This one’s for you, Mom.

Growing up, me and my mom were always close.  I was dragged initially for years, then eventually initiated going “garage saleing” with her every Saturday.  Shopping together was always an option, especially when both parties shared the same shoe size and the occasional same shirt size.  But in the way that life usually happens, moving out and getting married and all that jazz ended up in me and mom not seeing each other as much as we used to, let alone doing stuff together.

Back in 2011, I finally utilized my father’s multiple decades-worth of botany experience and asked him what sort of tree it was that I had over-reaching into my back yard.  I happily discovered that it was a mulberry tree – limb upon limb was covered in these tiny things that looked like Honey I Shrunk The Blackberries.  My trepidation in actually popping one into my mouth grew until I finally told myself that “what is life without risk?” and finally tried one (making sure my SO was not far away in case I started frothing at the mouth).  I was pleasantly surprised to find the small fruit sweet and a little tart, tasting like a cross between a blueberry and a blackberry.  Berries like these have a notoriously short shelf life, so I considered making something out of them.  A jelly, perhaps?

These are not good noms.

Me and jellies go way back (grammar be damned!).  I have vivid memories of making grape jelly with my mom in their tiny kitchen on my parents’ white electric stove when I was a teenager.  Mom put me in charge of cooking the fruit and pectin together…I’ll spare you the details and expletives, and tell you that it ended up with sticky, staining grape juice boiling over and getting on everything.  I still hear about that incident to this day.

Fast forward to this year, I called mom up and asked her if she wanted to make jelly with me one Saturday.  A few days later, my doorbell rings and mom can’t open the door because her hands are so full with canning equipment:  a huge pot, jar tongs,  funnels, jar lifters.  But my favorite was her recipe books, which were how I hope all of my cook books will be when I get older – crinkled because water or something else spilled on it at some point and that certain musty smell that says it’s been around for awhile.

Picking the berries was actually one of the best parts of the recipe, because we picked and talked and picked some more for over an hour.  Reminded me of those garage saleing Saturdays we used to have.  After stretching in ways I probably shouldn’t have, we bring in our measly 4 cups of berries and begin the process of jellification.  Grind the berries, strain the berries, cook the berries, add the sugar, add the pectin, all thankfully without repeating my previous teenage mistake.  All this work – the hour of picking, the 2 hours of making – resulted in 2 and a half jars of deep reddish-blue jelly that smelled like summer.  And I was damn proud of those 2 and a half jars.  When I eventually opened up a jar a few weeks later and slathered it onto a freshly toasted croissant from Calandra’s, the first sensation I felt was remembering all the hard work we put into it – and then I actually tasted it.  Sweet, with a hint of cranberry-tartness.

Breakfast of champions.

While the day had started out being about making jelly, it ended up not really being about the jelly.  I realize the more I type that I just wanted to spend a day with my mom like we used to, talking about this and that and just enjoying each others’ company.  I felt closer to my mom that day than I had for awhile.  Next year’s mulberry crop can’t come soon enough for me.

Thanks, mom. ❤

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Winter Can’t Stop The Garden State

Where else but at a Slow Food chapter meeting could you see a guy selling logs to grow your own mushrooms, among other things?  Gotta love that entrepreneurial spirit.

It’s easy to forget that it’s still actually winter here on my beloved East Coast, even though walking out into 50 or 60 degree weather in recent mornings is royally screwing my internal clock up.  Winter is normally the time to batten down the hatches and almost forget what summer is like – to yearn for that perfect sun-kissed ripe tomato while crying into your 80th bowl of chicken noodle soup in a failed attempt to stave off that inevitable cold.

Holing up in our places of residence over winter makes me appreciate meetings like the one Slow Food Northern NJ had a few weeks ago in Morristown, where you almost forget what it’s like to see a large group of people congregating.  And I love that the conversations I overheard there while volunteering dealt with topics such as what the farmer at Good Field Farms serves his pigs and cows over winter, the best way to serve Griggstown Quail Farm‘s mouthwatering chicken and turkey pot pies, and what exactly are nettles in Valley Shepherd Creamery‘s Nettlesome cheese (of which I’m still not certain).

I love that one of the picture captions is "Taking a swim."

It’s so heartening to see how many more vendors we had at this one than we did last year – over 30 in total – with the vast majority being based here in the Jerz.  I sampled an opulent duck fat ciabatta, which is currently frozen in my freezer awaiting the perfect dinner accompaniment, from Nina at Bobolink Dairy & Bakery (Milford, NJ), tangy and sweet apple cider from Best’s Fruit Farm (in Hackettstown, NJ) and decadent organic toffee sprinkled with pecans from Charley’s Toffee (from Mountainside, NJ).  Our state is rich with local food producers, and it’s great that the general public has an outlet in which to see them.

Being at the door, I got to see people coming and going.  For me, there was nothing better than seeing family units come in – often with small children and empty canvas bags – and leaving with grins on their kids’ faces as they snacked on a muffin from Made With Love and hauling newly purchased goodies out in Shoprite bags because they ran out of room in the totes.  Never will I be happier to see a plastic bag.

om nom nom

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Real Italians – read with care. New Jersey Italians – fistpump.

Be merciful, oh omnipotent Italian grandmothers!  I know not what I do.  It’s just that… I’m really lazy.  And thankfully, my own grandmothers are not Italian, so I think in the immediate future I will be ok.  I love me some Americanized Italian dishes.  What do Americans do best, if not make things our own? (for good or bad, your choice)  I make that distinction because I’m sure what I’m making would make any dead traditional Italian roll in their graves.  But my counter argument is pretty good… bacon.

As Ned Stark so accurately put it, winter is coming.  And even though in New Jersey winter is still technically a month away, the 19 inches of snow we had a few weeks ago says otherwise.  And winter food is the best, hands down – rich, creamy, satisfying and warming all in one.  Manicotti ranks right up there with things I love in winter, which also includes fuzzy blankets and no baseball.  And I happen to like my spin on it, even if it’s the Meg-style Italian cooking.

First things first, anticipate a little more than an hour to make said dish from start to finish, which makes it a good weekday-evening-with-no-plans dinner.  Keep in mind, this recipe is all about multitasking.  Second things second, fill a pot with enough water to boil the manicotti shells in.  While you wait for the water to boil, make the filling…my favorite is spinach-mushroom-bacon filling.  Thaw maybe a cup of frozen spinach in a bowl with water.  Fry up a 3-in. piece of fatty bacon, or use a teaspoon of leftover bacon fat that I know you have in the back of your fridge.  Render all of the fat so the bacon gets crispy – make sure you cook it at a low temp so that the bacon doesn’t burn before all the fat comes out.

While that cooks, chop up 5 cremini mushrooms.  When the bacon is crisp, scoop it out and put the mushrooms in, keeping it at a low temperature.  By now the water should be boiling; add the pasta shells and cook for 7 minutes.  While the mushrooms cook and the pasta boils, add the rest of the fillings in a medium glass bowl.  This includes a 15-oz. package of ricotta cheese, 1 egg, ¼ cup parmesan cheese, 1 cup shredded mozzarella, ½ teaspoon parsley, ½ tsp basil, a sprinkle of nutmeg and the thawed spinach.  I’ll give you a tip with thawing spinach:

–         Thaw in bowl with cool water
–         When thawed, line a strainer with a paper towel, then dump the spinach inside the towel
–         Let most of the water drain through, then pick up the towel by the ends to make a little thawed spinach dumpling
–         Twist the paper towel, which in turn squeezes out the water

You can also do this with a clean dish towel, although like noted before, I am lazy and you have to clean a towel.  Just be careful when using a paper towel that it doesn’t rip.

Mix all the filling ingredients together, then add the now finished mushrooms and fold in.  By now the pasta will be done; drain and add cold water so the pasta is easily handled.  Preheat your oven to 350, and spray oil a baking dish that will fit the amount of pasta you cooked.  Now here is the heathen part of this recipe.  Technically you’re supposed to use a piping bag/plastic bag with the tip cut off to fill the shells.  But I, being lazy, take the easy route of slitting the pasta down the side to open up the whole tube, then filling it and putting it seam side down in the baking dish.   Shh… no one will ever know.   Except the omnipotent Italian grandmothers.

Cover this sucker with tomato sauce (either homemade or jarred, I promise I won’t judge) edge to edge so the pasta doesn’t burn.  I happened to have made a pot of Italian gravy a few days before this, hence why I was making manicotti in the first place.  Top this with some good ole mozzarella and an extra dose of parmesan cheese, and you are golden.  Heave it into the prewarmed oven and bake for 35 until hot and bubblicious.  While waiting, drink the wine that I know you have in your house somewhere.  When the 35 minutes are up, take the pasta out and let it sit so that you won’t burn the roof of your mouth *too* bad when you eat it too quick.

Plate it, put on some good trashy TV, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.  You’ve earned it.

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Coolest. Thing. Ever.

My first blog entry for Edible Jersey’s Festival of Farmer’s Markets was published!  I went to the Caldwell market on a Friday when it was pouring, and there was only one determined farm there.  Here’s my entry, which can also be found at Edible Jersey’s website/blog.

Even Rain-Soaked, Jersey Produce Looks Good
at the Caldwell Market

Friday, July 8, 2011

You know a farm is dedicated when they’re willing to drive more than an hour to provide Essex County with a bounty of Jersey Fresh produce when it’s raining some serious cats and dogs outside. At the Caldwell Farmers Market, Hackettstown-based Iona Hill Farm was the lone stand open on this soggy Friday, which usually has 11 vendors offering edibles ranging from Hoboken Farm’s mozzarella to Jaker’s Pickles.

At the Iona Hill stand, handwritten chalkboards hanging above the produce were slightly misted by the 100% humidity also hanging in the air, but the healthy fresh colors of their fruits and vegetables definitely brightened the day. The fourth-generation farm has offered their variety of vegetables and fruits at the market for about three years, and claims that this is their best market of the five they participate in. And you know their stuff is good when you can smell the heavenly scent that is fresh garlic despite the rain’s attempt to whisk it away. As I was about to leave, I pulled some cash from my pocketand purchased a few bulbs– it would have been a shame to not pick up Jersey produce this good.

I’m working on the next one on the Nutley market.  It was so awesome to actually get to talk to people.  I’m an awkward person all-around, so I was always hesitant to ask farmers too many details about what they do, fearing they would get impatient with me for asking so many questions, or some other paranoid thought.  But now, I just open with “Hi, I’m blogging for Edible Jersey, can I talk to you?” and they just start talking.  Everyone was so nice, and it was great to see so many different vendors at different stages of development – from a month-old cookie company to the well-established Hoboken Farms.  Stay tuned for my next Edible Jersey blog!! 🙂

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Where’s the beef? I has it.

And I’m not talking about the kind that goes moo.  I’m looking right at you, Williams Sonoma.  You know I’m committed to you, and you alone.  I’ll love you forever, even when you try to sell me a $37 avocado slicer, can opener and melon baller combo.  But your recipe editors… I got a bone to pick with you.

Case in point – fava beans.  Previously to this dinner, the closest I’d gotten to these mutant beans was Silence of the Lambs.  (Alas, I did not have them with a nice Chianti.)  So I consulted my awesome Williams Sonoma cookbook, which rarely leads me astray.  Here’s what I saw:

I should have known when something sounds so simple, it’s really not.  First of all, I had no idea what a good fava bean entailed when I bought them; this is one (of the few) cases where bigger is better.  Unfortunately for me, I got a pound of beans all different sizes – and removing them from the pods is much more of a pain than my beloved W-S cookbook lets on.

The pods, about the length of your hand, have a seam that goes down the back of the bean; sometimes it opens along the seam, sometimes it doesn’t.  Because of this, I think removing the pound of beans from their shells took about 20 minutes alone.  And keep this in mind – a pound of beans only gives you about a half a pound of beans if you’re lucky… so over-estimate if you need a certain amount.

After this, you still can’t just eat the things because they have a tough skin covering each individual one.  So the second point of annoyance is removing the beans from said shells, which also takes much more time than the recipe lets on.  Blanch the beans for a minute or two in salty water, then dump them in a bowl of ice water to cool off until you can handle them.  After that, you gotta pop em…each and every one.  And it’s so deflating at the end to see that from that one pound of beans and after 40 minutes of waiting, you have… not much to show for it.  Keep in mind – this is just a normal cereal bowl.

Only after all this work can you actually saute and eat the friggen things.  I just browned some onion and garlic in olive oil and threw the beans in for a few minutes.

If I can impart some advice, it would be to avoid fava beans unless you really want to try something that’s not worth the effort.  They were good, don’t get me wrong – they were meaty with a slightly bitter after taste – but not worth the time, I think.  Honestly the best part of that dinner was the smoked duck breast I picked up from the Hudson Valley Duck Farm at the Union Square farmers market a few weeks before it (oh my goooooddd if you ever get the chance to get it, GET IT.)  Here’s their website.

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Ahhh, a distraction.

It’s both comforting and annoying that I get distracted so easily, as it seems like the only time I write in my diary or post something is when I should definitely be doing something else.  Hence the, oh, 6 month gap between posts.

Spring has sprung, or at least the weather in New Jersey went from vague-ish-ly spring-ish to full-blown summer weather (Helloooo 95 and humid!).  And as much as I hate summer, I’m looking forward to my garden.  Yes, I am once again attempting the impossible – growing things in a garden that I’m convinced has only clay for soil and competing with my groundhog arch-enemy.  This is the time that I can certainly tell I am my father’s daughter… I get the most satisfaction possible from looking at my own handiwork at the end.  Standing there in the humidity puffing and panting, but being able to see that I successfully turned over all soil in my little 8 by 8 patch of land, almost made me forget how exhausted I was.  Between putting plants in the earth, rediscovering my poor blog, and my second niece being born this week, I’m feeling good.

Life is full of possibilities right now.

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This is tougher than it seems.

Is it sad that it’s harder for me to write about cooking than it is to cook?  Not because I can’t write, but it’s hard to justify why anyone I don’t know would read this.  Well, the first step of fixing that is to shut up and post some pictures!

I like cooking on Thursdays.  Kim is away all day, and I can cook all day without pressure.  And if it sucks, or I screw up, there’s always leftover chicken fingers or potato chips…preferably combining in some delicious way.  It’s nice to come home after sitting at my desk all day to simply be in my own head, single-mindedly set to preparing a recipe.

This past Thursday, after being distracted for a solid 2 hours after getting our professional wedding pictures back, I wanted something warm and creamy and comforting.  Something seasonal and local.  Roasted butternut squash soup it is.

This recipe has always given me problems, because I stink at judging how long it takes to roast a squash so it’s not rock-hard when you take it out of the oven.  Luckily, this time it seemed to work – about 40 minutes.  But if it’s still hard when you poke it with a fork after 40, shove that sucker back into the oven until soft and squishy.  And there’s nothing like sitting down and looking into a bowl of the most gorgeous orange color you have ever seen.  The creaminess of the soup is also because you puree it – there’s no actual cream in it, which makes me feel better when I have more than a bowl of it.  Which I always do.

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