Salvadonica offered cooking classes every morning, and we decided to sign-up for this as a group. We were doubtful when we learned that the price was 120 euros per person, but were swayed when we learned we would prepare and then eat a 3 course meal that came with complementary wine.
This experience was just lovely. The chef was a wonderful teacher and answered all our questions about regional differences between cuisine in the north vs south of Italy. We made fresh ravioli by hand in a pancetta cream sauce, roasted pork stuffed with raisins, Parmesan cheese, and bread crumbs and a ricotta and dark chocolate tart. She was Sicilian and explained how the pasta recipe differs in the north vs the south and why. We asked about Tuscan olive oil, and she wryly said that the Tuscans think theirs is the best. She described the flavor profiles that olive oils from the south of the country will have vs the north.
This foodie loved every minute of this class. I know we peppered her with a zillion questions, and it was lovely that she seemed delighted to answer them. I would almost say I enjoyed cooking more than eating the food, but that would be a lie. That meal is one of my favorite of all time. Our chef gave us copies of all the recipes we used, so Jeannine and I are most certainly inviting over friends and giving them a go this spring.
I’ve learned that oatmeal gives me terrible heartburn. I’ve learned that eating a breakfast loaded with fat is just fine by my stomach and body. I’ve learned that processed foods have cut hours of food prep out of our lives on a daily basis. I’ve learned that when you’re cleaning-up after every meal your kitchen is at once more clean and more dirty depending on how accessible the surface and where it’s placement is in relation to the stove top. I’ve learned that meal planning has nearly eradicated the thought “What do I want to eat.” from my brain. And when there is only one thing to eat, I eat it and feel happy about it regardless of how well I like it.
Jeannine and I moved in together March 1st. We are in the process on doing home rennovation. We are planning a wedding. As though this context were not challenging enough we added having a go at Whole 30 food plan on March 13th. For thirty days we would consume no added sugar, no legumes, no grains, no dairy. This forbidden list effectively removed all processed and packaged foods. All of them. All desserts. All grain based breakfast items. All the cheeses, the yogurts, and the cottage cheeses. All the pastas and the pastries.
Upon embarking Jeannine was hoping this experiment would alleviate her GERD symptoms, her hip pain, and trim down a bit. I was along for the ride thinking that I had no food allergies or sensitivities or ill effects from my dietary choices. I was hoping to shave off a few pounds, but otherwise I had no expectations.
That the American diet is saturated with soy, corn, and wheat reflects more on food subsidies and profit margins than it does anything else. Dollar bills drive the percentage of our calories these substances. If the things we put in our mouths greatly determine our health, we should probably allow something other than a large corporation’s profit margin determine our diet.
By all measures this isn’t working well for most of us. Americans are obese and sick. And these outcomes seem to be a feature of the American diet, not a bug.
I didn’t need convincing that exploring extensive diet changes might teach us new and valuable lessons. So, although I was skeptical of the testimonials of the diet curing an absurd number of symptoms. But hey, if you count up the cells in your body and the organisims in your gut, we are mostly the organisims in our gut. Our human cells are a fraction of what makes our bodies. Maybe those critters do drive or influence multiple bodily systems.
We got the books, and followed the meal plan for the first week. One aspect of this new reality became immediately clear. The trip to the butcher and the grocery store would need to be planned to the smallest detail. Otherwise we would be making daily shopping trips to fetch missing ingredients. We both work fulltime and daily grocery trips would not be sustainable.
The first list took me roughly three hours to compose. Never before had I needed to make every single meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner from scratch without the aid of boxed or ready to eat foods. The days of walking into the store and putting whatever appealed to me into the cart would be banished for the near future.
Prior to this diet I rarely prepared meat at home. When I assessed the many pounds of meat on my list, I thought the best place to get either local and/or sustainably raised meat was Avril Bleh’s on court street. Of all the positive things to come of this experience, getting to know and trust the jovial buys behind the counter at Avril Bleh’s is my favorite. From the first moment on, the guys were knowledgeable and helpful. When I was unsure of what I needed they would ask all the right questions to get us to certainty. Their pricing for local/grass fed beef is competitive with larger grocery chain’s organic offerings, making it obvious that their superior service and product were worth the weekly trip.
After what can only be described as a middle-aged Friday night and Saturday morning spent gathering groceries, we were ready to go. Another aspect of this new reality became clear. After just two meals, I knew I would spend far more time in the kitchen for the next thirty days. And, that I did. Prior to Whole 30 we spent an average of an hour a day doing food prep and cleaning. After Whole 30 we spent an average of three hours a day prepping food and cleaning.
Three things surprised me in the first week. I felt alert and sharp at all times of the day. After lunch fatigue disappeared. My sleep improved. And I could get less of it and still feel alert all day. I also ceased to feel bloated, and my incidents of over-eating dwindled to none. This was particularly surprising because my perception was that I was eating a ton of food. I always ate just until I was full, but I was used to eating no breakfast and a light lunch. Going from that to eating substantial breakfasts and lunches it seems a pretty dramatic uptick in food consumption.
I became aware of what a craving felt like and how it differs from hunger. I would become hungry in the hour leading up to my meals. But I would crave a sugary treat in the evenings after dinner. It took a couple of weeks to figure out how much I needed to eat a lunch to feel full until close to dinner time. And on the days that I ate too little I would feel very fatigued in the late afternoon. And I found that my instinct was to get a sugary snack. I realized that this instinct had less to do with hunger and more to do with my habit of combating drowsiness with bursts of sugar.
The Whole 30 book describes the first 12 days as being challenging due to your body moving from running on carbs to running on protein and fat. I didn’t experience much of this. But Jeannine and I did seem to go through a bout of allergies in the first couple of weeks. I’ve read on message boards that some people think these symptoms might be part of your body detoxing, it just happens to be doing so through your sinuses and respitory system. Because both of us suffer from spring allergies, we can’t really know what was at the root of these experiences.
In week two I considered the effects of the diet on out budget. We took a hit. We went from spending about two hundred dollars a week at restaurants and the grocery to spending and average of two hundred and fifty dollars a week. But we were also eating higher quality food. We went from eating pizza and Indian carryout to eating grass-fed local filet, fresh scallops, and organic wild caught fish and loads of fresh fruits and veggies. Not a bad trade-up for an extra fifty bucks a week.
Consolidating the grocery list got easier by the time we rounded on week four. We missed our desserts and pizza, because who wouldn’t? But I had to admit I was feeling considerably better without it. We also found ourselves to be about six pounds lighter each. I have never felt so full and satiated while losing weight before.
By the time we moved into the reintroduction period, we both agreed we wanted to eat at home like this all the time. The recipes were excellent. We both enjoyed foods we didn’t think we liked. And we liked the way we felt enough that we wanted to continue. We will still enjoy the occasional pizza or Indian carry-out. But we will enjoy them a bit less often. We will still go out to eat with friends. We will still enjoy a glass of wine here and there. But whole 30 is turning out to be more like whole life.
I’ve had little to write about cooking. I didn’t can last summer because of the move I was planning for the beginning of August. Because all of my early belongings needed to fit in my hatchback car, I didn’t make any elaborate recipes in Seattle. I had only rudimentary kitchen gear. I roasted lots of meats and veggies with some fresh herbs and spices, as the only equipment required for that is a pan.
The jams I made this summer were in small enough quantities, that I didn’t need to water seal them. I wanted to experiment with some different flavors. No one needs six or seven jars of a failed experiment.
I picked blueberries and black raspberries the same morning. I knew I wanted to use honey and lavender with the blueberries. For the black raspberries, I was thinking vanilla and lemon.
But I thought another woody spice would add some depth. Although I love cinnamon, I wanted something that would be less recognizable. I ended up with some peppery dry allspice.
First, the bad news, I didn’t measure anything. I just added ingredients to the pot until it tasted good. But I will tell you the process I followed for both of the jams and what I will do differently next time.
I washed the blueberries and tossed them into pot whole with a little water. I squeezed out a very generous amount of honey, by the looks of it about a half cup to around 6 cups of berries. I made a tea out of the lavender and strained out the blossoms.
After the berries cooked on medium heat for a while the berries started to break down and burst open and take on the consistency of a very runny jam. Then I adjusted all the flavors. I added more honey and sugar, the lavender tea, and the allspice until Jeannine and I thought it delicious.
Jeannine in a flash of inspiration pulled off a portion of the blueberry preserves and added some vanilla spiked bourbon. Both of the varieties of jam cooked until they thickened. Then we put them in jars for storage in the refrigerator.
I followed a similar process for the black raspberry preserves, only we strained out the black raspberry seeds. There I cooked the berries in water for some minutes to leech out as much of the flavor from the pulp and seeds as possible. Then we added the lemon, allspice, and vanilla, bean husk and seeds to taste.
All the lovely flavors! All of them!
I didn’t use pectin. This posed the biggest challenge for the seedless black raspberry jam. All the natural pectin in that fruit is in the pulp and seeds. Without them I was worried that it would never set.
That fear proved unfounded. In fact, the only thing I would do differently on all of the jams is cook them less, so that they would have set a little less tightly. In the case of the blueberry preserves, those were just a little more set than I would like for mixing into yogurt or spreading on waffles (my primary use of jams).
The black raspberry preserves were so set as to approach hard tack candy once refrigerated. In my concerns about the lack of pectin I significantly over cooked it. In both cases, there’s a moment were the liquid shifts from behaving like water to behaving like syrup. I think I should have pulled both of the jams off as soon as this transition happened. It’s that moment when abrupt stirring stops splashing up in tiny droplets.
Side note, we made these popsicles with the black raspberries. They were delicious. I will try making this with peaches soon. Partially because they will be good but also to ensure I use those stupid popsicle molds at least one more time. I hate buying kitchen goods that only do one thing. HATE IT.
There were delicious. I am ruined for popsicles now.
Now that I have executed my experiments, I am ready to make larger batches next year and put some jams on the shelf for winter. I also anticipate canning more black raspberry pie filling next year. That process is a massive pain in the ass, but it’s a lovely thing to have black raspberry pie in December.
Asynchronous communication and instant gratification makes nature’s ridged timing feel foreign. Strawberries gleam on the grocery store shelves at all times of the year. So, when black raspberries come in season the scramble to pick them in those precious few days is jarring. Maybe it’s that I grew up picking fruits and tending my grandmother’s garden, that I find this limitation reassuring. No matter what technology throws at us, black raspberries are only in season for moments.
Dale Stokes Berry Farm was just as lovely as I remembered it. The raspberry bushes were just as cruel as I remembered them. They give up their fruit but only after their thorns draw blood.
Two of us picked 13 pounds of berries in 2 hours. This was sufficient to make 2 batches of jelly, 3 quarts of pie filling, one pie with about 4 cups of berries left over to freeze.
One batch of jelly was made according to the instructions on the Sure-jell packaging. I went off the map with the second batch. Last year we tried out a sugar-free black raspberry chipotle lime jam. I wanted to repeat this, but I found that the link to the recipe is now broken (see last year’s blog here).
I purchased some sugar-free Sure-jell pectin. And while I followed the instructions in terms of how much prepared juice I used and cooking instructions, I made everything else up as I went. I used the juice and zest from about 2-3 limes, 6 dashes of cheyenne pepper, and one cup of orange blossom honey. Bear in mind that I was mostly tossing things in and adjusting by taste.
My concerns about the jelly setting up enough were valid. That quantity of honey is significantly less than what the Sure-jell package recommends. Like the dependencies between Elvis and The Colonel, pectin working with sugar is not to be underestimated in terms of jams and jellies setting. While the jelly is a bit runny, it won’t make your PBJ a total mess. Imma call this good enough. The coolest thing about drawing down the sugar in the recipe is the herbal notes in this jam shine through.
I prepped the pie filling in the same way discussed in last year’s blog. Only, I was completely prepared for the Clear-jel to behave very poorly. It didn’t disappoint. I settled on a process of moving the pot on and off the burner while violently stirring. This was after my efforts to find the right burner temperature were thwarted numerous times.
Later in the day we enjoyed the pie, while watching the World Cup at an English Pub. Somehow this seemed appropriate. It was wonderful. But I wouldn’t have expected to turn out any other way. Because black raspberries.
I love fish. I love pan seared fish in particular. I’ve been afraid to try pan searing because this is the sort of thing that Ina Garten would describe as looking complicated. The pan has to be the right temperature. You have to shake the pan and ensure the fish slides across the heated surface to ensure no sticking. To use breading or not to use breading?
I few months back I bought a gorgeous set of stainless steel pans. That was the first step to success in pan-searing. This won’t work as well with Teflon or otherwise coated pans.
I snagged a couple of wild-caught Atlantic tuna steaks on a whim. I chose tuna because it’s a little denser than my other options. I thought that would hold-up to my novice pan searing attempts better than the other filets present.
I dug up this recipe. I followed it to the letter. I was even careful to see that the olive oil was smoking a bit in the pan to ensure that it was hot enough.
It turned out beautifully. The fish didn’t stick, although shaking it free of the pan immediately after placing the steaks in was completely necessary. I shook the pan when I turned them too. But the crust that formed on the steaks was super. And that cilantro relish mentioned in the recipe is really spectacular. I will make up a batch of that with all fatty fish. It’s bright and flavorful enough to stand up to the fat in salmon or tuna and augment them perfectly.
I served these with a baked sweet potato. It just so happened that I had them on hand. So, this wasn’t in intentional pairing. But the caramel sweetness of the potato was a wonderful contrast to the spicy fish and cilantro relish. We topped all of that off with greens tossed in balsamic vinaigrette. It was a lovely meal, and I am looking forward to pan searing a lot more fish.
I bought my first slow cooker at the beginning of the winter. Mostly I wanted a slow cooker to aid in existing recipes that I make. When we make and can apple sauce, it’s easy to have a crock pot to the side slow cooking the apple butter. We do the same with pumpkin butter. Oh, and if you’ve never eaten pumpkin butter, you’ve never lived.
I was dubious that I would find enough delicious vegetarian recipes to make constant use of the slow cooker, but I was completely wrong. Here’s a sampling of my favorite recipes with my comments. And here’s some of the recipes that I will try in March.
Veggie Minestrone – This recipe is DELICIOUS. I didn’t realize how much I love minestrone until I had my first bites of this. I make no modifications to this recipe. The only thing you might want to note is that I use my own veggie broth and my own home canned tomatoes. Without the parmesan rind, this recipe can easily be vegan. As a cheese lover, I always add it.
Veggie Gumbo – This recipe is hearty and warms any winter chill. Pair this with some rice and it’s a satisfying meal.
Chick Pea and Butternut Squash Curry – This curry is creamy, and unlike many of these recipes, you can throw the chick peas in the cooker dry. Plus, it’s not necessary to saute the veggies before they go in the pot. For how easy this is, it’s amazingly good.
Madras Lentils – Like the recipe above you can throw the veggies in without a saute, and the lentils go in dry. I thought I would need to embellish the spices in this recipe to get it flavorful enough for me. I was shocked at how great this tasted, as is.
White Chili with Roasted Poblanos and Quinoa – This recipe is super healthy, but it requires considerable prep work. I modified the recipe by cutting the amount of beans by half. For my taste, I wanted more pepper and spice flavors in the chili, and the most direct way to do that was to cut down on the starch. After that modification, the flavors were better balanced. Also, be careful with the poblanos. The amount of heat they pack can vary pretty significantly. Make sure you taste before you Tabasco.
With spring around the corner, I have two things that I would like to make before canning season starts. I want to make fig jam, although I know that will be dependent of if I can find fresh figs. Check out this recipe. I also want to make a second batch of yellow mustard. That mustard was the shit, and now that I know how good and easy home made mustard is French’s just isn’t cutting it. Then bring on canning season, also known as summer.
I love Brussels sprouts. I almost always order them out, when they are on the menu. I decided it was time to perfect my own preparation of them. I made two recipes. The first was a great success; the second was not.
At my first attempt, I chose this recipe from Martha Stewart. I have made many of her recipes, so she gets my implicit trust. Plus, I didn’t have a lot of fancy ingredients on hand, so the simplicity was appealing.
The sprouts turned out great. I stood at the fridge eating the sprouts out of the bowl cold when I was looking for a snack. This early success might have lulled me into what happened next.
I was looking for a Brussels sprout recipe with balsamic vinegar. I have a delicious aged bottle of balsamic that would be lovely in this context. After perusing several recipes, I settled on this one at Food.com. I was suspicious of the sugar immediately. But I put away my doubt after a quick look at the reviews. Plus, recipes surprise me sometimes. Admittedly, they surprise me infrequently. I gave this a go in spite of my misgivings.
Those little alarm bells that jangled in my mind when I looked at the sugar content in that recipe were spot on. Let’s just say caramel dipped Brussels sprouts isn’t a thing for a very good reason. My mind was saying I was eating a vegetable, but my mouth was saying it was a rum soaked raisin.
What have I learned? I won’t trust reviews on Food.com from this point forward. I don’t know how that recipe got 5 stars. The only explanation I can come up with is that said reviewers will like anything that tastes like candy.
I bought a couple of cushaws a week ago. I had one last year, and attempted it as a substitute for pumpkin. That yielded mixed results. I liked the flavor of the squash enough to give it another try this year. This year I looked up recipes that called specifically for cushaw. I just realized that I was struggling with whether cushaw should be singular or plural. The cushaws I got were enormous, so all my recipes only called for part of a cushaw, so I will stick with the singular as is often used for another large gourd, butternut squash.
Cushaw. This monster is about a foot and a half tall and about a foot across at it’s base.
I wasn’t sure how all these foods would mix together, but they turned out a delicious fall veggie-friendly, Southern-inspired meal that went perfect with blogging and watching football. I whipped up the following:
For the most part I followed the recipes listed above. Here’s where I went rogue. I used dried pinto beans as opposed to canned kidney beans. I cooked the pinto beans in my last jar of homemade veggie broth. When they finished cooking, I held the broth aside and then used that instead of the water that the recipe calls for. I also only had about 3 cups of cooked beans, which was slightly less than the 3 and 1/2 cups that would have come from to cans of beans. I cut the cinnamon and clove by half. I cut this back because I wanted the flavor to be subtle. Plus, I knew I could always add more if desired. Cutting back the cinnamon and clove turned out to be an excellent idea. I used some of the heirloom tomatoes that I canned this summer in the recipe as opposed to store-bought canned tomatoes. My tomatoes were packed with garlic cloves, so that probably amped up the garlic flavor of my beans.
The pinto beans in the pot. I think this is the best way I have ever had pinto beans prepared.
For the beet greens, I didn’t use bacon. I used canola oil to caramelize the onions, and then added a bit of Bragg’s Amino Acids. The bacon should add umami and salt, and Bragg’s is a pretty good veggie substitute for both of these flavors. I also didn’t have a full lb of beet greens, so I cut back the rest of the ingredients to compensate.
The beet greens.
The roasted spiced cushaw wasn’t complicated. I just cubed the cushaw and tossed it with butter brown sugar and Saigon cinnamon. I measured nothing. I will say this, cushaw has a very delicate flavor, so cinnamon can overwhelm it quickly. I really just put a couple of dashes of it on the whole pan of cushaw. I roasted the cushaw at 400 degrees until it was easily mashed with a fork. Otherwise I followed the other recipes.
I was pleasantly surprised with my feast. All of the flavors of the meal worked really well together. The greens were salty and acidic. The beans were rich and savory. The roast cushaw was sweet and creamy. Everything tasted wonderful on it’s own, and each dish complimented the other. I think the sum of the meal was greater than any of the parts on their own.
My feast of beet greens, cornbread, roasted cushaw, and pinto beans.
The cushaw pie was delicious. I really enjoyed that the recipe didn’t have cinnamon. The nutmeg and allspice made the pie taste more decadent than a standard pumpkin pie. It’s also different enough from pumpkin pie, that it would make a nice alternative for a Christmas pie once everyone has had their fill of pumpkin at Thanksgiving.
The cushaw pie right out of the oven.
The cushaw pie set-up pretty well. But I let the pie cool completely before cutting it. I think that’s crucial to avoiding a sloppy mess.
Given that we attempted a little too much when we picked and canned blueberries, we restricted the scope a bit when we picked and canned black raspberries. A number of details made our raspberry day a little better than our blueberry day. You know, stuff like not attempting to make more than one pastry.
We set out to make a sugar-free jam, a regular jam, 4 quarts of pie filling, and one pie. Aside from making only one baked good, We’ve made all of the recipes aside from the sugar-free jam before. Plus, with our first clear jel adventure behind us, we were prepared for it’s oddities.
I picked Ali up at 7. We arrived at the farm around 8:20. Picking and sourcing local produce it a bit of an adventure. The process is something like this. You drive out to a isolated location. Then you approach an unfamiliar and often poorly marked building that most likely looks like a stereotypical old farm house. Then you knock and hope that Google maps has directed you to the correct and precise location. The person that greets you, and by greet I mean a spectrum anywhere between a barely intelligible grunt to a very warm long-lost family-member greeting, might give you directions that are easily understandable or nonsense. The point is you don’t know what you’re in for. To our delight Dale Stokes Berry farm has a sign out front. We crossed the first hurdle, which is not encountering a man with a shotgun accusing us of trespassing.
The gravel driveway seemed exceptionally long, but eventually we spied a small white hut. Investigation of the hut revealed a tween girl inside who confirmed that we were in the right place. She gave us pallets and instructed that we continue on the gravel path to porta-lets. You recall the point that I made about bizarre directions earlier? Yes. After turning a corner, porta-lets were in sight. I parked behind the porta-lets to avoid blocking the gravel path. A boy on a tractor confirmed we were in the right spot and instructed that we walk down a row until we see the girl. At this point, you might think that we are being lead to our deaths in sacrifice to the god of The Children of the Corn. But tucked up against a black raspberry bush was a young woman. She then instructed us to go further down another row to the stake with a plastic tie. Once there, we were to pick as we wished.
We arrived at the plastic tie. After walking down their rows of black raspberry bushes, it was clear that they had extremely well-kept fields. The raspberry bushes were excellently trimmed and pruned. The abundance of berries, seems to indicate that they are meticulous with their care. And the berries. The berries tasted incredible.
My grandma had wild black and red raspberry bushes in the back corner of her property. High summer was my favorite time to visit grandma. I would scamper off before dinner, spoiling it completely, by eating as many black and red raspberries that I could stuff in my face before I was called to dinner. I thought I was being sneaky about it, but I must have been covered with berry juice and scratches due to the abundance of thorns on the bushes. It was a mystery to my five-year-old self how the first words out of my mother’s mouth at seeing me were, “You were eating raspberries, huh?”
Standing there in the patch entering a zen place while picking and eating raspberries, it makes me feel close to that five-year-old. It bubbled up from my memory, that the best way to pick black raspberries was to have gentle fingers. This both protects from impaling a digit on a wayward thorn, and feeling the berries dropping away from the plant ensures that you are taking the ripe fruit. It was a clear, sunny day. I was lost in my physical experience of picking berries. It was wonderful.
We were done picking by 1030. This enabled us to have a solid brunch before we went on to can and clear the berries. Eating lunch. That’s one of the improvements we made over our blueberry marathon. Upon returning home, we set about making the Sure Jell recipe for black raspberry jam. We also set about making this recipe for sugar-free jam. The jams went off without a hitch. We canned them in a standard water bath and moved on to pie filling.
We followed the same clear jel process that we documented in our blueberry blog. The only difference in the recipe is that we put in a quarter teaspoon of Siagon cinnamon. Note that Siagon cinnamon is a little more savory tasting than the cinnamon you would typically find in a grocery store. The only difference in the process was that we didn’t blanch the fruit. That resulted in a slightly longer processing time.
Finally, I made the pie. I used the vegan pie crust recipe with my own home made vegan butter. These recipes can also be found in my blueberry blog. There are many things I could say about this pie. I will leave it at this; that pie was my “Mona Lisa” of pies. I pulled out one of our canned quarts, and made a black raspberry pie for my family reunion last week. My dad said that it was just as good as my grandma’s, which is basically the highest praise my father can give regarding pies, given that grandma made thousands of pies over her lifetime. Practice makes perfect. I can verify that this much is true about pies.
What did I learn? First, I will return to that farm to pick every year. Second, I will be canning more black raspberry pie filling next year. Third, black raspberries are the most magical fruit on the face of this earth.
Beautiful fruit from heaven.
These fields were gorgeous.
The berries were plentiful.
How would my mom have known that I was picking raspberries?
This was the plan. We would pick pick 10 quarts of blueberries. Then we would make two jams, 7 quarts of blueberry pie filling, one blueberry pie, and one apple-blueberry short cake. We had no idea that this was an overly ambitious plan. Here’s how it went down.
Do you know how long it takes two people to pick ten quarts of blueberries? We didn’t. I had some concept of the effort involved based on my past strawberry and raspberry picking experiences. We tend to forget negative bits of the past and retain the positive bits. This is how women agree to go through childbirth a second time. I figured it would take us a couple of hours. What I failed to figure was how fatiguing bending over and/or kneeling for 2 hours can be.
We picked at Hidden Valley Farm in Lebanon, OH. They opened at ten, which meant a pretty late start to our day. When we can, we tend to start cooking a little earlier than that. Plus, I know from my farm-raised father, that you really want to get your picking in before the heat of the day, which means being in the field at sunrise. Sweating your balls off really drains your energy, obviously not my father’s words.
After an hour in the car charting every back road in Southwestern Ohio and questioning the wisdom of Google Maps, we turned up at the farm at ten. When I told the old farmer that we were there to pick blueberries, he responded with, “Good. They aren’t going to pick themselves.” My dad’s family is thick with these types of characters. I don’t know if farming cultivates character, or if characters are drawn to farming.
A friendly woman approached and asked if we had picked blueberries before. I said no, but to satisfy my own anxiety at being perceived as a noob, I added that I’ve picked other fruits. She directed us to one of two areas with blueberry shrubs, and explained that we should look for berries that separate from the bush at a gentle twist. It’s still unclear if this woman was a helpful patron or an employee of the farm.
The twenty ounces of iced coffee that I expected to fuel my picking also set my back teeth afloat, so I inquired about a bathroom. I was cheerfully lead to an outhouse. Joy. I believe that this was my first outhouse experience. It could have been worse, but lets just say the lack of light in there was probably for the best. It did smell of a shit you might find in your closet days after the stench has alerted you to your cat’s passive aggressive punishment for vacationing.
I am listening to Andrew W. K. while writing these captions. This combo isn’t working. Pastoral pictures and frat rock, not a good combo. Anyway, this is what a blueberry bush looks like.
The shrubs appeared to be of varying maturity. It looked like they were correct in stating that they were at the beginning of their season. The shrubs had quite a few berries on them that were not yet ripe. Regardless, we did find plenty to pick.
Like strawberries, efficient blueberry picking is based on your eye catching color peeking out between leaves.
I’ve never seen a blueberry shrub before. They are squat little bushes.
They had two fields of bushes. That sentence made my inner twelve-year-old snicker.
Their second field was further from the entrance. We both reasoned that people probably didn’t venture back there as frequently, so the picking would be better. We decided to move to the second field. Logic and reason didn’t disappoint.
Their high-tech bird repellent.
We were wondering how they kept the birds off their berries. Birds find a way to get my cherry tomatoes off of my deck in the middle of downtown. This seemed a far easier meal. We were also wondering why we kept hearing something that sounded a little like gun fire. I had actually assumed someone was getting in target practice within earshot. Turns out those ideas aren’t as unrelated as you might think.
As we approached the second field, there was muffled screaming, “Fire in the hole”! Now, reasonable people would have reconsidered approaching, but we aren’t reasonable. We found an air gun set-up at the edge of the field. It was rigged to a container of propane, and was set-up to go off at intervals. In the spirit of Scooby Doo, bird-eating-berries mystery solved.
Their low-tech bird repellent.
This is what almost eight quarts of blueberries looks like.
With the picking adventure in the bag, we started cooking around one in the afternoon. We started on two varieties of blueberry jam. We made one batch of standard jam, and we made one batch of this spiced blueberry jam. Aside from the fact that we needed to gather some last minute ingredients (thanks Jenn and Carly), making the jams went as planned.
Spiced blueberry jam prior to simmering.
Spiced blueberry jam.
Panna Cotta topped with fresh blueberry jam.
My canning partner Ali, who is almost always the we that I am referring to when cooking, brought over panna cotta. Naturally, we put fresh preserves on it. The standard blueberry jam passed this test with flying colors. The panna cotta was delicious, and really would have been wonderful pared with any fruit topping.
Jams just before sealing.
The spiced jam is interesting. The star anise gives the impression of excessive sweetness, but the cider vinegar counterbalances it. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it when tasting it on its own. I later spooned a bit of it on the panna cotta and enjoyed it. My partner said that she couldn’t tell the difference between the regular and spiced jams, so it’s safe to say the difference is subtle.
Blanched berries. These got combined with the Clear Jel and sugar mixture, that would also double as cement in a pinch.
This was our first time canning pie filling. It did not exactly go off without a hitch. According to my not-so-exhausted research, Clear Jel is the only product approved for home canning. This product was a real pain to get hold of. Here’s the recipe we used. I’m not going to delve into the challenge that was Clear Jel. I am just going to say the things that I learned. First, when the instructions say don’t overcook, what they mean is don’t heat it up too fast. If you should, perhaps, misinterpret this direction and heat it up too fast, just know that the terrifying inconsistent gelatinous goo that results can me beat out with a wisk if you remove the pot from heat. Second, the sugar Clear Jel combo will form something like cement if you fail to clean your pot almost immediately after use. Third, the instructions are poorly worded. If you choose to work with this product, I can only say, my the odds be ever in your favor.
Pie filling. Let’s not think about how many dollars of blueberries are in that jar.
By the time we finished the jams and navigated the Clear Jel fiasco, we were beat. At six we slumped down at the table, and dolefully looked at each other. The glance that we shared said it all. What were we thinking?
After a few moments of commiserating that our work was not yet done, we started on the pie and the shortcake. I had made the pie crust some days earlier, and it was just a matter of rolling it out and assembling the pie with the filling that we had finished.
I followed this vegan pie crust recipe, and used my own homemade vegan butter. I know what you are thinking, meat eater. You are thinking that this must taste like crap. I am also a meat eater, and frankly I thought the same. The vegan butter was quite good. It was better than any margarine that I’ve had by a long shot. In a blind taste test, I bet I would struggle to identify butter from this vegan butter.
The pie rolled out wonderfully. I was suspicious, as in my experience, the flakiness of a pie crust has an inverse relationship with the ease with which it rolls out. Pie crusts that roll well, are pie crusts that have too much water. But the crust turned out really great. It was the right balance of flaky, crisp, and sturdy. This crust was good enough that I am making it my default recipe.
Pie right out of the oven.
That’s a fine-looking slice of pie.
That brings us to the shortcake. Did you look at the recipe? Stupid metric system. Or perhaps, stupid America for not adopting the metric system like the rest of the world. In addition, this thing looked like a ghastly mess when we put it in the oven. The dough was difficult to work with. We were shocked to find that it came out of the oven looking exactly like the pictures. I’m convinced that elves replaced that hot mess we put in the oven with a fully prepared shortcake.
The shortcake turned out pretty well. It was a bit more tart that I would have liked, but the cake part was pleasant. Personally, I would add a bit of vanilla to the cake, as it had more of a pound cake texture than biscuit texture. In America, pound cake means lightly sweetened biscuit; I don’t know how you Brits do it.
What are my lessons in summary? Vegan pie crust is great. Clear Jel is a filthy whore. Brits don’t know what short cake is. Blueberry jam is delicious. The end.