always a right time

life in the country

Take me to the country, where farms and fields hug the highways and roadside stands sell 14 EARS OF SWEET CORN for $4 total, and I am powerless to resist it all.

It won’t matter that I have no idea what to do with the corn, for example. It won’t matter that I am one person and 14 ears of corn are, well, an awfully large amount of corn for one person. I will take them, hug them in a green plastic bag, set them in the back seat while we go antiquing in a sleepy town named Sandwich and to a little diner that sells chicken fries and mini hamburgers. And I’ll keep telling you things like, This is fresh sweet corn! The kind where I can look at the field it grew in! Straight from the farm! And you’ll know I am a happy girl.

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a sneak peek

food loves writing blog party

Saturday night, we celebrated this blog’s first year with The Big Party—the same one I announced in June, back when summer was just beginning and we were looking ahead to months of longer daylight and warmer temperatures, and August seemed a very long time away, like July 4 or going-back-to-school or the Labor Day picnics we’ll have in a few weeks. I felt then (still do, if I’m honest) a little silly about the whole thing—a blog party?—and yet, now here I am, on the other side of things, having met a few of you I hadn’t known before, a few of you I’d reconnected with through blogging and many of you who are the kind of friends I know will be there through anything, including if I said tomorrow I’m Going to Do This All Again Next Weekend and Will You Help Me, because, well, you’re amazing and sacrificial and thank you, so, so much, I don’t deserve a bit of it.

I can hardly believe all that’s left now is the fun work of recapping this last birthday week, but here it begins:

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the ones I’ve wanted

chocolate POM cupcakes

Before I say anything else, I have to say one thing: wow. You guys are something.

I still get a little choked up when I think about your comments on that last post—from you who, for the most part, do not know me or my family. You hear bloggers saying all the time how overwhelmed they get when these readers—strangers, in a lot of ways—come around them and wrap them in kindness and empathy and friendship, and I feel like I understand that now. I just can’t say thank you enough, so, again, thank you.

That said, you’ve been so kind to take part in the giveaway (two more days left! ending Saturday!) and to talk with me about Grandma, and the whole time with not a recipe in sight, so that here it is Thursday already, and I’m pulling out these cupcakes, so believe me when I say, these are not just any cupcakes.

POM juice

First, they’re made with POM Wonderful juice—do you know it? The people behind it sent me a case last week, along with three typed pages detailing the health benefits (to name a few: antioxidants, better blood flow, decrease in arterial plaque in elderly patients, good for your overall heart health), and that alone was enough to make me curious. As far as taste, it’s reminiscent of cranberry juice, or it has the texture of cranberry juice, which is strange to say because I didn’t realize there was a distinct texture to the juice until I tried this, and there’s almost a slight fizzy quality, even though it’s totally and only 100% POM Wonderful juice (Wonderful, by the way, refers to the type of pomegranate).

And as if health benefits and good taste weren’t enough, this juice has one more thing going for it, and it’s a thing you’re going to guess pretty easily: it makes some really good chocolate cupcakes.

cupcakes unfrosted

As someone who makes just fine cupcakes on a regular basis, what I’ve been needing, I’ve thought for a while now, is a recipe that is as easy as baking cookies but with results far better. And, thanks to the makers of POM juice, I’ve found it.

I am so excited about these cupcakes. For one thing, they’re easy, easy, easy. You don’t even need a mixer (Did you hear that, a certain non-baking, we-don’t-even-have-sugar-in-our-house, but-I-inspire-the-world-with-my-vegetables friend? This is the baking beginning! The first step in something great!). Also, they’re flawless—moist and dense without being heavy, chocolatey with nuances of something akin to cranberry or cherry. And when you bring one to your mouth, pulling its fluffy little dome out of the paper wrapper, the wonderful bakery smell all over your kitchen, you will forget every bad cupcake you’ve ever made, I swear.

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we’ll start somewhere

fresh parsley

The smell of parsley makes me think of Passover, and the Seders we had at our house, all through my growing up years, with different friends each time, when my mom would make a big meal that everyone would rave about. On those nights, we’d dip sprigs of parsley in salt water—the parsley symbolizing spring and the newness of life, the salt water reminding us of the tears of Israel while they were in Egypt, before God parted the Red Sea and brought them out of captivity.

Until last night, that was the only place I’ve ever eaten parsley on its own. I’ve had it in things—like Thanksgiving stuffing, where it reduces from leafy stalks to bending, fragrant herbs on the stove, drenched in butter and sauted with onions. I know bits of it—dried or fresh—go into all kinds of marinades and rubs, and I know it’s very inexpensive to buy at the store (I want to say it was $0.99 for a bundle in November Wisconsin, which, when you think about it, is kind of amazing).

But when I saw the fat package of it in my CSA box, I figured I may as well give this formerly-only-of-the-holidays herb a chance to stand on its own, a chance for us to get to know each other in a new context.

Enter this Lemon-Rice Parsley Salad adapted from Food + Wine.

sweet pepper

Besides the fact that this recipe calls for a full cup of packed, chopped parsley (exactly how much I had! do you believe in fate?), it also requires half a sweet pepper, which was a bonus in my learning-to-use-vegetables plan.

half a sweet pepper

Now, as far as getting out of my comfort zone, I cheated a little with this one, since I already knew I’d like it when I saw the olive oil and lemon juice, which, between us, can usually make me like just about anything. (I read an article once about a famous chef I can’t recall the name of now, who said everything is improved with a little lemon on top. Amen.)

lemons

rice and olive oil

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the first one

turnips

I am going through a photo slump lately, the kind where I hate the places I usually use and hate the new places I try, so all of my photos are turning out just O.K., and I’m afraid to even submit them to Foodgawker or Tastespotting because a little more rejection is just not what I need right now; nonetheless, there’s nothing wrong with my eating, as you can probably guess, so let’s focus on that.

I’ve joined a CSA. This is a fairly big deal. You probably already know what one is, but I didn’t—not until June, when one of my favorite bloggers mentioned a shipment from hers, and I said something about being jealous, and she said, Doesn’t Chicago have Community Supported Agriculture? And I said, Well, I guess we do.

Here’s how it works: you pay a flat upfront fee (mine was a reduced $180 because of a rough growing season in Chicago), like you’re buying a share in the farm, and, in exchange, the farmers give you regular shipments of fresh produce.

Actually I think it was fate that I learned this in June, because Broad Branch Farm (located in central Illinois, four miles east of a town named Wyoming) was only the second farm I contacted, and, would you believe it, they still had openings for the vegetable half shares, delivered every other weekend for a total of eight shipments, beginning in July.

I got my first shipment Saturday, and, people, I am so excited. In the box (again, pay no attention to the overexposed photography) were peppers, garlic, Swiss chard, lettuce, turnips, parsley and, oh my gosh, was all I kept thinking to myself while I pulled packages like presents out of the cardboard: how am I going to eat all this?

So I started with soup.

cream of turnip soup

Having had such success with vegetable-based soups (celeriac, carrot, spinach) in the past, this was a natural choice for the turnips, but, I am sorry to say, a disappointing one. While the soup was edible, it lacked flavor, of any kind, enough so that I was shaking additions on top (more salt! some parsley!) in an attempt to help things. It was creamy, it was hot, but it was nothing much else. I’m half-tempted to add the leftovers to some mashed potatoes (do any of you have thoughts on that?).

swiss chard and eggs

On to the greens. There was a little brochure with my share that gave news about the farm and included a recipe for a quick breakfast—Swiss chard and eggs. What you do is this: saute the Swiss chard (stem and leaf, which I chopped up roughly), crack some eggs on top and cover until cooked through. I added a step in scrambling and pouring in a little milk, as well as seasoning the whole thing with salt and pepper, but, let me tell you, I loved it. I ate it for dinner Saturday and then again for breakfast Sunday. Swiss chard is similar to spinach and from the same family as the garden beet, so you could use those if they’re handy. It will be ready in 15 minutes, and you’ll feel totally satisfied when you’re done.

potato fritters

Then, the peppers. I found five or six of them in there, in different sizes, some fat and short, some skinny and long like jalapenos, but they were all sweet, and so I searched a little online and found something perfect: Potato fritters with sweet pepper relish.

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They’re Coming Together

cutting cookies

My senior year of college, back when I was still going to become a teacher, I had to present a lesson to a class of fellow education majors, as if I were teaching high school students, and I must have practiced five or six times. It had to be a certain length in size—maybe 15 minutes?—and it needed to include visual aids and an outline you handed the instructor ahead of time, with handouts maybe. I don’t remember what I was teaching on, but I remember there was a puzzle involved.

cookies closer

So there I was, holding up cardboard pieces of some greater picture, lecturing about how each puzzle piece seems ugly and pointless on its own but beautiful when it fits in with the others—who knows how this linked to the subject matter—and my professor was in the back, looking at his watch, not calling “time,” which would mean I could stop.

Palms sweating, completely out of material, I kept yammering, on and on about those puzzle pieces, how our lives were full of small circumstances that were just segments of something larger, how the underside doesn’t reveal the master design, how you have to keep a bigger perspective about things. The professor still hadn’t said anything. So I did the one thing he told us never to do: I finished, picked up my things and sat down, tears in my eyes signaling the nervous breakdown I would have in the hallway later.

Cookies on Cookie Sheet

(The irony was, a week or so later when I got my grade, I found out I hadn’t been under time, but the professor had just forgotten to signal.)

cookies on table

Anyway, I still think about that day sometimes, both about how ridiculously important that one assignment in that one class seemed and about how, while I talked about not forgetting the bigger picture, I was doing exactly that.

cookies closer

Life feels busier in the summer. Do you feel that way? There’s so much more you can do, so many more opportunities to do all of it, and even with so much more daylight, you find you drop things and start to feel behind, like you’re not catching up.

iced cookies

For me, there’s this blog party we’ve been talking about.

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never need to go back

orange sherbet

When you tell people you spent your freshman year—and only your freshman year—in Florida, at a small school in Clearwater just a quick drive from white, sandy beaches and surrounded by year-long sunshine, the most typical response is confusion, especially when they find out you later transferred to the northern woods of Wisconsin, just a half hour from the U.P.

What can I say? The truth is, Florida and I never quite hit it off: first, there was the intense heat when I arrived in August, with humidity that made my hair frizz any time I stepped out the door. Then there were the bed bugs, the failed French test, the homesickness and the time I passed out, trying to give blood. Mostly, there was Christmastime, and while I loved the beach on spring break in high school, it was an entirely different thing in December, when white twinkling lights and waving Santas dotted yards of palm trees and colorful flowers, and we still didn’t need coats.

One thing I will say for Florida though, and this is something important: it makes a good orange. More times than I should admit, my friend Liz and I hopped in her bright yellow Volkswagen bug, the one with daisies propped up in the console, headed to the retail shop for a local orange grove. I guess some people would make the trip for the oranges, or the juice maybe. Us? We went for the ice cream.

orange slices

Orange Blossom Groves in Clearwater, at least in the 2000-2001 school year, made the most amazing orange soft serve ice cream, totally worth our driving over in the middle of the day, even more than once a week. That soft serve was perfection: silky, creamy, icy cold, incredibly fresh. Of course the entire place smelled like citrus—the way your hands do when you peel one and the fragrance sticks to your fingers, your palms, the knife you cut it with—but the ice cream’s taste was the smell times ten. You know that episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where they’re in Italy and Robert gets the peach gelato and says it’s like he’s never tasted a peach before? That was what this soft serve was like, only orange.

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