
Come with me
to visit the sunflowers,
they are shy

but want to be friends;
they have wonderful stories
of when they were young -
the important weather,

the wandering crows.
Don't be afraid
to ask them questions!
Their bright faces,

which follow the sun,
will listen, and all
those rows of seeds -
each one a new life! -

hope for a deeper acquaintance;
each of them, though it stands
in a crowd of many,
like a separate universe,

is lonely, the long work
of turning their lives
into a celebration
is not easy. Come

and let us talk with those modest faces,
the simple garments of leaves,
the coarse roots in the earth
so uprightly burning.

- Mary Oliver
from the Book "Dream Work"

In late August, it feels like every yard in the neighborhood is growing sunflowers. They loll their friendly faces over tall fences and stretch upward on impossibly thin stalks. I was thinking about them and then stumbled over this poem by Mary Oliver and wanted to share it with you all. The picture above was taken during this morning's walk and the yellow and orange of the sunflowers and marigolds seemed to pulse in the gray light. I salute this homeowner for such a cheery front yard.

The town is buzzing with preparation for the upcoming Ellensburg Rodeo. I am unfamiliar with the sport, but our town has been hosting since 1923 and it is now considered one of the top 10 Rodeo's in the US. The participants are world-class and I'm looking forward to taking it all in (and hopefully some good fair food too!)

Best wishes to all for the week ahead.

Friday, August 25, 2017

sautéed corn with caramelized onions and smoked paprika

I know that years from now, when I think back to this summer, two things will come to mind: a ridiculous pop song about Paris and the local fresh sweet corn.

One of the interesting things about change is the new and inconsistent rhythm it introduces- there are days jammed with stress (the day the movers arrived at our California home to pack up the moving truck was a ballet of chaos) contrasted by stretches of lull and inactivity.

A good example of the lull was the drive from California to Washington. Pretty much a straight shot in driving and we did not stop much a long the way. To keep us entertained, I came up with a last minute game: we went to Target and stood in front of their small display of CDs. (I know, I know, buying CDs in a store? It felt very 1995.) The game was we each got to pick one CD and, during the drive, we had to listen it in it's entirety- no skipping songs we didn't like, no complaining. You can employ varies strategies in this game: you can either pick a CD you both will love or pick a CD your road trip partner will hate, but they can turn right back around and dish the same out to you. I was super tempted to torture my husband with The Best Hits of Nickleback but decided it wasn't worth it. We ended up with U2 Joshua Tree live at Madison Square Garden (my pick) and NOW vol. 62 (my husbands pic). He picked the NOW CD partially to beat me at my own game and partially because pop music is perfect for keeping us awake on long stretches of road.

For the unfamiliar, the NOW albums are comprised of the latest pop hits. Reading through the CD case details (it was a long drive) I learned they are produced something like 3x year. I think the last time I bought one of them, they were at volume 3 or 4, which yes, makes me feel ancient.

Listening to it was fun/diverting because, for most of the CD, we were unfamiliar with the songs or artists. It was fun to approach it without assumptions or prior knowledge. On the second play through, we listened only to the songs we liked best. Lady Gaga (of course we're familiar with her music) is insanely talented and makes it sound easy but just try singing along to "A Million Reasons", that is some serious work. There was also some nonsense song where everything rhymes with "Paris" that is fun- as in "We were living in Paris...something something something...terrace" Cracks us up each time.

This little game is made even more hilarious by the fact that now we are recognizing these songs on the radio or when we run errands in businesses. Forever, these songs will haunt us, remind us of this summer and make us laugh.

The other thing that will always remind me of this summer is cooking, for the first time, with all the beautiful Washington produce. I was not prepared for how much I would be influenced by the seasonality of ingredients, simply by being so close to where they are grown. The first few weeks I was here, it was all about blueberries and cherries. Then apricots made an appearance. Now it's all about corn and peaches. The corn at my grocery store is called bicolor, includes both yellow and while kernels and is 50c an ear. My favorite way to eat fresh corn is grilled and with basil butter. Sadly, we do not have a grill yet and so I wanted a preparation that would pull in some of those smokey elements. Enter caramelized onions and smoked paprika. I served this corn as part of a salad with fresh greens, bbq shredded chicken, homemade julienned pickled vegetables (absolutely worth the effort- recipe here) and a dollop of sour cream. On my first grocery trip I bought four ears and it was so good I went back the next day and bought eight more. The next batch of corn I sautéed up as well but this time included some cubes of fresh zucchini and layered it on homemade pizza dough, brushed with garlic olive oil, along with mozzarella and parmesan cheese.  The sweet bright corn was perfect with the creamy salty cheese and chewy garlic scented dough.

A friend messaged me the other day to ask "Are you spending time in the kitchen? I know that often centers you." She is right. When my world gets topsy turvy, the kitchen becomes my hub. As Nora Ephron famously wrote:

  • "What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s sure thing in a world where nothing is sure..."

I love the "sureness" of cooking but I also love that when I do it, I am nurturing both myself and my husband. We all have to eat and our particular rhythm says we need to have three meals a day and it is such a relief to know that no matter the chaos, I can create the space to say I will pause and do this with care and thought. I love the actual process as much as I love the end product. I love the thousand decisions along the way. An example from last nights dinner: before adding cilantro to the salad, should I pluck the tender leaves off the stem and then rough chop? or should I fine chop the whole bundle, stems and all, into a kind of heady lemony mulch? I don't even really mind doing the dishes because that means portioning up leftovers as some kind of treasure to help solve tomorrow's challenges (is there anything better than leftover pie for breakfast?) Also, because of that beautiful moment at the end where the kitchen counter is clear and all is put back in it's right spot and the knowledge that tomorrow (or in a few hours) I can walk back and create all over again.

In her book, Small Victories, Julia Turshen writes that we all just need to admit that caramelizing onions takes much longer than we think it does. (At least I think it was her that said this, all my books remain packed up in the 2nd bedroom of my rental house, so it's going to be a while until I can verify). I couldn't agree more.  Recipes that say "caramelize onions for 10 minutes" are just kidding themselves. I genuinely think 30 minutes is needed to properly get the job done. While that may seem like a long-time, anything less is just missing out on that deep flavor. The smokey sweetness of the onions, helped along by the paprika, is darn near perfect with the crisp corn. The good news is I think a big batch of caramelized onions could be made in advance, say on a Sunday afternoon, and stashed in the fridge for quicker weeknight meal prep.

sautéed corn with caramelized onions and smoked paprika

1 large yellow onion
1- 2 tablespoon olive oil
4 ears of fresh corn, kernels cut from the cob (about 3 cups)
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 tablespoon butter
kosher salt

1) Put a good glug of olive (1-2 tablespoons) in a large saute pan and heat over medium high.

2) Add onion and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent.

3) Add a good pinch of salt and the smoked paprika. Reduce heat to low and cook until onions are caramelized- deepen in color and are meltingly soft. You want the heat low enough that the onions do not burn but not so low that they don't cook. I find this step usually takes me about 30 minutes. I use the time to tidy up the kitchen and every so often give the onions a little stir.

4) Scoop the onions out of the pan, but leave all the good stickiness on the bottom of the pan. Raise heat to medium high and add 1/2 tablespoon of butter, along with the corn.

5) Saute the corn for 2-3 minutes until crisp tender (seriously, this takes almost no time) and stir back in the reserved caramelized onions. Serve warm or room temperature.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

blueberry and blackberry Eton mess with whipped mascarpone

Before I moved to Washington, in our early excited phone calls, my sister said one of the things we could look forward to is blueberry picking together in the summer on her side of the cascades, and then in the fall, apple picking on my side of the mountains. Through the hard moments of this move, packing boxes and tearful goodbyes, I have stored up this snapshot of future life - life lived closer with my big sister - to help buoy my spirits.

There was a part of me that worried it wouldn't happen: these fruit picking family outings. Like people who live in Southern California but rarely make it to the beach (guilty as charged), it is easy to have expectations and dreams of the person we could be if we changed our life, if we moved somewhere else. Part of the early struggles of a new life are the comparison of the reality with the picture in my head. I will say there have been some hard days, some disappointments. But in this one area, I underestimated my sister: just three weeks in to my new residency, I found myself with her at a blueberry farm.

A couple of weeks ago I spent 5 days staying in Seattle with my sister and her family. My husband had work commitments out in the area and so we all packed up and drove out on Wednesday morning. When I pulled the suitcases out the day before, I noticed Duke and Harriet looked a little nervous. They have adjusted so well to all the changes, but at this point, I wonder if they think we don't have a home. They have stayed in such a hodgepodge of places over the last few weeks: a packed up California house, hotel rooms, an empty rental house and then the same rental house packed with California boxes, etc. But one of the benefits of crate trained dogs is that as long as their crates are with them, they have a bit of security. When we move the crates to carry them outside to put in the car, they tried to jump in them to assert that where the crates go, they do too.

On Thursday morning, three of us: myself, Elizabeth and Amelia, drove to Mountainview Blueberry Farm in Snohomish. We all wore our sun hats, as the weather was unusually hot for the Seattle area- 90+. The staff at the farm set us up with buckets and pails with strings tied on and directed us towards the best areas for picking.

My previous experience with blueberry picking has all been in the wild of Southeast Alaska: directions to berry patches include notes like "look for the tallest pine tree on the right side of the road, just after the 3rd curve, and walk straight down hill".  Wild blueberries themselves are much smaller and their flavor concentrated, but picking them is the focused work of plucking the berries one by one from the bush. At the blueberry farm, I encountered blueberries that grow in clusters so that I could run my hand down a branch and the ripe berries popped off their stems, plunking directly into my bucket. We figured we had about an hour for picking, so we worked furiously. Amelia picked too but also ate and also dumped her bucket out. At one point, my sister accidentally spilled blueberries out of her own bucket and cried out "oh no!" Amelia tottered over and said, "It's okay momma, can I give you a hug?" She is such a sweetheart.

At the farm, there were other groups picking alongside us in the rows. There was just enough distance and privacy from the bushes that people felt free to converse amongst themselves but, in reality, all of us could easily hear one another. I loved catching snippets of conversation from a group of teenagers that someone had hauled along with them. They weren't particularly interested in berry picking but rather recounting the past weeks activities: who had been where and at which party etc. Their conversation brought such a wave of nostalgia from teenage summers- where it felt like there was so much possibility if only one could be in the right place at the right time. A row over from me, I listened as two young moms, babies in backpacks, chatted about finds at the recent Nordstrom sale and lamented an upcoming family reunion ("My own mother won't help me with the kids at all!").

After an hour, we decided to call it. The weight of carrying my bucket was causing an ache in my shoulders, so I was secretly hopeful about the amount of picking I accomplished. Under the pop-up canopies at the front of the farm entrance, we watched as our berries were poured into cardboard flats for weighing. We were just shy of 12 lbs! Easily the most blueberries my sister and I have ever picked in one setting. Here is a snapshot of my berry bucket with my fingers stained from picking.

We took our berry flats home- carefully placed in the backseat of the car. Once there, while Amelia napped, we picked over the berries to remove stems, leaves, snails and whatever else had been snagged along the way. The berries then spent a good soak in cold water- distributed amongst large bowls that covered two thirds of my sisters kitchen counters. It was satisfying work. After they were cleaned up, we spread 3/4 of the berry haul in single layers on large cookie sheets and placed them in the freezer. We left the remaining 1/4 of berries available for snacking from the fridge.

Late that evening my husband joined us back at my sisters house and he and my brother in law walked to a nearby brewery for a nightcap. They returned from the walk with a bounty of foraged wild blackberries. The polished purple beads of the blackberries along with the blueberries inspired the dessert for our following evening out. My sister (such a great planner!) snagged 4 tickets for us all to the Allen Stone concert at Chateau Ste Michelle, a winery just north of Seattle that hosts outdoor summer concerts. Amelia (and Duke and Harriet) stayed home with a sitter and my sister and I packed an easy picnic supper and two bottles of wine.

Our dinner included a gorgeous tomato, basil and mozzarella salad assembled by my sister with yellow heirloom tomatoes. My contribution was dessert- a riff on my favorite Eton mess. If you're not familiar with the dessert, it is a jumbled together mix of berries, whipped cream, and broken meringues. I like to let guests assemble their own, so they can portion out more or less of each of the components as they desire. It can all be made in advance, and as long as elements stay cool, it travels quite nicely. In my California life, I brought this treat into work several times. The magic of this dish is the alchemy of crisp sharply sweet meringue with edges melted by tart soft berries, all held together by a cloud of cream. Trader Joe's sells a tub of vanilla meringues which are just perfect for the job. While Eton mess is traditionally made with strawberries, I feel no loyalty and regularly substitute whatever berry I like. I like to cook the berries down slightly to be sure there is enough of a sauce to soften up the meringues. I include a smidge of cinnamon with the sauce because my mom always includes it in her blueberry cobbler. I like the pairing- I feel like the cinnamon brings out a certain muskiness in the blueberries. You are welcome to omit, but I'd highly encourage giving it a try.

While also untraditional, the addition of the mascarpone to the whipped cream provides a bit of tang and results in a mixture that flirts with a sort of deconstructed cheesecake. I add vanilla extract, but I also think a little citrus zest folded in at the end could be wonderful. (Mascarpone is a soft Italian cheese and, like cream cheese, can be used in both sweet and savory preparations. Here is one of my favorite ways to enjoy it.)

The Chateau Ste Michelle concert venue was charming- like a smaller, more casual version of Hollywood Bowl. Instead of bleachers and benches, it is a large open field and people bring blankets or low camping chairs. Allen Stone put on a wonderful show. He is crazy talented and has a great goofy sense of humor. As the sun set, the air cooled enough to remind me I was in Washington, and I thought about how I was with people I love, eating food we had picked and made together. It was a lucky moment where the person I hoped to be met the person I am.

Please note: the berry sauce recipe below will make extra which is excellent to stash in the fridge for serving on pancakes or even muddled into cocktails (!)

blueberry and blackberry Eton mess with whipped mascarpone

berry sauce:
4 cups fresh blueberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup water
2 cups fresh blackberries

whipped mascarpone:
8 oz. container of mascarpone
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4-5 tablespoons granulated sugar

to assemble:
7.75 oz package of vanilla meringues (I'd recommend enough for 3-4 meringues per person)

for sauce
1) In a medium sized heavy bottomed sauce pan, stir together all the ingredients, except the blackberries. Reserve those for the end.

2) Heat over medium high heat until sauce starts to bubble (berries will burst and release juices), then lower the temperature and cook until it thickens up slightly. As I shared above, I keep this sauce on the loose side and don't let it get too jammy or thick, but it is entirely up to your preference.

3) Remove sauce from heat and set aside to cool. Once the temperature has reduced, stir in the blackberries. This sauce can be made in advance and kept in the fridge.

for whipped mascarpone 
1) In a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add the mascarpone and stir for a few seconds on medium speed, just to smooth things out.

2) Add the vanilla and sugar and stir again to incorporate.

3) Add in about a third of the heavy cream and start the speed out slow so that it is incorporating (and not splattering cream everywhere), then increase speed to start to whip the cream and build the volume. Do not whip for so long that you've actually made the whipped cream, stop while it is still soft and add the second third of the heavy cream. Follow the same steps: start out with slow speed so that the heavy liquid is smoothly mixed in and then increase speed to just start to see an increase in volume. At this point, stop the mixer and check for sweetness. If more sugar is needed, add here- it will give it time to dissolve. Add the remaining third of the heavy cream, once incorporated, increase the speed until the mixture is whipping and thickens up like whipped cream. Be sure to watch carefully as this happens pretty quickly and want to avoid making butter. Chill the cream mixture until ready to serve.

to assemble
1) Place the meringues in a large ziplock baggie and on a heavy surface, smash down with your fist to break into large pieces- about quarter or half-dollar size (any smaller than that and they just disappear in the mixture).

2) Set out the berry sauce, whipped mascarpone, and crushed meringues. Provide guests with small bowls to assemble their own Eton mess. Enjoy!