(A Love Letter for) October

As the weather cools, my mind slams inward in an abrupt transition from ‘doing’ to ‘thinking’, and as the thinking-months go, October has my heart. It may seem like an obvious choice for artistic affection and October’s popularity has the potential to redirect the part-time deep-thinker toward barren November or stoic January for philosophical inspiration. But, like that popular girl in school–the one with the winning smile–I am still smitten and powerless against her charms.
Because, within the melodrama of October’s 31 days, I find surprising truths and remarkable depth.
Yes, the brilliant yellows of twisting, paintbrush birch trees saturate the skyline and contrast beautifully with crisp blue, but below the birch and the showy maple, the undergrowth of the forest has gone yellow as well. It glows and illuminates the floor and as leaves fall, paths are clearly seen; nooks of the woods that rarely get noticed when covered in all-green, all-brown, or all-white are now exposed briefly for exploring eyes.
So too, in the artificial terror of Halloween that we’ve learned to commoditize as we’ve grown up, there is reality and humanity waiting to surprise us. Whether or not we know what we’ve done, we’ve created a fun way to bring death to light; to take a good look at it, face-to-face. We learn not to be scared by it because it’s just a mask, after all. But fear does persist and it teaches, gently, through these darker nights and earlier afternoons. A brisk and rattling 8 o’clock wind still makes me walk faster. Colder, greedier waves still make me watch my feet closer as I navigate the rocks.
And, in all the fun of a great pile of fallen leaves, as I sink down into them (unable to stand for laughing) their nostalgic smell catches me, pulls me further down until I’m covered. I’m not able to stop a brief detour into mortality as the sounds of life around me become background noise to the reality of this slowly-dying enclosure. My throat may catch and my heart may pound, but when a child’s hand reaches into the pile, searching for mine, I shake my head, snap to, and start brushing off my leaf-coat. Smiling again, I rejoin the other reality, and in one deep inhalation of October air, I distill both death and life into a single, beautiful autumn moment.

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August

A recipe soon (a quite kick-ass one too, IIDSSM), but first, a tale based upon actual events:

August is when my list-writing gets out of hand. All summer, lists have been written—grocery lists, yard ideas, small plans for future dates, general to-do’s. These are well-behaved lists: written legibly, categorized in neat columns on a sheet of paper. Optimistic, energetic words that inspire organized action and accomplishment. Neat bullet points that are crossed off and then tossed in the recycling:
* yoga
* groceries
* call dentist
* grill PM
* paint

But as summer progresses and nears completion, the lists turn, and take on a panicked and accusatory quality. These are no longer to-do lists, but guilty lists of things not done; things that should have been done. Summer things whose viable time is rapidly diminishing:
“paint house, stain deck, beach soon”.

The structure of the August lists mirror the state of my brain. No longer are words written out in-full on neat note-pads. Gone are the prim bullet points. These are words scrawled on anything that is handy at the time, on scraps of paper that clutter every surface and get lost easily under things, including new lists.
The words are abbreviated to the point of incomprehension when unearthed days later:
“fab”,
“ging/pep ic”,
“tri mob”.

These lists are more plentiful, yet shorter, and document every aspect of my converging lives without attention to genre or scale:
“util bill, wrench, job ideas” share a shred of paper near the coffee maker;

“mulch, blog” under a stack of library books;

on the nightstand: “memories, IC recipes, coffee”.

Occasional words are boldly visible; judgmental:
“dentist!!!”, “FURNACE”,
while others with question marks are lost quickly, embarrassed, knowing they will not receive further consideration:
“fix laptop?”, “gym memb?”

Most of the August lists have been written out of compulsion or desperation–scribbled hastily to free up mental real-estate and then abandoned.
But at some point, these lists reach a critical mass and begin a gravitational pull toward consolidation.
For companionship, maybe.
Small paper fragments containing single words slip out from under magazines and bills and fall to the floor. They flutter down from countertops and shelves and begin inching toward each other. They origami-fold into little mobile creatures:
airplanes, paper cranes, butterflies, jumping frogs, and they begin to assemble in the living room.

When they’ve all extracted themselves from their nooks and crannies, I can see their immense volume and I back away uneasily. I unwittingly continue to add to their numbers with mental to-do’s that flow out of my head and collect with the paper lists.

In short time my living space is too uncomfortable to share with them and I’m forced outside. They creep toward the door, following, determined little reminders, so I start walking.
The direction doesn’t seem to matter, so I choose uphill, perhaps so the still-spilling words from my head will have a harder time following me once they hit the ground.
My pace is uneven at first and the lists tumble out of my brain in a chaotic flood, soaking the pavement behind me. But as my feet find their rhythm, the flood becomes a neater, two-dimensional sheet, and then thin further still to mere strands of connected ideas.

I climb further uphill and the traffic and asphalt give way to tall grasses and dirt. The words are not even a trickle now and I’m sweaty in the late-day sun, so with the drill of cicadas fatiguing me, I stop on the narrow path and rest. I sit down and look up, my brain still stubbornly trying to list, but there’s not a word, idea, plan, or thought left undocumented.
I lean back, relieved, and watch the sky. Tree branches have formed a catcher’s mitt for the setting sun and the tall grasses bend in over me. Wispy clouds are tinted orange and pink and, unable to help myself, I start forming a word with them—the only yet-unlisted word I can find.
I pull and shape the clouds to make letters:
S-L-E-E-P.
And now, finally, everything listed and my head peacefully empty, I lay down and close my eyes.

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The White Canadian

Big Lebowski fan here. It had been a few years since I’d watched it and so I snapped it up when I saw it on the shelf at the library a couple of weeks ago. (Seemed like an odd match for the library, but who am I to question these things?). And to stay thematic and all of that, I love to sip a White Russian (or two) while I watch. However. I was out of coffee liqueur. What’s a duder to do?

Now, before I get to the bev recipe here, let me pause to share the sub-recipe for coffee maple syrup as well as the story behind it.

So, my fridge often looks like a mad scientist’s lab—jars full of iced teas, cold coffee, leftover miscellaneous, various liquids steeping and awaiting a culinary experiment–all often lacking labels, because I’ll remember, right? And, in the springtime, often a mason jar of maple syrup. Such was the case one fateful day when I made The Best Mistake Ever and I poured some leftover coffee in a jar containing not more coffee, but pure maple syrup, about a cupful.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook after the incident:

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“This is the single greatest culinary mistake I’ve ever made and you should try it:
1. Accidentally combine 1 part maple syrup with about 2-3 parts brewed coffee.
2. Curse the loss of maple syrup!!
3. Stop and think….
4. Simmer the stuff for a couple hours until reduced by half or a little more.
5. Super yummy coffee maple syrup to pour over everything. ”

It’s seriously awesome stuff. Really, I can’t think of much of anything that wouldn’t be better with the addition of this amazing concoction. Make it.

I have made it a couple of times since the accidental batch and I would recommend condensing down the coffee a bit before adding the syrup. This gets rid of some of the water and intensifies the coffee flavor.

What I do is boil the coffee till reduced by about a third (this is a great use for that old nasty coffee that’s been sitting on the hotplate for 2 hours) and then add about half the volume of maple syrup (so, that’s about a 2:1 coffee:syrup ratio, but definitely adjust to your tastes).
Heat the mix through till it thickens very slightly, but not too much or it will be sludgy when it cools. Cool it down, store it in the fridge, and pour it over and in everything.

Ok, to the cocktail!

Since I was lacking coffee liqueur but had a plentiful supply of coffee maple syrup, so was born the White Canadian:

Whole milk (or half-and-half or cream)
Coffee maple syrup
Vodka
Ice

I didn’t measure anything out because it’s all what you’re in the mood for regarding sweetness, creaminess, booziness… Just stir it up–no frills here.

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Abide, eh?

Ginger Black Pepper Cherry Cobbler

I ended up with a case (18 pounds!) of organic sweet cherries a couple of weeks ago because the Co-op had an Extreme Produce Sale and who could say no to $1.50/lb organic cherries?! Not I.
So, I pitted those suckers (it looked like a crime scene on my countertop ..) and now I’ve got a freezer-full of cherries to make into things!
I was going to make a pie using this recipe (adjusting slightly because I don’t have sour cherries) for a potluck, but then changed my mind because pies are difficult and messy at a potluck. So, cobbler!
I sort of {ahem} cobbled {knee-slap} this recipe together using some of the black pepper ginger syrup I had in the fridge for the cherry base and the shortcake recipe I’ve been refining and using this summer for the topping (a mash-up of the crust from the pie recipe linked above and shortcake recipe from Williams-Sonoma).
The ginger and black pepper add a subtle zing to the not-too-sweet cherries. The biscuit topping is scone-like and all the better with the bit of almond meal.
And paired with almond whipped cream, it was a hit!

Recipe:

Cherry Base
Approx 3.25 lbs sweet cherries, fresh or frozen, pitted and halved
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup black pepper ginger syrup *
4 tbsp corn starch

Biscuit Topping
3 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup almond meal/flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into roughly 1/2″ pieces and kept chilled
2 large eggs
2/3 cup heavy cream**, plus more as needed

Method:
1. Preheat oven to 375. Butter a 9 x 13 pan.

2. Mix the cherries and sugar in a large pot and heat over medium heat. Cook until the cherries release their juices and the sugar dissolves.

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3. Whisk together the ginger syrup and corn starch in a small bowl. Once the cherries are hot, add the syrup-corn starch mix and increase heat a little to med-hi. Stir regularly as everything heats and thickens. Once the mix is thick and jam-like, remove from the heat and set aside while you make the topping.

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4. Whisk the flours, sugar, BP, and salt together in a medium bowl. Add the diced butter and, working quickly to keep everything cold, combine the butter and dry ingredients using a pastry cutter or your fingers till the butter is incorporated, but there are still slightly larger chunks of it remaining—that somewhat uneven texture they usually call “coarse meal”.

5. Whisk the eggs and cream in a small bowl and then pour into the flour-butter mix. Stir everything together gently with a spoon till it forms a dough, but not past the point where the flour is moistened. If it looks too dry, add more cream by the tablespoonful till it all comes together. Don’t over-mix!
The dough can chill at this point, but it’s not essential.

6. Spoon the cherries into the 9 x 13 pan. Take spoonfuls of the dough (about golf ball-sized) and drop on top of the cherries, covering the top.
(I ended up using only about three-quarters of the dough, so I froze the rest for a later use.
…And by later use, I might mean sneaking off hunks of it with a paring knife to snack on when my daughter’s not looking…)

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Pop it all into the 375 oven for between 25-30 minutes. It’s done when the cherries have bubbled up through the topping and the topping itself is nice and golden.

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Yum.
Now for the whipped cream. For a crowd, I used a pint of heavy whipping cream, a scant quarter cup of sugar, and about 2 tsp of almond extract.
Ideally, whip the cream in a cold metal bowl because it goes faster.
You can, of course, use an electric handheld mixer or standing mixer with ballon whip, but I really like to whip cream by hand with my trusty old whisk.

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Why?
I’m not sure and I could certainly philosophize on the subject (really, why does one do anything a harder way when an easier way to do it exists …?), but I think it’s because of the connection to the process and being able to really feel the cream change states.

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Whatever the reason, I do really recommend doing it once in your life just to say you have. It will hurt your arm a little, but it doesn’t take any longer than with a handheld mixer, so pop on your Devo cassette and get whipping!

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Chow down, or get this all to your gathering quickly! This dessert is at its finest when the cobbler is warm and the cream is cold.

* If you don’t want to (trust me, you WANT TO) or don’t have the time to make the ginger syrup, here are two things to consider:
1. I made this recipe much quicker by making a few changes:
a) I scrubbed, but didn’t peel the ginger–you’re straining it out after all.
b) I coarsely ground the pepper.
c) I heated the syrup and let it simmer for about an hour on low heat. It infuses much faster with heat.
2. Instead of the syrup, you could just add about a half cup more sugar and a little ground ginger and ground black pepper to the mix. Then whisk the corn starch in a quarter to half cup of cold water before adding to the hot cherries.

** I’ve used whole milk instead of cream and it still makes a yummy biscuit.

Mango Hab Jam

So, after picking and hulling 15 quarts of strawberries and pitting 18 pounds of cherries over the last couple of weeks, I must have been craving a change from all that red and purple, because I bought this at the grocery store yesterday:
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Jenny and I both love the “Pool Boy” martini they serve at a local establishment—-it’s mango purée with habanero-infused vodka, Cointreau, and lime and it’s delish. And I thought it might be good in jam-form. It is.

Here’s what I used:

3 mangos, finely chopped *
1 pineapple ring, 1″ thick, finely chopped
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp fruit pectin (powdered)
1/2 tsp salt
1 habanero pepper, seeded, sliced into 3 pieces **

And here’s what I did:

1. Combine the mango, pineapple, and OJ in a medium sauce pot and heat to a simmer over medium heat.

2. In a separate small bowl, whisk together the sugar, pectin, and salt.

3. As the fruit heats and softens, mash it a little with a potato masher to break up any larger pieces. Once everything is hot, whisk in the sugar mix and stir till the sugar dissolves.

4. Add the habanero slices. The idea is to steep the pepper in the mix until the jam reaches the desired level of spiciness. Stir or whisk the jam and taste frequently to see if it’s time to pull out the pepper slices. You can mash things with the potato masher to speed things up, but be at the ready, because it gets spicy quickly!
Edit: However, I found that the spiciness is muted once the jam cools, so adjust accordingly. A second habanero might even be called for, depending on your tastes.
Once it’s spicy enough, pull out the pepper slices with a tongs or spoon. You can totally still use these slices for other purposes (mango salsa!)

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5. Keep cooking the jam till it thickens enough that it’ll set once off the heat. Dear Sis reminded me of the freezer gel test: pull something frozen out of the freezer and drop a little of the jam on it. As it cools, see if it gels. If it does, it’s ready and if it doesn’t, it needs to be cooked down further.
Pull the jam off the heat and let it cool a bit before jarring it. Let it cool further and store in the fridge or freezer.
I got about three and a half half-pints from this batch.

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Isn’t it beautiful?
I’m thinking this will be awesome with grilled fish, pork chops, or chicken. Or with crackers and cream cheese. Or on top of vanilla or strawberry ice cream. Or shaken with ice and vodka and strained over a well-chilled martini glass….

* There are conflicting reports on the best way to peel and slice a mango, but here’s Alton Brown’s method

** You know about handling hot peppers, right? Be extremely careful not to get the oils on your hands or other surfaces you don’t want to burn now or later. Use gloves if you don’t trust yourself.

Mo’ Lime Mojito

It’s mojito season and here’s my tried and true version. It’s minty, tart, boozy and perfect for summer. Not at all the syrupy concoction you might get at the ol bar n grill.
Recipe first, then technique.
1 part each of:
Mint simple syrup
Freshly squeezed lime juice
White rum
Plus, a splash of club soda
Garnish with mint leaves

Start by making the mint simple syrup.
Use
1 part sugar
(Any kind you like…you can geek out at this point if you’d like:
~ granulated works perfectly
~superfine works the same as granulated, but faster
~raw or brown changes the color of the final syrup and drink, but gives it a deeper, more sinister taste…)
1 part water,
as much mint as you want
My typical batch is 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, and about 15 mint sprigs.

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Bring the sugar and water to a simmer in a saucepan over med-hi heat first till it starts to bubble, then tap it down to med-low. Stir or swirl occasionally to melt the sugar.
Pick the mint leaves off the stem and tear them into smaller pieces before you add them to the simmering syrup. Let it simmer till the syrup changes color and smells minty, but before it thickens too much.
Take it off the heat and let it cool. Once it’s cool, you can use it and then keep the rest in the fridge for up to a few weeks.
You can make this without heat too, but it takes much longer for the mint to infuse the syrup.

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Now, squeeze some limes.
You could use bottled lime juice at this point, but only if you want a crappy mojito and/or you’re desperate and the lime shortage scare has re-reared it’s ugly head.
Otherwise, get reaming.
It helps to have your limes at room temp first (microwave for a few seconds if they’re right from the fridge) and to squish them on the counter with the heal of your hand before you slice and juice them.

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Ok, ready to assemble the bev!

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Put ice in the glass, then one part lime juice, one part syrup, and one part rum. Stir gently and top off with club soda. Garnish with a few mint leaves and enjoy!
As with everything, it’s all to taste, (and if your syrup thickened a little too much, you may need to use less) so play around with the proportions and see what you like.
Some easy modifications I’ve done:
~add some strawberry purée (or any other fruit purée) with the lime juice
~use frozen blueberries instead of (or in addition to) ice cubes

Cheers!

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