Blueberries at Rush River

Blueberries at Rush River

Although we grow many berries on our condensed city lot: serviceberries, honeyberries, raspberries, alpine strawberries, I have never had the wherewithal or luck in growing blueberries. They are stubbornly particular about their living conditions, and I haven’t been the most hospitable gardener when it comes to keeping up. But even though our property blesses us with fruit, we are gluttonous, and so each mid-summer we pack a picnic and sunhats and bug spray, and drive an hour southeast of the city to the enchanted Rush River farm in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin.

Once we bend away from Hwy 10 things start rolling, green hills contouring, and all things lighten, including traffic. The car climbs steadily, up into the atmosphere of the Mississippi River Valley, where the bluffs are surprisingly majestic. Rounding a wide bend we take the familiar turnoff, and snake our way along the gravel road that eventually ends at the distinct white farmhouse. It is here where we gleefully pour out of the car, stretch our limbs, smell the air, and nod past the rows of gooseberries and currants.  We are here for the blueberries, and there are nine acres of them, soldiered endlessly down the hill.

My young daughter grabs her long and shallow cardboard box and darts into the berries. I won’t see her for a while, and when I do she’ll be flushed and a little lightheaded from eating too many berries too quickly. It’s inevitable and traditional; it is always hot when we pick and she can’t help herself. I like to pick alone too, and listen to the stories people tell one another while they pick nearby. I have heard some of the most tender things in those fields.

After the sun has overly-cooked us we have a picnic beneath an ancient tree, and sigh. Another year of blueberry picking is over, we lament. Time for heading back along the contours, where I’ll resolve what to do with our harvest. Always my first thought: clafoutis.

Blueberry Clafoutis

Serves about 6

The rustic clafoutis is a sturdy custard pudding that is studded with fruit. To me, it is delicate and refreshing, and a most elegant summertime dessert. Each year, at the height of blueberry season, after we’ve picked boxes of blueberries from our favorite U-Pick farm, this is the first dish our blueberries fold into. I bring this dessert to summertime potlucks since it is so simple to pull together, and is a bit of a nice surprise to those at the table.  Although this recipe asks for blueberries, any berry or any fruit really, can be substituted. Also, I ask you to bake this in a casserole dish, but you can always bake this into individual ramekins if you like. So much room for play! 

MARKET LIST

4 large, sustainable eggs
All-purpose flour (2/3 cup)
Fine sugar ((1/2 cup)
Vanilla extract
¾ cup cream
1 cup milk (preferably whole)
Kosher salt
Kirsch, cognac, or orange-flavored liqueur (optional)
2 cups blueberries
Powdered sugar

Making the Batter

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Liberally butter a ceramic or earthenware baking dish (about 2-quart size), or a 10-inch cast-iron pan or heavy pie pan. In a blender (or food processor, or large bowl) add 4 large, sustainable eggs (preferably room temperature)2/3 cup all-purpose flour½ cup fine sugar1 teaspoon vanilla extract3/4 cup cream1 cup milk (preferably whole), pinch of kosher salt, and 1-2 tablespoons Kirsch, cognac, or orange-flavored  liqueur (optional), and blend until combined.

So Simple

Add about 2 cups fresh blueberries into the baking dish in an even layer, and pour the batter over. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until it has evenly puffed and is golden, and is just firm to the touch. Allow it to cool on a cooling rack for at least 15 minutes; watch for the clafoutis to deflate a bit.

Once it’s cooled down, dust over some powdered sugar.  Serve it either in wedges, or spoon servings out. Serve this dish at room temperature, but store in the refrigerator, well-covered, for up to a few days.


In the Making

In the Making

More and more, I see the act of cooking as worthy in itself. That it should be valued for the experience it gifts us, and perhaps less so for the final product—the dish—it produces. Like gardening, or other practices that entail patience, humility and labor, most of the credit is found in the act itself, before the bloom of the flower, or before the bud.

Before we plate or even eat our salad, we must gather our ingredients, wash them, slice what should be sliced, whisk away a while. Taste for salt, or lemon, add more heat, notice what’s fragrant or burning, scrub the garlic from our fingertips, and listen to our children scamper through the kitchen, pouring into the backyard. This is life. And all of it happened in that seemingly benign moment—in the making of dinner.

A kind of play, a kind of agency transpires in the kitchen. We don’t notice, only because the culture reinforces the notion that cooking is quaint, or entertainment, or intimidating and too-involved, or as something to bustle through in order to move on to the next thing. What is that next thing? Anyhow, it is understood as a means to an end, and anyway, there is always take-out or a deli salad. With all of that, we are understandably disconnected from the venue of the kitchen, and the important acts that take place there.

It is here we get a bit dirty. We knead, and learn the practice by kneading again. A kind of voting booth, we choose our ingredients and concoct our own versions of the dishes we want to eat. And so we are generous with our imaginations, adding pistachios to this or ketchup to that. Our instincts get some exercise; even with our backs turned, our noses tell us to turn the heat down on those onions. It is a place of creation, and a place where we get to nourish our bodies and the bodies of those we feed.

I wonder something unusual: before we expect people to produce beautiful, homemade meals with integrity—such is the subliminal pressure—or even integrate home cooking back into everyday life, we need to simply be in the kitchen. Dramatically, we need to step over the threshold, with fresh perspective, with our senses at the ready. To partake and explore there, regardless of the dish being made or how it turns out. But the act of cooking is in of itself a beautiful, enriching playdate.

5 Questions: Karen Kopacz

5 Questions: Karen Kopacz

Meet Karen Kopacz, true Renaissance woman. As a busy artist, designer, storyteller, and explorer, Karen is generally folded into a dozen purposeful, creative projects at any given time. But she also values pause, a mid-week walk in the woods, and as I can attest to, long and engaging meals with those in her life.

What does eating well look like for you?

I am a busy creative and I live and work alone, so my eating patterns can get a little chaotic. Balancing meals is a challenge and I’m always working on it. I love sharing beautiful meals in a relaxed way with others, and often do. It’s also not unusual that I am running out the door with a meal in a bag. For me, eating well means that the food I buy is healthy, but also that I am doing my best to support businesses and restaurants that participate in a healthy food system. It means that I enjoy what I eat, and share experiences around food. And, that sometimes my meal is a slice of cheese, a handful of blueberries, Castelvetrano olives and some unsalted nuts, and that’s just fine too, because I’m buying quality food.

What is a favorite and reliable everyday dish for you and your family?

Dolphin-safe tuna from a can mixed with sesame oil, ume plum vinegar, safflower mayo, lemon, Sriracha or chili oil, sea salt, pepper. (Less than 10 minutes to make. Make a sandwich, tuna melt, or mix into a salad.)

Can you share a defining food memory?

Almost a decade ago, I stopped offering pro bono design services to acquaintances who didn’t have a design budget, and instead offered to trade an evening of strategy and design if they would come to my house with a bottle of wine and cook a meal for us to share. With food, dreams, and discussion on the horizon of every session, I was able to be of service and fill my house with energy. These sessions were productive, memorable, and joyful. With food as the hub, and our well-fed bodies and brains, we created some lovely, collaborative experiences together. Some of my most valued friendships began this way. Echoes of this arrangement still exist, sometimes in the homes of others. Anytime design, food, and a meeting of the minds intersect, I feel very grateful.

What topics around food are you most interested in, and why?

I think food is medicine. My grandmother used to say, “If you don’t eat well, you pay to the doctor.” I believe in good food, real food, and working toward good habits around food. I say “working toward” because I do not want to associate feelings of guilt with food, and my habits are far from perfect. I may not cook often, in the traditional sense, but good food is as important to me as nature, art, and love. Lately, I don’t have it in me to grow food, but have been spending a lot of time in nature, and have been curious about foraging. I’m very familiar with identifying plants from countless walks with my mother, a master gardener, and a long-time friend who is an herbalist. But now I’m learning how to identify more of what is edible, and when and where to gather food. I ask a lot of questions, listen to the occasional podcast, and read articles. But it’s actually doing it (carefully and safely) that helps me connect my food to seasons, ecosystems, and the environment. And, it’s yet another way to share joyful experiences with others around food. 

I have to ask. What would you hope for as a last meal on this earth?

This could change on any given day, but today… First course: sashimi tuna with wasabi and radicchio and a glass of Château Bréjou Bordeaux (from my dad’s weirdly unending supply of French wine). Main course: wood-fired pizza with ramps and morels. Desert: cardamom and rose rice pudding with pistachios, a rose and honey chocolate, and, since I’m dying, I’ll go ahead and have a Pimm’s Provencal and a Bistro Bijou. (This makes no sense as a meal, but who cares.) Add 50 of my closest friends and a farm table outside on a spring day, and I’m already in heaven.

Wake Up at the Farmers Market

Wake Up at the Farmers Market

It starts at the corner brat stand, where my tired senses come to life. Each Saturday morning, we funnel in to the rows at the downtown farmers market. The earthy stink of the raw milk sheep cheese pulls me to the right, but then I am jolted into a field of lavender baskets. Across the aisle is the small woman who fries egg rolls, and then all I want to eat is a paper cup of egg rolls. Most alluring are the tables of Hmong growers with their unidentifiable wares, and I flirt with their English-speaking children who tell me what is what. Amaranth, I’ll take some, Malabar spinach, what to do with that.

The farmer market is an adventure, a place to wake up, certainly a place to eat. Turns out, this week’s meal plan is a tribute to the farmers market. Nearly all on the shopping list can be found there, beyond your pantry staples. Here is a recipe from this week’s plan that goes to show, the simple and utterly flexible spring roll. A perfect dish for a long, quiet holiday weekend like this one; a communal dish to put together and eat together.   

Endless Spring Rolls

Makes 8 rolls (or as many as you like…)

Endless because there are too many ideas for fillings, and there are endless rolls to make. My eyes are usually wider than my belly when I sit before a long platter of spring rolls. This is a communal dish, to make and eat and share. My young daughter can fill hers with whatever she fancies, and they are so enjoyably clumsy to put together (at first). Rolling these takes a bit of practice, but after you’ve made one or two, you’ll get the hang of it. Keep in mind, these rolls aren’t ideal for storage, and so make them close to when you’ll be eating them.

MARKET LIST

Rice wine (or white wine) vinegar
Chili oil
1 garlic clove
3 tablespoons of roasted peanuts
Sugar
Rice vermicelli noodles (2 ounces/ 8 rolls)
Your Fillings (refer to the Endless Fillings section)
Rice paper roll wrappers (8 ½ inch)


Peanut Dipping Sauce

Make your sauce first; it will want to relax anyhow and allow the flavors to mingle. Combine in a bowl: 2 tablespoons of rice wine (or white wine) vinegar, 3 tablespoons of water, 1 teaspoon of chili oil (consider, this will add significant heat), 1 garlic clove (minced or shredded), 3 tablespoons of roasted peanuts (chopped), and 1 teaspoon of sugar.

Rice Vermicelli

Rice vermicelli noodles give these rolls a foundation and substance, but you can always omit them if you prefer. Soak and drain about 2 ounces rice vermicelli per the package directions, and set aside.

Endless Fillings

Consider that you’ll be using a handful of filling per roll. Here is a just an off-the-cuff list of spring roll fillings; please mix and match and make them to your and your eaters’ taste. Ready your fillings now and lay out on a platter or plate.

Protein: cooked (perhaps leftover) pork, lamb, shrimp, fish or seasoned tofu

Vegetables, etc: carrots (peeled strips, or matchsticks), mushrooms (sliced), cucumber (peeled strips, or matchsticks), avocado (sliced), spring onions or scallions (sliced), chilies (sliced), kohlrabi (matchsticks), radishes (sliced or matchsticks), Asian greens (shredded), cabbage or lettuces (shredded), summer squash (matchsticks), cress or sprouts, fresh ginger (matchsticks)

Herbs: Chopped or whole leaves of cilantro, basil, mint

Spring Roll Wrappers

Prepare to soak 8 rice-paper roll wrappers (8 ½ in.) individually, right before you are ready to fill and roll each parcel; this only takes a moment. (You are simply trying to rehydrate these dried sheets, and make them pliable for rolling.) Fill a wide bowl or deep plate that has a larger diameter than the wrappers with warm water, and soak the wrappers one-by-one by sliding into the warm water. Leave the sheet there for a few seconds—any longer and it will become too soft and sticky; you are really just dipping it into the water. Remove the moistened (but still slightly firm) sheet and place it on your cutting board; leave it for a moment before filling and rolling.

Let’s Roll

Arrange a generous amount of your fillings in a rough line about an inch away from the edge nearest you. Fold that shorter edge over and tightly tuck it below the filling, then roll again to secure it. Bring up the left and right sides of the paper and fold them over. Carry on rolling until you’ve rolled it entirely. Set the finished roll on a plate covered with a lightly-dampened tea towel while you perform the same theatrics with the rest of your spring rolls; protect the other finished rolls beneath the moistened towel.

You’re Done

Well, unless you’d like fancifully plate your rolls. Choose to slice them down the middle on the diagonal, and arrange them just so. No matter, serve with a small dish of dipping sauce. Voila!

5 Questions: Tony Grossman

5 Questions: Tony Grossman

Meet Tony Grossman, seriously active dad to three animated, freckle-faced kids, and owner and beginner- farmer at Earnest Acres Farm in Wisconsin. He is the chief cook in the family, a sustainable-farming advocate, and as you’ll see, a prolific taco maker.

What does eating well look like for you?

Eating well, for me, would include: produce that is seasonal and locally-sourced as possible, meats that are not tainted with antibiotics, hormones, or torture/immoral living conditions, and grains that are whole and diverse. Eating well also mandates a comfortable space, shared with loved ones and anyone who is hungry. It demands calmness and gratitude towards those who sacrificed to either grow or be the food, and gratitude towards those who cook the food.

What is a favorite and reliable everyday dish for you and your family?

Breakfast Tacos. I lived in central Texas for 3 years of my life and can proudly say that for most of those mornings I had a breakfast taco. Why we bold northerners have not figured out that this is the most efficient and wholesome way to start a morning, I do not know. Tacos are easy to make, and can include almost anything from your fridge if paired and cooked right. Maybe I love them because I don’t like to follow recipes and you can wing tacos in every way; they are the easiest conduit for getting eggs and veggies into my children. Maybe I love them because other than coffee, nothing smells better than fried onions in the morning. I’m not sure, but my family always seems to be happy after a good breakfast taco.

Can you share a defining food memory?

Upon moving back to Minnesota I serendipitously landed a job at the Seward Co-op Grocery and Deli as a produce worker. I worked alongside intelligent lovers of food and sustainable farming practices, people striving to eat better and support a local food system. After three years I was totally and completely inspired to grow as much food as possible in as many places as possible. I was inspired to eat whole foods grown sustainably and to provide seasonally-appropriate meals (as often as possible anyway) to my children, no matter the cost to the food budget.    

What topics around food are you most interested in, and why?

I love to grow food. I love to experiment with growing food. So naturally any knowledge or information pertaining to this peaks my interest. One of my favorite things is to listen to older generations talk about the past, but growing food in particular is fascinating for me. Beyond this I am interested in advancing towards change in our food system. I believe that in some ways our country’s system of eating and distributing food has led us down a path of poor health. I believe we need to motivate future generations to learn how to grow their own food and to support a cooperative model of food sharing.

I have to ask. What would you hope for as a last meal on this earth?

For sure it would be a meal prepared by someone else. Food always tastes better to me whenever someone else cooks it. I would probably demand a full Indian-style buffet banquet with paneer in every dish.

Fried Rice

Fried Rice

Dear Dad,

Something strange happened while I was on the floor of my office, fingering through a bottom row of cookbooks on that short red shelf, as I pulled Beyond the Great Wall, a Chinese cookbook you gave me years ago, that wide and hefty thing, another book fell into my lap simultaneously called From the Kitchens of Belfast 1975, worn and construction-paper bound that had come nearly out of its plastic spiral spine, I thought what is this, I hadn’t remembered it, but I was right away enthralled since I lived in Ireland and finished culinary school there, but you already know that, and when I opened to the first page there was a stamp marked The Hamakers, Box 5494, Kingsport, TN 37663, your parents and I’ve no idea how to put it together since they never lived in Ireland and I’ve no food memories whatsoever related to them, all but Grandma’s busy tin of Christmas cookies, but what was strange was this: my reason for pulling Beyond the Great Wall off the shelf in the first place was to research a recipe I was developing for vegetable fried rice, and while flipping through From the Kitchens of Belfast 1975 noticing the book weighing heavily on desserts and casseroles and only a single page devoted to vegetables, I turned there to that one page and there it was, fried rice, a recipe recorded under the vegetable category, fried rice, and this was the entire recipe:

Icebergs & Flip Flops: Spring in MN

 
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April in Minnesota is comic. Stubborn icebergs of snow along city boulevards we soon walk over wearing flip flops. Suddenly it is warm, very warm. But only after a historic blizzard swathed two weeks ago, we find ourselves propelled into the spirit of summer.

I sat surprised in the warmth of the new sun on our front porch, watching passers-by skipping and smiling along in their release from our brand of winter prison. I felt it too, I admit. Cold beer in hand, dusted-off sandals, a warm and familiar wind disarranging my hair.

Suddenly I am skipping a couple of months, April and May, the dead-zone period in Minnesota when local produce is painfully absent. Strawberries are conjured in the imagination, rhubarb is there too. Something cold to beat back the teasingly warm sun. And there it came to me: a fruity granita. The grown-up slushy, with pureed fruit, a simple syrup, and maybe some booze, or herbs or ginger. Yes, this should resuscitate, if even for a moment or a single warm day in Minnesota in April.

Try out this refreshing and palate-cleansing treat. Not at all difficult to make, but it does need a bit of your attention while it freezes: make this when you’re around for an afternoon (particularly a warm afternoon), and include the kids in the process.

Rhubarb & Strawberry Granita

Serves about 4

MARKET LIST

1 cup water
½ cup granulated or fine sugar
½ pound rhubarb stalks
2-3 cups strawberries
1 lemon

 

Simple Syrup

A simple syrup is the result of boiling water and sugar together to create a sweet base for many a cocktail and in this case, for a refreshing dessert. In a heavy, medium saucepan combine 1 cup water and ½ cup granulated or fine sugar over high heat, and bring to a boil. Once it boils, turn down the heat to medium-low, and allow the sugar to dissolve; about 2 minutes. Stir in ½ pound rhubarb stalks (trimmed and coarsely chopped). Simmer until the rhubarb is tender, about 5-10 minutes. Then set aside to cool slightly.

Blend and Scrape

Meanwhile, chop 2-3 cups strawberries. Add the strawberries and the rhubarb mixture (all contents from the saucepan) to a blender. Squeeze in the juice of 1 lemon. Puree until smooth, and then transfer to a baking dish (9-inch is ideal). Cover with plastic wrap and freeze. Using the tines of a fork, stir every 30 minutes, scraping edges and breaking up any ice chunks. (This practice ensures that your granita doesn’t just freeze into a solid block, but is loose and flaky.) Do this for 2 ½- 4 hours, or until it is finally frozen and slushy.

To serve, scoop into small serving dishes, wine glasses, or shot glasses. The granita can be kept frozen for up to a week, but it is best eaten with a few days of making it.

 

NOTES & VARIATIONS

  • Experiment with additions to this granita. For instance, rhubarb pairs well with ginger, citrus fruit, honey, maple syrup, mint, raspberries, and if you want to add a touch of booze, consider brandy, vodka, or Grand Marnier. Also, if you have orange blossom or rose water on hand (we’ve used it in recipes past), add a teaspoon of either of those into the blender to accentuate flavors. 

Stripped Down

 
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A piece of writing in a mainstream food publication struck me as truthful this week. It asks the question, are we losing our appreciation for subtle, delicate flavors in the current sea of flavors that are bright and bold? We are inundated with spicy, salty, sweet condiments but more than that, there is such competition to arouse our palates by food manufacturers for instance, and restaurant chefs. We’re growing accustomed to flair, and are increasingly hypnotized by variety. With that, it is getting more difficult to appreciate naturally delicate, or pure and or old-fashioned flavors.  A stalk of spring-grown asparagus grilled or blanched without dressings or a slice of just-picked cucumber or melon can resonate on the tongue and remind us just how delicious unadulterated food can be. 

Spring is the right season for considering this. It is the season for stripping down food to its essentials, for simplifying, and moving away from the multi-layered and rich flavors of winter. Lightly dress an arugula and cress salad, poach a chicken breast, make a clean and brothy pea and ham soup or a hard-boiled egg just dusted with black pepper. This is the way to approach spring eating, but even outside of spring it’s a good exercise in simplifying and noticing. Seasonal foods are wonderful at giving us this opportunity since they are already at their peak in flavor (and nutrition) and need little or no dressing up. In spring we look for greens of all kinds, asparagus, ramps and green garlic and spring onions and chives, and radishes for instance; look for those in your local market and see how they qualify as fast-food, in the best possible way.