Sunday, August 31, 2008

No way it's fall!

Ah the bounty! And such a glorious day. The combination of sunny, warm weather and a kitchen full of perfect summer vegetables contradicted the fact that tomorrow is Labor Day, the psychological beginning of fall. I say no way! Summer rules and I'm not giving it up.

This morning I canned six quarts of ratatouille. I call it Summer in a Jar because when I eat it in February I'm instantly transported to this glorious time of year. Ratatouille as Madeleine. My recipe departs somewhat from the traditional, mostly because I use whatever came in the CSA share that week. Today I started by sweating onions, garlic, peppers, and fennel in olive oil. I sauteed eggplant and zucchini in more olive oil, and blanched about 10 tomatoes.

Recently I've started layering my Summer in a Jar because it looks good. Bright red tomatoes against yellow summer squash against white onions and green peppers. Plus it helps me apportion things evenly. A sprig of basil in every jar, and then, to top it all off, a handful of lemon pear tomatoes in each.

I've never found a canning time for ratatouille, so I probably over-do it; I process for 1 hour, 25 minutes at 10 lbs. Don't take chances with home's way better to be safe (and maybe a little soggy) than sorry.

Thanks to the Shibaguyz for inspiration.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Altoona Curves 12, Fisher Cats 0

We drove up to NH yesterday for Michael's mother's memorial service this afternoon. It's a sad time, but life continues to swirl around you even in times of quiet and sorrow...especially when you have little boys in your family.

My sister Sarah has two sons. Solon and Nathan are sports put it mildly. They invited us to join them at a baseball game last night and we watched the Fisher Cats (the local AA farm team for the Toronto Blue Jays) play the Altoona Curves (farm team for the Pittsburgh Pirates).

Despite the resounding defeat we had a wonderful time. The boys raced ahead and got the best seats in the house: four, padded reclining chairs behind home plate, just under the overhang. (That overhang came in handy during the 54 minute rain delay.)

The seats are saved for VIPs or very cute boys who ask nicely.

The whole evening seemed quintessentially American to me in a gentle, home town, I-can't-believe-this-still-exists, kind of way; we loved every minute of it. Park for free on the street and walk to the game. $4 bleacher seats. A park small enough that you can walk around inside and actually FIND your sister without having to call her on her cell. (In fact, very few cell phones in evidence at all.) Boys crowding around the dugout to get autographs and players actually giving them. Terrible, corny entertainment between each inning.

A far cry from the big league that is New York City and a very welcome change of pace.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

what does here taste like?

This is the hand of a blackberry picker. And blueberry picker. And mushroom picker. Yes, we picked all those things this weekend, but here, the stains and the scratches and thorns are courtesy of the noble blackberry.

Blackberry bushes defend their fruit with a vengeance. I've had two thorns firmly embedded in my fingers since Thursday when Mark and I each picked a gallon in under an hour. Despite this I won't stay out of the brambles; the berries are irresistible.

Yesterday we (Leda, Michael, Emma and Sophia (from Kitchen Caravan) and I) hoped to catch the end of the blueberry harvest. We are surrounded by highbush blueberries in this part of PA. No bending over to pick, plus, blueberries don't have thorns, so even though you have to bushwack, it's a kinder, gentler berry to forage.

Little did we know there would be blackberries ripening among the blues. Truly, the abundance at this time of year is overwhelming. In our shorts and t-shirts, we were woefully unprepared for bramble picking but who could resist? Yes, I'm scratched and scarred, but I'd rather have a delicious dessert than unmarred skin.

Why all the activity this weekend? Emma and Sophia brought their camera equipment (and culinary ingenuity) to make a series of short films for their website Kitchen Caravan, where September is local foods month. Leda and I did the menu planning, and everyone cooked.

You know how I love cooking with friends, but this time our goal was slightly more lofty. We wanted to explore what HERE tastes like, a theme Gary Nabhan discusses in his new book Renewing America's Food Traditions. Dinner Saturday night was 100% local: no coffee, no olive oil, no sugar, no pepper. It's extreme eating, but it offered an interesting challenge, and what foodie doesn't appreciate a challenge? Here's what we came up with:

-salad: watercress (picked in NJ Friday afternoon; I won't say where!) w/roasted plums and Brabander cheese from the Barryville, NY Farmers Market; the dressing was made from home made vinegar and juice from the roasted plums

-potatoes in duck fat (I cannot describe how superbly delicious this simple dish was; thanks to Leda and Alice Waters)

-quail wrapped in bacon (both from Lucky Penny Farms, also @ Barryville), with a sprig of homegrown rosemary tucked in between the layers...conceived by Mark and grilled to perfection by Michael aka The Grill Meister

-blueberry pie with a crust made from local flour and butter, and yogurt cheese substituting for the cream cheese layer; maple syrup added a touch of sweetness to the yogurt; the pie was topped with spicebush ice cream

I cracked open several bottles of homemade wine, and the girls brought NYS Reisling.

It was a delicious evening and fascinating to discuss what a local cuisine for this area might include. At this time of year, the possibilities are positively thrilling. Ask me in mid-January and I might not feel quite so optimistic. Then again, I plan to be eating my home-canned blueberries and blackberries all winter long!

Monday, August 4, 2008

no complaints

Step into my office:

The first day back from vacation is usually a bitch.

I understand that in the cosmic scheme of things I have a pretty good gig, but the forced return to real life still isn't easy. Yet today, I actually looked forward to seeing how the gardens had fared in my absence. I even took my camera along in case a particularly pretty posy caught my eye.

There was some extra sweeping to be done, more deadheading than usual, and a good deal of staking. But hey, it's August and it had been two weeks since my last maintenance visit. Generally things looked pretty darn good, which I took as a sign of solid ground work. These are strong gardens, and I'm proud to be their caretaker.

And because I don't want to loose my newly acquired Photoshop skills quite's a panorama assembled from three shots of the garden and skyline.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

a week's work

I've just finished taking a week-long intensive: Photoshop for Nature Photographers w/Ellen Anon at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. She's an excellent teacher and the class exceeded my expectations. I learned more than I thought possible, although I confess, my head is about ready to explode. There's been no time for anything else; we've been in the lab from 8 am to 9 pm every day.

Here are some before and afters; some are dramatically different, others, not so much: