Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Fiesta

I accidentally hit "Return" when I first uploaded my pics, so my apologies if anyone happened by and wondered why there was no explanation!

Well, here's your explanation. Our garden is kaput. Dead. Tomatoes are done; neglected, attacked by rabbits, their yield was negligible. There are still several brussels sprouts plants out there, but whether they're worth harvesting I'm not sure. Miss Chef's hot peppers grew as tall as I am (five feet or so) before finally bearing a few fruits, which according to her have no heat whatsoever. the spring, having run out of room for the yellow bell pepper plants I had bought on a whim, I decided to put them in a flower bed right out front, where I hadn't had much luck getting anything to fill in. Isolated from other garden pests and getting full afternoon sun, they've done very well. Many of the peppers have been attacked by bugs, but last week I saw about four that were of good size and ready for harvest.

Plus, we had bought some ground beef at the farmers' market, which needed to be used. Solution?

Stuffed peppers! I'm proud to claim this idea, as I'm more the type to stare into our overflowing pantry and wonder what the heck I can make for dinner. This idea leaped to mind because I know Miss Chef has a tender spot for her mom's stuffed pepper recipe--beef, rice and tomatoes. I, on the other hand, can't stand bell peppers because of their bitterness. But yellow bell peppers are much sweeter; I figured it was a perfect storm of perfect ingredients.

We often have the pleasant surprise of realizing that most of the ingredients we're using are local. Sure, the rice we bought from the grocery store, but we grew the peppers and the herbs, Miss Chef canned the tomatoes (bought from the farmers' market), and the beef, onions and garlic are all local. Hooray!

I did most of the chopping while Miss Chef started browning the beef. I also got distracted by the intriguing beauty of the interior of a green pepper:

Isn't that cool? Miss Chef came out from the bathroom while I was taking this picture, and I figured she would think I was crazy. But she said she loves the way I notice little things like the inside of a pepper. That's good; it's reassuring to know she appreciates my little eccentricities.

So once I was done screwing around, I finished cleaning out the peppers and stood them up in a casserole. Ain't they purdy?

As you can see, we had to supplement with a few green ones (still from the farmers' market, though). We cooked up the filling, Miss Chef stuffed 'em and baked 'em, and out they came:

Um...not so pretty, huh? Those green ones are pretty wrinkly; I was right to stick to the yellow ones. Which, of course, tasted great! Yummo. I took stuffed pepper to work for lunch a couple of days--one pepper may not be very big, but it is very filling. So in spite of their looks, these were a success.

My second culinary adventure this past week was this little fellow:

Huh? Well, remember my fragment several weeks back about Pepsi Throwback? It's the version using sugar instead of corn syrup. I had wished I could try a Coke throwback, since I'm more of a Coke gal. This little bottle is as close as I've gotten. Why? Well, take a closer look.

Yup, Mexican Coke--the legal kind. It's made with sugar down there south of the border; with the growth of stores catering to Hispanic immigrants, Mexican coke (the legal kind) has become a bit of an underground hit. This bottle was a gift from Chef Adam; Miss Chef had seen it in the flyer for our local Restaurant Depot, and mentioned my obsession with non-corn syrup Coke. So the next time he went in he grabbed a six-pack. Wasn't that sweet? (No pun intended!!)

The verdict? Meh. My corn-syrup obsessed work buddy and I tasted it together, and both decided it was kind of boring. Turns out, according to Miss Chef, it has less carbonation, so less of a bite. It did have a nice, round flavor (I know, it's not wine...), but I guess I like my Coke to smack me in the face with a sharp edge. So, I still don't know if it makes a difference to my palate to have sugar vs. corn syrup. The difference in carbonation makes it too hard to really compare.

Now I'm off to enjoy a well-earned break from the routine. My parents are coming to town--due in an hour or so--and I've taken a couple days off from work to spend time with them. Miss Chef has been chomping at the bit to roll up her sleeves and get cooking for an audience, so we'll eat well, I'm sure! Don't know how much documentation I'll get done, but I'm sure I'll have something to write about next week.

Happy weekend, y'all.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Persimmons Part Deux

I may be falling in love with a fruit.

If you haven't been by here lately, you might want to start with yesterday's post before reading on.

Today I brought my camera with me on my walk, so I can show you where our persimmons are coming from. It's been gray and dreary for several days, so the light wasn't the best--which is my excuse for the out-of-focus picture above. But, if you imagine it all sharp, isn't it beautiful?? *eager grin*

Okay, here's the tree whence pluck we our sweet persimmons (if you click on it to biggerize it, you'll see it's really loaded with fruit):

Lisa, if you look at the base, and the way it's growing from the bank, you'll probably agree that this wasn't planted on purpose. But some genius recognized it for what it was, and let it grow. Thank you, anonymous genius! Now, if you look at the tree itself, you'll see that the majority of the fruit is on the left side--and if you'll let your gaze drift downward, you'll see that a raft is in order here.

I don't have a raft. (Don't think I haven't considered knocking on some doors to ask if anyone has a rowboat, though!!) So, down the bank I clambered, and out onto the trunk. I am smugly proud of retaining a little trick from the blackberry picking days of my youth: I tied the handle of my plastic bag to the belt loop on my shorts, leaving my hands free for maneuvering and pulling branches down to myself.

Oh, and, um...I had to tie something else to make sure my hands were free:

So sorry, baby, that your walk turned out so boring. But I really, really do appreciate your patience. Such the perfect dog.

It took me no more than ten minutes to gather what little I could; much of the fruit is still unripe (yes, Alix, I thought of your optimism as I looked at the green and yellow ones hanging within reach). And I must say that I can't imagine that anyone scrabbling around in that tree, up and down the bank, contorting oneself into every awkward pose to reach only the ripest fruit, could deny that we are descended from apes. I felt very monkey-ish, and I embraced it.


Anyway, I managed to about double our harvest, and seeing that several were already split, plus the ones from last weekend weren't looking so hot, I decided to go ahead and process them as much as I could.

So back to Google I went, and here's a bit of what I learned: these are definitely native persimmons, Diospyros virginiana, which means they are smaller than the more common Asian varieties, and it's vitally important to harvest only the ripest ones. A ripe one feels like a bag full of jelly; the unripe ones are apparently so astringent, "one unripe persimmon will ruin the taste of 100 ripe, so be safe or be sorry." I'm glad to say I've escaped the trauma thus far of an unripe persimmon. (You can find out more about persimmons, and get recipes, here and here.)

I also found out that the native persimmon is not self-pollinating. Which means there must be another one nearby. But it may also explain why this is the first time in at least 3 years that it's fruited: perhaps that other tree isn't very nearby after all. A mystery...and it also makes this year's harvest all the more precious; who knows what conditions it needs to fruit again?

So, anyway, back to the persimmons in hand. It seems most recipes are happy with pulp, and that pulp will keep for a month in the fridge, six months frozen. I figure we can harvest and pulp them as they ripen, then figure out what we can make with the results.

So out came the colander...

...and I squished into those ripe jelly bags...

That's a lot of seed for a fruit that's smaller than a ping pong ball!

I just used my hands and squished and squished and squished...and this is when I started to really fall in love with persimmons. The's something between fresh flowers and fresh bread. It's the intersection of food and beauty, spring and winter, fresh and savory. My latest Great Idea is persimmon perfume; it can't miss.

Well, after dreaming for a few minutes of fresh ginger bread and pale pink rose petals, I realized I had squished down about everything I could, and was left with this:

Hmm....not so yummy. My hands, on the (sorry), were DELICIOUS! Soap and water? I don't think so! I did let Rosie get a few licks in, too; she certainly had earned it.

And then, lifting up the colander, I was also left with this:

It looks pumpkiny in this picture (and the way the flesh clung to the seeds reminded me of jack o'lantern season), but it's a deeper, slightly reddish orange color in real life. And, of course, it smells much, much better!

I carefully scooped the precious pulp into a 2-cup container; I'm guessing we've got about 2/3 of a cup. And then, there's a little bonus: the adorable little flower-shaped toppers I saved.

I'm thinking of saving them for something crafty, not that I have the imagination or time to figure out what that might be.

Oh, but I wasn't finished yet! I hope you don't think I just tossed all those seeds in the garbage and went on about my business! Oh no, back to Google I went, and found that planting persimmon seeds may be easier than I thought. So I spent about 20 minutes cleaning a handful, before I got bored and stashed the rest in the fridge for later. (It's a ridiculously time-demanding activity, as each seed is encased in capsule of gelatinous goo. Once you break through the goo, it's actually easy to peel it off the seed, but it's still a gooey, slippery job.)

I didn't take pictures of the seeds, but they look like large, flattened coffee beans. And as I cleaned them, I had an interesting idea: would any of my blog readers be interested in trying to grow persimmon trees?

So, I guess this is my first giveaway, if I can find any takers! I'll send anyone who asks several seeds, plus directions on planting. (These directions are gleaned from the internet, so they're not authoritative.) I'll send several seeds so you'll have better luck getting a male and a female tree; if you don't have space for two, they are also quite attractive shade trees with nice fall foliage. Or maybe you can convince a neighbor to try growing one!

From what I've read, the persimmon is more common in the south, but will grow further north as a smaller tree. The furthest north I've seen it mentioned is southern Illinois. So I don't know if my Yankee readers will have much success.

If you're interested in trying some seeds, drop me a line at my name at I'd be happy to send you a whole persimmon, but jelly bags don't travel very well. Plus...hey, grow your own!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fruit Escapade

After a lousy begining of the week, I'm actually feeling pretty positive today. That's because I can see a light at the end of the tunnel! Things are finally (slowly) starting to calm down at job #1, and Monday is the last class for the quarter, meaning I'll have almost 2 classless weeks to catch my breath.

I'm still gonna have to work this Saturday, and then spend the rest of the weekend writing a final exam. Plus, from what I can tell, after finishing up class after 8:00 Monday night, I'm supposed to somehow get the exams graded and final grades totted up and submitted by 5 pm Tuesday, all while working an 8 to 5 job.

But that's next week. I wanted to share a little story from last week.

I am proud to announce that I brought Miss Chef a new food she'd never had before! It started with an innocent tree I walk by every time Rosie and I stroll around the pond in our neighborhood common area. This summer, for the first time since we lived here, it fruited. I kept looking at the round green fruits everytime I went by, and when they finally started to yellow up, I plucked one and brought it home.

At first Miss Chef decided it looked and smelled like a plum, so we thought maybe it was an ornamental. But then as they ripened more, I plucked another one, and Saturday morning I finally got around to checking in the Audubon field guide. Answer: persimmon!

(Ok, how many of you knew that from the picture?)

I had heard of persimmons, but imagined them looking more like pomegranates. When we tasted one, we decided it has a texture like a date, and a flavor something between a date and a fig. The ones we picked are pretty full of fairly large seeds; they're not something you'd eat like a plum (or a fig, for that matter).

Miss Chef was so excited at our discovery that she insisted we go right away to the pond and harvest them. So we leashed up the dog, grabbed a container and headed out.

One little problem: the tree in question grows up from the bottom of the steep pond bank, and leans over the water. And guess which side has 99% of the fruit on it?

Miss Chef climbed down, and up, into the tree, trying to reach what she could. I stayed on the bank, leash in one hand, trying to pull branches down toward me and gather a few. Let me just state, for the record, that it's rather difficult to pluck fruit while holding back a dog who's fascinated by the noise and movement of the occasional persimmon hitting the water.

Unfortunately, persimmon season is just beginning, so we only got about a dozen fruits. We did gather a few onlookers and questioners, including two pre-adolescent girls who started picking the low-hanging unripe fruits and tossing them in the water to coax the ducks over. I finally had to stop them; I couldn't stand the thought of all that fruit being wasted before it was ripe!

After a little research, I'm pretty sure these are the hachiya variety, which is usually used as pulp. Miss Chef hasn't had any free time since Saturday morning to explore the possibilities, but there are plenty of recipes on the web for cakes and breads and such things...even found a sorbet recipe tonight which might interest her.

Whenever I get a chance to walk Rosie before dusk, I stop and pick two or three that have ripened up. I'm hoping this weekend we might have enough fruit and time to do something with them. No promises! But now that there's a light at the end of my tunnel, maybe I'll be able to report on a new taste sensation around here.

So..anyone got any suggestions or advice?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Do You Remember?

I remember clearly that it was a Tuesday. I was living in Mobile, Alabama at the time. That day was my night on duty at the school, and I had the morning off. I was headed to the gym in my car when I heard the news story. I thought it was a spoof; like an April Fool's joke. Ha ha. It sounded way too "out there" to be real.

Planes, crashing into a building in New York City? Please; the likelihood of that level of mechanical and human failure happening in the middle of one of the largest metropolises in the world? Not hardly.

I didn't think about the failure of human minds and hearts.

At the gym, I was on the elliptical machine watching the news on tv when I saw that it was real. That something was gravely, horribly wrong. I don't remember when the word "terrorist" first rolled across the screen (do you remember when we still thought it was just an accident?). My first concern was for my uncle Paul, who had worked for NY Bell and was part of the repair crew on the Towers in 1993.

But he was long retired; surely he wouldn't be down there.

And then a moment of sheer terror: I had completely forgotten that my brother worked there, somewhere in lower Manhattan, not in the Towers, but I didn't know where. As the story spread, the towers collapsed; ash and dust coated the entire area and I finally panicked. I grabbed my water bottle and towel and ran to the car.

How odd; nobody around me seemed moved or concerned. They had no connection to this news story unfolding up there in "the corner." But my dad's family is from New York; we had all visited the Towers one summer when I was ten or twelve. I had been there; I knew what it was like, the sheer enormity of the place.

And my brother was there now.

As I drove home, I called his house in New Jersey. Busy.

I called his cell phone. All circuits busy.

(Do you remember how the phone lines on the entire east coast were tied up that day?)

Tried his home again. Still busy.

Tried my parents' down in Georgia. Busy.

Finally, I noticed the voice message icon on my cell phone. It was from my father; they had heard from my sister-in-law that my brother was ok. He was trapped in Manhattan (remember how they shut down all car traffic to and from the island?), but he was safe.

I called my father and finally got through. My brother had watched the whole thing from his office in the Traveler's building, two blocks from the World Trade Center. He was on the phone with my dad, watching the first tower burn, assuring him that they had been told to stay where they were, everything was fine.

Then the second plane hit.

My brother said, "I've got to go," and hung up the phone. That was the last my dad heard from him for the rest of the day. I never did talk to my sister-in-law that day, but I knew there were vastly more important calls that needed to get through.

My brother was the recipient of some of the amazing generosity that bloomed that day. He walked tens of blocks north, and was given shelter by a sister's friend of a coworker, or something like that. It was the only way he was able to call his wife that day. I don't remember how he got home, or when. That day, it was enough to know that he was alive. (Do you remember the confusion; the "Missing" fliers plastered on every vertical surface?)

He worked for Citigroup at the time, in their International Treasury division. He spent the next weeks at an emergency backup site in New Jersey, working 12 and 14 hour days to ensure that his small part of our financial system remained functional. (It didn't sound all that impressive back then, but after this past year's financial meltdown, I'm a bit more respectful.)

When I finally got to talk to him about it, weeks later, he wouldn't. He wanted to put it behind him and move forward. He had lost colleagues and neighbors. He had watched people leap to their deaths rather than face hell on Earth. That detail was the only thing he would say about it, and he said it angrily: "You don't understand what it's like."

No, he's right. I don't.

Less than six months later, in February 2002, I flew up to visit. (Do you remember how brave you had to be to get on an airplane again?) My brother took me into Manhattan, and we visited his office. Two blocks down the street, there was the raw wound, the huge square of nothingness. "If they had missed the Towers, our building would have been the next one they hit."

So every September 11th I fly the flag for many reasons, but mostly to commemorate the innocents who lost their lives that day. The ones who were in the wrong building. Who weren't lucky enough to flee, covered in ash, panicked and cut off from their loved ones, but alive. Who ran in the other direction, into danger.

I fly it in the hope that it will keep the memory alive another year. To remind myself of the inconceivable tragedy that still should haunt us. To remind myself to be grateful that I still have a brother, no matter how little we may agree sometimes.

My nephew Ethan was born in 2002.
My niece Keira was born in 2006.
My sister-in-law is not a widow.

I know that by the time Ethan's and Keira's children are in school, this will be just another date in history. A bunch of people died. They'll learn the definitions of "isolationism," "nationalism" and the names Bush, Hussein, Al-Qaida, Desert Storm. And it will mean as much to them as Pearl Harbor meant to me growing up.

That's the nature of history; as it retreats further into our collective past, it gathers dust, a soft coating that makes it difficult to see clearly. It's inevitable. Over the years, plenty of other, more immediate crises will push our country this way and that. Yet, for the time being, I'm doing my part to keep the memory alive and distinct.

I don't know anyone who actually died that day. But my flag, this post, and my tears are for their memory, and for the ones they left behind.

Ethan and his dad, July 2008

Friday, September 4, 2009

Flartus' Friday Fragments (featuring friendly farmer facetime!)

I never do this.

But tonight, after vacuuming and cooking dinner at the same time, I was feeling a little crazy. So I popped open a bottle of beer to go with my fried 'taters & sausage. I'm not much of a beer drinker, and I'm strictly a social drinker (i.e., it never crosses my mind to have a drink when I'm alone), but damn, that first sip tasted mighty good! My latest favorite is, obviously, Yeungling; I've also been a fan of Newcastle, Bass and my fallback beer is Killian's. Usually, though, I'll order a Coke.

So, here I am, installed in front of the computer with a bowl of dinner and a frosty bottle...just a couple of fragments 'til we get to our feature tonight.

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups have long been my favoritist candy in the whole wide world. But they sure do taste a million times better when you haven't had one in a while! I had a sudden chocolate craving at work this afternoon, and there was a choice between Almond Joy and the last Reese's! No-brainer. And it was worth every calorie.

Speaking of guilty pleasures, about a month ago I happened upon a Pepsi Throwback when we ordered Chinese. It's an old/new version of Pepsi that uses "natural sugars" instead of corn syrup. Researchers debate whether we are really capable of tasting the difference between fructose and sucrose, but I thought this version tasted a bit more refreshing than the usual one.

To be fair, however, I am a staunch Coke fan, so figured, what the heck do I know? When I found and purchased a 12-pack of the Throwback style at the grocery store, I brought in a can to work, and had a few Pepsi drinkers try it out (have I ever mentioned I was raised by scientists?). They all thought it did taste different--less "strong," less sweet, maybe a little flatter. And I find it less cloying; that it still tastes refreshing when I get down to the last, warmish bit of the can.

So I'm enjoying this 12-pack, because we stopped bringing soft drinks into the house a while ago, plus I haven't seen any since, and I don't expect to be getting any more. Has anyone else tried this out? I'd love to try a throwback Coke. Are you listening, Coca-Cola Inc??

The Farmers' Market has been only a fond memory for me for many, many weeks now. Miss Chef has been going more weeks than not, even volunteering once or twice, while I go into work on Saturday mornings. Lately, she's been bringing home just a bag or two of produce, since neither one of us has time to cook (tonight's dinner was supposed to have been cooked on Monday).

So, really, there's not much point for us to drive half an hour to not buy food we won't cook. Except...except it's pretty much our only social outlet. It's taken several years, but we've gotten to know a few of the farmers, and Miss Chef knows all of them by name. And I really find them a fun, intelligent and fascinating group of people. Sure, there are a few, erm, strong personalities, but I don't have to work with them or live with them, so who cares? And we all share a passion for sustainable living and supporting local businesses.

So here's a tip of the hat to all those folks I've been missing....Michele, from Bosky Acres, who gets to see Miss Chef more than I do, and enjoys her sense of humor as much as I do. We went to the Shakespeare festival with Michele's two eldest kids, and I've been to the farm to work a day, so she's much less of a "Farmer behind the counter" than a friend and another transplanted Ohioan with an outsize passion for animals.

Natalie from Grateful Growers (here in a pic from their website).

She can be a little crazy, in a fun way, and she also frequently gives Miss Chef outrageous discounts. We can't figure out if it's because she's a chef, or if it's some kind of Lesbian Mafia discount (she and her partner Cassie run the farm together). Either way, it's nice to have an inside track, and as Natalie has pointed out, nothing says "love" like free pork. (Hey, guess whose sausage I'm eating as I write this, hmmm?)

Dane of Fisher Farms, who has the best tomatoes in the universe. He's even developed his own varieties (including one named after his son, Gregori). Here he is, manning his booth behind the Chef Demo stage.

When we first started patronizing his stall, I thought he was a bit standoffish, but Miss Chef and I eventually realized he's just painfully shy. Which makes him stand out from the rest of the gregarious farmers we know, and makes me that much fonder of him. His fabulously sweet Sungold cherry tomatoes don't hurt, either.

Regular readers have already met Sammy, from New Town Farms.
This picture is from the farm tour I went on last May. Sammy still doesn't know me, but his wife and daughters do, and he knows Miss Chef from the restaurant (they order from most of these folks during the summer). He's a big mover and shaker at our little market, being one of the founders. His is also, I believe, by far the largest farm.

I don't know this guy's name, but...well, damn, doesn't he just look awesome in that hat and overalls?

I just hope his grandchildren appreciate this fascinating character. There's another older, tactiturn farmer named Pat, who mans the stall next to this one. I often get them confused, but Miss Chef knows to keep them straight, 'cause Pat has arugula far longer into the summer than anyone else. Plus he had great blueberries this year.

I don't have pictures of the rest of the folks, but there's Mindy of Tega Hills, who grows all kinds of greens, including the baby fennel Miss Chef adores (she braises it and it's really delicious). The couple who run Carlea farms are young, friendly and have an open innocence that used to be what made Americans so fascinating to the rest of the world. They also had gorgeous radishes this spring. I can't forget Christine from Down Home bakery, and her assistant Marla, from whom I buy breakfast religiously (well, when I'm not buying it from Lucille across the way).

There are non-farmer characters I miss, too. Pauline, the market manager, is everywhere, all morning long. She always seems flustered and about to run out of time or supplies, but still has time to stop and talk to anyone who needs her. Bruce is a volunteer who shows up every single week to help set up, assist with the demos and whatever else is going on (tomato tasting, corn roasting, biscuit contest...), and stays 'til the end to help shut down. I learned at the farm tour that he used to weigh over 300 pounds--you would never guess it today. He credits it all to buying & eating local, whole foods.

There are the chefs, too--Adam, Miss Chef's chef, who sometimes shows up in his bike-riding gear, much to our dismay. (Those are some pretty tight shorts there, Chef.) Chef Bonaparte, former dean of Miss Chef's culinary program, and one of the strongest advocates for local food in Charlotte. (Also a truly talented chef, instructor, and curer of meats!) Chef Tany sometimes shows up for the demos, bringing his two gorgeous pre-adolescent sons to assist, which they do quite happily. And we often spot some of the other restaurant owners whom Miss Chef recognizes by sight, and I only by name.

Happily, Miss Chef has convinced me to turn my Saturday schedule around a bit tomorrow, and join her for the Matthews summer festival. We'll go to the market quite late (like around 9), but we realized we don't care if all the baby zucchini is gone. The people will still be there, and that's what's really worth the drive.

Happy Labor Day weekend, everyone!