Strawberry Fields Forever

Strawberry Picking 2013

Strawberry Picking 2013

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry than the strawberry, but doubtless, God never did.” 

During my last years at the Yancey House Restaurant, I took a vow to only serve strawberries in season.  It was tough choice, and I admit to weakening a few times and using the grocery store variety to make a smoothie; however, overall, I held pretty firm.

My anticipation of strawberry season is, therefore, understandable. . . and now it’s arrived!  In Caswell County, we are lucky to have a number of area strawberry farms.  I have already visited most of them, for I can’t imagine any May pleasure as superbly delicious as picking and eating strawberries warmed by the sun.

Last week, for a catered event, I didn’t have a chance to handpick strawberries so I dropped by Halls on Cherry Grove Road and picked up four quarts for the strawberry cheesecake, strawberry upside down cake, and strawberry salad I would be preparing for the weekend.

Strawberry Salad

Strawberry Salad

Most of my favorite strawberry recipes originate in Louisiana. Back in the 1970s, Counter Culture Frozen Yogurt on King’s Highway in Shreveport offered a “Humphrey Yogart”—a delightful concoction of frozen yogurt topped with strawberries, bananas, pineapple, granola, raisins, and a healthy drizzle of honey.

One block up from Counter Culture, Strawn’s Eat Shop, still sells a blockbuster strawberry dessert that first graced their menu in 1944.

Strawn's Pie Shop in Shreveport, Louisiana

Strawn’s Pie Shop in Shreveport, Louisiana

Only Louisianans knew about Strawn’s until 1994 when a Southern Living featured their famous ice box pies in their magazine.  Food Network also featured the pie on March 10, 2003 in “The Best Of . . . .”

My first experience at Strawn’s came in 1967, when my mother and I moved to Shreveport from Livingston Texas.  Every Saturday, my friends and I would go to Strawn’s and order a hamburger and wedge of pie.  I always wondered why I bothered with the burger when all I really wanted was a slice of Strawn’s famous strawberry pie.

I have already shared the recipe for Strawn’s pie years ago in a previous column, so let me offer two new recipes—a muffin and an alcoholic drink–that you might enjoy as we edge toward summer.

Strawberry Muffins with Strawberry Jam

Strawberry Muffins with Strawberry Jam

Strawberry Muffins. Preheat oven to 375°F. Line muffin cups with paper cupcake liners. In a large bowl combine 2 1/2 cups flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. baking soda and 1/2 salt. Stir well until all ingredients are well blended.

In another bowl, whisk together1 1/2 c. buttermilk, 1/3 c. melted butter, 2 slightly beaten eggs and 1 tsp. vanilla.

Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour liquid mixture in and 1 pint chopped strawberries. Using a large spoon, gently fold ingredients; do not overmix.

Spoon the batter evenly into 12 muffin cups. Sprinkle each muffin with about ½ teaspoon sugar, if desired. Bake 20 to 25 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.

Strawberry Mojitos

Strawberry Mojitos

Strawberry Mojito.   Mojito is a Cuban drink.  Some say that it was introduced to Cuba by Sir Francis Drake during his Caribbean explorations in the 1500s.  My favorite strawberry mojito recipe comes from the Hot and Hot Fish Cookbook, a favorite culinary text, by Birmingham, Alabama chefs Chris and Idie Hastings.

Combine 1 tsp. sugar and 6 fresh mint leaves in a martini shaker and muddle until the mint leaves are bruised and fragrant. Add 2 medium-sized strawberries (trimmed and cut in half) and muddle until finely chopped—the mixture will appear slightly pureed.

Add  1 1/4 oz. light rum, 1 1/4 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice, and stir or shake until combined.  Fill a highball glass with ice and pour the strawberry mixture over the ice.  Add enough 7-up or Sprite to fill the glass and stir gently. Garnish with a fresh strawberry or lime wedge and serve immediately.

Note on muddling: To muddle is a bartending technique which involves combining ingredients, usually in the bottom of a mixing glass, by pressing them with a muddler (or pestle) before adding the majority of the liquid ingredients.

School Days

school bus

School Days

My mother walked me into the classroom and introduced me to Miss Tidwell. I might have cried a little, but mom gave me a reassuring pat and said she would pick me up out front at the end of the school day. New crayons and fresh notepad in hand, I took my assigned seat.

At noon, students lined up single-file and followed Miss Tidwell out the door. While the other students turned right to go to the lunch room, I, believing school was over, turned left to meet mama. She wasn’t there. What to do?

At age 6, I decided to walk home. I managed to cross three streets and the railroad tracks before arriving at US Highway 59. As I stood there, daunted but determined to figure out how to maneuver through four lanes of busy traffic, Mrs. Bergman, who owned the Dairy 59 Drive-In, saw me through the pick-up window and rushed to my rescue. Somehow I retraced my steps and found my way back to class. First Grade . . . It’s not for Wimps!

It isn’t for wimpy parents either. I never wanted my children to attend school. I loved being with Allen and Ashley, but also feared the truant officer. When the time came for my youngest to attend school, I made an appointment with the principal and explained in no uncertain terms that I would be picking up Ashley at noon every day since she needed to rest. Mrs. Talbot chuckled knowingly but agreed. At the end of the first week, Ashley figured out she was missing playtime and insisted on staying. I was left to nap alone.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Howard Nemerov penned his memories of a similar morning: “My child and I hold hands on the way to school, / And when I leave him at the first-grade door / He cries a little but is brave; he does / Let go. My selfish tears remind me how / I cried before that door a life ago. / I may have had a hard time letting go.”

Although each fall I reluctantly sent my children back to school, I must admit there was (and still is) a certain excitement about it all. Most people think of January as a new beginning–a time to make resolutions in anticipation of the re-birth of spring.

In truth, the first day of school marks the true beginning for children, a chance to start anew. New crayons, new backpacks, new pencil boxes, new books, and new teachers. The world is full of possibilities: mastering the art of cursive writing, learning about heretofore unknown cultures and places, exploring the miracles of science and math—electricity, magnets, fractions, algebra–and being introduced to stories and authors that become a part of their lives forever. What an adventure.

So let me thank those patient and knowledgeable men and women (past and present) for making it their life’s mission to introduce our children to a land of limitless possibilities.

Raspberry Bars

Raspberry Bars

Raspberry Bars.  

I have no idea what school policies are, but most teachers appreciate good food. Perhaps something for the teacher’s lounge? You can’t do better than a plate of raspberry bars, a triple-decker comfort cookie with shortbread base, jam center, and streusel topping. This is my secret recipe, but your child’s teacher is worth it.

Preheat 375. Line 12 x 18 x 1 inch pan with buttered foil. In large mixing bowl combine 5 3/4 c. all-purpose flour, 1 1/3 C. granulated sugar, 1 tsp. salt for 5 seconds. With the mixture at low speed, add 4 sticks unsalted butter (cut into ½ inch pieces, softened) one piece at a time until mixture resembles damp sand. Set aside 2 ½ c. of mixture. Press the rest mixture evenly in bottom of prepared pan. Bake until edges brown, 14-18 minutes.

While crust bakes, blend 3/4 C. brown sugar, 1 1/3 C. old-fashioned (not instant) oatmeal, and 1 C. chopped pecans. Work in 8 TB. butter until incorporated. Set aside.

In saucepan over low heat, mix 2 jars raspberry preserves with 3 TB. lemon juice until heated through. Spread filling evenly over hot crust. Sprinkle streusel (the 2 ½ C of leftover mixture) on top. Bake 22-25 minutes until golden brown. Cool completely, 1-2 hours. Remove foil from pan and cut in squares.

 

Culinary Mantra

A few years ago, I was in Raleigh and dropped by Penzeys, a spice store offering seasonings from all over the world–Madagascar vanilla, Ceylon cinnamon, and spice blends (Sunny Paris is my favorite). At the check-out, the cashier gave me a bumper sticker with a yellow crayon-drawn heart, over which was written: “Love People. Cook them good food.” 

If you are reading this column, you probably know that cooking is about feeding the soul as well as filling the stomach. Food isn’t just food; it is interaction and connection.

When I recall the 12 dozen home-fried doughnuts my mother made each fall for my brother, me, and our friends, I know the experience was about much more than eating fried dough. My mother was showing her love for us in one of the few ways she knew how. 

Picnic tables were covered with newspapers. Small bowls of toppings and icings were set on the tables. Fifty years later, my good friend Carol still talks about those doughnuts. Imagine! 12 dozen doughnuts! Every topping imaginable! Self-serve! No one counting calories!

Think back to the food highlights of your childhood. The hamburgers your uncle grilled in late summer when the last of the tomatoes had just been picked. The caramel apples your mother made each fall while your father burned leaves on the back lot. The pot roast with gravy and mashed potatoes your grandmother served on Sunday after church.

Of course, you recall the images, aromas, and flavors–the lemon-powder sugar icing with fresh lemon zest on hot doughnuts, for example–but what your memory really stirs up is a warm nostalgic feeling that says “somebody loved me.”

“Cook with Love” has always been my mantra. In the restaurant, I asked the cooks to “see the face of God in every plate.” I took that line from Mother Teresa who might be rolling over in her grave to hear her phrase applied to a plate of food rather than the face of a leper.

These are hard times, which makes preparing food for our loved ones even more important. The time you spend brewing soup or cooking for family and friends is worth the effort. So is removing seeds from a watermelon or the membranes from oranges and grapefruit for winter ambrosia. It all says, “You are important.”

A few years ago, Ruth Reichl, famed food critic and former editor of Gourmet Magazine, posted a food entry on her blog. She received the following email: “What planet are you on? The one WITHOUT thousands dying from an earthquake??!?!?!” 

It seems that hours earlier, an earthquake had devestaqted Japan. Reichl responded that although she had been unaware of the disaster, she wondered if she would have posted something different: “There is no time, ever, in which a terrible disaster is not taking place somewhere on the planet. . . .”

“But in the face of ongoing disaster, it is our moral responsibility to appreciate what we have.  That is why cooking good food for the people that I love is so important to me; in a world filled with no, it is a big yes.”

Broccoli SoupBroccoli Cheese Soup. Sauté 3/4 C. diced onion in 1 TB. olive oil until translucent. Add 1 clove minced garlic, stir, then set aside. In small stock pot, make a blonde roux by adding 4 TB. flour to 4 TB. melted butter, whisk constantly for 4-5 minutes. Add 2 C. milk (or half and half). Whisk until smooth. Gradually pour in 4 C. chicken broth. Bring to boil, then reduce to simmer.

Add 16 oz. chopped fresh broccoli (and diced stems), onion, and garlic. Simmer 20 minutes. If you like, you can puree part or all of the soup using an immersion blender or processor. Return pot to stove with burner on medium low and add 8 oz. cubed sharp-cheddar cheese and 8 oz. cubed Velveeta cheese. Stir until melted. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Important note: Hot liquid in a blender/processor will explode so work with very small amounts at a time.

American Farmers

Back in 1978, I heard Paul Harvey present this ode to the American farmer on his radio broadcast:

“And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer. “ Harvey then went on to enumerate challenges farmers face each day:
American Farmer

 “(And God said) . . . I need some who, during planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain’n from ‘tractor back,’ put in another seventy-two hours.” . . . “I need a farmer who will plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant . . . and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.”

Before moving to Caswell County 20 years ago, my idyllic, romanticized notions of farm life were informed by stories past and present: the biblical Garden of Eden, the poetry of Robert Frost, the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Elliot Coleman, and Wendell Berry.

It wasn’t until I met R.L. (Bob) Watlington and worked with local farmers at the restaurant that I realized that farming is both a precarious and complex occupation.

Although I plant in order to have veggies and herbs for my culinary classes (and for the joy of playing in the soil), there has been one additional unexpected development—the realization that recreational gardening and farming for a living are not the same thing.

Now, at the farmer’s market, when I see tomatoes marked at $2 a pound, I don’t balk. Growing tomatoes is an act fraught with hazards.

These were my thoughts this morning, as I mowed, weeded, and harvested vegetables and herbs. I glanced over at my grandson’s raised bed to see that the deer had eaten his pole beans and rabbits consumed most of his sungold tomatoes. Continue reading

Greens

kale saladLast week I visited the new Caswell Farmer’s Market in Semora. There, on the side of the road, in blessed shade, were ten vendors, ranging from Catbriar Farm, which was in business long before I moved to Caswell County, to a more recent addition, Open Door Farm.

I arrived with grocery totes and a mission—to purchase and prepare late spring greens. With that end in mind, I bought Swiss chard and kale from Sara Broadwell, as well as pea shoots and fennel from Open Door Farm.

The recipes I developed during the week were simple ones. My goal wasn’t to cover up the flavors of the produce but to showcase the fresh, clean flavor of the greens. Here are the results:

Kale Salad. After rinsing the kale and spinning it dry, I removed the large stems, sliced the leaves into thin strips, and then placed them into a bowl. Next, I added a small box of raisins, halved cherry tomatoes, crumbled feta cheese, and thin wedges of red onion. Before serving, I tossed the salad with vinaigrette and topped with boiled egg quarters.

Dressing for Kale Salad. In the food processor, combine 1/3 cup red wine vinegar, juice of 1 lemon, 2 TB. combination of fresh basil, parsley, oregano (or 1 TB. dried), 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, 1 tsp. lemon pepper, ½ tsp. salt (optional), and 1 tsp. minced garlic. Pulse to mix. With processor running, slowly pour in 1/2 cup canola or safflower oil and 3/4 cup olive oil until emulsified. Store in tight container in the fridge for up to 1 week.

Swiss Chard with Poached Egg. SWISS CHARD BOILED EGGHaving worked with the kale, the next day I turned to the Swiss Chard. My objective was to create a hearty breakfast dish loaded with iron. If you wish to replicate the dish I made, season chopped Swiss chard and sauté it with some minced shallots and a little garlic. Sauté for 3-4 minutes, remove from heat, and gently stir in a few quartered cherry tomatoes. Arrange chard mixture in a bowl, making a slight indention in the center for a poached egg. Garnish the entire dish with a few pea shoots.

Although poached eggs can be tricky, they are worth the effort. The result is velvety and creamy . . . I hesitate to call it an egg. It is so much more than that. Continue reading

Baseball Redux

Allen, Livingston High School, 1965

Allen, Livingston High School, 1965

Last week, I received several responses to last week’s column: “America’s Favorite Pastime.” One was from my brother (see photo at right . . . a bit dated) about whom I wrote:

Allen wrote: “Growing up in an East Texas town of 2,000 souls, there were precious few store-bought activities to occupy our days and even fewer clues as to what the future might hold for an eight-year old boy…, so we played baseball, from ‘kin to kaint’.”

“Our dad was from Missouri so I was a rabid Cardinal fan, although the O’s eventually became my American League fave. We watched Ol’ Diz and Pee Wee on the Game of the Week, peddling Falstaff between innings, and dreaming of emulating the likes of The Splendid Splinter, Stan the Man, The Say Hey Kid, Mick, Yogi, and Whitey, dreaming of authoring the heroic moments of Bobby Thompson and Don Larsen.”

“Baseball presented me with many wonderful moments of reflection, such as pitching against an older Nolan Ryan in the Texas high school playoffs (we lost 2 – 0). This was before he had achieved ultimate fame, though he was known for ‘bringing a high, hard one’ even at that time in school.”

“We caught the Red Birds vs the Rangers with Albert Pujols launching three round trippers in Game 3 of the 2011 Series in Arlington, Texas tying Reggie Jackson’s record. GW Bush and Nolan Ryan were behind home plate; Judy and I sat 3 rows behind the Cards dugout and dodged several foul balls.”

“Last September,” Allen writes, “my bride and childhood sweetheart, Judy, who saw most of the games I pitched, joined me at Fenway Park to watch the Orioles play the Red Sox in a slugfest that saw the O’s 9-run lead evaporate only to come back in the 9th to triumph. It just doesn’t get better than that!”

“For me, baseball has always been a metaphor for life: the ups, the downs, the comebacks, the inexplicable losses. Players giving their all with a rawness and total lack of a safety net, other than the TEAM.”

“Lesser players having shining moments–Mighty Casey striking out. And, then, as Lucindy noted, there is the hope of spring and a new season and then, it ends….as the days grow shorter, just as they do in life….with either victory for a few or ‘wait till next year’ for most. Baseball is a requisite part of the human experience….not to be missed.”

Here is another great story:

Don recalled a tale that has become a permanent part of his family’s history:

“Your article,” Don writes, “reminds me of Pop’s recollection, in his ninety-fourth year, about the first big league baseball game he saw. My memory is that it was 1935 and with $5 in hand, he took the train from Georgetown, Kentucky to Cincinnati, Ohio to see a double header between the Reds and the St Louis Cards. Dizzy Dean pitched the first game and his brother, Daffy, pitched the second.”

“At the age of 94, Pop could still recall who played most positions. He had a ham sandwich and a beer and came home with a couple of dollars in his pocket. His salary as a farm laborer was 50 cents a day, supplemented by a meager amount from the tenant crop of burley tobacco. It wasn’t until 1954 that he could afford a trip with the whole family.”

“When the memory of him comes floating through, it is most often of a summer Sunday afternoon, heat lightening crackling on an AM radio with El Capitan being played and ‘Waite Hoyt bringing you baseball with Burger Beer bringing you the Cincinnati Reds!’”

What great reminiscences, perfectly told. Reading these stories you feel the pride of a small town boy who pitched against a young Nolan Ryan; you experience the joy of sharing one’s passion for the game. In Don’s telling, I could even taste the slab of ham on Wonder bread and the refreshingly cold beer. The power of memories.

Consider this column a wake-up call. Record those memories NOW. Keep them alive for future generations. As for younger folks, visit your older relatives and record their stories NOW. I sorely regret not asking my mother about her life in Germany or her modeling stint in Dallas. Why didn’t I ask Daddy JE for details of his brother’s death in WWII? These stories, rather than real estate, furniture, and money, are our true inheritance and help connect families from generation to generation.

America’s Favorite Pastime

This past week, I attended six of the nine games in which my two grandsons—Austin and John—took part. This baseball immersion has allowed me to locate the best snow cones (Altamahaw Ossipee Park, Burlington) and the best climbing trees and playgrounds for granddaughter Brenley Isabella (Caswell Parks and Recreation), as well as the ball fields where the direct sun beats unmercifully down on your head no matter where you sit (McCrae Park).

The immersion experience takes me back almost sixty years to the earliest memories of my older brother, Allen, playing little league, junior league, and high school ball.  Between March and August, the entire family;s life revolved around the sport. Allen kept a beaded dirt-ring around his neck and slept with his glove.  Nearly sixty years later, it pleases me to know that both grandson’s share their uncle’s obsession. They travel with gloves and play catch outside with only the lightning bugs for lamination until the darkness drives them indoors.Austin, Caswell Parks and Recreation, 2014

never a real “player,” I had passion for the game. In 1966, I skipped school to watch my beloved Baltimore Orioles (Frank and Brooks Robinson), beat the defending champions–Los Angeles Dodgers (with Sandy Koufax)–in the World Series.

When Earl Weaver came on board as Oriole manager 2 years later, my joy was complete. Although he was ejected from 91 games, kicked dirt at the umpire, and had the foulest mouth in baseball, he had panache and a wicked sense of humor.

During one altercation, Weaver headed toward the dugout screaming, “I’m going to check the rule-book on that.” When the umpire taunted, “Here, use mine.” Weaver yelled back, “That’s no good – I can’t read Braille.” (I wish I had had that line during one particularly egregious call last week.) Continue reading