Monthly Archives: June 2010

happy, happy day

Last year at this time I was posting regularly about our backyard vegetable patch. I’d shared potato salad with our sugar snap peas, an earthy, herby frittata, and a rosy beet risotto. The garden was, while a bit overgrown, orderly and walkable. I visited it every day, scurrying through the gate in the morning after my runs to pick raspberries for breakfast, losing myself to daydreams as I stood with a hose each afternoon and soaked the soil under the tomatoes and peppers. I was oh-so-proud of our little plot, and oh-so-excited to share its progress with you all.

In December, after harvesting the last of the carrots for our Christmas dinner, Brian and I mourned the fact that those were probably the last vegetables we’d see come from our current backyard. We were planning to move this Summer, and didn’t think it would be very smart to put a lot of time, money, or energy into a piece of land that would no longer be ours in just six months’ time. It made me sad. Very, very, sad.

March came and went without us ordering organic compost to till into soil already rich from three years of amendment and gardening. There was no sprinkling of lettuce, kale, carrot, or beet seeds; no elaborate map drawn to show the exact location of each plant to come. May 15th, the last frost date for our part of Virginia, rolled by without us spending a Saturday planting tiny tomato, cucumber and pepper plants. The weeds grew, and grew, and grew…and I just let them.

Multiple friends who don’t know our plans to move, but do know the joy we get from growing our own food, have asked “how’s that garden of yours?”. This single question, innocent as it is, elicits a panicked look from Brian, who tries to change the subject before I can launch into our sorrowful (to me) tale. About how, no, we didn’t plant any vegetables in our backyard this year. And no, we don’t think we’ll be moving into a new house in time to establish a new garden. And yes, I am devastated that we’re not spending a portion of our weekends weeding and watering and planting and harvesting. Harumph.

In hindsight, we should have planted summer veggies. Things never move as quickly as anticipated, and our putting the house on the market was no exception. By now we could have been eating our own lettuce, cucumbers, sugar snap peas, and beets. Instead we’re buying them at the farmer’s market, which is the next best thing, but still not quite as satisfying. I’m getting over it. Really.

However…our berries have been AMAZING this year. Strawberries, red and golden raspberries, gooseberries, blackberries. Thank goodness for hardy perennial fruit that grows no matter the neglect it’s received! Those shots at the top of the page are from my visit to the garden last Friday morning, when I first noticed that the blackberries are starting to ripen. I did a little dance, hurried back inside for my camera and a bowl, and proceeded to pick every single fully-black berry on the vine. Happy, happy day.

This cake was actually made with blackberries that we grew last summer and froze. We had 8 quarts in our own freezer, and many more were given to friends. I’m betting that our harvest will be doubled this year, and we’re not moving until I am proven right.  Stubborn?  Not me.

Even if you have fresh blackberries on hand, you should still freeze them for at least 4 hours before adding them to the batter. The frozen berries, with the help of the syrup, will stay firmly rooted to the bottom of the pan without rising to the top (which will become the bottom) of the cake.

The whole wheat flour provides the cake with a dense crumb, perfect for picking up between two fingers.  I made it for dessert, but I think it is even better for breakfast.  Not too sweet, hearty with whole grains, a nice compliment to a cup of coffee.

Blackberry Upside-Down Cake

from Sweet and Natural Baking, by Mani Niall

serves 10

Ingredients

fruit

  • 1/3 cup liquid fruit juice concentrate (or, agave nectar)
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • 3 cups frozen blackberries

cake

  • 3 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup liquid fruit juice concentrate (or, agave nectar)
  • 2/3 cup skim milk
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp fine sea salt

Method

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 10-inch ovenproof skillet or springform pan with vegetable oil spray.
  2. For the fruit:  In a small saucepan, bring the fruit juice concentrate and oil to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes. Pour into the prepared pan. Immediately arrange the blackberries in the pan in a single layer. Work quickly, as the syrup will harden rapidly. Place in the freezer while preparing the batter. (This will keep the fruit from floating to the top of the batter while baking.)
  3. For the cake:  In a medium bowl, using a handheld electric mixer at high speed, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the fruit juice concentrate, beating until stiff peaks form. Reduce the speed to low and add the milk, oil and vanilla, mixing until well combined.
  4. In another medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt until combined. Add to the liquid ingredients and whisk until smooth. Remove the pan from the freezer and pour the batter over the fruit.
  5. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on a cake rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the inside of the skillet or springform to loosen the cake. Invert onto a serving plate. Let stand for 5 minutes so that the cake can absorb the juices. Remove the skillet of release the sides of the spring form and carefully lift off the bottom. Serve the cake warm or at room temperature.

CNN’s Eatocracy

Hello Friends!  I was featured today on CNN’s new food blog, Eatocracy!  I am pretty excited about it, and thought I’d share the link in case any of you would like to check it out.  Please disregard my use of the word “ooze” in my profile…

BellaEats on CNN’s Eatocracy

xoxo.

truly, I do

The mosquitoes are out in full force, covering my skin with pink welts each time I venture into our overgrown garden. My hair frizzes to twice its volume as soon as I consider stepping outside. I can’t walk down the block without tiny beads of sweat popping up on the back of my neck, yet my office is frigid enough to require a sweater. Spring seems to have moved on early this year, leaving in her wake an abrasive and demanding Summer.

But, despite all of this personal discomfort, I love this time of year. Truly, I do.

I love the thunderstorms that sweep in like clockwork each afternoon, lending the sky an ominous tone and the air an electric buzz. I love the booths at the farmer’s market, the tables full of greens and berries and cucumbers and beets. I love that the water is warm enough to take the dogs swimming at the reservoir, and that those trips are the perfect opportunity for a picnic. I love drinking Moscow Mules on the back deck while watching fireflies glow in the trees, and the smell of sun screen and citronella and bug spray made sweeter by the intoxicating aroma of freshly-mown grass and trampled mint.

Those are all compelling arguments, I know, but what I love most about this Almost-Summer time of year is the local Virginia fruit. Those few days where I find myself wandering between tidy rows of strawberries, or ducking under tree branches dripping with both rainwater and cherries, are worth every welt on my itchy legs. Filling our basket with blueberries and melons at Charlottesville’s City Market makes the sweltering heat just bearable as we make our way between stalls. And folding homegrown raspberries into whipped buttercream…oh my. There aren’t many discomforts that fresh raspberry buttercream can’t fix.

But today, let’s focus on those cherries. Ten-year-old Andrea would probably tell you that they are her favorite fruit…ever…for their appearance at the grocery store was always perfectly timed with the end of school and the beginning of Summer vacation. My momma, a teacher and just as excited for the break, would plan day trips to Florida’s fresh water springs for my friends and me. A bag full of sweet cherries was always packed as part of our lunch. After a few hours of swimming and snorkeling and sharks’ tooth hunting the dark-skinned globes would come out of the cooler, icy cold and immediately covered in tiny beads of condensation.

We’d find a spot in the grass, out of the shade of our claimed pavilion. The spring water was frigid, and the sun felt good on our skin as we spread a blanket and chose our places for the competition that was sure to follow. Small hands reached into the Ziplock bag, pulling out handfuls of tangled fruit to place in cross-legged laps. One-by-one, plucked from the mass by rubbery stems, the cherries were popped into eager mouths.  Rolled around and around the tongue, the pit was picked clean before being spat from juice-stained lips across the sun-soaked lawn.

Oh, summer.

I won’t deny that my adult days have seen the occasional cherry-pit-spitting contest.  Yes, I do that.  But 28-year-old Andrea has also learned how to bake and how to make jam, and that cherries pair well with savory partners as well as sweet.  Take this dish, for instance, a variation on the classic tomato and basil bread salad.  In it, sweet cherries are paired with the tang of  balsamic vinegar and spicy arugula, all held together by a base of crisped bread and a topping of creamy chevre.  It is a very adult meal, a lovely, rustic dinner for two on the back deck that is complimented nicely by an effervescent vinho verde.

Just be sure to save some of those whole cherries for dessert…you never know when your inner child will demand a little friendly competition.

Bread Salad with Cherries, Arugula and Goat Cheese

from A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg

makes 4 first-course servings, or a meal for 2

Ingredients

  • 6 oz rustic bread, preferably a day old (I used a whole wheat baguette)
  • olive oil
  • 1/2 pound cherries, halved and pitted (I used sweet cherries, and a cherry pitter was SO handy)
  • 1/8 tsp pressed or crushed garlic
  • balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • arugula
  • fresh chevre, coarsely crumbled
  • black pepper

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Trim crust from bread, and discard the crust.  Tear the bread into rough, bite-size pieces (you should have about 4 cups, total).  Dump the bread onto a rimmed baking sheet, and drizzle it with olive oil.  Toss to coat. Bake until crispy and golden in spots, shaking the pan once, 8 to 10 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put about one-third of the cherries in a small bowl and mash them lightly with a fork to release their juices.
  4. When the bread is nicely toasted, turn it into a large bowl. While it is still hot, add the crushed garlic and toss well.  Set the bowl aside to cool for a minute or two, then add all of the cherries, both mashed and halved, and toss. Add 2 tsp balsamic vinegar and toss again. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch or two of salt and toss again.
  5. Taste, and adjust the vinegar, oil and salt as needed.  The bread and cherries should taste good on their own. When you’re satisfied with the flavor, add about 2 handfuls of arugula and toss one last time.  Finish with a generous amount of crumbled goat cheese and a few grinds of the pepper mill, and serve.

perfect as they are

Last month, at the very beginning of May (where did you go, sweet May?) Brian and I went strawberry picking. I’d received the email days before that shouted against a bright green backdrop “strawberries are here!”.   I anxiously await this announcement each year.  Not only does it mark Spring’s firm hold on this time in Charlottesville, it also foreshadows the other emails to come reporting the arrival of cherries(!) and peaches(!!) throughout the summer. (I’ll add that, since it has taken me so very long to share this post and recipe with you, I’ve already received both the “cherries are ready!” and “peaches are early, and ready!” emails.  I’ll try to do better this month with timely posting…)

And so Brian and I hopped in the car that Friday and drove out to the country to fill a flat with ten pounds of bright and beautiful berries. Never mind the fact that we have a garden on the side of our house that is absolutely FULL of strawberry plants. Plants that have well exceeded their raised bed boundary and tumbled into the aisles of what was once a very organized patch. Plants that, during the time we were heading towards the orchard with windows down and music blaring, were completely covered with star-shaped flowers and tiny green fruit.  But those country strawberries, they were ready RIGHT THEN, and I just couldn’t wait another week for ours to ripen.

There is something very special about moving slowly between those neat rows of plants, bending down to push emerald leaves aside, revealing the ripe and ready gems hiding in their shade.  The berries come off their stems with the most satisfying “snap!”, and if popped in your mouth at that exact moment are one of the most delicious treats to ever touch your tongue.  Warmed by the sun, the fruit seems to explode in the mouth as vibrant juice seeps into every nook and cranny. It is so overwhelmingly good that you must close your eyes, tilt your face up towards the sky and slip into a little food dance of happiness.  Yes, I do that.

Once home, I set to work finding recipes for our bounty.  I thought about pie and jam and cobbler, but in the end decided that the berries were perfect just as they were.  And so I rinsed them all and placed most in a large colander in the fridge, ready for breakfast yogurt and cereal, afternoon snacks and ice cream topping.  The pint that I set aside was slated for tiny tarts, the raw berries sliced thinly and laid across a filling of cooked rhubarb within a crisp, buttery shell.

The marriage of rhubarb and strawberry is timeless, like that of chocolate and peanut butter, or coconut and lime.  One will never tire of the other, and folks will undoubtably continue to enjoy their combined company for years to come.  In these tarts, the rhubarb is cooked down in a process that resembles the making of jam, and the end result is quite similar to the classic jarred spread.  The tartness of the rhubarb is gently subdued by the sugar it is reduced with, but still punchy enough to provide nice balance to the sweet berries.

The best part of these tarts is the strawberries themselves, kept raw and firm and perfectly sweet on their own.  Find the freshest fruit possible and you can’t go wrong.

Rhubarb Strawberry Tarts

from The Greyston Bakery Cookbook

makes one 9-inch tart or six 4-inch tarts

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1-1/4 pounds fresh rhubarb, trimmed and cut diagonally into 1/4″-thick pieces (about 5-6 cups)
  • 1 pint strawberries
  • 1 fully baked 9″ Tart Pastry (see recipe below), cooled

Method

  1. In a heavy saucepan, combine the sugar and water.  Stir over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Add the rhubarb, increase the heat, and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the rhubarb is just beginning to soften.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Let stand, covered, for 10 minutes, or until the rhubarb is tender.
  2. Set a mesh strainer over a medium bowl and drain the rhubarb, reserving the liquid.  Allow the rhubarb to cool completely.  In a small saucepan, simmer the reserved liquid over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, or until it is reduced to a thick syrup.  Set the syrup aside and allow it to cool completely.
  3. Meanwhile, wash and hull the strawberries.  Thinly slice the strawberries lengthwise.
  4. Spread the cooled rhubarb evenly over the bottom of the tart shell.  Arrange the strawberry slices in concentric circles over the rhubarb filling, covering it completely.  Brush or spoon the cooled syrup over the top of the strawberries.  Chill before serving.

Tart Pastry

Ingredients

  • 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 7 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into very small pieces and chilled
  • 1-3 tbsp ice water, as needed

Method

  1. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt to blend thoroughly.  Using a pastry blender, metal pastry scraper, two knives or your fingers, cut or rub the butter in the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
  2. Using a fork, stir in the water, 1 tbsp at a time, adding just enough for the dough to hold together without becoming wet.  Gather the dough into a ball and then flatten it into a disk.  Wrap the disk of dough in plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour.
  3. Remove the dough from the refrigerator.  Using a rolling pin on a lightly floured board, roll the dough to form a rough circle about 1/4″ thick.  Carefully transfer the dough to a 9″ fluted tart pan (or six 4″ pans) with a removable bottom.  Press the dough lightly but firmly into the edges of the pan, allowing the excess dough to hang over the edges of the pan.  Roll the rolling pin over the top of the pan to trim the excess dough from the pan rim.  Pierce the bottom of the dough several times with the tines of a fork.  Chill for at least 30 minutes before baking.
  4. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400*F.  Line the chilled shell with foil or parchment and fill with pie weights, dried beans, or raw rice.
  5. Bake the shell for 12 minutes, or until the pastry is set and golden.  Carefully remove the foil or parchment and weights and continue to bake the shell another 10 to 15 minutes (a little less if you use the smaller pans), or until the pastry is golden brown.  If the edges start to brown too much, cover them with strips of foil or piecrust shields.  Cool on a rack.