Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Elusive Berry

Turns out we have wineberries. In abundance! I had never even heard of wineberries (turns out spellcheck hasn't heard of wineberries either, as every time I type the word, I am offered "winterize" or "wineries" instead), let alone sampled one. Glenn didn't know about the wineberry profusion either. Apparently, mistaking the bramble-y sprout for an invasive (turns out, it sort of is...more on that later), he had triumphantly cut it back each season, subsequently curtailing any berry profusion lying in wait.

This past Spring, though, we decided to have a Permaculture appraisal done of our property. We did this with the hope of assessing ways in which we might optimize our land (which includes 12 rural acres outside of Asheville, N.C.), while treading lightly on it. Our Permaculture specialist, Chuck, pointed out the fledging wineberries on the property tour, immediately identifying them. Since we'd not yet encountered said berries, we were somewhat suspect, but held out hope considering that Chuck is the expert and we've been trigger happy with the pruning shears.

Remember the "patience" phrase from
last entry? The

ever-so-slightly-creepy-yet-totally-beneficial-as-an-adult (sorry mom, but it's true) saying my mom had my brother and I recite often? The wineberries are a perfect example of that. Taking Chuck at his word, we curbed the urge to prune, and sure enough, last month, we got wineberries.

Rubus Phoenicolasius
is a species of the genus Rubus, which also inc
ludes blackberries and raspberries. Native to Japan, China and Korea, wineberries are a classic example of one man's flower being another man's weed. Considered an invasive on account of its nature to form dense thickets over large areas, choking out and displacing native plants in the process, horticultural types find wineberries to be a pest. I personally find them to be delicious. Often mistaken for raspberries, wineberries are darker in color when fully ripe and pack a wallop of sour barely hinted at in raspberries.

Fortunately, on my property, the wineberries have concentrated themselves in a contained area, rubbing elbows comfortably with a patch of assorted ferns. Fortunately for my chickens, the thicket lies en route to the chicken coop and the past few weeks have found a handful of just-picked wineberries in their morning meal. This is cause for much squawking and rushing to be first at the berries. Uno, thusly named owing to her insistence at having first dibs at mealtime, raises her squawk pitch several decibel levels when the berries are presented. I'm pretty certain I received a "beak lashing" (I
cannot get enough lame chicken humor!) one morning last week when I showed up with only the feed, no berries to offer. Uno would have none of that, and, whipped owner that I am, I managed to scrounge around in another thicket, risking close encounters of the reptilian kind (snakes-totally deserving of boldface and italics-love berries and wait beneath the canes waiting for over-ripe berries to drop) to procure the coveted berries.

Wineberries are also apparently a hit at dinner parties. We brought a pint of them, along with a bottle of wine, to dinner at a friend's house recently. The berries were placed on the cheese board and devoured in under 8 minutes, while the wine took up to a half hour to be opened. When people choose berry juice over hooch, you know you have a winner.

I'll end this like an Aesop fable: The moral of the story is, be careful not to cut back what might grow into a nourishing and vibrant gift. Just remember to watch out for snakes at your feet.

Friday, July 25, 2008

It's the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

I have a sweet tooth. I have never tried to hide this, nor have I ever felt any guilt or shame surrounding it, although I do recall sympathizing with Miranda on Sex and the City when she squirted Windex at a cake she had thrown in the trash, after creeping back to the bin for one more bite. I manage my tooth well. I succumb to it, but only with the best sweets available. If I am going to heed the siren call, I had better make it count. Quality is paramount, friends. That is how I am able to fend off advances from less desirable suitors, like candy bars or bagged candies in Willy Wonka shades, or things like "Peeps." I'm willing to wait for the hand-made goodness, either coming from my kitchen or a trusted one with a proven track record.

After a recent stint baking for my mother's short but sweet-lived bakery (R.I.P. Sweet Blessings!), I've been more consumed with baking fever than normal, which, honestly, makes next to no sense at this time of year. Cranking up the oven to 375 degrees in the middle of July is a form of self-inflicted torture only appreciated by the truly committed/dedicated. However, duty calls, as it did after coming across a recent
New York Times article on the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Then, my favorite food blog, Orangette, covered the topic. Believing it important to pay attention to coincidences, I saw this as a sign. Who am I to get in the way of celestial forces? Not that I believe in celestial forces, but we'll stay with that notion for point-proving's sake. So, on came the "Bake" light, out came the cookie sheets, and soften the butter I did.

This recipe's uniqueness owes to two distinguishing traits: 1) the dough must be allowed to rise for a minimum of 24 hours, 36 being preferable (which is what I did) and 2) it calls for adorning the tops of the cookies with Sea Salt sprinkles just prior to baking. In full disclosure, the recipe had me at "sea salt." The marriage of salty and sweet renders me utterly defenseless, even more so when the players in question are of the
chocolate and salty ilk.

When I was growing up, my mom had a riddle of sorts she would have my brother or I say if we were getting impatient. It went, in a call and response fashion:

"What is patience" (Mom)?
"Patience is a virtue" (Kids).
"What is a virtue" (Mom)?
"A virtue is good" (Kids)
"So what are you going to be" (Mom)?
"Good" (Kids)

Repeat this often enough, as I did, and you cement it to memory and take it permanently to heart. On account of this, I have the patience of
Job. I can, most of the time, watch and wait patiently. Sometimes when Dexter is barking at one of the cats and Kali the cat is meowing because its 5:35 and she ALWAYS gets her dinner at 5:30 (!!!!-cat emphasis punctuation) and another cat suddenly barfs, I get a wee bit impatient and often resort to uncorking the rose.

This patience comes in handy when waiting for things like 36 hour chocolate chip cookies with SEA SALT!!! But boy, is the virtue profound! These are, without exception, the best chocolate cookies I have ever baked. The extra rising time allows the dough to hold its shape gloriously when baking, not squat and spread out all over the cookie sheet, as has many a time been my misfortune. The texture is perfect, crunchy upon first bite, then meltingly perfect as the little oven in your mouth liquifies the chocolate chips.

The crowing glory, though, has got to be the sea salt. Glenn suggests eating the cookie upside down so as to maximize the tongue-to-salt ratio, seamlessly fusing the salty and the sweet in one unctuous bite. A perk of the recipe is that it makes a good bit, about 4 dozen. You can either bake off half and freeze the remainder of the dough or engender good will from your family, friends, neighbors, grocery store clerk, waiter, etc. by baking the whole lot and giving them away liberally.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from Jacques Torres

Time: 45 minutes (for 1 6-cookie batch), plus at least 24 hours’ chilling

-2 cups minus 2 tablespoons
(8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
-1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour

***I actually just used organic all-purpose flour for both the cake and bread flours with great results; this would combine to a total of 3 2/3 cups minus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour***

-1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
-1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
-1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
-2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
-1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
-1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
-2 large eggs
-2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
-1 1/4 pounds bittersweet
chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (see note)

***In lieu of the chocolate disks, I used Ghiradelli 60% bittersweet chocolate chips, easily found at most grocery stores.***

-Sea salt

1. Sift flours (or just AP flour, if substituting), baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside. (The recipe neglected to mention it here, but I found removing the dough from the fridge at this point helped it to be more scoop-able in the next step)

4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie.

***I used a regular ice cream scoop here, forming the dough just to fit the inside of the scoop. Doing so might explain why the recipe produced almost 4 dozen cookies for me while the recipe indicates a yield of 1 1/2 dozen.***

Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

Yield: 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.

Note: Disks are sold at Jacques Torres Chocolate; Valrhona fèves, oval-shaped chocolate pieces, are at Whole Foods.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dexter In His Two Modes

Dexter exists in either one of two states, at all times.
Wild and frenzied, such as when he conquers Mt. Dishwasherus, (obviously pre-wash here, folks)

or at a complete standstill, like when he found his patch of orange.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Now There's a Bright Idea!

A few weeks ago, I was turning on a bedside lamp when the bulb blew. This sort of thing truly freaks me out. I have a bit of an electricity phobia. I think it was born in my adolescence, when, during a particularly nasty thunderstorm in Richlands, N.C., the lightbulb in the lamp I was reading Ramona Quimby next to suddenly exploded. Then, a middle school boyfriend's father was struck by lightening. Twice. He was on his tractor. Farmer's gotta do what a farmer's gotta do, you know?
More recently, last summer, as a thunderstorm raged outside, I kept hearing a popping sound, only to discover blue sparks coming out of the outlet where our answering machine is plugged in. We set about the business of getting the house grounded immediately. I like my house, and my husband, and my animals, and having us all meet a crispy demise just isn't what I have in mind for my future.
All that said, the bulb that blew was a
CFL, which I'd yet to deal with the disposal of. As they are a type of florescent bulb, CFL's contain trace amounts of mercury and cannot therefore be disposed of with regular household garbage as mercury is considered a hazardous waste. A quick search on the internet turned up a number of online means of CFL disposal, all incurring some cost. Today, however, I came upon the best disposal means yet, and it is one which most Americans can easily participate in. Home Depot, as part of its Eco Options program, in addition to selling CFL's, will now offer recycling of the bulbs in all 1,973 of its locations. The free service involves bringing in any expired, unbroken bulbs to the returns counter of any Home Depot store, which will then work with an environmental management company to safely package, ship and recycle the spent bulbs. As increasing numbers of retailers offer such purchase- to-disposal services, consumers can make more informed shopping choices when seeking out energy solutions for themselves and their families. While one light bulb purchase won't save the world, more Making The Circle Round thinking just might.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sisters are Doing It For Themselves

My younger sisters, Devan and Theo, are up visiting from Florida. I've been busy hosting, but thought I'd give a sample of what we've been up to. Having them around has made it officially feel like summer for me.
Eating outdoors, swimming in mountain creeks, having dinner at 10, enjoying fireflies at dusk, stopping at roadside farm stands and picking blueberries have allowed me to feel fully present in my body and in my environment.
Were there a fire hydrant out here, I'd be tempted to open it and revel in the torrent (although, what with the drought and all, the guilt would be crippling). You know "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" by Cat Stevens? That's the anthem for this week.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ladies of the World, and of Asheville Specifically

So, piggybacking on my previous musings about why I love where I live so much, I'd be remiss in not including what I feel is perhaps the biggest asset here, my lady friends. I feel like a perpetual lottery winner whenever I meet up with any of these sensational ladies. Adjectives that immediately come to mind include, but are in no way limited to: stunning, insightful, arresting, intriguing, creative, hilarious, clever, gracious, generous, witty and kind. You know in "Around the Way Girl" when L.L. Cool J lists off his favorite ladies from the block? Well, here's my version: "Meredith, Nicole, Rachel, Bailey-I love you, you're from around the way."
One of my ladies listed in the L.L. rendition, Meredith, with her business partner Jessica, created
Aria Floral last year. Aria is a sustainable floral design company. The sustainable element of their business includes both the plants and flowers used as well as the manner in which they are obtained. Aria's signature style utilizes potted plants and herbs in centerpieces, often locally sourced. At the conclusion of the occasion (wedding, dinner party, Arts event, what-have-you), the centerpieces can be disassembled, allowing guests to take home the plants and incorporate them into their own gardens and homes. Additionally, Meredith and Jessica ethically wild craft many of the items used in their displays, from forests, their own yards, even roadside underpasses, I've been told.

This approach to floral design has found an enthusiastic audience in the Asheville area, and beyond (they're doing a wedding in the mountains of Virginia soon). Many floral companies use cut flowers shipped from thousands of miles away, including a large amount from Central America. While Aria uses national distributors when needed, their emphasis on sourcing from local growers and suppliers, as well as from nature at large, is timely and conscientious. Plus, they do some pretty gorgeous work. I've been lucky enough to have worked with them on several weddings this season and am continually struck by the beauty of their designs. "Forest Elegance" is how Meredith described one look for me. Who wouldn't want to fall into such a world on their special day? Even the nastiest bridezilla would surely be silenced in the face of such profound beauty. Any one who would not succumb is the type of person who doesn't like rainbows, or would kill a bee, or spit at a unicorn.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Goats and Lavender and Mountains, Oh My!

There are many things I love about living where I live. I love that there are 4 distinct seasons here, and that the more extreme seasons are not anywhere as nasty as they could be (I still sleep under a down comforter in July!). I love just how verdant it gets in the summer. I love that funky and fundamental contingents bump up against each other all the time. And, perhaps most of all, I love how agriculturally rich the area is, and truly, always has been. Things grow here. I mean, REALLY grow here. Happily. Sometimes, depending on where you are, you have to coax and coddle and placate the soil with mushroom compost or lime or chicken poop to even out the clay if you're trying to grow veggies or other edibles. But take a walk in any nearby forest, of which there are many, and you will find green splendor gone wild. It's almost profane, actually, just how scandalously the green parades itself around. It calls to mind stirrings under the soil, just out of sight, and abundance and bounty and lushness and seduction. This is one of the oldest and most bio-diverse regions on the planet and it shows. Species of plants and animals are found here that are found no where else. Perhaps owing to this, the area feels old, and wise, and seasoned. It feels full of secrets and treasures, available only to the patient and those willing to persevere.

Patience and perseverance have definitely paid off for one area farm.
Mountain Farm, a 24-acre lavender, blueberry and goat farm in Burnsville, NC, in the Southern Appalachians, held its annual Lavender Festival this past weekend. Located about 1 hour north of Asheville, N.C., the farm is situated on a scenic hilltop, surrounded by lush mountains. Part open setting, part rhododendron-shrouded forest, the farm opens its barn doors to the public each July and invites the world in for a feast of the senses. Activities for adults as well as children were offered, ranging for lavender wand-making demonstrations to face-painting. A farm store sold hand-crafted, farm-produced lavender and goat body care products, including such indulgent delights as a lavender & orange sugar facescrub, as well as culinary items including lavender vinegar (plain, with blueberries, or with rosemary), lavender salt for fish and meat rubs and lavender blended teas, a standout being a lavender chai. My friends and I spread our picnic blanket and picniced under a willow tree with full view of the farm's pond before delighting ourselves with lavender lemonade and lavender cupcakes made by an Asheville-based baker. So blissed out by the fragrant herb were we (I accidentally doused myself with lavender essential oil a bit too heavily and rubbed my friends arms and necks to even out the headiness) that not even a mountain rainstorm could quench our joy. As I said at the onset, there are many reasons why I love living here. Goats and lavender just make it even better.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Lust for Life

I still get excited about my birthday. I can't really help it. It's my mother's fault. Isn't that what we always default to, blaming our mothers? In this case, it's true, though. She did me in years ago. My brother, too. The bar was set so enormously high for birthday extravaganzas (not to mention Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, you get the idea...) that I truly feel for the past paramours in my life who have had to deal with "The Birthday Spector." I mean, who could possibly compete with Chuck-E-Cheese blowouts in my childhood, slumber party mayhem in my tweens (complete with bobbing for apples AND pizza!) and a masquerade party at 16. COME ON! Mom loves to have a good time. She loves to socialize and chat and live large. And she passed this on to me, along with the lasting impression that birthdays are one's very, very special, sacrosanct day, not to be forgotten, not to be taken lightly. In many ways, they truly are. It's your birthday. The day of your birth. This is serious stuff, folks. That journey from concept to finished good is no small thing.
Fate saw fit to pair me up with an amazing gift-giver. My spouse has an uncanny knack for getting just the right thing for the right person. He's listening to everyone, all the time, even if he seems locked up in Glenn-land, thinking thoughts of extreme profundity. I often imagine he's stealthily unraveling the secrets of the ages. In actuality, however, most likely he's really just listening and noting to himself that my mom mentioned in passing that she needs new cookie sheets, or that my friends (whom he had never even met at the time!!) were having a baby and need super hip baby clothes, or some other random thing I happen to mention desiring in passing. He's a super-giver. Folks like him are rare, rare gems.
So, because my birthday is approaching, and because, even though I'm creeping up on 32 and should be well past such child-ish birthday enthusiasm, I find myself getting excited. Again, I can't help it. It's mom, remember? It's mom that caused me to throw myself a 25th birthday dance party/pot-luck blowout. And a 30th birthday pinata/build-your-own-tostada/homemade mojito & sangria shindig. This excitement is an enormous catalyst, though. This excitement motivates me to turn inward and ask myself truly important questions. Questions like, which pair of shoes would I rather have come birthday-time? The pragmatic, I-live-on-12-acres-and-oversee-the-care-of-14-animals
boots, or the so-cute-I'm-nauseous wedges? But it's not really my fault. Are you reading this mom? Did you note the wedges?